I am standing, or to be precise wobbling, on a boat as it bobs about on the leaden water, storm clouds brewing above. For a moment I truly believe that I’m in the Norwegian Fjords. I can see the harsh, honest beauty of the surrounding cliffs and caves, and I’m shivering while being lashed by rain. But I’m not in Norway. I’m not even in Europe. I’m in Oman, in Musandam, the most northerly tip of the Arabian peninsula.
The weekend’s adventure started with a drive from Dubai through an impressive sandstorm, which enveloped the car and left miniature dunes on the road. Swallowed up by the dust we arrived at the Omani border just in time for the sand on our car to be turned into a thick mud mask by a downpour. And that was pretty much the weather pattern for the weekend.
Along our filigreed journey, we stopped in Burka for a picnic on the beach and marveled at the looming clouds overhanging an impressive 17th century fort. The surrounding mountains looked like a layer cake, with strata of different coloured sediments. You can trace the layers along the cliffs, watching as they go up and down like waves, mirroring the sea opposite.
A second brief stop at Tawi gave us a fleeting snapshot of past life. Hidden away along a small habited wadi was a rock with a primitive prehistoric carving of a goat, or possibly a camel. All other evidence of this era has been washed away, but the hamlet dwellings are still simple and unassuming, albeit with electricity.
At the main centre of habitation, Khasab, the road bids adieu to the sea, and winds its way into the mountains across the yawning wide Wadi Sal Al A’la. The newly paved road is an artery to the small hamlets dotted around the wadi, and it is surprisingly busy given that it’s pretty much a dead end at the village of Sal Al A’la. At night the way is even lit, creating the illusion of a yellow brick road. But given the environmental impact and the number of nocturnal road users, I’m not sure this is entirely a good investment.
The results of our search for a suitable campsite gave us several options. We could pitch on the beach near Khasab, where we would have the company and curiosity of other campers to contend with. A remote, but cramped beach at Khawr an Najd, presented a more interesting rest stop with jaw dropping views across the bay. We had to climb an incredibly steep winding gravel track past a military firing range, but the view was better than the location – we could see litter from the top of the mountain. It is however the only piece of coastline accessible by car.
Finally at the end of the yellow brick road was the emerald city we had been looking for. In the middle of a baron and harsh land was a green acacia forest. At first it seems difficult to explain this strange phenomenon, but perhaps the clue is the fact that khasab is Arabic for fertility and wadis are well known for their flash floods.
With the vibe of a music festival, locals were enjoying picnics and family gatherings. Despite the popularity of the spot the trees afforded us the privacy were had been seeking, although we needn’t have worried; by nightfall the spot was deserted by humans save for the rolling crisp packets and plastic bottles left in the wake of our forest friends. With only goats and a donkey for company we set up camp for the night.
Even in the most remote corners of the peninsula, we discovered at 5.45am that the mosque’s call to prayer can be heard loud and clear. So we packed up our damp kit and packed our bags for a day at sea. Our chartered dhow was spacious and comfortable, while it was dry enough to sit around and sway with the waves. Cushions and carpets were spread around, and we were offered sweet tea, coffee and fruit. The sides of the boat were low, and to give us peace of mind, the children wore life jackets supplied by our captain. There were no complaints once it was explained to our five year old that Jake and the Neverland Pirates wear the same buoyancy aids.
As we left the shore we were aware of speedboats whizzing by and viewed with suspicion we decided that they were the pirates we had heard about. A healthy cigarette (among other products I’m sure) smuggling outfit operates from the peninsula across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran, which is only 21 nautical miles away. A blind eye is certainly turned, as these were no ordinary fishermen.
We chugged around the bay and through to another one, and our guide pointed out dilapidated huts that clung to the cliffs, which were used by fishermen during episodes of inclement weather. We passed tiny villages with only 10 houses and 25 occupants that could only be reached by boat. And we spotted remote beaches, which one day we would return to by boat and camp on.
And then the weather closed in again and as the cloud wrapped itself around the boat we were soaked to the skin by horizontal rain. The main point of the trip, apart from seeing the Arabian fjords from the sea, was to look for dolphins, but our search was fruitless. We stopped at Telegraph Island, which had been the most remote British communication posting in the empire between 1864 and 1869, and with no regard for the weather my fellow sailors decided to swim ashore. I’m afraid there was no way I was going to get in that water, and I’m pretty sure I chose the path of sanity by gallantly volunteering to look after the children.
The term “going around the bend” was apparently created to describe the journey around the head of the peninsula to get to Telegraph Island, and simultaneously the mental state of the poor British bugger stationed there. Beautiful, but a lonely desolate existence.
When we didn’t think it could get any wetter, it rained some more and then the clouds parted and we were afforded a glimpse of daylight, perhaps even a far off ray of sunshine.
And, to borrow Dorothy again, somewhere over the rainbow dreams do come true. Dolphins were spotted. A pod of mothers and babies frolicked around the boat. It’s almost a life affirming experience when people and animals watch each other with interest and curiosity, rather than contempt or as the next meal. They were gentle and graceful, and as they glided through the glittering water I was aware that our adventure had been a truly enriching experience; we had viewed people and animals in their natural habitat, and in harmony.