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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)