BeginningsNot so many years ago National Geographic ran an article on a faraway mysterious land half a world away filled with improbable plants, jagged mountains, and utter obscurity, a land known as Socotra, the "Island of Bliss" as it has frequently been called. Alexander the Great's men had been here and Cleopatra sent an expedition this way. The Greeks talked of elephants, the phoenix is mentioned; truly this is a place of legends. Over a third of the plants there are endemic and they often look more out of the pages of Dr. Seuss than anything earthly. The more I learned of this mysterious place, the more intrigued I became.
However, the end of the school year saw me visiting four continents in the span of 25 hours en route to Sana'a, an ancient city and capital of Yemen. There had been reports of two CIA operatives getting into trouble there recently, so with some trepidation I left the airport for a night's sleep and then a tour of the city during a thirty hour layover prior to the final flight to Socotra. Sana'a was fascinating, though, with a souk or market some four thousand years old, and mud skyscrapers with distinctive trim. Twice I was invited by strangers to share a meal, and in every interaction with strangers I was met with kindness and good natured conversation.
On Soctotra, I wanted to see the plants and explore the mysterious mountains at the island's core. I also had seen a couple pictures of arches on-line, and after taking students to Arches National Park for a decade, was interested in looking for natural spans within its fabulous karst topography.
Within minutes of landing, we drove past a fabulous stone arch, fifty feet across, seventy. I'm not sure, and high up a steep stone slope I never investigated. Later that first day was filled with tamarind and bottle trees, an unexpected downpour, swimming in a wondrous pool with freshwater crabs, and then later climbing a seemingly endless dune towards the heights.
The Cemetery Peak
A Second Peakgranted spectacular) viewpoint far below the highest reaches. When I motioned higher to inviting slopes above he cringed with disapproval and talked of me falling, so rather than stage a mutiny I enjoyed where I was and tried not to stew about the spectacular peak that was so near… That afternoon,descending south, out of the highlands, I managed to make a brief detour and climb past fabulous dragonblood trees towards another small peak. The final reaches included a steep wall, harder than what I usually scramble, but not really bad enough to prevent passage and for a second time, I was able to look out over the wilds from an airy perch visited by so few.
The Bottle Tree Archswimming, canyons, a cave, and using my few Arabic words in a brief conversation with a few robed girls who passed near, perhaps to practice their English. It included a swim in the Indian Ocean, and passing an arch too bizarre to even recognize as such until our car streamed past. However, in the western portion of the island, there is a fabulous beach, and nearby Detwah Lagoon, resting below a sharp limestone peak, said to have the graves of forgotten ancients deep within its caves. Several people had posted pictures from the upper slopes of this peak looking out over the lagoon, so I followed suit: a wonderful hike, (click here for a description) climbing nearly vertical limestone in places, but stone so rippled with erosion that seemed no more than a ladder into to heights. The bottle trees and views were wonderful, as I expected, but here too were arches where ever I turned; large and small, and one sporting a bottle tree sprouting from its crest.
Homhilgroves of frankincense, bottle trees, even cucumber trees clawing towards the sky. Two girls reached me a minute before several boys and sold me frankincense that I later burned to sense its legendary smoke. Then it was on, to a pool that hung at the brink of a broken cliff high above the blue waters of the Arabian Sea beyond.
Later that day we stopped at Dihamri Marine Protected Area. I snorkeled but am not good with spending time on beaches so soon found myself climbing into the evening towards a mysterious rocks hanging high above, then after summiting a final peak on Socotra, racing the sun back to our camp. It was the first time in my life that I'd climbed directly out of the ocean to the summit of a mountain. The next morning I awoke early and returned to the sea, this time further from the entry point where the reef was more intact. Here, hundreds of jack fish rushed by, turned, and passed through again. It's a magical place.