Changing Planet

Mysterious Cave Art of an Island in the Arabian Sea

Looking into the final chamber of Dahaisi to see the rock art for the first time. Exciting stuff! (Photo by Daniel Britton)
Our lights reveal the final chamber of Dahaisi, allowing us to see the rock art for the first time.
(Photo by Daniel Britton)

Off the tip of the Horn of Africa, nearly alone in the Arabian Sea, the large, rugged, iconic island of Socotra sits, with plants, scenery, and mysteries utterly its own (see photos of Socotra).

Our mission is to document the presence of rock art located in the depths of Dahaisi cave using the latest photographic techniques. We are hoping they will help us uncover and study the animal and human figures, crosses, and strange array of geometric patterns that adorn the walls of the final chamber.

Getting There

The beginning of our arduous journey into Socotra’s deep interior was broken up by fragrant groves of frankincense, dragon’s blood trees that look like prickly inverted umbrellas, and a multitude of bizarrely shaped flowering desert roses. During this part of the journey it was clear why Socotra is considered a jewel of biodiversity, and aptly named the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.”

Having climbed a particularly hazardous stretch of what can be best described as a goat track we finally reached Momi plateau, our home for the next couple of weeks. In the distance we could begin to make out our destination.

As we entered under the branches of the fig tree that stands as a sentinel at the entrance to Dahaisi cave, one could not help thinking about the local legend of a giant white snake that preys on those foolish enough to enter the caves of Socotra. With visions of this beast slithering towards us we began our descent into the dark.

Once we had entered a hundred meters inside the cave, all outside light had vanished and we were totally reliant on our torches to find our way around.

Looking at the two panels of rock art situated in the south eastern part of Dahaisi cave's final chamber. (Photo by Daniel Britton)
Two panels are covered with rock art situated in the south eastern part of Dahaisi cave’s final chamber. (Photo by Daniel Britton)

This was the first time photographer Daniel Britton and I had entered this cave and we were both a bit apprehensive, taking our time, inching around obstacles, and generally moving slowly. Dirk van Dorpe and Peter de Geest, the experinced cavers on our team, were moving along a good bit faster and had already begun sweating. By the time we reached the deeper recesses of the cave we had all worked up a sweat.

The temperature is a balmy 24°C (75°F), but the humidity was 90 percent and climbing. With sweat pouring off us, and not a snake in sight we reached the last challenge. All that lay between us and the final chamber was an enormous fallen stalagmite that looked as if it had been torn off the ceiling and flung into the passage by a giant who wanted to prevent us reaching our goal. Squeezing past this obstacle we made the last drop into the final chamber.

As our torch light started to play on the walls of the chamber we were rewarded with the sight of the most unique and exciting images any of us had ever seen. Human and animal figures adorned the walls and a variety of crosses, boats, and geometric patterns could be found everywhere. The feelings of amazement and awe that washed over us had all stunned into silence for several minutes.

Peter de Geest and Dirk van Dorpe grab their pencils and paper and begin recording the art of Dahaisi cave. (Photo by Daniel Britton)

While our journey to the cave has come to an end the work is just about to begin. The task before us is immense. Documenting all the rock art here will take time and we will have to spend long hours in the dark coming out only to eat, sleep, and charge our equipment at the campsite.

The remoteness of this site has its own challenges. There will be no luxuries on this trip. To post this blog I have had to undertake another arduous trip to the capital, where the internet connection is poor at best. What a great adventure!

Read All Posts About Rock Art

Growing up in South Africa kindled Dr Julian's interest in exploring remote and wild places. Having completed his PhD in Archaeology and MA in Maritime Archaeology, he has spent the last decade working and running projects across the world. He is the author of a several journal articles and book chapters relating to his research.
  • Ray Peck

    Terrific article. Thanks. The art reminds me of the style of some Australian aboriginal art in the sandstone overhangs of the Grampians range, south West Victoria, Australia, especially the Billimina site.

  • Yusuf Dahir

    Similarly mysterious cave paintings has been discovered in a number of sites 2002 and afterwards in Somaliland, does Socotra and Somaliland cave paintings have any thing in common that is if you have been to Somaliland’s cave paintings ? Many thanks for sharing such a historical adventure and all the best.

    Yusuf Dahir

    • Thanks for the comment Yusuf. That is very interesting, I have not seen similar cave paintings in Somaliland so I cannot comment. However, if you could send me a link or some photographs of the ones you are referring to that would be great.

  • Candace Gossen

    Julian, any dates on these caves? I also wanted to say I do know that feeling of complete darkness in lava tubes, the stimulation from the neurological system begins playing with the brain, but after being in absolute dark for 20 min or so, my eyes began to see infra red, it could make object shapes of the humans due to their radiated heat. So I don’t know if you have tried, but it may be fun to see! Thanks for the post, would like to see more photos of the panels

    • Thank you for your comment Candace. We are working on dating the rock art, but this will take time. The next posts have further images of the rock art and how we use Infra Red photography to capture rock art that is now invisble to the human eye.

  • Julie

    Julian did you get to see all of the caves? I read there are two long caves that ran the length of the island. Is that true? Have all the caves of Socotra been discovered?

    • Hi Julie. Personally I have not visited all the caves that have been discovered on Socotra, although members of our team have. Despite having spent many years exploring the cave systems on Socotra, there are still numerous caves that are waiting to be explored. Indeed there is a huge cave that does run almost the entire length of the island.

  • Jason Renoux

    Hi there,
    underwater cave passages…???
    I was for seven years exploring the denotes/caves of the Yucatan and now relocated in UAE. This little pool at the end of Dahaisi cave looks very promising. Have you dived it? Are there many submerged passages?
    Thanks for doing the hard work and sharing your exploration.

    • Hi Jason

      Yes we did have a look at the submerged passage that lies directly beneath one of the largest panels we have. The cave divers had dragged all their equipment into the cave and spent a great deal of time setting up the dive, but unfortunately they did not get far because it was blocked. Nevertheless before this blockage occurred it seems that this submerged passage must have extended a considerable distance.

  • chaps

    So how far is your progress on the cave exploration going?

    • Hi Chaps

      The exploration at the moment has been halted due to the situation in Yemen. However, we are currently getting very interesting results from our anaylsis, which I hope to be able to blog about soon.

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