There’s something of the Wild West about Khasab, the dusty capital of Oman’s Musandam 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.
The flight from Muscat to Khasab is surely one of the most spectacular in the world. My early-morning torpor evaporates as we fly above the rocky desert of the UAE – great plateaus and gorges appear smoothed by the distance, like chocolate icing whipped into monumental peaks and waves on the surface of a giant cake.
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.
I emerge from my hotel the following morning and bundle into the back of a waiting 4x4 with a few other guests (there are no taxis or public transport in Musandam – hiring a car or getting a lift are the only ways to get around). We’re ferried down to the harbour, where brightly painted speedboats sway under the weight of their cargo, wrapped up in white and stacked neatly like sugar cubes. I wonder how much of it might be smuggled goods, for which Musandam is notorious.
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.
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We are ushered on board a dhow, a traditional curved-prow ship of the type on which seafaring Omanis built their empire and trade networks in centuries past. We set off at a leisurely pace along Khor ash Sham, the longest and most spectacular of the khors, hemmed in dramatically on both sides as rugged cliffs rise sharply from the green sea. We’ve barely been on the water ten minutes before we attract company in the form of a pod of dolphins, which playfully rise and dip in the water and keep pace with the boat as they swim closely alongside.
We drop anchor to swim in the clear water around Telegraph Island, a desolate rock on which sit the crumbling ruins of a British imperial telegraph station. The island has left an unlikely legacy. The phrase ‘round the bend’ supposedly originates with the telegraph operators who would, having sailed around the tip of Musandam to reach the island, be driven mad by the isolation and unrelenting heat of the monotonous days that followed.
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.
The next day, I’ve lined up Musandam’s other major tourist activity: the so-called ‘mountain safari’ up Jebel Harim, the peninsula’s highest peak. Once again, I clamber into a grimy 4x4 (Oman’s law against driving a dirty car is another rule cheerfully flouted in Musandam) and we set off into the stark mountains which loom over Khasab.
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.
Petroglyphs in Musandam Peninsula © Daniel Stables