On the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, a pointed tip extends like the horn of a rhino. And on this tip, surrounded by the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz and with a view of Iran on a clear day, is a tiny enclave of Oman – the Musandam Peninsula. It is here that one can experience the fjords of Arabia.
Our first view of the fjords was while driving along the coastal road to Khasab, the regional capital. The road cut through the land right where the ede of the mountains crashed into the blue water, affording me a close-up view from below. We wove around the peninsula of rock, waves crashing on our left, spotting tiny fishing villages tucked into the khors (inlets) each time we rounded a bend.
The Musandam Peninsula is tiny, so we arrived to Khasab far too quickly. The capital is little more than a quaint fishing town whose longstanding geographic isolation has only recently given way to sparkling mosques and smooth tar roads. The brand-new Lulu Hypermarket standing proudly at the opening of the bay seemed incongruous with the wooden dhows bobbing in the water and the small Portuguese Fort nestled between walls of rock.
Those walls of rock were beckoning us. The road from Khasab veers inland and up to Jebel Harim, the Mountain of Women. We followed as the tar road gave way to gravel, winding steeply up the rock. We looked carefully as we passed the rugged scenery – not only because the view over the wadis (canyons) was vast and stunning, but because the guide book had told us that little rock shelters had long ago been built into the face of the mountain. Camouflage was the first defense of the locals living here.
In fact, the residents of Musandam had long done a seasonal dance between the coast and the mountaintops. When the coastal huts, elevated and loosely woven with straw to catch the precious breeze of summer, instead brought in a humid chill, the locals would move up the mountain to grow crops. They would return to their bait al qulf, or houses of locks, and to their stored food supply. The houses had been built low, dug a meter under the ground, and food in massive earthenware jars had been placed inside the home before building the outer walls and doors. The jugs were bigger than the doors, ensuring no thief would steal their food whilst they were catching fish at the coast.
Bruno and I camped near the mountain’s summit, with a view of Sayh Plateau and its parcels of crops below. The mounting March heat of the Arabian Peninsula had become uncomfortable, so the cool mountaintop evenings were refreshing. We stayed longer to explore. We saw fossils of shell petrified into rocks at 1500m high (more impressive, actually, than the fossils we’d seen at Fossil Rock). We drove down into Wadi Bih. We visited pre-Islamic graveyards. And we drove back up when the heat became too much. The striated rock came to life as we drove past, telling us its ancient story of creation.
On our way up the mountain, we had taken a detail to Khor al Nadj, the only khor accessible by car. I had been mesmerized by the fjords jutting down into the water, the rugged coastline, the islands of rock. No matter how beautiful the mountain road, plateau, and wadis were, the view of Khor al Nadj beat it all. I knew there were several remote khor villages on the peninsula, and that the only way to see them was by boat.
And so, we drove back down to Khasab and organized a dhow excursion, the most famous tourist activity on the peninsula. We joined several Arab families on a massive wooden dhow, with a beautiful carpet and cushions laid out for us to laze about on for the day. We motored out to the open sea and wove through the majestic fjords of Arabia. We passed several remote villages – some with whitewashed homes, others of the camouflaged rock variety – with no road access. Children from these villages are ferried to Khasab every week to attend boarding school, and brought home by boat for the weekend.
We reached Telegraph Island, the most famous landmark in all of Musandam. The Strait of Hormuz has always been a strategic location, not least during the 19th century when the Brits set up a telegraph station here. At the time, India was an important colony and telegraphs passed there from London via this miniscule heap of rock. Musandam itself was already a remote-enough location for the British soldiers stationed here, but none had it worse than those few posted to Telegraph Island. Indeed, this island gave a very birth to the expression “going round the bend,” – and I don’t think they’re referring to the bends one must travel around the fjords to reach the island!
Bruno and I snorkelled around Telegraph Island (which only took thirty minutes, that’s how small it is) and then visited its few ruins. The buffet lunch arrived and we all tucked into hummus and salad, curry and rice. It was a perfect day – almost. The children of most of the Arab families aboard had decided that their favourite game that day would be to throw as much garbage as possible into the water. No amount of sneers and scoffs from me persuaded the parents to reign in their children. The poor dolphins.
Yes, there were dolphins. It was the highlight of the boat trip – indeed, the highlight of our entire time in Musandam. Bottlenose dolphins ply the waters between the khors, and tourists aboard the dhows are almost guaranteed a sighting! In the morning, we had watched two dolphins swim beside us, playing and jumping and racing in the wake of our boat. On the way back to shore, we caught a group of no less than fifteen dolphins fishing together in a calm bay.
We’d seen the fjords of Arabia from below, sandwiched tightly between sea and rock on the coastal road. We’d seen the fjords of Arabia from above, from atop the Mountain of Women. But to see the fjords by boat, with dolphins playing and swimming and fishing in the foreground is surely to experience the fjords of Arabia as they are meant to be experienced.