At the northeastern most tip of the Arabian peninsula (and separated from the rest of Oman by a wide swathe of UAE territory) the dramatic Musandam peninsula is perhaps the most scenically spectacular area in the entire Gulf. Often described as “The Norway of Arabia”, the peninsula boasts a magical combination of mountain and maritime landscapes, as the towering red-rock Hajar mountains fall precipitously into the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, creating a labyrinthine system of steep-sided fjords (khors), cliffs and islands, most of them inaccessible except by boat. Musandam remains one of Oman’s great wildernesses, with a largely untouched natural environment ranging from the pristine waters of the coast, where you can see frolicking dolphins, basking sharks and the occasional whale, through to the wild uplands of the jebel, dotted with fossils and petroglyphs.
The main town in Musandam proper is lively little Khasab, at the top of the peninsula and connected to the outside world by the spectacular coastal road which runs down via Bukha to the UAE border at Tibat. Khasab offers the perfect base for boat (or diving) trips out on the marvellous Khor ash Sham or, further afield, to the remote town of Kumzar, as well as for mountain safaris up the mighty Jebel Harimand beyond.
Almost every village in the mountains of Musandam is home to at least one bait al qufl (“house of the lock”), a distinctive type of local building – looking more like an antique bomb-shelter than a traditional house – which is unique to the peninsula. The bait al qufl developed in response to the migratory lifestyle of the local Shehi, who would leave their mountain homes during the summer months to go and work on the coast. Valuable possessions which they could not carry with them were left behind in the village, locked up in these miniature vaults. Although designed primarily for storage, bait al qufl were also used as living quarters, particularly in the depths of winter.
The bait al qufl was designed with the emphasis firmly on strength and security. Walls often reach thicknesses of 1m or more, fashioned out of enormous slabs of stone; the thickness of the walls had the additional benefit of keeping the interior cool in summer and warm in winter, as well as protecting its contents (and anyone inside) from the ever-present threat of rockfalls. Bait al qufl are usually around 6–7m high, although they look smaller from the outside since the floor is dug out 1m or so below ground level for additional strength and security; the buildings are also often surrounded with a raised platform to help drain rainwater and provide something to sit on. Huge earthenware jars were placed inside to store provisions such as water, dates and grains – the jars were often bigger than the actual door to prevent them being carried off, and had to be put in place before the walls were built up around them. Access is usually via a single tiny door, formerly secured with one or two chunky wooden padlocks, although most are now left open.
The coastal road (Highway 2) between the UAE border at Tibat and Khasab is still the only reliable land connection between Musandam and the outside world (at least if you discount the very rough road over the mountains from Khasab to Dibba). The 35km highway (around a 45min drive) is one of the most dramatic in the country, a fine feat of modern engineering with jaw-dropping sea views. If you fancy stopping for a picnic there are numerous little patches of beach with palm thatch sunshades dotted along the road – the best is just before the village of Al Jadi, about 3km north of Bukha.
Although the khors are the principal attraction of Musandam, the peninsula’s mountainous interior runs them a close second. Here you’ll find some of the wildest and most spectacular landscapes in Oman, comprising a string of great limestone peaks and massifs known by locals as the Ru’us al Jebel, or “Peaks of the Mountains”. These are usually explored from Khasab on either a half-day or full-day mountain safari with a local driver aboard a 4WD (for details on operators). Half-day safaris usually take in Wadi Khasab, Khor an Najd, Khalidiya, A’Saye and Jebel Harim. Full-day trips continue beyond Jebel Harim as far as the Rawdah Bowl. It’s worth doing the full-day safari if possible – the Rawdah Bowl itself isn’t especially memorable, but the mountain scenery beyond Jebel Harim and the ridgetop drive above Wadi Rawdah are simply magnificent.
There’s nowhere to stay up in the mountains, although camping is possible in a number of places, including the beach at Khor an Najd, among the acacia trees at Khalidiya or in the remote Rawdah Bowl.
From here, it’s another 20 minutes or so to the highest point of the road, below the summit of Jebel Harim, literally “Mountain of Women” and at 2087m the highest peak in Musandam. The mountain takes its name from the days when local women would retreat to caves up here in order to avoid being carried off by pirates or rival tribes while their menfolk were away on extended fishing or trading expeditions. The actual summit is home to a radar station monitoring shipping way below in the Straits of Hormuz and is out of bounds, although there are superb all-round views from the road, with breathtaking views back to Khasab and onwards towards Dibba. Many of the rocks up here are also studded with superbly preserved fossils, offering the remarkable sight of ancient submarine creatures – molluscs, fish, clams and numerous trilobites – now incongruously stranded near the summit of one of Arabia’s highest mountains.
The highest point of road (at around 1600m) sweeps through a large rock cutting next to an air-traffic control radar installation. Just below here, a track leads off to a fine collection of petroglyphs carved into mountaintop boulders: rudimentary but evocative weathered images chipped out of the stone, including matchstick human figures alongside animals such as gazelle, oryx, Arabian leopards and even what is thought to be a man on an elephant. Further fossils can be seen in the surrounding rocks.
Past the summit, there are sensational views of the road ahead, as it runs along a narrow ridge before descending towards the Rawdah Bowl, plus stomach-churning views into the deep gorge below. En route you’ll pass a remarkable fossil wall, formed out of what was originally a chunk of sea bed rock and covered in a dense layer of fossilized impressions among which the outlines of crabs, starfish and shells can clearly be made out.
Musandam boasts an unusually rich collection of petroglyphs (from the Greek petros, meaning stone, and glyphe, meaning carving): simple rock art images which have been chipped out of boulders, cave walls or other convenient pieces of stone using sharp bronze, iron or stone tools and highlighted using a white pigment made from coral. Ancient petrogylphs can be found throughout the peninsula, often in the remotest places, and depict a wide range of subjects including people, animals (particularly horses and camels), as well as abstract symbols and geometrical patterns whose meaning has been lost. Dating the images is difficult, although the fact that most of them depict human or animal figures suggests that they may well pre-date the arrival of Islam (which prohibits the making of images of living creatures). Of Musandam’s many petroglyphs, the most easily accessible are those at the top of Jebel Harim and those in Wadi Tiwi.
Musandam is inhabited by three main tribes; the Dahoori, Kumzari and, by far the largest of the three, the Shehi (often anglicized to “Shihuh”). The Shehi formerly had a rather mysterious and fearsome reputation, said to speak a language unintelligible to anyone but themselves and living a reclusive life up in the mountains, ekeing a frugal and difficult existence out of one of Arabia’s most inhospitable environments. Notably different from the Bedu and townspeople of the plains, many of the Shehi formerly lived in mountain caves or natural rock shelters, which were converted into simple little dwellings with the addition of a couple of stone walls and wooden doors. They also carried a small axe on a long handle (known as a jirz), rather than the khanjar found elsewhere in Oman, which could serve both as a weapon and a climbing stick. The Shehi remain the dominant clan in modern Khasab – you’ll see the name Al Shehi on shop signs all around town, especially in the Old Souk – although many have now moved out to exploit the greater economic opportunities in neighbouring Ras al Khaimah (RAK), and RAK-registered cars are a common sight around town.
The origins of the Shehi remain unclear. One theory is that they were the original inhabitants of Oman who were gradually driven north into the mountains by waves of Yemeni and Nizari Arabs arriving from the south. Another, more colourful, tradition claims that they are descended from the survivors of shipwrecks marooned on Musandam’s rocks over thousands of years – anecdotes record the occasional birth of Shehi children with fair hair and blue eyes. Their language, too, had a similarly cosmopolitan flavour, although, unlike Kumzari, it remains a dialect of Arabic, rather than an original language. As Ronald Codrai, writing of a visit to the peninsula in the 1950s in his entertaining Travels to Oman: 1948–1955, put it: “That they spoke a different dialect was soon obvious, but it was Arabic, although sometimes spoken more gutturally through closed teeth and, once or twice, I thought I detected a Somerset accent.”
The Shehi (along with other Musandam tribes) formerly migrated on a seasonal basis, spending the winters farming in the mountains or fishing in the khors before heading down to Khasab to harvest dates during the summer. Not surprisingly, given Oman’s rising prosperity, the Shehi and other tribes of Musandam, the younger generations particularly, are steadily abandoning the hard traditional life of their ancestors, meaning that many of Musandam’s villages are being steadily depopulated as their inhabitants depart in search of a more comfortable existence in Khasab or elsewhere, leaving nothing behind but locked houses and wandering goats.