Socotra, Yemen (part 1) – Dragon blood trees, dunes and dolphins

I had been planning to go to Socotra for a while.  It’s a bonkers place – very unusual trees, a remote location, very devout muslims, no wifi or 3g, no government, no rubbish collection, and not much in the way of women’s rights.  It is bloody hard to get to – flights go on Monday from Abu Dhabi (sometimes) and Aden (much of the time) and that is it.    We figured out a way to get there via Dubai and crossed our fingers that they flights would go, and more importantly the flight would come back…..

Day 1 – the mosh pit of Socotra airport and a swim at Delisha

We flew to Dubai and then took an Uber to the premier inn at Abu Dhabi airport.  Our ticket said the flight was at 5.30am, so we got up at the ungodly hour of 3.30 and were surprised not to be able to find the flight.  A phone call to the agency confirmed that our flight was actually at noon, so we begged for our room back at the premier inn and got a few more hours sleep.  We were surprised to see so many tourists – about 100 in total – at check in.  But there is only one flight a week and 25 of them were in one group, so I guess we were unlikely to be overcrowded

The flight landed, and Steph and I got to the mosh pit that was immigration first (creative seat requests at the front of the plane and fast footwork when disembarking).      There was one desk and two officers and one guard on a security scanner.  The copy of your visa is insufficient to get through immigration so you have to shout through the one security scanner to find your guide with the original of your visa and squeeze your way through to get it and then push back past the guard to the immigration desk.

We found Ali, and managed to fight our way back to the head of the queue to the desk to get stamped, as by this time the whole flight had disgorged into a manic shouty queue.   We headed out of the tiny airport, met Ahmed (our excellent driver), and headed to Hadibo to the best hotel in Socotra – the summerland.   It wasn’t flash – but it was clean enough and apparently has hot water most of the time.  The wifi was nostalgically like dial up when it was available.  There is no 3G available on the island as foreigners can’t buy SIM cards – but apparently we could have bought eti salat SIM card from Dubai which might have give us some data.  No matter, it was nice to have a bit less email than normal.  

Hadibo is a rubbish dump, and a quiet one today with everyone high on kyat and passed out as Ramadan finished the day before we arrived.  We had a siesta for an hour and then headed off to Delisha beach.  We went for a stroll, tried and failed to scale the enormous sand dune, and then went for a swim in a patch of the beach without rubbish.  (No one here sees the plastic or rubbish, and municipal rubbish collection depends on the highly intermittent funding from the emirates, as Yemen hasn’t sent any money since the war began) 

Ali and Ahmed then made us a carb-y dinner of fries and ‘pasta’ (actually more like pot noodles) to eat on the beach, and then we headed home for an early night 

Day 2 – Diksam plateau and Firmihan forest 

It wasn’t a restful night.  Prayers went off at around 3.30am, and the sun rose at about 4.30 easily penetrating the flimsy curtains.  The AC was battling hard to keep us cool, but the respite from the heat came with a cacophonous hum.    I made myself coffee in the room (so grateful I packed a kettle), and we headed down to breakfast at 7.  Most of the shops were closed so Taha was apologetic about the lack of breakfast – but we were pretty happy with pancakes, boiled eggs and coffee. 

We headed off at 7.30 along the coast, stopping a few times for supplies.  We picked up some fish, which added a distinctive odour to the land rover.   Both stephane and I were quietly hoping the fish were not for lunch (fortunately they turned out to be a gift for the family at Firmihan).   

We put on some excellent Arabic tunes (it’s easy to sing along with ‘ya habibi’ (‘yes baby’), rolled the windows down and cruised up to the stunning Diksam plateau.   We stopped for a scramble up the hillside to take some photos of the bottle trees (the ‘fat ones with flowers on their heads’ as I call them), and Steph discovered some enormous local spiders.

The famous Socotran dragon trees started appearing and while I wanted to stop to take photos, I was pretty sure that Ali was waiting for the good ones.  We left the tarmac at Diksam homestay and bounced down into the Wadi Dirhur and the grunted up to Firmihan forest, picking up our local 14 year old guide Mohammed en route.   Firmihan is spectacular – the largest collection of dragon trees in the world.   We did a short sweaty hike to the viewpoint, having an amusing discussion with our guide Ali as we went.   All the obvious topics for a Muslim country – do we have kids? No.  Do we have a cat instead? Yes (he thought hilarious that tourists often have cats not kids).  He giggled when he told us that he had had two gay husbands as tourists – he thought that two men sleeping together could be plausible, but lesbians made no sense.  We asked if it was ok to be gay in Socotra – and he said no they would have to hide it, but he did say he knew of a man who had changed sex.  (Given womens rights, or lack thereof, in Yemen, changing to become a woman seems nuts to me).  

It was hot, so we headed back down to the wadi and went for a dip in the water while Ahmed cooked.   I sat too still in the water reading my book on my phone and staying cool until a crab bit my butt.    Lunch was excellent chicken and rice with lots of sweet tea. The vultures and goats did a great job cleaning up our leftovers.

After lunch we retired up the hill for more tea under a dragon blood tree.  This was a picnic spot for the locals – who were assembled in family groups next to their Toyota hiluxes.   Women and babies in one group, men in the other.  We wandered around and got offered tea and dates.  The clouds had rolled in so it was cooler, and it was hilarious to watch the vultures surrounding the picnics.  We were quite the fascination to the local kids who timidly came close and shouted their English words at us and were amused when I responded with the same in Arabic – especially after they told me they loved me in English :-).   Further up the hill were groups of men who were celebrating Eid chewing enormous amounts of kyat and drinking tea.  They all waved. 

After a few hours of relaxation and tea drinking and vulture watching we headed along the gorge taking some lovely photos in the afternoon light (the sun goes down here at 5.30pm).  We stopped at Kibanis house in Diksam for a very milky chai and a chat and then meandered back to Hadibo stopping from time to time to take photos of the setting sun.

Dinner was an excellent goat curry with a family sized naan from a fiery tandoor served beside a dusty road on the way to Hadibo.  Fresh squeezed lime juice was served by a teenager who gave me extra limes and told me I was cute.  We were joined for dinner by an actual goat who decided to jump on the table for the leftovers.  The clientele were all men (including the staff), but they were either friendly or disinterested which is better than the stares I have gotten in other countries.    I was wearing a headscarf as you never see socotri women uncovered.  I had discussed with Ali who said it was up to me, but it would be appreciated if I wore a headscarf in towns and villages but no problem to be in a swimsuit on a beach with tourists.   Dinner was hilariously chaotic and it is fine to shout loudly at any member of staff when you want something.  Most conversations here at held at a volume which would make you think they are talking in a loud nightclub – they are not – but the volume is friendly and enthusiastic if hard to adjust to 

Day 3- Shuab, Qalansiya and the Detwar Lagoon

We got up at the ungodly hour of 5.30 to head out to Qalansiya at 6am to ensure we saw the spinner dolphins.   

We arrived at Qalansiya with moderate hopes.  It had been billed as a less scruffy and more authentic Socotran town than Hadibo – I guess that was technically true.  It did have relatively traditional architecture.  It also has a lot of rubbish!   We pulled up on the beach and were inundated by kids. 

We arranged a boat with a skipper and his brother and headed off to shu’ab.  It was choppy and windy and quite bumpy.  However the trip was entirely worth it the dodgy boat as we met the resident school of spinner dolphins.   I gave up trying to take a photo and just enjoyed the show.  Up to 6 of them leaping out of the water at the time – there must have been about 30, and a couple of the dolphins did amazing somersaults. 

We arrived at the deserted beach of Shu’ab and had shakshuka and bread, with more chai for breakfast.  We then went for a swim and wandered down the beach throwing an amazing starfish back into the water as we went.   Two more boats came in with eight more tourists – hardly crowded.   More tea (there really is a lot of lying around and drinking tea) and then we headed back to town.  My little buddy Ahmed –  who I had fed breakfast – finally summoned up the courage to ask me my name on the way back o the boat – super cute. 

In Qalansiya we drove around looking for cold drinks (effectively this means shouting out the window at shopkeepers to see what they had) ad then we went up to take a look at the view down to the Detwah lagoon.  It was lovely from a distance.  After taking the 4wd down to the beach, it looked less lovely, with lots of rubbish and lean tos for camping.   I asked if we could swim in the lagoon – but apparently it is quite polluted.  Hmmm.   

Like all the tourists to the island, we went to see Abdullah Aliyah – the man who lives in the cave above the lagoon.   He cooks lunch for visitors – but I was wary of eating stingray, mussels and squid from the polluted lagoon.   We had another four cups of chai and admired the view from his cave (which apparently protected him and his family well during the two recent cyclones), and listened to his stories. (an article on him here)

It was a sweaty stroll back to the main lagoon, so we had more tea and another lie down, before driving back to Hadibo – stopping to look at the sand dunes, then a natural lake and some old Russian tanks on the way.   

Dinner was at the best restaurant in Socotra (same as last night) and was chicken, beans, bread, lime juice and more chai…..  

Day 4 – To the south of the island

It was so hot this morning when we left the room that I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. It was like walking out into 20 hair dryers being blasted on high in my face.  Breakfast was eggs, bread and more pancakes and a lot of Nescafe.   And then we headed east out of Hadibo and had a leisurely drive down a lovely wadi from the top to the bottom of the island.  It was delightful – lovely villages, no rubbish, spectacular trees, steep red cliffs and fantastic rocks.   We stopped near Daria for some chai and a swim in the river – which I had entirely to myself.   It was stunning.  Once out and having had a nice cup of tea, 8 4wds turned up and disgorged a horde of tourists in very short shorts, so we hastily beat a retreat.   

The south coast of Socotra is a wind blasted place with spectacular dunes, great caves and rock formations, and not a lot of people or water.    Many of the villages here were destroyed during the recent cyclones so the Emiratis have built concrete housing blocks for the locals.  We had a leisurely lunch and a long siesta in a palm hut and then climbed up the Zaheq dunes to look out of the Indian Ocean.   

Next stop the Dageb cave which had lovely views out over the ocean, and then we went for a walk along Aomak beach to admire the fishing boats.   We returned to Hadibo via the Diksam plateau which had perfect light for photographing the stunning Haggehof mountain range. 

Dinner was at the usual – beans and fish this time, with more of the excellent local bread.  I am now on first name basis with Mohammed the juice guy and Nafa the tea guy.   It is like eating at your own house.  

Mohammed the juice guy

Part 2 to follow ….

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