svetlana baghawan maverickbirdI have always been fascinated with pretty words and frankincense had a nice ring to it. An aromatic resin used in making incense and perfumes, frankincense was one of the 3 precious items gifted to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. With such an invaluable legacy and a pretty sounding name, the aromatic Olibanum (scientific name of frankincense), had made me look forward to Diksam Plateau the next day. Located in the central part of Socotra island, Diksam is a national park, which is a treasure trove of rare flora and fauna. It had been my 2nd day in Socotra and I had been raring to dive deeper into the world’s most unique island.

Anwar had arrived at dawn in his faithful car, which had been my home for the next 7 days and I had gladly left dusty, sleeping Hadibo behind. Socotra’s only road had been modestly busy that morning and we had passed a few similar vehicles, motorcycles and a battered public van. The van had been filled to its gills and curious Socotri eyes had stared at us from its crushed human depths. Incidentally public transportation is one of Socotra’s biggest banes and during the last leg of my trip I had personally waited for 5 hours by the highway to avail one of them. That morning, however, my excitement had still not been jaded and I had looked forward to Diksam with a fresh faced eagerness. Falling silvery morning light had again created magic and I had stared in wonder at the island’s vast, untouched beauty.

Blue jagged central highlands had loomed pleasantly close and the undulating flat plains had unfurled at the bottom like grand robes of a king. Date plantations had stood still and the ancient stone villages had made no noise. With the lack of much human activity, the whole island had seemed to be completely mine and that had been the closest I had ever felt to immortality. Time had bypassed the island completely and life had hung there with the same expectancy as it had existed during the time of Queen Sheba and beyond. It had not moved past the pre Islamic times and the virginal beauty experienced by me had been the same, which had met the eyes of the ancient sailors who had landed there in search off its precious booty. Throughout centuries, all great civilizations of the world had coveted Socotra’s riches and it’s frankincense, myrrh and blood dragon products had been offered to the departed at countless Egyptian pharaohs’ funerals and Greek temples. Demands of those great empires had sent ships full of sailors to brave its treacherous shoals, ferocious winds, mythical dangerous snakes which guarded caves and stories of islanders who were believed to control natural and supernatural forces.

Fortunately I had nothing to brave that morning as we had slowly ridden uphill towards Diksam Plateau and cool, morning air had hurled at me straight from an open, smiling heaven. It had gotten considerably colder up in the highlands and soon only a shadow of the vast blue ocean could be seen rushing into the horizon. The mountainous area had leveled out at the top when we had stopped the car to take in the incredible vista. It had felt completely surreal to see huge empty space simply ending into the sea and there had been no ugly human touch of modernization to mar it’s spotless beauty. No hotels, billboards or any such signs of commercialization had hindered the flow of natural space  and the whole scene had been clean, virginal and godly. The beauty had been wholesome and right, just as nature should be, in an unmolested way and hints of spring had painted the landscape with multi coloured blooms. Diksam had been splashed with flowers and they had carpeted the rolling vista even before the mighty blood dragon trees had taken over.

Few bejeweled colours and hennaed hands had peeped among the blooms and they had belonged to the Bedouin tribes or the mountain people. The Bedouin were semi nomadic pastoralists who lived in the interior highlands of Socotra and herded sheep and goats for a living. While a few Bedouin villages had permanent houses, most still lived in caves for several months of the year and roamed the highlands and its vales like timeless shadows. Their lives had remained unchanged for centuries and the Diksam Plateau had been dotted with Bedouin herders ambling behind their scraggly groups. The men had been sublime in their sarong like “foutah” lungi skirt, but it had been their women who had drawn my attention. Dressed in traditional long, black gown and brilliantly coloured head scarves, the Bedouin ladies had spotted me from a distance and had come rushing up to our car. Dark flashing eyes had stared at my strange ‘Hind” face as they had peddled goat hair rope, blood dragon tree make up and wild honey and I had immediately gotten bombarded with Bollywood questions in their rare Socotri language.

Never before had I been questioned about Bollywood (one of the most peddled global commodities) in one of the world’s rarest languages and the monstrosity of the situation had left me speechless. While their children had spent most time of their days herding goats and roaming the highland’s granite precipices, their rustic patched up homes had proudly displayed big satellite TV antennas which had dished out their daily dose of Bollywood from another part of the world. Although my knowledge of Bollywood had been a bit rusty, my answers had satisfied them enough to present me with blood dragon make up and bottle of fresh goat milk, and Anwar (my translator, driver, guide) and I had stared in awe at the power of India’s iconic industry. As mentioned numerous times, Bollywood has surprised me during my travels on too many occasions, but for it to have fans among world’s rarest genealogical population had been pretty mind numbing.

Socotra had been all about rarity and this uniqueness had touched every bit of its existence. While its flora and fauna are most highlighted, Socotri language and genealogy are pretty unique too. The Semitic language of the Islamic island of Socotra has no written form and it’s history too can be found only in Socotri poetry recited down through generations. The island is a human genealogical melting pot, and just like its iconic flora, many Socotrans have DNA patterns which are found nowhere else on earth. While it had been Socotra’s uniqueness which had consciously drawn me to the island, nothing had prepared me for its magical, nearly Dalisque existence. Everything about the island had seemed straight out of  Arabian Night’s fantastic tales and Socotra had been too Harry Potter like magical to be true.

I had stared at the huge sun dappled open space, ancient flower carpeted crevices and granite jagged rock faces in overwhelmed silence and more than once, had imagined sorcerers and dragons to fly out from them. Only the sky had remained faithfully common and it had been of the freshest shade of aquamarine blue. Deep in the highlands, the sea had no longer been visible and I had suddenly felt very wistful for it. Rolling, vivacious and known, the sea had seemed like my only touch with the real world and without its comforting presence, I had felt as lost as Alice in Wonderland. Such had been my overwhelming thoughts, when the plateau’s 1st blood dragon tree had zoomed up in the distance and it had been all that I had needed to feel like the luckiest person on earth.

Proud, solitary and magnificent in it’s unique mushroom shaped strangeness, the tree had embodied my biggest dream and hopping out of my car, I had run all the way to just feel it’s rare existence. Humans, they say, try to preserve their biggest treasures for future generations and that tree had made me behave in the most nature loving, hippie way ever. I had cradled the broad trunk, kissed it’s smooth satiny bark and had somehow wanted to channelize my life force into it. A millennium old survivor, the blood dragon tree is sadly on the brink of extinction and the alarming lack of seedlings or young trees, make conservationists fear its complete wipe out by the end of this century.

That day, however, it had stood at the edge of a precipice; like a proud old warrior, overlooking the drop of vast empire of plains below and I had tried to catch pieces of blue sky through its net of gnarly branches. The indigenous and endemic Socotra tree, which is officially known as Dracaena cinnabari, has been prized throughout centuries for its blood red sap and it is still used as paint, varnish and dye. Growing mostly on highlands, the blood dragon trees rely on moisture which is found in the mist and their upturned full blown umbrella like branches always point towards the heaven, with the hope of catching their next breath of life. Too much of even anything good, noble and beautiful is hard to accept and my 1st glimpse of Diksam had been as magical as childbirth perhaps. I had stood under the thorny shade of the centuries old warrior and closed my eyes in gratitude.

Out of 6.916 billion people on earth, only a few thousands dream a little dream of Socotra and every year only a paltry hundreds get to to make it come true. That beautiful bright morning, apart from me, no other outsider had marred the broad flower filled expanses of Diksam Plateau, no foreign footsteps had trodden under the distant blood dragon tree forests and the hazy Bedouin silhouettes had remained blissfully free of visitor’s intrusion. Cradled in the heart of one of world’s most remote islands, I had never felt more alone, vulnerable and lost. Yet the loneliness had come with an exhilarating taste triumphant achievement since, on January 2015, the dream of Socotra had only been mine. Now if that is not a travel blessing to count upon, I don’t know what is.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

The next morning

The next morning

We had left early

We had left early

For the blood dragon

For the blood dragon tree dotted

Magical land of

Magical land of

Diksam Plateau

Diksam Plateau

The ancient land

The ancient land

Had been awash

Had been awash

With flowers

With flowers

And the mountain dwellers

And the mountain dwellers

Had peeped from

Had peeped from

From timeless rocky crevices

From timeless rocky crevices

It had been as alien

It had been as alien

And empty as

And surreal as

As our wildest dream

As our wildest dream

And briefly it had

And briefly

It had only been mine

It had only been mine