SOCOTRA, Yemen (Reuters) - When the goat leapt on the table to snatch our breakfast, we realized the dawn plane from mainland Yemen had flown us to an island of surprises.
But ill-mannered goats proved the least of the marvels to unfold during a week on Socotra, a clutch of Arabian Sea islands off the Horn of Africa that nature has blessed — and cursed with frequent droughts and gales that howl five months a year.
Socotra has been marooned in mid-ocean since Africa and Arabia were wrenched apart 20 million years ago.
Even today, the landscape has a prehistoric feel. Glimpsing a dinosaur browsing in the bushes wouldn’t be a total surprise.
“You really want to work?” our disbelieving guide had asked my journalist wife and I during the short drive from Socotra’s tiny airport — which incongruously boasts Yemen’s longest runway — to Hadibo, the island’s unprepossessing capital.
Our insistence on interviewing goatherds, fishermen and conservation workers eventually convinced Shaiya Salem of our worthy intentions. But to be honest, these succumbed at times to the jolting beauty of a place like nowhere else on earth.
After abandoning our breakfast of beans, bread and cheese triangles to the goats and raddled Egyptian vultures that were poised to scavenge whatever was left, we went exploring with Shaiya.
Camping out over the next few days, as we discovered caves, lagoons, deserted beaches, sand dunes blown up hillsides, unfamiliar birds, and trees that were downright weird, delight was tempered with foreboding that all this might be in peril.
Tourism, clumsy development and hordes of goats already threaten Socotra’s fragile biodiversity.
But the fierce winds that pound the coast from May to September might prove its best defense against developers’ dreams of resorts that would wreck it for good.
“If the nature goes, the island will be dead,” said Adeeb Hadid, 53, showing us around his nursery near Hadibo where he grows endangered trees for planting later in the mountains.
“The Socotra fig is closest to extinction,” Hadid said, referring to a swollen-trunked tree that manages to grow on bare cliffs where it can escape those predatory goats.
On our first walk, a stiff climb from the coast to a stalagmite-filled cave 300 meters above the sea, the woods echoed with birdsong from laughing doves and Socotra starlings.
Then, for a waft of Arabia’s past, we sniffed the perfumed gum oozing from a cut scored into the bark of a frankincense tree. This sticky stuff on our fingers was the temple treasure that put Socotra on the trade map of the ancient world.
Far stranger trees lay in wait when we drove into the mountains, winding up impossibly steep rocky tracks that tested our four-wheel drive vehicle and our nerves.
There were Socotran “desert roses” sporting pink blossoms, succulent leaves and inflated trunks, looking like obese old ladies in floral hats. Adapted to store water through Socotra’s droughts, they are poisonous enough to deter even the goats.
A third of all 900 plant species on Socotra occur only here. Most striking is the Dragon’s Blood tree, with its lattice of knotty branches topped by a canopy of spiky green leaves.
Its local name is Dam al-Akhawain, or blood of two brothers. Legend traces the origin of the tree and its red resin to blood shed during a mortal fight between a dragon and an elephant.
“My wife uses it for make-up. It’s also good if your goats get an eye infection,” advised Noh Malha, a grizzled herdsman pouring sweet, goatsmilk tea from a battered white flask outside his stone hut in a forest of Dragon’s Blood trees.
All tourism on Socotra is supposed to be “eco-tourism” mindful of conservation and local culture — although skimpily clad Italian visitors we encountered seemed oblivious to any dresscode sensitivities in this conservative Muslim society.
There are no hotels, just a few modest guest houses in Hadibo. Campsites are in stunning mountain or beach locations, but facilities are basic, with some lacking showers or toilets.
Like most tourists, we were assigned an escort of a guide, a driver and a cook to take the pain out of camping. They cleaned up scrupulously after every stop, but plastic bottles and cans left by others have begun to defile once-pristine spots.
After snorkeling over coral in the turquoise waters of Di Hamari, a marine protected area, we drove at sunset to Dilisha, a beach where conservationists have halted a planned hotel.
Out to sea, flocks of black Socotra cormorants hurtled over wave-tops to distant cliffs — a captivating vision to remind us why this relatively unspoiled sanctuary deserves protection.
Editing by Sara Ledwith