Into the wild Musandam offers a remote escape from the city's mad rush and breathtaking scenery.
Going round the bend
By the time you arrive at the Tibat border crossing, the landscape has changed completely. Gone are the traffic jams of Sharjah, the cement factories, gas plants and Pizza Huts of Ras al Khaimah and the industrial zones of Umm al Quwain; before you is just one road, the mountains and the sea. For about 25km the road hugs the dramatic coastline, curving around bays, wadis and villages, sweeping over headlands and down, 45 minutes later, into Khasab, the sleepy capital of Oman's Musandam province.
It's here that the road ends: beyond Khasab, most of the entire northern peninsula is accessible only by boat. For most it's a day trip out into the surrounding khors, or fjords. We have chosen a two-day excursion with overnight camping on a remote beach and a visit to the isolated village of Kumzar at the very tip of the peninsula in the Straits of Hormuz; it's almost within touching distance of Iran. Six of us board our broad, single-decked dhow, and, stretching out on cushions at the back of the boat, set off with Ahmed, our guide, and two local crew members.
As soon as we leave Khasab, itself a small place with a population of about 20,000, the starkness of our surroundings becomes clear. Formed by the collision of the Arabian and Eurasian plates, from the open sea, the barren limestone mountains look impregnable. Rising steeply straight out of the water, with hardly a bush or green shoot to be seen, their rocky emptiness, extending up to 2,000m inland, would seem to support nothing and nobody.
Yet as we enter Khor Sham, a spectacular, 16km-long fjord, Ahmed points out three villages - Nadifi, Qanaha and Maqlab - blending, at first sight, almost imperceptibly into the rock behind. The first is apparently the largest, with 150 inhabitants; most of the villagers are fishermen. Their children, Ahmed tells us, travel by boat to school in Khasab every Saturday and return to Nadifi on Wednesday to spend the weekends with their family. Water is shipped to the village free of charge by the Omani government; with population numbers declining, it does what it can to halt Musandam's depopulation.
As we pass the villages, two sets of dolphins surround our boat. Encouraged by Ahmed, who claps loudly, they swim alongside us for 20 minutes, criss-crossing under the bow and appearing suddenly on the other side. We stop at Telegraph Island - Jazirat al Maqlab in Arabic - a tiny outcrop in the middle of the fjord. In 1864, the British built a telegraph station on it after laying an underwater cable all the way from India to Basra in Iraq. It is apparently where the term "round the bend" originates: British officers stationed on the island in the searing heat of summer were driven mad by the desire to return to civilisation, just around the bend. Today only the ruins of the buildings remain, but its surrounding corals make it a popular snorkelling site.
We stop next to Seebi Island at the back of the fjord. I jump off the boat and snorkel along an inlet. Though there are few corals, I see large grouper and menacing-looking barracuda. Then, as I turn a corner, a small reef shark torpedoes past me; round another corner, I see another one. Back on the boat, lunch is served: rice, chappati, sambar and - appropriately - barbecued barracuda. We leave Khor Sham just as the sun begins to dip, filtering through a layer of fine mist and giving the air an ethereal blue tint. Dolphins escort our boat past the fourth waterside village, Sham, then disappear. We round a corner and, back out in the open sea, see shoal after shoal of jumping fish.
Our dhow anchors just off an idyllic cove, where our tents have already been set up on an empty beach. A small speedboat arrives, ferries us to shore and then disappears. Hours later it returns with our dinner, by which time it is dark and two of our group have been bitten by giant red wasps. Yet we delight in the darkness and silence. Just as we are about to go to bed however, the others arrive. At about 11pm a boatload of some 30 revellers from Dubai pulls up and drops anchor. "No!" we think, "they can't come here." They do. Excited whoops accompany their unfortunate presence. I hear snatches of Italian, Spanish, British and American English and Dutch as some jump off the boat and swim to shore and others are taken to the other end of the beach in a dingy.
With no tents, but a sound system and barbecue, and a formidable collection of flame-torches, it is clear they have not come here to rest. "It's like the set of Survivor down there," one of our group reports. "Maybe we should join in," I venture, but no one wants to. So with the thud, thud, thud of techno music continuing through the night, we lie in our tents and sweat it out. Sunrise brings peace at last. The revellers, already getting sunburnt, are ferried to their boat where they collapse on deck; we enjoy a sober morning dip and have the beach almost to ourselves again. By 9am it is scorching, so we return to our boat and continue around the tip of Arabia.
Arriving in Kumzar, Oman's most northerly settlement, is extraordinary. A substantial village of more than 2,000 people, it, too, is only accessible by boat. Our dhow docks at the man-made harbour, while a small speedboat takes us to land in a natural tidal inlet next to the beach. It's what constitutes the town centre: hundreds of boys play in the sea and turtles swim around the boat, while on the shore, a large arish serves as a general waiting area.
As he takes us through the village, Ahmed explains that thanks to its proximity to Iran and the settlement of 16th-century Portuguese sailors, the place has its own language, Kumzari, a mix of Farsi, Arabic and Portuguese. There are no hotels or guesthouses, only two restaurants, three tiny shops and two mosques, plus a school and small medical centre. As we walk towards the back of the village, goats perch on the sides of stone and mud-built houses, and women stare and smile. We visit a long-exhausted well in a wadi; by the time we return it is lunchtime and the women who stared and smiled are now busily baking fish in circular stone ovens in front of their houses. Boys have had their classes at the school in the morning; now the girls are on their way.
We have one last snorkelling stop on the way back to Khasab. Making our way through some harmless jellyfish, we arrive at a massive coral garden. Giant healthy corals lie before us with visibility up to 20m. The area teems with barracuda, grouper, emperors, jacks, snapper, fusiliers, octopus, beautiful blue and yellow Indian Ocean angelfish, yellow-orange Arabian butterfly fish and big, meaty parrotfish. After watching a shoal feast noisily on the coral, we eat lunch, then go round the bend.