7 mins

Socotra: Paradise found

The ‘Galápagos of the Indian Ocean’, is a governorate of troubled Yemen. Travel legend Hilary Bradt has spent the last 40 years hoping to reach this unique destination – and now she finally has...

Fishing off of Shu'ab beach (Chris Miller)

The pilot’s voice was silkily reassuring, and since none of our group understood Arabic and were intent on getting some sleep, we barely opened our eyes. He had already told us that we were about to land in Seiyun, as expected, before continuing to Socotra. We didn’t even have to get out of the plane. Our Yemeni neighbours, however, looked anxious, and when the announcement was repeated in English, our group of friends jerked awake too.

Due to the ‘adverse weather’ conditions, he told us, we were diverting to Aden, 700km west of Seiyun. Adverse? A cloudless dawn sky and the palm trees barely moving in the wind? And this was Yemen, notorious for being a war zone. Our day was starting to unravel.

The five hours at Aden airport, with little sleep that night and all facilities closed, were not interesting. Returning to Seiyun for a courtesy night at their best hotel, however, was fascinating. Not many Yemeni hotels get the chance to show visitors their exemplary hospitality. Beautiful young men in turbans and the traditional Yemeni skirt, or futa, with a curved jambiya dagger in their belt, lounged in the lobby and studiously avoided staring at the uncovered women.

We were invited to go to the top floor to look at the view from the roof (‘but no photo’), skirting around the sandbags to take in the elegant buildings and distant beige-coloured hills. I was politely told that no, I couldn’t go out to look for a replacement suitcase in the little row of shops I’d spotted, unless I wore the full niqāb like Yemeni women.  We were given a good meal and got a decent night’s sleep before being given an armed escort to the airport in a minibus with blacked-out windows, preceded by a white vehicle with a large gun mounted on its roof. And, as a postscript, we were told later by One Who Knows that the diversion was probably a power play by the Saudi authorities who control the Seiyun airport.

But this isn’t about Yemen, nor about the political shenanigans that have blighted it [see Footnotes pages]. This is about a small island, scarcely larger than Cornwall, pushed by geological forces into the ocean millions of years ago to settle some 250km from the Horn of Africa. The island of Socotra has always had a touch of magic about it: little known, hard to get to, undeveloped for tourism, but quite extraordinary. A landscape of rocks coloured like strawberry ice-cream, plump bottle trees flaunting golden bellies and buttocks, and the iconic dragon’s blood trees. Who wouldn’t dream of going there once the secret is revealed to them?

And it was revealed to me over 40 years ago when I went to a talk and saw faded slides of this very special island that none of us had heard of and most immediately forgot about. Not me. An Attenborough television programme years later fixed Socotra in my mind and perhaps my soul, since whenever I was asked if there was a place I still wanted to travel to, this was the answer.

Socotra’s endemic –  and iconic – dragon’s blood tree is named  after its red sap (Chris Miller)

Socotra’s endemic – and iconic – dragon’s blood tree is named after its red sap (Chris Miller)

The wait is over...

It was the right answer; Socotra didn’t disappoint. We’d lost a day, and we’d missed our planned ‘wake-them-up’ swim, but those six days showed us why the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Biodiversity can sometimes be more science and less surprise, but not here. Socotra brazenly parades its uniqueness. We would have been quite happy with a few dragon’s blood trees looking like giant mushrooms without being taken to a whole forest of them; we would have been content to admire the plump desert roses that shamelessly flaunt the reason for their scientific name, Adenium obesum, without them frothing with pink blossom; and we would have been eager to take a boat trip without an escort of spinner dolphins.

Experienced travellers know that a country that hits the disaster headlines back home is often as peaceful a place as anywhere when you actually visit. The first words from our guide, Wagdi, when he met us at the airport were, “This is the safest place in the world; in the world!” It was only a small exaggeration. The only sign we saw of its ongoing political tussles was a variety of flags painted on rocks, identified as Southern Yemen and the UAE, and a cheery ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia!’ pinging on our phones when we passed through some military areas.  

So here we were, with only six days to discover as much as we could about Socotra, not just to fulfil my four-decade dream but also as part of my research for Bradt Guides’ latest project – the very first guidebook to the island. Driving from the airport to its north-coast capital Hadiboh, our excitement at seeing our first bottle trees and Egyptian vultures, surely the most elegant and classy of all their family, was dampened as we passed through an avenue of discarded plastic. This is Socotra’s blight and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. The town’s ubiquitous goats seemingly thrive on a plastic-filled diet, but there is only so much that they can deal with.

We visited Hadiboh market to watch old men with chocolate-brown skin and white beards cutting up large, still flipping fish, and to buy dates from a stall laden with (imported) oranges, apples and other fruit, and then escaped inland to the Haggeher mountains. And these are serious mountains, over 1,500m high, often clothed in cloud that nourishes the lush vegetation on their slopes, home for some of Socotra’s endemic species of reptile, and providing pasture for the cattle herded by Socotra’s Bedouin.

Fit visitors with more than a week at their disposal can go deep into the Haggeher on camel treks (the camels carry supplies, not tourists) and those paths are steep and rugged. We looked up at the mountains from the Diksam plateau and then down, over 700m down, at Wadi Dirhur, which slices Socotra almost in two.

These wadis are one of Socotra’s unexpected joys. Clean, fresh water pours down from the hills, collecting in rock-encircled pools, ideal for cooling off after a hike. All returning visitors from Socotra hug the memory of the ‘infinity pool’ on the Homhil Plateau in the island’s east, a deep, blue expanse of clear water fed by a small waterfall, with a view of the ocean in a gap between the craggy cliffs which almost frame it. The bottle trees clung desperately to the rocks, although they were such appealing, chubby characters that it was impossible not to anthropomorphise them.

Head into the Haggeher Mountains – the camel’s carry bags, not people (Chris Miller)

Head into the Haggeher Mountains – the camel’s carry bags, not people (Chris Miller)

Spill the dragon’s blood

Socotra does not feel small when you are in a car climbing up to Homhil from the coastal plains. The dirt road is more suitable for sure-footed camels than a vehicle, even a 4X4, with hairpin bends and river crossings to negotiate. We were eager to examine our first dragon’s blood tree. Dracaena cinnabari personifies Socotra. They have relatives in the Canary Islands and elsewhere, but this subspecies is special to this island and provides a home to two endemic geckos. They are splendidly weird. Part of their strangeness is the symmetry, an impenetrable umbrella of dark green spiky leaves forming a perfect curve over a lattice of branches that spring sideways from a single trunk.

Wagdi cut into the bark to show us the crimson ‘dragon’s blood’ sap oozing from this wound. Why dragon? Because once upon a time a dragon had a fight with an elephant and a tree sprang up from the spilled blood. In Socotra’s long history, this cinnabar was prized for its use in cosmetics. Roman gladiators painted themselves with Socotran cinnabar and it was later used by violin makers as a varnish. Stradivarius himself may have used it.

We bought some crystals of dried dragon’s blood from some boys and were also offered frankincense from one of Socotra’s seven species of Boswellia. The Romans couldn’t get enough of the stuff, burning it prolifically on important occasions. Indeed, Socotra’s name might derive from the Arabic suq-qutra, which translates as ‘emporium of resin’.

There were more dragons on Diksam plateau and, across the Wadi Dirhur, a veritable forest of them at Firmihin. Diksam also has a village that is accustomed enough to visitors to allow visits to their school. We women covered our heads before handing over our educational gifts to the headteacher and stood quietly while the students chanted their loyalty to Socotra and Islam.

Normally, we were told, the classes would be segregated but they have a shortage of teachers so they were mixed, boys down one side, girls down the other. The boys were bold and confident, meeting our eyes and answering our questions. ‘I want to be a pilot when I grow up’. ‘I shall be a doctor’. The girls, swathed in black, with only their eyes showing, were deeply uncomfortable at the presence of men. Some pulled their scarves over their eyes. We were told that these ‘girls’ were 20 to 30 years old, some with babies, catching up on their education. They had to be coaxed to respond to questions, but one bolder one said she wanted to be a teacher.

Approaching the Infinity Pool on the Homhil Plateau (Chris Miller)

Approaching the Infinity Pool on the Homhil Plateau (Chris Miller)

Coasts, crabs & caves

An island, however, isn’t defined by its mountains but by the coast. And in Socotra’s case, sand dunes. If you’re thinking of Britain’s gentle mounds of grass-tufted sand, think again. Socotra, of course, has to be different. The dunes at Arher are piled up to 400 metres against the granite cliff, and the opposite side of the road from the beach. It doesn’t quite make sense. It makes even less sense that a stream of fresh water emerges from the cliff of sand and heads for the sea, making this one of the best campsites on the island.

The energetic will climb the dunes, often on hands and knees, and slide-run down shrieking with delight. Others, like me, will watch sedately from the camp, sipping hot sweet tea and anticipating that evening’s meal of goat meat or fish with rice. The camp crew did a fine job with our meals, managing enough variety to keep us well fed.

Lastly there are the beaches. The weather was too windy to enjoy them until the final days, but then – wow! In the north-east the waves dump a coral reef’s detritus of shells, remnants of sea creatures and fragments of coral ashore in such quantities that the beach becomes a colourful crunchy carpet. Then there’s ‘Crab City’: prime real estate for ghost crabs that create high-rise pyramids of sand to attract a mate or threaten a rival, like a stalk-eyed Donald Trump.

As ever, the best was reserved until the end: Detwah lagoon and Shu’ab Beach in the far west of the island.

The guides know that when they deposit their visitors at the look-out high above Detwah’s mingling of pale turquoise water and creamy-yellow sand, their charges will gasp. As we did.

Down at sea level you have a lagoon shallow enough to wade in and full of strange creatures. And Abdullah the Caveman, a vivacious mountain goat of a man, who does sometimes occupy a cave above the lagoon. He showed us his friend the octopus and then scooped up a puffer fish, which looked at us in horror with trembling lips until we begged him to return it to its element. There were sting rays galore, prehistoric chitons, squids, and sea cucumbers. All in water that, at low tide, was never more than knee deep.

But if the lagoon was special, Shu’ab was divine. We’d waited for a calm day to make this boat trip to an isolated beach and we got it – on our very last day. It was Socotra at its best. The sea was so blue that at one point we thought we were looking at an exotic species of seabird until we realised that the turquoise breast was just a reflection of the water on this low-flying gull. We skirted craggy pink rocks splashed with white, harbouring brown boobies and Socotran cormorants on their ledges, and spinner dolphins cavorted around the boat. The beach was pristine and dotted with coloured stones like discarded gems. And we finally got our swim. The dream of nearly 50 years had become reality, and it had been worth every second of the wait. The flora and fauna, and especially the landscape, had exceeded expectations.

But Socotra’s future hangs in the balance. At the time of writing its tourism is threatened by not only a complete COVID-19 lockdown but also the political manoeuvring of neighbouring powers, drawn by the island’s desirable strategic potential. Since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war, Socotra, although far from the war zone, has featured on the FCO’s ‘advise against all travel’ list, although some tourism has managed to continue. Once flights resume post-COVID and visitors can return to the island, their presence and carefully managed eco-tourism will help to protect its precious natural heritage; whereas if the destabilising power-play proves lethal to tourism then Socotra will be left isolated and entirely unprotected. Paradise found or lost? Only time will tell.

Abdullah  holds up a puffer fish (Chris Miller)

Abdullah holds up a puffer fish (Chris Miller)

Footnotes

The trip

The author travelled with the Canadian company The Inertia Network (travel.inertianetwork.com) in February 2020. The week’s itinerary encompassed all the island’s main highlights, with two additional days in Cairo. The two-week itinerary usually involves camel trekking (the camels carry the luggage not people). The total package cost US$4,584pp (£3,550) with two sharing, including the Cairo to Socotra flight.

Vital statistics

Location: The largest island in the Socotra Archipelago, approx. 250km from Somalia and 380km from mainland Yemen.

Capital: Hadiboh

Population: 75,000

Language(s): Arabic and Socotri Time: GMT + 3

International dialling code: +967 (0)5

Visas: At present Socotra tourist visas are provided through whichever international or local tour operator you use to book your trip.

Money: The Yemeni rial. (YER) Because of the war, its value is fluctuating sharply so no meaningful exchange rate.

When to go

May-Sept: Summer Monsoon. High winds, very hot (highs around 32°C) and periodic rain. Little tourism. Oct-Nov Rainy but usually good conditions and a lush landscape.

Dec-Jan: The wettest month with a risk of flooding.

Feb-May: Popular months because the desert rose blooms at this time. Strong winds and some rain.

Health & safety

As a governorate of war-torn Yemen, the FCO currently advises against all travel to Socotra. However, visitors to the island are treated with kindness and respect, and there are very few cars, so traffic accidents are rare.

For the latest advice on entry requirements, including regarding COVID-19, visit the FCO site.

Health risks are fewer than in other tropical destinations, with limited malaria risk and the small population reducing the risk of other easily spread diseases; this is not applicable to Yemen as a whole. Check in with fitfortravel.nhs.uk for latest updates.

All visitors should carry a first aid kit for minor accidents – rocks are sharp and paths often slippery.

Politics

There has been an ongoing civil war in Yemen since 2015, which has had a disastrous humanitarian consequence. While the conflict has had comparatively little impact on Socotra itself, the island remains strategically valuable, and various political factions jostle intermittently for power. This seems likely to continue. In June 2020 the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (a mainland separatist group seeking self-rule for South Yemen) displaced Socotra’s UN-recognised Yemeni government team in a non-violent coup.

Insurance

Because Socotra is on the FCO list for prohibited travel, it makes insurance expensive and hard to obtain.

The author used the American company Global Underwriters.

Panorama Insurance specialise in ‘frontier destinations’ for UK citizens, and there are other British companies covering ‘high risk’ destinations.

Getting there

In early ’20 there were weekly flights by Yemenia Airways from Cairo, with a stop at Seiyun, but this route may very possibly change when tourism re-starts.

Getting around

All visitors currently travel on escorted tours, whether scheduled or tailor-made, using 4X4 vehicles.

Cost of travel

With transport, accommodation and meals included in the pre-paid cost of your tour and only a few opportunities for shopping, expenditure while on the island is likely to be minimal, apart from contributing to a kitty to provide tips for the camp crew.

Accommodation

The island currently has only four fairly basic hotels and an eco-lodge, all in or near capital Hadiboh; some visitors base themselves there and travel daily for sightseeing. However, most visitors stay at (often very) basic campsites in tents provided by their tour operator.

Food and drink

The best hotel, the Summerland, provides okay buffet breakfasts and a handful of restaurants in Hadiboh cater for tourists, serving snacks and the island’s staple of goat meat and fish, with pasta or rice. The camp crew rustle up good, if somewhat monotonous, meals at the campsites, plus picnics at midday. Alcohol is strictly prohibited.

Cultural sensitivity

This is a strictly Muslim country, and most Socotri women wear the full niqab. Women visitors should cover their arms and heads in Hadiboh and wear unrevealing baggy trousers or long skirts, and dress conservatively in villages. In the countryside, normal attire should be fine, but it is always courteous to be aware of local practices.

Further reading and information

Bradt Guide: Socotra (Oct ’20) by the author and Janice Booth is the only guidebook to the island. friendsofsoqotra.org – informative and kept up-to-date website.

Detwah beach (Chris Miller)

Detwah beach (Chris Miller)

10 Socotra highlights

1. Arher sand dunes

Towering sugar-white dunes have somehow travelled across the road and stacked themselves against the side of a mountain. Brave souls climb up for the slide down, others admire their efforts from the campsite.

2. Detwah Lagoon

A marine wonder-world of strange marine creatures: pufferfish, squids, sea cucumbers and lots of sting rays.

3. Firmihin Forest

One dragon’s blood tree is impressive enough, but a forest of them with the backdrop of a rocky canyon and the Haggeher mountains is unmissable.

4. Haggerher mountains

Rising to over 1,500m high, these craggy peaks form the backdrop of many Socotran scenes, even if you don’t have time to join a camel trek to see them at close quarters.

5. Homhil Plateau

The place that has it all: dragon’s blood trees, bottle trees and an ‘infinity pool’.

6. Hog cave

Socotra has been described as ‘like a Swiss cheese’ because of all the holes and caves in its limestone. Hoq is an amalgamation of the standard stalagmites and stalactites, with a rich history of early habitation.

7. Qalansiyah

You don’t go to Socotra for its towns, but Qalansiyah, at its western tip, is a laid-back village of stone-built houses, colourful doors and friendly people.

8. Ras Erissel

Two oceans meet at the extreme eastern tip of the island: the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This rocky peninsula is beaded with sandy beaches, often covered with fragments of coral and shells, with dramatic breakers as a backdrop.

9. Dihamri Protected Marine Area

Socotra’s coral reef may be small, but it is undisturbed and, on the rare calm days, offers terrific snorkelling.

10. Shu’ab Beach

The boat trip to this beautiful beach from Qalansiyah is part of the treat: brown boobies and Socotran cormorants pose on the pink cliffs and spinner dolphins accompany the boat.

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