Socotra Yemen part 2 – Hiking and Wadi swimming

Day 5 Hoq Cave, Arher beach  and Ras  Erissel

I was looking forward to today – a hike uphill to the very deep Hoq Cave.  Many of the tourists skip it in may due to the heat, and the guide book said it was about 2 hours to get there, but also that it was 3km and 350m of hiking to the cave entrance, so I was pretty confident we would get there in an hour or less.   We parked at a village and there were three women there in full black abbayas who were also planning to hike.   I kept a headscarf and skirt on for the first 100m and the stuffed them in my bag when out of sight of the ladies as It was ferociously hot.  I was in shorts and t-shirt and was soaking wet after 20 minutes.  But the views were absolutely stunning.  And there were lots of gorgeous bottle trees in flower as well as Stercula Africana.  Our local guide Abdullah bounded up the mountain, and we only stopped for a short break in the shade, and I made it to the top in 47 minutes with Steph a few minutes behind.   It was very hot.  The cave was enormous, with excellent stalagtites ad stalagmites, but the highlight for me was the walk up and down.  However the cave did provide a respite from the heat.   The three Yemeni ladies took a full two hours and change to get up the hill – but they must have been cooking in all the layers of clothing.  They had run out of water so we gave them some and a snack.    When we got back to the car, Ahmed had cooked us lovely fish, rice and potatoes, so we sat in the shade and fended off the goats while eating. 

Next stop was the Arher dunes which were phenomenal.  We stopped as a fresh water creek came through a crack in the dunes and flowed into the ocean.  It was Friday so the beach was ‘crowded’ (probably 50 people) with locals who had come for the night with all the camping gear.   The women didn’t seem to be swimming (and were in full niqabs), but the kids were loving it.   It was definitely the best beach swim of the trip.  

And finally we went to the end of the island to Ras Erissel – a spit of land that is wind blasted by the Indian Ocean to the south and the Arabian ocean to the north.    There were hundreds of dead puffer fish, which are lethal to your feet (even through sandals with their sharp spikes), they die as they like to swim close to the shore but the waves often crash them down on the sea shore.  It was hot and with fiery winds, so we retreated to the AC in the 4wd and meandered back to Hadibo taking photos of some shipwrecks on the way.   Dinner was at the local – chicken, beans, liver and bread, and we made sure the local kitten was well fed and watered (she was fiesty and hissed at the goat)

Day 6 – Killisan, Qaria and Dihamri

Billed as a tough hike, we headed for the best swimming pool on Socotra – in Wadi Killisan.  The trail head was 90 minutes from Hadibo, and while the guide book said it was c. 45 mins each way on a goat track to the pools from the start, it was about 20 mins each way on a well made (by kiwi standards) path, measuring 1.1km each way with 100m of descent/ascent.  There was another car at the trailhead, which was disappointing as meant we might have company, but we met the couple who belonged to the car climbing the trail – which meant we had the pools to ourselves.   Or we did until 5 adorable boys who had walked a couple of hours from a nearby village arrived and started practicing English on us.  The kids here are very low key, they don’t ask for money or anything, and they are happy (in most cases, as I always ask first) to have their photos taken.

We played around in the pools for an hour, swimming, and watching the boys somersault off the steep sides of the wadi.  The Steph and I walked up and down both sides of the wadi taking photos of the waterfalls and the rocks, before swimming again.     We headed up the path at 12.30 and Ahmed had prepared an excellent lunch for us.  The kids were about 20 minutes behind us and were delighted to be the beneficiaries of a lot of leftovers (they didn’t ask, we offered, but they hadn’t bought any food with them, and Ahmed always cooks a lot). 

I had already had a perfect day, but we headed to Dihamri to see the nature reserve.  Sadly there was a lot of rubbish, and it was baking hot, so we passed on snorkelling.   We then headed to Qaria village to take photos of the lagoon and meet some local kids.    

Day 7 Homhil and Hadibo 

It was another baking hot morning and I had an early breakfast and sat in the AC’d reception piggy backing on the managers phones wifi to read the Sunday papers.   Ahmed and Ali arrived at 8 and we did our tour of the local market to buy lunch ingredients.    It is hilarious as Ahmed just drives around shouting out the window what he wants and people bring it – Yemen has drive through/ drive by shopping. 

We headed east and stopped at Ali’s village in Qaria for tea.  I went to the womens room with his mum, wife and two sisters in law and all the kids – about 6 at the beginning and probably 14 by the time I left, as they had all heard about the farangi in the house.  My Arabic is woeful, but we had a lovely chat about Socotra and Ali the guide.  They asked via hand signals why I didn’t have kids and I thought they were asking in hand signals if I wasn’t sleeping with my husband enough ( hand signals in English definitely have different meanings), but it turns out they were asking if I had a husband.   They were impressed when Ali arrived and told them I had a job, and one of his sister in laws remarked that she would love to go to work and have her own money.   They have no electricity, no internet, not much in the way of education, no way of changing their circumstances, but they were wonderfully hospitable, though I did get told I was being haram for not covering my mouth with my scarf when Ali came in the room (only eyes should be showing).  While in town I dress appropriately (head scarf, long pants, long sleeved baggy long shirt), Ali has seen me in a swimsuit, so I wasn’t worried about him seeing my face.  

Next stop we bumped up the homhil plateau.   The 4wd needed all the juice so we had to turn the AC off.  The plateau has all the delights of Socotra – red rock, dragon blood trees, bottle trees and lots of frankincense.   Our local guide Saha (11) took us down the dry river to the infinity pool – a natural rock formation which creates a swimming pool with a view down 700m to the sea.  Unfortunately it was a bit dry, but still enough water for a quick dip.   We then ‘relaxed’ in the shade while the locals cooked our lunch.  

We then headed back to Hadibo to visit the nursery where they are trying to conserve Dragon blood trees for future generations.  The key thing is to keep the goats out of the walls.   We also popped by the women’s centre which supports local women’s enterprise to try and spend some money.  Sadly the bulk of the merchandise was clothes made for locals and large woven baskets.  We bought some things we didn’t need   I made a note to myself to send the NGO a note on improving their range (smaller tourist-oriented purchases) and increase their prices. 

 

We then went shopping in Hadibo, where hubby bought a fouta (the belted skirt the local men wear) and a few scarfs for me (though amusingly I mostly bought the mens ones).   We strolled around taking photos of the Hadibo doors and the amazing amounts of rubbish.  It really doesn’t smell bad here as the rubbish is entirely plastic.  The goats (literally hundreds of them) do an exceptional job eating all of the organic refuse.   But the plastic has nowhere to go……, and o-one even notices it. 

We had our final dinner at Shawarb, and bade farewell to the crew of Mohammed, Nafa and Abood.  They were super friendly kids – ranging from 16 to 24.   They all came to Socotra to escape mainland Yemen and they send money homes to their families.  They work very hard, six days a week, sleep in a communal room at the back of the restaurant and share one bathroom.  For this, they get free food and about $100 a month.  They would all love to go to Europe where they could work hard for more money, but that is an unlikely proposition, so most of them keep smiling, work on their English and try to find joy in the day.    

Additional info 

Socotra is an odd place.  Officially Yemen.  The locals describe themselves as Socotri or from Yemen (but more the southern part).   Civil servants haven’t been paid here regularly for years.  National park rules are regularly infringed with people building in forbidden locations.   Wild goats are everywhere and are destroying many of the endemic plant species (c. 70% of the plant and 90% of the reptile species are only found on Socotra).  Municipal rubbish collection is non existent (and there is rubbish everywhere).  We saw a ten year old with younger kids driving a land rover through town – our guide said that wouldn’t have happened before the war, but now no one enforces most of the rules.  The Emirates and the Saudis would both like to take control.  Both have invested in building schools on the island (often funding two separate schools in a single small village).  However the Emirates seem to be in pole position as they are currently paying the police (at least sporadically and apparently only about usd60 per month) and running the airport and have had local military posts since 2020.  They also run the main petrol station where you have to pay in dirhams (not Yemeni rials).  But effectively it is a lawless state.  What (I think) keeps it together for now is that the 60,000 socotri all know each other and keep the peace and deal with any major issues between themselves. But there have been c 40k immigrants from the mainland who don’t speak the local language and will likely change the culture and norms.   The locals are fiercely proud of their island and their culture, but lots of them would like to try and get work elsewhere.  Even our hard working guide and driver only work 4 months of the year, as there is no tourists for much of the year (weather and the planes don’t fly) .  But they can’t leave Yemen – visas are hard to come by.   European countries apparently need proof of wealth, but no Yemeni will put their money in Yemens banks as they aren’t reliable (and they store currency in USD at 1/3 of the freely available black market rate).  It will be interesting to see what happens over the coming decade.   

If I came again, I would do more hiking.  I would come in October or March, bring a good free standing tent (with a 100% mesh inner), a water filter and some dehydrated meals.  There are no gas canisters here but you can buy fuel for an alcohol stove.  Good hikes would be up the Wadi Killisan from Khor Matyaf (water available from the wadi), and also the route described in the camel trek in the Bradt guide (though you wouldn’t need camels as you could filter water and carry your own gear).   

We stayed in Hadibo every night as Steph isn’t a fan of camping.  Having seen the rubbish at the ‘campsites’, the quality of the tents and in many cases the absence of fresh water to swim in, I would definitely not do the camping tours – but lots of big tour groups seem to enjoy it.

We bought the Bradt guide to Socotra – you don’t really need a guide, but it was nice to read and get some background.   Also hats off to the authors who were respectively 78 and 81 when they camped their way around the island to write the guide. 

Hadibo, 9 May 2022

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 ….

Iraq 3 – Baking in Basra

The birthplace of writing in Uruk

En route to Nasiriyah we stopped at Uruk – the most important archaeological site in Mesopotamia, a Sumerian city state founded 7000 years ago. There is not much to see as most of the city hasn’t yet been excavated (though the nazis did come in the 30s to build a train line to move excavated earth and help with looting the artefacts they stole which now reside in the Berlin museum). We saw the ziggurat and one of the excavated temples. Some of the temple bricks still have the lapis lazuli glazing that was put in 4000 years ago. Uruk was the first place writing was invented (with cuneiform evolving from the temples recording donations). There are cones (for making walls) and pottery fragments everywhere.

Ur – birthplace of the biblical Abraham

Ur is apparently where Abraham was born, and is now quite famous as the Pope visited last year. The guard was grumpy as he had been enjoying a ramadan nap, which we disturbed. It was a lovely site, with a huge ziggurat which has been well restored.

The marshes of the Mahdan

The extensive marshlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates are peopled by the Mahdan or Marsh Arabs who are a hardy and cheerful bunch. The area has suffered greatly in the last few decades, with Saddam getting revenge on the Shia, Iranian Army and Iraqi rebels who were hiding in the marshes and the Mahdan who were sheltering them during the Iraq-Iran War. He had extensive damns built which drained the marshes and ruined their way of life. The damns were destroyed when Saddam was overthrown and the marshes are slowly coming back, but progress is slow given climate change and changes Turkey is making up river.

We met the famous Abu Haida in Chibaiyash at the community reed house and then headed out in his boat to go round the marshes. It was a stifling hot morning and it was delightful to have the breeze. We stopped at a families house for lunch. Abu Haida made us an excellent mazgouf (fish on the fire) and we ate sparingly so the kids of the family (who weren’t fasting) could have a good lunch also. They make their living off the waterbuffalo and the marshes provide most of what they need. They were a lovely family, and it was a nice way to spend a few hours, in spite of the flies.

The history of the marshes is very interesting – some background here, here and here

The garden of eden

On the way to Basra we stopped off at Al Qurna, the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which is apparently the legendary Garden of Eden.