Forgotten Island: Socotra

I had slept through the night in the dunes, near a huge boulder that sheltered me from the monsoon wind. At first light I awoke in my sleeping bag, staring into the dark violet sky.

Where on earth was I? I propped myself up on one elbow and looked about me. Close by, in hollows in the sand, other forms lay stretched out in the last dregs of sleep, as two Arabian figures in turbans carefully nursed a small fire of thornbush on which they had set a kettle to boil.

Yes. Socotra island, I told myself. Reassured, I looked out to sea – the Arabian Sea.

I had first come to Socotra in the mid-1950s as the youthful organizer of a scientific expedition from Oxford University. Six of us – an archaeologist, an Arabist, two medics, a biologist, and myself as filmmaker and scribe – spent three months carrying out the century's first scientific survey of Socotra in linguistics, botany, zoology, medical research, ethnology, and archaeology. Now, 40 years later, I'd returned on a smaller expedition.

Little seemed to have changed. The rising sun lit up the sea, and the surf broke in a glittering cascade on the beach. For me, Socotra always had the knack of turning reality into dream in a trice, and it did so now: As I watched, a school of dolphins suddenly appeared, surfing the waves toward the shore, then speeding back out to sea to begin their sport all over again. At last they rocketed off down the desert coast until they were lost from view.I stood up, grabbed a mug, and advanced on the boiling tea kettle. It was the start of another Socotran day.

Socotra is an island the world has passed by. some 200 miles off the coast of Arabia, shrouded in cloud and beset by monsoon winds, it has one dirt airstrip and no year-round safe anchorage. Few outsiders have ever set foot on it – so few, in fact, that by my calculation the total of American visitors in the 20th century is two.

Socotra has to be one of the most inaccessible places in the world. For about five months of the year the 83-mile-long island is cut off by the high winds and seas of the summer monsoon, when neither ships nor planes will venture near the place. Politics also has played a part in keeping the island off the beaten track. Though Socotra is closer to Africa, it has always been ruled from Arabia. For the last hundred years or so, the British raj and, later, communist South Yemen regarded Socotra as sensitive tribal territory and limited entry permits. That is mainly why I had to wait so long between journeys.

Why was I so keen to go back? The Socotrans, numbering about 25,000, are a friendly Islamic, mainly non-Arab, bedouin people whose origins are obscure and whose language, spoken nowhere else, is said to resemble the ancient tongue of the Queen of Sheba. But on the island, creature comforts are few – there is next to nowhere to stay, nowhere to eat, next to no roads.

In my case, part of the lure was the intrinsic fascination of this strange and beautiful place, and part was unfinished business. All through decades of communist rule on the island, it was Soviet researchers who explored Socotra – inspired, so they told me, by the youthful book I had written about the place all those years before. Only with the collapse of the communist regime and the end of the cold war did Socotra once more become an open island.

So it was that i again found myself Socotra-bound on the weekly flight across the Arabian Sea. With me on this trip were two British companions – Pat Carter, a Cambridge archaeologist, and Miranda Morris, an Arabist and ethnographer from Scotland – and Ahmed Saad Socotri, who was returning home from a long domicile on the Arabian mainland.

Exotic travel crosses not only the dimension of space but the dimension of time as well. On my first visit to Socotra, I had found myself in a medieval world on the coast, then moved on to a Stone Age society in the mountains. What century would I land in this time? I had wondered.

When I stepped out onto Socotran soil, it was raining. That much was different. Last time I was here, the dry summer monsoon had been blowing from the southwest, and lowland Socotra was in a drought – scorching, yellow, and dusty. Now, in the wetter northeast winter monsoon, Socotra was as green as the moist hills of England, the wadis were flowing, and the island's tiny seaside town of Had¿ıboh was flooded. Instead of the desert land of my memory, I was confronted with a world of grass and flowers and running streams. We need never get thirsty or dirty, I told myself. And if we sleep out in the open at night, we'll get wet.

Had¿ıboh had turned from a sleepy backwater settlement of a medieval Fourth World sultanate into a typically bustling but relatively squalid little Third World frontier town. In the process of change, my old house had fallen down, my old friend, the sultan's wazir, had been shot as an enemy of the people, and my old sparring partner, the sultan himself, had been thrown out of his palace to earn a living as best he could, working as a carpenter in the country villages; he had died unmourned.

But if the town and the times had changed, the milieu had not. At the front of the town lay the same warm leaden sea – Africa to the left, India to the right, Arabia dead ahead. At the back of the town reared the same fantastic wall of the dragon-backed Hajhir Mountains – a silent, mysterious, irresistibly beckoning Lost World and one of the earth's oldest exposed surfaces.

We rented a house in Had¿ıboh, a new house belonging to a lady who worked for the governor of Socotra. The flat-roofed house had two rooms, a walled courtyard with palms, beans, onions, and tomatoes (the latter courtesy of a tomato-freak aid worker from New York in the 1980s), and, behind the kitchen, a privy, one of only six on the island.

From Hadiboh we set out to explore the upland interior – a world of bashful bedouin, weird flora, and utter hush. On my previous trip I'd been less than half my current age, and I had slogged there on foot. In the searing, waterless heat of high summer, it was like trudging across Death Valley. This time we could drive there in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and water abounded everywhere – pure, precious rainwater tumbling down from the mountains and straight over the cliffs into the sea.

Ras Momi is not only the extreme eastern end of Socotra, it also marks the extreme eastern edge of Africa. It looks very much like the end of the world. The monsoon blew gustily round the exposed point, whipping up surf and sand. Rain clouds lowered darkly over the sheer, 2,100-foot cliffs that line the edge of the island's high eastern plateau.

The bulk of Socotra consists of a massive limestone cap, split in the middle by the jagged granite range of the Hajhir Mountains. To get onto the eastern plateau and into the eastern mountains you proceed on foot. From the small fishing village of Rigleh on the north coast, a foot track winds up into the interior of the island. This is bedouin country, the land of the true Socotrans, where the air is cool, the landscape strange, the trees surreal, the herbs scented, and the going tough.

The landscape we were clambering over had once been the bed of a primordial sea. Exposed to the elements over eons, the limestone had cracked apart, reared up, tumbled down, been gouged into wadis, bored into caves, honed into pinnacles, and covered with the most unusual flora.

More than a third of Socotra's 850 plant species are found nowhere else in the world, making it, in terms of endemic plants, the tenth richest island on earth. It has survived as one of the few pristine, dry tropical islands – an Indian Ocean gene pool much like that of the Gal¿pagos in the Pacific, a living laboratory for evolutionary and ecological research.

In the last 2,000 years Socotran life has changed little. In fishing, herding, date cultivation, and the gathering of plant products, the islanders have traditionally practiced a natural conservation – which is why they do not cut down live trees and shrubs or graze their animals too long in the same place. As a result, environmental degradation has been minimal; even the one plant thought to have become extinct during the last century has now been found alive and well.

Most of the island's plants are relics of the ancient, long-vanished flora of the African and Arabian mainlands – so abundant and so unusual that the island looks like everyone's idea of the prehistoric world. One of the most spectacular of these primitive survivors is the Socotran dragon's blood tree, which looks like an umbrella blown inside out and exudes a cinnabar-like resin that was once prized in the outside world as a pigment, a glue, and a dye in the manufacture of English pound notes – and is still used on the island to dye wool, decorate pots, paint lips, and cure stomach pains.

The Adenium obesum (or desert rose), a weirdly bloated, grotesquely humanoid-looking succulent with a smooth skin, thick white sap, and small pink flowers, is found in the most indecent postures. And the overgrown cucumber tree, which reaches almost 12 feet high, looks like an immense, oddly inverted parsnip; it is festooned with poisonous cucumbers that look like plums and smell like bad fish.

Some Socotran plants, such as frankincense and myrrh, were treasured in times past and are still valued locally for medicinal and domestic purposes. Others, including the Socotran begonia and the so-called Persian violet – have long been popular houseplants in the Western world.

It was through this surreal and scented landscape that we made our way to Liiyeh, which had been the childhood home of the Socotran member of our expedition, Ahmed Saad. The village was a classic bedouin cluster of stone huts on elevated ground overlooking a frankincense wood and a broad grassy plain, housing a small pastoral community of about 30 people, together with their cattle, sheep, and goats.

It was here that Ahmed Saad had been born and brought up and from here that he had set off as a young man to seek his fortune on the mainland across the sea. After the communist takeover left him stranded, his father got a message to him. "Strange things are happening here," he had warned his son. "The sultan is a prisoner. The wazir has been shot. The new men are taking over our land. Don't come back till I say so."

Twenty-five years passed, and now he was back. There were tears in his eyes as he greeted the surviving members of his family in the island's prolonged and complicated homecoming ritual. To honor his return – only a temporary one, for he had a wife and children to go back to on the Arabian mainland – his family and friends in the neighborhood had organized a cowfest.

It was a monumental bash by Socotran standards, for cattle are served up only on the most ceremonial of occasions. A whole host of bedouin turned up, all male and all in their best robes, to chew on boiled rib and swap news. I was reminded of something highly significant that Ahmed had told me earlier. When I had asked him in what way life here had improved since my first visit to the island, he replied: "Today the people no longer live in fear of death from famine."

Famine of a strictly temporary nature, however, is something that still afflicts the occasional Western visitor, who may recoil from the typical Socotran diet – not so much on account of the ingredients as their preparation and presentation. If you live off the land (which mostly means accepting the generous hospitality of local Socotran villagers en route), you can expect to subsist on a diet of boiled goat, rice, curds, and dates in the interior, with a leavening of fresh fish along the coast, along with an occasional egg and perhaps even a chicken (though some Socotrans regard chickens as dirty, disgusting things).

The plateau country of Socotra is gently undulating, and the going is easy. The mountains are something else again. There are no motorable tracks up there; you proceed on foot, and if you have excess baggage you load it onto a camel.

The island's leading camel expert is Salim. I had known Salim on my first expedition, when he was a sort of odd-job boy of the hills whom I unflatteringly described in my book as a "bald-headed and highly extortionate youth with a grating voice." When, nearly 40 years later, he turned up with his camels for my second expedition, still sprightly but slightly deaf, he was flabbergasted: I had returned from the ancient past as if from the dead, he said, and he found it "weird."

Like pickled eggs in China, Salim had improved with time. He was now the comedian of the island, bubbling over with funny stories and comic gags, and other Socotrans were always glad when they found themselves traveling in his company.

He was also Socotra's oral archivist. He had retained in his memory an elaborate record of all our comings and goings on that first expedition, and now, as we traveled through the mountains on my second foray, he would point out places we had gone and recite the events that had, according to him, taken place there.

Traveling round the Hajhir Mountains with Salim and his camels was like riding around London on a tourist bus – except that in this case the running commentary always seemed to involve a curiously distorted version of oneself.

We were known as the Six Giants in those days, he told me, because we were so huge compared to the Socotrans, and we seemed so athletic it looked as though we ran everywhere on tiptoe.

"That's Mifsuel up there!" Salim once called out, pointing to a ledge on the edge of a steep precipice. "That's where we slaughtered a goat for the Six Giants."

Sometimes history became apocryphal, merging into the stuff of legend. "Over there," he would point with his camel stick, "is where two of the giants – I think you were one – chased some pretty bedouin girls all over the hills and the sultan got so fed up that he ordered you to be brought down to Had¿ıboh and flogged." And later: "Up there is where one of the giants dropped dead and lies buried in the Englishman's grave¿"

We never discovered who the dead Brit might be – certainly not one of the Six Giants, who are all still running around today, though not on tiptoe.

The mountains were marvelous. Honed and chiseled by time into fangs and towers of lichen-scabbed granite and lined with the silhouettes of dragon's blood trees like sentinels on a castle keep, the peaks guarded a world of silence broken only by the booming of the wind in the gullies, a bird's cry, and the distant call of some invisible cowherd. The pastures of the watershed were green with lush grass and grazed by curious dwarf cattle – plump, sleek, pint-size cows that are the source of the fresh milk and curds that sometimes brighten a hungry traveler's day.

The scale was not alpine. Socotra's mountains were intimate, private, reclusive, and no matter how empty and abandoned the scenery appeared, I knew that at least one pair of bedouin eyes was following our every move.

The Six Giants had pitched a mountain camp on an ancient incense terrace high up in the Wadi Kishin. The camp was situated just below the main pass over the mountains and had a tremendous view down the wadi to the dusty plain and the sea beyond. At that time a small group of bedouin were living in a couple of caves above the camp. The caves were still in use, but time had scattered their former inhabitants: The headman had died, his little daughters had grown up, married, and moved away. Now only the Poor Relation was left. Poor Relation was the Six Giants' nickname for a small, apathetic young man, with a huge belly and squashy toes, who loved flowers.

The Poor Relation never had much going for him – no property, no wives – but he had survived. Within minutes of our arrival at our old camp, he came toddling down the mountain to greet me. Some 40 seasons of monsoons, famines, and droughts had taken their toll on his physique but not his memory. Of course he remembered me, he said. I was one of the Six Giants, the one who took pictures. Of course he remembered the day I came to his cave with the two doctor giants: We gave him a penicillin injection that saved his life. Of course he still lived in the cave: Where else should he live?

Then he gave me a word of advice. Was I going to stay at Kishin again? he asked. I shouldn't, he warned, because the jinn would get me. It was a golden rule on Socotra, he told me, that no one should sleep near a tree by a pool, because that's where the jinn lived.

Nevertheless, after he had gone, I put up my one-man tent on the terrace, had a wash in a nearby pool with a tree (new since my last visit) overhanging it, dined on half a tin of "Made in China" pine-apples, and got ready to bed down for the night.

Night on bare mountain. A nearby mountain stream gargling in the dark. An infinity of stars in a sky as unpolluted as the prehistoric heavens of old. High up on a mountain ledge to my right, a wood fire burned like a beacon in the bedouin village of Molse. We had visited Molse on the first expedition and recruited a young bedu called Ali as our local medical assistant. Nearly 40 years later he was still living there with his two wives, both view and lifestyle utterly unchanged. But Kishin seemed an eerie, haunted place that night, peopled by ghosts of old comrades long gone.

In the early hours I was awakened by a shattering animal cry, then later unnerved by something ferreting round the tent, trying to get in. A civet had lived nearby when I first came here. Perhaps this was its great-great-grandson? Or something entirely different? I lay rigid in my sleeping bag, a knife in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

At dawn I got up, fell off a rock, gashed my knee, and nearly broke my wrist. I tried to shoot some video, but the camera wouldn't work, and the brand-new microphone battery had gone dead in the night. The night visitor had spilled my water, and worse, my coffee. Make my day, jinn.

Some bedouin joined me. I spoke about the night visitor and showed them my bloody knee. I drew a picture of a civet cat, the only wild animal on the island, but they tut-tutted and looked very serious.

"A jinn," they all affirmed, pointing at the drawing. "The typical disguise of a jinn. You are lucky to be alive." And they added: "You must never camp by a pool with a tree hanging over it ever again."

With the rest of the party and Salim's camels, I went over the pass and down the other side of the Hajhir. A complex of wadis ran among brick-colored hills that sank gradually away toward the Southern Plain. The wadi we chose led to a place called Feragey, a favorite base for Victorian explorers a century ago, with a permanent supply of water and a gigantic tamarind tree.

I had never been this way before. There were wild oranges to quench our thirst, fresh pools in which to cool off, and sweet tea in little glasses at the small villages perched on high cols overlooking spectacular vistas. The Socotrans had an eye for a view, I decided. They were also extraordinarily gentle and considerate toward their animals. The camels were regularly rested and watered, for example, and never belabored. (The only creatures for which the Socotrans had an implacable loathing was the rare but venomous spider, fitameh, which would jump straight at you and kill with a bite, they said, and the less rare giant centipede – flat, black, quick, and up to ten inches long, each foot venomous enough to send a human victim into shock, followed by delirium, and sometimes death.)

Hadiboh was hot by the time we returned, and the monsoon had died a little. But we did not tarry. I had long wanted to explore ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı, a virtually never-visited outlying island located halfway between Socotra and the Horn of Africa in Somalia. The only way to reach the island was by dhow, and the only dhow available was Socotra's only dhow.

Saleh, the captain and owner, was a short, sturdy, bearded, laid-back old salt, so laid-back that he would often doze off at the helm and on occasion had been known, after setting course for Arabia at the start of a night crossing, to wake up at dawn well on the way to India.

Normally, Saleh ferried goods around the island or shipped dried or salt shark and other products across to the mainland, bringing back the trade products of the outside world in return. But he had been to ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı before, he told us confidently, and saw no difficulty in finding such a small speck of rock in the midst of such a large sea.

The crew of seven was a cheerful, energetic lot. They set to with a will, quickly raised a gigantic anchor, hauled up the lateen sail, started the diesel engine – and we were away, heading due west along the northern coast of Socotra. All day we made our way through the jade green sea, as flyingfish jumped around us and dolphins played off our bow.

Supper was chapati, sweet tea, and fresh mullet and mackerel hauled straight out of the sea and boiled. Afterward, as it grew dark, we stretched out on the deck to sleep. My alfresco dreams were broken by the rattle of the anchor chain against the hull, the thud of the diesel, the rise and fall of the deck in the swell of the open sea. When I awoke at dawn, Saleh was at the helm.

"¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı?" I asked him, pointing to the high bluff of a soaring headland to port.

No, he replied, slowly shaking his head. "Socotra."

True to form, he had fallen asleep during the night, wandered about on an erratic course around the Arabian Sea, and made landfall at sunup a few miles to the west of where he had set off from. There, near some cliffs, thousands of Socotran cormorants, beating for fish, were circling the surface of the sea in a fast and furious whirl, churning the water white as they drove the fish into the center of their collective orbit.

It took most of the day to reach ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı, and the sun was sinking by the time we got within the lee of its scorched cliffs. A true desert island, 22 miles long and rising more than 2,000 feet, ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı is a blistering, yellow rock with not a stream, palm, or blade of grass to be seen. The only vegetation is low scattered scrub.

We landed at a sandy bay on the south coast of the island, a desolate place near a settlement called Heisat Saleh. The settlement's main building materials consisted of flotsam washed up by the sea, and out of this the inhabitants had constructed a village of wooden frame houses more Caribbean than Arabian.

When we arrived, they were cheerily constructing a mosque with ballast salvaged from a British freighter that had gone down off the shore a few years back.

The waters round the Socotran archipelago contain the richest fish stocks in the Indian Ocean, and in talking with the villagers, much of the discussion centered on the monsters of the deep – giant sharks, giant octopi, giant clams (especially feared) – all part of the day-to-day life of a community that depended on the sea for both food and livelihood.

It hadn't rained on ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı for three years, we learned. The wells were brackish and the coffee tasted of salt. There was no regular communication with the outside world, little trade, no shops. Why do you choose to go on living on such an inhospitable island?

I asked them. If the mainland government offered to resettle you in a nice oasis with lots of water, palms, livestock, and everything your hearts could desire, would you accept?

Over our dead bodies, they replied. They were more than content with their lot. Here they were as free as air. They could do whatever they wanted. There was no one to push them around. There were no government officials or tax-collectors to give them a hard time. Life on ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı, they told me, was happy, democratic, and free.

Waking on the beach the next morning I found I was surrounded by a ring of crabs eyeing me with intense concentration – still, silent, expressionless. The dhow crew assured me the crabs were harmless – and for that matter inedible – but it was an uncomfortable feeling, being eyed by a shoulder-to-shoulder circle of crustacea.

We returned to socotra in good order, butting a rising sea. The island seemed to have grown more frenetic in our absence. In some ways ¿Abd al K¿ur¿ı resembled, in its isolation and deprivation, the Socotra I had first encountered in the 1950s.

The world seemed to have arrived in Had¿ıboh, and a bedlam of a peculiarly modern sort now reigned – at one end of the town, a missionary imam from northern Yemen preaching Islamic fundamentalism, at the other end the leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party touting for votes, and between the two a melee of soccer fans yelling support for their rival teams – Had¿ıboh versus the Rest.

The cacophony in Had¿ıboh's streets seemed a metaphor for change. Development was coming to this island, which time and the world had long passed by. And Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting was near. It was time to get out while we could.

When our plane took off, it headed straight out to sea, but I did not look back. I knew that I had set eyes on this strange, forgotten island, for which I would always hold an abiding affection, for the last time. But though I had a fair idea of where I might be in another 40 years time, I could only guess at Socotra's fate. I wished it and all its human and natural cargo well, then stared ahead to the distant clouds that marked the beginning of that never-never land of hope and turmoil we call the outside world.