If the name Socotra doesn’t ring a bell you are up for a pleasant surprise! This unique island is one of the least visited and photographed places between Africa, Arabian peninsula and South Asia. It is located in the Arabian ocean, south of Yemen and Oman, east of Somalia (the closest landmass). Politically it belongs to Yemen but luckily it has avoided all the turmoil of the mainland. The population of the island is 50 thousand and the only city on the island is the capital Hadibo. Most of the population is muslim and Arabic speaking. Most of the guides and drivers will speak at least basic English, it pays to learn basic Arabic words and phrases.
I first heard about the island years ago from my bird watching buddies. They were describing it as secret heaven on Earth. I learned that there is much more to the nature of the island than just birds. The island is most famous for the unique flora, such as Dragon blood trees or cucumber trees. Socotra is sometimes touted as “Galapagos of Indian Ocean”. I knew I have to visit.
When Jeremy Woodhouse and I were thinking about unique and cool places for our next joint photo tour Socotra came to our minds. We connected with a local agent Fuad from Sanaa and a few months later we met in Yemen. First we toured the capital Sanaa and Haraz mountains and then we flew to Socotra for a ten day exploration trip.
Socotra island – Travel Information
When to go
First, when is the best time to travel to Socotra? Definitely in the colder part of the year, roughly between October to April. If you are a keen birdwatcher, you will want to visit in migration season, autumn or spring. Photographers will want to visit in spring, when the nature is most lush, bottle trees are blooming all around the island.
How to get there
Now, let’s talk about getting to the Socotra island. Because of the conflict in Yemen, one cannot fly to Socotra via Sanaa at the moment. Felix air has one flight per week from Dubai (Thursdays) and it cannot be booked via standard online booking tools. I strongly recommend to leave this to your local operator who can arrange flight tickets and visas that you need to enter Yemen/Socotra. You will not be allowed to enter the country if you have Israeli stamp in your passport!
Where to stay
Now when you successfully arrived to the island you will realise that there are not many hotel options. In fact, in 2014 we opted to stay in beach-side camping instead of cockroach infested hotel in Hadibo! Nowadays the situation is better but do not expect comfort. Out of Hadibo and villages like Qalansiyah the only option is camping. A trusted tour operator will provide tents and sleeping mats, but I recommend you bring your own (light) sleeping bag.
What to eat – Socotra Island
And the all important thing – the food! The island is quite barren and without much fertile soil. This means there cannot be any meaningful agriculture. We had to import our own fruits and vegetables for the duration of the trip. We also brought a good amount of rice and canned tuna to complement our meals.
One thing where Socotra is plentiful is the seafood! And I am happy to confirm that local fishermen really do fish in sustainable, traditional way that supports their families. Every day we were stocked with fresh daily catch which consisted of a variety of fish. Since there are no Michelin star restaurants around the island the best way to travel is by a local team that includes a driver, a guide and a cook. This way you will always have a decent meal waiting for you when needed.
Socotra Island – places to visit
Despite small size of the island, it takes long drives from one place to another. This makes planning harder as one cannot just simply stay in Hadibo and make day trips around. Here are my suggestions where to go on Socotra and which place can be a good base to stay / camp.
Western Socotra features three amazing places that are close to each other. They all offer excellent photographic opportunities.
Detwah Lagoon | Qalansiyah Village | Shoab Beach
I recommend to stay at Qalansiyah village where one can stay at modest homestay with proper beds. The village is very much alive, a thriving fishing community, lots of kids and beginnings of tourism. From the village it is just a short walk uphill for great views on Detwah lagoon. What a sight! Then descending down to the lagoon itself yields more photographic opportunities. Seascapes, fishermen, local kids, sand dunes – it doesn’t end here.
Shoab beach is remote and hard to access by car. The best way to get there is on a boat trip with local fishermen in Qalansiyah. Personally, I liked the boat trip more than the beach itself. We met a fishing ship and local fishermen invited us onboard. We were able to photograph them at work – what an experience. Shoab beach is supposed to be great for snorkelling but I cannot confirm as I didn’t have my mask. I did enjoy the chrystal clear waters and colourful fishing boats. The downside of this trip is that it takes place in day time when light is harsh. The way back was excellent with birds, we saw huge flocks of cormorants, terns, seagulls and other birds.
Dixam Plateau (also spelled Diksam, Dixum) is the best place to photograph Dragon blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari). Located in the middle of the island, it takes forever to drive up here. Very barren landscapes, dotted with dragon blood trees and occasional bottle tree. Some of the best views are from the edge of Wadi Dirhur, the “Grand Canyon of Socotra”. There is no facilities up here and one has to bring everything with. There are nice hiking possibilities, a long hike into Wadi Dirhur or even longer across to Fihrmin forest. Or just hang around Dixam, for amazing views and looking for compositions among dragon blood trees.
Homhill Protected Area
Homhil is another gem for photographing mountain landscapes and trees. Beside dragon blood trees and bottle trees there are numerous frankincense trees as well. What a variety! There is a nice campsite at Homhil from where one can explore on foot. Nearby, there is Socotra’s only infinity pool – it beats any 5-star hotel with its views!
Arher Sand Dunes
The whole eastern tip of Socotra island is fascinating for photography. The Arher sand dunes can be seen from far and can serve as great background if shooting from the coast. I recommend a climb to the top. It is hard as hell, literally one step up and two steps down, but well worth the effort. There is a small campsite just below the nicest dune, next to a source of freshwater. How convenient! If camping here, take a drive to the easternmost part of the island. Some unique seascapes can be photographed there as well as fishermen with their colourful boats. While here, visit the Hoq cave as well.
Steroh Sand Dunes
To get to Steroh on the south side of the island is quite a detour. Well worth if you like photographing desert. Unlike darker sand I’ve seen in Oman, Namibia, Morocco or Egypt, these dunes are almost white. And next to the sea! Be careful of wind – it can blow the sand everywhere, your clothes, backpack, your camera gear.
Hadibo – Socotra Island Capital
Hadibo is not a pretty place. And there is a lot of trash everywhere. But it does have a nice vibe and the town is the only place with hotels, restaurants and shops. I recommend visiting the fish market, located on the beach. Very hectic and raw. Some people will find it gruesome, there is blood, inner parts of fish is thrown out to vultures and seagulls and the overall hygiene is sub-standard (to put it mildly). This said, this is a great experience and an opportunity for some cool portraits of rugged fishermen.
I also enjoyed walking around the town photographing people. Armed with a few phrases of Arabic and lots of hand gestures we understood each other and had a great time.
Photography on Socotra Island
The main draw for photographers will definitely be the endemic trees and rugged landscapes. The dragon blood trees cannot be found anywhere else in the world. To me, the diversity of the island is an attraction of itself. The mountains, the seascapes, the sand dunes, dark skies, flora & fauna, the people. One can create an amazing travel portfolio on this small island. Bring a wide variety of lenses and a backup camera. Ask your local guide / travel agent for current situation about bringing your drone.
The nature of Socotra is unique and very fragile. The dragon blood trees are in decline. A possible theory is the goats that overgraze the island. We should minimise our impact when camping, hiking and photographing in nature. There is literally no tourism infrastructure and while there are only a few visitors, this is not a big problem. With the rise of tourism, this will change. Leave no trace. Do not take anything with you off the island unless it is harvested sustainably. A good example is Socotran honey or hand carved souvenirs. But never take any parts of the trees, sea shells etc. You can support the local initiative to save dragon blood trees or a tree nursery in Hadibo.
Socotra is an isolated community. The traditional way of life requires us to be informed and respectful. English is not spoken except for a few people who work in tourism. Learning basic Arabic words and phrases will show respect and will be a nicer experience. When photographing people it’s always best to seek their permission. In Socotra this is particularly important when photographing women. Whether or not we agree with this in today’s society, it’s not unusual for a woman to require her husband’s permission before being photographed. You can send prints to your local guide and ask to give it to the people…
Technical considerations and logistics
The main problem photographers face on Socotra island is a power supply. The electricity is only available in Hadiboh – with regular power shortages. When available, the power outlets can be European two-pin or UK three pins – bring an adapter. The best idea is to charge batteries in car, while driving. A power converter for cars is a must. Or even solar panels or diesel power generator. A good advice is to have multiple memory cards so you don’t need to do daily backups on your laptop. Multiple camera batteries as well. My rule of thumb is to be able to shoot for five days without recharging.
Another consideration is weather conditions. Despite being an island, humidity is not an issue for camera gear. The bigger problem is dust and sand. The mountains are very dry and dust is present everywhere. Also while driving the dirt roads, there is always dust blowing into the vehicles. And then there are sand dunes and sandy beaches. Make sure you protect and clean your gear regularly.
Conclusion & Resources
This is a quick guide to photographing Socotra island. I hope it will help you plan your own trip. The most helpful will be a conversation with your local guide. Please be patient, most of the guides and companies are fair and with good intentions. Be clear with your expectations. Make sure you allow them enough time to respond – they might be in the field, guiding or simply there is no internet connection.
Socotra island Bradt guide. This is by far the best book about travelling to Socotra. highly recommended.
Socotra photo spots on Photohound. A detailed guide to best photos spots on Socotra island and around the world. Disclaimer – I am one of the co-founders of the platform…
Socotra photography tour. In January 2022 I am leading a small group of photographers to this exotic island. This is a cooperation with my good friend Jeremy Woodhouse, we both have been to Socotra before and it grew to our hearts. Join us, we still have a few places available.
Forgotten Island. A very beautiful video about paragliding on Socotra. With amazing music. Very inspirational.
Socotra: The Hidden Island. Another inspirational video. This one is more a documentary. Vimeo on demand.