SPECIFICALLY SOCOTRA: Welcome to the strange island of Socotra. This photo series documents some of the strange landscapes from this small island off the horn of Africa. As always, click photos to embiggin. If you’re just joining us, this is what you’ve missed so far:
- Gone Fishing … In Yemen
- Specifically Socotra
- We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
- The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
- Burqa on the Beach
- Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
- My Day as a Pirate
- The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything
Since posting this series of photos from Socotra many dozens of emails, tweets and messages have come in asking a range of questions from “how much does it cost” to “where can you stay on the island.” In an effort to answer all of the questions in one fell swoop, as well as provide some confirmed and recent information on travel in Socotra, this post which will simply discuss the basics for travelers looking to get off the beaten path and hopefully counter much of the misinformation out there in the blogasphere.
So, without any further adieu, here is The Idiots Guide to Socotra: How To … Everything. Information here was valid in the Spring of 2012.
WHAT: Socotra is considered the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.” The landscape is completely unique on a global scale. For adventure travelers there’s a lot to see and do, none of requires any infrastructure.
Socotra Archipelago, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, is 250 km long and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa. The site is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants), including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp.
While the biodiversity is amazing, beach goers, hikers, divers and climbers have endless possibilities on the island. For those wishing to go a little further out of site, the caving and spelunking scene seems pretty untapped. Even in the last decade people have been exploring the inner tunnels of this island and finding amazing relics of the past including intact, human remains and ancient art. The island is also known for bird watching as well as well as windsurfing and paragliding.
Really, the possibilities are endless.
HOW: The first step to going to Socotra is getting there, which will most likely take you at least two flights. Daily flights go from Dubai to Sana’a, Yemen (although this is not necessarily true the other way around). My flight from Beijing, China to Sana’a, Yemen on Emirates cost about $1000 USD. A flight from New York to Sana’a during the same period cost about $1200 and from London about $900.
From Sana’a two airlines go to Socotra — Felix Airways and Yemeni. At the time of writing this post it looked like there were about 6 flights a week from Sana’a to Socotra, but I wouldn’t trust the schedules or these airlines. My first flight booked was canceled without reason and the timetable for the airlines seemed completely off. Best thing to do is book through someone there who is keeping an eye on it.
The flights from Sana’a act more like a bus than a plane and do stop although you don’t need to get off the plane. A roundtrip ticket from Sana’a to Socotra cost around $150.
VISAS: After you have your flights figured out, there’s the messy business of getting a visa. When I called the Yemeni Embassy in Beijing, they quickly assured me it was not possible to get a tourist visa to Yemen. Looking at the U.S. State Departement’s list of travel warnings, does not encourage one to travel to Yemen either. But rest assured, it is possible and legal.
After some frustrating filtering of ridiculous information on blogs and web sites I found a man on the island who claimed if I Western Union(ed) him some cash he would obtain a visa for me and email me a PDF of it (to show to customs agents on my departing side). Then when I arrived in Yemen he would send someone to the airport with the actual visa who would time their arrival with my flight and give the visa to the customs agent who I was seeing.
Be it an “international airport,” El Rahaba Airport (Sana’a International) is not so secure that a random person can’t just walk through security and do this. And while airport agents in China and UAE where a bit confused by the seemingly photocopied document, they allowed me past and the man was there on the other side. For the visa and the service, this man charged me $50.
WHO: This man’s name is Abdullah. Abdullah not only got me a visa, but got plane tickets from mainland Yemen to the island and helped arrange a car, a driver and a guide. Abdullah is really — one stop Socotra shopping.
Here’s Abdullah above, you can email him here or see his web site here. He was completely reliable, friendly, helpful and although it seems dodgy to send $500 USD to a stranger on a small island in the middle of nowhere — the plan worked exactly as he said it would. While at one time there was an association that governed tourism, the organization has disbanded and now private entrepreneurs like Abdullah are the only real way to organize things.
While this place is remote and exotic, the first note to anyone thinking of going there is, its very underdeveloped. There are no resorts on this island and besides in the capital city of Hadibo, there are no restaurants, hotels or guest houses. In the capital I was told there was two hotels and four restaurants. Our hotel (which cost $10 USD a night – the cheaper of the two options) was powered by generated during the night time hours (ergo, no power during the day) and had no hot water. This was about as luxurious as it would get as the next two weeks on the island were spent camping with no facilities.
Above is the city of Hadibo, the capital of Socotra. This is the “big city” — consisting of one main road and some side roads (you are seeing most of the city in this picture). Outside of this, you’ll pretty much encounter only small stone-hut style villages. So don’t expect B&B’s and guesthouses. But this ok, because Abdullah can set you up with a tent and some friends to come along to help.
WHEN: When to go to Socotra is actually a bit tricky. The summer can be blistering hot with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees. However, it is not the heat you are really worried about — but the wind. The winds in Socotra become so fierce from June through August almost everything shuts down.
There are two annual monsoons: the south-west monsoon, which kicks up high seas around the island from early June to early October (this monsoon occasionally brings heavy rains in June), has created a physical barrier to access by sea since the earliest times. These intercontinental stratospheric winds blow from Africa towards the Himalaya mountains, bringing the wet to India. But as they pass over Socotra they are caught by the nearly 5000 ft. Hagghier mountains and dragged fiercely down over the northern coast. The wind blows on the north coast, non-stop, day and night, for three months at approximately 90 kilometers per hour with some gusts at 180 kph, in the area of Hadibo, between Howlaf and Mori. The north-east monsoon from April to May delivers a smaller amount of precipitation. The annual rainfall varies between 130 to 170 mm/hour. Even during the calmer months sea landings may still be difficult due to a combination of logistical problems, including the absence of adequate harbor facilities.
This actually forces the population to live a quasi-nomadic life moving from place to place on the island to shelter from the winds. A good portion of the island is completely desertified. This creates sand storms so brutal almost any and all tourist activities are complete shut. While my guide said tourism was “not allowed” during this months I can’t find anything official that says this.
But I certainly think its a good idea NOT to go during the windy season and the desolate sandy landscape would become very painful.
THERE: Once you are on the island and out of Hadibo you will almost have no opportunity to spend money. You won’t encounter any beggars although some children might try to sell you some dragon blood or incense. And you won’t receive any type of India-like pestering from these kids, its pretty harmless and not annoying.
While there is one main paved road around the island, you will need a four wheel drive vehicle to really explore. I rented a jeep with a driver from Abdullah for $50 a day. There was no options that I heard about for renting your own car or motor bike. Socotra has not developed enough with toruism to have people slinging this stuff yet.
However, this ended up being great. The driver (above) was completely flexible of where we wanted to go and at any point would stop or start the car to photograph. Changing our plan as we deemed fit as we went was not a problem. The car itself was comfortable for 4 people and you could squeeze 5 if you wanted.
There is a microbus service on the island as well, but it is inconsistent, slow and certainly hard to figure out. Its essentially a small (crowded) van that cost about $1 for a long ride and less for shorter rides.
While the driver is necessary, you can optionally have a guide. If you haven’t been to Socotra before I would certainly recommend getting a guide. My guide, above, was Mr. Mahdi Naseeb. There are allegedly only 12 or 13 guides on the island. Although I haven’t met many of the others, I would certainly recommend this guy. He did go through official training and knows a tremendous amount about the island — from history to plants and trees. And he likes to sing …
Mahdi and the driver acted as a team and understood that while we wanted some information we also wanted some privacy. So if you go to the beach for the day, the driver and guide won’t be sitting watching, waiting impatiently for you to hurry up. Nothing like that. These two, who had never heard, or heard of The Beatles or Elvis Presly were not only great companions but actually seemed like they were having fun with us. I’ve had similar scenarios in other remote places where this is not the case.
In fact, they work as a team in an almost luxery camping setup. So when you get to a spot — you can go explore, rest, swim — or anything else you might want to do. In the meantime, the guide and driver will setup your tent and start preparing food.
These are pretty much your only options while on the island if you want to explore away from Hadibo. While you will be camping on rocks, they will provide a mattress of sorts during meals and for sleeping (if you don’t have a thremarest). While I own camping gear, being able to simply show up with nothing is pretty convenient. Be aware, that even though its tropical and very hot in the day, it can get chilly at night in the spring.
FOOD:I mentioned before there was no restaurants outside of the capital city. So you might be wondering — well, how do you eat then? The food scenerio is very basic, although very good considering the location. In most scenerios, the guide or driver would essentially be “figuring out” dinner every night.
This meant either fishing or buying a fish from a local fisherman and when we were in the mountains buying a goat. An entire (small) goat would cost about $10 and would feed all four of us (with rice and pita bread). They can kill, skin and prepare the goat amazingly fast. We ate lobster and fish and were offered stingrays.
Breakfast and lunch were much simpler and consisted of bread, cheese, jam and honey (breakfast) and tuna, yogurt, vegetables (lunch). While in Socotra and Yemen you will consistently be forced an enormous amount of delicious tea. There’s no shortage of that …
For someone who grew up camping, having someone else do all the work is a bit of a luxurious experience. And while I think its nice to setup your own tent as its part of the “camping experience” the guide and driver were both very candid and happy as they did this and they never made me feel guilty or lazy. Instead, it was more like they were being hospitable.
For three meals a day, prepared, etc. cost $20 per person. Camping, including the tent cost $5 per night and the English speaking guide cost $20 per day. We gave them both small tips at the end which they seemed grateful for. Additional costs included snorkeling ($6), and a boat trip which while it was kind of stupidly expensive, was very worth it ($30 per person) because we had a great time.
So — all said and done, how much does it cost? While I’m sure its possible to do it cheaper, a weekly cost for me while on Socotra was about $450 per person (traveling with two people).
I hope this is helpful — if any further questions should arise feel free to give a shout and I’ll try to get back to you in a timely manor.
And now — the blog will move on to Sana’a, the world’s oldest city.