Thursday, June 14: After we check in to the Khasab Hotel, we take a drive to get our first glimpse of what Musandam has to offer. Tom has been here before, so he knows the sights to see.
We first follow the paved road from the southern end of Khasab down through the broad Wadi Khasab. Khasab, in Arabic, means “fertility,” and the rich soil that washes down from the mountains here contributes to the area’s agricultural prosperity. Apparently, the wadi has also been the source of destructive flash floods; a dam built in 1986 now protects the town.
Past the exit toward Dibba, a far-flung border post back into the UAE, we enter an area known as Sal al Asfal (“Lower Plain”), a flat plain that was formerly sea bed. Here, we head off on a dirt road to the left past a military firing range toward Khor an Najd. Tom says he’s heard it called Hidden Cove. We make a steep climb in Tom’s 4WD to the crest of the ridge, from where we can see the khor far below and the road, full of switchbacks, leading to a small piece of ugly beach, lined with fishing boats and dotted with rubbish.
The views from the top are amazing. However, when we wind our way down the precipitous hairpin turns on the dirt road to the beach, we are disgusted by the smell and the sight of litter. It is really a shame that this beach is not kept clean as it is the only beach accessible by car in the fjords.
After our little journey, we drive further into the depths of Sal al Asfal, where we come across an acacia “forest,” reminding me of an African savannah in the middle of Arabia. Though we don’t see any goats this evening, apparently goats roam here and feast on the acacia leaves, leaving the lower branches on the trees stripped bare to a certain height. It’s a lovely and shady area, in the shadow of the mountains. At this point, Tom breaks out a couple of beers for us to enjoy… 🙂
After this Tom wants to drive up into the mountains leading to Jebel Harim. It is getting late in the day, but he’s hoping to reach the high point, where there is an amazing view, right at sunset. We drive up a well-maintained and graded dirt road, climbing and climbing until we can see increasingly panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. According to The Rough Guide to Oman, “most of these are an enormous mass of stratified, greyish limestone, interrupted in places by pockmarked extrusions of gloopy-looking substance, like a kind of geological cheese fondue. The porous rock is riddled with caves, many of which were formerly occupied by the reclusive Shehi.”
According to The Rough Guide, the Shehi are the largest of three main tribes in Musandam. They formerly had a “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.”
No one is certain where the Shehi originated, but there are several theories. One is that they were original inhabitants of Oman gradually driven north by Yemenis and Nizari Arabs arriving from the south. Another interesting tradition has it that they are the descendents of survivors of shipwrecks marooned on the coast of Musandam over the years. The Shehi remain the dominant clan in contemporary Khasab.
We pass through the village of A’Rahaybah, where we see patches of dried-up agricultural terracing. Falling water tables are apparently to blame for the current aridity. We see a series of interesting rock formations, one that is referred to as the “Titanic,” on top of the ridge. It looks like a giant steamship with a couple of funnels.
About 45 minutes after the turn-off from Wadi Khasab, we reach another village called A’Saye, nestled on a neat plateau set in a bowl int he mountains at 1105 meters. The bowl is a natural collection point for rainwater and fertile salt washed off the mountains. Five hundred and some villagers here grow dates, figs, vegetables, and wheat in a patchwork of square fields. At this time of year, in the heat of summer, all the fields have apparently been harvested, as they all look simply like patches of dirt.
After this village, we drive further up until we can see the highest point of the road at Jebel Harim. However, it is now starting to get dark, and we’re getting hungry. We have quite a drive to get back to the town of Khasab. We drive back down the mountainous road in the dark, which makes me a little nervous as the road is curvy and steep.
Back in Khasab, we head to a restaurant recommended by The Rough Guide to Oman: Al Shamaliah in the New Souk. I enjoy my favorite fresh mango juice and a very spicy vegetarian Indian dish, while Tom enjoys a “small” mixed grill, which looks quite huge to me, along with a lemon mint drink to which he adds some whiskey to make a mint julep… 🙂
Here we are in Musandam, with a dhow cruise in the cards for us tomorrow morning!