The island that time forgot
Written by and photography Steve Davey
For some six million years, since it split from the mainland, Socotra has developed into a biodiversity hotspot. Only the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii have more endemic species.
And while Galapagos might have more animal species, in Socotra, you get to see a virtually unspoilt island, and experience a vibrant and welcoming culture.
From the Romans to the ancient Greeks, through to explorers like Abu Muhammad Al-Hassan Al-Hamdani and Marco Polo, the remote island of Socotra lay on an important trade route. It was a source of medicinal ‘dragon’s blood’ – that was used by Roman gladiators – and where frankincense and myrrh were cultivated. The Portuguese tried to set up a fort, and, in the 19th century, the island became a British protectorate. There are even theories that the name Socotra is derived from the phrase ‘island of bliss’ in the Sanskrit of the Indian sub-continent, rather than from Arabic.
In more recent history, Socotra largely slipped into obscurity. Visiting biologists realised its importance, but it wasn’t until the airport was built in 1999, and the archipelago inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008, that the stage was set for a relative eco-tourism boom. People now had heard about the island, realised it was special, and wanted to visit.
Before the construction of the airport, the only way to reach the island was on a three-day ocean voyage by cargo ship from the mainland. Less than 140 visitors a year made it. During the monsoon – from June to October – when strong winds blow for weeks on end, the island was effectively cut off. Although there are now daily flights from the mainland, and visitor numbers have climbed into the low thousands, the island still suffers from the monsoon. Very little food is grown on the island and much is brought in by ship. By the end of the monsoon, provisions are often running low and the range of food becomes somewhat limited. Last year a ship carrying diesel was taken by Somali pirates, causing electricity shortages.
Socotra (sometimes called Suqutra) is actually an archipelago of four islands, with Socotra Island being by far the largest. It lies 386km from mainland Yemen, but closer to the Horn of Africa. Almost a fifth of the 50,000 population live in the dusty main town of Hadibu. The second town is Qalansiyah on the west coast.
There is almost no public transport on Socotra: the only way to explore is with a private 4WD vehicle. There are a number of travel companies on the mainland offering tours of the island, but you should be ready for some rough roads, and camping is the only option if you are going to get outside of the main towns. Much of the centre of Socotra is taken up with a high limestone plateau and the Haghier Mountains, which rise to around 1,525m.
They are often enveloped in a misty shroud, which gives the highlands a completely different climate to the arid plain circling the island. It is greener, even during the arid summer months, and travelling during this time gives you the widest contrasts of desert and lush vegetation.
The people of the highlands live in isolated villages, many in deep fertile valleys in the central mountains. Created from the rocks that litter the landscape, their houses are low and square, often huddled together in walled compounds to shelter from the monsoon winds.
Although the people of Socotra speak Socotri – an ancient Semitic language – they are steeped in the traditions of Arabic hospitality. If you travel around the rugged interior of the island you will often be invited to share food, and even sleep in their small settlements.
A symbol of the island, Dragon’s Blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari), so called for their red sap, can be found in abundance at Fermhin, where a steep hillside is covered
in these ancient-looking trees.
Another tree seen all over the island is the strangely-shaped Bottle Tree, or Socotra Desert Rose (Adenium obesum). This has a distinctive, bulbous trunk that resembles the distended leg of an elephant. These trees seem to grow everywhere, and can often be seen clinging to steep cliffs like watching sentinels. After the monsoon rains, the Bottle Tree blossoms with vivid pink flowers.
There are also forests of frankincense trees, the largest of which is on the hot plateau at Homhil. The dried sap of these trees gives off a strong fragrance when burnt, which ancient Egyptians used to ensure spirits of the dead passed to the afterlife. Inscriptions tell of farmed terraces of frankincense trees.
Socotra is not a traditional beach holiday destination, but there are some spectacular beaches here. The shallow Detwah lagoon, just outside Qalansiyah, is usually deserted but for the odd traditional fishing boat. The small, coloured-pebble beach at the Dihamri marine protected area drops sharply down to a coral reef, which offers terrific snorkelling and diving. A small open-sided shelter has been constructed to allow the few visitors to sleep outdoors, overlooking the lapping waves.
The most spectacular beach is at Erher (sometimes called Arher). Miles of white sand extend along shallow turquoise water, in which pods of dolphins are often seen swimming up and down the deserted beach, languidly hunting for fish. Eroded rocks contrast with the sand, and the beach is backed by soaring cliffs that form the vast limestone plateau, which is embraced along its base by a mountainous dune of fine white sand.
Set into the foot of cliffs close to Erher, and reached by a hot and dusty climb up a steep hillside, is the Huq cave. An immense chasm leading back some three kilometres into the rock, the cave is surprisingly airy and non-claustrophobic. Large numbers of stalactites and stalagmites form a surreal underground maze.
From the gaping mouth of the cave, you can look down the steep hillside peppered by Bottle Trees to the waters of the Arabian Sea that once brought so many visitors to this incredible island.
The first inhabitants of Socotra were from the early stone age, and some of their tools have recently been discovered. The island was literally put on the map
by the 1st century Greek navigational aid, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Legend has it that the islanders were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in AD 52, when he was shipwrecked
en route to India. Certainly, when the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad Al-Hassan Al-Hamdani visited in the
10th century he wrote that the island was populated by Christians. Socotra was also visited in the 13th century by Marco Polo, who wrote about the islanders’ supposed supernatural abilities in The Travels of Marco Polo.
The most characteristic of all of the endemic plant species on Socotra is the Dragon’s Blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). Resembling a succulent umbrella blown inside out by the wind, this tree is concentrated in a number of straggly forests.