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Horn of Africa: trip to Yemen, Socotra, Somaliland, and more

Horn of Africa: trip to Yemen, Socotra, Somaliland, and more

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Old Mar 22, 13, 3:48 am
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Horn of Africa: trip to Yemen, Socotra, Somaliland, and more

My travel buddy Dean and I had been discussing where in the world to go for our next trip. I usually do my big yearly trip in May, but he did not have much time this year due to schedules, and only had 7-10 days at spring break. Our typical places tend to be out of the way destinations... last year we did the 5-stans, Almaty to Ashgabat overland. In 2010 we did West Africa Accra to Timbuktu to Abidjan overland.

One option we looked at was doing Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Malta. Another option was the Horn of Africa.. visiting Eritrea, Yemen, Djibouti and Somaliland and possibly a transit via Saudi Arabia. If including Yemen, I also wanted to go visit the island of Socotra, an island offshore Somalia that has evolved unique plant species. Flights to Eritrea are limited, only two per week, and Socotra only three per week. No matter how I played with the schedules I couldn't make Eritrea fit in with my friend's spring break dates. Combined with Eritrean visas being reportedly difficult to obtain meant Eritrea was out. I was a bit unsure about Yemen.. but we planned to only be spending one day in Sana'a before heading off to Socotra, which has not had any problems.

We used USAir miles to make the bookings, using the double miles promo from last year. Sharing miles twice between accounts we had enough miles for the trip for about $450 apiece. The plan would be fly into Sana'a, Yemen and out of Djibouti on the award ticket, then buying additional flights Sanaa-Addis-Jijiga (Ethiopia) and Berbera (Somaliland)-Djibouti. My friend booked his award ticket first.. the agent must not have known where Sana'a was as he was only charged 70k miles for an African roundtrip.

I was debating visiting elsewhere after my friend had to go home, first started looking at Khartoum or Juba (South Sudan). I then settled on spending an extra week, flying from Djibouti to Entebbe, Uganda then traveling overland via Rwanda to Burundi. When I booked my open-jaw ticket to Sanaa I ended up paying 80k USAir miles, then used 12.5k United miles for the Djibouti-Entebbe flight.

For Socotra, I contacted a tour company there (Socotra Eco Tours) and they were pretty responsive via emails. They were able to arrange our flights from Sanaa to Socotra and our visa. I wired them the money ahead of time for the flights+visa. They quoted us a tour price of $75/pp per day for the tour once on Socotra.

While in Uganda I wanted to do two things, trek gorillas and go white water rafting on the Nile. I also contacted tour companies ahead of time for these two activities. Gorilla permits are pretty expensive, $500 in Uganda and even more expensive $750 in Rwanda. There is also transportation fee for getting to the parks. I contacted Engagi Safaris and was quoted $500+$150 for the transfer from the town of Kabale to Bwindi park. I wired them the money to obtain the permit and transfer.

I also booked several hotels ahead of time... the Arabia Felix hotel in Sana'a, and the Sheraton hotels in Djibouti and Kampala. I have SPG Gold status and was able to use cash+points rate for those hotels. Through the Arabia Felix hotel I also arranged a tour of nearby Sana'a towns of Dar al Hajar, Thila, Shibam and Hadaba for 115 EUR for car+driver+guide. They were able to arrange the necessary travel permits to travel outside Sana'a.

Original List of flights:
AUS-IAD United economy, 80k USAir award
IAD-IST Turkish economy, 80k USAir award
IST-SAH Turkish economy, 80k USAir award
SAH-SCT Felix Airways economy, $365
SCT-SAH Felix Airways economy, ----
SAH-ADD Yemenia economy, $210
ADD-JIJ Ethiopian economy, $174
@@@ Jijiga-Harar-Jijiga-Hargeisa-Laas Geel-Berbera overland
BBO-JIB Jubba airways economy, $122
JIB-ADD Ethiopian economy, 12.5k United award
ADD-EBB Ethiopian economy, 12.5k United award
@@@ Entebbe-Kampala-Jinja-Kampala-Kabale-Kigali-Bujumbura overland
BJM-ADD Ethiopian economy, 80k USAir award
ADD-IAD Ethiopian economy, 80k USAir award
DCA-IAH United economy, 80k USAir award
IAH-AUS United economy, 80k USAir award

Links to previous blogs:

Peru/Galapagos 2005: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...agos-trip.html
Mongolia/Caucasus 2005: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...-mtskheta.html

Andaman Islands (India) 2007: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...a-ixz-maa.html
Guianas (South America) 2007: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...h-guianas.html
North Korea 2007: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...oryo-trip.html

Ethiopia 2008: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...-airlines.html
Central America 2008: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...a-managua.html

St. Petersburg, Baltics and Belarus 2009: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...d-st-pete.html
Canadian Rockies 2009: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...n-rockies.html

West Africa 2010: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...ir-france.html
Guam/Palau/Micronesia 2010: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...n-pacific.html

Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Bangladesh 2011: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...atar-econ.html
Afghanistan, Pakistan 2011:
http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...ord-iah-y.html

Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea 2012: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...al-guinea.html
Turkey, Iran 2012: Three days in Iran
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan 2012: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...q-balkans.html
Jeju Island, Myanmar 2012: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...-rgn-fare.html

Last edited by hauteboy; Mar 23, 13 at 3:18 pm
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Old Mar 22, 13, 12:29 pm
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ugh.. my power adapter died on my laptop so may take awhile to update... until after I get home and get a new one.
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Old Mar 22, 13, 12:33 pm
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Great to get a trip report to some interesting places, I've enjoyed some of your earlier ones. I need an economy class travel buddy. People who travel in business or first class and stay in nice hotels can't visit most of the world, or most of the US even. Everyone should go to Yemen I think.
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Old Mar 23, 13, 11:07 am
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Ok power cable issues solved... I just needed to figure out how hard to hit it.
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Old Mar 23, 13, 11:14 am
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March 6, 2013
Flight: Austin, TX (AUS) to Houston, TX (IAH), United, economy
Flight: Houston, TX (IAH) to London, UK (LHR), United, economy

The day of departure finally arrived but there was a problem... my first flight was to Washington DC the day winter storm was supposed to hit, my friend was flyin via Chicago also the day after the storm hits. Thousands of flights had been cancelled but my flight still showed as being active... I was worried about making my vital connection though and called up United to rearrange my flights. In the meantime my friend had called to rearrange his flights as well. After nearly an hour and a half on the call I was finally able to route my flights via Houston and London. However it meant rushing home as my original flight left at 5PM but now was scheduled to depart at 3PM. I also rescheduled my supershuttle pickup.

I made it home and barely had time to grab lunch before the shuttle arrived. The bus was completely full. This is the week before SXSW/spring break in Austin so many people head out of town to avoid the mess. I still arrived at the hotel two hours early and had time to relax a bit in the United Club before boarding my flight. My friend was flying to Houston from San Antonio.. he texted me to say there was a mechanical issue on his flight, but apparently it got sorted out quickly. My flight to Houston left on time was uneventful and left on time. On arrival I took the airlink train to terminal E and met my friend. We grabbed some lunch then headed to the United Club for awhile.

The next flight to London was a Continental 777 with the inseat video.. the flight was fine as well and I watched a few movies I have missed lately.. Silver Linings Playbook and Stolen. We had only two hours connect time in London to transfer T4->T3. By the time we landed and taxied to the gate though we were 40 minutes late.. making it a pretty tight connection. Long walk in T4 to the bus connection center, then caught the bus to T3 along with a bunch of people who had just arrived from Sri Lanka. We walked fast and got ahead of the rest and luckily the security lines here weren't very long, but somehow we managed to get in the slow line and by then most of the people behind us had made it through other lines!


United IAH-LHR

March 7, 2013
Flight: London, UK (LHR) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST), Turkish, A340, economy
Flight: Istanbul (IST) to Sana'a, Yemen (SAH)
Hotel: Arabia Felix Hotel; Sana'a, Yemen; $35/double

We still needed our Turkish airlines boarding passes, we got those with no problems but then I mentioned we needed our connecting BPs to Sana'a. We did not have visas in our passports (the tour company had emailed us the copies of the approved visa) and one of the checkin agents mentioned that Yemen wouldn't accept those... urgh. spent 20 minutes waiting there before we said we had to get to the gate and would sort it out in Istanbul. By that time there was no time to stop at a lounge or grab anything to eat.. we had only just arrived at the gate when they started boarding.

I had flown this same Turkish flight last year on my way to Iran. The A340 plane is pretty nice with in-seat ondemand screens. And they've gotten rid of the really long annoying footballer safety video. I slept most of the 3:30 flight as I hadn't gotten much sleep before. The food on Turkish is excellent.

Turkish Airlines LHR-IST

On arrival in Istanbul we were bussed to the terminal and were able to get our BPs to Sana'a with no problem at the transit desk. From there we headed to the TK lounge which was very crowded. I found out the power adapter I brought wasn't working in the Euro plugs which meant I would have to buy yet another one to add to my collection. Finally the lounge started clearing out and was able to find a better seat and power slot that worked. The TK lounge is wonderful with lots of food and drink on offer. I had some great assortment of pide (turkish pizza).

We found a electronics store where I bought a new adapter, and stopped by Starbucks.. my last chance in three weeks to have one! Our flight depated from gate 503 (bus gates).. the other flight departing there was to Ashgabat and we saw many Turkmen ladies there with huge bags of shopping. The other group were Yemenis and it was very easy to tell the two apart. Our flight was soon called and we boarded by bus to head to our flight. We had exit row seats, good legroom and bad as I wanted to recline and sleep. The flight IST-SAH is actually longer than London to Istanbul, 4 hr flight via Cairo down the Nile and across to Jeddah. It was neat to see the Nile lit up at night.. everywhere else but that narrow strip was pitch black.

Turkish Airlines IST-SAH

We arrived 10 minutes early at 2:15 AM (ugh) and parked some distance away from the terminal. We bussed past a darkened Royal Jordanian and Yemenia planes. The air smelled very dusty and dry. Immigration was very easy.. fill out arrival card, then got our visa stamp at the window at the left of the arrival hall. Then just another minute to get stamped in and we were in Yemen (country #141)! Socotra tours had arranged for someone to meet us and transfer us to the hotel. Officially they were supposed to be with us the whole time we were in Yemen.. I wasn't aware of that fact though and had already made plans with the hotel for the tour the next morning.

The agent set us up with a taxi for the 20 minute drive to the hotel. There were a few police checkpoints on the way into town but we passed with no problems. Finally arrived at the hotel just befor 3:00 AM and crashed for the night. The Arabia Felix hotel is right on the western edge of Old Sana'a... over 14000 traditional 4-6 story 'cake icing' buildings. The hotel occupies 4 old houses and has steep narrow stairs to the rooms. The room was pretty nice with the bathroom out in the hallway.
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Old Mar 23, 13, 11:24 am
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March 8, 2013
Hotel: Arabia Felix Hotel; Sana'a, Yemen; $35/double

Even though we had only gotten in at 3AM we still woke up early around 7:30 and went up to the roof for a view out over the old city. The view is amazing.. to the east all you see is old buildings, not a single modern building in sight. However the water thanks and satellite dishes were definitely modern. We headed down to the gorgeous courtyard for breakfast of yogurt, honey and bread with tea. Yemen is famous for its honey, some special kind of flower is used in eastern Yemen. We had not gone to the ATM on arrival last night so I changed $20 to 4000 riyals.

Arabia Felix Hotel

There was a Brit couple (tourists!) eating breakfast, they had just come back from 10 days in Socotra. They said Socotra was dirty and crowded and didn't make it seem very nice.. they said they'd instead gone wild camping instead of staying at the usual camping sites and they enjoyed that much better. We were only going for 3 days (48 hours really!) and didn't even know where we were planning to stay on the island.

I had arranged a tour of some neighboring towns through the hotel before I knew that Socotra Eco Tours would have an agent with us in Sana'a as well. The Socotra agent showed up in full tranditional garb, robe with vest, belt and huge jambiyah knife. We sorted out with him that we would take the tour from the hotel and would be OK if he did not come along. While we were waiting on the car and guide to arrive we walked outside the hotel just watching the street. There was a camel tied up just across the street, poor thing. We then found some water bottles at a nearby store, at least I think it was water. The bottles looked more like they contained ammonia or vinegar! But water it was.

Tranditional Yemeni architecture

We finally set off around 9:30 for the drive to Dar al Hajar, the Rock Palace. We had an English speaking guide, Foad. On the way to the Rock Palace one of the first things we noticed is just how filthy Yemen is. Mainly plastic bag litter. Yemenis chew tremendous amounts of qat/khat, a local narcotic weed used from Ethiopia to Yemen. The plant is sold in small plastic bags and people just toss them everywhere. We drove north of town to an overlook over the Wadi below. The weather was good, a bit hot and sunny. It is just before the rainy season begins so the air was quite hazy/dusty.The mountains surrounding Sana'a are quite dry and craggy, with qat fields below the only greenery. We descended the hill towards the Rock Palace. As we approached we could hear singing and dancing.

The Rock Palace is one of the famous sights of Yemen. The house was built by one of the former kings, perched high up on a flat-topped rock. The wells dug into the rock reach down over 200 meters. Traditional houses in Yemen have multiple levels.. bottom levels for animals and entertaining, then the kitchen, womens levels and finally mens levels at top. The entry fee was 1000 YER ($5). As soon as we entered we found we were mini celebrities. Today was Friday and a holiday, so there were many families here enjoying themselves. Everyone wanted to have their photo taken with us, or have us take their photo! Men and children only though, the women in Yemen are silent ghosts and all you see of them are their eyes, but what eyes! I stared at one woman for probably too long as she kept staring back at me as well. We eventually climbed up to the top of the house for a great view.

Rock Palace


Yemeni Dancers


Traditional Yemeni outfit


Yemeni locals

From the Rock Palace, we drove back into town then headed west to the town of Thilla, one of the oldest towns in the region. Along the way there was a checkpoint, the driver showed our travel permits here but it took a long time for the guards to let us through, apparently they have to call back to Sana'a to approve yet they had not had power for three days! Eventually the guide let them use his cell phone. No problems otherwise going between the towns. We stopped off for lunch at one of the small towns nearby and had a great meal of spiced roasted chicken and rice pilaf. Here also everyone wanted their photo taken! Never been somewhere so friendly before... they are not used to seeing tourists especially the past few years. We also took the opportunity to try some qat... I put some in my mouth and it was all I could do to keep from retching. I guess it is an aquired taste! Eventually though it does start to numb the mouth.

Qat

The village of Thila was built below a huge tower of rock, a great lookout over the surrounding area. Building style here was a bit different from the usual cake-icing style. The old gate to the city was now permanently open.. made of thick wood with overlapping leather/metal plates. As soon as we started walking through town we immediately attracted several 'friends', ie people with shops. They seemed a bit desparate for us to visit their shop, they said there had not been tourists for two years! The town currenly has 25 mosques and an old synagogue, the Star of David designed out of bricks high up on one wall. Some of the buildings had bridges built 3-4 stories high to connect buildings, saves having to go all the way down again and back up for large families! Other buildings had translucent alabaster windows. As we were heading out of town we did go into some of the shops. Mostly they were selling necklaces, bedouin knives, jambiyah knives, etc. Usually I don't buy too much but the vendors hadn't been too annoying. I was looking at one of the jambiyah knives, the guy said when there were tourists he would sell them $180 or more! He started off at $90, a really nice one with silver wire design. I wasn't really sure I wanted to buy one yet so quoted a price of $30 and stuck with it. Eventually he ended up selling it for $40! Desperate for business I guess.


Thila village

From Thila, we next went to the town of Hadaba. This town has a very photogenic cistern in the center of town. Though at the end of the dry season the cistern was almost empty and what water remained was green and murky. The trash here in town was also very prevalent, even old syringes lying about. I took some more photos of some local kids here.

Hadaba cistern

Next stop was Kawkaban (Two Planets) village, perched high up on top of a 1000' crag. The townfolk here held out against the Ottomans for months at a time as they had water cisterns and granaries. It wasn't until air power arrived that the town was finally 'defeated'. Nowadays there is a paved road driving up to town. There is also a 2.5km trail leading up from the town of Shibam far below. We opted to walk down instead of up! The trail was in pretty good condition, but rocky, traversing a narrow defile in the rock then going in switchbacks as it descended rapidly. The hike down took about an hour. As we were walking through Shibam to the car a bunch of kids came running up. Our guide said they were asking for pens but I had none.

View from Kawkawban

Kids in Shibam

We drove back to the hotel then immediately set off on a walk through Old Sana'a. The sun was setting so we wanted to see what we could. Winding through the narrow streets we eventually came across the jambiyah sellers. They also sell the wide belts that are used to hold the knife. The vendors here also wanted us to take photos! We eventually found the spice souq and grabbed a fresh kebab right from the grill. We headed from there down to the Bab al Yemen (Yemen Gate), passing by date sellers who plied us with date samples.

Qat chewer, Old Sana'a

Bab al Yemen is a good place for people watching.. it is the southern gate of Old Sanaa, around a plaza surrounded by traditional cake icing houses. We just stood here and people watched for awhile, then walked through the gate and around the city walls back to the hotel. It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel but we did not feel any tension or problems.

Bab al Yemen meydan

We had a quick dinner at the hotel, I had a mutton curry that was very good. It had been a very long day with little sleep and we had to get up very early the next morning for our flight to Socotra. As we were heading to bed, the power went out for awhile.
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Old Mar 23, 13, 9:42 pm
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Great trip report so far! Yemen has always struck me as a fascinating place......looking forward to the Socotra words and pics.
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Old Mar 25, 13, 1:42 am
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March 9, 2013
Flight: Sana'a, Yemen (SAH) to Riyan, Yemen (RIY), Felix Airways, CR7
Flight: Riyan, Yemen (RIY) to Socotra, Yemen (SCT), Felix Airways, CR7
Hotel: Homhil campsite; Socotra, Yemen
My sleep schedule still wasn't in sync and I woke up about 2:45 and could not get back to sleep. We had arranged transfer to the airport at 5am for our 7am flight. We went downstairs just before 5am and managed to share a ride with a bunch of Russians also going to Socotra. The standard taxi fare from airport to town and v.v. seems to be $20 or 4000 rials for the 20 minute ride. We were at the airport quickly and had to wait until 5:45 before we were able to checkin. No problems carrying our backpacks on.

Once through to the gate area at Sana'a airport there is nowhere to change money. There is the ubiquitous duty free shops and a small cafe. There is a Yemenia first class lounge upstairs but I did not check it out. We had awhile to wait for our flight, during that time I met a Somali guy from Puntland who was currently working in Dubai. Another guy was from New York but had family in Yemen and had been visiting for a month.

Boarding the flight was via bus (no jetbridges at Sana'a airport). Once at the plane there was a mad rush for the doors as there is open seating on these flights. We were flying Felix Airways (Saida in Arabic) CR7. Even though we had boarded late we managed to depart only 5 minutes late. The flights to Socotra first make an intermediate stop in Riyan airport, about 50 minute flight. We had the wrong side of the plane for the sun angle, but there were amazing views out the windows as we crossed Wadi Hawdramat consisting of huge gullies and canyons eroded in the plateau. Unfortunately the Wadi is pretty off limits to tourists these days but I would love to visit the town of Shibam (not the one we visited near Sanaa), known as the 'Manhattan of the desert'. Very densely packed town of 6-8 story mud 'skyscrapers'

Highly eroded plateau, Wadi Hawdramat

We landed ok in Riyan and picked up more passengers, including more Russians, one was a very loud woman and talked the whole flight. I still managed to fall asleep for the next 50 minutes flight to Socotra. We were on the wrong side of the flight for the approach but I could catch glimpses of turquoise water and white sand below. We landed to the Northeast and we were in Socotra! The airport was only constructed about 10-12 years ago, before that the island was very isolated. During May to September, near constant gale force monsoon winds blow, making approach by dhow or airplane very difficult.

Felix Airways in Socotra

We met our guide and driver and since our time was short we set off immediately towards the town of Hadibo. The main town on the island is some distance from the airport. Socotra is a very dry island, few trees other than palm trees or the native Dragons Blood and Bottle trees. The road clung to the northern cliffs with gorgeous blue water below us. We stopped in Hadibo, a very dusty town just for a few minutes to change more money and pickup some batteries (my headlamp AAAs had died already). Socotra is very different from the mainland, the dress style is different, locals do not carry the jambiyah knife, and houses are simple blocks of stone and coral. Qat chewing is also less prevalent here as it must be brought in from the mainland.

Hadibo town

Landscape

We continued driving east along the northern coast road, turning off the road at one point. I checked out my GPS and it actually had the dirt track we were on. We were heading towards the Dihamri Marine preserve. We stopped here for awhile for lunch and snorkeling. The coast here was rocky and there wasn't any sand. There were a few sun shelters setup here and a toilet. I'd hoped to go diving in Socotra but given our short time I didn't want to waste the time to do it. Snorkeling was amazing though, just off the shoreline was a corridor of coral, and tons of fish. Saw parrot fish, surgeon fish, angel fish, giant clam, etc. For lunch we had fresh caught fish and rice.

Beach near Dilhamri

Typical Socotri village

On the usual 7-10 day itinerary most people would just stay and camp here. We continued east, driving nearly all the way to the eastern tip of the island. There are some amazing sand dunes, 150m+ high powdered white sand. The landscape was all broken coral and limestone that had been uplifted from the sea floor ages ago. We stopped at a natural spring where some workers were filling up a water truck. Our guides had given us the option of exploring Hoq cave in the morning, or heading inland to the Homhil area. Socotra has perhaps the worlds largest unexplored cave system. I've been in caves before though and would rather spend the time seening the other sights of Socotra.. especially since the hike to/from/through the cave takes nearly a half day by itself.

White dunes and blue water

We headed back inland then up a wadi before hitting a real 4WD road up the hills to the Homhil plateau. This area has many bottle trees, Frankincense, and Dragons Blood trees. Dragons Blood trees were known back in Roman times for its medicinal properties, it got its name from the red sap the tree oozes when cut.

Bottle tree

We finally made it up to the campsite, a gorgeous setting on a hill overlooking a stream below. There were several tent pads and a shelter structure. We sat around drinking small cups of Socotra tea, which is delicious. They add spices to it, almost a chai. Socotri men have a unique sitting style. They use the bandanas they wrap around their heads as a leg brace when sitting cross legged.

Having tea

The sun was getting ready to set as we hiked 15 minutes down to a pool at the edge of a huge rockslide, an entire chunk of mountain ridge had collapsed. I had noticed the gap in the ridge from below as we were driving past the dunes. At the top of the rockfall was an 'infinity pool'. It was pretty warm and I would have loved to have gone for a swim! One of the local kids from the village did exactly that.

On the hike

We walked back to the campsite where dinner was ready, basic spaghetti. Socotri people sit on the ground.. which meant that so did we. The shelter had a padded mat to sit on but we had to take our shoes off everytime we sat down. We were in bed by 7:30 after another long day. I had hoped to see the comet tonight as there was abosulutely no light pollution in Socotra, but unfortunately the skies had clouded over right at sunset.

March 10, 2013
Hotel: Detwah campsite; Socotra, Yemen

I still wasn't sleeping very well and kept waking up during the night. Finally the sunrise fortold a gorgeous clear day. Dean and I walked down to the creek and wandered around the large limestone boulders. There were many bottle trees here, all shapes and sizes. Bottle trees are bizzare looking, with swollen trunks that store water similar to baobab trees on the mainland. They have small waxy yellow or green leaves and pink flowers. There were some tiny ones here growing out of cracks in the limestone. There was another tree that looked like the lower half of a woman complete with bellybutton and legs sticking up.

Razor sharp limestone

Campsite

For breakfast we had fresh baked flatbread with honey. Delicious. The Homhil campsite is run by the local village and they provided the tents and did the cooking for us. So that is good that tourism dollars in Socotra are going to help the local communities.

We were walking through the campground and nearly walked through a huge spiderweb.. luckily my friend saw the spider! The spider had been there awhile apparently, all the surrounding bushes were full of old cobwebs. The silk looked greenish in the sunlight. Above the campground was another hill formed by razor sharp eroded limestone, similar to 'tsingy' formations in Madagascar and other places. We hiked up the hill a bit, then came back down through the village.

We were driving to the Dixam plateau today, a few hours drive away. We set off in 4WD down the mountain roads again. As we were passing a village, there were some women in the distance, 200m or more away. I was taking a photo of the village and they screamed and ducked!! I'm not even sure they could see the camera at that range!

We continued again past Hadibo town and stopped for a minute at a place by the road that had a Cucumber Tree. These trees also have thick bulbous trunks and large dark green leaves. The only member of the cucumber family that grows as a tree. In the dust surrounding the area there were hundreds of ant lion traps. I didn't see any ants so I guess they maybe oversuccessful.

Looks great for a swim

Cucumber tree

Soon we turned off the coast road and headed south up into the mountains. The temperature started dropping and finally we came across a lone Dragon's Blood Tree standing at 3200' on the plateau. Really couldn't have asked for better weather today. We stopped for awhile to get good photos of the tree. Then continued south then turned off onto a side road. We passed another tour company setting up camp, it looked quite large group (15-20) and they had chairs!

Lonely Dragons Blood tree

We finally stopped at an amazing grove of Dragons Blood trees spread across a stony field. The trees look like something from Dr. Seuss, huge green mushrooms dotting the landscape. There was a dead Dragons Blood tree here that had fallen over.. the wood is more fibrous than woody so it does not make a good building material. We sat here for awhile having tomato+tuna pita for lunch with ever present tea. There were several vultures in the area scouting us out, as soon as we stood up after lunch about 5-6 of them moved in and started pecking the ground!


Dragons Blood tree grove

After lunch we drove back to the northern coast and headed west to Qalansiyah. Along the way we saw several old Russian tanks standing on the beach pointed northward. I guess these remained from the civil war. I had been looking forward to visiting Qalansiyah, photos show Detwah lagoon as amazing gorgeous stretch of white sand and blue water. The trip led through a flat-bottomed valley, it almost felt like a glacial valley but it was formed from fault slips.

Old Russian tank

We arrived at the lagoon and stopped on a hill to get some photos. The water definitely looked inviting! We drove from there down to the Detwah camp. This was a bit of a disappointment though. We saw our first tourists here, the Russians that came in on our plane, a couple of Swiss women, and that huge group (Germans). There are a few shelters set back from the lagoon, but the sand/soil here is muddy and it is not really possible to swim in the lagoon, either too shallow and there are stingrays. It is nearly a mile walk out to the ocean and once there there is absolutely no shade.

Detwah lagoon

The campground was definitely busy but subdued. Yemen is a dry country which meant the Russians and Germans would be going without. Indeed everything quieted down by 10PM and we fell asleep, our last night in Socotra.

Last edited by hauteboy; Mar 25, 13 at 1:55 am
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Old Mar 25, 13, 1:46 am
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March 11, 2013
Flight: Socotra, Yemen (SCT) to Riyan, Yemen (RIY), Felix Airways, CR7
Flight: Riyan, Yemen (RIY) to Aden, Yemen (ADE), Felix Airways, CR7
Flight: Aden, Yemen (ADE) to Sana'a, Yemen (SAH), Felix Airways, CR7
Hotel: Arabia Felix Hotel; Sana'a, Yemen; $35/double

Too soon, our stay in Socotra was already over. For me though two days was really enough, I think I would get bored out of my skull for a 7 or definitely 10 day itinerary as I like to keep moving around alot on my travels. Socotra was definitely worthwhile destination, the alien looking plants and gorgeous water and landscapes were great to see. One day or two more is all I could see stretching the trip.

Before breakfast we took one last walk along the lagoon shore, this time towards the cliffs to the north. The sand here had become fossillized, full of old clam/worm holes. A quick breakfast and we were off to the airport at 7:30. We were flying back to Sana'a today for a few hours before connecting onto Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Our flight didn't depart until 11AM and the trip only took a bit over an hour so we had plenty of time to wait at the airport. There were actually many power sockets all over the walls so I was able to charge up my camera batteries, both of which were dead or almost so. That is another tip for Socotra.. the campgrounds don't have anywhere to charge up, so either come prepared with a solar charger or cigarette lighter charger that can be run from the car.

The owner of Socotra Eco Tours met us at the airport and we paid the balance of our tour. We were surprised when they only charged us two days instead of three. So that was a $75 savings there. We had only been there 50 hours though so that made sense.
For such a small airport, Socotra had lots of security, we had to go through x-ray/metal detector 3 times to get to the waiting lounge! The room was pretty barren and rundown, peeling paint etc. There was a small shop where they were selling drinks and snacks. The room was also airconditioned so that was nice.

Socotra airport

The flight arrived several minutes late and we were worried about making our connection in Aden.. showing on our itinerary as 40 minutes. Luckily we found out that it was the same plane continuing onto Sana'a, so that no problem. Finally we take off almost an hour late, this time I had snagged seats on the left side of the plane to get a good view of the coastline as we headed back to the mainland. As on our earlier flights, inflight service consisted of a juice box and a piece of cake. The flight again stopped in Riyan for a few minutes, then flew down the coast towards Aden. As we were taking off from Riyan, the plane started doing wide looping spirals to gain altitude. We had experienced similar maneuvers when flying to Afghanistan, I am guessing that there is potential rebel activity along the coast here.

Detwah Lagoon from the air

Felix Airways food service

Finally we fly into Aden, looping across the large natural harbor. Aden was one of the the old British coaling stations for steamships back in the 1800s. It would have been nice to visit but we were only on the ground a short while before heading now towards Sana'a. A long day already.. three flight segments and we had one more at 2AM! At Sana'a airport we found an ATM then hopped a taxi (4000 YER) back to Arabia Felix. Seems a shame to pay for the room only using it about 6 hours! But it let us reorganize and shower and get ready for the next few days.

I had left my jambiyah knife at the hotel, planning to mail it when I got back to Sana'a. The hotel menager helped me wrap it up in layers of cardboard and tape... hopefully the package will make it back to the USA! We walked over to Tahrir square, passing a mini qat market and guys selling AK47 parts on the street (magazines mostly) and found the post office OK. Luckily there was a guy there who spoke English and was able to help us figure out how to mail it. Turned out to be very expensive, 6850 YER, almost as much as I paid for the knife to begin with!!

We went back to the hotel then asked about an ATM as now I was short on USD.. turns out there was one right by the post office! Back we went and found a hole in the wall in a pharmacy, even more luck it dispensed $100s. I wanted to make sure I had enough cash to get us at least through to Djibouti.

Sanaa streets at night

Back at the hotel we grabbed a quick dinner. There was a bookseller at the hotel, he was desperately trying to get us to buy anything, books, CDs, etc as he said there are no tourists. Politely declining, we headed back to the room to crash for a few hours before heading back to the airport. All international flights to Sana'a seem to arrive/depart at ungodly hours. Our flight to Ethiopia left at 2AM, arriving 3:45AM in Addis! Ugh.

March 12, 2013
Flight: Sana'a, Yemen (SAH) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD), Yemenia
Flight: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia (DIR), Ethiopian, DH8
Flight: Dire Dawa, Ethiopia to Jijiga, Ethiopia (JIJ), Ethiopian, DH8
Hotel: Belayneh Hotel; Harar, Ethiopia; 300 ETB/double

We headed to the airport around 11PM and had no problems checking in with Yemenia and carrying on our backpacks. Immigration took a few minutes, mainly because the family ahead of me seemed to have documentation problems. I don't remember much about the flight other than I didn't sleep much. We landed 15 minutes early. As we were deplaning, I realized I had left my book in the seat back... they let me back on the plane to get my book but I was going against the flow of traffic and it took quite awhile to get to it, even though we were in one of the front rows of Econ.


Yemenia SAH-ADD

It is possible to get a visa on arrival in Ethiopia. Dean and I had visited Ethiopia 5 years previously and at the time the visa was $20. We were surprised to see that the price remains $20. The process is very easy, there is a room right before immigration where you go and pay the $20 then you get the visa sticker. There is also an ATM just before the immigration desks where we got out some Birr.

Our next flight to Jijiga didn't depart until nearly 8AM. Luckily we had been able to get boarding passes at the transit desk before immigration. It took awhile though before we realized we needed to go over to T1 (old terminal) where domestic flights and some regional flights depart. The terminal wasn't open yet but the guards let us go upstairs to wait in the pre-security area. There are some reclining lounge chairs here and I was able to get a bit more rest.

Around 5AM there started to be some more activity, the cooks started showing up for the cafe. We eventually had breakfast of omelette and damn good Ethiopian coffee. The Cloud Nine lounge opened around 6AM and we went in for awhile courtesy of my United Gold status. The lounge was pretty nice, they had a buffet setup with sausages, spinach, eggs, etc. They didn't have individual sized Mirindas (orange soda) in the fridge so I grabbed the whole bottle and ended up drinking most of it before we left


Ethiopian T1 lounge

We had decided to change our plans slightly. Instead of spending three nights in Somaliland, we decided to go to Harar in Ethiopia and see the hyena feedings, then spend two nights in Somaliland. Originally our flight was to Jijiga but the flight stops enroute in Dire Dawa. Dire Dawa is closer to Harar so we thought we could get off the flight there (we had carryon bags only), we confirmed it with the transit desk and the gate checkin agent.

Out flight left on time, bussed out from the terminal to the DH8 prop aircraft used by Ethiopian on domestic routes. I saw Ethiopian's mothballed 787 planes sitting on the tarmac. Originally I was supposed to fly back to the USA ADD-IAD on the 787 but now that was not looking very likely. The flight to Dire was quick, as we landed they said for transit passengers to Jijiga to remain on the plane. We got off though, but on entering the terminal there was someone checking boarding passes. Of course ours still said Jijiga on them. We argueed a bit and the airport manager and captain eventually came into the discussion. We were escorted back onto the plane! That messed up our plans a bit as now we would need to backtrack from Jijiga to Harar.. about 2 hrs plus the extra flying time.

Mothballed 787

Ethiopian ADD-DIR

We took off, our hopes dashed. About another 40 minute flight to Jijiga, which is a new airport built some distance outside of town. The landscape here had changed, flat, dusty fields with dome-shaped nomadic houses. The taxi driver wanted 200 birr to take us into town, about 15-20 minute drive. We headed directly for the bus station. Ethiopia is much more colorful than Yemen had been, women do not wear veils but do cover their heads. We found the shared taxi heading to Harar and had to wait 20-30 minutes before we had a quorum. The bus station was pure chaos, people selling wares, muddy ruts, old dilapidated buses. Ours luckily was a newish Toyota. And they didn't totally squeeze everyone in to overflowing.

The road from Jijiga to Harar is newly paved and in great condition. The landscape changes from the flat dry desert through mountains and past these hills of oddly shaped granite boulders. Lining the road in places were these plants, almost looked like giant pea plants with huge pods. At one point we passed this huge camel train heading into a town market.

We finally arrive at the bus station in Harar and hired a tuktuk to take us to the hotel. Unfortunately we misread the hotel name and the tuktuk driver starts taking us off in a different direction. Eventually we realize our mistake and just have him drop us off at a nearby restaurant, Fresh Touch. it turned out to be a great choice. Had our first beer of the trip (St. George) and a huge calzone for lunch for under $5. Ethiopia is still a great bargain destination.

We walked back to the bus station and ended up picking the Belayneh hotel, very convenient to the bus station and close to one of the gates to the old city. There is a huge market setup just outside the hotel and they were working on the road. But at night noise should be a problem. We planned on getting an early start to Hargeisa in the morning. The hotel was sufficient, nice enough room for 300birr/double. The power was a bit iffy though... plugging in my laptop the socket sparked and didn't work very well after that.

Belayneh hotel

We walked into Old Harar, full of narrow winding streets. Old Harar is considered one of the 4th most holy cities in Islam.. it was a center of learning back in the day. I wasn't quite sure what to expect but it did not feel like I expected it to feel. The city is built on a hilltop surrounded by a wall with several gates. As we were walking through the town we attracted a girl 'guide'. That is unusual as well, usually we are inundated by touts in such a place. We explained we were just walking though and eventually she gave up.

Women in old Harar

Old taxi in Harar

There are a few historical houses here, Arthur Rimbaud lived in Harar. Haile Selaisse also spent his honeymoon here. We wandered around for awhile, checking out several of the city gates before heading back to the hotel for a nap.

One of the tourist sights in Harar is to witness the 'Hyena men'. Every night at 7PM, there is a spectacle line none other. AtLocal men feed meat to hyeans, using sticks and making the hyeans do tricks. This is a long standing tradition and we hoped that we could catch it. There are now two hyena men in town. We caught a tuktuk to head to the 'new' hyena man who we heard is better somehow. However when we arrived there was no hyena man and no hyenas. Local kids started calling out for him but then they said it might not happen until 8PM.

At that point we decided to switch and go to the other one. Good thing we did, as we pulled up there was another tourist couple there taking photos. The price was 100Birr each. The old man would toss meat to several hyenas lurking in the shadows. There was one he was feeding from the stick. I managed to pose a few photos feeding the hyena. He started making them do tricks but by that point he was out of meat and the hyena was full and so the show was over.



Feeding the hyenas

We took our tuktuk back to the Fresh Touch restaurant, very good. Then walked back and crashed for the night. We planned to get an early 6am start for Hargeisa.
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Old Mar 25, 13, 2:16 pm
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March 13, 2013
Hotel: Oriental Hote; Hargeisa, Somaliland; $30/double

This morning we were planning on heading to Hargeisa, Somaliland. Somaliland is a country that doesn't officialy exist, despite having their own army, currency, border controls, government, etc. They have been de-facto independent since the 1990s after a civil war and the fall of Somalia government. Compared with Somalia proper it is a haven of safety. Somaliland was originally British Somaliland before joining with Italian Somaliland to form the state of Somalia in the 1960s. As they are not officially recognized, they do not have embassies. However they do have liason offices now in US, UK and Ethiopia which can issue visas. When Dean and I visited Ethiopia in 2008 we had wanted to visit Somaliland at the time. We actually got our visa in Addis but then could not make our flight schedules work out. This time, we applied for an e-visa through the Somaliland mission in the USA for $80.

We woke up around 5:30 and headed off to the bus station. As we were walking up the road a minibus pulls up and asks where we are going.. what luck as they were headed for Jijiga. Good thing we caught that as it would have been a long wait! The ride this time was only 30Birr and we arrived in Jijiga by 8AM. We found the bus going to the border town of Waajale, an ancient clunker already full of women with their shopping. We managed to squeeze into the last row of the bus and we were off quickly.

The landscape here had changed back to flat, arid plains with a few scrubs here and there. We were at the border town by 9:30 and were efficiently stamped out of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian immigration is in an unmarked white hut on the left side of the road. Then crossed over to the Somaliland side and went through immigration. We presented our e-visa papers, which they weren't quite sure what to do with. We ended up having to pay an extra $30 for a visa as we didn't have a physical stamp in the passport! The Somaliland office in DC should not offer that e-visa option if the border guards are not educated on it. We had to give our fingerprints and photo.

We then had to wait nearly an hour for a shared taxi to Hargeisa to fill. We ended up buying three seats ($7 each) as they tend to really squish people in. Then another $2 per bag to put ours on the roof. So $25 for both of us to go to Hargiesa. Eventually they had enough people sitting in the trunk and front seats and we set off around 11. Of course then we only moved a few hundred meters then got gas, then air in the tires, then who knows what else. Finally we get moving for real around 11:20

Shared taxi to Hargiesa

The first 20 kms of road towards Hargeisa are unpaved. It looks like they are still building the road here, but most of the time we were just driving on dirt tracks across the fields. It was very flat and in good condition though so we made good time. Eventually we joined the paved road which now ran all the way to town. We passed through 5-6 police checkpoints on our way to Hargeisa but everything went along smoothly.

Hargeisa is quite a large town (1.2 million) and on the way into town we noticed that most of the buildings were pretty sturdy concrete built houses. We arrived around 1:30, and had the driver take us to the Oriental Hotel getting there just before 2PM. We had hoped to arrange a tour to the Laas Geel cave paintings for tomorrow, but the hotel said the Ministry of Tourism was already closed for the day. The Oriental Hotel is the main hotel that travelers stay at in Hargeisa, location is excellent right in the center of town. Free wifi and a nice courtyard restaurant. There were photos on the wall showing what the hotel looked like after the civil war in the 1990s (not good shape), and how it looked fixed up just a few years later.

We had lunch at the hotel and went out to walk around and see the sights, such as they are. I had noticed that on the way into town there was new construction of office buildings in the central area. The area around Oriental Hotel is the market area, shoes, electronics, and moneychangers. Guys sit out with huge piles of money, mostly stacks of 500 shilling notes. Considering that the exchange rate is closer to 6400:$1 changing just a few dollars gets you a stack of bills. It has improved now that they have started printing 1000 and 5000 shilling nodes. However it was currently 'siesta time' and most of the changers were not there. Shops and offices close from around 1PM to 4PM during the heat of the day.

Somaliland shillings

We walked down to the MIG monument, commemmorating the bombing of Hargeisa during an uprising in the 1980s. We then walked down the other way towards the town mosque. We needed to reconfirm our Jubba airways flights for our flight to Djibouti but the office was closed for midday.

MIG war memorial

People in Somaliland were very photo averse... even just taking photos of street scenes people would get angry with us. So we tried to keep that to a minimum and popped into a shop for a cold coke. After siesta time, we went back to confirm our flights with Jubba airlines. They said to be there three hours before our flight in Berbera. That seemed excessive for such a small airport.

We were also eventually able to talk with the owner of the Oriental Hotel and arranged our tour for tomorrow morning. Car+driver+guard and one-way transfer Hargeisa to Berbera with a stop at Laas Geel was $150. A bit expensive but not too bad sharing. It would have been cheaper of course to arrange independently (one person claims they got a car and no guide for $55) but we were short on time. The permits for Laas Geel were an additional $25 each, and they would take care of arranging them, saving us a trip to the Ministry of Tourism in the morning.

For dinner we went to the Dalxiis Restaurant, a few hundred meter walk from the hotel. It seemed safe enough walking around as all the shops were open and lots of people about. The restaurant was in a garden setting across the wadi. We ordered spaghetti and roast camel, one of their specialties. The camel was very peppery and pretty chewy but not bad.

My poor laptop cable had finally stopped working, victim of wonky power. There were several electronics shops right near the hotel and at the third one we found one that had a replacement power cable! What are the chances... now it wasn't cheap at almost $30 but it meant I would still have a way to backup my photos from the trip.
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Old Mar 25, 13, 2:17 pm
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Old Mar 26, 13, 10:17 am
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Overwhelming memories! I want to "go home sick" today (back to my hotel) so I can indulge in a bath of nostalgia from my (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti), Yemen, Somalia trip, 1999-ish. On my work computer, I can't see the pictures. But memories still. Weekend reading/viewing. Thank you!
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Old Mar 26, 13, 7:46 pm
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Loving this report and your photos! Am jealous you've also been to Timbuktu.
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Old Mar 26, 13, 8:27 pm
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Fantastic report so far!

I did an extremely similar trip in January of this year. In Yemen I also stayed in the Arabia Felix Hotel; in Harar I was in the Belayneh; and in Hargeisa I was also in the Oriental.

On the same trip I also went to Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan. Eritrea was an absolute gem. What a pity that it's so hard to reach.
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Old Mar 26, 13, 9:24 pm
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Awesome and impressive that you and Dean make it through to these places.

You know you are far off the beaten track when the reader has to pull up gc map to find out where the airports are!!!

Looking forward to the next chapter...
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