The first striking thing about Socotra is the goats. What, you say? Goats? On the ‘galapagos of the Indian Ocean,’ the magical dragon-blood-tree island paradise? Yep. Goats. When we pulled into Hadibo, the island’s uninspiring capital, the first thing I noticed was a scruffy-looking kid (the four-legged kind), lounging on top of a Jeep. A ubiquitous presence on the island, goats are everywhere . . . in the road, blocking your car . . . in your tent, eating your cashews . . . you get the idea.
Hadibo, with it’s muddy streets and turquoise-painted doors, has little to offer besides canned goods and mediocre hotels, so we didn’t spend much time there. My charming and excellent travelling companion, Marcella, a free-spirited Doctor Without Borders (she cures AIDS!), made a few calls around town while we drank milky sweet tea, and before long we had engaged the services of a driver (Dar) and a four-wheeled vehicle for the remainder of the day.
Our initial plan had been to meet up with a group of climbers working on developing sport-climbing on the island. We heard that they were probably camping to the East at a place called Arar, so we hopped in the car and headed out. At Arar we found the climber’s camp, but no people, so we told our driver to take us to a beach. Our driver’s English vocabulary consisted primarily of no problem my friend, but he nonetheless managed to find us a swath of smooth sand along the Eastern coast. The weather was windy and the sea rough, but the turquoise-blue water was surprisingly warm, so we splashed around in the breaks before retreating to the beach and letting the wind blow-dry us.
Returning to camp, we found the French climbers but not our friends from Sanaa. One had gone home and the other had set off on a week-long trek across the length of the island. So that was pretty much the end of our carefully-planned itinerary.
Somewhat optimistically given the heavy winds and uncooperatively cloudy sky, I tried sleeping out on the dunes that night. Of course it rained. I woke up the next morning in the (leaking tent), annoyed about the inauspicious start to what was supposed to be a tropical island vacation. The day was wet and the temperatures hovered just above cold, so we decided to visit Hoq cave.
The trail up to the cave was lovely, winding through sparse groves of bottle trees. We saw at least a few bottle trees every day on the island and I developed an abiding affection for them. The trees are little botanical practical jokes, with funny stunted limbs springing forth from wide, voluptuous trunks. Fat little arboreal gnomes, they look like bonsais grafted onto full-sized trunks.
Hoq is a long cave (more than 3k long) stocked with the requisite impressive stalagmites and stalactites. Which we could not see very well because 1) we had no guide, and 2) our only light source was a single weak headlamp. At some point, long after the natural light from the cave entrance had winked out, Marcella casually said “I just got this light from a friend. I don’t even know how much of the battery is left . . .” Ah, the thrill of adventure. Nonetheless, we made it out in time to get thoroughly rained on on our way down the mountain. We sheltered under an overhanging rock for the worst of the shower, but eventually we gave it up and went to sit damply on the rocky, trash-covered beach. I watched Marcella cheerfully interact with a group of village boys, making valiant efforts to scold them in broken Arabic for smashing the local crabs with rocks. (I maintain that they were going to eat them).
Dar showed up early the next morning to carry us forward on our island adventures. We stopped briefly in Hadibo for supplies (our diet consisted mainly of unrelenting tuna fish and crackers/bread/noodles), and then began the very pretty drive up into the mountains. Due to the caprices of geography, the interior of the island is nearly always cloudy, and a flat mist hugged the peaks of the high Harghir mountains. We stopped on the Diksam plateau to photograph the legendary dragon’s-blood trees. In arabic, the trees are called the “blood of the two brothers” trees (damm al-akhawain). The legend goes thusly: “there were two brothers, and they had a fight, and one of them bled, and then a tree grew . . .” (or something like that, I probably should have paid more attention). In any case, they are very pretty, and they emit a bright crimson sap which is sold in powdered form in many locations on the island. Apparently you can make it into tea for lady-troubles, but I haven’t been brave enough to try. Dar dropped us off somewhere around the plateau for the walk down into Wadi Dirho. Shortly after beginning our walk, we met this fellow (or lady).
The Lonely Planet’s tagline for Socotra invites tourists to “act like a medieval knight and search for dragons and the secret of eternal life in stupendous Socotra.” I have beef with LP generally, but this particular bit of travel writing pretty well satirizes itself. Needless to say, this was the closest we came to ‘finding a dragon.’ Down in the Wadi, we wandered up and downstream, swimming in the lovely clear pools that form along the canyon, appreciating the large numbers skittering purple crabs in many of the pools.
Q: Hey, in remote, rural locations lacking basic sanitation and hygeine, don’t you have to worry about schistosomiasis from swimming in freshwater pools?
A: No problem, my friend.
The sun was going down (one disadvantage to visiting Socotra during the darkest part of the year), so we headed back up to our ‘eco-camp’ on Diksam plateau. Those interested in linguistics will appreciate knowing that ‘eco-camp,’ translated from arabic into english, means roughly “flat spot on the ground that your driver points to and says ‘we will camp here!'” My friend. No problem. Of course, it was a very pretty spot.
Part II coming soon!