Traveling to Socotra Island, Yemen; My Group Tour Experience in 2020
During my visit to every country in the world, Yemen was my 2nd last country, country number 196/197 countries. I had hopped the border from Oman to Yemen once previously, but that wasn’t really visiting Yemen, it was cheating, and I knew it. I wanted to see the most beautiful place in all of Yemen before I could consider myself truly having visited Yemen, and that place was Socotra Island. And so traveling to Socotra Island, Yemen became my obsession. During 2016/2017 I had tried and failed to get to Socotra 5 times, wasting over $10,000USD, but I wasn’t to be discouraged.
Finally, on my 6th attempt, I made it (but it cost me 4 days on a cargo ship to do so)! But it was so, so worth it, and it turned out that Socotra Island is perhaps THE most beautiful place on our planet. I knew I had to share traveling to Socotra Island, Yemen with the world, and not just by writing blog posts and Instagram pics, I had to bring people, I had to run tours to Socotra (you can join my January 2021 tour to Socotra, read more here). And so I did. I announced on my blog that I’d bring a group. That was about 1 year ago today.
Tours to Socotra; My 2 Groups in 2020
With the help of Yahya, the guy who helped get me to Socotra by cargo ship 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post last year about me running a tour to Socotra for 2020, it sold out all 16 spots in a day or 2. I had people asking could they join, but it was full, so I added another trip straight after it, and that sold out too. Wow. Turns out there are a lot of people who want a real adventure for their holiday. They’ve had enough with 2 weeks in a resort in Mexico or Spain, they want to travel deeper, truer, and I’m privileged to be able to help facilitate that. And so the planning went into overdrive, and we were ready to go.
With 33 people signed up, 17 (from 9 countries) on Trip 1 in February and 15 on Trip 2 in March (from 12 countries), we all met in Cairo. I had organised a hotel in downtown, so after giving a briefing in the meeting room there, and introducing ourselves to each other, we went for dinner on the Nile. I love hearing about how and why people are interested in visiting countries like Yemen, so the first dinner is always fun. It’s hard to make friends as you get older, but these kinds of adventure trips make it seem so easy. Suddenly a group of like-minded people are brought together. I love it.
The next day we explored Cairo, complete with local guide and private bus. The Pyramids of Giza, Khan el Khalili bazaar, and the Cairo Museum. Cairo is one of my least favourite cities on the planet if truth be told. I have found the Arabic world to be the most generous, hospitable, kind region of all my travels but Cairo bucks that trend. That being said, it’s home to the Pyramids, so it’s a place every traveler should hit up at least once in their life. One of the original wonders of the world, the Pyramids never fails to impress me.
But Cairo wasn’t why we were there, not by a long shot. Cairo is a holiday destination, not a ‘travel’ destination. Tour buses, and cruise passengers we were not. Our group had come together for a travel experience like no other, and Cairo was merely a hop-off point. That night, we didn’t even get to bed. We had a 10pm airport transfer booked. Back to Cairo Airport we went, Yemenia air check-in was waiting for us.
A LEAP OF FAITH; OFF TO SOCOTRA ON OUR GROUP TOUR!
The flight was booked at 2.45am, and I was nervous. There is currently no way to book flights to Socotra online, so using my fixer in Yemen, I had sent $40kUSD or so from my private bank account to an Egyptian lady’s personal bank account, a lady I had never met. I was assured she’d pay cash for all the flight tickets for my 2 groups. Now that was a leap of faith. She had been vouched for by my friend, but still, as we approached the Yemenia check-in, my heart skipped a beat as I handed my passport over. Imagine if the flights didn’t exist?!
Well, they did. Phew. Everyone checked-in, visas checked, and we were through. 17 new friends, on a flight to Yemen. We bought a chunk of alcohol at the duty-free because we knew we’d be camping on the island, and camping is always better with alcohol. The flight left, 3 hours later, around 6am, we were in Seiyun on the Yemeni mainland. We weren’t scheduled to even get off the plane, but they took us off anyway. After my 5 failed attempts at Socotra before, this was worrying. Not as worrying as when I saw the Yemeni engineers fiddling with the engine though. Suddenly, again, I was thinking of worst-case scenarios. That’s one of the beauties of this mystical island, it’s so bloody hard to get to.
3.5 hours passed as we waited at that airport, but finally we were let back onboard, and we were back on for the last 60-minute hop to Socotra. We made it. 4 or 5 hours late, sure. But we touched down.
A moment of pride for me having come to this island to finish my every country 3 years ago. Fast forward to today, to bring a group here to see Socotra in all its beauty was amazing, especially as many of the group were my close friends, and the second group included my mum! Also, we had people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s AND 80s throughout the trip, now that’s something! We had people finally get into Socotra after 6 attempts, we had 30th birthdays, and we even had someone even visit their 193rd/193 UN countries (congrats John!), so that was a celebratory moment too. This island always holds something special for people, it’s magical.
And so our week on Socotra began. But not before we had most of our alcohol confiscated at the airport. With the war, the Saudis have taken control of the airport and airspace. And where there are Saudi authorities, there is a lack of freedom. Thankfully my group are a resourceful crew, so with some unique smuggling techniques, we got about 1/3 of our liquor in! Take that Saudis!
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR SOCOTRA TOUR
I wont bother going into the whole itinerary details, as you can find that on my upcoming tour to Socotra page. Let me just run you guys through the highlights.
On arrival, the plan is always to sleep at the guesthouse. I’m not a huge camper anyway, and although most operators who take people around the island camp for the whole week, I decided we would spend 4 nights in a basic guest house, to allow people to shower every day, charge their equipment, and have some personal space, and then 3 days camping. The schedule would be the first night in a guest house, then 1-night camping, then back to the guest house for 1 night in a bed again, 1-night camping’ and repeat. It made the energy levels much better in my opinion, and something I’ll stick to in my future tours to Socotra (join me!). Anyway, with both my groups over February and March we stuck to the same itinerary and formula, and it went something like this:
Day 1: Land in Socotra, recover in Hadibo.
Day 2,3: Head to Central Socotra, Camp, South Socotra, back to Hadibo to the guest house.
Highlights: Diksum Plateau and the dragon blood tree forest, camping with our smuggled booze, Amoak beaches and sand dunes.
Day 3,4: Head to Western Socotra, Camp, check out Abdulla the caveman, back to Hadibo.
Highlights: Qalansia – the best beach in the world, Shoab private beach, boat rides in the Arabian sea, the sting-ray lagoon, the sand bank, and Abdulla’s water safari
Day 5,6: To the east of the island, Hoq cave, camp, hike and snorkel
Highlights: The hike and Hoq cave, climbing the huge sand dunes for unrivaled views of Socotra, camping on the beach, swimming in the fresh water lake, Hom Hill and last views of the dragon blood trees.
Day 7: Back to Hadibo, shower, sleep and fly back to Cairo.
You can see a detailed itinerary of what our team did in my plan for the January 2021 Socotra Tour, after such a success we’ll do the same thing again.
For my past travelers, well, let’s just somethings stay between new friends, so that streaking on the beach, the drunk dancing to ‘She’s a belter’, the new special friends, and a host of other stories will stay on the island forever. I won’t forget the dune racing, the sweaty hikes, the inappropriate jokes, the Portugese girls obsessing over the sea food, the fake booze, and most of all the trust you gave me to take you there and the new friends we met. What a ride.
I honestly can’t wait to get back. It seems like a lifetime ago we were all on the island, kinda disconnected from the Corona Virus madness, with nature, with new friends, on one of the most untouched islands on the planet. It was, and is, paradise. And it’s a privilege to have met all the new people and had such an adventure. So if you’re reading this, thank you guys!