Friday, June 15: We head out at 9:00 this morning on a dhow cruise through Khor As Sham, a sheltered 17km long fjord. The traditional dhow has been used in trading in Oman for centuries; historically it has weathered storms to reach ports in Iran, India, South-East Asia and further down the African coast in Zanzibar.
The cruise is organized through Dolphin Tourism and Travel, and upon boarding, we find a beautiful wooden boat with carpets and cushions inviting us to lounge and enjoy. The crew loads up the boat with apples, bananas, soft drinks and water for our 3 hour cruise through Khor Ash Sham, where we will have the chance to see small villages, snorkel and swim, and see dolphins.
It’s hot. And that is an understatement. It’s only a little after 9:00 when we board and already it’s sweltering. There isn’t a huge crowd on board, because honestly, this isn’t the time of year most people come north to Musandam. Most people in Oman, during the hot summer months, head south to Salalah, where the khareef brings the sweet relief of rain, clouds and cool weather.
However, we have been granted a holiday for the Prophet’s Ascension, and we can never pass up the chance to travel on a holiday. Even if it’s to a sauna-like climate. It’s already bad enough being cooped up in our air-conditioned houses during the summer months, bringing on delirious bouts of cabin fever. Sometimes, we must simply escape.
Thankfully, we don’t linger too long at the dock, because standstill temperatures are unbearable. Once the boat gets moving, we at least have a hot breeze. I figure moving air is better than still air, any day. We sail out into what is commonly known as “The Norway of Arabia,” a “magical combination of mountain and maritime landscapes.” (The Rough Guide to Oman)
The water is clear and calm and the red-rock Hajar mountains drop dramatically into the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, which reflect them back to travelers. These precipitous mountains create a maze-like system of steep-sided fjords (khors), cliffs and islands, most of them inaccessible except by boat.
The peninsula’s landscape, like the rest of Oman’s, is the result of crazy geological processes: “the khors themselves are actually flooded valleys, formed as a result of Musandam’s progressive subduction beneath the Eurasian continental plate, which is causing the entire peninsula to tilt down into the sea at the dramatic rate of 5mm a year.” (The Rough Guide to Oman)
On our cruise, we pass interesting bare and craggy rocks, with inlets that house small villages of just around 10 families each. Each little fishing village is accessible only by boat. All water must be shipped in by boat and children are taken to school by boat to Khasab. Many of the younger generation, bored by life in these secluded villages, opt to escape to more populated areas; those fishermen who remain behind only stay in their villages for 6 months of the year. They move to Khasab for the harvest when the water becomes too hot for fish.
The first village we pass by is Nadifi, with around 100 inhabitants, mainly fishermen. With no land access, most villagers own speed boats.
Qanaha is a small fishing village where the stone houses blend into the cliffs, made from local stone. In the old days, this was the first line of defense, not to be seen.
Maqlab is a mountain village where the people earn their living by goat herding and fishing. This small village is made up of only 10 houses.
Telegraph Island (Jazirat al Maqlab) is the most famous landmark in the area. Here the British government laid the first telegraph cable in 1864; it ran from Bombay, India to Basra, Iraq and onwards to London. This island was manned for only about 10 years.
Here we stop to snorkel and swim. I am the only woman who gets in the water here. I think it’s a no-brainer to get in the water as the alternative is to sit and swelter for an hour while the boat is anchored. We explore a small coral reef where we can see schools of blue & yellow striped fish and prickly sea urchins on the rocks. Apparently some of the marine life also includes butterfly fish groupers, barnacles, and coral growths.
All the islands and villages have no road connection and shops, schools, and hospital are only accessible by boat. The children travel by boat to school and stay over in Khasab from Saturday to Wednesday morning. In all villages you can see water tanks. The Oman government provides fresh water free of charge on a regular basis.
After swimming and snorkeling for nearly an hour, we climb back into the boat and head back to Khasab. On the way, we encounter numerous dolphins who swim along beside the boats. Dolphins are apparently attracted by the sounds of the boats’ engines and the water churned up in their wake. We enjoy hanging out over the boat and watching them as they playfully dip in and out of the water. It seems effortless for them to keep up with the dhow.
It’s a lovely morning exploring the “fjords of Arabia.”