It was on sunrise of the fourteenth day that a glimmer of what looked to be cloud appeared on the horizon, as the morning light blazed through .. from air, materialized land.
We had arrived in Africa..we had arrived in Socotra!
Jagged cliffs rising up a 1,000m to an endless plateau, sand dunes spilling into the sea, scattered red rocks marking evidence of oxidized ferrous limestone marked the way. Countless gannets and terns flew by, a pod of pilot whales swept passed .. after traveling aboard what felt like a spaceship hurtling through the cosmos we had finally arrived on a distant alien planet .. the tinge of excitement only grew.
Touching land countless faces smiling and all curious, who were these people. I announced: “I am happy to finally be back in Africa”, to which they replied, “No no, this is the Middle East!” Awesome.
The island of “Soqutra” is old, there is no record of when people first settled nor from where the name came, such information has been lost to the sands of time. Where you can find the name, written in the pages of Gilgamesh and Sinbad.
What one could only imagine to be a long and colorful history, the spoken record of tribal life on the island is one of long peace. Walk the streets of Socotra’s capital Hadebbo and you are met with a very friendly people. In their faces you can readily recognize three distinct cultures. There is ethnicity from India, the Middle East and Africa yet these Socotri people have all shared this island as a common home for countless generations.
The biodiversity of the island is radical. As one traveler called the capital’s backdrop of Hajhir Mountain some 130 years ago, “If Socotra is the body, Hajhir is the spirit”. The mountain top at 1600m is the island’s proverbial bank, home to 93 endemic species. From lizards to trees, bushes and flowers the fauna is a wonder taken from the pages of Dr. Seuss.
This is the land of Dragon Blood Trees and “bottle trees”, two of the world’s rarities strange to our minds, yet, in relative abundance throughout the islands. A wonderfully strange site to see while exploring the vast coastal road and inland sites.
Relatively small by western standards, the island is indeed vast due to the limited transport and mountain roads that though rough are manageable. The hill tribes hold great respect to the drivers that can navigate their roads.
In order to facilitate our short stay while visiting the island we enlisted Denis of www.Socotra.info. A stoic expat from Moscow living in Socotra with his wife Anya for some ten years, he left his previous life as a marketing executive to chase waves windsurfing. After a stint in Egypt his path lead him here.
Denis’ business associate, Mohammed, is a native Socotri, fixer and guide. Mohammed and Denis made easy and all the more enjoyable visiting the wonderful culture of the Socotri people and the exotic beauty that is Socotra.
The island is on the precipice of rapid change as the United Arab Emirates continues to invest millions of dollars into the neglected island infrastructure. Though no one knows their ultimate plan, perhaps they are supplanting the mainland Yemeni government as the island’s protectorate. This could mean sudden change to the quiet island and warm culture of Socotra.
Though Denis at www.Socotra.info can help with travel plans to reach the island, you will surely need to find a guide / vehicle while there. I have learned there are indeed flights from mainland Yemen capital San’a and also through Abu Dhabi though their reliability and schedule is subject to change. You can also travel overland to Al Markalla in Yemen and hop a ferry to the island, but.. warning to the wise, it looks like piracy is again on the rise.
Tony, Karin & I thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Socotra. Absorbing the beauty of the land and breaking bread with the people was a treat we won’t soon forget.
Finally, I am happy to report we are safe and sound in Djibouti! Now this, is Africa! Though slightly strange to speak so much French. Crossing the Gulf of Aden was not without worry, a ship was hijacked on Friday the 7th of April not 30nm from us .. we heard it play out on radio, but that, is for next time.
As they say when parting in Socotra,
Masa wazzha – good health and rain!