Soqotra – Mountains, Myths and Heroes

(Warning: Images of halal slaughter)

“One day we reached a strange desert island… many of the passengers decided to go ashore and I sat down on the bank of a river and fell fast asleep. When I awoke there was not a soul in sight. The ship had sailed, for the captain had forgot about me… The sun had not yet set and the sky was a fiery pink. Suddenly, everything went dark as though night had fallen. I looked up and saw an enormous bird with outstretched wings, shutting out the sunlight. I remembered then of hearing about a bird so huge it fed its nestlings elephants. The bird’s name was Rukh” – The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, 1001 Nights

Bad weather on my last night in Canberra. Thongs of lightning lashing the tops of Mt Ainslie as a rose sunset mixes with the gunmetal greys of a storm cell. The storm follows us north to Sydney. Isolated showers. Patches of clear. Then heavy thick globules of water, orbs of wet hammering against the windshield.

All the standard tourist traps on my last day in Australia. Darling Harbour. Circular Quay. Another sunset over the Harbour Bridge. Seats for the ballet at Sydny Opera House. The Nutcracker. Christmas theme. I hold Ellie’s hand as Drosselmeyer, the dark magician, presents the children with their gifts. No Christmas for me this year. No birthday either. We stay in King’s Cross. Visit my aunt the next day… and then… the airport. The rain persists. I hold Ellie close. She cries. Rain runs down the windows of the terminal building like tears on a cheek, a thousand trails of racing water framed against the grey darkness of a gathering evening. I check in. Clear customs. Waiting. Thinking about Ellie driving alone, through the rain, on the long drive back to Canberra. Leaving is hard. Travelling is hard. Going home is easy. So why do I do this? Because I must. Because I absolutely must.

I meet Ben in Kuala Lumpur. He’s in loose clothes, light threads. His hair is long and he ties it in a top knot. Not quite hippy – not quite clean either. He looks like he’s about to go on a holiday to Thailand. Which he is. But the sullied paradise that is South-East Asia will still be there in a few weeks time. The dirty beaches crowded with backpackers, the seaside karsts bustling with climbers-on-holiday, the busy, polluted streets full of leering touts – that can wait.

Today, we’re in search of a different paradise. A paradise of mythical dragon blood trees and cities made of mud. Of coral reefs girt by azure water. Deep wadis and towering granite outcrops waiting to be scaled and explored. And all this on a tiny island off the coast of Yemen, perched between the heel of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, a lost piece of Gondwanaland, left behind like an oceanic breadcrumb during the last split of the continents. A geologic and biologic anomaly.

Soqotra.

Its name hints at Wonders. Like the name of some fictional kingdom ripped from a Schezerzadian sura. The Orientalist in all of us awakens, shamelessly beckoned by the allure of the exotic. In our minds, we have given this place a mythic status, positioned it “lovingly on stage”, and we want a part to play. This is our audition. The dispassionate anthropologist in me would be unimpressed. It is poor form to mystify the exotic. But is it not the fascination with the far-off that has led us to places we might never otherwise have reached? Distant peoples, uncharted oceans, the poles, the highest mountains, the Moon, and beyond. The history of exploration is a drama replete with its heroes, its tragedies and victories, and the story goes on, as it must. Myths must keep being written.

The cast of the “History of Soqotra” is long and storied… Sinbad, the fabled sailor from Sindh came here on his fifth voyage; Thomas the Apostle; Abu Muhammad al-Hamdani, the astronomer for the Abbasids. Throughout time the island has changed hands over and over. A fleet of Portuguese venture capitalists captured the island’s “soq” in the early sixteenth century. Then came the Mahra sultans. Then the British. With independence the Russians arrived, lining the beaches with dug-in tanks – specimens of realpolitik to be left to rust in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Alone in the rolling waters of the Indian Ocean, Soqotra lies in the eye of a regional political conflagration of veritably cyclonic proportions. Marauding fisherman-turned-pirates scour the nearby Somali coasts at the helm of skiffs full of Kalashnikovs and on mainland Yemen a failing government lies at the centre of an ethnic maelstrom of competing insurgencies – a Shi’a uprising borne out of the dry and rocky hills of Sada’ah and an Islamist insurgency cresting a wave of Sunni discontent away and beyond in the Hadramawt. Yemen’s history is one of turmoil – a constant to and fro between a shakey peace, isolated gunbattles and brutal violence capped by terrorism, suicide bombings and drone strikes.

Despite the rough neighbourhood, however, Soqotra has found solace in its geographic isolation. This is what draws us there. A lost paradise in a rough neighbourhood. A lost paradise burgeoning with misty mountains and unclimbed granite big walls. But if the tourist traps of Southern Thailand are bite-sized Asia for the wandering climber than Soqotra will be a meal in itself – a meal that is totally foreign, spiced with cinammon sticks and scented with frankinscence – the plant for which the island gained its name – “Souq Al-Qotra” (“frankinscence market”). We board our Yemen Airways flight to Sana’a – it has an okay safety record. If nothing else, at least the last plane that went down in the Indian Ocean was located.

As we trudge into the metal tube, the hostess double checks our boarding passes.

Ben, in tropical-patterned boardshorts, sweeps a lock of hair behind his ear.

“Sana’a?” she asks him.

He nods.

She gives him back his ticket and laughs. Take-off happens without event but later, as the plane passes through a thick bank of cumulus it jumps and rattles – long drops through air pockets punctuated by violent lurches through turbulence.

Sana’a International Airport lies in a varying state of disrepair – torn down walls, roof panels missing, stolen or broken, exposing the raw cabling within. An eerie late night quiet lies over the terminal building. A tense calm, punctuated by the omnipresent assault rifle. Had we been wrong to exoticise our destination? A flatscreen television hangs from a beam in the centre of the room. Behind a pall of cigarette smoke, the screen broadcasts images of a Yemen fit for a luxury travel magazine. Sandy beaches, palatial hotels, ancient medinas. “Your first impressions are false,” it all seems to say.

 

Arrivals lounge at Sana'a International Airport

Arrivals lounge at Sana’a International Airport

Images of Yemen flicker across the television. Picturesque scenes of Arabian shores. “Hodeydah – the Cinderella of the Red Sea”, says the on-screen caption.

I wonder how “Cinderella” fares after midnight.

A mixture of uniformed military and leather awaits us at the immigration desks – vague jacketed types with stern, sullen faces. A month ago, the capital had been seized by the Houthi and now it all seemed very unclear just who at the airport was an agent of the ancien regime and who was an out-of-towner taking up a new post behind the immigration desk.

We have our visas stamped, and pass through to the baggage claim. One bag, two bags… they float down a decrepit conveyerbelt unloaded from an open-backed ute on the other side of a broken wall – the luggage handlers like fish-mongers tossing crates of frozen mackerel around a soq. One of the bags – Ben’s bag – never comes. It contains ropes, borrowed climbing hardware, a harness and Ben’s rubber shoes. It also contains all of his spare clothes.

I begin hounding the airport staff in white guy Arabic, stumbling on my “ayns” and stuttering with my “alifs” as my brain does its best to re-enter third language mode again. The bag is in transit in Jakarta, I am told.

“Is it really in Jakarta?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

I’ve learnt from other travels in the Arab world to treat any declaration of certainty with healthy suspicion, so I probe further. “Wal shunta, ana beheselha bukara?” “So the bag, it’ll be here tomorrow?”

Inshallah”. If God will’s it.

In the Middle East, nothing happens unless He has willed it – luggage reaching its intended destination included.

Later, of course, I learn that the bag was never lost in transit in Jakarta… it never left Kuala Lumpur.

Finding a corner in a nearby mushollah, I wriggle into my sleeping bag, hand Ben a prayer rug and my other pair of trousers, an overnight transit between us and our flight from the Mainland. We board our flight with promises the bag will reach us in Soqotra. I hold no high hopes, so my brain begins troubleshooting. The plane is full of stern-looking Arab men in business suits on the way out of Sana’a after a transit stop in Mukalla. When they are gone the plane is suddenly flooded with laughing chattering dark-faced men sporting a colourful array of gowns, headdress and the traditional dress worn by Soqotri men, the “furtah”.

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Flying over the canyon-riven “badlands” of the Hadramawt

The plane taxis along the desert runway takes off and an hour later we are soaring over Soqotra. Like a granite scylla, at this time of the year (the wet season), the high peaks of the Hajhir massif lie hidden amidst a swath of burgeoning rainclouds, a mystery known but unseen as the plane circles. Below, a fierce northerly blows powerful waves against the island’s sandy shores. On a quiet day the azure water is a tourist trap for snorkelling – today the island is like a weather-beaten lost world – something out of a Michael Crichton novel.

We land and meet our guide Issa. Issa is short and wiry with dark curly hair and a cheery smile. He carries himself nimbly through the crowd in the arrivals lounge, plucks one of my bags from the carousel and leads the way to the car. Our driver Ahmed, always in blue, is warm and portly, his hair ever-encircled by a tribal amameh – the headcloth known elsewhere as “keffiyeh”, “shemagh” or “dish-dash”. “Ahlan we sahlan ila Soqotra,” he says. He speaks only Arabic and Soqotri and it is in the former tongue that I will piece his story. The road from the airport to Hadibo runs abreast the cliffs of a rocky shore. Ahmed, deft behind the wheel of the rickety vehicle, navigates the turns with precision. There are no number plates here, no road rules. The only people in uniforms we see are a pair of soldiers, one of them stripped down to his undershirt, the other, on Kalashnikov duty. Both of them seem to be soaking up the warmth of the island sun. Everything here feels beyond the reach of the mainland – beyond the reach of the State. We are in the Periphery, and it feels free.

Hadibo is dirty, squalid, Third World. Mud roads choked with piles of rotting rubbish crawling with skinny bleating goats chewing cardboard. We will return intermittently to the island’s population centre but for the most part we stay away from the hub of Soqotri life. We move to an “eco-campsite” on the outskirts of town. I dump my bags and Ben dumps what he has left in our reed huts, then we move to a larger reed hut, a sitting area, for tea.

Food comes and as we nibble of the thin, many-layered Soqotri khobz we gaze up at the dramatic west face of Hawari, a prominent limestone peak to our east, looming over the coast. I turn to Issa who notes me marvelling at it. “Bukara nehnu netsleq hada al-jebel,” I say. We want to climb that mountain.

That afternoon we assess our capability to climb. Without Ben’s bag we are down a harness and Ben’s climbing shoes. But we still have my harness, a rope and a rack (hardware to keep us attached to the cliff). With about 20 metres of tubular webbing at the bottom of my backpack, I start fashioning a diaper sling rig, a makeshift harness designed to be used in an emergency – say if a hiker without climbing equipment falls from a height and needs to be extracted by rope and pulley.

Reared in the sterile environment of the indoor gym, we are initially skeptical of the integrity of our system. Freedom of the Hills (the mountaineering textbook) recommends 2 inch webbing for a diaper sling harness. We’ve used 1.5. Our variant has all the hallmarks of a Tillman-Shipton tie-a-bowline-around-your-waist adventure, which puts us in a category where a fall isn’t really an option. But with Ben lacking shoes to climb in we know we won’t be climbing anything particularly difficult. With one actual harness between us we decide that the person climbing in “the good harness” will lead all the pitches and the diaper sling-wearer will follow along, trying not to fall.

We set off the next morning on an exploratory climb, a cruisey foray up a set of cliffs below Hawari to test the system. Ben gets first dibbs on the diaper sling. The climbing is easy enough so on the second pitch, I swing the lead over to Ben, who, with his sandals clipped to his belt and the rack hanging from his chest leads away on a pleasant barefoot traverse. Another wandering pitch and a half follows and topping out we realise that we might have pioneered a unique climbing style, albeit one definitely not worth emulating. Climbing barefoot, in a home-made harness with sandals for approach shoes. We call it Bedouin-style and name our fun little climb “Sandals and Scimitars”.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.

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A lonely jetroufah tree (used as a medicinal coagulant) arcs over the Indian Ocean

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

An early lunch of spiced fish, bread and rice follows and with the hours of the day running away from us we retrain our sights on our main objective – Hawari (~400m). Slinging Issa along as a guide and rope-carrying sidekick, we trudge off through a thick of forest of jetroufah trees to the base of the technical climbing.

It is my turn to wear the dodgy harness and peering up at the overhanging “choss” (loose, horrid-looking rock) above, a part of me is kind of thankful Ben gets to be the lead climbing guinea pig for this one. Indubitably, three metres off the ground on the first pitch, Ben takes a groundfall when he plucks out a handhold like a kid pulling smarties off a cupcake. Unphased however, he continues up, moving industriously.

A short time later, I hear a garbled shout from Ben some way up the wall and it is my turn to climb. I stem up a corner, pulling over a small overhang and gain a steep slab of smooth rock, riven here and there with small pockets for handholds.

When I reach Ben on the belay ledge I assess the anchor he has built for us. Nearing the stretch-limit of the rope, the ledge was the logical place to stop. But Ben’s anchor is less than ideal. A thin sapling girth-hitched by a sling, a camming device plugging the gap between two wobbly boulders and a tricam (a horned chock of metal shaped like a rhino skull) lodged in a small flaking pocket of rock. Three negatives don’t make a positive, even in mathematics. So I guess falling wasn’t really an option anyway, with or without the makeshift harness.

The next section leads Ben left on a sparsely-protected traverse into a wide chossy chimney. I hold my breath as Ben climbs on. Above us, a rookery of vultures, yellow-necked and sharp-beaked, circle our perch, wondering if the strange hominids passing through their vertical world will soon be but carrion. An endemic sub-species of Egyptian vulture, they are large and cruel-looking, probing us hungrily with low swoops. Their wings whoosh loudly as they dive past. As Ben disappears out of view, I study the birds, paying out rope slack as he climbs.

In the story of Sinbad the Sailor, the eponymous hero tells of having sailed to Soqotra and being abducted by a huge and monstrous bird, who, depositing him in its nest on top of a high mountain, set off in search of snakes to garnish its supper. Forced to fashion a rope from his turban, Sinbad descended into the valley only to discover that it was full of posionous snakes. With the huge vultures circling us on our mountain perch, I felt a strange affinity with Sinbad’s lot, although, climbing “Bedouin-style” or not, I was thankful that we were as yet some way off using a turban for a rope. With another garbled shout from Ben above, I traversed off the ledge and into the gully, picking my way through the conglomerate ruin. We pitch on.

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah

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Our perch on the first ascent of A’sh Al-Rukh (The Rukh’s Nest)

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A'sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh's Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A’sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh’s Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Cresting the summit ridge, we are blasted by the cool ocean wind, surrounded on all sides by the strange Soqotri bottle trees and a troop of Egyptian vultures gazing over their domain. Met with a three-sixty view on top, we take in the horizonless Indian Ocean on one side and the mysterious cloud-covered hinterland of the Hajhir range on the other. With the loose limestone climbing behind us we descend on foot down the other side, naming our route “A’sh Al-Rukh” (Arabic: عش الروخ), meaning “The Rukh’s Nest”.

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island)

The next day is a reconnaissance day as we still await the rest of our gear. We speed east along the coastal road to the wind-blown limestone cliffs of Homlil. We spy kilometres of limestone cliff faces, capping impossibly white sand dunes topped with the mysterious, umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood trees. The faces look amazing – featured, looming but utterly unprotectable except with artifical bolts. We loop around the escarpment and onwards into the green hinterland. We spy a prominent mountain in the distance, below the cloudline in the lower Hajhir. A spindly old man from a nearby village spits out a name… “Tjouf” (Arabic: تجوف )… A limestone fin on the horizon. Unclimbed. Endless potential on this island.

We lunch in a hidden oasis called Wadi Boraq, a wide canyon of blocky red limestone terminating in a swimming hole. It sits beneath a tall waterfall running fast and swift down a wall of lichen and we sample the rail-featured limestone, climbing barefoot for a few metres before leeping back into the deep, cool water. The secrets of this Lost World are slowly but certainly coming into view.

We head off in search of dinner, passing by a qariyat to barter for a goat. The right price and right kid materialises and we take it back to Hamri to be devoured. With Issa holding the goat’s head back at an an angle, Mohammed, a local fisherman runs a long sharp knife along its neck.

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem” I hear Issa utter as a torrent of dark red blood gushes from the goat’s neck. As the kid struggles for air in its final throes, it coughs its gizzard from the gash in its throat. The act of slaughter can be brutal, unsettling, to watch sometimes. But in taking the life of the kid, life will be renewed and the goats haunches will be seved with a sauce of onion and persimmon.

As Mohammed peels back the kid’s hide, exposing the pink hanging corpse one knows well from a Queensland pig hunt or the back room of a butcher’s shop, I muse that alot can be learned of a cultural group from the way it kills an animal – from the process of converting life into food. “Bismillah ar-rahman, ar-raheem,” Issa had uttered. In the name of God, the beloved, the merciful. “Into his hands you will go”. What seems unsettling to the outsider is only so because one sees not where the meat which sustains daily life come from. In my world, the act of converting life into food is simply a process, an industry… a conveyerbelt where an assembly line turns a calf into a Big Mac. Here, it is a spiritual act. An act of committing the kid into the hands of a deity so that other life may be sustained. There is no hierarchy in the diversity of culture – one custom is neither better nor worse – it is only context that matters and for a small-scale society living a life between pastoralism and the sea, everything about this practice makes sense. For us in the cities perhaps our way works best, but I don’t really know.

"Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem". Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat's neck

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem”. Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat’s neck

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Alhamdu lillah lil'tai'm

Alhamdu lillah lil’tai’m

Over our meal, I talk culture with the Soqotri. I raise the topic of the veil. In the West, the subject of female dress in Islam is contentious – a heated debate infused with stereotypes about female subjugation and assumptions that modes of fashion are indicators of gender equality in human societies. In talking with Issa about his marriage, we learn that it is customary in Soqotri society to only see the face of one’s wife after one is married. While traditionally, daughters were effectively trade goods, Issa sees a certain equanimity in the veiling practice since the relative attractiveness of one’s potential spouse would remain a mystery until after the wedding. The argument here is that all Soqotri daughters are of equal value – since hidden behind the veil, all women look the same.

Alien as this logic might seem to a Westerner, I had never before considered that the veil, rather than hiding a woman’s “shame” could actually enable her to be desired, loved and respected in a way which goes beyond the physical. While in the West a hierarchical conception of beauty is used as a calculus of a woman’s reproductive fitness, Soqotra’s veil may in fact decouple “beauty” (the trait) from the female (the object). Here, a suitor falls for a woman’s personality and not her appearance.

On Thursday, we return to Hawari to climb another route on the seaside cliffs (an aesthetic crack we call “The Whip of Issa” [5.9]) but, hesitant to take our Bedouin-style system to the high peaks of the Hajhir, we hold out for hope that the bags will come on the Saturday flight.

We head west to Qlansiyet, a coastal fishing village and a similar size to Hadibo but devoid of the rubbish-choked streets. A boat ride to a remote beach on a gharab (Arabic: كارب ), brings us through rolling swell and violent lurching from the wind. A sheltered bay. A pod of dolphins. A scramble along the limestone cliffs and tea in a shepherd’s cave.

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu'ab

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu’ab

Then, the bags arrive. Finally. We crane our necks towards the Hajir mountains – the mysterious granite massif always in the back of our minds. We stop at a small village at the base of the mountains. Three men sift around in a narrow thoroughfare between the mosque and a small house. Issa yells out something in thick Soqotri and the three approach the car, attach themselves to the passenger step, skitching off the roof rack. We trundle on up the rocky road. This is how you get work in Soqotra.

We reach the end of the road and look upon the Hajhir mountains in all their grandeur, an incisor skyline, clear and cloudless. The walk in has all the hallmarks of high adventure – a pilgrimage to the sky. With every new peak that winds into view I ask it’s name, drawing a map in my mind… Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”), Herem Hajhir (Arabic: هرم هاجهر, “the Hajhir Pyramid”), Hazrah Muqadriyoun (Soqotri: هزرة مقادريون, “the false tooth”) and finally, Mashanig (Soqotri: مشنيغ, “the split one”) – two perfectly formed towers of perfectly vertical granite, the higher of the two being the highest summit on the island, rising some 1500+m above sea level. A new route on Mashanig is the ultimate objective for this expedition. If we can climb nothing else, we would climb this peak.

We follow Abdullah, his two sons and Fahad, a Bedouin shepherd who guides us up a precipitous boulder-strewn path. Abdullah, shirtless and lean, is the senior the group – a Bedouin born of the mountains who truly speaks his second language when I communicate with him in Arabic.

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig's twin peaks

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig’s twin peaks

We sit around the campfire long into the night and Abdullah is chatty, curious about these foreigners in his mountains. He asks many of the same questions one comes to expect in the Islamic world, lyrical in his jabali Arabic. “Are you religious? Do you have a wife? Children?” He is kind, curious and I am just as curious as he. I want to learn from him.

Between cups of sweet, red tea and fistfuls of potato and khobz, he tells us stories of the mountains. Our objective on the morrow is the north face of Mashanig, so Mashanig is foremost on our minds. In his rich Soqotri Arabic, Abdullah tells the story of the mountain’s origins, a single peak struck in two by a bolt of lightning.

Many years ago, he recounts, an old Bedouin woman named Naziyeh carried her baby to the base of the mountain and suspended a cradle between the two peaks. The child, Nazouzeh, grew to become a fearless man, unphased by the dangers of the mountain. When as a shepherd, his herd of cattle ceased to eat the grasses beneath the mountain, Nazouzeh carried his cows, climbing one-handed to the summit of Mashanig in order that they could feast on the fresh grasses there. After this, the story goes, with superhuman strength, Nazouzeh toppled a pillar of rock from the mountainside to make a bridge between the twin peaks, known as Mishifo (Soqotri: مشفو, literally “bridge”) so that his mother, Naziyeh, could milk the cattle from the col between the two peaks. Every few days thereafter Nazouzeh would return to the summit and take a cow down to be milked by his mother.

In 2011, when Mashanig was first summited by Mike Libecki, an accomplished American climber known for his exploratory ascents of remote big walls, he and his partner discovered a mysterious rock cairn. After the lichen between each stone was dated to be hundreds of years old Libecki concluded that either the cairn was placed by a real historical Sinbad (after being abducted by the Rokh) or a pre-modern shepherd must have scaled the peak. The rock pile as one shepherd, Abu Maryam, would later surmise, may have been the remnants of an old retaining wall, constructed to keep the cattle from wandering off the precipitous mountainside. With the tale of Nazouzeh and Naziyeh now coming from the mouths of the shepherds, the mystery of Mashanig became all the more captivating.

We leave with Fahad, the local guide, early the next morning and Abdullah, awaking to eat the small green fruits dropped from a sheger during the night shouts out to us. “Yallah!” he says. “Be safe! Dangerous there!”

We ply our way amongst the boulders upstream and before long we stare up at our objective – the unclimbed north face of Mashanig – an ever-steepening wall intercut with networks of cracks and tree-choked ledges. We waste no time with roping up.

A light daypack for the leader, filled with sachets of energy gel and an alpine climbing pack for the follower, replete with all the luxuries – water, rain jackets and an emergency space blanket (just in case). Ben leads away. He charges up a bushy chimney to gain the sleek stone above. We move efficiently for the first three pitches or so, route-finding quickly, following the path of least resistance up the north face. We swing leads one-for-one, and while Ben seems to get the crux pitches, I always seem to end up with the strange wandering traverses, zig-zagging and balancing my way between ledgelets.

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

Some way up the face, I pause at the base of a long line of rooves, pulling Ben up as I spy a line through. A crack is visible to gain a little ledge and after that the climbing appears to relent. The clouds swill around us. The weather is turning against us. Time is running out. We need to get through the difficult climbing as soon as we can. Ben storms up to the roof. At the crux he plants a left foot high, commits for a reachy handhold, misses, and takes a fall, a long arching plunge back to a ledge at half height. He pulls on a cam to save time, unholstering his aid ladders to mount the ledge above.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

A few hours later we exit the face and move up the last pitches of the east ridge towards the summit. We are running out of daylight. Time gnaws at the hems of our cotton t-shirts. I route-find into a south-facing corner and mind’s eye a route to the top. A squeeze chimney, a few tricky mantles and we begin simul-climbing, chewing up terrain by climbing together, roped but not on belay. But as the rock tower goes on, the hours melange together and we know that tonight will not be a night spent sharing stories with shepherds back at camp.

We have been simul-climbing for many pitches now, chewing up terrain in a desperate bid to summit before dark.

I reach the top of another pitch and fiddle a tiny sliver of wire aluminum into a crack, cobbling together a hasty belay. The wind howls. The clouds hang heavy with rain. The rock becomes slick. Ben seems not to have moved very far and I am taking in only very little amounts of rope. I begin shouting into the wind, hoping he will hear something, urging him to climb faster. I hear a response – a few syllables, garbled amidst the roar.

Finally, he reaches me at the belay and we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We’ve arrived. My watch says it’s sunset, but with the clouds all-surrounding, we won’t see anything. The howling wind is heightened by the folds in the granite. Acoustics in our alpine opera house.

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

When he finally reaches me at the belay we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We are there… We are finally there. From lookng at the time I know it is sunset, but with the clouds completely over us, we would never know it. The clouds swirl darkly with the gathering night and the wind howls around us – the roar heightened by the folds of the granite like the acoustics in an opera house.

We contemplate the descent. The rappels. The boulder-hopping back to camp. Somehow, Ben has forgotten his head torch. “Without light, progress stops”. We aren’t going anywhere. We settle in for a cold one. It is often said that there is no sleep in an open bivy – only suffering. Indeed, when your perch is the summit of a granite spire in a mountain range in the middle of the Indian ocean and all you have to sleep in is a rain jacket, the skin of an ultra-lite backpack pulled over your legs, a space blanket between two and rocks and a wet rope for pillows, sleep seems an anathema – a diametric opposite to the cold, discomfort, fear and doubt that only a bivouacee can know. But sleep, like the wind and clouds circling round the tops comes and it goes.

Sometimes I awake to a cloudless sky filled with stars and the glimmering lights of Hadibo and Qlansiyet, far away and below. Other times I awake to a grey darkness and a bitter chill – the wind making a crackling sail out of our moonlessly-silver space blanket, threatening to blow everything away. We to and fro against the cold, spooning where no man has spooned before. A part of me hates the bivouac. But a part of me knows that the bivouac is crucial to the experience – the cold, long hours of a red-eyed night marking the difference between leisure and adventure. Ivano Ghirardini, the great soloist, called it “the essential ingredient”.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

The night winds on and then, verily, it is over – first light uponing us. We take off in the early morning, locating some old rappel anchors. Back at the col on the east ridge we run a rope between us and down-climb an exposed gully into the gray depression. We wade through bushes, encircle a boulder and traverse across a slab for a clean run to the ground. On our way downwards. Ever downwards. The time has come to return to the World of Man. Down. Down. Down. Finally earth.

The harness come off, the ropes go away and a bag of fruit emerges from our cache. A pair of oranges are swallowed almost whole, plastic bag and all.

Going down

Going down.

Down

Down

Down...

Down…

And down

And down

And finally down

And finally down

Issa has picked his way upstream to see what had happened to us when we didn’t return last night. He worried through the night and expecting this when the skies were clear this morning I made a point to shine my headtorch towards what looked like the red glow of a campfire far and away below. He says he saw the glimmer of light amongst the swirling clouds and this makes me happy. Issa guides us down the river boulders back to camp, the clock striking midday.

When we arrive at the little glen by a tiny stream, an old Soqotri shepherd, black bearded, donning a red keffiye and blue furtah looks at me and begins speaking in fast, colloqiual Arabic as if no one else in the world could possibly speak something different.

Rohteh ila al’jebel?” he asks. “Mashanig?”

“Ah,” I nod.

Nazalna ala al-qemet khalal al-leel,” I say, miming the half-sleep of the night before and the wind-blasted cold. “You climbed the mountain? From bottom to top? Khatr. Dangerous. Keyf? How?”

Bil-aqdam min tehet we bil-hebel min fewq,” I say. By hands and feet on the way up and by rope on the way down.

His lips purse thoughtfully between sips of hot cinnammon tea, taken fresh from a boiling kettle. “Leysh?” He asks. “Why?”

I shrug, knowing not the answer and begin shovelling handfuls of rice, meat and olives into my mouth, happy at last to be back at camp.

IMG_1500

Apres-climb meal. Freshly-slaughtered goat for dinner!

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Dragon’s blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon's blood tree?

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon’s blood tree?

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin. Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin.
Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

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3 thoughts on “Soqotra – Mountains, Myths and Heroes

  1. excellent guys,amazing story.keep on climbing.remember great was ever achieved without ENTHUSIAM!!!! seeya Noelene (Bens MUM)

  2. Pingback: Hajj Al-Sahara – The Hand of Fatima | Dispatches from the Periphery

  3. Pingback: Hajj Al-Sahara – Prison | Dispatches from the Periphery

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