Socotra – Yemen
The novelty of bouncing around off-road wears off after some years which only someone who has been lucky enough to experience plenty of it can say, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love it. Our first day on Socotra found us climbing up a rocky mountain pass that apparently led to nowhere other than epic views down to the coast and our first sighting of the famous dragon blood trees. Typically, as the track started to level out, a small random village appeared where we parked up and were greeted by a young lad who would walk us down a dried-up riverbed and back down the mountain to the coast. Little did we know what awaited us. It was impossible to put the camera down as various trees sprouted up from the rock in all manner of weird shapes and sizes. The dragon blood trees I can’t actually describe well. The trunk branches out upwards, a little like a river delta, the branches looking like the limbs of a chubby baby and ending with a head of leaves. It’s easy to get lost in awe of a single dragon blood tree but looking up the sides of the valley revealed many more majestically blending into the arid surroundings. Other trees that resemble little baobabs have burst into life from solid rock; they cling to mountains, riverbeds and boulders, seemingly gaining strength from the rock that they appear to consume and grow in. The riverbed abruptly stopped against a sheer face of rock. In front was a small pool of clear water, behind was an approximately 500 metre drop where flood waters would tumble during the monsoon. A spectacular hike took us past some idiot with their Bluetooth speaker blaring out tunes, and down to the coast where we hopped back into the cars and headed on to the eastern tip of the island where the Arabian Sea meets with the Indian Ocean. Tiptoeing around the thousands of dead puffer fish washed up onto the pristine beaches, I felt reinvigorated that I can still visit somewhere and be blown away by it. Any anxieties, grievances, or stress appeared to drift away into the Indian Ocean as I contemplated if this was the best place I had ever visited.
The following day saw us on the road early in order to miss the worse of the heat although the effort was futile. As our guide and drivers parked up under some shade and went to sleep in an effort to deal with fasting under such conditions, we were told to follow a path up the side of the mountain until we reached a cave. The path was rocky, covered with bush and few trees that could provide any meaningful shade from the blistering 8am sun. However, a gentle breeze mitigated some of the heat and the scenery became more impressive with every step up the track. The top of the cliffs looked like they were covered in murky ice although anyone who knows anything about rocks would probably say its limestone. For a layman like myself, such a defined layer of limestone rock looked quite impressive. The majority of the mountain was made up of a more reddish rock which contrasted beautifully with the opal blue of the Arabian Sea. The entrance to the cave was enormous and a sign of what was to come. Only half of our group of six ventured inside with a young guide, armed with nothing other than torches and low expectations; it would be an hour before we returned to daylight. I would be quite confident that the word cavernous originated from this more than impressive hole in the ground. No doubt one day this cave will be lit up like a Christmas tree as a stream of tourists trample in and out but for now, there are few. We walked into the dark for an age, expecting the cave to narrow and come to an end but no, just as it looked to be lessening, the whole system opened back up into a huge chamber that none of our touches could sufficiently illuminate. Stood at the end of the path, just three of us and the boy guide in almost utter darkness, it was difficult not to keep thoughts at bay about what was above us and how safe this monstrous cave was. Irrational thoughts of course considering the place is probably millennia old, but nonetheless, I was happy to breath fresh air and to see the beauty of the outside world once again.
Another drive up onto the plateau delivered more spectacular views of rocks, nothingness, and canyons. Pulling off the sealed road we passed through yet another random village which looked even more pointless and out of place than the villages by the sea. There was little water to be seen and no food growing. The cows and goats looked well fed but I only ever saw them licking rocks. We got out to take some photos of the stunning canyon that ran below the village and were immediately surrounded by children, all quite adorable, all quite grubby, all inquisitive. There were no adults to be seen resulting in the feeling of arriving at Neverland. How their lives would turn out is anyone’s guess, but for the girls especially, with the draconian constraints of adulthood yet to apply, it was wonderful to see the kids just being kids and having what appeared to be a whole island to play on and explore. We continued on, driving down into a canyon on a road that seemed utterly pointless yet extremely good fun. I get the feeling an enterprising westerner stood at the top muttering the words ‘yeap, gimme $10,000 and a bulldozer and I’ll get that done for ya’. Once at the bottom, we headed straight back up the other side which delivered us to the dragon blood tree forest. I’m not sure what the difference was between here and other parts of the island. Admittedly there were a few more trees but the scenery wasn’t drastically different. Here we went for a walk through the forest, disappointing only because it wasn’t long enough and more time was spent under the shade of the trees eating lunch, resting, and taking in the immense views. The dragon blood tree is of course endangered. High monsoon winds can take their toll, they are slow growing, and the not so native goat takes great joy in eating any young tree that dares to emerge. It’s easy to blame climate on everything, and although human induced, more direct negative impacts such as the humble goat may be a faster fix when trying to protect the environment. Thankfully we got half an hour to explore the canyon floor. Again, it would have been great to spend a good part of the day hiking through it. One side was always cool and shaded, the sound of flowing water in an otherwise barren landscape was novel, and every time I reached a landmark, I was keen to press on to see what lay ahead. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and with a fast to break we turned for home in a race to beat the setting sun.
The beaches surrounding the island are likely some of the best in the world, certainly some of the best, if not the best I’ve seen. However, our guide was particularly excited about our last day which involved an hour’s drive to the island’s second largest town where we would hop in a boat that would take us another hour along the coast. The rocky coastline was impressive enough but more so was the water which required no snorkelling gear to see below the surface. Just siting from the boat, stingrays and fish could be seen, and for a brief moment we saw a small pod of spinner dolphins. Our final destination was yet another incredible beach. There were several boatloads of tourists coming and going all the while but there was nothing on the beach, no bars, restaurants, or hawkers, it was true unadulterated paradise. With a bit of preparation involving a picnic and some shade it would have been the perfect place to spend the day but alas we only had the pleasure of 90 minutes before we were back on the boat speeding back towards town. We were rewarded though, passing a larger pod of probably 100 spinner dolphins, and following them for a good 15 minutes before they saw sense and turned to go in the opposite direction to us. The dolphins appeared to take great pleasure in jumping clear out of the water, pirouetting, and continuing with whatever they were up to. It took every ounce of strength to put the camera away and just enjoy the scene instead of stressing about getting the perfect photo or video.
The reason for leaving the beach in good time was to visit a caveman who apparently featured in a BBC programme. The chap was around 60, supposedly lived in a coastal cave, and dined from the sea. Most travel advice states it is best to avoid eating anything while travelling abroad, especially all fresh food and essentially anything that may have been handled by the natives (their implied words, not mine). This is less than practical unless in a beach resort. Our driver bought a bag of berries from some children on the side of the road and insisted I eat some even though he was still fasting. It would be rude to say know, and besides, I survived. Our very first night saw salad served and I didn’t think twice about chowing that down, survived. The caveman wondered off into the lagoon, grabbed a razor clam, prized it open, chopped the flesh into something that looked edible and then offered it to us. How could I refuse? He then went to the oysters that adorned the rocks, beat the crap out of a couple, fished out the meat, washed it off in the sea, and offered them up. Again, not wanting to be rude I took hold of one of the slimy critters and knocked it back. Afterall, it’s not every day you get to eat seafood quite so fresh. I then spent the next 24 hours terrified I had ruined my clean bill of health for the week and would spend the flight back to Abu Dhabi destroying the plane’s toilet. Guess what, I survived! This plays a major role in determining how much I like a country as getting sick ultimately tarnishes the experience. I started the week thinking Socotra was the best place I have ever visited, and I finish thinking it is definitely in the top 10. It is nigh on impossible to have a number one. There is no doubt that Socotra is unique with incredible beaches and landscapes, and it looked after me throughout. Its isolation is a saviour for people like me but maybe more of a curse for the locals trying to get on with life. However, as one of the few places in the world where I can lie on a tropical beach and not hear reggaeton blasting from a cocktail bar, that surely has to be a priceless experience.
Check out the tour here