A Tale of an
December in the Yemeni island of Socotra
Socotra is a little island about 500km off the coast of Yemen close to Somalia. An exciting destination for December with temperatures in the 30s, deserted white sandy beaches and the strangest flora and fauna you’ve ever seen. Socotra contains approximately 250 species that are found nowhere else on earth.
In Socotra, they had their own language that I couldn’t vaguely understand, as well as Arabic, albeit in the strangest high pitch barking accent that was near impossible to understand also. We got by with Arabic and had lots of banter with the driver who gave us friendly warnings of the stingrays lurking beneath the sands. I learnt that the word for stingray in Arabic is ‘Abu Sefen’, literally meaning father of the boat. Causing me to tread carefully whilst getting in and out of the sea, Riyadh, our driver, giggled at my fear. When I asked him if they wear dangerous, he said “Yes they will kill you, at all times”. Brilliant.
Then came the encounters with the Dragon Blood trees (Dumm al Ikhwan, in Arabic. Literally ‘Blood of the Brothers’). This magical species, along with the crazy cucumber trees, made the scene look like something out of Alice in Wonderland, only missing the fat shisha-smoking caterpillar. The Dragon Blood tree produces a red amber type sap traditionally used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes.
Far away from the troubles of the mainland, Socotra tourism suffers from the negative image now given to Yemen in terms of security. It has been the fighting with the Houthis and the government in Sa’ada in the North of Yemen that has caused the biggest instability in the country in recent years. However, it is reported that this has been taken under control and there has been a ceasefire since early last year. Despite this, the government still seem to be taking security very seriously, and since my last visit to Yemen in 2009, they have made it a lot more difficult to enter and move around the country. President Saleh regularly makes parts of the country out of bounds to tourists but also Yemenis in a bid to eliminate security incidences. Unfortunately this also included journalists making it difficult to really know what is going on in these parts.
The end of our journey took us on a boat road. Possibly the scariest thing I have ever done in my entire life. It all started out so idyllically hopping on to a little dhow fishing boat. Then the driver tells us in Arabic that it will be a little bumpy for a while. And bumpy it was! I couldn’t see the horizon beyond the waves towering over the boat. There were huge waves attacking the boat from all directions, and I was convinced I would go overboard as I came crashing down hitting the surface of the sea. Clinging on for dear life I was acutely aware of two things (1) the lack of life jackets on the little wooden boat and (2) the lack of anywhere to swim to safety, being surrounded by the sheer rock faces of the island. Luckily the driver of the boat was highly skilled (apart from the fact that the engine fuel lead kept falling off, causing the engine to cut out), and so he managed to navigate us through the monstrous swell back to the safety of calmer waters. It was here were got to see the dolphins swimming happily in the warm, crystal, still waters, in stark contrast to the dark waters we had just come from.
So that was the end of the Socotran adventure. All in all, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.