Somewhere between 189 and 217 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen (depending on your source of information), and some 130 off the coast of Somalia, like a tiny, glittering tongue-stud in the gaping maw of the Gulf of Aden, lies the legendary island of Socotra (Suquṭra), ancient source of ambergris, dragon’s blood, frankincense, and myrrh.
“It is one of those unique places in the world,” says Spanish toptrotter Jorge Sanchez, founder of the well-respected Travelers Exploits Club.
And it has a long and distinguished history of being very hard to get to.
With two annual monsoons (southwest from June-October and northeast from April-May), no natural harbor, not much anchorage to speak of, and a flourishing offshore piracy business, arrival by sea has always been problematic.
Thomas the Apostle is said to have been shipwrecked here sometime in the first century A.D., on his way to or from India. They say he built a church from the wreckage.
Marco Polo managed a safe landing, apparently, but noted the abundance of corsairs selling booty to the locals. For the generally uncooperative weather he squarely blamed the latter: a naked people he described as “the most skilful enchanters in the world.” He continues,
[I]f a ship is proceeding full sail with a favourable wind, they raise a contrary one, and oblige it to return. They can make it blow from any quarter they please, and cause either a dead calm or a violent tempest.
According to The Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor made a brief call here on his fifth voyage, only to have his ship destroyed not by Socotran witchcraft but by a pair of huge, angry, possibly not entirely mythical birds-of-prey dropping boulders on it.
Birds of such description no longer factor among the 211 species on the Socotra Bird Checklist. And the last Socotran witchcraft trials are said to have been held in the 1970s. But the corsairs, as always well-equipped with the latest in contemporary weaponry and chutzpah, are still very much in business.
According to Alan Lucas’ classic Red Sea and Indian Ocean Cruising Guide, “vessels have been grappled and towed into shore for looting.” Yachtsmen are advised to give the archipelago as wide a berth as possible.
Several local fishermen have been murdered in the last seven months, or have had their boats or engines taken out from under them at gunpoint. A freighter bound for Socotra with 2,000 tons of diesel fuel was taken by Somali pirates and held for ransom between January and April of this year, causing a shortage of electricity on the island.
The silver lining, for diving enthusiasts, is an unparalleled underwater landscape of sunken vessels waiting to be explored.
Bill Altaffer, of Expedition Photo Travel in San Diego, was among the first tourists to Socotra after a new airstrip was built in 1999. It almost didn’t happen for him.
“We got on a plane in Sana’a,” he recalls.
It was a crummy plane, a Yemen Air piece of shit, and as we’re about to lift off there’s this big bang and flames shoot out of the engine.
Altaffer’s been to every country in the world, plus 300 island groups, disputed areas, territories, and colonies. He’s been to both poles. He’s surfed off every continent and skied on six. The dude was the first American to surf the legendary Queenscliff bombora off Manly Beach in Sydney (in 1962).
He wasn’t about to let a little equipment failure get in the way of his pioneering visit to what he describes as “an island full of blond people who are descendants of Alexander the Great.”
If it had come to it, he’d have gone through Aden, where weeks earlier the USS Cole had docked to a warm welcome of Al Qaeda-brand C-4 explosives. As it turned out, Yemenia found another plane in somewhat better condition.
“The easiest way from the U.S. is through Dubai on Emirates,” says Charles Veley, of San Francisco, who by his own count is The World’s Most Traveled Man.
If you don’t want to stop in Dubai, you should continue on to Sana’a on Emirates. Transiting to Yemenia (last time I did it) involves a terminal change and isn’t fun.
At age 44, Veley has been to 710 “countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups, and major states and provinces.” When he gets to 762 he figures he’ll have been “everywhere” — that is, unless the number goes up before he gets there.
He hit Socotra early on December 31, 2004, back when there was only one flight a week, “so the choice was whether to turn around the same day or stay 7 days.”
Veley stayed for a couple of hours, found the landscape “remarkable and otherworldly,” and the people “super-friendly — much friendlier than on the mainland,” then got back on the plane in time to make a giant New Year’s Eve party and Sean Paul concert at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa.
When he goes back to Socotra, he says, he’ll spend 3-5 days and treat it “like a camping trip, because the hotels are basic and in the only town [Hadibo], and the scenery is far out of town.”
Until recently, Yemenia (Yemen National Airways) was the only airline with semi-regular service to Socotra (SCT). For a while it was almost daily, out of both Sana’a and Aden, through Riyan (RIY) at Al Mukalla.
Then, what with one of its dozen or so planes dropping into the ocean, and all attendant and ongoing international scrutiny of maintenance habits and such, Yemenia seems to have cancelled some of its domestic schedule.
For now anyway, local upstart Felix Airways has stepped into the void, with its four Canadian Bombardier CRJ700s (and four more on order) and five scheduled round-trip flights weekly between Riyan and Socotra (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday).
Connect to Riyan via Sana’a (SAH) or Aden (ADE). Online booking is “coming soon.”
In the meantime, try contacting their office at the Sana’a airport on 967-1-565656, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let us know how it goes!
Rules, Regs & Red Flags
For the latest travel advisories, piracy and terrorism updates, and general visa information, check the U.S. State Department’s oft-updated Yemen Page.
Get your visa beforehand in Washington, says Veley: “Supposedly they are available on arrival, but they’re not very forthcoming at the window in the Sana’a airport.”
General Notes/Tips from Jorge Sanchez
You can hitch hike from the airport to Hadibo: the first car will give you a ride. In Hadibo there are several hotels, you can bargain for the price. The first one is where all tourists meet, Germans, Italians, and the rest. They organize trips, excursions, rent Land Rovers, etc. I went further downtown and found a nice hotel, cheap, with shower. But several nights I slept à la belle etoile, on the beach. People brought us mattresses to sleep on the sand.
Fish is good and cheap, as well as goats.
Transport is easy: just stop any pick-up and negotiate a price for the highlights of the island, especially the dragon’s blood trees and the oasis in the middle of the island, it’s all very cheap.
Learn some Arabic, it’s very useful in negotiating prices.
The only inconvenience is that beers are forbidden, and all alcohol, so it’s water or Coca Cola. Still, you will not regret visiting Socotra!
Have you been to Socotra? We would LOVE to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comments!
For more otherworldly scenes, be sure to check out Photo Essay: The Most Alien Landscapes on Earth.
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David Page has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, Skiing, Esquire, Outside, and many other publications. He is the author of the Lowell Thomas Award-winning Explorer's Guide to Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada (Countryman Press/W.W. Norton), now in its second printing. His work has been anthologized in the collection Travel Stories from Around the Globe, edited by National Geographic Traveler's Don George, and the 2013 California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State (Outpost19). He lives in Mammoth Lakes, California. David's headshot by Steven Bumgardner.