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.