A lost world

Socotra – Yemen

It was pointed out to me that I was a grumpy bastard while travelling last summer. In fact, shortly after returning home my family were concerned I was dying of kidney failure which I laughed at under the illusion that I was feeling great. Six months on and looking back, I now realise why they had reached that conclusion for I have now shed over 10 kilos of gut, I can run harder and feel much fitter, I have been doing Pilates weekly, the random pains in my wrist and knee have gone, and the blistering pain in my neck and shoulders has subdued to a mere numbing sensation; it turns out four months of travelling last summer turned me into an exhausted wreck. I’ve even come to learn that I can’t see much at a distance, my right eye is shockingly useless and now with my new glasses I have discovered I do in fact own a HD tv. So, after a six-month physical service and repair job, the dissertation handed in, and no idea where I need to settle down in the world until Rut sorts her life out, its only right that I head out travelling for another five months in the hope that ‘real life’ as my sister likes to call it falls into place by the end of the year. 

Considering most of our time was spent in relatively comfortable countries last summer and that broke me, the coming months don’t bode well for me. Especially considering I’ll be travelling solo for the next three months, going back to the old days where I have to share rooms with strangers and generally get through life without the comforts a partner can bring. The upside is that I can go pretty much wherever I want and so where better to start then Yemen. Indeed, after losing the will to live last year thanks to idiotic tourists, I have chosen an itinerary for the next few months specifically to rediscover my travelling mojo. Now obviously I haven’t gone to mainland Yemen as visiting war zones as nothing other than a tourist is not big, impressive, or moral. I ended up on the island of Socotra, the apparent hidden jewel of the Indian Ocean under the Yemeni flag although more likely under the control of the U.A.E and Saudi Arabia. In fact, that is more or less a given. It could be argued therefore that even visiting here is immoral but considering the island has never been directly affected by the war on the mainland and inshallah a good chunk of my dollars stayed on the island, I don’t feel too conflicted. 

Socotra is a heap of rock, albeit spectacular rock, around 1 fifth the size of Wales lying 380 kilometres from the Arabian Peninsula and 240 kilometres from the African continent. I’ve heard a population figure from anywhere between 15,000 to 100,000 people, one source quoted 60,000 which I would say is reasonable. An airport was built in 2001 and even now only two chartered civilian flights arrive weekly which drops to fortnightly during the monsoon season in the summer. At this time the island is battered by gale force winds and the island is pretty much cut off from the outside world, relying on stocks built up before the season begins. Why a local population resides on the island is a complete mystery to me. The only thing to do is fish. There is no soil and so no grass or crops, although goats roam every square foot of the island and appear to do well on the copious amounts of litter in the streets or the less than lush bushes that grow out in the rocky uplands. Goats can be found in skips, wheelbarrows, and standing on top of motorbikes. They are completely conscious of the traffic, and I am convinced they would patiently stop and look for passing cars before crossing a road. In fact, there are cows and camels roaming the island which look in surprisingly good shape. The local population are therefore quite poor, hence the litter, which I assume blows away or gets washed out to sea during the monsoon season. Our guide said they didn’t get much rain yet all the canyons and riverbeds we visited suggested the contrary. One dried up riverbed that fell over the top of a mountain, at a distance it could be clearly seen where it had carved itself an impressively wide waterfall that must be even more spectacular when in flow. So why visit? The same reason I always get selfishly excited about these kinds of places; few tourists, no tourist infrastructure, and locals who are bemused at the fact to why anyone would want to visit.

The week was spent visiting various sites that required Land Cruisers to get to. My driver for the week was Abdul who took great pleasure turning on his police siren and horn while driving through the main town. On other occasions he would use the loudspeaker to chat to passers-by. He started the week on good form but declined rapidly as he approached the final days of the tourist season which happened to coincide with the final days of Ramadan. If it had been my first time surrounded by Arabian culture I would have been shocked by Abdul’s attitude, but as none of it is new to me, I found it quite endearing! And let’s be honest, our guide, drivers, and cooks had to keep us well fed, watered, and entertained during the heat of the day while they were all fasting and having to refuel and rehydrate during the night. Our lunch stops were ridiculous. The first was by the side of a coastal road (not a single car passed us) where the table was shaded under an arched rock formation with views of the Arabian Sea. A few days were on some of the best beaches in the world, one was sat under the shade of trees in a ravine, another in the shade of dragon blood trees up on the plateau. Every lunch was a feast of rice or pasta, vegetables, fish or chicken, beans, fruit, and tea. This was repeated in the evenings for dinner although we had no idea where we were as we would randomly pull off the road into a pitch-black desert or beach with nothing much else other than the stars overhead. Socotra it seems is definitely the place for a lot of alfresco dining. 

As usual I had no idea what to expect which in this instance was excellent because apparently we never stuck to the itinerary. The ‘capital’ Hadiboh, is a collection of rubble, shops, rubbish, and mosques, with the mountains rising up behind the town and the crystal waters of the Arabian Sea ahead. The town is empty during the day, partly due to the heat but mostly because of Ramadan. As soon as fast is broken at sunset the whole town bursts into life, workshops and stores spill out onto the streets, cars queue from the one petrol station, volleyball matches spring up in the middle of the road. Yes volleyball, they love it here and is played by all age’s day and night. I don’t think I saw a football kicked. Along the coastal road, huge sand dunes can be seen sweeping up the side of the mountains, and stunning beaches, most deserted, are nearly as common as goats on the island. As with many Arabic countries, elaborate walls have been built in the middle of nowhere that neither enclose nor protect anything in particular and have already begun falling into disrepair. Driving up into the mountains delivers you on top of a large plateau that stretches out for as far as the eye can see. A few villages, trees, bushes, and goats can be found here, but otherwise it’s a land of rock. This is strange because Socotra is renowned for its flora and fauna with 37% of it found nowhere else on earth. Great ravines are carved out of the plateau that lead down to the coast offering breath-taking views, incredible hiking, and blissful escape. It’s hot, blistering hot, higher up but especially so on the coast where all I wanted to do was enjoy the ocean and the beach, but all the sun wanted to do was turn me into a melanoma awareness campaign. We visited a coral reef and went snorkelling where we could see all the usual bobbins associated with such places and I was lucky enough to see a turtle. I was smart, keeping my t-shirt on knowing my back would burn to a crisp otherwise. The very next day I jumped in for a leisurely splash around, top off, too lazy to put sun cream on my chest which became barbequed within 10 minutes. Not far from the main port there is a grounded gas tanker which has started to decay in the tropical waters, a sure warning of what will become of me if I don’t start taking the sun here a little more seriously. Yet more so, the ship symbolises an island that has been forgotten and left behind by the rest of the world, and like all great hidden gems only recently noticed for strategic importance or a source of income by outsiders. The scrap between modernisation and protection is only just beginning for this incredible island. 

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