It isn’t every day that you get to witness a unique natural phenomenon. I could have sworn that these were the fjords of Norway—which are crystalline inlets created by glaciers, and surrounded by meadowy cliffs—if I didn’t know any better. The rocky ravines or khors of Oman’s Musandam Governorate are, instead, brownish limestone mountains that are partly underwater, fringed by a coastline sculpted by the movement of the earth’s crust. I stood at the pristine Khor al Najd, where the knowledge of this geological process helped me appreciate the place better, even as it fed my imagination of ages past.
This had been a fruitful stop, but the 4x4 parked nearby honked and revved its engine, announcing that it was time to go. The journey was to conclude at Jebel Harim, the region’s highest peak at 2087m, which is usually sprinkled with snow during the winter. In April, however, it looked much like the rest of the hill-scape—arid and jagged, naked barring an occasional acacia tree or shrub, strewn with stones but dramatised by interesting rock faces—albeit windier. Yet, you only have to scratch the surface of the dead Musandam moonscape to realise that it is, in fact, anything but that. A few hundred metres below Jebel Harim, my guide poured water on some of the boulders to expose the fossilised remains of fish, molluscs and crustaceans of all shapes and sizes. Here, I sat and listened to stories told by rocks, of an underwater wonderland brimming with marine life from tens of millions of years ago.
Lush wadis best-friended on Sundays by expats from the Indian subcontinent; aflaj, an ancient system of irrigation that uses water from the mountains; traditional fishing villages, many of them boasting their own formidable dhows; scattered islands dotted with turquoise pools; pearly beaches, ashen-faced but sun-tastic; and, of course, the magical khors—clearly, Musandam is no regular Middle Eastern region. You must drive nearly a hundred kilometers across the northern UAE to arrive at this enclave separated from the main Omani peninsula. If you drive further still, till its northernmost reaches, you reach the all-important Strait of Hormuz—the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, connecting the world and its petroleum needs to the Middle East.
Musandam’s capital city, Khasab, has a distinct small town vibe with—you wouldn’t believe it for this part of the world—no skyscraper hindering its skyline. The governorate and its people have still not (well, majorly) traded nobler, age-old occupations such as pottery, fishing, pearl diving, date plantations and artisanal arts and crafts for oil wells. For instance, the coastal hamlet of Lima is known for its unique pottery style where potters turn the wheel by hand. In fact, the mabkhara (incense burners) they create make for a terrific souvenir of choice.
Also, if you think the hospitality horses haven’t yet taken notice of the region’s touristic potential, you are mistaken. Omran Hospitality Group’s two properties, Atana Khasab and Atana Musandam (where I stayed), offer unparalleled luxury. There are many tour operators who operate ‘dhow cruises’, creating a symphonic medley of history and present-day hospitality, out of the Port of Khasab.
It was aboard one such vessel, the next day, that I noticed how the same inlet I had admired from Khor al Najd, which had appeared a muted blue, was actually ultramarine. Closer to the islets—of which there were plenty—there were turquoise shallows, which enhanced prospects of shoals and even reefs. At Khasab Fort, a day later, I would be learning about the bigeye, the red spot emperor, and the many other colourful species that the Musandam fisherfolk prize, and a tourist such as me does too, but for friendlier reasons.
For now, however, I was aboard the lateen-rigged ship, and did not have to wait too long for my reward. Like the others tourist dhows, my vessel dropped its anchor at Seebi Island, fit for casual snorkelling. Of course, I was more than thrilled to put on the gear and waddle to the side of the boat, and plunge into the infinite blue.
At Seebi, the coral reef was alive and I succeeded in finding an entire school of Dory. As I swam across the polyps and seaweed, and fish of all sizes tickled my sides as they swam onward, I realised something: within seconds we had transitioned from a tough terrain with sparse existence to an underwater utopia teeming with life. Such is the duality of the khors. The cherry on the top came a bit later, when a pod of dolphins began to race our dhow, and all of us momentarily stopped lounging at the foredeck (made into a comfy sitting area) to cheer our opponent forward. It was a race we were glad to lose.
Later that evening as we sauntered through Khasab’s central square, and the stars came into prominence with the gradual disappearance of twilight, I noticed street lamps, tiled pathways and certain buildings that gave the urbanscape a slight European colonial vibe. This took me back to the morning visit to the Khasab Fort, initially a Portuguese building, just like the rest of the town—after all, it was the colonial power that had built the harbour town in the first place—but one thing really struck: aside from certain architecture, Musandam was as connected to its geoheritage as a place could be. Middle Eastern regions, as they benefit from oil and other riches, seem to proceed in one of two ways: either skywards like Dubai, or towards becoming a centre for Islam, like Sharjah. For Musandam, however, it is merely a glimpse inwards.
I am not supposed to make sweeping statements like this, but there may just be more to Oman than there is to most of its next-door neighbours. There is already so much to Muscat, which I have explored in a previous story (‘Ultimate Sultanate’, July ’18). A thousand-kilometre drive away lies Salalah, which witnesses the khareef monsoon that gives it a tropical lushness—and perennially births an oasis city. And then there’s the vast tract of land that lies in between the Omani countryside, scattered with gems such as Jabreen and Nizwa.
Nizwa may be ancient, but it is certainly not timeworn. Upon arriving at this erstwhile capital of Oman (in the 6th and 7th centuries) located in the northern region of Ad Dakhiliyah, it appeared to present a mosaic of palm groves and well-preserved historical structures. At the Nizwa Souk, one of the country’s oldest, where sandstone corridors and archways housed shops, I sifted through the vast Bahla work (another distinct form of Omani pottery) before opting to spend the dough on Omani halwa (apparently some of the best in the region). This would keep me energised for the visit to Jabreen Castle. But first, we circled a hill up to a point above the city, from where the 17th century Nizwa Fort, basking in the period’s Omani architecture, shone splendidly in the desert sun.
Half an hour later, I had reached one of Oman’s prettiest and most iconic attractions, Jabreen Castle, built in the 17th century by the Yaruba dynasty, who ruled Oman at that time. While thereby hang tales for most of the rooms here, one stood out in particular: the Sun and Moon Hall, where a latticed majlis was built keeping two things in mind—constant light and ventilation for the royal guests. 14 windows ensured there would always be light shining through, while a natural ventilation system meant the room was always airy. Interestingly, I found that Nasser Saleem Al Hattali, a municipal worker who hosted me at his house for a meal later that day, had designed his tiny similarly—but with one window on either side instead of 14. This way, while he may have been far from being blue-blooded, he ensured I was as close to being treated as a royal guest as possible. It really is a metaphor for all of Oman— the place goes out of its way to leave you in awe.
For Musandam, Oman Air (omanair. com), which operates one daily flight between Muscat and Khasab, is your best option. I also flew business class from Delhi to Muscat (the airline operates direct flights to Oman’s capital from most major Indian cities), and it was a brilliant experience: cups of Omani coffee with dates, a delicious lunch—I chose grilled kingfish fillet for the main course— and splendid hospitality by the in-flight crew.
As for the places I visited along the countryside, driving distances from Muscat: Nizwa (160kms/ 1.5hrs) and Jabreen (185kms/ 1.75hrs). I recommended hiring a vehicle (a 4WD SUV coasts through the lovely Omani highways unlike anything else). Visit evisa.rop.gov.om for an e-visa. A short-term 10-day tourist visa costs approx. `900.
WHERE TO STAY
- KHASAB: Atana Musandam (May tariff from approx. `9,600, atanahotels.com) is spread across eight buildings with 110 rooms, I stayed in a spacious Superior King Rwoom with a balcony that overlooked a waterway. Their other property, the four-star Atana Khasab (May tariff from approx. `8,000), boasts a coastline view.
- DESERT EXPERIENCE: Sharqiya Sands, approx. 240kms south of Muscat, is a region known for its splendid dunes and the Thousand Nights Sharqiya Sands Camp (May tariff from approx. `13,200; thousandnightsoman.com) here boasts adequate luxury in tented or villa stays, two restaurants and plenty to do such as camel rides, quad biking, dune bashing, etc.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- The Bedouin village of Sayh in Musandam gives a glimpse of how nomadic Arabs survived in a tough terrain.
- Wadi Tawi, near Khasab, has petroglyphs that showcase camels, sheep and other fascinating depictions made by early settlers.
- Wadi Bani Khalid (203kms from Muscat), a desert oasis, has plenty for a water-baby to do.
- Birkhat Khalidiya Park (Musandam) has unique avifauna, many acacia trees and interesting old stone houses.
- A visit to the 12th to 15th century Bahla Fort, Oman’s only Unesco-listed fort, is a must.