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By the beaches of Socotra 
and the pink Arabian Sea


Georgina Harding and her husband, John, travelled to Soqotra with Neil Orr in January 2004. This was their first visit to the island memorialised by Kipling in his ‘Just so Stories’. Here she records a few personal impressions.

Long before the end of our two week visit, I had fallen in love with this strange and beautiful island: a limestone plateau, some 75 miles long and 25 miles wide, intersected by volcanic eruptions and surmounted by the granite peaks of the Haggier range. These rise to a height of nearly 5000 ft and are the refuge of flora and fauna from one of the earliest periods of the world’s history. Soqotra was part of the incense route of ancient times, is steeped in myth and legend, and has its own unwritten language.

The north-east monsoon blows from November to March bringing rain. May is hot and torrid, then follows the south-west monsoon from June to September, making life on the coastal plain almost unbearable and putting an end to fishing, shipping and trading. During the rainy season the rivers become raging torrents with spectacular waterfalls. The sands whip up the sides of the cliffs creating monstrous dunes. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes move into caves, as do the bees, while traders return to mainland Yemen and Somalia.

There are 900 or so plant species, the most famous being dragon’s blood, myrrh, frankincense, pomegranate, cucumber and aloes. All provide pollen and nourishment for bees throughout the year. Dense thickets of hibiscus cordon the mountains, strange forests march across the plateaux, the ravines are full of every garden flower or fern you can think of, but delicate and hidden. Date palms and bananas grow beside the riverbeds, lime and orange groves nestle higher up the ravines. Through every season something is flowering, from orchids to crab-apples.

There are no domestic pets, and over most of the island only camels and donkeys are used for transport. During our travels in the interior, when we arrived at a spot to camp, eager little boys would be sent off to catch a goat for our supper (which would of course be shared with everyone). They would scamper up the mountainside, shouting with glee as they surrounded a startled goat and carried it down to us. Then a seven or eight-year-old would produce an enormous knife and cut the creature’s throat expertly. We carried rice with us, which was a treat for the highland bedu, and in return they offered us squashed dates and bitter oranges. The children walk for miles to stone or palm huts to learn to read the Quran; a plastic bottle of goat’s milk mixed with a little ground up maize or millet is all they take for food.

We saw healthy looking bees on the coast, on the desert plateaux and in the forests, but no one would tell us anything about them. Then one day, bumping along a rocky track in our Toyota, we saw a man squatting under the shade of a tree, next to two large plastic oil cans. Our driver stopped to speak to him, and then motioned to him to climb on to the roof of the vehicle. As he did so, the driver grabbed the plastic cans and put them firmly on the seat beside us. An altercation followed. The smell of honey was overwhelming. I opened the top of one of the cans and dipped a finger into the dirty, richly coloured honey; it was delicious. We drove for about half an hour, and our passenger descended. Pocketing the few dollars which our driver pressed into his hand, he strode off without a backward glance. Later, in Hadibo, the honey changed hands at an exorbitant price. Our English-speaking guide assured me that our driver was from the same tribe as the honey-man and that he would pay the balance due to the latter when he was next in his area.

Thereafter the word got around that we liked honey, and urchins would offer us some on their way down to the suq, but they were asking huge prices and when we refused them, they would run off laughing. One day towards the end of our visit a young girl pointed out to me a swarm of bees above a cave in the limestone rock. She even showed me how the boys climbed up a vertical rockface, knocked away the entrance to the hive with a sharp stone and then put their hand in to scoop out the honey! Honey seemed to be the only traditional cure for many illnesses, and was a much prized sweetener, and could only be sold by tribal consent. No wonder bees and honey were such a closely guarded resource.

The jargon of sustainable environmental development fell from the lips of every official we met in Hadibo; and technical experts, funded by the European Union, prowled around like hungry wolves, discussing road and electricity projects, oil depots, hotels, and even the commercial development of local herbal remedies. It all seemed so alien to these friendly, small, delicately built people, roaming the mountains and plateaux with their goats and their herds of miniature cows, and fishing when the monsoons permitted: the last living hunter-gatherers. How privileged I felt to have been among them.

August 2005