Stranded in Socotra

Ray Montoya recounts an epic travel tale.

My laptop, not to mention my life is back in Oman, so I had to write this on my phone. Tough on the old eyes! In the Spring of 2013, FlyLife published an account of my first exploration of Socotra, the largest island in an obscure archipelago stretching between the coasts of Yemen and Somalia. A Unesco world heritage site known for its dragon blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari), Socotra is a naturalist’s paradise, attracting intrepid travellers, adventure seekers and, most recently, a few crazy fly fishermen. A year after my initial visit, a Saudi led coalition invaded Yemen, spiralling the country into a heartbreaking proxy war. While Socotra remained conflict free, travel to the island has been impossible until this year. March 10, MUSCAT, Oman With the world on the brink of a pandemic and my mate Peter already en route, perhaps half way between Cape Town and Istanbul, I sat in my sunlit studio staring at an overweight duffle. I’ve never been an indecisive person, yet here I was, my flight just hours away, still struggling to commit. Sensing my vacillation, my wife Kerry intervened, “Are you doing this?” “I don’t know,” I lamented. “Well, if you don’t go, neither of us will be able to live with your regret.” She was of course, right. March 11, Cairo Poor Peter barely managed to make the Yemenia check-in. In addition to health screenings, apparently, a visa was required to transit between terminals — a visa not available upon arrival for South African citizens. The relief was palpable when Peter showed up at the gate with minutes to spare. March 11, SAYWUN, Yemen Our plane banked over steep canyons before dropping into the green river valley of Saywun. We pulled up short of the arrival terminal. Next to us were two military helicopters and an old passenger jet, its deflated tyres melting into the tarmac. We were instructed to remain on board, but seconds later were ordered off the plane for health screenings. I looked around at the other passengers, about 30 of us in total. Just one fever would most likely prevent us from continuing on to Socotra. After a temperature scan, our passports were confiscated and we were locked in a small terminal. An hour later, we were cleared to re-board. Back in the air, a collective sigh of relief resonated throughout the cabin. March 11, Socotra, YEMEN We literally hit the ground running upon landing in Hadibo. By the time we collected our luggage the plan had evolved. We had originally booked a Landcruiser and driver/interpreter to spend the first week exploring Socotra on our own, but now we were being swept away with a group of European popper fishermen bound for Abd al Kuri, the most distant island within the Socotran archipelago. Up until this point, there had been only one fly fishing exploration of Abd al Kuri, and that was back in 2014 just before the war broke out. Reports from that initial visit detailed a pristine fishery teaming with a variety of inshore species. It took most of that day to transport our gear from Hadibo to the fishing village of Qalansiya, where we then ferried it onto a rickety dhow anchored offshore. We set sail at sunset, giddy with anticipation, but by nightfall it was apparent that this was not going to be an easy passage. March 12–15, Abd al Kuri We reached Abd al Kuri at first light. Having slept only the final hour of the voyage and not at all through the previous night’s flight, I felt a strange mixture of disorientation and relief to be alive and back on dry land. Peter and I set up our tents just beyond the main encampment, perhaps a not so subtle declaration that we weren’t on the program. The popper guys used local fishing boats to access the currents and deep drop-offs where the big GTs hunted hapless baitfish, while we focused our search on foot, along the many coves, rocky points and beaches. Peter started the trip with a remarkable catch. We spotted what we initially thought was a small GT, cruising parallel to a beach. It turned out to be a beast of a bluefin trevally, Peter’s personal best. The rest of that day unfolded slowly — a few small trevs and some legit GTs that either ignored our presentations or drifted out of range. We then discovered the parrots. Peter has a thing for bougie fish with beaks — triggers, napoleons and parrotfish. His obsession proved contagious, as I would spend the next four days intently focused on these beautiful, but ridiculously difficult fish. It didn’t take long to figure out how to entice the parrotfish into picking up a small red flexo crab, however, landing them tested both our nerve and the limits of our 20 lb fluoro. This was the kind of fishing where each hook-up initiates prayer. Other notable species that first week included blue spangled emperors, yellow-spot trevally, bohar snapper, sweetlips, queenfish, grouper, and even small tuna. What was noticeably missing were the bonefish and Indo-Pacific permit, but in truth, we simply didn’t have the right conditions to target them. March 16, Abd al Kuri Today we received news that the Covid pandemic had shut down all travel to and from Yemen. In a light evening rain we hurriedly packed our gear, transferred back to the anchored dhow, and by nightfall had set sail for Socotra. March 17, Socotra Despite our hurried efforts, we missed the final Yemenia flight back to Cairo, and were now essentially marooned. Holed up in a squalid hotel in Hadibo, there was much confusion, suspicion, and blame being directed at our provider. Dissent was also fuelled by the fact that we were not being refunded for the remainder of our trip, or getting much assistance finding a way off the island. Fortunately, Peter and a young French geologist named Valerian, who had also missed the last flight out, immediately set to work on this daunting task. At this point, I wasn’t as worried about getting off the island as my fellow castaways. Socotra was a mere 500 kilometres from Oman, and I reasoned that I could hitch a ride on a Salalah trade ship. My first instinct was to separate myself from the herd. Drawing attention in times of crisis is unwise, so I scavenged a tent and mattress from the Abd al Kuri expedition, hired a public mini bus and got the hell out of town. March 18 – April 2 Detwah Lagoon Based on my 2013 exploration, I concentrated my search for permit along the white sand beach that separates Detwah Lagoon from the Arabian Sea. Aside from goats, the only residents of Detwah are a middle-aged widow named Zahadiya, her adult children, and her grandchildren. For a modest fee, the family provides guests with a primitive date palm shade and three simple meals a day, comprised of bread, beans, fish and goat meat. Compared to the squalid, noisy hotel back in Hadibo, this was absolute paradise. I spent my week days hunting permit, and weekends back in Hadibo to check in with the other castaways, send word to my wife that I was alive, and resupply my stocks of candy, nuts and fresh fruit, some of which was being pilfered from my tent by a three-year-old girl I aptly nicknamed, Sticky. Life at Detwah was as simple and pure as it gets. I fished when conditions were right, ate when I was hungry, and napped when I was tired. In the late afternoons, my host family would often visit. In many Asian cultures it is somewhat inappropriate to be alone, no more so than in the Middle East. It seemed that my adopted family was taking turns keeping me company. Zahadiya’s English and my Arabic allowed only the most rudimentary exchanges, but her sons were fluent enough to engage me in a variety of topics. One evening, the oldest son joined me for tea. “Have you heard noises at night,” he inquired. “You mean the geckos and civet cats?” I replied. “No,” he exclaimed, “voices from the mountain.” I could see that he was starting to get annoyed with my evasiveness, so I indulged him. “What are these voices?” I asked. “They are demons that seek out non Muslims.” He stared at me intensely. “Oh, those demons,” I smiled. Zahadiya, on the other hand, never brought up the topic of religion. She did, however, greet me each day when I returned from fishing. I always braced for her inevitable question, “Samak?” Fish? “Saghir samak.” Only small fish, I would reply. She would then wag her finger at me, “Saghir samak tamam!” Small fish are okay! Later, she would reappear with two glasses and a pot of tea, plop herself down in the sand, and sit with me until she was satisfied that I was content. I made a mental note to find Zahadiya a nice gift the next time I was in Hadibo, perhaps a colourful veil. Mature Arabian permit are solitary predators — the better to avoid detection when prowling shallow surf gutters and skinny shore-wash for moon crabs and snails. It seems most fitting then that one should adopt this same solitary nature when hunting these elusive creatures. Heavy rains and overcast skies had limited my ability to sight fish that first week, but I remained optimistic. Conditions improved dramatically by week two. After a brief return to Hadibo, I arrived back at Detwah in a minibus festooned with images of Sadam Hussein, who is now the Che Guevara of the Middle East — thanks America! Zahadiya and the kids seemed excited to see me, especially little Sticky. After hiding my sweets and downing my obligatory glass of overly sweet tea, I headed out across the lagoon. Blowing opportunities when you’re getting multiple shots is survivable. Missing a fish that may only present itself once a week will haunt you forever. Literally five minutes into my beach walk, I spotted what appeared to be a large bonefish swimming towards me in the shore wash. Conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a blue sky morning with a flat sea and low pushing tide. I set up from a kneeling position, stripped line and waited for the fish to get within range. I placed my first cast on the sea side of the fish, thinking it was going to veer into deeper water, but it stayed tight to the beach, and I could see that it sported two sickle shaped fins. This was no bonefish, it was a permit! I quickly repositioned the fly back into the shore wash. On the first slow strip, the permit turned and pounced. After two runs into the backing, I was able to gently ease my permit up onto the wet sand. A magnificent specimen, long in the body with splashes of that iconic Indo-Pacific gold on its face, belly and fins. Watching that fish swim away, I was overcome with relief, elation, and a sudden urge to be home. I fished another four days in Detwah before returning to Hadibo, hitching a ride in the back of a police truck. The scene back in the capital was grim. News of the pandemic, and a severe shortage of qhat — a leafy stimulant popular with many men — had the locals on edge. Avoidance, suspicious glances and calls of ‘Corona’ had become common on the streets of Hadibo. Valerian had also received word that his parents had been hospitalised with the virus, and several potential evacuation flights had failed to materialise. April 4, Hadibo Many of us thought it was going to be another bukrah insha’allah flight (tomorrow God willing), but Peter and Valerian seemed more confident that this one was actually going to happen. The UAE flight had been scheduled to deliver a shipment of medical supplies, and Valerian had brilliantly arranged permission for us to use the return leg to evacuate. We simply had to sign a letter agreeing to submit to quarantine upon arrival in Abu Dhabi. Eleven of us took the flight, while five remained behind. After being Covid tested and serving a nine-day quarantine in a downtown hotel, all, with the exception of myself, are now safely home. Because of Oman’s border closure, I was forced to repatriate back to the US. Postscript It’s been almost a month since I left Socotra, and the political situation there has taken a bad turn. While Socotra remains Covid free, for the first time, a power struggle has erupted on the island. On May 1st, armed malitias attempted to wrest control of Hadibo. There was one casualty. Right now there are at least four major players vying for control of this strategically positioned island, the details of which are too complex to relate in this writing. The five tourists who chose to remain behind are safe, but are still on Socotra. Valerian’s parents both recovered and are doing well. I remain in self-exile at my cabin in northern New Mexico, looking forward to some day reuniting with my wife and dog in Oman.

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