A three hour flight over the arid sands of the Rab al-Khali bridged the opulence of the Dubai airport and the third world reality of the Sana’a terminal. Time and patience were required to get the visa and change money, but that done my driver, Ibrahim, was waiting with my bag and off we went to his car, and the 20 minute drive to the Movenpick Hotel. The trip provided an introduction to the outskirts of Sana’a, past miles of small shops and empty spaces. Traffic was light but there was a lot of foot traffic. The men wore head scarves and ankle length skirt-like garb. The women were uniformly heavily veiled in full length black abaya and niqab. I was cautioned not to attempt to take photos of the women, or even to look at them too intensely.
The Movenpick is a nine story grand hotel at the edge of the foothills, with a sweeping view over the city. It has an Arabian nights quality about it, covered in elegant marble with high ceilings and a striking interior atrium. There are several restaurants and cafes, including an excellent Moroccan buffet. The staff are very friendly and helpful, and my room was modern, spacious and very comfortable.
Fully refreshed from a good night’s sleep, I was taken back to the airport by Ibrahim for the morning flight to Socotra. Felix Air flies daily between Sana’a and Socotra, with an intermediate stop in al Mukhallah. Each leg is an hour flight time. The aircraft are Bombardier CRJ200s, sleek, modern twin jets seating 50 passengers. The flight was nearly full. About half got off in Mukhallah, but about as many new passengers boarded there for the flight to the island.
My driver/guide for the next several days was Ismail, a native of the island. He was well spoken, knowledgeable, with a good command of English. It is about a 20 minute drive from the airport to Hadibo, the principal town of Socotra. The road was a well-paved two lane highway. We drove along the coastal plain, past the village of Qatab, up a rise where the mountains come down to the sea, which afforded a sweeping view over the turquoise sea and the mountains beyond.
Qatab is a ‘new’ village, replacing the ancient settlement which was washed into the sea by a massive flood in 1976. It is a Socotran 9/11, a date which defines local history by ‘before and after.’
Hadibo is a poor, physically unattractive collection of mostly single storey humble shops lining mostly unpaved dusty streets. We passed a couple of non-descript looking ‘hotels’, and pulled up to the Summerland Hotel, my home for the next few nights. What a pleasant surprise! A simple, white washed rectangular building with a pleasant lobby and dining room and a simple private courtyard framed by a two storey U-shaped structure containing about 20 units. My room was spotlessly clean, with crisp white sheets and a clean and functional bathroom, which lacked only hot water, which I was informed was a temporary problem. I had satellite TV, with a number of Arabic channels, and one English language station, Press TV, originating in Tehran.
My arrangements included meals, and as I was the only guest in the hotel, their Pilipino chef planned special meals for me, once I had opted for fish, chicken or beef.
After lunch we drove back toward the airport and then turned left onto a dirt track which brought us to the entrance of Wadi Ayhaft. We proceeded up an increasingly narrow, steep and rugged track, flanked on both sides with exotic and varied flora, growing on the steep banks and even out of cracks in the fantastical rocks and crags. We came to a dead end caused by a washed out section of the road. After a brief encounter with two young men who emerged out of nowhere, we turned back, descended and then drove across the plain , across the sand, to the shore. Much of the island is ringed with fine white sand beaches. Other than an occasional stone settlement, there is no sign of development, just miles of clean white sand and spectacular turquoise water.
Back in Hadibo Ismail and I had tea in a local spot, and then drove off to the only Internet facility. It was now dark. There are no street lights, just occasional pools of light from the shops which were still open. It was a bit spooky, but I never felt at all nervous or concerned. The people are generally indifferent, showing neither curiosity nor hostility. I suspect it might be shyness and reserve.
The area around the hotel includes the market section, containing small shops, some with wares spilling out into the dirt street. There is a fair amount of rubbish, and the ubiquitous goats.
The next morning Ismail picked me up at 8. We made a brief foray into the market to get some simple food for the picnic lunch planned for the beach, and then set off for the plateau and the south side of the island. The route up to and across the plateau, then down to the ocean is an excellent two lane paved road. There was hardly any traffic in either direction. The plateau itself is about 1000 meters above sea level and is quite vast. It is very sparsely populated by a few Bedouin families, and it seems quite poor. Although it was quite dry, there were a number of varieties of flowering plants along the way, and quite a few bottle trees. We also began to see some Dragon Blood trees, unique to Socotra. There are sweeping views across the area, with scarcely a sign of habitation. Just an occasional small group of square stone houses and out buildings.
Ismail clearly knew the area well, and we made several detours off the paved road on to dirt tracks, and some stretches that were just rugged terrain. We stopped at one settlement and had tea with the family, which included a total of ten brothers and sisters, from infants to one adult. Women were out of sight, except for an occasional fleeting glimpse. We drove on to the very edge of an enormous gorge, deeply cut into the otherwise rather flat terrain. Some of the small children shyly offered little bags of dried ‘Dragon Blood’ collected from the trees.
We visited a rudimentary nursery where they are attempting to grow new Dragon Blood trees. The only ones currently surviving are older, fully grown plants, which are gradually dying off. The goats devour any new growth, but it is hoped these can be transplanted into the wild and survive.
We crossed the plateau and then descended through another deep gorge onto the south coastal plain. There are few signs of life, just an occasional lone stone house or a small settlement. The landscape is covered with spindly shrubs, grazed over by a scattering of goats. The plain is wide, with long white sand beaches to the south, and towering cliffs to the north, pockmarked with caves and signs of heavy erosion. We passed a modern school building that had just dismissed the students. All girls, all in burqas, looking very much like nuns, and quite a contrast in the dazzling sunlight We turned off the paved road on to a dirt track which ended at the mouth of a large cave, where we parked the car. An old man emerged from nowhere, in search of an aspirin!
There was a sweeping view across the plain to the Indian Ocean beyond, and we decided to forge on to Aomak beach, which consisted of as couple of stone structures and some very basic ‘cabanas’ simple structures of poles and palm fronds, with a tarp-like carpet laid on the ground. Ismail had thoughtfully provided me with a folding chair, to spare my aching knees. He prepared our simple lunch, which consisted of sliced tomatoes, some local Socotran bread, and an orange. And of course, sweet tea.
I walked down to the edge of the beach. The waves were low and gentle, the beach itself was fine white sand, and it gently curved to a distant headland. The water near the shore was the same turquoise of the north coast, changing to a deep, intense blue off shore. Not a soul to be seen.
We retraced our steps, encountering a few camels grazing by the side of the road, then climbing back up to and across the plateau, and making the long descent to the northern coastal plain. The weather has been warm and sunny, except for some cloud cover over the plateau, and we did encounter a brief shower during the return.
Back at sea level we drove across the plain, on another dirt track which led to the shore line. Ismail maneuvered well over the soft dunes and we took a short walk along the edge of the sea. The waves were gentle. The beach itself is one long stretch of pure white sand, occasionally broken by deposits of smooth stones, apparently traces of wadis that brought waters from the seasonal rains down from the mountains to the sea.
We were back before dark and I had a nap, cleaned up, watched some TV and had an early dinner of sautéed chicken and peppers, and then went off to bed.
Day three was sunny and warm, and we headed east on the coastal (and only) road, past the commercial harbor, which consisted of one long dock and some oil storage tanks. Along much of this coast the high mountains come right down to the sea. They are quite striking, mostly of heavily eroded rock, with an occasional towering white sand dune interspersed. Some of these are more than 100 meters high. The road turned inland and brought us into a large valley which was much greener than any other part of the island that we had visited. This valley is ringed by high mountains, some of which are a bit reminiscent of the Dolomites. They reach heights of 5000 feet or more. Eventually the road turned back to the sea through a break in the mountains. We passed a couple of fishing villages, and then the pavement stopped. We continued on, skirting the sea, along a line of cliffs whose shapes became more and more fantastic. The face of the cliffs is heavily eroded, with deep caves and large boulders scattered along the shore. In the midst of it all is one huge sand dune. It is hard to imagine where that amount of sand may have come from, and it adds to the mysterious, other-worldly atmosphere of the area.
We turned off road to meet with three Chelal tribesmen; Ali, Bosalah and Salah. I had read that this tribe is unique to the island in having a gene that produces pale blue eyes. And sure enough, Bosalah had a pair of ice blue eyes. Quite a contrast to his mahogany skin.
The men had caught a young goat, which they slaughtered and skinned before our very eyes, to provide us with a hot lunch! We drove on a bit further to get some fresh water from a stream which was pouring down from the mountains above, a result of what had been heavy rains the day before. This stream blocked our way to drive any further east, so after filling some plastic water canisters we returned to have our lunch.
The goat had been reduced into a simple and well worn aluminum pot, where it bubbled away over an open wood fire. The internal organs had been removed and set aside on a wooden plank, to be grilled. I was the beneficiary of the heart, a kidney, and a nice slice of liver. No, the head was not cooked and the eyes were not on the menu. We sat around the stew pot, and systematically devoured everything. We were closely watched by several Egyptian vultures, which ventured quite close, and to which we tossed spare or inedible parts.
After the meal we had a chat, translated by Ismail. The men were quite curious about the US, and wondered if we too had goats roaming about. Bosalah had been as far as Beirut. He purported to have 10 children, but was interested in acquiring a western wife.
We said our thanks and goodbyes and proceeded back to Hadibo, a roughly two hour drive. Ismail would stop several times during the day to pray, usually in an interesting spot, which gave me an opportunity to stretch my legs and do a little exploring. This time we stopped by a lovely grove of date palms with a small stream meandering through it.
It was still daylight when we got back to town. The internet store was shuttered, but we did find a tiny shop that provided international phone service, so I was able to connect with the outside world. I found that a dear friend had died in New York the day before, so I had to make hasty plans to return as soon as possible. My travel agents responded so quickly and efficiently that I was able to fly out the next morning, and connect to an Egypt Air flight via Cairo to New York the following morning Trusty Ibrahim met me again at the airport in Sana’a, took me back to the Movenpick, and picked me up again at 2 AM for the flight home.
It was unfortunate that I was not able to spend one more day in Socotra to explore the western end of the island. Each part of Socotra is unique, and the western tip is no more that 100 miles from Somalia. The beaches and surrounding waters are supposed to be very beautiful, and I imagine there is a more African influence to be seen.
Socotra is located some 200 miles off the coast of eastern Yemen, and about 100 miles east of Somalia, The population of the island is about 55,000, spread very thinly over an area the size of Rhode Island. There are a lot of young children, and there are said to be over 250,000 goats! The women are completely covered, and almost all the men wear long sleeved shirts, skirt-like, ankle length wraps, and head scarves. In appearance, they tend to be thin, with light to dark brown skin color, and rather aquiline features: long straight noises, thin lips, long faces with close set eyes. Most are quite handsome.
Socotra is a truly amazing and unique place. It is very poor, with a subsistence economy. There is almost no infrastructure or development as we know it. No phone lines, almost no overhead electrical lines, no roadside stands, malls, or gas stations scattered over the landscape. No motor scooters or bicycles. People walk, or get a ride from the few and infrequent cars or vans that pass by. During our drives Ismail would occasionally stop to offer a ride to a lone pedestrian. We even picked up a couple of well-veiled women, who were apparently undaunted by sharing space with a western male. At one point we picked up a young man who Ismail knew. He was a poet, and had won the local prize for poetry the previous year. Ismail was on the Board of Nominators and was proud that he had put this person forward as a contestant.
The main elements of the diet are goat, lamb or fish, and rice. There is little fresh produce, and most of that is imported. I never saw a mosquito, and very few flies.
The people speak Socotri, an ancient (and unwritten) language, which is quite different than Arabic. I was told that there are more schools than teachers. There is one hospital on the entire island, and a few clinics, most of which are not staffed. The future looks bleak. Even with education, there are no sources of jobs or prospects of any meaningful development. One of the main sources of income is the remittances sent back from the several thousand islanders who have gone to work in the UAE.
The history of the island is complex. Earliest historical mentions indicate that remnants of Alexander’s forces settled there in the Third century BC. It was a source of frankincense, myrrh, laudanum and aloe to the ancient world. Dates were also an export crop at certain times. There are indications that the Romans were there. The sultans from the coast of what is now Yemen and Oman controlled the island for most of the intervening years, although the Portuguese had a brief go in the 16th century (whence the blue eyes, by legend.) The Dutch and the British had an interest because of Socotra’s location mid way between India and the Mediterranean.. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of the British Empire, and came part of South Yemen in the 1960s. The Russians maintained a presence there until the early 1990s. They built some schools and clinics, but their attempts to resettle the population did not sit well, and they are not missed. There are recent indications that they have shown interest in setting up a naval base there.
There is concern among people on the island that its designation in 2008 as a World Heritage site will not be a plus for the natives. There is very little tourism, and most of that consisted of environmentalists, who seem more concerned with the plight of the flora than of the people.
Socotra is clearly not for everyone. There is no night life, no discos, no fine dining, no beach resorts and few tourists, most of whom are the backpacking, tenting set. And don’t expect to find any alcohol. But there is a timeless quality to the life there, spectacular mountain scenery and beaches, unique flora, diffident but friendly, simple people, and tons of goats! A truly unique part of the world!