As the dhow bobbed gently in azure green waters, I look up at the awesomely rugged and barren cliffs that tower above my head. They rise from the water in shades of brown, devoid of any plant or shrub. Beneath the water dolphins swim, occasionally surfacing tantalizingly close to the dhow as if to invite us to join them in play. High above, eagles and falcons soar and cormorants cluster on cliff tops. We were on a dhow, cruising the fjords of the Musandam peninsula.
The peninsula, a part of Oman on the straits of Hormuz, separated from the rest of the country by the east coast of the UAE, is wild, desolate, barely populated and staggeringly beautiful. It is a land of stunning Norway-like fjords, small isolated villages and dramatic mountain scenery.
We had set out for the cruise from the small town of Khasab, whose origin dates back to the 17th century, when the Portuguese, at the height of their naval presence in the region, built a fort to supply dates and water to passing ships. We head out into the majestic 16km fjord. Isolated fishing villages nestle on what little open spaces there are along the craggy shoreline. Their only access to civilisation is by boat. Deeper into the fjord, a school of dolphins provide escort, reveling in riding the dhow’s bow wave. Occasionally a speedboat roars by. “Iranians”, says our dhow captain with a conspiratorial look, “smuggling fridges!” We drop anchor at Telegraph Island, where the British, in their inimitable fashion, landed in 1864 to lay an underwater cable from India to Iraq to facilitate communications with London. After a simple but plentiful lunch of Hummus and Tabouleh followed by biriyani, chicken curry and salad, my fellow travelers snorkel off into the calm warm waters, hunting out coral and colorful reef fish. I am content laying back on the richly patterned cushions, taking in the magnificent silence of the surrounding mountains.
Khasab is no place to linger but it is a springboard for exploring the area and the following day, in complete contrast to the fjords, I drive up into the mountains. The interior could, until quite recently, only be explored on the back of a mule. Now my SUV takes the scenic route to the highest point of Jebel Harim, 1,784 meters above sea level, first on a road, then a track. A stop at Khawr Najid offers a vantage point for stunning views east over a bay leading to the Arabian Sea. Through Birkat Khalidiya where goats graze amongst Acadia trees that spring out of the desert. Past Bedouin villages and old stone houses nestling impossibly on narrow outcrops and around huge boulders that forces of nature have balancing at precarious angles on awesome precipices. Along a ridge, I look across a jagged, arid topography, where even the most sturdy shrub is reluctant to grow; a scene that is inhospitable but with a stark beauty. On the way down, as the setting sun bathes the hills in hues of red and purple, we are greeted by an elderly goat herder, homeward bound after a day at the marketplace, a recently purchased baby goat in his arms, accompanied by his son and grandson. Time stands still.
Much is already changing on these rugged shores. Modernisation will inevitably alter the pace of life and ancient traditions. Hopefully, it will not touch the timeless beauty of a true wilderness.
HOW TO GET THERE Air: Oman Air (www.omanair.com) flies directly to Muscat from Mumbai and Delhi and then onward to Khasab . Road: From UAE there is a very good road with spectacular coastal stretches. However, an Oman visa is required and re-entry into the UAE will require another visa. This route is more suited to residents of the UAE Boat: Tours are available from Muscat (Oman) and Dibba (UAE)
WHERE TO STAY Golden Tulip Resort Well-appointed with a lovely setting overlooking the water. (www.goldentulipkhasab.com) Doubles from Rs 8,500
Six Senses Zighy Bay Built in 2008, luxurious with a price tag to go with it (www.sixsenses.com) Doubles from Rs43,000
WHAT TO DO -Dhow cruise in the fjords: whole or half day -4WD safaris into the mountains -Diving
WHEN TO GO December to March