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NEWS: 27th Nov 2017
The Socotra Archipelago

I first heard of Socotra in May 2006. My source of information was Frank Gardner, the BBC’s highly respected security correspondent, who had just delivered a talk at the Royal Geographical Society. Although in a wheelchair as a result of a near-fatal shooting incident in Saudi Arabia in 2004, Frank was, and indeed still is, an intrepid traveller. Questioned after the lecture as to the most intriguing destination he had ever visited, he replied without hesitation: “Socotra”. There and then I vowed that I too must explore this remote chain of islands. I got there, in 2013, but I hasten to add that because of the worsening political situation on mainland Yemen Socotra is sadly out of bounds at present.

NickyDunnington-Jefferson0041-smallYemen’s Socotra archipelago is situated approximately 380 kilometres (240 miles) south of the Arabian Peninsula and some 240 kilometres (150 miles) east of the Horn of Africa. Access was through hell and high water, the ‘hell’ being the unpredictable and unstable situation on mainland Yemen and the ‘high water’ the pirate seas of the Indian Ocean. The archipelago consists of four islands, the largest of which is known as Socotra and is the one most easily accessible. But how to get there?

Initially, through Telegraph Travel, I found an adventure-travel company that specialised in Socotra: Pioneer Expeditions. At its helm was SES-member Philip Beale. In July 2012 Pioneer Expeditions kindly invited me to visit Philip on his ship Phoenicia in St. Katharine Docks and I needed no persuasion to agree to join the next planned Socotra expedition.NickyDunnington-Jefferson0094-small

In fact we didn’t have to negotiate the ‘high water’ - we flew over it. My route from the UK was by air to Dubai (UAE) and then taxi to nearby Sharjah, from where local airline Felix Airways flew twice weekly to Riyan Airport at Al Mukhalla, on the southern coast of mainland Yemen, before continuing to Socotra.

The archipelago has evolved in remote isolation. The origin of this group of islands dates back through the mists of millennia, the result of the breakup of the huge land mass of Gondwanaland, when drifting and rifting events caused that supercontinent to fragment. An ancient Greek tome, actually a sailing manual, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the first century AD by an unknown merchant and translated by GWB Huntingford, states that the name Socotra is Sanskrit in origin. In those far-off days the Indian Ocean was known as the Erythraean Sea by Greek and Roman geographers.

Socotra was mesmerising from the first moment I glimpsed its unexpectedly green mountains as we flew into tiny Hadiboh airport. The island is made up of three distinct geographical platforms: narrow coastal plains, karst limestone plateaux and the Hagher Mountains, with Skand at 1,550 m (5,085 ft) the highest peak. The only way truly to experience Socotra is to trek through the mountains, and trek and camp we did.

NickyDunnington-Jefferson0239-smallWe were a multinational group of seven, plus our local guide, Samed. This was a camping adventure and here Socotra’s camels proved invaluable. In the early trading days camels were used to transport imported goods arriving by ship at Socotra’s north coast landing sites from the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and as far afield as India. They are now still used extensively on the island and we needed them to carry our luggage and camping equipment.

Accompanied by four camels, their respective cameleers and our cook, Kamal, we set off early on our second morning. I quote James Raymond Wellsted, a lieutenant in the Indian Navy, who spent two months on Socotra, writing in 1835: “The road was, however, so bad, that it became a matter of surprise how the camels could pass along it; and in some places it was so narrow and steep…” I agree wholeheartedly with him. Our camels, all dromedaries, were superb, their surefootedness and endurance certainly superseding ours. It was tough, steep, hard-going, as we pushed ever upwards over boulders and through mud while trying to avoid sharp rocks. And it rained.

Nature, however, compensated for discomfort. As a result of its isolation, Soctora supports flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. Of an estimated 800 species of plant recorded on the islands, 308 are endemic. In the streams up in the hills it was not unusual to find a pair of stalked eyes staring up at you: a terrestrial freshwater crab. We encountered one of the four endemic species: the splendid purple-bodied and orange-legged Socotrapotamon socotrensis. The birdlife includes 11 endemic species, among them the Socotra sparrow, the Socotra cormorant, the Socotra starling and the Socotra bunting.NickyDunnington-Jefferson0352-small

High up in the mountains, often cloud-cloaked in the early morning, the island also revealed weird and wondrous treasures: the delicately perfumed Socotra violet, Exacum affine, aloes and euphorbia, the endemic wild begonia, Begonia socorana, and the bulbous desert rose with its pretty pink flowers. But we wanted to know if trees really drip blood. Sure they do. The Periplus again: “There is also produced in this island cinnabar, that called Indian, which is collected in drops from the trees”.

The biggest concentration of the endemic Dracaena cinnebari, or dragon’s blood tree, is found on a plateau in the Firmihin Conservation Area. Socotra’s flagship species is fascinating, both in appearance and in what they produce. The hardened crimson resin is harvested in April, May and June, when the dried ‘balls’ are gathered from the trees by hand or with a knife. These are then crushed and sold in plastic bags, to be used as a dye, in pottery decoration and for medicinal purposes. Dragon’s blood trees also provide fodder, fuel and house-building materials.

In the family-run Socotra Botanical Garden Nursery for Rare and Endemic Plants, we were told that to ensure the survival of the dragon’s blood trees 7,000 seedlings are carefully nurtured, as the goats eat everything. Also, seven endemic species of frankincense are carefully grown. No plants or seedlings are allowed out of Socotra.

We also trekked to Skand, which was a challenge. There was no obvious path - only an indistinct goat track - and a local guide was essential. The splendid work of our camels and cameleers was now over and from now on we relied on two 4 x 4 Land Cruisers for transport.

If mountains are its heart, then Socotra’s seas are surely its spirit. Cast like a mantle around the islands, the seas encircling the archipelago are rich in marine life: fish, crustaceans, three species of dolphin and sperm whales, the source of highly prized ambergris used in the production of perfume.

We took a trip from Qalansiyah on the north-west coast to the small settlement of Shuab in a motorised local wooden craft which provided thrills a-plenty. I was delighted to see Socotran cormorants, various species of garrulous gull and dolphins disporting themselves in the glistening turquoise waters near the shore. Though soaked from the landing at Shuab, I set off to explore the mangrove swamps and the unsullied beach. In the small settlement the villagers provided traditional sweet tea and here life is lived quietly and simply without interference from outsiders, as it has been for aeons.

Socotra’s extensive cave system is another attraction. We explored two caves, the easily accessible and spacious Deiqab situated near our beach campsite at Amaq on the south coast, which provided shelter for goats, sheep and their herders, and Hoq cave, which necessitated a steep climb but was well worth the effort. Limestone caves such as Hoq contain formations collectively known as speleothems, which include stalactites and stalagmites. In the clammy air and eerie silence of the cave strange and wondrous forms emerged as our searching torch beams pierced the Stygian gloom.

NickyDunnington-Jefferson0408-smallAt Errissyl, the eastern tip of the island, ferocious waves pounded the sharp rocks, throwing up plumes of spume; many an unfortunate ship has met its fate in these treacherous ink-blue waters. In a small fishing village colourful craft were waiting to put out to sea and fisherman Khamis Saeed, known as Abu Sina, was eager to talk to us. “I have been a fisherman for 25 years,” he said. “I have taken tourists out for fishing sports for six years now and I am Number One.” He also assured us that there was no overfishing and that strict fish management is practised.

The people of Socotra are passionately proud of their heritage and their island home. The population is estimated at 44,000 and though predominantly Arab, is made up of a mixture of ethnic groups as a result of its ancient trading history. Socotrans are friendly and hospitable, hardy yet happy, complementing the environment in which they live. James R. Wellsted wrote in 1858: “I know not a more singular spot on the whole surface of the globe than the Island of Socotra; it stands forth a verdant isle in a sea, girt by two most inhospitable shores… {with} its wooden mountains, its glens, its sparkling streams…”

I concur. I am indebted to you, Frank Gardner, for pointing me to Socotra.

Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson

Story by Henrietta Thorpe 

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