Uncertain Times In Yemen: A Civil War, Pandemic And An Alien Island

Have you ever experienced a civil war and pandemic simultaneously? Probably not. But I have.

When all was said and done, I was forcibly evacuated from the country.

But I survived and managed to enjoy beautiful — and alien — island life along the way. Here is how I pulled it off…

Where did things begin?

Early in 2020, I was traveling around Asia with little issue or travel restrictions despite the coronavirus spreading and panic heating up in that part of the world. New information was coming out every day and with it, more countries were enacting travel restrictions or closing their borders.

It hadn’t affected my plans at all until March 8th when I was supposed to fly to Kuwait prior to a trip to Egypt — during which I did visit the pyramids — before eventually flying to the Yemeni island of Socotra.

If you haven’t figured out by now, this post is primarily about my trip to Yemen and specifically Socotra. And just so you know, Socotra is actually located closer to Somalia than to the Yemeni mainland.


Back to March 8th.

Kuwait closed its borders for tourists, my first casualty of the corona hysteria. Instead of traveling to Kuwait, I flew to Egypt a day early.

I landed in Cairo a bit late so I immediately went to my hotel. I was staying at the Ritz Carlton right on the Nile River, which as you can see offered a pretty scenic view of the river and the city. This time there was no giant egg hotel like on the Nile in Khartoum, but the rest of the riverfront was far more impressive.

Could not have been more different than my hotel in Socotra. You shall see…

I wasn’t attached to any tour company for my brief stay in Egypt. So the next day I had a full day to explore at my leisure.

I started with a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. It is currently the largest museum in Egypt, but it’s due to be superseded by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza later this year. Though we’ll see because the coronavirus seems to be affecting most plans for 2020.

Fairly empty

After the museum, I set out to visit Old Cairo which has an Islamic component and a Coptic Christian component.

Old Islamic Cairo

The first thing I visited was the Citadel of Saladin who was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. If you remember from my trip to Syria, I visited his mausoleum when I was in Damascus.

Citadel of Saladin

The citadel was built on a hill in the city so it provides a nice commanding view of Cairo.


I wandered around a bit more visiting some mosques in the old Islamic part of town.

After getting a taste of the houses of Muhammed it was time for me to head over to the Coptic Christian part of Old Cairo to see some churches and houses of Christ. 

Coptic basically just means “Egyptian” and denotes that the church uses the Coptic language, which is the latest stage of the old Egyptian language. Christians in Egypt call themselves “Coptic Christians” for example.

 My favorite site in this part of town was probably the Hanging Church. 

Hanging Church

This is probably the most famous Coptic Church in Egypt. It is easy to see why as it is very beautiful inside.

Luckily the church’s nickname doesn’t come because they hang people there, which would be a bit sacrilegious. Rather it’s because the church was built over the gatehouse to an old Babylonian Fortress.


I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel to have dinner and get some work done.

The Pyramids of Giza

The next day I wanted to go see the pyramids so I got up early and grabbed a taxi to Giza, which is only about 20 km away. Usually, Cairo is known for having quite bad traffic. But I had no issues getting there fairly quickly, I think because of the virus.

Great Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids are as impressive as they are advertised. Between the mausoleums in Syria and the Pyramids of Giza I am having a hard time deciding which I would like to be buried in someday. 😉

Obligatory Pyramid selfie 🙂

I also got to see the Great Sphinx of Giza.

Still a lot of speculation about who built the Sphinx

I have to say she actually resembled more of a primate than a sphinx when you got up close. Steer clear of whichever doctor botched her nose job. 😉

Rhinoplasty gone wrong

Not too far from Giza is the ancient burial ground of the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. The burial ground itself is called the Necropolis of Saqqara.

Necropolis of Saqqara

Its main feature is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which is arguably the oldest pyramid in the world. 

Pyramid of Djoser

It was built in the 27th century BC for the Pharaoh Djoser. After 14 years of restoration, the pyramid just reopened for visitors and considering the lack of travel going on right now, I was lucky to be one of the first tourists to get to visit it in quite a while.

I finished up my self-guided tour of Giza and decided to take another taxi to get back to Cairo, instead of this camel:

Egyptian Uber

Nomads Caught In Corona Craze

Back in Cairo, I met up with another member of the country-collecting community I’m a part of. We had a few drinks at the Ritz Carlton and shared our gripes about being a nomad during a pandemic. His plans had already significantly changed since he was supposed to be traveling around the Middle East when everything really became serious.

A month later…

Speaking with him recently we had to marvel at how much has changed in the month since we were sitting together at the bar in Egypt.

While in Cairo, I was constantly checking updates related to Yemen and Socotra because this was a place I was really excited to visit, plus Yemen has notoriously been one of the most difficult countries to visit as a tourist over the past decade.

As you are probably aware, Yemen has been entangled in a pretty nasty civil war since 2015, with there being continuous conflict in the country since the Arab Spring in 2011. Things took a turn for the worst in 2015 when the Houthi rebels overthrew the government that was elected after the Arab Spring, starting the civil war and essentially starting a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tourism stopped.

Also around the same time the civil war broke out, two cyclones struck Socotra. So for a while, tourists couldn’t visit the island either.

Luckily Socotra reopened in the autumn of 2019 with one plane a week flying to the island from Cairo. As I said goodbye to my fellow country collector, my flight to Socotra still had not been canceled…

Still valid 🙂

Rather Civil War Than Corona

My flight was at 1 am. I headed to the airport and found a big line of tourists also trying to fly to Socotra.

I would be going there with the Lupine Tours company that I also used when I was in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Altogether there would be 10 of us on the tour. Myself, eight fellow tourists and our guide Sasha. 

Apparently 14 people had signed up initially, but because of the coronavirus, only the nine of us actually came. Once on the plane, I discovered the reason so many people were in line. It turned out a group of about 40 people who try to run marathons in every country would be heading to Socotra with us. I think I’ll stick to just visiting them all 🙂

We flew three hours overnight into Seiyun, Yemen which is actually quite a dangerous place on the mainland. There are about 30 active fronts in the Yemeni conflict and Seiyun has a lot of al-Qaeda and other Islamists operating there.

I’m sure this has seen a lot of action lately…

Luckily we were only there briefly to wait in transit at the airport.

After about an hour we hopped on a one hour flight to Socotra.

The Gem of the Arabian Sea


Luckily you receive a visa on arrival, so immigration was not a big hassle. There were just a lot of people to clear for a small understaffed airport. So despite being easy, it took a while. Then, because there are so few flights in Socotra, we had to wait for all the imported goods and supplies that each plane brings to the island before we could get our bags. 

Altogether we were in the airport for quite a few hours, which was a little tiring after having a flight so early in the morning.

When we finally left the airport we met our local guides who took us to a nearby beach for some lunch. The typical lunch for this trip was pretty much the same thing every day: fish or chicken with some potato curry and a lot of rice. I’m allergic to fish so I stuck with the chicken which was actually quite tasty.

We went to check into our hotel for some much-needed rest after lunch. We were supposed to rest for just an hour, then head to another beach. But I was so exhausted from the early morning travel that I decided to skip this beach and I slept until dinner. 

I knew we had some pretty incredible beaches planned for the next few days and was told the one I skipped wasn’t anything too special so I was glad to have some extra rest.

We had dinner at Hadibu, which is the capital of Socotra. The city is the largest in the Socotra archipelago (there isn’t just one island) but still relatively small with a population of only about 10,000.

Our dinner was much in the same style as our lunch, except with the addition of some very nice bread that they make in a certain unique Socroti style. It’s very thin and crispy, but still flavorful and a perfect compliment for the curry that is a staple in their cuisine.

We finished up dinner and headed back to the hotel, which I have to say was one of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed at. The air conditioning didn’t work, the windows, which were stuck open, were well utilized by mosquitos and the bed was so bad I ended up just putting sheets on the ground and sleeping on the floor. Luckily the plan was to camp for half of the trip, because that hotel was really awful.

So my introduction to Socotra was punctuated by pretty poor sleep, but things would only get better from there.

A little about Socotra…

One of many geographic landscapes you can find on Socotra

This might be a good time to tell you a little bit about the archipelago, which consists of 4 islands with the island of Socotra being the largest.

The Socotra archipelago has a very long and interesting history. As the internet would be quick to tell you, it is considered a “gem of biodiversity.” It’s an archipelago made up of three main islands, a very small island and a few uninhabitable rock outcrops that serve mostly as little sanctuaries for seabirds to nest. 

The main island constitutes 95% of the total landmass of the archipelago. While most islands are of volcanic origin, Socotra is one of the most isolated islands that are of continental origin, having broken off from the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

Oldowan stone tools have been found on the island indicating it was inhabited by ancient Hominins millions of years ago, but the first appearance of it in writing was in the Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, a 1st century AD Greek navigation aid.

It is a UNESCO world heritage site and considered by many to be one of the most alien-looking places on earth with an extremely diverse and unique population of endemic flora and fauna. Despite being only about 80km long and 20km wide it is home to nearly 700 endemic species. 37% of Socotra’s plant species and 90% of its reptiles can’t be found anywhere else on earth. This amount of biodiversity puts it in company with places like the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii in terms of numbers of endemic species.

The infamous Dragon Blood tree.

The geography itself is also quite unique. There are huge canyons and valleys in the midst of towering mountains with giant caves and sand dunes all squished between some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Exhibit two

The island is currently owned by Yemen. However, due to all the unrest on the mainland, it is heavily “supported” (some might say controlled) by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both countries maintain military bases on the island and some military presence. One benefit of this is that I was able to connect my Google Fi to the cell towers of those two countries. I really needed to stay up to date on coronavirus news with all my future traveling plans at risk. So this was incredibly helpful.

“Welcome to Saudi Arabia”

The island has changed religions and changed hands countless times over its long history, but most recently the British turned it back over to the Yemenis in 1967 when they dissolved their Aden Protectorate holdings in southern Arabia.

For now, it was supposed to be the place a nomad like myself called home for the next week 🙂

Day 2

The following day we had an early wake-up call to go visit the Hajhir mountain range which possesses the highest peak in the archipelago at about 1,500 meters above sea level.

More Dragon’s Blood

We drove around the mountain while our guides pointed out some of the endemic plant life that only grow at altitudes above 700 meters. Here are a few pictures of some of these alien-looking trees.


Perhaps most significant for the island is the dragon’s blood tree which you have already seen and I’ll explain here:

The dragon’s blood tree is given that name due to its sap, which is also the reason it is so important to the island.

Large Dragon’s Blood. Safe from pesky livestock

The sap is a crimson red resin, which primarily has been used as a dye and as medicine. Additionally, it can be used as an abortifacient, breath freshener and lipstick. In ancient times it was believed to actually be the blood of dragons and thus has some history in ritual magic and alchemy.

Alien planet

Eventually, we stopped the cars and were told we would be hiking up to visit a beautiful natural lake higher up in the mountains. The hike took about half an hour and took us to a little lake that was the source of a river we had hiked by. It was a scenic little lake surrounded by mountains and this very alien flora and fauna.

Very refreshing after a hike

We hiked back to the jeeps where our guides cooked us a similar lunch to the one we had the day before. After lunch, we headed back to our hotel and had the rest of the day to rest and explore if we wanted to. I was still pretty tired so I just read and slept.

Greatest Natural Infinity Pool in the Middle East

The following day we drove east out of the city to see some more of the dragon’s blood trees, as well as some frankincense trees. Frankincense is a big part of the economy of Socotra, and everywhere we went there were little children around who wanted to sell us some. Outside of animal husbandry, manufacturing of frankincense and dragon’s blood are the two biggest industries on the island.

Local salesmen

We continued on driving and eventually parked our cars for another hike to a pool that might be one of the most beautiful natural pools in the Middle East. It was another short hike but when we got to the top of the hill, it opened up into this beautiful panoramic view of the coast of Socotra with the pool just a short distance below where we were.

Quite the view

After a refreshing dip in the pool, I split up with the group for a bit to indulge in one of my favorite childhood past times — climbing around and exploring by myself. 🙂

The group enjoying a swim in the background

I climbed around taking pictures from a bunch of angles.

After about an hour I was summoned back to the group by our guides. But not before coming across one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen in the wild.

Yikes. Picture doesn’t do justice to how big this guy was

Just before we were about to leave, that huge group of marathon running tourists showed up to our private little pool, which wasn’t quite big enough for all 50 of us.

We hiked back and had lunch at the cars again. This time with some company from these native golden vultures that are not shy about the food tax we owed them for being on their land. We always shared a few leftover scraps at the end of our meals with the native scavengers.


From our lunch spot, we got back in the cars for a long drive to the old capital of Socotra. On the way, we stopped at a little lagoon that usually has flamingos, but we didn’t see any, unfortunately.

No Flamingos 🙁

The former capital of Socotra is basically nonexistent so that was a bit underwhelming. All that is left is just a pile of bricks.

Continuing on we went to visit a nursery where they grow and cultivate the rare plants on Socotra. The non-native goats that were introduced to the island hundreds of years ago eat the fruit of the dragon’s blood, which grow very slowly. Apparently, it takes about 20 years for a dragon’s blood tree to reach a height that is out of reach of the goats.

Endemic plant nursery

At the nursery, they taught us how they grow and cultivate the local plants, and there are several such nurseries around Socotra.

From the nursery, we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a little change in our typical menu for dinner. Tonight we were having doner kebabs and spaghetti, which is a strange combination. But it was a nice change from the potato curry and chicken I had gotten used to.

The Cave of Al-Hoq

Waking up early we drove east out of the city again along the sand dunes until we got to the base of the famous Al-Hoq or “Hog Cave.” This is the largest cave on Socotra with a length of more than 3 kilometers.

We parked our cars and were warned we had a pretty serious hike ahead, but it ended up taking only about an hour. We finally reached the mouth of the cave which I would guess was about 500 meters or so in altitude. You can be the judge from this picture I took resting outside the mouth of the cave. Very beautiful.

Not Bad 😉

After a short rest, we ventured into the cave. Although the cave is about 3km, only the first km is advisable to explore without more specialized equipment and preparation. We just had small flashlights and the flashlights on our phones, so we stuck to the first kilometer.

There were quite a lot of interesting stalagmite and stalactite formations and carvings on the wall in various languages that date back thousands of years as well as little lakes scattered around. Very unique experience going into natural caves like that, it feels like you are burrowing into the earth. 

Stalagmites and stalactites

After about half an hour we reached the stopping point and everybody turned off their lights for a couple of minutes to enjoy the feeling of being in the complete pitch darkness. 

And there was light

After leaving the cave we drove further along the coast and sand dunes to see where the Arabian Sea meets the Indian Ocean. It’s a neat little microclimate with some pretty serious waves. The aquatic life is very active too, with tons of dolphins and fish visible in the clear water.

I hadn’t had any reception on my phone for a while and really needed to stay constantly up to date on the news surrounding coronavirus and travel, so I was getting antsy to head back to the hotel, but we had one last stop.

The last stop was this gigantic sand dune that must’ve been 300 meters high and had a pretty steep incline. Our guides suggested we climb it, but almost everyone was too tired and elected to just relax at the beach instead.

Myself, and two of the older guys with our group figured as long as we’re here we might as well climb the thing.

Halfway there.. almost quit

It was pretty brutal I have to say. Sand dunes are notoriously great workouts for professional athletes and for a good reason. The sand makes progress very slow, and every time you do make a little progress you slide back down a meter. 

About halfway up I almost quit, but these two older guys were continuing on and I didn’t want to be beaten by them so I kept pushing and am glad I did. 

Top of the dune

Quite a beautiful view from the top. Socotra really does have some of the most beautiful undisturbed beaches I have ever seen. It would have been nice to get to snorkel around a bit here.

Made it

 Anyway, as with most things going down is usually a bit easier than going up. While it took me an hour to get up the dune, it took me maybe 2 minutes to run down it.

Of course, my shoes were full of sand, my hair was full of sand, basically, everything on me was full of sand so I jumped into the sea for a short little swim.

After returning to the car and gathering everyone up, we headed back to Hadibu.

I was exhausted from all the exercise, so I checked in on virus news then pretty much went straight to sleep.

We had found out through some friends of one of the people in the tour group that all flights into and through Yemen were being canceled and no more visas would be issued until September.

This meant we were the last group that would be there for a while, but our tour was still scheduled to run its full course of another few days.

Uncertain Times..

At this point, we didn’t know it. But the next day would actually turn out to be our last.

We woke up and drove west along the coast this time passing through the second-largest city on Socotra, Qalansiyah. This is a town of about 4,000, the majority of which are sustenance fishermen. So we got to see some of their boats and their methods of catching fish.

Eventually, we were taken to a hill nearby with an amazing view of this perfectly white sandy beach with clear baby blue water in the background where we would be camping for the night. There was a little lagoon and you could see tons of fish in the water and even some small sharks chasing them around.

Camping here for the night…

Our tour guides told us we could explore a bit without being specific, so I climbed around to take pictures and then spotted some local kids playing by the lagoon. I went over to meet them and realized they were basically spearfishing the stingrays that were in the lagoon. 

Didn’t photograph the stingrays. Quite gross

I couldn’t communicate with them that well but saw that they were having some success because some of their spears had little chunks of dead stingray on the ends. Actually a bit disgusting, but they were having fun.

After that, I decided to walk as far as I could down the beach with my feet in the water. I had heard there is a little place called crab alley with thousands of crab castles that I wanted to check out so I made that my mission.

Starting to find a few…

Beautiful backdrop

Arabian (Sea) Nights

After quite a bit of walking, I found the kingdom of crabs and their sandcastles.

There they are

When they burrow in the sand to nest or escape predators, they kick the sand out and make little castles like this:

Kingdom of Crabs

By the time I made it to the crabs, sunset was fast approaching, so I started the journey back to where the rest of the group was.

Last light of day

I was getting close when I saw one of the Jeeps flagging me down and driving toward me. Apparently they were worried about me because I had been gone so long, but they weren’t specific about needing to be back by a certain time so I didn’t really care. 

I did get to ride back to the group in the Jeep, though, which saved me some time. 🙂

So the plan that night was to camp on that little hill with that beautiful view. Most people had brought tents, but I elected to pull a page from my Sudanese handbook and sleep outside under the stars. 

There is no light pollution out there and the sound of the waves is so relaxing that I fell asleep much more quickly than at that awful hotel.

But in the middle of the night…

Unfortunately, I was woken up at midnight so my one night of good sleep ended pretty quickly.

The tour guides told us they had just received word that we were being evacuated off the island because of the virus. There would be only one plane leaving Yemen for a while and it was the next day so we needed to be on it or risk being stuck on the island for however long the pandemic lasted.

The plane off Socotra was supposedly leaving at 6 in the morning so we needed to get to the other side of the island quickly. Somebody came with a boat and picked us up.

This actually became one of the highlights of the trip. Hundreds of dolphins were playing around the boat and it was another great way to view the island from the sea.

We arrived back in Hadibu and gathered the rest of our belongings from the hotel, then slept for a couple of hours.

I was ready to go at 5 but was told that we actually didn’t need to be at the airport until 8. I tried to sleep a few more hours in that awful bed but didn’t have too much luck.

At 7 we headed to the airport where we found out we needed to wait 4 more hours to be able to board the plane. A little bit frustrating, but sort of understandable that plans change by the minute in the midst of a panic, especially if this is the last plane off the island.

Last flight out for…. who knows?

Once we finally were in the air, we found out we would not be going straight back to Egypt, but to Aden in southern Yemen. Apparently they were recruiting us to fight the Houthi rebels instead of letting us go home. Just kidding. 😉

But that almost sounded more preferable to what they actually told us… 

The plane we were on needed to fly to Jordan and to Oman to pick up other people before we could finally head back to Egypt. Thus, we needed to wait 10 hours at the airport in Aden, of course with no internet.

The wonderful Aden airport in all its majesty

Not having any internet was a bit obnoxious in the midst of this panic when I’m trying to figure out my plans as a nomad for the next few months, but there was nothing I could do.

I decided to spend the time playing Pokemon Red Edition from start to finish. Any port in a storm as they say.

Classic Pokemon is the best Pokemon

After a little over 10 hours, we finally were in the air flying back to Cairo.

Where in the world…

When I finally got to my hotel in Cairo and had quality internet, I stayed up all night trying to figure out my next move. I had a few ideas of where the best place might be for me to “hibernate” and postpone my country collecting, while waiting out the corona craze. But I obviously needed to research which ones were still allowing in foreigners. 

Anyway, it was a long night for me.

I was bummed my Socotra trip was cut short by a few days, but I hope the pictures I managed to take convey to you how incredibly unique this place is.

Socotra really deserves its nickname the jewel of the Arabian Sea. I can only hope this corona insanity and the brutal civil war end soon, so more of you can also check out this otherworldly little piece of Earth. For now, stay thirsty my friends 🙂

And you get to read all about my escape from the Middle East to Latin America coming up next…