Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Marvelous Musandam

Dolphins of Khasab
Musandam Governorate is the Northernmost part of Oman and has been on our must see list almost from the time we arrived in the country and finally after almost 6 years we got there. Musandam borders the straits of Hormuz, which is the entrance to the Arabian gulf and so is one of the busiest waterways in the world. At their narrowest the straits are a bit over 30 kilometers wide, separating Oman and Iran. An awful lot of oil transits the straits, on its way to other parts of the world.

You can get to the capital of Musandam (Khasab) by road - through the UAE - or by ferry boat, at the more than reasonable cost of 64 Omani rials (About $200 Aus) for two return tickets, including the car.  The trip takes about 3 hours in a fast ferry. I believe the boats are Australian made as well, which was a bonus.

So last Thursday we hit the road and went to the small port town of Shinas, 250 odd kms north of Muscat. For some reason the ferry service to Musandam goes from there. We arrived and found the ferry port with plenty of time to spare. So I went and queued to check in, with my pre-booked and paid tickets. Got to the front of the queue, the attendant checked my ticket then asked me to go sit, as she couldn't process it just then. So I went and sat and waited, and waited, until eventually Katrina came in to find out what was taking so long, as we were one of only a few un-boarded cars left on the wharf. Turns out there'd been a systems failure and pre-paid tickets wouldn't process. Sigh. After much throwing of hands in the air, many phone calls and so on we were eventually checked in and for good measure upgraded to business class. Excellent. The car was loaded and one hour before scheduled departure the boat set off, on a three hour cruise.............

The view from Business class on the way home, we were headed for the gap.
The business cabin was pretty good, small with decent seats in pairs, a much better prospect than the rather noisy and crowded economy of our planned fate.  So we grabbed a pair of seats with a front row view and settled in for the trip. Much more relaxing than driving and having missed lunch we were quite pleased when a good sized plate of chicken and rice turned up, courtesy of the upgrade.

The coastal scenery in Oman is pretty amazing stuff! And then all too soon it was night and the second half of the trip was completed in the dark. So we missed "the first sight" of Khasab and instead had to make do with the sparkling lights of night time Khasab around the harbour as we came into dock. Pleasingly our hotel (the Atana Khasab) was about 1km along from the port. Sited nicely behind a rocky outcrop, providing the illusion of isolation, with stunning mountain and sea views.

One of the guys at work had given me a contact to call on arrival. So we did and in short order the rather accommodating Tariq showed up at the hotel to sort our itinerary out. Quite simple really, we wanted to do a dhow cruise, see the fort and buy a Musandam style walking cane from the local souq.  No problem one phone call later, we're organised to go on a cruise with his friend Jasim.

At 9 the following morning Jasim came to our hotel, guided us to the dhow port and left us in the hands of his capable crew. The dhow was a fair size, one of many almost identical boats servicing the tourist industry.  We settled in along with one Indian family and two French families intent on enjoying a day of nautical adventure.

The crew quickly got us underway and we joined a stream of boats making their way from the harbour into an adjacent fjord/sound/... (don't know the right word). Beautiful clear day, with vibrant blue skies, fresh air in abundance and temps in the low twenties! Bliss.  All the more so for me as about two weeks ago I had tripped over a pouf in the dark and while trying to retain my balance kicked the coffee table with my bare foot - ouch, no rather *&#@# OUCH! (repeated many times). I'm pretty sure my little toe is broken. So a day of enforced (relative) inactivity is just what the doctor would order - if I went to see him.

First business of the outing was dolphin hunting. Luckily the crew knew just where to go and pretty soon we were floating around off a small cove, along with 4 or 5 other boats, looking and waiting for dolphins to put in an appearance. Didn't take very long before we were haring off in hot pursuit and then two dolphins came alongside our boat and spent the next minute or so surfing the bow wave and switching from side to side. You could almost have reached out and touched them. After a while, and many photo's, we cruised on down the water ways, only to return about 6 hours later on the way back to port for an encore performance.
The Captain and Katrina

I suspect the dolphins and the tour boat operators have a pretty firm agreement about this whole dolphin watching thing. You see there's this little cove and if the tour boats go there the dolphins oblige with a bit of a show. Tourists get to see dolphins, dolphins get to have fun showing off for the tourists, playing hide and seek and surfing bow waves. Works well for both sides, tour operators can pretty much guarantee dolphin sightings and the dolphins get unmolested run of 99% of the waters. When the dolphins don't want to be seen they are awfully inconspicuous. One moment nothing, the next - look over there as the dolphins entice boats into high speed (bow wave creating) chases.  I've got a photo with what seems to be about 10 dolphins breaching the surface at the same time, mostly you saw just 2 or 3 together.

A gaggle of dolphin watchers
The balance of the day was spent chugging around the inlet/sound/fjord/... marveling at the amazing scenery. Massive rock formations seemingly growing out of the waters, with all sorts of geological formations, leaving you in awe of the sheer power of nature. Most of the formations arise almost vertically from the water, meaning the separation from land to sea is a bit like a knife cut. Occasionally there is a gentle slope leading back from the water to a hillside and in these places inevitably there is a small village. However rather than cars the villagers had boats, there were no roads, nor was there any real prospect of roads, making cars redundant. And as there was no evidence of farming, these small villages would be reliant on fishing the bay/inlet/sound/fjord/...

A couple of times we dropped anchor and the French families jumped in for a quick dip. The Indians like us were clearly first timers and had not come wearing swimsuits - ah well next time........... Some time after 4 we made it back to the harbour and retreated to the hotel for a relaxation break, from relaxing on the estuary/bay/inlet/sound/fjord/....

A variety of scenery
Out captain abandoning somebody else's ship
After dark we headed out to explore Khasab and find a souq. We looked here and there, cruised up down and around Khasab all to no avail. There was no sign of a traditional souq area, nor any shops catering to the tourist market - well we did see one, but as it wasn't open we eventually retreated to the hotel and an early night for Katrina. There were too many young children getting into the Christmas spirit around the poolside terrace area, so rather than braving that I went and had a first try at astral photography - and failed, wrong settings, wrong lens, too much light pollution........ Another day (well night really).

Khasab Castle entrance
In the morning we checked out early and visited the grandly named Khasab castle. It's a little different from others in Oman and on the small side, having a square outer-wall, with rounded towers at each corner and a circular keep in the center of the courtyard. The courtyard is much larger in comparison to other similar forts and castles I have seen. Most of the space in each of the towers was taken up with living quarters, which had been made over to static display areas prepared by the women's society, showing elements of Omani history and tradition. Apart from the keep the courtyard also hosts a small collection of traditional fishing boats - made from date palm components and summer and winter houses.
Study time

Inside the summer house
The summer house is made from palm stems, atop stone pillars, with lattice walls and palm frond floor and roof. All designed to let air flow through to counter summer heat. The winter house is called a lock house, it has stone walls and roof and is dug down into the ground. Lock houses are designed to be closed up and left with storage jars of supplies awaiting the residents return. In order to make it difficult for people to steal supplies, the underground part is dug and the jars are then put in place before the walls and roof are built. The storage jars are bigger than the door frame, meaning it is impossible to remove them without first dismantling the house.  Clever.

The winter, lock house
Inside the lock house
Usefully the fort has a small shop, selling a variety of tourist goods. It didn't look open, but as the door was unlocked I went on in anyway and a few minutes later an attendant magically appeared, so I ended up with a Musandam style walking stick. One of the accouterments of an Omani man's traditional garb is a walking stick. In most of the country they are made of light cane, with a crook at one end, useful for holding, or reversing to catch up a lead rope. Musandam sticks are made from heavier wood and the top end is a small decorated axe head. While they're not particularly comfortable as a walking cane I can see the utility.

As there were a couple of hours to go before boarding time, a last drive around Khasab was in order. On the off chance we went past the sole tourist shop and lo and behold there were two  young Omani men in there. So we stopped and went in. They were setting up shop and not yet open for business, but as we were there they let us peruse their goods and purchase (another) walking stick (much nicer quality) and an open weave palm frond basket for Katrina. Fair chance we were their first ever customers.
Head of the (nicer) Musandam style cane

And then just like that it was time to go and board the ferry for the return trip. Thankfully Thursday's upgrade also covered the return leg, and as it was daytime we had three hours of spectacular coastal views to look forward to. A little after 4 we disembarked at Shinas and just after 7 were back home in Muscat after a fairly easy drive back.

So Musandam, a weekend well spent. A second visit would include another dhow trip and an extra day to explore the surrounds and try out the winding coastal/mountain roads.

(p.s. the only photo that was doctored in any way is the one of the dolphins, which I cropped and brightened a little. The rest are exactly as they came out of the camera)

A last look at some of the coastal scenery

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