Tag Archives: Socotra

The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything

GoPro on Car

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate
  8. The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything


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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.

Socotra Airport

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.

Visas for Yemen

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.

Abdullah - Socotra

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.

Hadibo, Socotra

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.

Sandy Landscape

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.

Car with a View

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.

Mahdi Naseeb - Guide Socotra

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.

Camping on Socotra

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.

Lobster

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 …

Cooking at Night

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.

Socotra Boats

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.

Jonah

My Day as a Pirate

Fisherman off the coast of Yemen

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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Many people have asked me if it is dangerous to travel in Yemen.

In fact, before I went to Yemen, pretty much everyone I talked to, including United States and Yemeni consulates told me — not to go. There are plenty of reasons to not go to Yemen as a tourist right now, but the island of Socotra is pretty far removed from the civil strife of its mainland government and people.

However, it is much closer to the pirate infested waters of Somalia.

Socotri Fisherman

While the above question is a valid one, I have also (jokingly) been asked many times if I ran into any pirates. The answer is, yes. However, somehow I ended up on the pirating boat, not the pirated boat.

I had hired a fisherman to take me to an amazing beach, only accessible by boat. The waters were an amazing shade of cerulean and our small boat cruised across the Indian Ocean peacefully. We had left from a fishing port and were continuously passing other small boats full of scurvy looking men.

Socotra - Fishing

All was well on the high sea, when our boat slowed down near another small fishing boat and the two captains exchanged words.

In the blink of an eye the driver of my boat leaped aboard the other boat and grabbed a large fish and immediately jumped back to our boat — pushing the other boat away as he spring back to our boat. This action incited a cacophony of Arabic and Socotri yelling from both sides.

Disputed Fish

As our driver attempted to make a quick getaway a crew member from the “less-one-fish-boat” leaped and boarded our vessel. We were now plus one fish and plus one angry Socotri fisherman. The other boat caught up and the men formed a grip on the boats so no one could go anywhere.

As the cacophony of yelling rose, yet another boat floated by and became interested in the fight. They decided it was best to join the party and proceeded to paddle over and lock onto our boat.

Now, three boats, twelve yelling Socotri men and two foreigners floated together as the men tried to solve the issue.

Locking Boats

Men jumped from boat to boat examining the catch, shouting their opinions and eventually a barter situation began, which ended with the fish going back to its original boat and an enormous lobster going to my boat … which happily ended up on my plate.

There was never any exchange of money.

Till this day, I don’t really know exactly what was being said, but I did gather that these people probably all knew each other. I was told by my guide that our captain wanted to take the fish home to his family and it seemed like a practical matter of hunger. His attempt at piracy seemed to be unsuccessful, although I ended up with a delicious lobster, so not all was lost.

Dinner

Ok, so maybe this isn’t exactly piracy. And maybe I’m not exactly a pirate. But the strange scene did make me think a little bit about the reality of piracy in the Indian Ocean. I do think we’re beyond the image of the man with a peg-leg, eye patch and parate on the shoulder but we do have the idea that pirates are just out to get rich and cause trouble. However, for many in Africa who are deemed pirates — really, they are just starving and looking for food — or the means to which later acquire food.

According to people on Socotra, pirates don’t show up there very often. However, when they have they are often just looking for food.

Angry Yemeni Man With Knife

Just to be clear — I don’t endorse steeling or piracy at all and I do realize there are many gun-wielding, dangerous people on the sea. But I can also imagine if you come from a famished African nation like Somalia, you might look toward the sea as a lifeline. And if fishing isn’t working out, perhaps the next step is piracy.

After all, if its either starving or feeding you and your family — people would chose the later.

Crowded Fishing Boat

Extreme hunger will certainly make people do things they normally wouldn’t. I don’t believe we spend a lot of time combatting piracy, but we certainly spend a lot of time being afraid of them. Perhaps our energy would be better spent creating more resources for people in need and helping to distribute our own resources out to countries where this seems to be a problem.

Attn.: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean

Socotri Fisherman

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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I flew about 10,000 miles to go look at some trees. It was worth it.

But what I didn’t know, was that I was also traveling 10,000 miles to find a new color. And after Crayola took my last suggestion for a new color, I thought I’d throw a new one out there: Socotri Cerulean.

Swimming at Socotra

The waters around Socotra, the small island off the horn of Africa are truly a unique shade of turquoise — somehow saturated with color yet almost transparent. Made up of shades of blue, green, emerald and turquoise — when light hits this water in the right way, it really does look different. I call this is Socotri Cerulean.

Yemen Beach

When talking about unique ocean colors or great beaches, a lot rests on one’s experiences. One will define their definition of great beaches based upon those they have been to. I have been fortunate in life to go to a lot of nice beaches. I have lived on the shores of Maui, the Mediterranean and the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve traveled on small boats through Fijian, Filipino, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mexican waters. I’ve hoped across Greek Islands to Turkey and many just seen an amazing amount of vibrant ocean colors.

Private Beach, Private Boat — Socotra

But this color was not one I’d seen in the South Pacific, Caribbean or Southeast Asia.

Clear Waters

Waters around Socotra are certainly impressive — like the colors you see in magazines, except the saturation slider hasn’t been jacked in Photoshop. And your not looking at a book or magazine. Your actually seeing it.

To be fair, some of this has to do with light — but even in the shade this water looks different.

Socotra Beach

Clearly, Socotra’s fauna and landscapes are fantastic. However, what I was most surprised about was this color and the empty beaches. Who would have guessed that Yemen would hold some of the world’s coolest beaches? Certainly, not me.

I can see the bumper stickers now: “Socotra — come for the trees, stay for the beaches!”

High Tide

You won’t see it on CNN’s latest “top ten beaches in the world” list … wait a second. You won’t even see it on CNN’s TOP 50 BEACHES IN THE WORLD LIST!?!?!

Sadly this is probably because the author had three more “top 10 lists” to write that day (as many reporters at CNNGo seem to be on a “Top 10 List” beat) and they couldn’t get a courtesy photo from a resort, like the ones that happen to appear on the list who were coincidently handing out free trips and press junkets. Ah hem …

Back at the beach … for people who want a little more space than on Waikiki or Bondi Beach, Socotra has a lot of room.

When I was there these beaches were all essentially all — private beaches. Once in awhile you would see some locals at a beach having a picnic, but you won’t run into backpackers guzzling beer, all inclusive resorts, a snack bar or any of the other amenities which do come along with CNN’s list.

Socotra Sunset

Soft sands, clear waters, no people: This sounds great. How about sea life? Also excellent. Snorkeling and diving on the island showed great visibility as well as impressive coral. I also saw an amazing amount of dolphins and stingrays. At one point, I woke up, opened my tent door and was surprised to see hundreds of dolphins jumping out of the water right in front of me without having to get out of my tent.

Dolphins Spanning Horizon

Completely spanning the horizon, as if in a migratory pattern, dolphins swam passed me (the photo above requires clicking on to really see whats going on). I had a cup of tee, some bread and honey and watched for about 20 minutes before they disappeared beneath the circus tent that is the ocean. This was a nice cup of tea.

Where Desert Meets Beach

But what makes Socotra beaches and the waters that surround them truly exceptional are the backdrops they all have.

Beach and Sand Dunes

Fog covered cliffs and enormous sand dunes meet beaches which hit the cerulean waters. When the sands do connect to the beach, the scenery turns into a very unique place that is part beach, part dessert.

Unique Ocean Environment

Another unique aspect of many of the waters and landscape I found on Socotra were the unique tide lines. Nature has created an environment which makes islands of ocean trapped within large bodies of sand. In other areas, fresh water would connect to salt water creating the “best of both (water) worlds” scenery.

Shallow Beach

Jump in the ocean, cool off in the stream. Warm on the dunes. Repeat.

Not a bad day at the beach.

Burqa on the Beach

Burqa on the Beach

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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While camping on a beach off the coast of Africa, I was approached by a group of rowdy women, all robed in traditional black burqas. Some of them were less covered than others, but all had their skin and hair completely covered, many had their faces and eyes covered as well.

This is quite normal — if you are a women in Yemen and want to go to the beach, you still wear the veil and robes even if you want to go swimming in the ocean.

Taking pictures of women on Socotra is considered completely unacceptable. As I normally have a camera out, when I would see a woman on Socotra they would almost instantly react and steer clear of me, some would cross the street and others would just completely turn around (even if I wasn’t taking their picture, or even a picture).

Burqa Women in Ocean

It was like walking towards superman with a pocket full of kryptonite (apologize for the Spin Doctor’s reference).

I’ve spent some time in North Africa where public photography (or street photography) of women was not well liked but I had never seen such an extreme adverse reaction to the camera as on this island. A child at some point threatened to throw a rock at me, when I raised my camera toward her.

Interestingly enough, almost all of the women (besides children) on the island are dressed completely in black with burqas, hijab (head covering) and niqab (veil covering face and often eyes). If I were to take a photo, I’m not sure anyone would ever be identifiable. But that’s besides the point.

Burqah Ladies with Maysha

Back on the beach, the burqa-ed mob were shouting as they approached my girlfriend Maysha and I. I wasn’t taking their picture so I couldn’t figure out why they were yelling at me. When they got a little closer I realized some were actually speaking a little English. They were asking me to wait up.

So we stopped and had a chat with them. Turns out, these young ladies actually wanted me to take photos of them. I think they wanted me to take their pictures simply because they knew it wasn’t allowed. Like teenagers in the west who want to break the rules, these girls were having a blast taking pictures with us and doing a large variety of silly poses and the never boring, cross-culturally/universal fun “jump shot” (more on the “jump shot, later).

Jump Shot on the Beach with Burqa Ladies

While none spoke good enough English to have a very in depth conversation, there was no verbal communication needed to understand that they were having a great time. They would reach out and touch me, and instantly begin giggling like infants.

Jonah Kessel and Burqa Lady on Beach

At some point, one women even kissed Maysha on the cheek which brought the mob to tears — as if they had just witnessed the funniest joke, anyone had ever told anyone, in the history of jokes.

While its common in the west to see women with hijabs or head coverings we don’t often see fully veiled women, except on television and news reports. Overwhelming often, when we see these images the stories are inevitably negative. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a report that says “Muslim women had fun at beach.” I believe our conceptions surrounding the burqa can be vilified and misguided by the media so much that we often forget about the women underneath the veils.

Burqa Lady Kisses Maysha

Just like us, they like to go to the beach, they like to laugh — and they too think its fun to break the rules once in awhile.

Many in the west consider the burqa to be a symbol of female oppression. These claims have gone to extreme points in places such as France where the burqa has been baned completely in public places.

The French law is religion-neutral; it refers only to generic “face coverings,” not to any particular religion. The French law imposed a fine of 150 euros ($190) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa became punishable by a year in prison or a 15,000 euro ($19,000) fine.

But these giggling and jumping girls certainly didn’t act “oppressed.” The women who didn’t want to be photographed, also didn’t act “oppressed.” More, they followed the traditions of their society, be it far different than ours. As Muslim societies are generally religious one, France’s claim that the ban is “religion-neutral” is just about as ridiculous as their English accents (this statement is half joking … hopefully you can figure out which half).

Laughing Burqa Ladies

While there are certainly great gender inequalities in Yemen and the greater Middle East where burqas are commonly found, to the women wearing them here this tradition is just as normal as having a Christmas tree on Christmas or lighting a menorah on Chanukah. In fact, in traditional context they symbolize virtue and honor, attributes which we see as positive things. This is often referred to in the Muslim world as Namus.

Namus is an ethical category, a virtue, in Middle Eastern Muslim patriarchal character. It is a strongly gender-specific category of relations within a family described in terms of honor, attention, respect/respectability, and modesty. The term is often translated as “honor”.

Its just what they do. And its these actions and traditions that make up their culture.

Burqa Lady Thinking

Having said this, I do believe gender equality is an issue of global importance that needs to be looked at in many areas of the developing world and the so-called first world. And while I don’t agree that women should be considered any less of a person or citizen than a man, I do believe they should be able to wear whatever they want.

And if that means wearing a black veil and covering their face, so be it.

In a greater historical context there is evidence which shows a strong correlation between the level of education and freedom of women, to the greater level of development, prosperity and peace in that society. In a conflicted area like the Middle East it would seem this to be a good thing.

The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree

Dragon Blood Tree, Socotra

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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Long ago and far away (from you, most likely) a sultan’s daughter fell ill. To help his daughter, the sultan announced that anyone who could find a cure for his daughter’s illness could have any treasure in the sultan’s reach, which was as far as the eye could see and as wild as the mind could imagine. Doctors from all corners of the earth came to help the princess, but none could find a cure. And the girl became gravely ill.

dragon_bloog_tree_socotra_02

Soon thereafter, a man came forth and said he knew of an island with a magical fruit that could heal the sick. The sultan said the man could have any of his resources to retrieve the magical fruit. The man said he only needed a sea worthy ship and the sultan’s sharpest sword, for a dragon lived on the island.

With the Sultan’s sharpest sword and swiftest ship the man traveled far into the sea to find the island and the magical fruit.

Dragon BLood Tree Forest

It was the island of Socotra the man had set sail to.
The fruit the man sought, was a pomegranate.

After navigating angry seas, the man did eventually reach the island. When he found the tree that bore the pomegranate, he picked one fruit from the tree. He stared down at the fruit, wondering if the fruit would heal the sultan’s daughter. While his mind wondered, the winds shifted. He turned around and the dragon appeared in front of him. Reacting quickly he drew the sultan’s sword and lunged at the dragon, swinging.

Dragon Blood Tree Forest, Socotra

As the man landed he looked up and watched as one of the dragon’s wings fell to the ground, making a dull thud, followed by a squishy splat.

The dragon looked at the man and blood began to spill. He told the man that the fruit he picked would heal whoever ate it, but if he picked anymore, the fruit would turn sour and lose its powers.

The dragon jumped into the sky, his blood spilling freely from the open wound where his wing once flapped. As he flew in crooked spirals attempting to flee to safety, his blood spread all over the island.

Dragon Tree Landscape

The man returned to the Sultan and gave him the fruit. Soon thereafter, the Princess ate the fruit and low and behold she regained her strength and vitality.

The Sultan said “anything can be yours now. What would you like?”

The man replied “I would like your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

And the Sultan said “So it will be written.”

Dragon Blood Tree In Thick Clouds

The man and the women lived for many years in happiness. Years passed and eventually the man forgot the dragon’s words. He wanted more fruit.

He returned to the island, this time with the Sultan’s daughter. He wanted to take more fruit and sell it. But upon picking the second piece of fruit, the color of the fruit changed and its seeds turned sour. The fruits power vanished with the sweetness it once contained. Remembering the words of the dragon, the man knew what he had done. Instead of returning, they decided to stay and start a family on the island.

They were the first Socotri.
The blood of the dragon grew into the first Dragon Blood Trees.
Today, pomegranate on Socotra are still sour.

Foggy Dragon Blood Trees

• • •

And this is how it was told to me, by Mahdi, a Socotri living on the island today (perhaps with less adjectives and classic storytelling references and abuses).

This is the tale of the Dragon Blood Tree and the myth behind the strange fauna of this strange island. However, the reality of the Dragon Blood Tree is almost as strange as the myth.

Dragon Blood Trees Tall

These trees are found nowhere else on earth and many are estimated to be over 800-years-old. And much akin to their fabled origin, they do indeed — bleed.

The blood of the Dragon Blood Tree has been collected by Socotri for as long as people can remember. Small blood-colored crystals are broken off from the bark of the tree. These crystals are then ground up and used for a variety of purposes, mainly as a product you apply to your skin. I bought a bag that weighed about 100 grams for 500 rials.

Getting the Blood from the DRagon Blood Tree

This and incense (also locally made on the island) are about the only thing people on the island will attempt to sell you. Their incense can be both burned and eaten, although tt tastes like you shouldn’t eat it.

Dragon Blood

While I am far from a botanist, these trees are extremely interesting. Bringing a Studio Gibli movie or perhaps a Dr. Seuss book to life, these trees just look odd. They grow well past 5 meters high and while a single one is big, when you get a view of a forest of them, you instantly feel trumped in size.

Like the Bottle Tree or Desert Rose, they also seem to have the ability to grow out of rocks. I can’t really figure out how the root structure works or how they get water to grow so big in the deserted climate, but it seems like they require no soil.

Dragon Tree Road Trip

Driving around in a 4-wheel drive vehicle on top of stoney mountains your car will be dwarfed.

While the trees are only found in higher elevations, in the mountainous areas of Socotra, there is no shortage of them.

Dragon Tree Blood Silouettes

– This blog post was written and posted at an elavation of 40,000 feet on Emirates Flight 380 from Dubai to Beijing
— This blog post, is dedicated to the one and only Puck, who is quiet an interesting plant, herself.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore …

Socotra Sunset

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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Landscapes. Cityscapes. Nightscapes. Yeh, done that.

However, not until I landed in Socotra did I get to take some Mars-scapes. Ok, maybe it doesn’t look like as desolate as Mars, but this place does look pretty alien like. Following up yesterday’s post on speciation and the specifics which make Socotra so unique, this post will look at some of the overall landscapes before diving in to some more specific photo topics.

Dragon Tree Forest

Driving around Socotra is quite the experience for the road trip lover. As someone who enjoys just driving around and looking at stuff, this place is perfect. Above, you can see an evenly placed field of Dragon Blood Trees. Although its hard to tell from this photo, these things are huge. Check out the top photo here, to give you some perspective on height. But will come back to these later …

Desert Rose Growing on Rock

There’s the strange fauna, most notably the Dragon Blood Tree and the Bottle Tree, or Desert Rose — shown above. These strange trees, which are filled with poisonous water have the ability to grow out of rocks.

Sand Dune

There’s the desert, which always makes for weird landscapes. And not to be confused with the sand dunes, which fall steeply from fog covered cliffs, into crystal clear blue waters.

Socotra Cliffs

And of course, the lack of people makes you feel a bit isolated, as if you are on another planet.

Trees on Socotra

As I drove around the island, the landscape, fauna and feeling would change quickly and dramatically, ranging from Planet of the Apes to Total Recall.

Shipwreck

I found these landscapes to look even weirder when you had things to compare them against. For example, a person, a road — or an object you’re more used to seeing. Juxtaposed against these surreal landscapes, you start to see the scale of these strange landscapes.

Socotra Landscape

While these mars-scapes are fun to look at, for those who inhabit this island — they are as normal as oak trees, city parks and bus stops.

Sand into Ocean

Unfortunately, they don’t always make life on the island so easy. In many ways, the island is largely desertified. Enormous dunes pile up high near beaches. However, during summer months Socotra faces a fierce wind creating sand storms powerful enough that the islanders actually need to migrate to protected areas. This actually creates a semi-nomadic, or at least seasonally nomadic population.

Jonah in the Desert

Those that might want to visit the island should take note of this — tourism completely stops during these months. Beaches become unusable as dunes grow higher and higher and in some cases, full-on deserts have developed.

Ocean and Sands

While tall sand dunes and deserts are a fun thrill for tourists, for locals they are completely useless. Given the finite space the islanders have for agricultural, growing sandy lands and sand storms are surely nothing to look forward to.

Socotra Mud and Cave House

Nonetheless, for the people of Socotra — this is life. Outside of the two “major” cities, material possessions seemed few and far between and many houses were built into caves, cliffs and small single room stone houses. The photo above shows a lovely two-bedroom, 1.5 bathroom, house from above. This house, built into the side of the cliff was fairly typical for the rural areas. On top of the house, some Bottle Trees have grown directly out of the rock. For these people living sustainably, the dunes and winds are as normal as the trees which grow out of them.

Dragon Blood Trees

However, even with these difficult conditions for some Socotri people, its hard not to see the beauty in the landscape. And for a traveler who has been moving around the globe from island, to desert, to subcontinent, to continent — this place produced some pretty fun alien like landscapes.

Next post … will be a Dragon’s Tale.

Specifically Socotra

Dragon Blood Tree

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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Nestled safely between the pirate-infested waters of Somalia and the civil unrest of Yemen lies the island of Socotra.

This island broke off from the horn of Africa so long ago, that things here developed a bit differently. In fact, things developed so differently here that often times, it doesn’t really look like earth. And this is how I came to know the word speciation.

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise. The biologist Orator F. Cook seems to have been the first to coin the term ‘speciation’ for the splitting of lineages or “cladogenesis,” as opposed to “anagenesis” or “phyletic evolution” occurring within lineages. Whether genetic drift is a minor or major contributor to speciation is the subject matter of much ongoing discussion.

This convoluted definition says that if a species of something living are geographically split and isolated, that over thousands of years they may evolve differently. And this is the case with Socotra – over thousands of years of isolated plants and fauna developed differently. “37% of Socotra’s plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species” are endemic (i.e. they do not occur anywhere else in the world).

Socotra Beach

This evolutionary process and the surrounding political climate makes Socotra an extremely unique place. In its hay day, as many as 5000 tourists a year were visiting Socotra. However, after violent turmoil and civil unrest in Yemen, that number has dropped below 1000 in recent years, say people on the island. While I believe the island to be perfectly safe, I can understand people intrinsically being afraid of the place. And if you read the news, maybe you should be: suicide bombings, an Al-Qaeda hot spot, and a recent leadership change in an unstable nation — these’s are enough to keep most people away.

However, for those that brave both the real and unreal risks to get to this island — you will have a truly amazing experience. All beaches will be private beaches. All roads will be empty roads. And locals will be surprised to see you.

Socotra Kids

This situation actually keeps Socotra in a remarkably authentic condition. Without planes full of Westerners in skimpy bikinis around, the place doesn’t seem like a tourist attraction. No landscapes are littered with hotels, high rises and KTV bars. And the economic annoyances which go along with developing world tourism (i.e. beggars, scam artists and over priced Chinese made souvenirs) are non existent.

For those wishing to get off the beaten path — this place is great.

In a day where travel has become cheap and many developing world islanders have learned how to get tourist dollars into their pockets, places like this are few and far between. Sadly is takes some very specific circumstances to find a place this beautiful and unique that you don’t feel has been changed too much by tourism.

Socotra Landscape

While the blog has been dedicated to video storytelling the past couple months, the next few weeks will return to some travel photography and a trip through Socotra and the Persian Gulf.

Gone Fishing … in Yemen

Fishing in Yemen

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:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate


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Greetings friends, family and followers!

It has been many-a-moon since my last update. I’m just currently returning to civilization after camping on a small island near the coast of Somalia. This amazing Yemeni island, called Socotra, has left me internet-less for a bit now, leading to the Great Internet Outage of 2012, as I will now refer to is as.

Camping on this island without communication has been truly amazing. Without even a 3G connection, I believe this has been the longest I have gone without the internet … since the advent of the internet.

During the Great Internet Outage of 2012 I’ve seen some strange things. Endemic trees and fauna that look like Dr. Seuss drew them.

Dragon Blood Tree

Landscapes that resemble scenes from Total Recall.

Strange Landscape in Yemen

Hanging out with and breaking down misconceptions of people very different from those I normal see in Asia or the West.

Burka on the Beach

All while during this time, I have been completely shocked to see some of the nicest beaches I have ever seen, and they are not in a spot where you might expect to find them.

Socotra Beach

I’ll be traveling for a few more weeks through some ancient cities in the Persian Gulf and then to Europe before heading back to Asia.

Old City - Sana'a

When internet becomes regular, and time allows for it, some great tales and really unusual images from this amazing spot on the way, on a cool new photo series from Socotra and the Persian Gulf.

Until then – Salem and alla ysallimkum from the Middle East.

وداعا‎

Jonah