Oman’s sleepy Musandam Peninsula
Khasab, the region’s capital, has a splendid fort, built by the Portuguese to keep their sailors supplied with dates and fresh water. The influences of other, more modern, arrivals were being felt during my visit – locals hummed with excitement about the imminent opening of their first supermarket. Yet the little town is not asleep. As I wandered, the still air was broken by the sound of roaring engines, while at the harbour, a dozen speedboats powered their way out to sea. My guide, Badr, a beaming bear of a man, smiled. “They’re Iranians, smuggling fridges.” It is surely one of the most bizarre international trade routes. US sanctions have apparently created a shortage of household appliances in Iran, so smugglers race across the Strait of Hormuz to buy white goods in Musandam and shift them back to the Islamic Republic, dodging giant tankers and the gunboats of the Iranian coastguard. I watched them waving and laughing as they rocketed past with washing machines, microwaves and plasma TVs.
The BBC team and I followed the smugglers out of Khasab harbour in a boat, behind dolphins that streaked through the water like torpedoes. Despite the tanker motorway a few miles to the north, the waters around Musandam are pristine. Just an hour from Khasab are dive sites with schools of blue and yellow Indian Ocean angelfish, Arabian butterfly fish, snappers, lionfish, groupers, stingrays and turtles. Some experts think the coral of Musandam is among the best in the world due to the absence of heavy industry along the coast and few fishing fleets in the area.
Rounding a rocky island outcrop, we slipped into a sheltered bay. At the far end, smoke wafted lazily from the ancient village of Kumzar – a cluster of low houses beneath the cliffs. Badr had arranged for us to meet a local fisherman, Abdul Salim, who was sitting with his men on a rocky beach as we drifted to shore. A shout rang out and his men leapt into action, dragging a long net out into the water.
‘Why are you doing this now? What have you seen?’ I asked.
‘Ah, we have eyes in the heavens,’ said Abdul with a conspiratorial grin.
The Kumzari have a unique language – the only one of Persian origin on the south side of the Gulf – and they began to quietly sing in it as they spread the net in a 50-metre arc out into the water then back towards the shore. As the net was pulled tight the singing became louder. Soon it sounded like a bawdy shanty, accompanied by cheeky laughs from the men. As Abdul’s troops tugged and the fish tumbled to the shore, I spotted a metallic glint on the sheer cliff face. “See!” he said, “those are our eyes!”
An old man emerged from a canvas hide with a pair of binoculars and a kettle. His job was to shout when he spotted a shoal of fish enter the cove, so the team below could trap and catch it. “We have fished this way for generations,” said Abdul. “Minimum effort, but maximum reward.”
The next day, the dusty heart of Musandam beckoned me away from the coast. Until recently, the stony interior could only be explored on the back of a mule. Now, a road climbs steadily into the great Hajar Mountains that stretch for more than 300 miles, reaching 3,000 metres at its highest point. The road soon became a track carved into the hillside, with extraordinary drops off the side into oblivion. We crested one hill and the entire landscape opened before us. Mountains hewn, carved and hacked from the ancient foundations of Earth swept to the horizon.