Socotra is the main island in an archipelago of four islands that is located in the Indian Ocean, off the tip of the Horn of Africa. The other smaller islands include Abd al Kuri, Samhah, and Darsa. Socotra is administered by Yemen on behalf of the Banu Afrar Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra. The islands are also claimed by nearby Somalia.
Socotra is about 1,400 square miles (3,625 square kilometers) in size, and is 80 miles (130 kilometers) from east to west, and 18 to 22 miles (30 to 35 kilometers) from north to south. Geologically, the island consists of a coastal plain, a central limestone plateau, and the Haghier Mountains. It is one of the world's most isolated islands of continental origin, rather than of volcanic origin. It detached from the ancient continent of Gondwana about 6,000,000 years ago, and has been slowly drifting eastward away from the African continent since then.
Socotra is inhabited by about 45,000 people who have their own distinct language and culture, although they also speak Arabic, the official language of Yemen. Socotra has closer ties to Africa than to Arabia, and many people appear more African than Arabic.
Socotra has been called a "mini Madagascar" due to its large number of endangered animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world. Botanists have discovered more than 850 species of plants (of which about 270 are endemic to the island), and anticipate the discovery of many more. About 80 percent of the island's reptiles, and many of the insects are also endemic. And the reason I went to Socotra was to see the six or 11 (depending on taxonomy) endemic species of birds, all of which I saw.
Socotra has long been closed to the outside world, but tourists are starting to discover the natural attractions of the island. Many people go for the sun and beaches, but most go for the world-class diving and various eco-tourism activities.
The umbrella-shaped dragon's blood tree is endemic to Socotra, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It is an iconic symbol of Socotra, and is one of the most photographed features of the island. The tree is unique, and is probably distantly related to the baobabs of Africa and Madagascar. (There are other "dragon's blood trees" native to the Cape Verde and Canary islands, but they are of a different species).
The dragon's blood tree gets its name from the red resin obtained from small cuts in its trunk and branches. The resin was harvested in ancient times, as it was believed to have medicinal properties, and was used to make red dye. The resin was traded to the Arabs and ancient Mediterranean civilizations via the Incense Road, along with frankincense and myrrh.
The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Arabs used the dragon's blood resin as a cure-all for such ailments as diarrhea, fever, dysentery, respiratory and stomach viruses, and ulcers of the mouth, throat, stomach, and intestines.
The resin was also used to make a deep red dye, as well as varnish by eighteenth-century violin makers. An eighteenth-century recipe for toothpaste even called for dragon's blood resin.
Mahweet is the capital of al-Mahweet governorate, one of the most rugged, mountainous, and spectacular regions in Yemen. The region is characterized by mountaintop villages and ancient fortresses, of which there are 26.
Mahweet is a popular destination for tourists because of its panoramic vistas, fascinating architecture, and mild climate. The buildings of Mahweet are clustered on a sharp ridge of al-Masna'a Mountain, 6,726 feet (2,050 meters) in elevation. The village has its own distinct style of architecture, and is still surrounded by a medieval wall and protective towers.
In contrast to most of Yemen, the climate in Mahweet is generally crisp and cool, especially at night.
The interior of Socotra is dominated by the Dixem Plateau, a 5,000-foot-high (1,520-meter-high) escarpment that runs east and west across most of the island. Geologically, the plateau is made up of limestone which is permeated with karstic caverns. I thought that much of the rock looks like it is made of Swiss cheese. Several deep canyons criss-cross the plateau, the largest and most impressive being Wadi Di Rhur.
Until recently, the Dixem Plateau was relatively inaccessible, but a new cross-island paved road has made access to the interior easy. The views from the edge of the plateau over the coastal plain toward the sea are spectacular. And the Haghier Mountains can be seen from most of the Dixem Plateau, and form a backdrop that provides ample photographic opportunities.
The soil on top of the plateau is alkaline, so few plants can grow there. Most of the vegetation consists of rough grasses and the unique dragon's blood tree that thrives in such soil, and which grows nowhere else in the world. The climate and high altitude provide an ideal environment for lichens, many of which are white and cover the rocks, making them look as if they are covered with snow.
Qalansiyah is a small fishing village located near the west end of Socotra. The village is dirty and ugly, and there is nothing in the village itself that would be of interest to tourists. However, visitors do go to Qalansiyah mainly to hire fishing boats to see nearby enormous, spectacular cliffs that are over one thousand feet (305 meters) high and drop straight down into the sea. The rock is very weathered and fractured, and riddled with holes and caves. The water at the base of the cliffs is shallow with a sandy bottom, and is therefore an amazing turquoise in color.
My group went to Qalansiyah not only to see the cliffs, but primarily to look for sea birds that cannot be seen from shore. We were successful, and saw some birds that are very difficult to see in other parts of the world. Early in the morning the sea was calm, but as happens most afternoons, the wind picked up and the water became very choppy. That made for a rough, wet trip back to the village from the cliffs.
Wadis are canyons carved through the mountains by prehistoric rivers 10,000 to 2,000,000 years ago. Some of the larger wadis contain permanent rivers or streams, but most are dry for most of the year. However, during the rainy season, many wadis are subject to flash floods. And because water runs through the wadis during the rainy season, their soil generally retains moisture, even during the driest months. This moisture, coupled with a benign, sunny climate, means that wadis are some of the most fertile areas in the desert regions of Yemen. Wadis are used to grow such crops as bananas, mangoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, papayas, pomegranates, dates, figs, coffee beans, all sorts of vegetables, and several varieties of cereal.
Because of the lush foliage that grows in most wadis, they are good places to observe wildlife, such as mammals and birds. On my trip, we spent a lot of time in wadis, such as Wadi Sar'a, pictured here, looking for some of the birds that are unique to Southwest Arabia and Yemen.
The Red Sea is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, and abounds with such fish as barracuda, bonito, dorado, sailfish, skipjack tuna, and yellowfin tuna, among many others. The city of Hodeidah is Yemen's main Red Sea port, and is home to many of Yemen's 70,000 traditional fishermen. The Hodeidah fishing port is an interesting place to visit as the fishermen return from the sea. Their colorfully painted fishing boats are based on traditional designs, although most now contain motors. As the fishermen unload their catches, the fish is put on ice and displayed in the port's sheds, where the lots are put up for auction. During busy times, the port can be a noisy and smelly place, but at the same time colorful and great for photographic opportunities.
The way of life of Yemen's traditional fisherman is in jeopardy. Large fishing vessels from foreign countries are increasingly beginning to fish off the coast of Yemen. Occasionally foreign vessels are seized by Yemeni officials for fishing within Yemen's waters. These ships tend to use large nets to sweep the waters, many in violation of international standards. Such fishing practices are starting to deplete the supply of fish close to shore. And as the numbers of fish are decreasing, Yemeni fishermen must venture farther out into international waters, where they are sometimes seized by foreign powers, especially Eritrea, for supposedly violating those countries' territorial waters. When this happens, the fishermen's boats, catches, and fuel are confiscated, requiring huge fines for their return that the fishermen cannot afford.
While crossing the immensity of Ramlat as-Sabatain, bedouins offered us their hospitality whenever we decided to stop and have something to eat. Our driver had taken care of buying all the necessary things to feed us and the locals did not have any objection to share their meals with us.
How they manage to survive and even to raise cattle in a place where tehre only seems to be sand is something difficult to understand.
Yemen by definition is off the beaten track. Be prepared to see what Arabian life was like hundreds of years ago. Every intrepid traveller wants to see rural life in a foreign country but Yemen is unique in this way. Everything outside the main cities is off the beaten track so you wont have to look very far to experience it. The north of Yemen sees occasional travellers whhile the east sees more because of Shibam etc. There are tons of places in this country that have yet to be discovered. Yemen remains off the radar due to travel advisories so it will be a long long time before it will be included on the tourist trail like Petra or Luxor. Amazing
Smaller villages, but see warnings below. Travel to the coast and into eastern Yemen, to Aden, formerly a separate country.
We traveled by private car down to Hodeida, a major port on the coast. Met many interesting and extremely friendly fishermen and boat builders. Great contrast to Sana'a.
Al-Khowkha is probably the most 'developed' of Yemen's beach resorts, although admittedly that isn't saying much. It is a very laid-back place, with accommodation available in beachside camps. The beaches aren't great...they are worth visiting to see the traditional boat-builders and to watch the fisherman bring in their catch, but aren't really suitable for sunbathing (you'll be stared at, doubly so if you are female) or swimming (the water in the lagoon is too shallow for swimming, and deeper water past the reefs is supposedly shark-infested). However, snorkelling here is great...you can hire snorkelling gear from some of the camps, and pay a fisherman to take you out to the reefs for an hour or so. There are rumours about a coastal highway running all the way from Al-Hodeida to Al-Mokha, which would undoubtedly change the atmosphere of the place. The locals I spoke to did not want the highway to happen, and there doesn't seem to be a good reason for building such a road when there is a perfectly good highway running the length of the country about 20 kilometres inland...plus, there are so many better things to spend money on like improving schools, hospitals, etc...why spend it on a huge road which will ruin the place?!
For more on Al-Khowkha, visit my Al-Khowk a Travelogue.
Probably the best places a traveller would miss are right under his or her nose, in the old city of Sana'a. People don't give themselves enough time to see the place - I lived in the old city for three months and only saw half of it, and it wasn't through not trying! Not many tourists would ever find the grinding mill operated by a blindfolded camel walking in circles, a method which hasn't changed in thousands of years. Apparently there are six still in use in Old Sana'a today, but I only found two of them.
Another area of Sana'a often missed by tourists is the Qa', the old Jewish district, where the houses were restricted to a certain height.
If you are thinking of spending a long time in Yemen (or any other Middle Eastern country) the best thing to do is enrol for a language course - it's amazing how many 'doors' open with a little Arabic. I have two travelogues about Sana'a al-Qadeema (old Sana'a)...Summer 2000 ...and...December 2001.
Zabid is reportedly the hottest town in Yemen, and is known throughout the country for it's comical dialect (though to be honest, I didn't notice it!)
It is a very old city which is falling apart, although it has been listed under UNESCO and is ear-marked for preservation and repair.
It is easy to get to as it lies on the Tihama 'highway' between Al-Hodeidah and Ta'izz, and makes a good base for visiting the Friday market at Bayt al-Faqih. There is only one place to stay, and it is friendly though basic. Unusually, it is run by 3 veiled sisters, who were very willing to talk (this was the first time I was able to speak properly to a Yemeni woman since I had arrived in Yemen 3 months earlier). The food was excellent, although it is difficult to sleep in a large room surrounded by cats and snoring men , with no air-conditioning and temperatures of 40 degrees plus.
There are lots of 'sights' to see, and the derelict mosques provide a rare opportunity for a non-muslim to enter a place of worship in Yemen -all working mosques are off-limits to tourists. It can be hard to distinguish a derelict mosque from a person's house, so only enter if peope in the street offer to show you inside. Don't visit after heavy rain, as the roads turn to rivers and mudpits!
See my Zabid and Bayt al-Faqih Travelogue for more pictures!
When you have the possibility, visit a Yemenite wedding. Actualy there are two weddings, one for the men (see picture) and one for the women (including the bride!). As a foreign women you can visit both!
Actually most of the Yemen is "off the beaten path", but still there are more remote places and just remote places....
Do take your time to look for details, they make the whole travel experience even more exciting!!!
absolutely PERFECT! We had all we need - hot water, cable TV, views and very interesting stay....more
I didn't stay there, but went there in early afternoon hoping for a cup of tea. But they don't have...more
Al Hawta Palace Hotel is situated on the outskirts of Say'un and is set in lovely landscaped...more
More Regions in Yemen