Three new expats, two human, one canine, countless adventures
One of the great things about a trip to the Omani enclave of Musandam (and there are many), is that you get to see some very nice parts of desert on the way and passing from Dubai to Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah (RAK) en route you visit five of the seven emirates in one day. Of course it’s the spectacular scenery of the Musandam Peninsula and the incomparable thrill of seeing dolphins in the wild that are the real star attractions of this fantastic day out.
Leaving Dubai early one Monday morning by the inland Emirates Road I recalled my disappointment the first time I drove this road and saw the number of pylons blighting this part of the desert. While it’s certainly true they are not pretty I have since managed to find a certain, perverse charm in them. Rather than bemoan their ugliness I prefer to think of them as some sort of amusing War of the Worlds rejects as they stride purposefully across the sands, into the distance, two abreast on one side, single file on the other. Soon enough these invading aliens are left behind and I’m in a lovely area of desert with rolling, sometimes red-tinged, dunes falling away from the highway and camels dotted here and there. When I pass the sign saying ‘Oman 100km’ the desert around me is truly lovely and glitzy Dubai seems very far away. Shortly after, out of the haze, the barren, rocky Hajar mountains suddenly appear in the distance, giving me a taste of the scenery awaiting me in the Musandam Peninsula.
Before reaching the border I have to drive right through the city of RAK and it’s interesting to see the contrast with Dubai, RAK city feels like a step back in time, a dusty relic in an almost forgotten corner. Soon enough I’m out the of other side of the city and getting close to the border. Once I hit the area with heavy trucks and ugly cement factories I know I’m almost there. After slowing down to toss some bits of sandwich to the wandering goats in the dusty village of Al Jeer I arrive at Al Dana border post.
The border crossing is usually quick and easy; both the UAE and Oman side have new, air-conditioned buildings and friendly, if not always fast moving, staff. A simple greeting of ‘’as-salaam alaikum’’ will guarantee you a smile from one of the officials, be it the uniformed officer looking at your passport or one of the others gliding elegantly past in his pristine white kandura and gutrah (the long robe and headdress that is the common attire of men in the Gulf). Just inside Oman the big ‘Peace be with You’ road sign which used to provide such a warm welcome to Sultanate has fallen victim to the building of a new port and is nowhere to be seen. The road very quickly passes through the port construction area and heads into the Musandam of the photos.
The drive to Khasab is an absolute delight. The winding road snakes its way leisurely between the sparkling waters of the Strait of Hormuz on the left and the high cliffs which hide the hot, harsh interior on the right. It’s a beautiful drive, passing through some tiny villages with a couple of dozen houses, maybe a mosque, certainly a plentiful supply of goats, and usually some tiny fishing boats on the shore. One of the larger villages along the way is Bukha, home to a beautifully restored 17th century fort which houses a small museum. Visitors are welcome to wander around the ramparts and admire the view, and on a past visit the friendly guide showed me an almost hidden way to climb up inside one of the fortified towers and see where birds have made their nests in the now silent gun slits.
The road from the border to Khasab is mostly at sea level but it rises up just past the hamlet of Al Harf, rounds a corner and then the spectacle moves up a gear from delightful to simply stunning. Suddenly the view has become even more expansive and there’s a gorgeous, glittering bay spread out before my eyes.
After 45 minutes of driving heaven I arrive at the small dock in Khasab, a town of 18,000 inhabitants, a fact hard to believe when looking at such a sleepy place. The main source of income in the area is from fishing – barracuda, queen fish, king fish and unfortunately also hammour, a staple of the Gulf diet whose popularity has driven it onto the endangered list.
I walk across two or three of the traditional wooden dhows which are lined up at the dockside before reaching my vessel for the day where I’m welcomed with a cold bottle of water and told to help myself at any time to cold soft drinks, water, tea and coffee. The floor of the dhow is carpeted with traditional rugs and there is padding and cushions around the edge for sitting so I select and spot near the front of the boat and settle down. Passengers are mostly in the shade as there is a roof but with the open sides it’s worth bearing in mind the changing direction of boat and the rays of the sun throughout the day. Once everybody is aboard it’s time to slide away from the harbour and out to sea.
I soon start seeing cormorants sitting on rocks but plunging into the water for safety as the dhow nears. At times there are several hundred of them sitting on the water or flying a couple of feet above it. As we progress up the fjord we see tiny, completely isolated villages of between 70-120 inhabitants, again fisherfolk. These settlements are only accessible by sea, surrounded as they are by the soaring, barren cliffs that comprise the coastline of Musandam. Village children go to school by boat, living in Khasab Sunday to Thursday and returning home for the weekends. To encourage people to continue living in these villages, and to preserve this particular part of Omani culture, the government supplies free electricity to the villages and free water is delivered by ship every few days.
As well as locals out fishing with nets on their small boats, we see several boat loads of ‘smugglers’ speeding across the Strait of Hormuz between Khasab and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, 65km away. Smugglers or traders, the line between them seems to be blurred, I’m told they are doing nothing illegal on the Omani side when they arrive with their cargos of goats, sheep and saffron. What rules they may be flaunting on the Iranian side when they return with TVs, PCs or even cars on their speed boats is anybody’s guess.
Very soon a shout goes up from one of the boat hands and everybody stands up excitedly to get a good view of our visitors: a pod of about a dozen dolphins. They love to swim alongside the dhows: adults, youngsters, under the water, arching beautifully out of the water, disappearing under the dhow only to reappear ahead on the other side, even swimming on their back. They really look like they are having fun! The sheer joy and feeling of honour and privilege at having these magnificent wild creatures choose to accompany us for a while is hard to put into words and humbling indeed. Of course at the beginning the guide on the dhow will tell you that they can’t guarantee that you’ll see dolphins and being wild animals free to swim as they please he is correct. But there are around 300 dolphins in the fjords and I’ve seen them on each of the five times I’ve sailed these waters.
The first stop is at Telegraph Island, so named because in the late 19th century it was a repeater station on the telegraphic cable which ran from London to Karachi. Some believe it to be the origin of the phrase ‘to go around the bend’ stemming from the harsh conditions of extreme heat, isolation and hostile tribes that telegraph operators posted here had to endure.
Despite the fierce summer sun and high temperatures a day on the dhow is very comfortable with the constant sea breeze keeping things relatively cool but it’s still nice to leap off the boat into the warm but refreshing waters off Telegraph Island. The dhow has supplied those who want to snorkel with fins and a mask or you can choose to swim – even if you are not confident in the water you can enjoy this, one of the men on the boat gets in the water with a life jacket on and appears to be having a great time. It’s also possible to walk on the tiny island and I get out of the water and head up to its highest point, imagining what it would be like having to endure long periods working here and thinking it really could send you ‘round the bend’. Back in the water again to cool off we notice dolphins very close by but they swim away when a couple approaches them, preferring as they do, to keep the contact with humans on the terms of their choosing.
The dhow then sails to the second stop at Seebi Island almost at the end of the fjord. Here the water is clearer and there are more fish. I take some bread when I go in the water and immediately have a shoal of fish surrounding me and eating it straight out of my hand. As I swim around the dhow I find myself in the middle of a shoal of fish, almost as if I’m a gigantic version of them – albeit without the brightly striped body.
Lunch is served on the dhow and consists of salad, humus, flat bread, mild vegetable curry and mild chicken curry and of course free flowing soft drinks, water, tea and coffee.
The rest of the afternoon is spent leisurely making our way back to Khasab. The cormorants are still leaping off the rocks, the fishermen are more plentiful now and the smugglers have finished their work for the day. I’ve not done any fishing or smuggling today and I’m thoroughly relaxed and at peace with the world, reflecting on another truly lovely day out in this beautiful place.
The info: you can drive from Dubai to Khasab in 3 hours (if you don’t get lost). If you hire a car make sure you are allowed to take it across the border and check the insurance covers this. You will have to show car registration and insurance at the border. I paid 35 dirhams to exit Dubai and 5OR (50 dirhams) for an Omani visa. You will have to check your eligibility for a visa on arrival according to what passport you hold.
Staying overnight in Khasab: I stayed on after the dhow cruise and spent the night at the Golden Tulip hotel which is the best hotel in town (a new hotel is currently under construction). I’ve also stayed at the Khasab hotel which is right inside the town. Everybody else on the dhow was on a day trip from Dubai and got back in their small bus immediately after the dhow trip and headed back to the UAE.
Tours: you can do this dhow trip as a day trip from Dubai or a longer trip combining the dhow with a second day of mountain safari and tour of Khasab, see www.khasabtours.com for details. The dhow part of the trip lasted approximately six hours, finishing at 3.30pm. It’s a long day if you do it in a day trip from Dubai but most definitely well worth it.