The longest and most dramatic of all the Musandam khors, Khor ash Sham stretches for some 16km in total, hemmed in between two high lines of mountains, the bareness of the craggy surrounding rocks offering a surreal contrast with the invitingly blue waters of the khor itself. A string of remote hamlets dots the shoreline, accessible only by boat; each is home to just ten or so families. All water has to be shipped in by boat, while children must commute to school in Khasab. Not surprisingly, the khor-side settlements are becoming steadily depopulated as the younger generation of villagers tires of the rather monotonous life of their ancestors and move off to Khasab or beyond. Those who remain live in the villages for just six months a year, earning a living through fishing, before decamping to harvest dates in Khasab during the summer months, when the water in the khor becomes too hot for fish.
The khors also boast a healthy population of dolphins, and you’ve got probably an eighty percent chance of seeing at least one pod during a full-day dhow cruise. Dolphins are attracted by the sound of boats’ engines and the water churned up in their wake – they’ll often swim alongside passing dhows, dipping playfully in and out of the water, reaching remarkable speeds and keeping up quite easily with even the fastest dhows.
About halfway down Khor ash Sham lies lonely Telegraph Island (or Jazirat Telegraph), an extremely modest bit of rock named after the British telegraph station which formerly stood here. The extensive foundations of the old British buildings survive, along with a flight of stone steps leading up from the water. The island is a popular stopping point on dhow cruises which often halt here for lunch. Boats can moor next to the island at high tide; at low tide you’ll have to swim across.
Going round the bend in Musandam
Going round the bend in Musandam
Despite its rather unprepossessing appearance today, Telegraph Island was once a crucial hub in the nineteenth-century information superhighway, and a vital link in the chain of communication between Britain and her Indian empire. At a time when mail between London and Bombay took at least a month to arrive, messages could be sent between the two cities in as little as two hours via submarine telegraph cables – or the “Victorian internet”, as it has been neatly described.
In 1864, the governments of India, Turkey and Persia agreed to join up their existing land telegraphs using a submarine cable through the Gulf and on to Karachi. Almost 2400km of cable was manufactured and laid out, passing through Musandam en route. In 1865, a small telegraph repeater station was constructed on the island formerly known as Jazirat al Maqlab, but ever since as Telegraph Island, a site chosen since it offered greater security than the mainland against potentially hostile local tribes. The station played a crucial role in the success of the cable. Telegraphic signals relayed over copper cable inevitably fade with distance, and the function of the station was to receive and relay, or “repeat”, signals received from either London or Bombay.
Unfortunately, the location was one of the remotest in the empire. The mental and physical privations suffered by officials marooned on Telegraph Island quickly became the stuff of colonial legend, so much so that relief crews sailing eastwards around the tip of the Musandam peninsula coined the expression “going round the bend” to describe their mercy missions – an expression which has since become Oman’s lasting contribution to the English vernacular and a fitting tribute to the sufferings of Telegraph Island’s Victorian castaways.
The station lasted just three years and in 1868 the cable was diverted away from Musandam and rerouted via the Iranian island of Hengham.