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
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
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
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
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.
Driving down from the heights, we came across a wedding.
Several hundred men wearing white thobes – traditional ankle length robes – and
headdresses had gathered under a tent by the road on the outskirts of an arid
town. Suddenly there was the crack of gunfire. “Are they allowed to have guns
at weddings?” I shouted to Badr as another
volley of shots rang out. “Not in the rest of Oman, and certainly not somewhere
like Dubai. But remember, out here,” he replied with a smile, “we’re in the
The article 'Oman’s sleepy Musandam Peninsula' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.