Not 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.
Socotra is a part of Yemen, where the Queen of Sheba has once ruled, with some of humankind's oldest cities, a mysterious place in itself that is currently more known for being where Chandler fled to avoid Janice in a "Friends" episode, or as a land of terrorism, drones, and kidnappings. I was met largely by confusion and queries as to "Why?" when I mentioned traveling there. It was a selfish thing to do to my wife and family, vanishing to go there and then see the wonders along the Nile. I can't really claim otherwise.
Vendor in the Sana'a Market
Old City Sana'a
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.
Arch near the Airport.
Peak with a Hole
The Cemetery Peak
Of my trip in the mountains, I remember mostly how lush the mountains were, vivid green fields with astonishing peaks above. As evening approached, we neared a small pass with a cemetery nestled invitingly at its crest, if such a statement is possible. To the right, arose a small peak which I ascended, climbing a perfect ten foot hand crack to pass the steepest terrain. I lingered for a long time on the summit, gazing out over lands so far from the crowds. Later, at small village or town and was offered traditional Berber tea, made with fermented goat milk and ever so tasty. Later, after shooting stars streaked the sky I looked up at the Southern Cross far beyond, amazed.
View North from Summit
View South from Summit
A Second Peak
The next day, I was planning to visit the highest terrain in the range, and hopefully ascend one of the highest peaks. To travel there, I was told that I needed a local guide, in my case, a young boy who appeared at dawn the next morning with a wide grin, shorts, a shirt, and little else. We passed small talk in English, and then progressed into a lesson about the alphabet and basic points of the English language. Unfortunately, as kind as he was, and as enjoyable to hike with, he was not a mountaineer, and only had interest in bringing me to a (granted 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.
High Peaks from Spectacular View
View of the Haghier Mountains
View of Second Peak
Summit Pitch of Second Peak
The Bottle Tree Arch
The Bottle Arch
The next few days included swimming
, 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.
Perhaps the most magnificent trees are in Homhil Protected Area in the eastern portion of the island. I visited a hillside of dragonblood trees, reputed to hold the blood of phoenix (dragons) within their bark. Here too were groves 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.
Confluence of Waters
Most of my trips to faraway places have involved climbing a specific mountain; thousands of miles of flight, of driving, walking, climbing to stand at some spot buffeted by the winds with the World falling away at me feet. At Socotra, that place ended up being not a peak but the eastern most extent of the island, a barren spot of sand and rock, blown by the early monsoon winds. I might have spent thirty minutes, perhaps nearly an hour, transfixed, gazing out over the boiling surf where the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea collided. Here there were bleached whalebones, distant calls of sea birds, and currents of water streaming endlessly past. There would be more to the trip; the wonders of Egypt, Mt. Sinai, the Dead Sea. Somehow I can't even explain why this moment was so profound, but looking out in the direction of India on this mystical island was special, calming even, in such a faraway land.
Later on this trip, I was told by a man, "I wanted to hate America, but all of the Americans that I have met have been so nice." Perhaps there is a benefit to journeys such as this...
The Eastern Portion of the Island