There’s something of the Wild West about Khasab, the dusty capital of Oman’sMusandam Peninsula. One hundred kilometres of the United Arab Emirates separate Musandam from the rest of Oman, and the disconnect shows – this is a far cry from the glossy shopping malls of the country’s capital, Muscat.
Daniel Stables explores the Musandam Peninsula’s dramatic coastline, stunning mountainous landscapes and remote outposts to let intrepid travellers know what to seek out in the region.
The shiny Toyota Land Cruisers so ubiquitous elsewhere in Oman, shy of the slightest speck of dust, are replaced by battered old pickups, loaded up with white goods and cigarettes fresh from the harbour. In the Old Souk, Iranian smugglers from across the Strait of Hormuz rub shoulders with Emirati holidaymakers on weekend trips from across the border, here to marvel at Musandam’s biblical landscapes and soak up the traditional atmosphere, so often elusive in the most developed corners of the Gulf.
Once we reach Khasab and the coast, it quickly becomes clear why Musandam is known as the Norway of Arabia.
Huge emerald fingers of water ripple inland like fjords – although these khors, as they are known, are not carved out by glaciers but rather shattered into the surface of the earth by the ongoing collision of the Eurasian and Arabian tectonic plates.
Oman is a largely crime-free country, due in large part to a draconian justice system. It’s all the more unusual, then, that smuggling in broad daylight has long been a tolerated part of life in Khasab. During the golden era of Musandam piracy in the late twentieth century, thousands of boatloads of contraband would cross the Strait of Hormuz each day. Recent lifting of sanctions on Iran has put a dampener on smuggling activity, but it continues to lend an undeniable outlaw charm to Khasab.
Even more remote than Telegraph Island is Kumzar, a small town at the northern end of the peninsula, accessible only by boat, which encapsulates Musandam’s end-of-the-world feel.
Hundreds of years of isolation have led to the evolution of the town’s own unique language, Kumzari – a blend of Farsi, Arabic and Hindi, peppered with Portuguese, Italian and English.
As the car rises through rocky, boulder-strewn desert, the only signs of life are the odd plucky shrub and the occasional herd of goats, gamely seeking something to graze in this unforgiving environment. We stop at a ruined village to admire ancient petroglyphs – works of millennia-old rock art which can be found all over Musandam. These stick figures of camels and people on horseback wielding spears, scratched into the rocky mountainsides, are a reminder that, against the odds, people have been flourishing in this desolate yet beautiful place for thousands of years.
Header image: Musandam Peninsula coastline © Daniel Stables. Photos from top-bottom: Coastal scenery near Khasab © Paulo Miguel Costa / Shutterstock; Aerial view near Khasab © Xpeditionr / Shutterstock; Dhow boats in Musandam © Imran's Photography / Shutterstock; Dolphins near Khor ash Sham © Robert Haandrikman / Shutterstock; Traditional dhow boat at Khor ash Sham, Musandam Peninsula © Daniel Stables; Petroglyphs in Musandam Peninsula © Daniel Stables.