Oman – November 25 – December 4 2015
1. Accommodation is extremely expensive. There are no hostels and all accommodation is in hotels. The cheapest are about US$70/night (and there aren’t many of these places). Try to not book online if possible as the best deals are obtained by negotiating the price at the hotel.
2. Transportation. ONTC, the national bus line is quite cheap. Hiring private vehicles (for example around Nizwa) is very expensive. Renting a car would be cost effective in Nizwa (they say a 4WD is necessary to go to Jebel Shem and Green Mountain, but even a low-clearance car can get there easily) and in Sur to go see the turtles. A car also allows you to stop and see sights along the way.
Language. Arabic; English widely spoken
Official name. Sultanate of Oman
Population. 3.1 million
Money. Oman Rial – OR: .385 to the $US (November 2015). Pegged to he US dollar, the rial rarely fluctuates. Credit cards are common and used by almost every business.
Visas. Available on arrival for most Westerners. Cost 5 Rial for 10 days and 20 Rial for 30 days. I entered at Al Ain, UAE/Burami, Oman, a land crossing. We simply walked through with no stamp but stopped 15 minutes down the road at immigration. Payment is only by credit card.
In Muscat’s Grand Mosque, there is a beautiful hand-loomed carpet; it was once the world’s largest rug until Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque, pinched the record. This is poignant because Oman doesn’t boast many ‘firsts’ or ‘biggest’ in a region obsessed by vanity. What it does boast, with its rich heritage and embracing society, is a strong sense of identity, a pride in an ancient, frankincense-trading past and confidence in a highly educated future.
For visitors, this offers a rare chance to engage with the Arab world without the distorting lens of excessive wealth. Oman’s low-rise towns retain their traditional charms and Bedouin values remain at the heart of an Omani welcome. With an abundance of natural beauty, from spectacular mountains, wind-blown deserts and a pristine coastline, Oman is the obvious choice for those seeking out the modern face of Arabia while wanting still to sense its ancient soul.
The cooler and high winds of November to March signal the high season for tourism. This is an expensive country to visit with limited accommodation and transport options outside the capital. Budget accommodation, where it is available, averages US$50 for single occupancy but there are cheap options for eating (around US$5) and minimal entry fees to many of the main sites of interest; with a combination of public transport and taxi, a minimum daily cost comes to around US$100. This rises to US$230 if staying in midrange hotels with car hire and US$450 for a top-end hotel with 4WD hire.
We crossed into Oman at the Hili/Burami border crossing just north-east of Al Ain, UAE. After getting the UAE exit stamp and paying the 35 Dh exit fee (payable only by credit card), we simply walked into Oman with no stamp or customs check.
After a 10 Dh taxi to the bus stop in, we had 3 hours to kill to wait for the 5 hour bus ride to Muscat at 1pm (32 Dh).
Soon after leaving, we immediately entered a different landscape from the UAE with low rocky bare mountains flanking the flat plains of desert. About 15 minutes drive into Oman, the bus stopped at immigration for the visa on arrival for Oman (5 rials or 13 US$ for 10 days, 20 rials or 52US$ for 30 days). Then we drove 100m and all luggage was unloaded for a cursory visual inspection.
After an hour of mountains, we entered the flat coastal plain covered with date palms. Oman appears to be quite affluent with many US fast food restaurants and credit card a common method of payment. The coastal plain is wide and flat – the road never got close to the water or mountains to the west and seems to travel through one continuous city. Muscat is 50kms long and seems to never end.
MUSCAT (pop 1 million)
“Muscat is a port the like of which cannot be found in the whole world where there is business and good things that cannot be found elsewhere.” As the great Arab navigator Ahmed bin Majid al-Najdi recognized in 1490 AD, Muscat, even to this day, has a character quite different from neighboring capitals. There are few high-rise blocks, and even the most functional building is required to reflect tradition with a dome or an arabesque window. The result of these strict building policies is an attractive, spotlessly clean and whimsically uniform city – not much different in essence from the ‘very elegant town with very fine houses’ that the Portuguese Muscat means ‘safe anchorage’, and the sea continues to constitute a major part of the city: it brings people on cruise ships and goods in containers to the historic ports of Old Muscat and Mutrah. It contributes to the city’s economy through the onshore refinery near Qurm, and provides a livelihood for fishermen along the beaches of Shatti al-Qurm and Athaiba. More recently, it has also become a source of recreation at Al-Bustan and Bandar Jissah, and along the sandy beach that stretches almost without interruption from Muscat to the border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), over 200km to the northwest.
The opening of the Royal Opera House in 2011, with performances of acclaim from around the world, has helped place Muscat on an international stage and highlighted it as a forward-thinking, progressive city.
History. Muscat became the capital of Oman in 1793, and the focus of the country’s great seafaring empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. Having been party to the control of much of the coast of East Africa, its 20th-century descent into international oblivion, under Sultan Said bin Taimur, was all the more poignant. The tide is turning on history, however, and capital is once more at the center of life in Oman.
Perhaps the first documented reference to Muscat is by the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy who mentioned a ‘concealed harbour’, placing the sea at the center of Muscat’s identity where it remains today. In fact, surrounded on three sides by mountains, it remained all but inaccessible from the land for centuries, and the Arab tribes from Yemen who supposedly first settled the area almost certainly approached from the sea.
A small port in the 14th and 15th centuries, Muscat gained importance as a freshwater staging post, but it was eclipsed by the busier port of Sohar – something the people of Sohar’s Batinah region hope may well happen again. By the beginning of the 16th century, Muscat was a trading port in its own right, used by merchant ships bound for India. Inevitably it attracted the attention of the Portuguese, who conquered the town in 1507. The city walls were constructed at this time (a refurbished set remains in the same positions), but neither they nor the two Portuguese forts of Mirani and Jalali could prevent the Omani reconquest of the town in 1650 – an event that effectively ended the Portuguese era in the Gulf. Muscat became a backwater for much of the 20th century and the city gates remained resolutely locked and bolted against the encroachments of the outside world until 1970. Under the auspices of the current Sultan Qaboos, the city reawakened. To facilitate the growing number of cars needing access to the city, a hole was driven through the city walls. Goods and services flooded in and Muscat flooded out to occupy the surrounding coastline. Touchingly, the city gates continued to be locked at a specific time every evening, despite the adjacent hole in the wall, until the gates were replaced with an archway. In many respects, that little act of remembrance is a fitting metaphor for a city that has given access to modern conveniences while it continues to keep the integrity of its traditional character.
Wedged into a relatively narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea, Muscat comprises a long string of suburbs spanning a distance of 50km or so from the airport to Al-Bustan. Visiting the sights can therefore take a bit of planning, and during rush-hour periods (7–8.30am, 12.30–3.30pm and 5.30–7pm Saturday to Wednesday) you may need to add an extra 45 minutes to get to your destination.
Muscat is sometimes referred to as the ‘three cities’: Ruwi, Mutrah and Old Muscat, a relatively small area of the 50km long strip with most of the tourist sites. The port of Mutrah has the most budget accommodation, while shopping centers and transport terminals are in the commercial district of Ruwi. The suburbs have lovely beaches.
We stayed at the Sun City Hotel (23OR 70$) next to the bus station in Ruwi. The LP emphasized Omantizatiom or the employ of locals rather than expatriate labor. You would never know it from our neighborhood – at least 99% south Asian – Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. And thus there are many cheap Indian eateries.
Mutrah. I decided to walk down to Mutrah, the neighborhood bordering the water and the port. After seeing the Armed Forces Museum, I hit the water and walked several kilometers along the water from the west end of the port all the way east to
Al Bustan. A Carnival Lines ship had disgorged their passengers. Their 18-day trip had started in Majorca, ends in Dubai and is mostly Germans.
Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum. Despite its name, this excellent museum is far more than just a display of military hardware. The museum is in a fort located in Bayt al-Falaj, built in 1845 as a royal summer home but used mostly as the headquarters of the sultan’s armed forces. The lower rooms give a comprehensive outline of Oman’s history, and the upper rooms explore Oman’s international relations and military prowess. The museum is on the itinerary of visiting dignitaries and you’ll be given a mandatory military escort. Tanks, planes and vehicles surround the outside.
Fish Market. I always find these places depressing with all the small tuna and tropical fish.
Corniche. A lovely walk along the water.
Mutrah Souq. This souq retains the chaotic interest of a traditional Arab market. There are some good antique shops, textile, hardware and gold shops. I was surprised how full the gold shops were – all women in their drab black burkas buying incredibly gaudy gold. Where do they wear this? Entrance to the souq is via the corniche.
Mutrah Fort. Built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, this fort dominates the eastern end of the harbor on top of a big rock. Used for military purposes, it is generally closed to visitors although you can scale the flank of the fort for a good view of the ocean.
Al-Riyam Park. Beyond Mutrah Fort, the corniche leads to this leafy park, with fine views of the harbor from the giant ornamental incense burner on top of the hill.
Kalbuh Bay Park. Further along the corniche, this park is a good place for an evening stroll from Mutrah.
Watchtower. The restored Portuguese watchtower sits on a promontory halfway along the corniche and affords a lovely view of the ocean.
Old Muscat. The main road leads via the corniche to the tiny, open-gated city of Muscat, home to the palace and diwan. It sits cradled in a natural harbor surrounded by a jagged spine of hills. It is the site of Oman’s brand-new national museum (opposite the palace entrance).
Muscat Gate. Straddling the road between the corniche and the old walled city, the original gates were used until the 1970s to keep land-bound marauders out, marks the position of the old city wall and introduces Muscat proper.
Sultan’s Palace. With delightful mushroom pillars in blue and gold this palace was built over the site of the former British embassy. There are great views out to the water and all the watchtowers on the cliffs. An avenue of palm trees leads to a roundabout surrounded by grand royal court buildings and the new national museum. The palace is closed to the public.
Al-Jalali Fort. Guarding the entrance to the harbor to the east, Al-Jalali Fort was built during the Portuguese occupation in the 1580s on Arab foundations. The fort is accessible only via a steep flight of steps. As such, it made the perfect prison for a number of years, but now it is a museum of Omani heritage, open only to visiting dignitaries and heads of state.
Al-Mirani Fort. it was built at the same time as Al-Jalali Fort. It contributed to the fall of the Portuguese through a curious affair of the heart: legend has it that the Portuguese commander fell for the daughter of a Hindu supplier, who refused the match on religious grounds. On being threatened with ruin, he spent a year apparently preparing for the wedding, but in fact convinced the commander that the fort’s supplies needed a complete overhaul. Instead of replacing the removed gunpowder and grain, he gave the nod to Imam Sultan bin Saif, who succeeded in retaking the defenceless fort in 1649. The Portuguese were ousted from Muscat soon after. The fort is not open to the public.
Bayt al-Zubair (a museum in a beautifully restored house with photos and displays of traditional handicrafts and furniture) and the Omani-French Museum (has galleries detailing relations between the two countries). I didn’t go into either.
Al-Bustan This is several kilometers past Old Muscat, but a nice walk with views a long ways east along the coast.
Marina Bandar al-Rowdha. A nice harbor.
Al-Bustan Palace. This sumptuous hotel was built as a venue for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in 1985. Remarkable for its enormous domed atrium, the hotel is worth a visit just to admire the building’s interior and the location.
Al-Bustan Roundabout. Home to the Sohar, a boat named after the hometown of the famous Omani seafarer Ahmed bin Majid. The boat is a replica of one sailed by Abdullah bin Gasm in the mid-8th century to Guangzhou in China. It was built in the dhow yards of Sur from the bark of over 75,000 palm trees and four tons of rope. Not a single nail was used in the construction. Tim Severin and a crew of Omani sailors undertook a famous voyage to Guangzhou in this boat in 1980 – a journey of 6000 nautical miles that took eight months to complete.
NIZWA & THE MOUNTAINS
This dramatic, mountainous region is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Oman, and for good reason. The area has spectacular scenery, including Jebel Shams (Oman’s highest mountain), Wadi Ghul (the Grand Canyon of Arabia) and Jebel Akhdar (the fruit bowl of Oman). In addition, some of the country’s best forts can be seen in Nizwa, Bahla and Jabrin.
Many of the sights from Nizwa to Jabrin can be managed on a long day trip from Muscat, but adding 4WD excursions into the jebel (mountain) is a better way to see the area. With a 4WD, an exciting three-day round trip from Muscat can be made via Nizwa, crossing over the mountains from Al-Hamra and descending to Rustaq and the Batinah Plain.
The Western Hajar Mountains are dramatic. Sedimentary in origin, the layers are all tilted up at the same angle producing slabs and cliffs cut by deep gorges. Various places are rainbow-colored rock amongst the rugged browns. The several small communities have wonderful flat-roofed houses many with a small tower and crennalated roof lines painted in two-tone pastels.
NIZWA (pop 84,500)
The historic town of Nizwa, two hours from Muscat along a good highway, lies on a plain surrounded by a thick palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains. It forms a natural gateway to the historic sites of Bahla and Jabrin, and for excursions up Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams.
Only half a century ago, British explorer Wilfred Thesiger was forced to steer clear of Nizwa: his Bedouin companions were convinced that he wouldn’t survive the ferocious conservatism of the town and refused to let him enter. He’d have been amazed to find that Nizwa is now the second-biggest tourist destination in Oman. The seat of factional imams until the 1950s, Nizwa, or the ‘Pearl of Islam’ as it’s sometimes called, is still a conservative town, however, and appreciates a bit of decorum from its visitors.
Nizwa Fort. Built over 12 years in the 17th century by Sultan bin Saif al-Yaruba, the first imam of the Ya’aruba dynasty, the fort is famed for its 40m-tall round tower. It’s worth climbing to the top of the tower to see the date plantations encircling the town and the view of the Hajar Mountains. This is a lovely fort with many rooms and a good museum to explore.
Nizwa Souq. The fruit and vegetable, meat and fish markets are housed in new buildings, behind the great, crennallated piece of city wall that overlooks the wadi. Nizwa is particularly famous for crafting silver khanjars. The livestock souq is worth a look.
About a 30-minute drive from Nizwa, there are a number of fine destinations that can be visited on a day trip from the town. They all lie up against the sloping shoulder of the Hajar Mountain range.
There’s no public transport. After aggressive bargaining, we hired a driver with a 4WD for 90 OR (US$236) for the day. That seems excessive but is the lowest they were able to go. Shane and I joined up with Claudia, a young Italian/German woman to split the cost.
But clearly the best way to go would be to hire your own vehicle, a 4WD, maybe someone cheap who knows the roads and do it for much cheaper. Tours are always so disappointing. Instead of the very personable Abdulla who we bargained with, we got his brother as a driver. He spoke zero English, was polite but gave no information. Abdulla drove us for the Green Mountain part of the trip. The experience was much better. Abdullah has 7 children, about the average for an Omani family.
Jabreen (Jabrine) Castle. The ruler moved his capital here from Nizwa in 1676-80. It was an important center of learning for astrology, medicine, and Islamic law. Restored in 1980, this is a magnificent building with a maze of rooms to explore – wonderful painted ceilings with original floral motifs, rugs, pillows, pots, vases, books, burial chamber and lookouts from the high towers. The falaj was not used for water but as an early air-con system.
Al-Hoota Cave. This cave, which is embellished with stalactites and stalagmites, has developed into a popular attraction. The geological museum explores some of the features that have made Oman internationally renowned among geologists. A train takes you into the cave and a 40-minute walking tour passes by an underground lake with blind cave-fish. Unfortunately it was closed for renovation and it was a Monday anyway, so we didn’t go.
Bahla Fort. (Bahla pop 59,000) A Unesco Heritage Site (1987), it is one of the most famous architectural monuments in Oman. The fort was constructed in various historical periods, beginning in pre-Islamic times and the adjacent Friday Mosque dates back to the earliest period of Islam. It was most recently restored between 1987 and 2012.
It is huge with a remarkable set of battlements – the south façade measures 112.5m, the east façade 114m and the northwest curved wall 135m. It was designed 600 years ago by a woman. The 12th century citadel (qasaba) is the oldest part of the fort. A 5-story building, it has three towers but a confusing series of rooms. Six towers are distributed along the walls and there are numerous wells, mosques and buildings.
The town of Bahla is also famous for its unglazed terracotta potteries and its Old Souq with homemade ropes and large metal platforms surrounding a traditional tiny, central courtyard.
Al-Hamra (pop19,500). This venerable village at the foot of the Hajar Mountains is one of the oldest in Oman, and is interesting for its wonderfully well-preserved row of two- and three-story mudbrick houses built in the Yemeni style. Viewed from the road across the valley, the ancient village sits up on rocky slabs at the confluence of two rivers. There are many abandoned houses in the upper parts of the village and it’s easy to gain an idea of a lifestyle that has only changed in the past three decades. In the town of Al-Hamra, the Bilad al-Sifah museum is more open house than historical display. Three ladies accompany guests around their traditional house.
Jebel Shams. Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun; 3075m), is best known not for its peak but for the view into the spectacularly deep Wadi Ghul lying alongside it. The straight-sided Wadi Ghul is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Arabia as it fissures abruptly between the flat canyon rims, exposing vertical cliffs of 1000m and more. The viewpoint is on a precipitous point for great views down into the canyon. The river far below was dry. It is an impressive site but compared to the real Grand Canyon, there is no comparison. Everyone says that a 4WD in necessary to get here but a low-clearance car would do just fine on dry roads.
We stopped at the Jebel Shams Resort (70, 55, 30 OR for double, single, or tent and 2 meals). Jebel Wall is an impressive mountain to the west rising up to a huge vertical cliff face.
Balcony Walk. The return hike along route W6 from the rim village of Al-Khateem (3km beyond Jebel Shams Resort) to the well-named hanging village of Sap Bani Khamis is a favourite with thrill-seekers. Abandoned more than 30 years ago, it is reached along the popular but vertiginous balcony walk: one false step in this five-hour ‘moderate hike’ will send you sailing (without the ‘ab’) 500m into the void.
We didn’t do this but wish we could have.
Misfat. There is a sealed road from Al-Hamra up to this mountain-hugging village making it one of the few mountain villages that is easily accessible. We walked through the atmospheric alleys amid ancient houses. The irrigation channels went everywhere through the houses and date palms. Water movement is controlled by an old piece of clothing held down by rocks.
Jebel Akhdar. Without a guide or some inside information, Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) may seem something of a misnomer to the first-time visitor. Firstly, Jebel Akhdar refers not to a mountain as such, but to an area that encompasses the great Saiq Plateau at 2000m above sea level. Secondly, the jebel keeps its fecundity well hidden in a labyrinth of wadis and terraces where the cooler mountain air (temperatures during December to March can drop to -5°C) and greater rainfall (hail stones even) encourage prize pomegranates, apricots and other fruit. With a day or two to explore this ‘top of the beanstalk’, the determined visitor will soon stumble across the gardens and orchards that make this region so justly prized.
It helps to think of Jebel Akhdar as two separate areas – an upper plateau, and a lower plateau on which the main town of Saiq is located. In a weekend, you can spend one day exploring each. On the edge of the lower plateau, in a south-facing crescent high above Wadi al-Muaydin, are spectacularly arranged terraced villages, where most of the market-gardening takes place. Head for Diana’s Viewpoint – named after the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited this vertiginous vista – with its natural pavement of fossils and dizzying view of the terraces below. The viewpoint is en route to the dangling village of Al-Aqor.
Wadi Bani Habib with its old ruined village and abundant walnut trees is also located on the lower place for a walk. For a longer hike, after allowing time to adjust to the thin, high-altitude air, walk from Al-Aqor to Seeq around the edge of the crescent. This is particularly rewarding during spring when the fragrant, pink roses from which rosewater is made are in bloom.
The upper plateau is accessed up the mountain near Jebel Akhdar Hotel. Here you can picnic among magnificent mature juniper trees in a perfect campsite about 2km after the sultan’s experimental farm. The farm, which is closed to the public, develops strains of vegetables and fruit suitable to the extreme Omani climate. From the campsite, hike through wild olive and fig trees to sunset point (a left turn before the school). A vast mountain resort is under construction on the edge of the jebel, offering spectacular views across the mountains.
You are only permitted to approach Jebel Akhdar by 4WD. There have been many fatal accidents caused by people trying to make the long descent in a 2WD, using their brakes rather than changing gears.
The only alternative to a 4WD is a walking trail through the terraced villages of Wadi al-Muaydin to the Saiq Plateau. You’ll need a guide and you should allow six hours from Birkat al-Mawz at the bottom of the wadi to reach the plateau (12 hours return). Beware: it’s an unrelenting uphill slog!
Mountain Road via Hatt & Wadi Bani Awf (I did not do this but wish I could have – it would have been very expensive)
This truly spectacular road over the Western Hajar Mountains affords some of the best views in Oman through remote, rugged country. It can be accomplished as a long round trip from Muscat or as a more leisurely outing from Nizwa to Rustaq. Although the mountain part of the route is only 70km long, it takes about four hours to drive and a 4WD is essential to negotiate the sustained, off-road descent into Wadi Bani Awf.
The road zigzags up the mountain in front of you for 23.9km to the Sharfat Al-Alamayn viewpoint, on the saddle of the ridge, the highest point in the road. Then there is a long descent into the village of Hatt. 6km past Hatt, detour to Bilad Sayt with its picture-postcard perfection of terraced fields and sun-baked houses, it’s one of the prettiest villages in the area. At 43.8km, the road passes Snake Gorge , a popular destination for adventure hikers and climbers, and through the middle of a football pitch. From here the main track meanders around the mountain to the exit of Snake Gorge.
December 2-5 was a national holiday. We had difficulty finding accommodation as it seems many Omanis go on a trip. We bussed from Nizwa back to Muscat, then down to Sur for the night following the coastal route (2 1/2hrs). We couldn’t stay longer than one night because of the lack of a place to stay. On our way back to Muscat, the bus followed the inland route taking 5 hours. Expecting scenery and mountains, it was mostly through flat desert with small trees.
SUR & THE EASTERN COAST
This easternmost region of the Arabian Peninsula holds some of Oman’s main attractions, including beautiful beaches, spectacular wadis, turtle-nesting sites and the strawberry blond Sharqiya sand dunes. As many of the sites of interest lie en route rather than in the towns, it’s worth having your own vehicle, although tours cover the whole area.
The main artery into the region is the Qurayat–Sur coastal highway which runs along the scenic base of the Eastern Hajar Mountains. There are no hotels between Muscat and Sur, but plenty of beaches for camping for those with equipment and supplies.
The route along the coast road to Sur ideally forms the first day of a two- or three-day circular tour, returning to Muscat via Al-Mintirib and the Sharqiya Sands. Alternatively, it makes the first leg of an epic camping trip along the coast to Masirah or Salalah; the road cuts across the sand dunes in a remarkable feat of modern engineering.
SUR (pop 64,900)
History. The Portuguese invasion and the division of Oman into two separate sultanates delivered a heavy blow to the port town’s trading capability, but it still boasted an ocean-going fleet of 100 or more vessels. The arrival of the British India Steamer Navigation Company caused a further decline. Sur is currently enjoying a resurgence thanks to a state-of-the-art liquid gas plant and a fertilizer factory.
Forts. There are two castles in Sur: Bilad Sur (200-years-old, built to defend the town against marauding tribes from the interior) and Sunaysilah Castle (300-years-old it was the most important part of the ocean based defensive system of Sur)
Corniche & Dhow Yards. A nice walk.
Ras al-Jinz (Ras al-Junayz), The best reason to come to Sur is to see the endangered green turtle here at the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula. Over 20,000 females return annually to the beach where they hatched in order to lay eggs.
Oman takes the conservation responsibility seriously. The only way to visit the site is by joining an escorted tour with guides. Reservations are necessary with only 50 allowed at either 9pm or 5am. Cost is 3 OR but the taxi to get there is 25 OR, another reason to rent a car in Oman.
Although at least one turtle arrives on the beach every night of the year, the best way to spot turtles is to go in July, the peak laying season for the green turtle when more than 100 females come ashore each night, between September and November to see both laying and hatching and at new moon as turtles prefer dark nights.
Sur is also a good base for day trips to Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab and a good halfway rest point on a round trip from Muscat via the desert camps of the Sharqiya Sands.
THE MUSANDAM PENINSULA
Separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE, and guarding the southern side of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz (Iran is 45km away across the strait), the 90kmx45km Musandam Peninsula is dubbed the ‘Norway of Arabia’ for its beautiful khors, small villages and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.
I had time to kill and was excited about taking the 5-hour catamaran from Muscat, supposedly the fastest ‘cat’ in the world at 55 nautical miles/hour. Its normal sailing day is Thursday at noon. After multiple attempts to contact the office, the web site finally updated itself with different sailing times for the holidays. Thursday was cancelled and it went on Wednesday! So I flew for the same price (24 OR) arriving 6 hours before the boat would have and no way to contact my couchsurfing host. I hitchhiked in from the airport and was let off at the fort in Khasab and had a snooze in the shade of the fort (where I wrote this).
My initial main interest in Musandam was to drive the spectacular 45km road that hugs the mountainous coast back to UAE. Then I planned on going through four of the 7 emirates to finish all 7 of them. Go to the “World’s Best Travellers” – with over 1200 places (every country, state, province, emirate, island and location in the world) on its list, this was one way to get a bunch in a day. The neat thing about this list is you get to see where you rate in the world and your country. My eventual goal is to be at least in the top ten in Canada.
After many unsuccessful attempts to ‘surf’, I had had a string of success with future hosts in Khasab, Qatar and Bahrain, with the badminton world finals for 5 days in between in Dubai. I love watching badminton.
KHASAB (pop 18,000)
The capital of the province is small but far from sleepy. Its souq resounds to a babble of different languages, including Kumzari (a compound language of Arabic, Farsi, English, Hindi and Portuguese), and its harbour bursts with activity, much of it involving the smuggling of US cigarettes to Iran in return for goats. The smugglers are distinguished by their souped-up fibreglass boats with outboard motors that line up along the creeks waiting for dusk to make the mad dash 55km across the strait to Iran. Piracy has been a tradition in these parts for well over 200 years and locals respect a good piece of tradition.
Forget what you read about ‘city tours’, Khasab is still just a town where the biggest event of the past three years has been the building of a Lulu’s supermarket. That said, it makes a “pleasant place to wander around and it boasts an excellent museum and a lively shopping area. If you drive past Lulu’s on the left and take the first right towards Khmazera Castle, you’ll circuit some grand modern villas with nautical themes: one house has a scale model of a dhow over the entrance while another sports fine Iranian tiles with a seafaring theme. The whole town is partially buried in date plantations.
Khasab Fort. With its command of the bay sadly diminished since Lulu’s was built on reclaimed land, Khasab Fort nonetheless cuts quite a dash with its four stone turrets and fine set of crenallations. Built by the Portuguese in the 17th century around a much older circular tower, this well-preserved fort now houses one of the best little ethnographic museums in Oman.
See a bait al qufl , literally the ‘house of locks’, built by a master craftsman in the courtyard. Typical of the region, these houses were built with a floor well below ground level – one of several features keeping the house safe during the empty summer months when the occupants moved to the shore to fish and harvest dates. Also on display is ‘arish, a summer house built on stilts to allow for ventilation in the sweltering summer months.
The central tower of the fort houses the best part of the museum.
I went to the one hotel around and asked to use the internet, offering to pay. The little prick would not do it. The one Internet café was closed on the holiday. So I had no way to contact my CS host. I walked the 2km down to the ferry terminal, the only agreed on place we had, but he didn’t show. So I walked back and stealth camped – on a rock platform at the back of the fort. I wanted to sleep on one of the dhows out front but they were all lit and in full view of the street.