Socotra - The most alien looking place on Earth
Surfing for an Umbrella shaped tree, I was pleasantly surprised when a place named Socotra or Sukhadhara (Island of Bliss in Sanskrit) popped up in my google search. The ensuing information blew me away - “a third of its plant life is found nowhere else on the planet”, “the most alien-looking place on Earth”, “a cave containing inscriptions, in Indo Brahmi script, dated to the 1st century BC”, “once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana”, “Jewel of Biodiversity in the Arabian Sea”, “700 endemic species of flora and fauna”. The Umbrella Tree aka the Dragon Blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari) was for real and the amazing bio-diversity and attributes of Socotra intrigued me into making a trip to this dream island. Part of Yemeni territory, Socotra Island is accessible only by air, as the water route is pirate infested. Yemen is recovering from recent civil unrest and possibilities of violence on the mainland, is a cause for concern.
My flight, from Sharjah via Al-Mukalla, landed in the hot afternoon at the Socotra Airport. The fabled Socotri friendliness and easy ways, was on ample display. A crowd of locals had gathered at the immigration area, to receive their relatives or friends. While the women in hijab seemed restrained, the men called out greetings in the Socotri language, touched their noses together the traditional way, hugged each other and began animated conversations. Due to the island’s isolation, the Socotri Language, which is based on Arabic, independently developed certain phonetic characteristics and intonation. Hence, speakers of Arabic, would probably find it difficult to understand Socotri. My guide Ahmed Saleh, introduced himself and guided me towards the immigration counter. It was startling and amusing when the immigration officer ambled up to the counter, dressed in a lungi and tshirt. After inserting a physical visa in my passport, in lieu of the ETA I had travelled on, the officer waved me on, with a broad smile. This was the most unique immigration I had encountered in any country. Why cant all immigration be like this, simple, friendly, no intimidating uniforms and queues, no forms to fill and so welcoming? Outside the terminal, I decided to visit the Ayafth Canyon for whatever little time possible. My flight had landed 5 hours late, upsetting the day’s tour schedule. We (my Guide Ahmed and me), made our way through a treacherous mountain path, in a 4x4 Toyota Landcruiser driven by young Aburehman.
Ayhaft is considered as a natural nursery due to its large abundance of endemic trees, plants and birds. The landscape is one of contrasts with a sprinkling of oddly shaped weathered rocks and weird mountain formations. I observed various endemic plant species at the Canyon, like the Euphorbia, Desert Rose, Dorstenia Gigas, Cucumber Trees, unknown species of cacti and the Aloe Perryi. I also spotted the Laughing Dove, The Socotri Sparrow, Socotri Sunbird, Somali Starling and a few butterflies.
While local fables abound, one of them goes that, Alexander the Great had sent a detachment of his troops to Socotra to secure supplies of the Aloe Perryi plant, which was known to help heal battle wounds. The arrival of the Greeks, unseated a 150 year old colony of Indian Sailors, who were forced to flee. I wondered if these ancient Indian Sailors would have influenced the Socotri’s in adopting the lungi as their daily wear? Departing the Canyon, we arrived at Adeeb Eco Lodge for the night. I was allotted a small weathered palm leaf tent, containing a single mattress enveloped by a mosquito net. The common loo was a short walk away and only cold water was available. Dinner, peppered with conversation, was had sitting around a mat, with other tourists and our respective guides and drivers. A tasty meal of lamb gravy and hard bread was partaken in the Islamic fashion i.e using hands to pick food from common bowls and plates.
The next morning, at breakfast, after ascertaining that I was from India, the Socotris, enquired fascinatedly about Amitabh Bacchan. Have I seen him, touched him and importantly, can I fight like him? Hindi movies ( dubbed in Arabic ) are periodically released in the local theatre and TV stations broadcast dubbed Hindi serials like Jhansi ki Rani and Bani – Ishq da kalma. Enroute for the day’s tour to Mumi Waterfalls / Homil Protected Area, we spot The Chamaleo Monachus , which is a specie of chameleon, endemic to Socotra and classified as Highly Threatened by IUCN. This rare sighting, energises my mood. Arriving at the serene Mumi Waterfalls, we stumble upon a picnic party being hosted by the Socotri Police Commissioner, for his friend, a visiting law professor from Saana. A few body guards toting AK47s, are part of the entourage. The ongoing activity of 2 goats being slaughtered for the picnic, attracted a few Egyptian Vultures to the area and I got busy clicking. Shortly, the Commissioner orders me to stay on for lunch. Efforts to wriggle out, to explore the 3 stage Mumi waterfall, is unsuccessful. The Ak47’s also deter me from further impropriety. Lunch conversation, once again in the day, centres around Mr. Amitabh Bacchan.
Post lunch, we make haste towards Homil. Homil Protected Area is a Unesco World Heritage site and other than the high density of Dragon Blood, Desert Rose and Cucumber Trees, it is also known to contain fossils. Ahmed suggested a short forest trek wherein, in the middle of nowhere, a tiny waif of a girl, about 7-8yrs old is selling frankincense and I buy some, to please her. Seems I am the first person to walk the trek that day and she has an hour’s hike to reach home. Frankincense on Socotra, is made from the resin of the Boswelia Elongata tree. Reputed for its excellent quality and because of its high market value, the trade in frankincense, led to the settling of South Arabian tribes on Socotra, around 1000BC, to establish orchards. Frankincense was used in ancient times, particularly by the Egyptians and even the Chinese, as incense, insect repellent, perfume and salves for wounds and sores, eye kohl and as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic, with physicians prescribing it for everything, from indigestion and chronic coughs to hemorrhoids and halitosis.
Onwards uphill, we came upon a natural freshwater infinity pool, with a stunning view all around. A Bedouin village was visible in the far distance, about an hour’s trek, down a steeply inclined path. Due to failing light, Ahmed dissuaded me from the trek. The location is one of wondrous beauty. A tourist group of women in bikinis, were lounging in the pool, with their beer/drinks. Their littering, racket and disturbing frolics, in this heritage zone, had me seething. The original plan had been to tent in Homil, however, one washroom to be shared with about 20 drunk tourists, was a unpleasant prospect and I decided to depart for Delisha. Delisha Camp is located scenically on a pristine white sand beach and a lagoon was adjacent.
On my 3rd day in Socotra I was eager to visit the much acclaimed Hoq Caves. We began our 2 hour trek to the Caves, from the mountain base, at Hoq village. One of the villagers joined me and Ahmed to keep an eye on us. The villager’s were responsible on behalf of the government, to ensure that tourists did not cross demarcated limits, inside the Hoq Cave. An hour into the trek, we spotted a snake, the Socotran Racer causing much excitement. The villager and my guide had not seen a snake before and they attributed the sighting, to my luck. We also spotted Mabuya’s , Sparrows, Laughing Dove, Socotri Grey Shrike and Sunbirds, on the trail.
The Hoq cave stretches for about 3-4 km along the cliff. Many of its depths are still unexplored. The dark Hoq Cave, is overwhelmingly beautiful and surreal in torch light, which danced off a variety of crystal decorations, hundreds of thousand year old speleothems (stalagmites, stalactites, calcite floors, etc…) all very fragile. One of the stalagmites produced a musical tone when stuck with the fingers, as demonstrated by the villager. Life forms seemed absent in the cave and the sound of dripping water was amplified due to the prevailing silence. The area containing inscriptions dating to between the 1st century BC to 6th Century AD, indicative of visits by sailors from Africa, Arabia, India and Syria, sailing the trade route, is off limits to tourists currently, due to ongoing scientific and archaeological research. The downhill trek was a breeze and after a late lunch and a short siesta, we made our way to Ahrer Beach and set up tent next to a fresh water stream. It was a magical location with the blue sea in the front and a huge white sand dune to the rear. Travellers from Australia and France arrived and pitched their tents around mine. After dinner and conversation, we all settled in for the night.
It was the fourth day of my stay and after breakfast , we visited Hadibo, the capital of Socotra, for replenishments. Hadibo is a small town maybe 2km/square, with a known population of 8000. There was a goat auction in progress at the street market and I strolled around. Some of the locals approached me to have their photo taken, especially the children. Inspite of the language barrier, I could understand their thanks and friendly wishes. Replenished, we departed Hadibo and reached Dixsam Plateau, where I observed scattered groves of Dragon Blood trees, Desert Rose, and some flowering shrubs before halting at Wadi Daehru for a lunch break. A Wadi is similar to an oasis and Daehru was very scenic. Along with a few dragon flies, darters, Egyptian vultures, Socotri sparrows and Laughing doves, Palm and Desert Rose trees, dotted the Wadi. I was told that tourists sometimes tented here overnight, for the pleasure of swimming in the cool clear waters and for open sky barbeque. Exiting the Wadi after lunch, Ahmed stopped by a tree which was similar in looks to a palm tree, except much shorter, maybe about 12ft in height. I was informed that this was the only specimen on Socotra. On the request of visiting biologists, Ahmed had been keeping an eye on this tree since 4 years, for signs of fruits or flowers, without luck.
We arrived in Verhmann Plateau which is a UN Protected project. The Yemeni Government is doing its might here, to propagate the Dragon Blood Tree, to prevent its rapid decline . An aged Bedouin at the gates, stopped our Landcruiser from driving through. The Socotris call anyone that lives in the mountains, a Bedouin. The issue as I came to know, was that the locals wanted each Socotri tour company to buckle to their demands of a monthly fief and the Bedouin was enforcing this.
Negotiations, followed by offer of some money having failed, dejection was writ large on my face. Probably this is why, the Bedouin proceeded to invite me to his home, for chai. The rustic isolated living style and the ancient home tools I saw around his house, fascinated me. A goat shaped contraption, hanging on a tree aroused my curiosity. It had been tied off in a manner to seal it from all ends, creating a hollow inside. I was informed that it was old goat skin passed down from generations and the Bedouin used it to manufacture ghee, from goat milk! On the short trek back to my car, I came across a flowering specimen of the Caraluma Socotrana, an endemic plant. Apparently, it is rare to find flowers on this plant, owing to its edibility. Arriving at Noged Beach Camp for the night, dinner was followed by some dancing around a campfire, in the company of a Latvian tourist group tented there. In the glow of the fire, dancing off the sand dunes, the night seemed ethereal and I wished I could stay forever on Socotra.
It was my 5th and last day of stay on Socotra and after breakfast we departed towards the Dagub Caves. An ancient cave, it is used by the villagers, till date, to shelter their cattle in the monsoon season. The view of the landscape and nearby villages was impressive. Departing Dagub, we proceeded towards Qalansia. The route was dotted with dilapidated Russian tanks, from some long ago conflict. We halted briefly at a large perennial salt water pond and its location 6-7 kms inland, surprised me. Reaching Qualansia village, we made our way to Detwah lagoon. From Qualansia we had intended to take a short boat trip to Shoab Beach to eat large lobsters, but the beauty of the Detwah lagoon had me rooted. In the pristine clear blue water lagoon, I spotted crabs, sting rays, and fish.
A fisherman came over shortly, to enquire if I would like some sea catch for lunch. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he entered the lagoon, trawled around a short while and hefted 2 large crabs and a squid, before me. Cleaning the catch and boiling it in water, the fisherman served me in about 15 minutes. No salt, masala, spice – nothing. It couldn’t get more fresh than this or more delicious. A lone Socotri Falcon, added to my observations of the day. Later in the evening, I arrived in The Summerland hotel at Hadibo. This is the only 3 star property on Socotra Island and after 4 nights of camping, the luxury was bliss. My 5 day tour of Socotra had come to an end and the next morning, at the airport, after promises to keep in touch, I bid goodbye to my excellent guide Ahmed Saleh and driver Abu Rehman. Saana was my next destination, for a 2 day stay.
Sanaa, the capital of Yemen is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Located at an altitude of 2,300 metres (7,500 ft), it is also one of the highest capital cities in the world. Landing at Saana airport, I was received by my guide Jamil and breezed through immigration. Driving towards the Old City about 15 kms from the airport, I saw many buildings pockmarked by bullets and rocket fire. Some buildings had also been burnt. Unlike on Socotra, most Yemeni men in Saana, displayed the Jambia i.e ceremonial dagger, in their waistband. Some men on the streets, also carried automatic rifles. The visuals made me nervous. Just then Jamil happened to inform that 3 days back, there had been a bombing in the city, as also that kidnapping tourist for ransom was a frequent occurrence. Intense prayers came to me automatically. What had I got into?
However, my experience at the various military check points along the way, assuaged and relived me, to an extent. On knowing I was from India, the soldiers would wave our car on with broad smiles and references to Mr. Amitabh Bacchan. No checking. Appears that for the Yemeni’s that can afford it, India is a high favoured destination for education and medical needs and Indians are held in high esteem. I started recollecting first aid procedures and maths formulae. Perhaps teaching and bandaging would keep me from harm, if kidnapped. Arriving at the Old City, I was transported back in time. The old fortified part of the city of Saana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a distinctive visual character, expressed in its multi-storey buildings decorated with ancient geometric designs, elaborate friezes and intricately carved frames and stained-glass windows.
The Old City has been continuously inhabited for more than 2,500 years and is surrounded by ancient clay walls , 9–14 metres high. My tour of the Old city began at the Bab al Yaman Gates, itself an icon, over a 1000 years old. From the residential section we made our way through narrow alleys to the Old Market. At the market, I came across some unique sights like lock and keys and Jambiyas still being hand made, camel driven sesame oil press, old style hand tools and pottery, blacksmiths, shops selling old silverware and jewellery , goat skin blanket shops and numerous stalls selling cooked meat , fresh bread, savouries, provisions, spices and sweets. I also gorged on succulent and utterly delicious kebabs, being cooked over coal fire, in the old way. I also tried chewing some Qat leaves which like the Indian Paan is chewed by most Yemeni men, day or night. Departing for my hotel, the visual of the golden glow on the Old City, due to the anlge of the sunlight, had me in wonder and awe.
It was my second and last day in Saana and I departed early morning for a visit to the Rock Palace ( Dar-Al-Hajar ). Dar Al Hajar is situated in Wadi Dhar, about 18 kms from Saana and is built atop a protruding rock formation. Imam Yahya (1911-48) built the five-storey palace in the 1930s as a summer residence. Back in the day, Yemen didn't have a king or a president. Instead, leadership of the country rested on the shoulders of an Imam (Islamic spiritual leader). The five-story building has lots of rooms and many big and small stairs that seems to take you all around in circles. I visited the ancient kitchen, flour grinding room with grinding stones, storage rooms, rooms for women of the harem, separate meeting rooms for high placed persons and friends, a pavilion with water fountains, a deep well for fresh water and box windows with meat hooks. Everything in the palace is well preserved.
As I was completing the tour, a group of Yemeni men, themselves touring the Palace, put on a special Yemeni dance performance for me, assuming I was from National Geographic because of my camera and the NG logo on my jacket. The men were visiting a near by village, to attend a wedding and had carried their drums. After dancing to about 5 songs which I most eagerly filmed, they surrounded me, asking to be their guest at the wedding. I had to decline reluctantly, as I had a flight back to Mumbai later in the evening. The men even offered to bear the cost of a reschedule. The kindness and generosity of the Yemeni men was abundant but time constraints, handcuffed my desire. From Dar-Al-hajar I went for a quick tour of the Saleh Mosque which is the largest mosque in Yemen, and from there proceeded to the airport for my flight back to Mumbai.
Socotra had been beyond expectations. It is a treasure of endemism, pristine isolated beaches, unexplored areas, friendly people, amazing landscapes and magical in all that it has to offer. I pray reverently, that the bikini explosion, Chinese trinkets and road side dhabas, never even cast a shadow on this last vestige of natural beauty. A lot of unfulfilled desires like a camel trek through the Haggier Mountains, tenting in the Skand Montains and deep sea diving, will surely see me back in Socotra later in the year !!
Text and images - Prasad Kotian