I give you my word that the people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. – explorer Marco Polo’s take on Socotran islanders
The highly unique and strikingly visual natural characteristics – often described as alien-looking – are borne out of millions of years of isolation. Mesmerizing dragon’s blood trees, for which it is famously known, dramatically dot its hillsides like open umbrellas. It boasts over 800 plant species, more than a third of which have never been recorded elsewhere on the planet. It flaunts incredible cave systems, unspoiled beaches and spectacular bird watching – all devoid of the mass tourism that commonly destroys such natural wonders. Most notably, its people, who have been virtually self-sufficient throughout history and who face a world marred by environmental destruction, hold on to their desire to keep their land’s ecological integrity intact.
Socotra, situated off the coast of Yemen and in the crossroads of the strategic waterways of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is the largest island of a four-island ellipsis that bears the same name. No bigger than New York’s Long Island and blessed with a surrounding blue sea teeming with exotic fish, Socotra is upon first glance eye-catching for its limestone cliffs, granite massifs and red sandstone plateaus. The island’s unique charms were formed long before the major landmasses of the world were joined some 250 million years ago. Its remote geographical location, combined with its location along the path of organism-carrying winds, have resulted in its unparalleled biodiversity.
The name Socotra can’t help but conjure up images of the far and exotic; one possible origin of the name Socotra is from the Arabic suq, meaning “market”, and qotra meaning “dripping frankincense”. Considering that the ancient frankincense route that went through Jerusalem and Europa began in Socotra, and that Socotra is famed for its aromatic forests of frankincense, makes it a likely conjecture. There was a time, over 2,000 years ago, that Socotra’s aromatic frankincense was valued above gold. As legend has it, the Egyptians used to visit Socotra to lay claim to frankincense orchards, as the mystical substance was believed to help facilitate the spirits of the dead reaching their final destination in the afterlife.
The mythical aspects of Socotra don’t end there; for centuries, bewildered visitors were convinced that there was more to the island than meets the eye.
Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324), famed for exploring Asia over the course of 24 years, among other exploits, managed to traverse the alien land of Socotra during his time. His experience and writings can only lead one to believe that the people of Socotra left a lasting impression on him.
In addition to referring to Socotrans as “enchanters”, Polo accused them of having supernatural abilities including weather control and the power to cause shipwrecks. “It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice,” said Polo. “But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old.”
Over the course of the next several centuries, Socotra experienced a dynamic influx of travelers and rulers. The island came under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511, who were lured by the island’s eccentricity. Socotra became a British protectorate in 1886; it served as a British air base during WWII – the remains of an airfield can still be seen in the center of the island. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th century, Socotra was closed off to foreign visitors due to military considerations, among other reasons. One local Socotran, a frankincense merchant, said, “We are on the edge of the world. Sometimes it seems as if nobody knows of us and that is just the way I like it. I hear of the world outside – nature on the brink of destruction – and I want no part of that for my homeland.
To an extent, the merchant has received his wish – Socotra has not experienced the mass tourism of other ecological gems like the Galapagos Islands, for example. However, in this day and age of travelers constantly seeking out the next great adventure, Socotra is more than just a blip on their radar.
Finding the Gems
While your typical beachgoer who heads to the Bahamas or Hawaii for their fun and sun might not be aware of Socotra or its pristine beaches, there are those who are in-the-know – like the Italians – who flock there because it’s the thing to do, it’s cheap, and it’s got charm.
While the Italians have been welcome, Socotrans are far more interested in the kind of tourists that are of the mindset that is more in line with the environmental ideals they strive to uphold. The Germans, among other European nationals, are starting to visit as eco-tourists, admiring Socotra for its incredible biodiversity and the island’s stunning nature reserves. One trek in particular, across the Haghier Mountains, offers some of the most breathtaking vistas on the island.
A well-traveled tourist from Berlin recently said of his visit to Socotra: “I thought I had been everywhere and done everything. Socotra not only swept me off my feet with the beauty of nature, but also made me rethink the notion of traveling ‘off the beaten path’. There are so many destinations I have dismissed because I have never heard of them, or because people don’t typically talk about them as good for travel. Now I know, to find the gems, you have to look deep. Very deep.”
Although Tusker Trail is not in Socotra yet, it has built its entire business around a similar philosophy – to look deeply for adventurous gems and go far off the beaten path to reach them. If you too are ready to look deeper, now is the time.