GUARDIAN A dramatic combination of sea and mountains is usually the setting for rugged adventure, a signal for bursts of aerobic activity. But there are some places that demand you slow down. Even though the terrain is apparently calling out for crampons and scuba gear, sometimes it’s better to put your feet up and learn to drift.
My idle gene was delighted to discover that the Musandam peninsula is one such place. It took little time for me to fall into the unhurried local rhythm on this remote rocky outcrop jutting into the Strait of Hormuz, which divides the Gulf of Oman from the Persian Gulf. Maybe the fact that this dislocated finger of Omani territory is marooned by water on one side and a 70km stretch of UAE territory on the other has something to do with its other-worldly quality.
The options for getting to this backwater are limited. Driving from Oman involves crossing borders and buying a series of new visas at each of them – with the attendant bureaucracy that inevitably brings. A ferry from Muscat – my preferred choice – promised to be a fine and slothful way of arriving, except it conked out on my visit. Fortunately I got a flight, the last option. A word of advice: bag a window on the right-hand side of the plane – any of the D seats. The views of the mountains and fjords as you come into land are astonishing.
Musandam’s jagged, arid topography is thrillingly inhospitable; only a God with a headache could create this marvellously violent and savage scenery. Superficially the landscape seems devoid of life and it’s difficult to imagine why it was ever inhabited. Although top heavy in the photogenic-rugged-good-looks department it has little going by way of natural resources.
I quickly came to appreciate that inaccessibility is one of the keys to understanding this place. Roads weren’t built until 10 years ago, so moving around was traditionally either by dhow or on foot over perilous passes. The ocean is still a vital means of transport; boats regularly ply between Khasab – Musandam’s tiny capital – and the surrounding villages. What better mode for a little sightseeing?
A small dhow furnished with colourful oriental rugs and cushions took me and a dozen fellow tourists to an adjacent fjord called Khor Ash Sham; our journey was besieged by show-offy dolphins that easily outran the boat. As we entered the fjord vast walls of concrete coloured rock stretched thousands of feet above us and morphed into warmer, rosier shades depending on where the sun was. The effect was awesome.
This sense of overpowering nature was magnified tenfold when we docked at Telegraph Island. I swam off by myself on still, warm waters for a couple of hundred yards and communed briefly and silently with a higher plane. Somehow the surrounding mountains demand silence.
But I dragged myself away from aquatic solitude and joined in the snorkelling – my nod to exercise. The dhow trip was perfect for a bumbling amateur Cousteau like me, an opportunity to bob around gazing at coral gardens and a kaleidoscope of coloured reef fish (serious divers are rewarded further afield).
Back on board it was easy to fall under the dhow’s spell of creaks and splashes and lazily doze as we sailed around the ragged inlets. We spotted a few villages clinging to stony beaches; but going ashore en masse is discouraged in an effort to stop them from becoming human zoos and preserve what’s left of the traditional way of life. Some superstitious locals still make the trip to Zanzibar (it was an Omani territory for centuries) to seek magical help from djinn.
My hotel, the Golden Tulip, was also still under a spell of sorts: a 70s time-warp of piped muzak so bad that it’s good. Likewise, its restaurant has invoked the spirit of that culinary infidel of the 1970s, Fanny Craddock, and used tinned tuna in the salad niçoise. It’s a crime because the ocean pops with fish. Earlier I’d visited a small market bursting with a marvellous array of fish, including fresh tuna.
The next day my guide drove me to the small village of Qadah. There has been a lot of new building in the neighbourhood as traditional houses are replaced by bigger, more comfortable properties. The dramatic layers of rock here appeared to be daubed with drying cow dung; strange because there aren’t any cows. I discovered the effect was a geological phenomenon – all the same it looked like scatological nougat to me.
On our way back we stopped at the harbour. Mid-morning and I was astonished to find it seething with Iranian smugglers. Enormous bundles of cigarettes, shoes, cloth and alcohol were being packed into testosterone-charged speedboats ready to sneak into Iran. I was told the smugglers had brought in goats from the other side to sell on, but I found it difficult to believe that livestock was the incoming contraband as there was no physical evidence. Either the goats had superb retentive skills or the smugglers operate strict self-regulatory standards of hygiene. Whatever, deals were done, the boats reloaded and – later in the day – sped back across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran.
“Everyone makes a good living from this,” said one man to me. Perhaps that’s why subsistence farmers were pulling down their old houses and erecting oriental Barrat homes.
The new souk has a surprisingly large number of restaurants – all of them much of a muchness and catering to smugglers and tourists alike. But no one comes to Musandam for the cuisine – this is a place for dreamers and idlers who have an eye for natural beauty. The pace of life is slow; I found it captivating.
And it was over my curried lunch that I happily frittered a couple of lazy hours in the charming company of an Iraqi who’s set up home here – before my afternoon date with the mountains.
Jebel Harim is Musandam’s highest peak at 2,087m. A twisting road, riddled with hairpins, affords stunning views for those not averse to heights. Unimaginable forces of nature have formed magnificent precipices and the winter rains, walls of lacy erosion that make the mountains look like termite nests. Boulders the size of double-deckers are seemingly suspended thousands of feet above the valley floor by little more than mud.
We drove as far as we could – the last 600m is a military zone that’s out of bounds. But no worries, the views were mesmerising and a huge rock covered with ancient pictograms, including a man on horseback was an evocative reminder of early settlers.
The mountain excursion was also something of a tease, even for a laggard like me. Walks can be arranged, but you need to avoid the summer heat, which will frazzle you in no time. You also need a first-class guide and the right kit; a wrong footing can easily send an avalanche – or you – into the valleys below. I made do with a late afternoon stroll along the shoreline instead and watched the sun set.
Later I heard the smuggler’s boats zipping back to Iran as I sat on my balcony doing nothing more strenuous than sipping the evening’s first G&T. Apart from the Iranian coast guard, smugglers have pirates to contend with. Surprisingly perhaps, they’re from landlocked Afghanistan. The image of bearded Afghani buccaneers, Kalashnikovs in hand, seared itself into my imagination.
The harbour became the focus of my trip and next morning I was back, scrabbling into a white skiff with a sunshade. The skipper, Malallah, greeted me with a welcoming shrug and winning smile. Musandam born and bred, he did a master class in being laid-back
We steered back into Khor Ash Sham and zoomed past Qanaha village. Malallah said the local population had collapsed in recent years – Qanaha has shrunk by 75% – as residents leave for Khasab and the everyday conveniences of a bigger town. (This is despite village life becoming less problematic with fresh water, education and electricity.) We dropped anchor at a place entirely deserted but for a few goats.
I jumped off the boat in the stony shallows and walked around what might have been the ruins of an Iron-age settlement – except this place has been empty for only 10 years, its former denizens alive and well and working a few miles away in Khasab. It was atmospheric and haunting with a wonderful silence that was broken by the buzz of a solitary fly, like a special sound effect in a spaghetti western.
On our way back I asked Malallah if he thought tourism has had a negative impact; he said no, it’s about right as it is. But I sense that much is changing on these rugged shores – modernisation will inevitably alter the pace of life and ancient traditions. Now’s the time to visit – before this extraordinary area catches up with the 21st century.