From Kurdistan to Socotra – an island in the Arabian sea, off the horn of Africa and one of those places which elicits the response’ ‘where?’ when you tell people where you’re going. It is part of Yemen, currently governed by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist participant in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. (So is politically Asian and geographically African).
When folk have worked out where Socotra is the next comment is, ‘Aren’t you brave?’ So then I start to worry that I should be worried. Socotra is deemed safer than mainland Yemen (much of which is totally off limits for reasons of safety and politics), though still coloured in red on all the government advisories. It’s on the main shipping routes, accessible to Somalia (and therefore Somalian pirates) and the risk of kidnap is said to be high. Though I’m not sure what the odds are, they don’t give those sort of statistics.
There are actually four islands in the archipelago, but the island of Socotra represents around 95% of the landmass of all of them. The main island is just 78 miles long and 28 miles north to south. It‘s mainly a limestone plateau with karst topography, surrounded by narrow coastal plains, with gorgeous white sand beaches, rising to the Hajhir Mountains.( 1,500 metres).
Getting to Socotra
We catch a charter flight out. You have to come to Socotra for a week (or multiple weeks), as the planes only go from Abu Dhabi, every Tuesday. I've arrived there for Erbil in Kurdistan. It's very strange to see groups of tourists with leaders. Summer dresses. Straw hats. I’m hoping the island is big enough to absorb its once a week cargo. I’m with guide Ana for the third time this month. Fortunately for me, she’s lovely. Perhaps it's less fortunate for her. We are a group of eight this time, with local guide Ali and three drivers in charge of their beloved Land Cruisers. 4WD is entirely necessary on this rough and arid terrain. The drivers are also very good natured cooks, guides, camp attendants, furniture arrangers and general factotums.
Socotra the Holiday Island
Socotra is astonishingly wild and beautiful. The climate of Socotra today is classified as a hot desert climate bordering on a semi-desert climate. The mean temperature is 25 °C,but it feels much hotter. It’s very humid. It’s the northeast monsoon now (from October to December). No mosquitoes, hallelujah, and though it’s the wet season, it very cleverly tends to rain at night (over the clothes I have invariably laid out to dry on the railing outside my room). The online weather forecasts are spectacularly inaccurate. I suspect they are just guessing. The southwest monsoon season (from June to September) brings strong winds and high seas. The shipping routes then are referred to as the “Sikotro Sinh”.
The women in Socotra are dressed in black abayas with full niqab. Shy, and very camera averse. The menfolk are the opposite. Most (but not all) of the tourists are dressed fairly modestly ( as they say piously) though the women for the most part have their hair uncovered. Guide Ana asks us three women to wear headscarves when in town. She says it’s respectful. So we do, though the other tour groups do not. And the men in our group have an interesting take on appropriate costume. One guy is wearing mid thigh length shorts and knee supports. I’m not sure if he thinks that these lengthen the shorts (there’s a gap in-between) or whether he has joint problems. Maybe that accounts for the mixed reception from the locals. It varies from cheery welcomes ( schoolchildren from behind barred windows),, to surly looks and no response to our shouted salaam alaikums.
The buildings are mainly stone, the older village houses small and lumpy, like the sort of houses children make with pebbles. More modern buildings are rendered - the UAE and Saudi Arabia vie in their support – Saudi schools in their typical ochre Arab style and UAE buildings in more traditional, but flat faced stone, plastered with UAE flags.
There are goats everywhere. Millions of them, foraging in the rubbish. They threaten the precious Socotran fauna and hoover up any left over food. They also enjoy paper apparently, stealing tissues when they can. It’s kidding season and mothers with attendant babies skip across every 100 metres of road with impunity.
Hadibo, the Capital of Socotra
The north coast capital of Socotra, Hadibo, has a population of about 8,000. And is accessed by some of the few paved roads. There are heaps of rubbish. Rubble. Unfinished buildings. Colourful patterned wrought iron gates. Market stalls with scarlet canopies. And shops where the goods inside are beautifully and colourfully arranged on painted shelves. Sometimes, the signage depicts the goods that are on sale with simple drawings. It’s very reminiscent of Somaliland. Unsurprisingly.
The Summerland Hotel
The Summerland Hotel is the best hotel on the island - many would say it’s the only hotel on the island. It's directly opposite the mosque, so there are calls and preaching through the tannoy early in the morning and throughout the day. The rooms are basic, with wooden furniture and clean, if you don’t look too hard. We’re told to leave our key, if the room is to be serviced whilst we are out, but the bins aren’t emptied, the towels aren’t replaced and the toilet paper isn’t replenished. Neither is the leaking pipe in the bathroom fixed.
There’s hot water, if you’re quick and Wi-Fi if you’re the only one using it. The manager is very sweet and tries to find me a better connection via his mobile. He also tracks down a missing shoe that has gone over the edge of the balcony.
Eating in Socotra
In the same way that there is only one hotel on Socotra, there’s only one restaurant, which we patronize most evenings. Fish, fried potatoes, fried chicken and goat, with lots of rice and beans. It’s tough for vegetarians. Ellen, who’s remarkably fit and has climbed The Seven - the highest peak on very continent, douses everything with hot sauce in an attempt to give it some flavour. But there are some yummy fruit juices. Our table is outside and we’re joined by cats, who hide under the table and miaow for titbits, and goats who have no table manners. They climb up onto the chairs, front hooves clomped on the table and snaffle our bread. Huge rounds of it.
The drivers/cum chefs offer an almost identical menu during the day. They set up fires to cook, fill their water carriers from the creeks (I’m trying not to think about the goats here) and wash the dishes in the same streams. Driver Fouad strips off and sits in there with the pans, singing. Our dining rooms are the most luxurious part of the trip. Either stone built shelters with thatched roofs on the beach or a tent/gazebo. The drivers even bring trestle tables and fold-up chairs and offer platters of fruit and dates. I can’t really complain.
Socotra, the Most Alien-looking Place on Earth?
Most importantly, Socotra is a naturalists' haven. A split off from Gondwanaland island, that is the Arabian Sea’s answer to the Galapagos. Well almost. A third of the flora species here are endemic. Almost 700 of them. The coast road gives us a taste of this with bottle trees emerging from rocks. Socotra has been described as "the most alien-looking place on Earth’.
But, according to Jonathan Kingdon, 'the animals and plants that remain represent a degraded fraction of what once existed.' The first century A.D. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea reported crocodiles and large lizards. Until a few centuries ago, there were rivers and wetlands on the island. Now, the long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a ‘unique and spectacular endemic flora’, with most of the island UNESCO recognised.
The endemic fauna, includes six species of birds, such as the Socotra starling and sunbird. There’s only one endemic mammal (a bat), but 31 endemic reptiles (skinks, legless lizards, and one species of chameleon. And I haven’t even started on the invertebrates (especially the freshwater crabs and spiders). The plants are endangered by the non-native goats and the birds by non-native feral cats.
A Brief History of Yemen
In ancient times, Yemen was the home of the Sabaeans, a trading state that included parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Islam spread quickly in the seventh century, but only on the mainland. In 1507 the Portuguese fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha, with Afonso de Albuquerque, landed on Socotra, captured some land and attempted to set up a base on the strategic route to India. But they abandoned the attempt four years later for lack of a decent harbour and infertile land.
The Mahra sultans took control of Socotra in 1511, and the inhabitants were (mostly) converted to Islam during their rule. In 1834, the East India Company stationed a garrison on Socotra, and flirted with idea of buying the island. But the sultan, to their astonishment refused and they encountered, in any case, the same problems that had been faced by the Portuguese. They centred their efforts on Aden instead.
Yemen was divided between the Ottoman and British empires in the 1800s and in 1876, in exchange for a payment of 3,000 thalers and a yearly subsidy, the Sultan of Socotra was persuaded to pledge 'himself, his heirs and successors, never to cede, to sell, to mortgage, or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British Government, the Island of Socotra or any of its dependencies."
The Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was established after World War I, leading to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. However, South Yemen, including Socotra, remained under British control, as the Aden Protectorate until 1967. It then became, first, an independent state with the Mahra sultanate abolished. Next, as a Marxist-Leninist state, the South Yemeni government allowed the Soviet Navy to use the Socotra archipelago as a supply and supporting base for its operations in the Indian Ocean from 1971 to the late 1980s. (Lines of Russian tanks rust along the shores as testament to these times). Eventually, the two Yemeni states united to form the modern Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Turmoil in Yemen
Since 2011, Yemen has been in a state of civil war and violence, first instigated by street protests against poverty and unemployment and now a focus for Middle Eastern geo politics. Iran backs the Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabians have intervened, aiming to restoring President Hadi's government. Consequently, Yemen is currently thought to be the country with the most people in need of humanitarian aid, about 24 million people, or 85% of its population. As a result of the civil war, the island of Socotra became economically isolated. Fuel prices especially, spiked, causing residents to turn to wood for heat, exacerbating deforestation even further.
We set off in our Land Cruisers to explore the beaches and coastal plains. Wrecked ships give testament to the violence of the cyclones around here. In 2015, Cyclone Megh wreaked devastation, but such events are fortunately,, not very frequent. Salvage costs are too high to have the boats removed.
Delisha Beach, half an hour from Hadibo is tranquil and blue, with one massive sand dune slope rising above the limestone formations that decorate the sand here. A natural fortress. A kid munches the khat scattered around the vehicles when we are parked up. A driver has been handing it out liberally (and chewing himself of course).
The sands are wide, silver and gorgeous. But they have to be treated with caution. The beaches around the island are littered with the corpses of dead puffer fish, tiny in their deflation, with staring eyes. Their skeletons are covered in small thorns, painful to tread on and sharp enough to penetrate beach shoes, I discover. No-one has an explanation for their demise.
But a swim, as the sun goes down, definitely is delicious. The sea is balmy and the waves are just high enough to allow for some relaxing bobbing. We don’t realise that there’s also a current wafting along, until we finally emerge from our warm bath onto the beach, to discover that we can’t find our clothes in the dark.
Up into the mountains. Great views of azure water. Pretty beaches. Prehistoric etchings and petroglyphs on the ground at Eriosh. No one quite sure what they are or where they came from.
Then the highlight of the trip, for me. The Diksam Plateau -bottle trees- frankincense (boswellia), cucumber trees (the endemic Dendrosicyos socotranus) and the fabulous dragonblood trees. These are spreading umbrellas, supported by intricately patterned branches. The crimson resin from the trees (the dragon’s blood of the ancients), like frankincense, is extracted to use for cosmetics and to burn like incense. The locals are generally camera shy, but one young entrepreneurial resin vendor is happy to pose and is rewarded by several sales. There is a nursery too, nurturing the endemic aloes, used medicinally, desert roses and cucumber trees. It really is an awesomely alien world.
Derhur Canyon is the most spectacular limestone landscape feature on the island. The gorge drops vertically to the valley floor. Bedouin houses cling to the edges. A precipitous ride along the canyon rim and down to the stream at the bottom. Onto the lush canyon floor, home to Bruce’s green pigeons and laughing doves. And a couple of pools deep enough to wade in
Bottle trees fill all the niches on the wall. A Socotra gallery. The drivers skin and chop a goat to stew, whilst Egyptian vultures circle. There’s even a gazebo to provide shade. The meat is tough. There hasn’t really been time to cook it enough and at home the wives do all the cooking. But the flock of eagerly waiting vultures are happy to mop up all the leftovers.
On the far side of the canyon, a clamber up for a view over Fermhin Forest, the last remaining dragonblood woodland. A canopy of inside out parasols. It’s a photographer’s paradise, and others in the group clearly think so too. There’s an Indian guy with two grown up sons and a Frenchman with his Polish lady friend. Both sets spend inordinate amounts of time photographing each other in every possible premutation, at every possible opportunity. It’s horribly time consuming. And irritating when they wander obliviously into all my shots too. It’s Where’s Wally times five.
Qalansyia, Shuaab and Detwah Lagoon
Camping is on offer at night, but the toilet block is 100 metres from the minuscule tents and I decline the invite. I’m even more glad about my decision when it rains heavily all night. But American Australian Diana and I are punished with a six o’clock start, in order to meet the others on the beach near Qalansyi, the westerly second town of Socotra.
Then, a boat trip along the coast to Shuaab. Some spectacular coastal scenery, cliffs and caves, cormorant covered crags. Spinner dolphins put in a welcome appearance, leaping out of the ocean in trios. No quarter is given in the camera department. I’m going to have to a lot of cropping out of people’s hats and cameras from my pictures. When we arrive, there’s another gorgeously long sandy beach and a mangrove area.
Back to Detwah Lagoon, more dunes and swathes of sublime sand dappled with small azure pools. Hermit crabs scurry in their hundreds. The water is heavenly. Terns wheel overhead, anxious that we avoid their nests. Ana and Ellen collect litter, flotsam and jetsam. A thankless task with no end in sight.
Amak Beach - Hayf and Zahaq Sand Dunes - Dagub Cave
South, through the mountains, bumping alongside and through a long winding wadi, visiting small tumbledown villages along the way. The colossal silvery sand dunes of Hayf and Zahek have been squished up against the mountainside by seasonal winds. There’s a great view across the small sand sea and a little excitement, dune bashing in the Land Cruisers to get there.
Another beautiful, endless stretch of sand and more clear waters to wave jump in. The itinerary tells me that this is the Indian Ocean. Google says it's still the Arabian Sea.
Above the dunes, Dagub Cave with its many stalactites, stalagmites and pools of water that have seeped through the rock over time. And a colony of bats, lone rangers wheeling overhead..
Qaria Lagoon - Homhil - Arher
East again, to Qaria, the largest lagoon on the island. It’s a pretty view and guide Ali says he’s going to build a house in the village here. It’s apparently home to flamingos, herons and greenshank, but none are putting in an appearance today.
The itinerary also doesn’t mention the steep hairpin bends and sheer drops involved in the ride up to Homhil. Though it’s not as long or as high as the one to Fairy Meadows in Pakistan. Our walk here is described as mainly flat, which isn’t entirely accurate and there’s some inelegant slipping over limestone grikes. Downhill, (so a return up the slope) to yet another magnificent viewpoint, where there is a natural (but totally dry) ‘infinity’ pool overlooking a village and out to dots of islands and the turquoise sea. Frankincense trees and a welcome sprinkle of dragonbloods decorate the wadi, as we scramble down.
On, to Arher, where more sand dunes have been piled up against the sheer rock face. Another glorious beach and more swimming. At the eastern tip of the island, the Arabian Sea nd the Indian Ocean meet, ostensibly.
Dihamri Marine Reserve
To the east, again, Dihamri Marine Reserve is an excellent snorkelling area. The local equipment rental guy provides a welcome escort, as I scoot through the waves to the headland and back. There’s a good variety of exotic fish, all the usual suspects: parrotfish, tans, grouper, trumpet fish layered like a Jenga tower, tuna, angel fish, sergeant majors, shoals of zebra fish just below the surface. A turtle, graceful as always, a leopard eel with magnificent markings, peeking out of a hole, two octopuses lurking beneath rocky craters and plenty of live coral of assorted hues. It’s a brilliant little aquarium.
And now. sadly, it's time to go home.