Scott Bridges

Vanity Online Brand Facilitation Node

A pair of articles

As part of my PhD research into Al Jazeera’s expansion I’ve written a couple of journal articles about the network’s presence in Australia. If you’re into that sort of thing …

‘Al Jazeera in Australia’:

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera has expanded at great pace since its inception in 1996, growing from a single Arabic-language news channel serving the Middle East, to a multilingual network of dozens of channels broadcasting around the globe. Al Jazeera’s growth in many parts of the world depended on securing satellite and cable/pay television carriage, but neither of those broadcast channels offered the network significant access to the Australian market. While Al Jazeera has for most of its time in Australia struggled to attract a large television audience, it has experienced success via partnerships with the Australian public broadcasters and through online engagement. Drawing on interviews with key managerial and editorial staff at Al Jazeera and the Australian public broadcasters, this article tracks Al Jazeera’s presence in the Australian media landscape from the network’s launch until the present day and analyses the network’s strategy with respect to Australian expansion.

Bridges, S. (2016). Al Jazeera in Australia. Communication Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/22041451.2016.1209273

‘Al Jazeera and the Australian Public Broadcasters’:

The Al Jazeera Media Network had a relatively low profile in the Australian media landscape until its English-language news channel signed reciprocal broadcast agreements with the two Australian public broadcasters in 2010 and 2011. As a result of those agreements, Al Jazeera English programs are now rebroadcast on the ABC and SBS’s terrestrial TV channels, and its content has become an important component of the public broadcasters’ in-house television and radio news bulletins. The agreements are mutually beneficial: through them Al Jazeera has achieved its greatest ever Australian broadcast reach, increased its brand awareness among Australians, and gained credibility through association with the respected ABC and SBS; while the public broadcasters have added breadth and depth to their international news at little-to-no cost in an age of shrinking news budgets. Drawing on content analysis and interviews with key managerial and editorial staff at the ABC and SBS, this article examines exactly what Al Jazeera English material the public broadcasters use, and how, finding that Al Jazeera offers the ABC and SBS’s viewers and listeners an additional perspective on news from around the globe. The article also summarises public and commentator reaction to Al Jazeera’s partnerships with the public broadcasters, demonstrating that the Qatari broadcaster does not face in Australia the kind of opposition it does in countries such as the USA.

Bridges, S. (2016). Al Jazeera and the Australian Public Broadcasters. Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, 9(1), 99-118.

Love it or leave

Last Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a long press conference on the broad themes of terror, policing and relations with Australia’s Muslim community. While Turnbull was carefully navigating through his vocabulary to avoid mouthing the slogans so beloved of Tony Abbott, he nonetheless chose to play the “love it or leave” card. Albeit a very Turnbull version of it:

“If you find Australian values unpalatable,” he said, “then there’s a big wide world out there and people have got freedom of movement.”

In re-wrapping the tired Southern Cross bumper sticker meme in his flowery waffle, Turnbull actually helped to highlight one of the core contradictions at the heart of the current political debate around citizenship in this country. Earlier on the same day, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton stood next to Major General Andrew Bottrell to deliver one of his regular briefings on Australia’s militarised ‘Stop The Boats’ program.

“The Prime Minister has made, and I have made [clear] on countless occasions,” said Dutton, warming to a now-familiar theme, “we are not going to allow people to turn up again unannounced on boats.”

The contrast between Turnbull and Dutton’s statements raises an obvious question: why does one group of people (asylum seekers) have extremely limited freedom of movement, and the other group (Australia haters) have an apparent surplus?

The idea that people can simply pick a country of residence, let alone citizenship, as if perusing a restaurant menu, is absurd. Freedom of movement is relative, and largely a privilege enjoyed only by the privileged. Do you have the money, networks, literacy and cultural capital to navigate complicated bureaucracy, along with the “right” passport? Congratulations. Do you have a criminal record or an empty bank account, or did you lose the lottery of birth and get stuck with a passport that has you automatically red-flagged by immigration departments? Bad luck. Even the very privileged likely have a very narrow range of options for residence and possible citizenship outside Australia, so it’s questionable if those being inviting to “leave” could even do so if they wanted. It’s unlikely this troubles Malcolm Turnbull, though.

The “love it or leave” rhetoric long employed by Proud Aussies, and more lately our political (and religious) leaders, is, if taken at face value, simplistic and dumb. What exactly does loving or hating Australia entail? What precisely are “Australian values”? Perhaps a better challenge to those who would channel their grievances through violence is: “hey, look, don’t, it’s against the law and there are consequences.” Citizenship as a legal concept requires adherence to the law, not the love and embrace of a concept as nebulous as “Australia”. But this is a pretty boring message which is difficult to succinctly express on an Aussie flag tank top.

As is pretty obvious, “love it or leave” is not a face value threat issued to Australians who allegedly do not love it. Rather, it’s a dog-whistle slogan targeted at Australians who say they do and are concerned about those who might not. It’s political messaging through and through, and rather than uniting, it further entrenches an “us and them” divide between citizens. But good on Turnbull for for not saying “Team Australia”, hey? What a guy.

Socotra: prologue

I woke quite early and well before my alarm, and lay in bed feeling a bit sad about leaving. I read my book for a little while and when Penina woke up we went for one last swim in the ocean. The water was luxuriously cool and we floated in the pure, blue water enjoying the view back inland. It was very difficult to get out.

Beach shelter

Mountain

After packing our bags we enjoyed breakfast of eggs, cheese and tea, and Wasa arrived from town wearing a crisp, white shirt. “I have some good news,” he announced, smiling. It turned out that the police had offered to guarantee to Wasa’s tour company the money owed to us by Abdullah, meaning that we needed only to pay the difference. Wasa said that the local police chief wanted to meet us before flew out.

Faisal drove us through Hadibo to the police compound which was busy with people scuttling back and forth across the dusty courtyard. We waited a few minutes in the car before a battered police vehicle pulled into the compound and the chief got out. We followed him into the building, past several machine gun-toting officers, and into his office. Wasa, Penina and I sat around the edge of the room on chairs, with about ten random people standing and watching. The chief began speaking to us, pausing occasionally for Wasa to interpret. He expressed his regret on behalf of the Yemeni people and government that we had been victims of crime, and wanted us to know that the actions of Abdullah weren’t reflective of all Socotrans. He hoped that we’d enjoyed our stay on the island and that we would take good stories home for our family and friends. After the chief had finished, I replied — through Wasa — telling him that we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of Socotrans and the Yemeni authorities, and that we were in his debt.

As soon as I’d finished, everyone in the room nodded to each other and the chief came forward to shake our hands. The machine gunners stepped aside to let us out of the room and we walked back to the car. On the way, Wasa received a call from his friend at the airport who reported that our flight was running a couple of hours late.

Back in Hadibo we visited the sole bank to sort out payment for the tour and then dropped into a travel agent to kill some time before going to the airport. Since mains electricity was on, Penina and I were able to use the slow, slow internet to check our email for the first time in a week. Just down the road from the travel agent a large crowd was gathering outside a store and getting quite rowdy. Wasa said a mainland trader was widely assumed to be jacking up prices which was having a knock-on effect along the street, and the crowd of customers had had enough. The police soon got involved and slowly dispersed the crowd.

At the airport we were the last to check in for the flight and the airline staff jokingly told us that we were too late and would be kicked off the flight. While they processed our passports and tickets, we were informed that since our flight had been delayed by a couple of hours we were going to miss our connection in to Sharjah. Luckily, there would be another Sharjah flight later that night but we would have a ten hour stopover at the tiny Mukalla airport.

Penina and I said our goodbyes to Wasa and Faisal, thanking them for such an unforgettable week, and the airport’s smiling tourist policeman held out his phone to me so I could take yet another lovely phone call from his boss, Dr Az-zahri.

The officer at immigration (a desk at the entrance to the single gate lounge) was a bit thrown by our lack of the normal visa paraphernalia and one of the Felix staff had to explain to him our unusual situation. Inside the lounge we were approached by a pair of BBC Arabic journalists who had been visiting Socotra who asked us informally about our experience in Yemen. They seemed surprised that we were positive and enthusiastic about our time in the country, and full of nothing but praise for the people.

Eventually, our flight arrived and we walked out into the hot wind towards the plane.

Selfie

Plane

At Mukalla airport we settled in for a long wait. After surrendering our passports to an official we chose one of the metal benches in the small area between check-in and the flight lounges.

Terminal

Sign

A large pot of rice and fried fish was brought in for the 30 of us waiting, and served on plates to each individual group. It was simple but delicious, and Penina let me sit afterwards with rice in my beard for only ten minutes.

Food

At dusk, we left the air conditioned terminal to sit outside in the fresh air for a while, even though it was very hot and uncomfortably humid. We bought a couple of bags of peanuts and some soft drinks from a little stall — the owner taking my wallet from me, extracting a US$1 note, and returning the wallet — and sat on the kerb listening to the call to prayer echo around the deserted forecourt.

A couple of young men joined us to practise their English. One of them was Socotran and had just started work at the airport as a trainee fireman. He spoke English with a distinct Aussie twang thanks to his Australian English teachers.

After prayers, an airline representative approached, apologised again for the delay, and told us that we could take a free meal at the small restaurant nearby. With the help of a friendly local to translate, we ordered a couple of plates of eggs and bread, and washed them down with tea.

Finally, at close to midnight, and close to falling asleep, we boarded our flight to Sharjah. As we walked past the cockpit door, out popped Captain Aiban from our very first day. He was so excited that we’d made it back to Socotra.

Perfect.

Socotra day seven: fishing in Yemen

We were awoken just before dawn by a sprinkle of light rain on our faces. The last thing I remember seeing before falling asleep was a big sky full of stars, so I was a bit shocked at the sight of low, dark clouds wrapped around mountain peaks. We considered moving into the car but instead wrapped ourselves in blankets and hoped the rain would pass. It did, and I woke up an hour or so later as the sun quickly warmed my little cocoon. A group of kids sitting around a nearby bush watched us fold our bedding and pack our bags. Faisal brought us hot tea, bread and cheese.

Wasa had last night promised a swimming hole nearby, so after breakfast he lead Penina and I about 20 minutes further up the canyon to a small pool of water. We startled a few goats who were drinking from the water hole and Wasa left us alone to swim.

We had a quick dip and sat on the rocks to dry ourselves and our clothes in the hot sun, and then walked back towards camp and found Wasa and Faisal in the village doing some washing of their own. The four of us piled into the 4WD and drove back down the canyon, wet clothes and towels flapping out of every window. Back near the airport we stopped at the qat market so Faisal could stock up for that afternoon.

Back in Hadibo we opted for an early lunch at one of the few restaurants in town. Mains electricity was still off so inside the gloomy Taj Socotra about a dozen men sat at dirty tables eating from large plates while a goat ate used tissues from the bin. Penina and I, perhaps subconsciously inspired by the non-human patron, ordered goat; Wasa and Faisal got chicken. Wasa ducked out and procured a couple of cold drinks from a store with a generator, and very quickly our meat arrived accompanied by piles of rice and bread. The food was great and a round of tea was the perfect finish.

Bellies full, we drove across town to Socotra’s “fancy” hotel to hire snorkels, goggles and flippers. Inside the foyer we were shocked by the icy blast of air conditioning in the lobby — I’d forgotten what it felt like! Equipment for our afternoon sorted, we headed on to the Deleisha campsite and were directed with smiles towards “our” hut. Being just after midday and stinking hot we settled in to relax for a few hours. A lovely, refreshing breeze flowed through the hut, and one of the staff brought us a pot of tea. I reclined on the floor mat, soaking in the view and reading, and Penina napped. It was just glorious.

A couple of hours later we changed into swimmers and met Wasa and a local fisherman down at the water’s edge. We climbed into the long, narrow wooden fishing boat with our snorkel gear and motored east, staying close to the coastline. It’s almost impossible to describe how perfect the clear, blue water looked, offset by the dramatic mountain range. We passed another enormous sand dune blown up against a cliffside.

Just before we got to Di Hamri (where we’d snorkelled a few days ago), the fisherman slowed his motor and told us, via Wasa, that there was a good crop of coral below us. Penina and I put on our gear and jumped out of the boat about 300m from shore, and for the next 90 minutes we swam around the area while the men moved between fishing spots within sight of us.

The view under the water was incredible: multi-coloured coral, all manner of animal life, and epically huge schools of fearless small- and medium-sized fish — one school of hundreds and hundreds of long silver fish completely surrounded us and swam so close they were nearly brushing our faces. Every now and again we’d stick our heads out of the water and enjoy the feeling of being totally alone (except for the boat just visible way over there) and surrounded by such natural beauty.

As the sun began to sink towards the western horizon, Penina and I signalled to the boat and the men came to collect us. We’d obviously interrupted a productive fishing session so we emphasised that we were more than happy to chill out in the boat and enjoy the spectator sport. The fisherman, however, decided to get us in on the action and he rigged up a pair of hand lines wrapped around an empty bottle and a piece of driftwood, showing us how to load our hooks from the pile of small baitfish.

For the next two hours the four of us sat there fishing as the sun set. It was, quite simply, magical. One of those travel experiences you couldn’t plan if you tried.

Penina obviously had a special touch and she managed to bring in three good-sized fish without any trouble. I was struggling and it took me ages to catch one, and then a larger second which made me feel a bit better. When the sun had completely disappeared over the horizon, the fisherman washed his hands and feet in the sea, moved to the front of the boat, and quietly prayed. After he came back and resumed his position next the outboard motor it was on — he and Wasa must’ve brought in over a dozen fish in the time it took to get completely dark. On our last throws of the line I got a massive nibble and lost the hook; Penina hooked something big and lost her grip on her line, but Wasa managed to catch it and help her to pull in a huge fourth fish.

The sky was by now a beautiful canopy of stars, so we weighed anchor and headed for home. I have no idea how the fisherman navigated in the darkness but he obviously knew what he was doing. We pulled into the Deleisha campsite beach and Wasa, Penina and I jumped out into the water. The fisherman reached into the boat’s water-filled storage compartment and pulled out half-a-dozen fish for us to keep, placing them in a plastic shopping bag. One of the fish managed to wriggle out of the bag, though, and swam away.

Wasa rushed off to the kitchen to see if we could get a few of the fish cooked up for dinner, and Penina and I went off to have a shower. When we got back to the main building we were ravenous but unfortunately the staff had already cooked up other fish for our meal. They were delicious even if they weren’t our own. We had a great chat with Wasa over dinner about our adventures so far and he outlined the plan for the next day. Our flight was scheduled for around 10am so we didn’t need to get moving too early.

Laying in bed after the generator had been turned off, listening to the ocean and reflecting on yet another special day, I was really quite sad to be leaving.

Socotra day six: the fountain of youth

The only problem with sleeping in our little cave was that the sun woke us as soon as it poked its head over the horizon. The morning got really hot, really quickly, and there was little shade to be had. We had a quick breakfast with sunnies on and packed the car.

It was a short 15 minute drive to the small village of Tarbak. We pulled off the road and Faisal honked the horn to get someone’s attention. After some negotiation, Wasa secured the services of a young man to guide us up the mountain and deep into Hoq Cave. We grabbed a water bottle each, shoved head torches into our pockets, waved goodbye to Faisal who was staying behind, and headed off.

It took about an hour to hike up the mountain and it was a punishing climb. I was a bit too preoccupied with the heat and the steep, rocky climb to fully appreciate the view behind me. We finally arrived at a vast opening in the side of the mountain and scrambled up a steep, narrow goat track to a flat and shady resting place. Guzzling water, we finally got a chance to take in the view, the whitecaps again signalling the strength of the wind.

Coast view

The entrance to the actual cave was about 50m further inside the hollow. Removing our sunnies and testing our torches, we plunged into the darkness. The little sunlight that penetrated the first 50m or so caused the stalactites and stalagmites closest to the entrance to shine green and orange.

Cave entrance

The clay floor was damp and slippery and the air became more humid and oppressive as we went on. The cavern was vast — our head torches struggled to find the edge and the ceiling. After a few minutes we stopped walking and turned out the torches to experience the darkness. It was completely silent except for intermittent water drips. Torches on and walking further inside, the scene around us was alien. Enormous coral-like structures reached out towards each other from roof and ground, shining moistly in greens and yellows and dull reds.

The walk into the cave took about 45 minutes, and the path continued to narrow until we were forced to follow a piece of string that had been installed to guide visitors. We arrived at what Wasa called the “fountain of youth”: a vast pool of water fed by an enormous stalactite plunging into the pool. The water, Wasa said, had taken many thousands of years to filter through the mountain and into the pool, and here it was laying completely still, undisturbed by wind or light. And with that, he dipped his empty bottle into the pool and drank deeply. The water tasted perfect, in that it tasted like nothing at all.

It was so humid by now that my glasses were fogging. After another lights-out experiment which was possibly the closest I’ve ever come to total sensory deprivation, we turned around for the walk back out. At the entrance, Wasa and the guide left Penina and I to spend some time soaking in the sights and we came across some scrawny looking cows who’d scrambled up to the cave for a drink of water. They didn’t take much notice of us as they exited.

Walking back down to the village was much more pleasant than the trip up due to the view, but the sun was really heating up now. I was drenched with sweat by the time we made it back to the car.

Walking down

Bottle tree

We found Faisal drinking tea in the courtyard of a family’s compound and the men invited us to sit with them. A glass of hot, sweet tea was delicious but it only made me sweat even more.

Back on the road, plans got discussed. We had only one night left so Wasa was keen to know what we wanted to do with the rest of our time. Penina and I said a swim in the ocean at Deleisha beach would be pretty much perfect right now. We arrived there just before lunch time and Penina and I changed clothes and jumped straight in the water. It was every bit as delightful as we remembered. Being the first day of the weekend in Socotra, the huts were full of families daytripping from Hadibo and other villages. Food was being delivered to the huts on large trays.

After lunch of rice and fish we drank tea and read our books through the hottest hours of the afternoon. Wasa and Faisal laid themselves out for naps. Late in the afternoon we drove into Hadibo hoping for ice but mains power had been out for most of the past few days due to the wind. We bought a few litres of petrol near the airport and turned off the main road, driving inland and up a narrow track beside a wadi. Halfway up we gave a lift to a man who was walking home from town with a cloth bag full of shopping.

Just as the sun was setting we arrived at a small village in Ayhaft canyon and set up camp near the small mosque. It was getting dark very quickly but it didn’t affect the beautiful scene around us: big sky, dramatic mountain peaks, and the sounds of kids playing off in the distance. Penina and I hung out the hand washing we’d done in Deleisha while Wasa and Faisal threw together some food.

Cooking

After dinner I tried a few long exposure shots of the stars framed by the mountains, but the wind made it hard to keep the camera and tripod still.

Long-exposure sky

Wasa and Faisal set up their beds next to the car and lay quietly talking. Penina and I fell asleep next to a tree, staring up at the sky.

Socotra day five: sand dunes, swimming holes and springs

Our arrival at the beach the previous evening had obviously not gone unnoticed. We woke with the sun to find four young boys sitting about 50m away from our shelter on a small dune, watching us intently. As I sat up and adjusted to wakefulness, I smiled and waved, but later gently shooed them away so that Penina could get dressed. They didn’t seem too worried.

Another warm morning, we enjoyed breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and tea in the shade of the hut.

Breakfast

Leaving Amak Amak Beach, we drove perpendicular to the coast across the coastal plain to check out a huge cave at the base of the mountains.

Cave

From there we drove east to the Zahag sand dunes, formed, no doubt, by the strong monsoon wind which had once again strengthened and was threatening to remove doors from the car. I felt childlike joy running up and down the pure white sand set against dark clouds and angry sky.

Sand dunes

Sand dunes

Penina and I climbed back in the car feeling very sweaty and gritty, and we were relieved when Wasa said we were heading for another wadi swimming hole back up in the mountains. En route, we stopped at a small village which was seemingly deserted, tatty thatch huts set amongst rocks and litter. One lonely looking satellite dish sat propped up on a metal drum.

Satellite dish

Faisal went off to find the owner of a little shop who soon came jogging along to unlock. He sold shampoo and disposable razors to Wasa and Faisal, and yummy ice-cold drinks to all of us.

The road deteriorated as we climbed the mountain range, and soon we stopped at another little village. This one was lush with vegetation and teeming with people going about their business. Wasa said it was famous for tropical fruit, so we bought a large papaya from a man who climbed a tree and plucked it fresh.

The swimming hole when we got there was everything we’d hoped for. We laid out our picnic spot and Faisal delivered a pot of hot, sweet tea.

Swimming hole

Penina and I took the opportunity to do a little bit of handwashing downstream, hanging the wet clothes over a makeshift clothesline strung between two trees. Just as we were thinking about getting in for a swim, another 4WD crawled down the track to the wadi and parked. Four men got out and waved to us before stripping to boxers and taking running jumps at the water. They swam for a couple of minutes, got out, gave their shirts a quick wash, climbed back into their car, gave us another wave, and drove off.

The water was amazing when we got in. The coolness was refreshing and invigorating, and we could feel the accumulated dirt and sweat wash away. The hole was deep and a perfectly-placed rock provided a 2m-high ledge to jump from.

Swimming hole

After getting out and getting dry, Wasa brought over lunch of potato, tuna and rice. While Penina and I ate, he and Faisal walked upstream and over a rise to wash in private. We all got back into the car after lunch and baths feeling clean and happy for the drive towards the north coast.

The scenery on that drive through villages and valleys was spectacular.

Valley

We descended to the north coast near Homhil and the weather changed immediately to hot, humid and windy — I hadn’t realised just how relatively cool and still it had been for the past 30 hrs. We stopped at a little shop to buy fishing line, and then a little further down the road to buy smallbait from some boys catching it at the edge of the water. Wasa and Faisal were going to try to catch our dinner.

Near the north-eastern tip of the island we parked at the incredible Arar Beach. A couple of enormous sand dunes rest up against the sheer mountainside, and standing there in the strong wind it was easy to understand how they’d got there. It almost felt like the gale was blowing from two opposite directions at once, whipping up the sea into a blanket of whitecaps.

Dunes and spring

Beach goat

A freshwater spring flows from the mountain to the sea, surrounded by the most unlikely crop of lush, green grass. Tiny little fish swam against the strong flow to remain in small pools.

Spring

Wasa and Faisal disappeared up the beach into the wind to try their luck with the fishing line; Penina and I just wandered around taking in the view and losing layers of skin to airborne sand while climbing dunes.

Beach shadow

The fishermen returned about 30 minutes later with two fish. They looked like they’d been out in a storm — covered in spray from the wind and a thick layer of sand. In better weather we would’ve camped at the spring but there was no chance of us staying this night. Five minutes back up the road was a small cave in the side of the mountain that would provide good shelter.

We arrived at the cave just on sunset. Wasa wanted to try to catch another fish with the last of the bait, and as he walked back to the beach Penina and I watched the sun disappear over the horizon.

Sunset

The cave was perfect — sheltered from the wind even through we could hear it howling, a flat ground of small rocks, and a fantastic view of the beach and night sky. A smaller cave just beside us bore evidence of recent and frequent goat cook-ups with lots of bones laying around and cut-off goat feet

Faisal cooked dinner and Wasa returned empty handed. We all ate together by the light of a small torch.

As with last night, Penina and I read as long as we could stand the bugs attracted by our light, and then we lay on our mats and stared at the stars.

Socotra day four: from the Arabian to the Indian

The wind blew relentlessly all night long, and we woke shortly after sunrise covered in sweat and grit. Penina and I had a quick wash and a simple breakfast, and then a chuckle when Wasa returned from having a shower at his family’s house in town to find his cigarettes had been eaten by goats.

We drove into town to buy supplies and to wave at the kids who crowded the car to wave at the strangers. The road took us along the coast towards Hadibo before turning back inland near the airport. At the top of the range we stopped to enjoy the view of the Arabian Sea and a particularly impressive dragons blood tree specimen.

Dragons blood tree

On previous days, Penina and I had watched in Deleisha and Hadibo as clouds seemed to evaporate as soon as they rolled over the mountains, and now as we arrived at the Dixam platea the weather changed suddenly from hot, humid and windy, to overcast, cooler and raining!

At a small village we pulled off the tarmac and parked at the top of a deep gorge, and stood in the rain to take in the rocky slopes and lush fields of dragons blood trees.

Lookout

Lookout

Faisal engaged 4WD and slowly picked his way down a narrow goat track towards Wadi Di Erhor, and Wasa was surprised to find another vehicle already there. The driver was chilling out and killing time while his passengers swam at a nearby swimming hole. Wasa and Faisal immediately started cooking lunch (they refused all offers of help) and Penina and I took a stroll upstream, ducking under trees whenever the rain got heavy. We loved finding colourful little crabs and other critters; besides from the sound of trickling water, it was completely peaceful.

Wadi

We went back to the car for a simple but yummy meal of vegetables, tuna and rice with Wasa, Faisal and the driver of the other vehicle. As we sipped on some post-lunch tea, several goats started sniffing around for cooking scraps, so Faisal dug out his carrot and potato peelings and made the goats’ day.

An appropriate period of digestion later, Penina and I grabbed our towels and walked downstream to the swimming hole. The two passengers of the other car were still there, sitting on a rock and smoking a shisha pipe after their swim. We jumped into the water and blissed out for a while.

Swimming hole

While we we swimming, a man came down to fill a bottle from the stream, and then scrambled up the steep slope like a goat. We waved and he flashed us a bashful smile. After an hour or two of swimming and lounging on the rocks, we walked back to find Wasa and Faisal finishing off the last of yesterday’s qat

The original plan saw us camping back up top at the lookout but rain made that prospect look less attractive. We decided to push on to the south coast of the island where the weather was reportedly better. After we crawled back up the dirt track it was a reasonably quick drive to the edge of the mountain range. The view of the Indian Ocean as we descended towards the coast was pretty special.

View

Our destination, Amak Beach, looked much more like the dune beaches we’re used to in Australia, complete with angry surf thanks to the monsoon winds. In addition to a couple of falling down thatch shelters there was a concrete toilet block with solar panels on the roof, but it was all locked up and out of business. Wasa wasn’t sure why but suspected falling tourist numbers. We chose the most intact shelter and set up camp.

Beach

It was very overcast and already quite dark. Penina and I went for a walk along the beach and met a man who warned us not to go in the water. He spoke a little English and showed us his small catch from an afternoon of fishing. Back in the shelter we drank some more tea while Faisal and Wasa cooked us dinner (we had to keep reminding ourselves that we shouldn’t feel guilty for not helping), before enjoyed another yummy meal. We read our books until the head torches attracted a critical mass of bugs, so we decided to concede defeat and turn in for an early night.

Socotra day three: ten weddings

There’s something pretty special about waking up inside a beach hut, climbing out of bed, walking 20 metres across white sand, and straight into the warm ocean. No rush to get moving this morning so we enjoyed a leisurely swim and an even more leisurely breakfast. Several cups of tea and book chapters later, Wasa outlined the day’s plan and surprised us with news that we were going to a wedding tonight. Ten — ten! — couples were getting hitched in Qalansiya and Wasa was bringing us along to the celebrations for the marriage of his wife’s cousin (the buck we’d seen yesterday.) We protested, saying that we didn’t want to intrude, but Wasa was insistent.

Pretty bloody excited about the wedding, we loaded up the 4WD and hit the road.

En route to Hadibo we stopped at a tree nursery to check out a seven-year-old dragons blood tree that was barely 30cm tall, then a mechanical workshop on the outskirts of town to buy ice for the Esky. A steady stream of men and young boys were walking in and out of the workshop, exchanging a few notes for a chunk of ice in a dripping red plastic bag.

The wind had really whipped up close to midnight in Deleisha last night, before dying down again towards dawn. Wasa was pretty sure this meant the summer monsoon winds had started, and when we arrived at Hadibo and saw clouds of dust and litter being blown around he nodded his head. It would likely mean that our boat trip that afternoon was off, but we’d known the risks of coming to Socotra in late May. After picking up some food supplies from traders on the shambolic main street we stopped at the town’s most popular restaurant and grabbed takeaway food to eat for lunch in Qalansiya.

About 10km west of Hadibo sits the airport, a petrol station, and an informal qat market where those Socotrans so inclined gather to purchase their fix after each flight arrival from the mainland. The community’s moral standards dictate that no qat should be grown on the island so it all needs to be imported (usually from Sana’a.) Wasa and Faisal wanted to buy some to enjoy after lunch so we parked at the market and Faisal left the engine and air conditioning running while he dashed off to make a deal. Another young man immediately climbed into the driver’s seat, greeted Wasa, and then introduced himself. He works at the airport as a flight controller and was finished his shift, so he explained to us the different grades of the job and ran us through his typical day at the airport which sees only a handful of flights each week. Faisal soon returned with a couple of red plastic bags full of qat leaves identical to the hundreds of discarded bags that littered every surface in sight.

We drove along the coast for a while and then turned up a steep mountain road that flattened out after the peak and weaved through a valley. There was not a single other vehicle on the road, but there was a camel. (The wind nearly tore the door off the car when I got out to snap a photo.)

Camel

In Qalansiya, Faisal drove straight through the town and towards a lookout point. As we approached the top, Wasa — a man not at all given to exaggeration and hyperbole — turned in his seat and told us we were about to experience one of the most beautiful sights in our lives.

He was right.

Qalansiya

It was the lagoon we’d spotted from the plane on approach to the island (twice.) The colour of the water and the unspoiled, postcard beauty of the lagoon kinda defies words. So I won’t try.

Boat

Qalansiya

The wind at the top of the rise was incredible — at times it felt like you could lean into it and take all weight of your legs without falling. After losing the first layer of our skin to sandblasting, we drove back through town and down to the edge of the lagoon. A few simple wood and thatch shelters stood in a spot marginally protected from the wind, and inside one of them we laid out our lunch of rice and goat. Ice-cold Pepsis from the Esky were the perfect antidote to what was another extremely hot day.

Stretching out our full bellies, we watched a steady stream of men arrive at the campsite. Some joined us in our hut and shared cold drinks, while others sat in the empty shelters. Wasa said that everyone was settling in for an afternoon qat chew away from the town and away from those who disapprove. Penina and I settled in for some hardcore book time and then some even harder-core nap time.

We woke as the worst of the day’s heat was easing, startled out of sleep by Faisal throwing a rock at a goat that was creeping up on me. The qat chewers had moved on from their talkative phase and were now mostly quiet and contemplative. Penina and I set off for a walk along the edge of the lagoon. Just as we left, a ute drove up to the beach, the tray overflowing with half-a-dozen men and a pile of drums. They were the band for tonight’s wedding celebrations and they’d come down to the lagoon to practise. The air filled with the sounds of drums and singing.

Walking towards the setting sun, we found the beach blanketed with packs of large white crabs that scuttled away from the human intruders.

Crabs

We soon found ourselves close to where we’d earlier stopped in the car, but this time down at sea level. It was a lovely spot to sit and enjoy sunset and a brief reprieve from the wind.

Sand and tree

Sunset

Back at the camp, we washed a day’s worth of grit from our arms and faces. Just over from the shelters, most of the band and qat chewers were kneeling in lines on small mats for sunset prayers. I put on the only collared shirt I’d brought from Australia, and Penina chose a more modest outfit with scarf employed as a head covering. Wasa offered me some of the perfume he’d just applied, and we drove a few minutes up the trail to Qalinsiya.

The town was buzzing. Wasa explained that the ten weddings had taken place separately and each couple would have their own celebration that night. We passed crowds of people blocking streets, each group gathering for one of the receptions. A large crowd was gathered in the square outside our groom’s family’s house, watching men put the finishing touches on a makeshift stage. The three of us said goodbye to Penina and she disappeared into the house’s inner courtyard to be looked after at the women’s celebration by Wasa’s pregnant wife. Wasa, Faisal and I then joined up with a few other men and entered the front room of an adjoining house.

Half-a-dozen of us sat on cushions around the walls of a small room lit by a single bulb and a TV in the corner tuned to Arabic satellite news. Wasa introduced me around the room and I had a chat to one of the other guests who spoke English. Wasa and I then compared the wedding traditions of our countries and swapped stories about how we’d met our wives. Occasionally, a man or boy would walk around the room, silently shaking hands with those of us sitting on the floor. There wasn’t very much conversation in the room, and certainly no explicit celebration. It felt strange but not awkward.

After about half an hour, the groom arrived carrying two large trays of rice and mutton and goat. He was wearing a freshly pressed pink shirt and a clean futa, and still looked quite nervous despite having finished his marriage ceremony some hours earlier. Everyone took turns to congratulate him and then we gathered in two groups around the trays and tucked into dinner. I was sharing with the groom and it was his job to cut the large chunks of meat on the tray into bite-sized pieces, and to encourage everyone else to eat too many of them. As with all other meals on Soctora so far, the food was simple but tasty. And to be honest, I was enjoying the break from seafood.

After we’d eaten our fill, we thanked the groom again and he disappeared to share the ample leftovers with others. I was losing track of the intricacies of the celebrations so I just gave up and went along with it all. A bowl of water was provided for hand washing and then a young boy delivered a round of tea. All of the other men drained their cups quite quickly, said goodbye, and left. Wasa, Faisal and I lingered a little longer before saying farewell to the host.

It was about 8:30pm by now and the crowd at the stage was growing larger and larger. Wasa made some enquiries and found that the band was still a while away. To kill time, we drove up to the lookout from earlier in the day and enjoyed the sight of the nearly full moon rising over the mountains. Wasa had also received a phone call from his boss who’d heard on the TV about an earthquake in the region and a tsunami watch. Once we’d verified that the sea was where it was supposed to be, we drove back to town and hung out at the groom’s family’s house for a little while. There we drank more tea and chatted with Wasa’s maths teacher brother-in-law who drilled me for details about the superannuation system in Australia. In the corner of the room, a small boy was passed out on the floor oblivious to the noise, his bare feet covered in a full day of fun’s dirt.

Finally, word passed through the room that the party was about to kick off, so we moved onto the small porch of the house and negotiated some standing room. A hundred or so men and boys squatted on the ground in the square, headscarves wrapped around their faces to ward off the clouds of dust kicked up by the wind and the harsh floodlights. Two mismatched guitar amplifiers on the stage were hooked up to a small mixing desk and were blaring distorted music at ear-splitting volume. Every now and again the music would fade down so a man with a microphone could read out what I later learned were the equivalent of congratulatory telegrams, although these were messages written by families that had contributed something to the celebration, such as an animal for slaughter and cooking.

Soon I could hear drums from around the corner and all heads turned to look. The band that had been rehearsing at the beach marched into the square with the nervous-looking groom in the middle of a crowd of clapping men. The band strutted onto the stage and sat on chairs, and the groom sat on a long plastic bench. The other men who had been walking with the band sat in lines at the edge of an orange tarpaulin laid in the middle of the square like a dance floor and weighed down with rocks. The lead singer wasted no time in launching a new tune and the men on the dance floor sprung into action.

As soon as the music started, a long, long line of men formed at the side of the stage. They were invited up in twos to congratulate the groom and then sit with him on the plastic bench for a photo taken by a man with a small point-and-shoot camera. The poor groom was going to spend several hours doing this, and it didn’t take long for him to start looking bored and fatigued.

On the tarp, the dancers were taking turns to dance in small groups. There was no real order to the dancing, and no formal moves — they just stood up and jumped around with unbridled energy and joy. One young man stepped onto the dance floor from the crowd, dressed in a yellow popped-collar polo shirt and matching futa, and turned on an incredible show of rhythmic hands and thrusting hips. His performance drew an enormous cheer and round of applause from the crowd, and several men approached the dance floor to push money into his shirt (one gripped the note in his teeth and passed it mouth to mouth). Wasa leaned over to me and said, “this one, he is gay.”

The festivities went on like this for hours. Occasionally the band would break between songs for some more telegrams, and the groom was convinced for a short time to join the dancers. It was the first time I’d seen him properly smile all day.

Around midnight, Wasa went and fetched Penina from the women’s party and we tried to find Faisal and the car. The crowd outside had thinned a little but there was no sign of the party wrapping up anytime soon. Some women had gathered at the back of the square to watch the band. Penina and I swapped stories as Faisal drove us to the top of the lookout for one more go at that amazing full moon view in the howling wind. We went to bed in our little shelter next to the lagoon thinking about how lucky we were to have experienced this night.

Socotra day two: bottle trees, waterholes and snorkels

The sun rises early in Socotra in May, and by 6:30am it was already uncomfortably hot and sticky. After a quick breakfast of eggs, bread and cheese, Penina and I piled into the car for a 90 minute drive to the Homhil Protected Area. We headed eastwards along the coast for a bit and then drove inland for a slow and tortuous 4WD climb up a steep, winding track. The view from one side of the car down into the valley below was stunning, with exposed geological layers on the other side of the car featuring impossible rock colours and every imaginable shape.

The track levelled out and we drove into a scene which stopped us in our tracks: our first experience of the alien-like landscape for which Socotra is famous. Faisal parked the car under a tenuous patch of shade and we wandered amongst bottle and frankincense trees. Silhouettes of dragons blood trees dotted the crests of nearby peaks.

Trees

Wasa described the method for harvesting frankincense and extracted some for us to sample. It smelled divine.

Car and trees

We drove on to a small village slightly higher up in the mountain and were met by a young man who would guided us on a short walk through a ravine. This is one of the pleasing aspects of tourism on Socotra: visitors on treks and walks must be accompanied by a local villager in addition to their tour guide, helping to distribute more widely the money they bring to the island.

Halfway down we stopped at a dragons blood tree — the first we’d seen up close. Wasa described their unique characteristics, such as hollow trunk, and showed us some of the dark red sap. The trees are much taller than I expected.

We walked on. It was hot. Very, very hot. The sun felt like it was boring through our skulls and the hot breeze wasn’t helping. And then suddenly we were upon a natural swimming hole, set against a fantasy backdrop. The water looked so incredibly inviting.

Water hole

Over the next 45 minutes we paddled in the water as much as modesty allowed. As we sat on the rocks, drying quickly in the heat, a goat scrambled down the rocks to have a drink.

Drinking goat

It was a quiet walk back to the car where lifesaving ice-cold water was waiting in an Esky in the back. Wasa took a while to catch up because everyone in the small village stopped him to say hello.

With windows open for maximum natural air conditioning, we drove back down the mountain and on to the Di Hamri Marine Conservation Area. A trail from the main road lead to a stunning beach on one side of a small peninsula. Penina and I got out of the car a kilometre early and walked along the beach to a campsite on the other side of the peninsula where Wasa and Faisal would be waiting. The beach was blanketed in red rocks, washed up coral, and other remnants of marine life. The water was crystal clear.

Di Hamri

Di Hamri beach

By the time we got to the campsite, Wasa and Faisal were reclining under a palm-thatch shelter. We joined them, grateful for the sun relief and some more ice-cold water. A group of men from a town on the other side of the island were walking out of the water and back to their own shelter. Wasa said they were a buck’s party of sorts — one of them was due to marry tomorrow so they’d come to Di Hamri to chill out for the afternoon.

Speaking of food, we were starving. A large plate of rice and fish arrived from a small cooking hut back from the beach, and the four of us tucked in greedily. Under the other shelter, the buck’s party was also eating lunch seated in a circle around the tray. Goats were roaming around everywhere without concern for the humans — situation normal on Socotra. As we all ate, one goat approached the other group from behind and stuck its snout into a large saucepan full of vegetables in gravy. The men shooed it away with a laugh and then one of the groom’s mates took a fresh tissue from a box, beckoned the goat to come back, and wiped food from its face.

We mentioned to Wasa that in Australia we’d be under attack from seagulls by now, and Wasa joked that in Socotra “the seagulls have morals.” So we threw our fish bones to the many Egyptian vultures that were hanging around waiting for us to do just that.

Egyptian vulture

After nearly an hour spent reclining on pillows to let our food digest, Penina and I pulled on flippers and snorkels and slid into the warm water. Within metres of where we ate lunch lies a vast coral ecosystem with an amazing range of reef fish and other marine life. For the next 90 minutes we paddled around checking out schools of fish, large clams, an octopus, and every colour of coral. We were just about to get out when Wasa, a recently arrived tourist (she was the only other tourist we saw the entire trip), and her tour guide jumped into the water as well. The five of us swam across to the edge of the peninsula where the local men were confident we’d find large schools of fish. We did — and we got caught up in the middle of a few — plus we saw a turtle for good measure. (Well, Penina did, and I managed a quick glimpse.) It was getting late in the afternoon by the time we got dry and dressed.

Di Hamri dusk

Faisal had disappeared during the afternoon to see if he could find some qat so Wasa drove us into the nearby village to look for him, his swimming trunks hung over the wing mirror to dry. Our driver successfully retrieved, we drove back to the Deleisha campsite where we would again spend the night. “To your room?” asked one of the smiling men when he saw us.

It had been a huge day so we were pretty tired and struggled to finish another large meal. We sat chatting to Wasa over tea until our eyes refused to stay open any longer, and we went to sleep enjoying a warm breeze that had started to gently blow.

Socotra day one: take two

My alarm was set for 4:30am but I should’ve known it was unnecessary. Mains power came on during the night just in time for the first call to prayer. To this soundtrack, we quickly showered and collected our stuff, said goodbye to the hotel owner, and met Jamil and Gamil downstairs. As Gamil wove his way through the narrow streets of Old Sana’a, Jamil announced that there was time to grab a coffee on the way to the airport.

We cruised through the sleepy streets of the city as the sky slowly turned from black to dull pink to dull blue. Gamil parked the car and we walked around a few corners into an alley full of hole-in-the-wall coffee shops and mobile food carts. The four of us took a seat at one of the long, shared benches with about a dozen other people who were sipping coffee and eating bread, quietly contemplating the day ahead. Loud Islamic chanting blared from a speaker in one of the shops, drowning out the sound of food sizzling on hotplates. A grizzled old man efficiently delivered milky coffee to patrons, the skin on his hands somehow immune to the scalding hot glasses. Penina and I weren’t very hungry but Jamil insisted on buying a couple of different food cart offerings for us to try: two different kinds of bread, one with egg cooked into it. It was all quite delicious.

As we drove out of the city, the sun finally managed to poke its head above the layer of haze that obscures the Sana’a horizon.

Sana'a sunrise

At the airport we said our goodbyes to Jamil and thanked him for looking after us in such unusual circumstances. He asked us to spread the word about our time in Sana’a and encourage tourists to come back. Business is obviously tough with things the way they are at the moment.

Our flight was not far away, so by the time we’d checked in and quickly scanned our email courtesy of Sana’a Airport’s free wifi (are you paying attention, Australian airports?) it was time to board the plane to Socotra. This time around, though, we were subdued; I think we were both waiting until we were definitely on the other side of Socotra immigration before allowing ourselves to feel excited.

We flew the leg from Sana’a to Mukalla, with 25 minutes on the ground transferring passengers, and then took off again for the quick hop to Socotra. A simple meal of pastry and fruit juice popper was served but we didn’t feel like our juices so we offered them back to the attendant. She refused to take them, giving us a look of concern and saying, “No, no, you are going to Socotra. There is nothing there! You will want these!”

We were treated to the same beautiful view of the north coast of the island as we flew in, and we landed under blue skies in contrast to the overcast weather on Wednesday. The first thing we saw as we poked our head out of the plane to climb down the stairs was the local Felix Airways manager, Fareej, grinning from ear to ear. He met us at the bottom of the stairs with handshakes and a welcome back to the island. As we approached the terminal, the tourist police officer from the other day saw us and also greeted us warmly. He ushered us straight past the immigration desk and into the baggage hall, telling us that he’d been in contact with Dr Az-zahri in Sana’a and would do anything necessary to make sure our time in Socotra was pleasant.

Next to the conveyor stood a young man holding a printed sign bearing our names, although he’d already identified us since we were the only Westerners on the plane and were accompanied by a smiling police officer. Abdulwasa shook our hands and welcomed us to Soctora on behalf of the tourist agency* arranged for us by Jamil in Sana’a. Once we’d collected our bags, Wasa lead us to the carpark where a couple of police officers were waiting with Abdullah, the man who’d issued us fake visas. Abdullah was shaking violently as he addressed us, stating that he was “standing in front of us” to offer to conduct the tour if we wished. It was a pride-saving move which he’d either asked permission of the police to make, or which the police had “suggested”. We declined Abdullah’s offer — quite politely, I think, given the inconvenience and expense he’d caused us — and said we were more than happy to be with our new agency. So, the police lead him away. “Back to prison,” replied Wasa when we asked where he was being taken.

We loaded our bags in the back of a love-worn Landcruiser and Wasa introduced Faisal who would be our driver for the next week. Inside the 4WD, the air-conditioning was already a welcome relief from the heat and humidity outside. We set off on the short drive to the island’s main town, Hadibo, chatting with Wasa about our time in Sana’a and taking in the view.

Socotra

Hadibo looked nothing like I expected it to. The relatively new tarmac road that spans the island’s north coast wraps around the city as no thoroughfare in town is straight or wide enough to accommodate it. A mix of brick and concrete buildings stand haphazardly amongst the dust and litter, faded signs hanging above chaotic stores browsed by roving goats. Later, when Penina asked Wasa if there were lots of food crops on the island, he replied that it was difficult to maintain large plots because “the animals have democracy” and fencing is expensive.

Parking outside a strip of shopfronts, we went inside the tour company’s office to meet its manager, Radwan. Radwan joined the long list of Yemenis who’d expressed shock at our story and apologised on behalf of their country. After loosely outlining the week’s plan, Wasa announced that our first destination would be the small village of Deleisha, which due to some unusual geography is the only place on the whole north coast that escapes the gale-force monsoon winds that plague Socotra from late May to August. We drove east alongside the dramatic peaks of the Haghier mountain range, past the island’s port (complete with two wrecked ships on the beach from the 2004 tsunami), until reaching an unmarked turnoff that took us down to the water.

We pulled up at a small campsite that was so new Wasa hadn’t ever seen it (he’d been overseas for several months before our tour). In addition to five palm-thatched huts, the campsite featured a larger, open-front “mess” building and a concrete toilet block. With no other guests staying, we took our pick of the huts.

Hut

After checking that we wouldn’t be offending anyone, we urgently ditched our jeans in favour of swimming costumes and dived into probably the most inviting water I’ve ever seen.

Beach

It felt late in the day due to the early start but even after our swim it was only 1pm. We changed back into clothes and headed to the main building for a lunch of grilled fish, rice and bread. Sitting in the shade, bellies full of good food, looking out over the water, and drinking cups of sweet, spiced tea, it was only a matter of time until we drifted off for nap time.

Tea

Later that afternoon, after some book time with more cups of tea, we strolled a couple of kilometres up the beach, marvelling at all the crabs and critters on the sand. The sun set during our walk back to the campsite, and then as we sat on the ground outside our hut enjoying a slightly cooler breeze that took the edge off the humidity, the full moon rose over the water.

Someone fired up a petrol generator shortly after dark and dinner was another simple meal of fish and rice. After we finished eating, the campsite owner, Abdulrahman, sat with us over tea to have a nice little conversation in broken English (and even more broken Arabic), complete with lots of hand signalling. The generator went off just before 9pm and all we could hear as we drifted off the sleep in the hut was the sound of the ocean.

* Socotra Eco-Tours (ironically, the second of the two agencies we’d had on our original shortlist)

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