x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A force of nature: the island of Socotra

The Yemeni island is a rich but fragile ecosystem for plants and marine life which now welcomes tourists.

"Look," says the pilot as we fly south-east from Mukalla. "Those are the mountains of Somalia. And ahead, the long thin one, that is Abd al Kuri. To the left, you see, the small one, that is Samha. And behind is his little brother, Darsa."

We're lucky with the weather - it's a clear cloudless day and from the cockpit of the Felix Airways flight you can see for miles. Just the tips of the mountains are shrouded in mist and the bird's-eye view gives you an immediate sense of the size and isolation of Socotra - 400km from the Yemeni coast and 3,625 square kilometres in size, it looms ahead, dwarfing the other three islands in its archipelago and jutting right out into the Indian Ocean, geographically closer to the Horn of Africa than to the rest of Yemen.

It's this my friends had been worried about when I announced my trip to Socotra earlier this year. Apart from my travelling companion, Rasha, they were unanimous. Its proximity to Somalia, pirates and tribal unrest in Yemen's provinces had all been conflated to produce panic and incredulity.

"You can't go there now!" they said in unison. "Look where it is. You're going right into the eye of the storm." Never mind that tourists have never been attacked in Socotra and that you get there by plane, not cargo ship, or that the island is completely divorced from the occasional tribal violence seen elsewhere in Yemen. We booked our trip.

Through the aircraft windows, the camera can't capture the long stretch of white sand on Abd al Kuri, so I don't take quite as many photographs as the pilot would like. "Stand up!" he says. "I need you to take more pictures! I need you to take pictures of everything!"

I've been snapping away since we took off from Sana'a and the pilot invited my friend and I into the cockpit - to the palpable disgruntlement of the young man sitting across the aisle, who muttered glumly that foreigners always get treated like royalty in Yemen.

I can't bear to tell our host that I'm actually trying to conserve my camera's batteries as we'll be camping for four nights without access to mains electricity. In years of flying to Socotra, neither our pilot or his co-pilot have set foot outside the island's airport - but that only adds to their excitement and the islands' mystery.

"I want to go there on holiday and see it, and one day I will," the young man says, smiling. "I've heard it's the most beautiful place in the world."

We pass over the western side of Socotra first, where we have a courtesy fly-by of Qalansiyah. "Get your camera ready!" the pilot shouts. "This is the island's most beautiful beach." My camera can't capture it, but it doesn't matter, because I look down instead on the longest beach I've ever seen. Flying low over the island's northern coast, we gaze down on mile after mile of straight, broad, deserted sandy beach, fringed by turquoise water and backed by flat scrubland. Anywhere else in the world this would be a hotel developer's heaven; thankfully, Yemen's reputation for instability coupled with the island's isolation (its airport only opened in 1999) and importance as a habitat for hundreds of endemic species - leading to it being designated a world natural heritage site in 2008 - have so far deterred them. From the air we can see where construction of a planned ring road was abruptly halted at the island's western end - the Yemeni government realised just in time the damage the road would have caused to a nature sanctuary just around the headland.

We are met at the airport - a tiny, rundown building which looks more like a forlorn set of shops - by a giggly tourism police officer who registers our names and wishes us a pleasant stay. Our young guide, Abdul Raouf, greets us and takes us outside to wait for our vehicle. A few other foreign tourists disembark and are driven away in 4x4s; soon it's only us left, along with a tribal party and some goats. Then the tribal party depart and it's just us and the goats. There's no town in sight and the nearby Haggeher mountains, their jagged peaks fading in and out of a rolling fog, look beautiful but faintly menacing, like something out of a Harry Potter film.

Our driver, Farid, arrives in a battered Toyota Landcruiser, explaining that one of the island's two petrol stations had run out of gas so he had to drive to the other one. Soon we're on our way west towards Qalansiyah, driving along the straight road along the northern coast, passing small dry-stone villages and climbing inland up through an escarpment near Qadama when the coast road runs out. As we climb higher we look back at a dramatic, wave-like sweep of rock which bows almost in deference to the sea. Ahead is a high plateau dotted with frankincense trees - it's a straight road and an empty one that reminds me slightly of the American west.

It's a shock when we arrive at Qalansiyah. The place is tiny. The Socotra archipelago has a population of some 50,000, and this is Socotra island's second "city", so I'm surprised to find only a larger number of square, dry-stone houses and a school and hospital. Children surround our vehicle as we drive slowly through the rocky streets. In their dress and skin colouring, many residents look south Asian or African, reflecting Socotra's proximity to Somalia 80km away and its position on the trade route between Sinai and India.

We make our way up a small hill to the east of the town. "This is where you'll be camping," says Abdul Raouf, just as we reach the brow of the hill. Ahead is Qalansiyah beach. The pilot wasn't wrong - it's idyllic. A sweeping bar of pure white sand extends ahead of us, the turquoise sea to the left and a lagoon to the right. There isn't a soul in sight. We make our way round to the campsite behind the lagoon and find a group of around 20 tents - ours are positioned behind our own open hut on the shore of the lagoon. The campsite is run by locals from Qalansiyah who levy a nightly charge to tourists staying there. The facilities are basic - toilets and showers are little more than a hole in the ground - but the food, freshly barbecued fish, rice and freshly made bread, all cooked in a makeshift kitchen behind the campsite, is excellent.

My friend and I don our swimming costumes and head for the sea. It's about four o'clock in the afternoon and the tidal lagoon has receded, leaving vast armies of crabs that beat a slow retreat as we approach. Once past the lagoon we reach the beach, which is backed by a series of low sand dunes. The water is perfectly clear and alive with fish - so alive that as the waves break we can see the fish inside them. We swim and then hike along the beach for 45 minutes before the sun begins to set. "Let's go back across the lagoon," Rasha says. It doesn't look very far, so we remove our flip-flops and start wading. After about 20 minutes, the sun gets lower in the sky and the other side of the lagoon is still a long way in the distance. "Stingrays!" I shout, suddenly. The large black rays are dotted every few yards or so and I pray we reach the other side before it gets dark. The sun gives out its last blast of light as clouds gather over the jagged headland, and then sets. By the time we reach the other side there's almost no light left. Quickly we shower before dinner and an early, starlit night.

The following morning it's off to Qalansiyah town again. We pass through a small palm oasis and pull up just behind the beach, where a fish sale is happening. Fishermen land on the shore with strings of fresh fish and it's sold on the spot. We reluctantly turn down the offer of a boat trip to Shouab, the next bay along, to watch dolphins, as we need to make our way south. Stopping to inflate the tires, Rasha and I are so unfamiliar looking to a couple of local girls that they start and gasp as they see us.

It's a couple of hours' drive south-east to the Dicksam plateau, where the island's largest concentration of the rare dragon's blood trees are.

We speed along listening to Farid and Abdul Raouf talking in Socotri - a soft, lilting South Arabian language which predates Islam and exists only in spoken form. Abdul Raouf tells us about his family. His mother, it turns out, is one of the 15 children of Sultan Issa bin Ali Ben Afrar, the last sultan of Socotra who ruled until 1969, when Yemen was unified. Before that the island was part of the Sultanate of Socotra and Mahara, an area of mainland Yemen. Since then, both Arabic and English have been taught in schools. Over the past decades many Socotrans have left the archipelago to work on the mainland or abroad, including many in the UAE. Abdul Raouf tells us that he's been to Abu Dhabi before and about friends and family members working in Ajman, but has no real desire to leave.

Not that Socotrans were ever cut off from the world. The archipelago has been settled for at least 3,000 years, originally by tribes from southern Arabia, but through trade and shipping it attracted a varied and shifting population including Greeks and Portuguese, who occupied the island in 1507 in a bid to control sailing routes in the Red Sea. "Did any Portuguese men marry local women?" Rasha wonders. "No one married a Socotran woman but once a Portuguese woman was kidnapped and taken to the mountains," says Abdul Raouf, as if it was yesterday. "And when was that?" "Around 1750." Portuguese control didn't last long - they were driven out by Mahra tribes in 1511.

Farid and Abdul Raouf then play Arabic pop songs on the vehicle's stereo and Farid bemoans the aging condition of his vehicle. "From 1990 to 1997 we called this car Leila Elwi [an Egyptian actress]," he laments, "but from 1997 till now we call it Monica Lewinsky."

Our first sight of a dragon's blood tree - Dracena cinnabari - is a single sturdy specimen not far from the roadside. They are genuinely extraordinary, like a genetic throwback to prehistoric times with their thick trunks, web-like undersides and green spiky tops. They are named after their crimson resin, which is used as a dye and lacquer, and are suited to the moist high ground. As we travel further into the plateau, we come across thousands of dragon's blood trees. Socotra is home to around 900 plant species, of which 300 are endemic to the island; of its 27 reptile species, 24 are endemic and of 190 bird species, six are endemic.

In the centre of the plateau is the Dicksam gorge, a spectacular ensemble of sheer limestone cliffs and mountains. It reminds me of the Scottish Highlands, with its mix of rolling hills and sharp pinnacles. From Dicksam we descend into a Wadi Daeshu, a lush oasis where even the pools of water - coloured by thick moss - appear bright green. We bathe in our own natural swimming pool - a lovely basin of water with a natural, moss-covered waterslide beneath a field of wild desert roses and cucumber trees - both distended succulents with bulbous trunks which look like abstract female figures - the desert rose topped with gorgeous pink flowers and the cucumber tree with thick spiky green leaves.

After a lunch of tuna salad we head back up the wadi in our 4x4, much to the disgust of two German hikers to whom we offer a lift. "We have come here to hike, not to sit!" one says. The guilt causes us to hike at least halfway back up to the top, where Farid, Abdul Raouf and the German hikers' guide break into a dance - again, to the polite horror of the Germans.

We drive down off the plateau towards the southern coast, seeing whole valleys of dragon's blood trees and desert roses and only one or two other vehicles. On the car stereo this time was a hypnotic tribal song by a 12-year-old boy who repeatedly chants, in a clear, lyrical and mournful song: "You and I have promised each other to stick it out through good times and bad / We've agreed on loyalty and intimacy / Don't abandon me or I will die." There was something about it simplicity, passion and metre which fitted in with the landscapes we were travelling through.

As on the northern coast, dramatic cliffs give way to a sandy coastal plain - but on this side there are enormous white sand dunes. We camp among them at Aomak beach, again meeting a group of 30 or so middle-aged tourists from Russia and the Czech Republic who said tourism links between Yemen and their countries existed thanks to the Communist days and that they weren't put off by a little instability on the mainland.

The camp is a gorgeous, almost north African scene, with a palm oasis just behind a series of arish sheds where we sleep in the open air. The sands glow white in the moonlight, and we watch shooting stars bursting across the black sky one after the other like a fireworks display.

The next morning we set off along the east coast, stopping at the spectacular Dogub cave, a giant natural hollow used by goat herders and their livestock during the monsoon, which sweeps across the island between June and September and from November to January. Plants and small trees grew out of rocks at the entrance to the cave and from inside, plant-covered stalagtites made it look like a giant mouth.

The gorgeous, towering, silky-smooth sand dunes of Hayf, a little further along the coast, were our undoing. Farid took us on a drive up and down a few of the dunes, before we got out for some photographs. The dunes stretched all the way from the road to the sea, and, as was becoming usual, there was no one else in sight. When we got back into the vehicle, however, Farid made the mistake of stopping and it sank into the sand. After several futile attempts to move it forward by revving, pushing and digging it out, we realised we were stuck. In 30-degree heat, Farid started running to the nearest village, four kilometres away, to get help. Abdul Raouf walked towards the road waving a white handkerchief. We sounded the horn and tried to dig a trench around the car.

About 45 minutes later a truck arrived with around 20 men from the local village - plus a two-year-old boy. The truck was too old and decrepit to climb the sand dunes, and no one had a rope or chain to tow us out but through sheer force of numbers the men, aged between about 14 and 60, dug around the car and virtually lifted it out of the hole - a happy alternative to a roadside rescue service.

From Hayf we headed north again into the mountains, passing through rocky wadis into the interior - a mix of small oases, green valleys and the peaks of the Haggeher mountains, the tallest of which rises more than 1,500m. A sealed road is under construction through here, which will markedly change the experience of travelling across the island. We hit the north-east coast, which was even wilder and more spectacular than the north-west and south. Towards the end of the sealed part of this road we took a turnoff at a small village on the right and parked, before being joined by a weathered but nimble local guide, Guman, who usually makes a living fishing. It was a two-hour hike into the hills through spectacular flora - wild Socotran aloe, cucumber trees, desert roses and other succulents I'd previously only thought of as houseplants. We arrived at Homhil, a mountain campsite next to a vast valley of frankincense trees, just after sunset. Over tea that night, Guman, who was in his forties but who through years of weathering at sea appeared to be about 20 years older, told us about his life. He was married in the traditional Socotran way, which, until just a few years ago, involved a bride being picked and a wedding arranged without her prior knowledge - it was then up to her to decide on a divorce if she did not like the match. Guman's marriage was still going strong and he has nine children whom he struggles to support by fishing tuna and shark. "That's so much fish," he says. "I've told my wife: enough children!"

The next morning we hiked down the same path, down smooth gullies caused by fast-moving rainwater on exposed rock, and stopped at a gorgeously deep natural swimming pool overlooking a wide escarpment to the sea. We jumped in, remarking on the view with three French tourists, and then carried on our hike down the mountain.

The road to the east was unsealed; to the left was the clearest, most inviting stretch of aquamarine water I've ever seen; to the right were steep cliffs. Wild, empty beaches went on, seemingly forever. Giant sand dunes were banked against the cliffs, vultures whirled ahead and there were no other cars on the road. Natural streams poured onto pristine empty beaches. We swam and snorkelled - this part of the coast is a protected area, so it's particularly rich in marine life - and we saw corals, turtles and a huge variety of fish. Yet here, too, a road was under construction. I stopped and looked around, realising for the first time that I simply couldn't take in any more beauty.

If you go

The flight

Emirates (www.emirates.com) offers return flights from Dubai to Sana'a from $366 (Dh1,345) return including tax. Felix Airways (www.felixairways.com) offers return flights from Sana'a to Socotra, via Mukalla, from $242 (Dh888) return including tax. Felix Arabia also flies to Yemen from Sharjah.

The trip

The Sana'a-based travel company Yamanat Tours (www.yamanat.com; 00967 1 256 086) offers a four-day trip in Socotra from $480 (Dh1,763), including ground transport, a local guide, all food and camping.

Further information

For more infomation about Socotra visit www.socotraisland.org.