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By Marijcke Jongbloed

  Socotra – just the word is like a siren’s call – along with place names like Ouagadougou and Singaradja.

  The offshore islands of Yemen, that besides Socotra also include Abd el Kuri, Samhah and Darsah, have been for a long time practically unreachable destination. They were only accessible by boat, but getting permission to do even that was all but impossible. In the last decade travel to the Socotra archipelago has become slightly easier, but until now only a few privileged people have actually visited this unique place.

  Located between Africa and Arabia, 250 km from cape Guardafui in Somalia and 1000 km from Aden on the coast of Yemen, the islands were long known to the sailors that plied the routes from Africa to India. Socotra, known to the ancient Greeks as Dioscorides and to the Indians as ‘dvipa sukhatara’ (the island of happiness), is the largest of the islands group. It is about 130 by 40 km in size with a 1400-1700 m high mountain range as its highest elevation. The climate is dry, even though there are two monsoon seasons.

  The island separated from Africa some 6 million years ago. Many species of plants and reptiles were isolated from the rest of the world for so long that they are now endemics. That means that they occur nowhere else in the world except on Socotra.

  Of the 850 plant species recorded on the archipelago, one third is endemic and more plants are being discovered all the time. A number of these endemic species are the remains of ancient flora that disappeared long ago from the African continent.

  During a recent botanical expedition by botanists Anthony Miller and Diccon Alexander of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, 15 plant species new to science were discovered, including a new frankincense tree, a new hibiscus and a tiny carnivorous plant, which grew on moist tree trunks in the higher reaches of the central mountains.

  One of the endemic plants that Socotra is famous for is the Dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), so called because any injury to the bark results in the secretion of a dark red sap. But there are many more unusual plants to be found, such as bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a plant usually associated with cold climates and the only member of the cucumber family that grows to tree size (Dendrosicyos sokotrana) as well as trees known also from the Arabian mainland, such as the bottle tree or desert rose (Adenium obesum) and myrrh trees (Commiphora spp.).

  All the reptiles of Socotra are endemic apart from a few types of house geckos. Even chameleons can be found doing their slow dances in tangled bushes. The endemic chameleon is called Chameleo monachus and can assume brilliant colours.    

  Of the 140 or so species of birds that have been recorded, 6 species, a.o. the Socotra Bunting, Socotra starling and Socotra sunbird, occur nowhere else. The ubiquitous Egyptian vulture is locally known as Al Baladiya Socotri (the Socotran municipal waste service) for its habit of cleaning up carrion and other waste products.

  Even the insects have developed uniquely – they have smaller wings than usual, which prevent them from being blown out to sea by the persistent monsoon winds. Spiders that weave huge webs and 20 cm long centipedes are probably only popular with true nature buffs.

  Mammals are in short supply, with only a few species of bat and one species of genet (a cat-like arboreal animal) living there. However, the marine habitat is rich and varied with many species of whales and dolphins like Sperm whales, Pilot whales, Spinner and Bottle-nosed dolphins having been spotted close to shore. Some of the smaller islands in the archipelago are now nature reserves, where crystal clear water guarantees a wonderful diving experience.

  The variety in landscapes provides the visitor with exciting hikes and discovery trips. There are coastal plains around emerald lagoons and sinkholes with shrubs and low trees. Qalansiyya on the western tip of the island has pure white beaches and crystal clear water, while on the opposite tip called Ras Momi there are even snow-white dunes.

  More inland, low hills and steep escarpments lead to high limestone plateaux, where the Dragon’s blood trees as well as aloës, and carallumas grow.  The desert rose Adenium obesum is so successful that has formed real forests.

  Permanent streams tumble down the sides of the Granite Mountains of the Haghir massif and are home to fresh water fish and crabs.

  Each of the habitats has its own vegetation and harbours special plant communities.

  Only fifteen years ago some 15.000 inhabitants of the islands lived only from fishing and pearling. Since then the population has more than doubled. On account of the dry climate and poor soil, agriculture is limited to the growing of dates and a few vegetables and spices. The fishing grounds are rich and provide the islanders with both, food and a little extra income. The inhabitants of the coastal areas are of African origin while the mountain people of the inner regions are of Arab descent. In the fishing villages on the eastern part of the islands an ancient South-Arabian language (‘mahri’) is still spoken.

   Future Tours Industries
   POB 1203, Sana'a - Republic of Yemen
   e-mail: info@ftiyemen.com , FTI@y.net.y

  The unique nature of the islands has led the Yemeni government to pay special attention to its conservation. A zoning plan has been developed that allows for long-term protection of the natural diversity while providing at the same time sustainable services for the needs of the 35.000 Socotrans that now live permanently on the islands. This plan is currently being examined by the European Union in order to decide about the designation of the islands as a World Heritage Site or Biosphere reserve.

  Access to the islands has become easier with the establishment of an airport. Flights by Yemenia airlines leave the Yemeni capital Sana’a every Friday at 5 am to fly to Socotra via Mukalla. This flight takes a little over two hours and there are flights from nearby Aden too. 

  Tickets bought locally are quite expensive but when you book from abroad (for instance from Paris) it is possible to have a return flight for around 600 Euros.

  Still, tourism is quite limited and the infrastructure for tourists is very basic. In the capital town Hadiboh, situated on the north coast of the island, overnight stays are in small ‘funduks’ (family hotels) where the facilities are simple but adequate. Restaurants usually have just two items on the menu: chicken and fish, the latter being freshly caught each day. During the trips inland camping is the only way to go unless you have local friends who can put you up. The Darwin research station will provide overnight stays for visiting scientists. Four-wheel drive vehicles with drivers can be hired to do your own exploration. The island is extremely safe. No one bothers to lock doors of houses or cars and your belongings are safe wherever you leave them.

  A Yemen-based tour company called Future Tours Industries offers various adventure trips with the caution that “those requiring western comforts should beware – nothing truly rewarding in life comes without effort and a little sacrifice!”


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