The Island Time Forgot
“Imagine a land that time forgot. A land of mountains with tooth-like pinnacles enveloped in cloud. A place where the vegetation is completely unfamiliar and the people speak a language only known to them. A surreal landscape steeped in mystery and legend where Sinbad landed to find the Rukh, the giant eagle bird that could carry an elephant in its talons. This is Socotra.”
I smiled at Hassan with wry amusement. Having spent the last week with him in mainland Yemen I had come to know him well, and enjoy his passion for story-telling and his descriptive powers. I granted him his poetic license and looked down on the dark choppy waters of the Red Sea far below.
And then I caught my first glimpse of the island; less prosaic perhaps, but no less dramatic and beautiful than Hassan had just described. The dazzling clear waters of Qalansiya lagoon surrounded by brilliant white sands penetrated deep into the darker waters of the sea. An imposing escarpment, shrouded in a bank of long white cloud, towered hundreds of metres over the coastline like medieval battlements. Below me lay images straight from an ancient secret map, a smorgasbord of topographical features painted in a rich African red, seared by sandy coloured river beds.
It was spectacular. It was prehistoric. But was it the paradise that had been alluded to in the scarce amount of literature that I could find on the island?
“It’s like a market in here,” quipped Hassan as we entered the small unfinished terminal building to be inundated by the babbling, bleating greetings of the Socotrans. Their strangulated, staccato bursts of conversation felt straight out of the souq, which, judging by the amount of luggage emerging from the plane, was somewhere they had evidently spent a lot of time.
Perhaps the amount of luggage was unsurprising. Throughout history the island has suffered from severe isolation due to its remote geographical position, being some five hundred kilometres to the south-east of the mainland, and on account of the fact that it is impossible to access for half of the year due to monsoon winds. Such inaccessibility has deprived the islanders, some 60,000 in total, of basic needs like health, education and water. Thus they are much poorer and less developed than on the mainland, depending on government hand outs and money remitted from family working abroad. Paradise without doctors, without medicine and cut off from the rest of the world for half the year.
It is this geographical isolation that has led to high levels of endemism and to Socotra being described as the Galapagos Islands of the Red Sea. The island does have very rich bird and plant life – over 210 species of bird have been recorded nine of which are endemic whilst it is even richer in plants with over 900 species of which an incredible 300 are found nowhere else in the world.
Although the Galapagos has only a slightly higher percentage of endemism of plants at 42% it is perhaps misleading to compare Socotra to the Galapagos – Socotra does not have the mesmerising draw of animals that have no fear of humans. Had Charles Darwin landed here in 1835 rather than in the Galapagos, he would have written a hugely interesting thesis but he would not have become the household name that he is today.
Admittedly, botanists rank Socotra in the top ten islands in the world. But to promote it to tourists ‘as the Galapagos Islands’ is marketing hope (sic). That is not to say that Socotra is not worth visiting. Oh no.
The island is undoubtedly strikingly, hauntingly beautiful. Driving east – Socotra is some 120 by 45 kilometres - the landscape was parched and dry. A challenging environment for vegetation and to cope with the arid climate and periodic droughts, many of the endemics have evolved distinctive features, typically grossly enlarged trunks or succulent fleshy leaves. The bulbous Socotran rose – more like a stunted baobab tree than an English garden rose – has evolved massive swollen trunks to store water and to defy the meagre rainfall statistics.
The coast was pristine. In Arher, a remote picturesque spot, the beach was flanked by towering massifs and some of the most impressive white sand dunes I have seen. Striking, not for the fact that they were white but their height, which must have been two hundred metres. Windswept and wild, it was strangely reminiscent of Namibia and its similarly rugged coastline.
Driving west, schools of dolphins frolicked playfully within twenty metres of the sandy beaches, which were twenty kilometres long and the breeding ground for a variety of turtles that come to nest and lay their eggs in the monsoon. Socotra lies in the path of several major ocean currents, resulting in an exceptional and high diversity of marine life, fish and corals.
But it was in the interior, its secrets protected by the imperious peaks of the Haggier Mountains and hidden by cloud that was perhaps the most remarkable of all. The craggy, dramatic peaks of granite weathered over the millennia stood silent sentinel to the lost world within. As we climbed, entering the mist, I was unsure of what was to come. I could hear the proverbial drums beating distantly, ominously.
Then the mists cleared, the scenery opened up and we were in rolling countryside evocative of Kenya except that rather than there being the ubiquitous acacia we were driving through an eccentric arboretum. Frankincense trees – Socotra literally means land or emporium of resin – with their flaky bark gave way to the curiously named Dragon’s Blood Tree. So called because it produces a red resin which is used as a dye, the Dragon’s Blood Tree looks like an umbrella blown out by the wind.
“They are going to the barber everyday,” smiled Hassan.
He was right; they did have a peculiar sculpted and manicured feel to them. Upturned cones of branches topped with spiky leaves, they only added to the bizarreness of the surrounds.
Moving on, I found myself nodding my head in appreciation, even awe, as I looked out over the hidden gorge of Wadi Da’arhr set against the dramatic backdrop of peaks. We dropped down through hidden gorges to the bottom of the wadi. Here there were small oases, palm-fringed pools with dragon flies hovering busily over them and the Socotran warbler, one of the island’s many endemics, chattering unseen.
I was jealous of a young Belgian, one of only a handful of tourists I met (in 2005 there were just 400 visitors, a number likely to increase dramatically over the next few years), who had spent the last four days walking through the interior. As he said, “It was spectacular.” I did not have the luxury of such time and reluctantly headed back to Hadibo, the unremarkable capital of the island. Back to reality and down to basics, literally. The island’s infrastructure is in its infancy and can at best be described as rudimentary.
Hadibo has little to recommend it. The hotels are far too modest to contemplate character and are merely functional. The restaurants, well if you don’t mind eating bony fish that is more to the liking of the myriad of cats that stalk the town, then you will not starve. Have I put you off? If I have then it is a shame but probably just as well as you would not get the full enjoyment of nature’s wonderful pickings. If I haven’t then January or February are the best months to visit.
You have to pay a price for beauty; at the moment that price is forgoing creature comforts. A small price to pay.