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Soqotra revisited


The author was one of two doctors who accompanied the Oxford University Expedition to Soqotra in 1956. He made his first return visit to the island in January this year.

Having first visited Soqotra with the Oxford University Expedition in 1956, I was anxious that the magic of this unique island might have been tarnished. Within a day of arriving, I could see that although there was cause for concern, the magic still prevailed.

A dawn flight from Sana’a brought us to Soqotra by mid-morning. We were a party of four, travelling under the auspices of the British-Yemeni Society and accompanied during our first week by Ali al-Egry of Universal Touring Company. A slick, modern airport now stood in the desert plain where 47 years ago an RAF Valetta had landed the Oxford Expedition. A tarmac road took us over the spur where in 1956 we had toiled with 30 camels. Old Hadibo had been allowed to decay, and was being replaced by a sprawl of unmade roads and unfinished suburbs to house its 8000 inhabitants. But the Haggier mountains still rose majestic and mysterious into their clouds, and the rollers still thundered out of a turquoise sea.

The Summerland Hotel had the lino up and the painters in, but the rooms were spacious, if sparsely furnished; and there was cold running water and a very warm welcome. The hotel supplied the only restaurant on the island, and very good it was too.

We had scarcely drawn breath before we were whisked away, along a tarmac dual carriage way, towards the east of the island. Just beyond Suq the tarmac stopped. It had been hoped to develop the tiny fishing port at Hulaf into a harbour for cruise liners! But when experts came to assess the meteorology, 18 hurricane force gusts were recorded in 24 hours, and the project was diverted westwards to Mouri. This was another testimony to misdirected ‘aid’.

Beyond the beach at Deleisha was the purest white sand, and great leisurely rollers tumbled in from the Indian Ocean. White dunes were sucked hundreds of feet up into the limestone cliffs. The shells were spectacular, and the swimming superb.

In the afternoon, we were driven to the western Haggier, up into Wadi Ayhaft, rich in the island’s unique flora. The unmade road climbed steeply between rock cliffs. There were crotons, japropha, adeniums, dragon’s blood, frankincense, and cucumber trees, and so many of the wonders which only Soqotra has to offer. Huge rock pools high in the wadi offered delightful swimming, and an hour and a half’s walk downhill helped one appreciate the majesty and diversity of this remnant of paradise. Soqotra still worked her magic.

Our local entourage comprised Ahmad bin ‘Isa, the youngest son of the last Sultan and head of botanical conservation on the island; Salim and Ahmad, our two drivers; and Muhammad our cook. They were congenial travelling companions and became very good friends.

For the next four days we explored the limestone plateaux surrounding the Haggier mountains, and the extensive Noged plain to the south. We climbed first to Diksam and Shebehan, west of Hadibo, negotiating hair-raising tracks and deep canyons; we camped in one such canyon (De’Hur) near shady date palms and pink flowering adeniums which clung to the rock walls like so many birthday candles. We bathed in pools deep enough to dive into, and walked for a couple of hours on the plateau, among dragon’s blood trees, adeniums and aloes. We had lunched off fish brought from the Hadibo market and cooked to perfection in the embers of Muhammad’s fire. Towards evening we watched nimble bedu boys chasing our supper (a goat) up and down the precipitous slopes.

We climbed back onto the plateau the following day, memorable for the brilliance of tiny flowers among the rocks and the occasional bedu carrying wild honey. Our vehicles then negotiated a precipitous hairpin descent, where even full brakes barely slowed our headlong progress, to the Noged plain. We lunched in the shade of the immense Danud cave which commanded vistas of sand that seemed unending.

Later we camped at Amek on a beach of soft, white sand, lulled to sleep by the sound of surf. The nearby village made and sold the colourful woven rugs which are characteristic of the island. These seemed remarkably cheap, in contrast to the price of wild honey. The local pawpaws were delicious.

The third day took us onto the Momi plateau at the eastern end of the island. Here we visited the frankincense forest in the Homhil valley at the foot of Jebel Hamidero. A large pool in the limestone would have offered the most spectacular bathing if it had been full, because it overflows to the plain many hundreds of feet below. We descended to another campsite on soft, white sand, this one with the bonus of a freshwater spring which ran to the sea between grassy banks. Here we saw once again spectacular dunes piled for hundreds of feet into and against the limestone cliffs.

We climbed steeply on foot the following day for two hours through dense and varied undergrowth, through thickets of myrrh and capers, with their exquisite pure white, myrtle-like flowers. Here we were grateful for the services of a local guide to take us to the Hoq cave, another of Soqotra’s little known secrets. From an unspectacular entrance the cave stretches for four kilometres into the rock. Head torches did little to dispel the gloom. Huge stalactites and stalagmites led us from what seemed like one cathedral space to another. A Belgian team had left a well marked trail, but it was not until we had returned to Hadibo that we learned that some of their archaeological finds dated back two or more millennia.

We headed north to the Dehemri beach, passing a flock of flamingos on the Qariyah lagoon. Dehemri is a maritime conservation site and its coral and underwater life attract divers world wide.

As darkness fell, a full monsoon storm developed. Rain battered our tents, and our drivers and guides ran for cover in the local fishing village. By morning, with the sun once again shining, there was considerable anxiety about four fishing boats still unaccounted for. However, over the next couple of hours they came in, looking too frail to have survived such turbulent conditions. Snorkling was out of the question, so we returned to Hadibo and made a further trip to Wadi Ayhaft in the afternoon.

Later, we dined in civilised comfort with Len and Wendy Pierce who have been teaching in Hadibo for a number of years and were a mine of information. They showed us a video of the film which Douglas Botting had made during the Oxford expedition in 1956. This is apparently a source of great interest on the island, although today it would strike a Western audience as being very dated.

The next two days took us west to Qalansiyah, a picturesque town nestling among palms by the sea. We were taken for a trip in the bay, the experience of the previous night’s storm keeping us fairly close inshore. Again we camped by the sound of breakers, and found ourselves hosting a number of friendly locals.

On the other side of the headland, the tarmac road comes to an inconclusive halt where ecological integrity and economic development have reached deadlock. Kadarma has been abandoned for lack of water, but 14 kilometres of pristine white beach remain, and the shells are again spectacular.

On our return to Hadibo I was privileged to dine with Ahmad bin ‘Isa. He lives with his wife, children and mother, the Sultan’s last wife, in one of the old houses near the decaying palace and nearby mosque. Ahmad’s house, although old, retained a fresh and tasteful simplicity. I was introduced to a number of his friends and relatives, all of whom wanted to hear about life on the island during my first visit and to see old photographs. 

We spent the next four days in the mountains with three camels, two camel drivers and Muhammad, the cook. During the Marxist regime, an attempt had been made to bulldoze a road up to Adho Dimellus, but the monsoon rains had soon washed it out and the track was, if anything, even worse than it had been in 1956. We were in Kishin by lunchtime. Being back at the campsite which had been my home 47 years ago was a truly magical moment: the same terraces with their breathtaking view; the same shady trees; the same bathing pool inhabited by descendants of the same orange and purple crabs! We camped, in fact, at Adho on a cool meadow, as the little cows came in for milking and the local bedu youth gathered to gossip. No longer barefoot and in dun-coloured togas, they now sport plastic flip-flops, coloured futahs and designer football shirts. Some speak English.

We all misjudged the temperature that night, and woke cold and wet.

Our camel driver, Sa’ad, lived just over the hill and acted as our guide as we roamed through meadows and headed up into the mountains. He could not understand why we should even consider trying to climb the second highest peak, Shehaili. The density of the undergrowth meant that we had to content ourselves with a lesser peak but the views and the flowers made the climb infinitely worthwhile. Sa’ad led us to mountain caves which I had visited nearly half a century ago to treat sick troglodytes, many of whom I had persuaded to give me blood samples for grouping analysis. Not many caves were now inhabited, but we were asked into little stone dwellings to drink tea, goat’s curds or milk fresh from the cow. The tracks through the dense undergrowth still smelt of myrtle, mint and thyme: the ferns were shyly cool and the orange groves a tempting diversion from a stiff climb to explore the best of the caves, with their shady fig trees and precipitous terraces.

I did not revisit the caves from which I had taken ancient bones and where, during the night, spirits of the dead had pelted me with stones. None of the film I took of that particular trip came out, and the relevant pages of my diary have faded almost beyond reading. I recently visited the bones in their neatly labelled cardboard boxes in the Natural History Museum, and wondered whether they should be repatriated. The ghosts are no doubt still restless.

The third night we moved our camp down to Kishin. Our tents were pitched on the same terrace where I had camped in 1956, and we bathed in the same pool. After dark we sat round a fragrant blaze to consume a delicious stew of young kid.

We spent another day driving westward across the flat, featureless Meyhah and the Wadi Ayay: a terrain of red rock interspersd with the smooth white cobbles of dry river beds. We saw some curious sawn-off conical hills but little else apart from some japropha, croton and occasional yellow hibiscus. There is a complicated system of irrigation to widely scattered dwellings: a welcome example of sensibly directed ‘aid’.

The last morning was spent snorkling at Dehemri and walking on the glorious white beach beyond the coral reef. In the evening we all dined with Ahmad bin ‘Isa, and said farewell to our two drivers, our guides, camel men and other friends.

When dawn broke the following morning the mountains above Hadibo were still wreathed in cloud: as timeless and mysterious as when I first glimpsed them nearly half a century ago.

August 2005