Updated: November 2020
Jutting out into the ocean and separating the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman, the Musandam Peninsula is relatively unknown to anyone outside of the region despite its global significance. The narrow, rugged, and mountainous strip of land that is The Musandam creates the bottleneck through which a huge percentage of the world’s oil passes through, the Straits of Hormuz.
This little exclave of Oman, split from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates, hosts the northern reaches of the Hajar Mountain range; 700 kilometres (430 miles) of desolate, windswept, and sandy peaks. The main city, and indeed the only main settlement besides tiny fishing villages, is called Khasab, the name alone conjuring images of an Arabia past.
During our time living in the UAE, we grabbed our passports, and headed to the border crossing on the Persian Gulf side in order to drive the winding coastal road up to Khasab. The Gulf of Oman (eastern) side of the peninsula is, for the most part, impassable by road once beyond just a few kilometres north of Dibba-al-Hisn. The steep cliffs, fjords, and mountainsides allowing no development other than fishing outposts, accessible only by boat.
I am currently reading a fantastic book by Frank Herbert, a 1960s epic by the name of Dune. Set on a hostile, desert planet named Arrakis, the book sets the stage for a blend of adventure, mysticism and politics with an unforgiving, arid landscape as a backdrop.
Reading about the Fremen people, the nomadic desert folk of this fictional planet, reminds me of my own time in the desert. Especially a fantastic road trip we did up to the famous town of Khasab, Oman. A 17th-century port initially built by the Portuguese and which has a colourful past of piracy and passion.
The drive itself has to rate as one of the best road trips of my life thus far. The road literally winds its way only metres from the water’s edge on one side, and sheer-sided cliffs on the other, rising to a few thousand feet above our heads. Indeed, road users are always at risk from rockfall and landslides. When travelling this road, one often has to scoot around fallen rocks and debris on the tarmac.
As you head towards Khasab, you encounter several small towns, a particular highlight of mine being the town of Bukha. A small, unpretentious Arabian settlement of low, flat-roofed dwellings with wide streets and dusty sidewalks. We stopped the car to allow a goat herder cross the road and he gives the reserved nod in thanks that is typical of the conservative local people. We drove up a small hill behind the town and I managed to get a great photo of the town basked in the hazy, late afternoon light.
As we continued the drive, we were pulled over by officious looking soldiers in combat fatigues, one of whom was standing on the rear tray of a Humvee with a .50 calibre heavy machine gun mounted up top. However, in true Omani style, these guys were polite and smiling and simply wanted to check our papers. We later learned that a lot of contraband travels up and down this coastal road, either cigarettes and electronics bound for Iran, or coming the opposite way, livestock headed for curries in Arabia.
The heavy reliance of the sea for the local people of this region is apparent as you meander northwards. Artisanal fishing boats line the road, as well as fishing nets and lobster pots basking in the hot sun. These can often be smelled before seen!
We rounded a corner and encountered a more substantial, steel fishing trawler resting on its keel in a small bay, appearing worn but not abandoned. Although I didn’t personally notice a significant tidal variation in the area, perhaps it is substantial enough for larger vessels to rest on the seabed during low tide.
As you begin to near Khasab, the road climbs away from the sea into the mountains crossing a major pass before dropping down the other side into the city itself. The views from the pass are amazing, and the whirlwind rollercoaster descent ends in the relative sleepy calm of the city.
A highlight is Fort/Castle Khasab, which is definitely worth a visit, plus the attached museum which has enough diversions for an hour or so. Highlights include a couple of mock-up traditional local dwellings complete with furniture etc. The fort itself has a tower you can climb up onto the roof which grants you a great view over the city, the surrounding date farms, and the majestic mountains whose outlines can be barely made out through the haze.
Before leaving town, we headed out the dockyard area where the traders of illegal commodities wait and socialise until nightfall. At that time, they will make the perilous trip across Hormuz where they will face high seas, strong currents and the Iranian coastguard. The area is dotted with the small vessels they use, and the dock is stacked high with flat-screen TVs and thousands of cartons of cigarettes.
A simple day trip, you cannot miss the drive up to Khasab, if nothing else for the natural beauty, and the knowledge that you are off the beaten path, just a few hours from Dubai!
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