Socotra, Yemen

Photo: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This time, you’re off to Yemen. Seriously. You have a look of disbelief on your face. It’s understandable. Lately, news surrounding this Arabian Peninsula country focuses on terrorist training camps or maybe Somali pirates using it as a refueling station. But that’s the mainland. You’re going 250 miles offshore to a small archipelago where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean.

This archipelago and its largest island share the same name: Socotra. Evidence shows that sailors visited the island as early as the 1st century BC. Though many tried to conquer Socotra, no one stayed due to its inhospitable desert climate with long periods of extreme heat and drought followed by a monsoon season. The indigenous Socotris remained extremely isolated for thousands of years, and the island only became a Yemeni territory in 1967.

So why would you visit Socotra? Because one-third of its plants and animals aren’t found anywhere else on earth. Only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galápagos Islands have a higher percentage. Because the island looks much like it did hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of years ago. The coastal plains, the limestone plateaus, the karst caves, and the Haghier Mountains remain undeveloped and, in some cases, even unexplored. Because it’s absolutely beautiful.

Photo: Email4mobile [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Email4mobile [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You arrive in Hadibu, the main town on the northern coast. The small buildings, along the dusty streets, are made of stone. The Socotris are fishermen, goat herders, and date farmers. And the few tourists are Italians heading to the beaches, and French and Germans planning to hike in the mountains. You plan to do both.

Head inland, to Ayhaft Canyon. At the national park, swim in Wadi Ayhaft, a large, freshwater pool. You’re already in need of a respite from the heat. Hike Haghier Mountain, the island’s tallest peak. Look for Socotra Starlings and Socotra Sunbirds on your way up. Drive to Diksam Plateau to see hundreds of dragon blood trees. The umbrella-shaped trees produce red sap, known for its medicinal purposes. Visit Dogub cave to see stalactites, stalagmites, and a nearby Bedouin village. Then make your way to Aomak Beach. The endless beach has blindingly white sand and massive dunes against the Indian Ocean. There’s no rush. This is where you’re spending the night. Eat grilled fish, flat bread, and oranges for dinner. Camp under the stars. And fall asleep to the sound of small waves breaking on the shore.

In the morning, head east. Hoq cave has ancient writing on its walls and a rim pool. Roush, a protected marine area, has a pristine reef that attracts barracudas, monkfish, and dolphins. Or travel west to the remote beaches: Detwah, Qalansiyah, and Shuab. There are more ghost crabs than people here. Swirling sand, surf-worthy waves, shady caves, and calm lagoons make this one of the most picturesque places in the Middle East, if not the world. You’re still in disbelief, but for a completely different reason.

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