Purim is a holiday celebration like no other
As the little boat drifted perilously close to jagged rocks, I gaped upwards, lost in wonder at the scale of the honey-coloured cliffs that rose from nothing and soared to loom more than 200 metres above my head. Gulls circled, arcing out over the sea and back towards their perches on the barren crags. The sea was full of life, but these bluffs, weathered and cracked into dramatic shards, were utterly devoid of even the hardiest plant or shrub. They were like cliffs at the edge of a glorious Martian sea.
The skipper had been napping. Suddenly, he leapt up as the boat scraped rock, swore at himself in Arabic, and quickly pushed us away from the cliffs with his foot. He guided us into a narrow cove almost hidden among the giant slabs. The water darkened and the temperature dropped. The surroundings looked like a Norwegian fjord, but with no green – as if life itself had been scraped from the rocks with a wire brush.
I was visiting Oman’s Musandam Peninsula – a remote patch of planet separated from the rest of the country by a corner of the UAE – while filming a new BBC series, Indian Ocean, which took me through 16 countries around the edge of our most glorious ocean. The region juts out into the Strait of Hormuz, the key choke point at the eastern end of the Persian Gulf, through which chug scores of oil tankers taking vast quantities of the world’s supply of black gold to Europe, the US and Asia.
Long before oil was discovered in Arabia – creating some of the richest countries on Earth and apparently endless demand for Swiss watches and German sports cars – Omanis had built an empire that stretched down Africa’s east coast to Zanzibar. Many will tell you that the Queen of Sheba had her palace in Oman, and that Sinbad the Sailor set sail from one of its ancient ports.
It is hard to overstate the difference between Oman and its neighbours. While the latter have most of the oil and grand building projects and bling, Omanis remain wedded to 5,000 years of history and culture, preserving traditional buildings, opening museums and occasionally bemoaning the flash modernism of their neighbours in the UAE. “Can you believe they built a ski slope, indoors!” an Omani businessman told me with disdain.
In the midst of all the glitz of the modern Gulf, home to vast shopping malls and some of the most luxurious hotels on the planet, Musandam is a place where life itself moves at a different pace: it lacked roads until just a decade ago. From my bobbing boat, I could see why. With metal-melting temperatures during summer and terrain that needs Thor’s hammer to flatten and tame, the landscape was one of the most dramatic and inhospitable I have ever encountered.
Yet Musandam is just a few hours’ drive from Dubai, and reachable for a weekend break. Strike out towards the peninsula along the coast from the brashest of the Emirates and the tip of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – fades behind as you motor through dirty roadside sprawl along tarmac where I once saw a group of 18-year-olds racing Bugattis and Bentleys.
You pass flaming oil wells, through the emirates of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, before the endless development withers and the straight road begins to buckle towards the Musandam border, where a cliffside track winds around the fractured coast. It is the Gulf, but not as you know it: otherworldly Musandam is not a place for those wanting fusion food and FIJI Water, fine hotels or a Lamborghini showroom.