Nothing about Socotra is predictable and I love the constant surprises. The famous dragon’s blood trees silhouetted on hillsides look like giant old-fashioned darning mushrooms; seriously obese bottle trees in improbable human shapes are tactfully called “desert roses”; and ever-hungry Egyptian vultures with punk hairstyles swoop down to act as refuse collectors.
Around the coast, springs of fresh water flow out between giant sand dunes. A natural swimming pool with 180-degree views perches on a clifftop, a grey patch on a tree trunk turns out to be a mass of a thousand snails, bold pink land crabs emerge to explore our toes as we cool our feet in a wadi stream.
And in every direction and at every time of day, the island is stunningly, unbelievably beautiful; its shapes, colours, sounds and unexpected sense of space blend into something I am longing to revisit, even in my mind.
My friend Hilary Bradt (founder of Bradt Travel Guides) had wanted to go there for many years and planned to publish a brief 40-page guidebook, but at first I wasn’t particularly attracted. Information was sparse. Finally the start-up of a direct flight from Cairo made a visit practicable; in 2019 Hilary started planning and after more research I succumbed.
Camping on rudimentary campsites aged 81 wasn’t hugely appealing but the scenery and history were irresistible, as was co-writing the guide. Never mind that the UK’s Foreign Office was advising against all travel to Yemen, including Socotra; far from the mainland war, the island was clearly safe for tourists. In February this year, after some quick pyramid visits in Cairo and an unscheduled night in Seiyun on the Yemen mainland, our plane finally skimmed over Detwah lagoon to Socotra’s tiny airport and we stepped out into enchantment.
Wish I were there . . .
With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, we have been asking writers to journey in their imaginations, to tell the story of a distant place they yearn to revisit. Read more from the series at ft.com/wishiwere
Like a bumblebee that seems aerodynamically unsuited to flight, Socotra shouldn’t be able to contain so many different landscapes. Barely larger than Cornwall, it is a hat-shaped island: its jagged central “crown” of the Haggeher mountains tops 1,500 metres, and silver-white sand dunes cushion its surrounding coastal “brim”. Dry scrubby desert browsed by camels leads to pristine beaches, sombre rocks contain frivolous strata of rose pink, black cave entrances gape open-mouthed from hillsides and squat sand-coloured villages crouch low to escape the violent monsoon storms.
The largest by far of the four islands that form the Socotra Archipelago, politically it is a part of Yemen, 360km away to the north, but its nearest neighbour is the Horn of Africa; the Arabian Sea meets the Indian Ocean at its eastern tip. For its first arrivals back in prehistoric times, whether they came deliberately or were blown off course and shipwrecked there, it must have seemed paradise: caves for shelter, fresh water, no large predators, fertile land and abundant fish.
My imagined return to this paradise begins with its startling, ancient, otherworldly trees. Their age amazes me. Socotra was involved with the incense trade more than two millennia ago, and gladiators in ancient Rome had the “blood” (sap) of the dragon’s blood trees smeared on them as decoration and to disinfect their wounds.
Socotra's frankincense trees, so Herodotus claimed in around 440BC, were guarded by small winged serpents; more believably their resin is said to have perfumed the bath-houses of Rome. It’s not hard to see why Socotra and its archipelago have been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. My virtual visit will allow me time to stand quietly among these wonders, possibly hug the occasional bulging bottle and absorb the powerful sense of history.
In “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” (Just So Stories was one of my few books, as a wartime child) Rudyard Kipling mentions “the beaches of Socotra”, so I first knew the island’s name more than 70 years ago. Indeed the beaches are superb, whether long silver stretches with curling Indian-Ocean breakers or smaller bays with crushed coral underfoot and a variety of shells: tempting to collect, but strictly protected.
There’s good snorkelling too, weather permitting, which unfortunately it often doesn’t. Islands are windy places, and the sea round Socotra changes in the blink of an eye. On a good day its intense blue can reflect on the breasts of seabirds skimming above the waves. For a moment, during a boat trip from Qalansiyah to beautiful Shu’ab beach in the far west, we thought we were seeing some strange new azure-tinted species.
Spinner dolphins dived and twisted in the clear water beneath the bow, while the boatman fished contentedly for his dinner from the stern. Returning two hours later the boat bounced jarringly over a grey and choppy sea, we were drenched by waves and battered by the sudden wind — then quickly dried off in warm sun as we strolled back through Qalansiyah’s stone-built houses to Detwah beach and its extraordinary lagoon.
There’s a viewpoint above it where you emerge between rocks and see the immense and utterly scenic beach spread out below you in every shade of blue, cream, gold and white. The lagoon takes 40 minutes to wade across to reach the sea for a swim — it’s like walking through a warm, sandy-bottomed aquarium because of the amount of sea life it contains. The numerous stingrays darted away as they sensed our approach; less skittish were the puffer fish with their enchanting smiles, sea cucumbers, squid, swimming cowries, an octopus and shoals of small fish.
Walks in the peace and space of the interior are on my agenda too, where the air and colours have their own Socotri magic, so by virtual trickery the returning me will be 10 years younger, a mere 71, just agile enough to manage the sometimes rough, steep tracks without the muscular support of our Socotri guide. But then I anxiously wonder — will my young driver Wael still look after me so carefully “like his grandmother” and solicitously pass an extra chunk of tuna from his lunchtime plate to mine?
Driving through the countryside I didn’t cover my head, but I remember his almost parental smile of approval when I hid my white hair under a wraparound scarf as we approached Hadiboh, Socotra’s jumbled, chaotic capital. Much of it resembles a building site because so much construction is under way. The streets are potholed, buildings shabby and alleyways ankle-deep in rubbish (or possibly knee-deep by now, since a political coup in June put paid to regular collections). But locally made decorated doors provide welcome splashes of colour, there’s a stimulating energy about the town and people clearly enjoy living there. On my virtual visit I'll cosset my old bones by staying in one of its simple hotels rather than camping.
If the annual Socotri Poetry Competition has been reinstated I’ll try to fit that in; it’s a part of maintaining the language and tradition. I’ll have fun with the traditional handicrafts too, just as much a part of Socotra as the dragon’s blood and desert roses. Village women are keeping them alive, like sisters Noujoum and Salma Nouh who trek over stony hillsides to hack clay from a suitable patch, heave it home in bags (rejuvenated to 71, I could help them!), crush it to powder with a heavy rock, add water and mould the sticky lump by hand, creating shapes as smooth as if they came from a potter’s wheel. Then they scratch patterns on them with a shell and a stick before putting them to “cook” on the embers of a brushwood fire, afterwards painting them with dye from the twigs of a nearby tree.
Pottery has been made by village families here for millennia. Chunky and durable, it used to have multiple uses in rural homes, but much less nowadays, as synthetic materials take over. It is the same for palm-leaf weaving. Tourists buying souvenirs will help, once they return, and some potters are already trying their hand at camels, Egyptian vultures and rather wobbly dragon’s blood trees.
There’s a readier local market for traditional woollen carpets or floor rugs, firmly on my virtual shopping list. These date back 1,000 years at least, when they were among the island’s main exports. But the skilled women who weave them are growing old now and will be hard to replace. The whole process of weaving a rug takes several weeks, from washing and shearing the sheep, sorting the wool according to colour, carding it, spinning it, and then — this is the part I want to watch — weaving strips on a horizontal ground loom, a method that dates back to around 4400BC. Finally the strips are stitched together to make a carpet or a blanket, depending on their texture. For every carpet made, the women sing a traditional Socotri song, giving it its own distinctive story, and the finest are much prized by their owners.
Socotra reminds me of Timbuktu, alone at the edge of the Sahara as Socotra is at the edge of the Arabian Sea. By the 15th century the desert city was an intellectual and trading centre renowned as far afield as Venice, Geneva, Cairo, Rome and Spain, with students flocking to its Islamic university. And a thousand years before Timbuktu even existed Socotra was trading incense and medicinal plants with the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean.
Yet when French explorer René Caillié reached Timbuktu in 1828 expecting traces of its former status he found just “a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth . . . everything had a dull appearance”, and nothing on Socotra today suggests earlier prosperity.
Glory fades physically, but in both places I’ve been struck by the people’s evident pride in remembering their past; although in Timbuktu traditional handicrafts that I recall from a visit 40 years ago are no longer made. Can Socotra’s survive? Who knows.
Even the island’s future is uncertain. Its location makes it an extremely desirable strategic or military base for ambitious neighbouring powers. A coup in June 2020 by the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council, a breakaway Yemeni group seeking a split between north and south Yemen, ousted its UN-recognised Yemeni administration. Under a Yemeni law dating from 2000, 75 per cent of Socotra is classified as a national park or “nature sanctuary” with strict regulations as to usage, but the rulings are being ignored, with unauthorised construction (including military installations) on supposedly protected land.
In these conditions a guidebook can be helpful, giving a beleaguered place a stronger identity and, by increasing tourism, making it — and any damaging developments — more visible to the public eye; but we faced two problems. First, Socotra clearly deserved something far more substantial than Hilary’s proposed 40 pages. Second, three weeks after our return, coronavirus smashed into the travel industry and effectively dried up Bradt Travel Guides’ source of income. Publishing, during a pandemic, a full-length guide for an inevitably small market just wasn’t feasible.
Determined to go ahead, Hilary took a step unprecedented for Bradt and persuaded the board to turn to crowdfunding, with a result that far exceeded any of our expectations. In five weeks we had enough to cover the book’s marketing as well as its publication.
Almost half of the 285 donors added hugely touching and encouraging messages of warmth, affection and support for Socotra, the publisher and ourselves as authors. They wanted to join in and help. Quickly we started writing; the book (now a respectable 160 pages) was published last month, and copies have already reached more than 20 countries as travellers plan their post-pandemic trips.
We can’t predict Socotra’s future, but one of the donors, a Socotri, wrote in his message: “the lost paradise will be found again; Socotra is a heaven on earth and should always be protected”. I so much want him to be right. And then, in reality rather than virtually, I’d love to go back.
‘Socotra’ by Hilary Bradt and Janice Booth is published by Bradt
Yemen’s borders are closed. When visitors are allowed to return to Socotra, visas will be required, obtainable from tour operators, which include Culture Road, Inertia Network, Lupine Travel, Pioneer Expeditions, Socotra Eco-Tours, Untamed Borders, and Welcome to Socotra. They can arrange accommodation (largely camping, plus some simple hotels in Hadiboh), itineraries and transport
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Travel when a new story is published