Oman Part 1: Musandam and Khasab

This is the first of six posts on our visit to Oman March-April 2022

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

At the time of writing this (October 2022) we have now had four failed attempts to visit Sri Lanka on a trip organised by the wonderful Experience Travel Group (ETG). After the third one ETG started talking about alternatives especially Oman. We were initially intrigued and became seriously interested when we saw that this would combine our love of stunning scenery with our interest in Islamic civilisation and architecture. ETG organise private tours and after a little to-ing and fro-ing we settled on an itinerary in Oman which neatly split into three sections, although the second one was by far the largest.

Wadi Tawi – typical mountain scenery in Musandam

Getting there

So it was on a cold March day that we found ourselves on an Emirates A380 flight from Manchester to Dubai. Emirates are one of the best airlines we have been on and we arrived on time in the early morning in an enormous new terminal built just for A380s each of which can take over 500 people. There were over 40 immigration agents and we were landside in less than 30 minutes with all our luggage (UK airports take note). A driver was to take us through the northern part of UAE to Musandam, a part of Oman which is at the very northern tip of the Arabian peninsula close to the Straits of Hormuz.

As we sped out of Dubai on an 8-lane highway the driver asked if we wanted coffee and promised to find some. After about 40 minutes we stopped at a Starbucks which was next door to a McDonalds by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. There were some camels nearby.

Unmistakable and very welcome coffee after an overnight flight

Our journey to Khasab, which is the only real town in Musandam, was a very quick 2.5 hours with one short stop at the border to enter Oman and a few others for photos once we were near the northern tip of Oman where the road is partly built out into the sea below steep cliffs.

The road to Khasab

Khasab

In Khasab we stayed at the Atana Musandam hotel which is on a man-made inlet leading out to the harbour and the sea. Our room was large and furnished in a traditional style with dark wood furniture which we were to see in many other places. All meals at the Atana are buffet style and there was plenty of choice of food. Most of the other guests appeared to be families taking a weekend break from Dubai. A very hot but short walk across some bare land opposite the hotel took us to a Lulu hypermarket which was as good if not better than any we have seen at home or in France. We had missed lunch in the hotel and found an excellent choice of sandwiches in Lulu. Everyone there was wearing a mask.

Khasab was once the centre of smuggling between Oman and Iran. Much of this has now been stopped and there is a small amount of regular trade between the two countries. Tourism, especially visitors from Dubai, is now a major source of income in Musandam.

A visit to the main sights of Khasab was on the agenda for the first full morning. We were taken first to Khasab Fort which is right in the middle of the town and was built in the 17th century. This was the first of many buildings we saw with the same type of crenellations (battlements) on the roof. It’s worth noting here that the Omanis seem to use the terms “fort” and “castle” interchangeably.

Khasab Fort

The courtyard of the fort houses some wooden battil vessels, which are one of the traditional types of small boats in this part of the world, also a traditional oven and grinding stones.

Khasab Fort courtyard

Inside a few rooms have displays of local culture complete with life-size people.

Inside Khasab Fort

Khasab Fort also contains an impressive set of display boards all in the two official languages Arabic and English. We found similar displays in other museums and forts we visited later in the trip. All were well designed and very informative.

Our morning tour then took us past the beautiful mosque in Khasab which is only open to muslims and then on to the village of Wadi Tawi a few kilometres from the town. It seemed a typical rather neglected village but within a group of boulders beyond it are several prehistoric petroglyphs of animals, houses and people. The best was of three camels.

Camel petroglyphs at Wadi Tawi

We had some additional entertainment at the petroglyphs as plenty of goats (the first of many we saw just wandering around) were as curious of us as we were of them. One young one was peeping out from behind the boulder with the camels.

Goat at Wadi Tawi

Our guide started to feed them with small branches and I had a go as well. Their teeth and mouths were surprisingly strong.

Goat feeding at Wadi Tawi

The wadi itself was typical of many in Oman with just a little green vegetation between high rocky mountains.

Our ETG itinerary for this day had a free afternoon but we had read about the trip to Jebel Harim, which at 2087m is the highest mountain in Musandam. The trip goes up a mountain track only drivable in a 4WD. We asked our guide to arrange another car for this trip and after lunch a new guide in a fairly tough vehicle arrived take us up there.

The first stop was at a popular tourist spot where tourists were taking photos of themselves by a huge Oman sign set back about 1.5m from a sheer drop a very long way down to the sea. It was quite busy there with tourists and motorbikes but our guide took some nice pictures of us avoiding the other tourists as much as possible.

We do love it – wonderful country

There was a narrow road of sorts going down to a small village by the sea. The only way out from the bottom is by sea or driving back up again. It made some roads we have driven on like the Stelvio Pass in Italy look a doddle. Martin went near enough to the edge to take a photo of this road which also appears on some tourist literature about Oman, but I was very grateful that we were coming down from the Oman sign the same way as we went up.

From the Oman sign – not our route

The drive up to Jebel Harim was on a narrow gravel road (often with a sheer drop at the side) and with plenty of bends. The scenery all around was jagged mountains which were completely dry.

The road to Jebel Harim

At about 1100m we reached a flat plain with houses, green fields and crops.

Green fields on way to Jebel Harim
Green fields on way to Jebel Harim

Some donkeys, just like the goats in the morning, were wandering around on their own. Some goats then appeared and the driver fed a banana to one of them. We did not see any humans there at all.

Then it was another 20 minutes or so up again to another flat area below the summit of Jebel Harim.

Fossil area below Jebel Harim

Further up is a military area closed to tourists but the guide took us a short walk to see fossils embedded in the dark grey rocks on the ground. Many of these were of sea creatures and quite large.

Fossils at Jebel Harim

The drive down was uneventful but I was fairly relieved when we reached the bottom. This trip turned out to be just a taster for the many mountain roads we took on our tour from Muscat.

Dhow Trip to Khor Ash Sham

For the next day ETG had arranged an all-day trip on a dhow to Khor Ash Sham which is the most accessible of many khors. These are fjords surrounded by more spectacular and very dry mountains. Our driver took us to the harbour where we had to clamber across several other dhows to reach ours. We found ourselves to be the only tourists on this boat which we were told could take just over 40 people. Two crew members looked after us as well as managing the boat. All we needed to do was lounge on the oriental cushions and carpets under the sunshade and admire the scenery and calm waters.

Our dhow and a crew member

Oman has often been described as a geologist’s paradise and it was not difficult to see why as we sailed along the khor.

Rock formations at Khor Ash Sham

We were not the only dhow out for the day. Others were already at our first stop, an inlet where you can see dolphins. We’ve seen them before but the two we saw were close and not bothered by all the dhows around them.

Tourist dhow in Khor Ash Sham

We sailed on to anchor by Telegraph Island where the British built a telegraph station in 1864 to provide cable traffic between the UK and India. The station was not operational for long but the name has stayed. Better swimmers than us swam to the island from some other dhows but we were content to watch one of the crew prepare and cook a delicious fish for us.

Fish for lunch on the dhow

We ate it together with chicken, rice, flatbread and a selection of salads.

Lunch on the dhow

The other boatman went spear fishing underwater and caught what Google Lens identified as a cuttlefish. The other boatman cleaned it up. Perhaps that was lunch for the next day’s trip.

Their lunch tomorrow?
Cuttlefish: tomorrow’s lunch?

We were at anchor by Telegraph Island for about 90 minutes. The wind got up when we were about halfway back. I avoided being seasick but the boat was not stabilised. I was glad when we rounded the headland into the harbour but overall this trip was excellent. It’s a must-do in Khasab and I would recommend the whole day one (actually about 6 hours) rather than a half-day which does not go as far as Telegraph Island. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. And when we got back the tide was at a different level and we walked straight out of the dhow on to the quay, with no clambering over other boats.

Getting to Muscat

Our time in Khasab was up and early the next day we were taken to the airport by 8am for a 10am flight to Muscat. The runway is in a valley (the only suitable valley) close to the town. The airport building, to put it bluntly, leaves a bit to be desired. The waiting area is by the checkin desks, only one of which was staffed for some of the time we were there. Plenty of locals were milling about or had taken most of the seats. Those that were still waiting to check in seemed to have more baggage than was allowed. We stood in a queue which crept along. There was no sign of the plane which was coming from Muscat. There was still no sign of it by 10am or for some time after that. We did find somewhere to sit down but I had to keep going outside as the air conditioning was very fierce inside.

After a while we started chatting with a French couple who where the only other two Europeans. At 12 noon the check in agent announced that the plane was not coming because it was too windy. Everyone was rebooked for the next day. The locals vanished very quickly, but the driver who had taken us to the airport soon turned up to take us back to the hotel. We feared that the flight might be cancelled the next day and really wanted to keep to our itinerary and get to Muscat that day. The French couple were quite desperate to get there as well as they had only one more day left in Oman.

Martin asked the driver to arrange a car to drive us the 530km to Muscat and the French couple agreed to share it with us. We could not fit all our baggage in the first car they brought but just managed it in a 4WD. I sat rather cramped in the back with the French couple with our small items on our laps. By then it was after 2pm and none of us had had anything to eat. We got the driver to take us to Lulu to grab a sandwich and we finally set off at about 2.30pm.

It turned out to be something of a mad dash through the desert, but the road surface was excellent. Some of the trip was on a dual carriageway. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by part of the UAE and so we had to stop twice (one exit and one entry) at each of the two border posts and buy new visas. Fortunately they were not busy and the driver knew exactly what to do there. Other than that we did not stop at all.

Our guide at Muscat was supposed to be meeting us at the airport to take us straight up into the mountains. We weren’t clear what was happening but the Khasab driver had been on the phone a lot (while driving). At about 9.15pm long after it got dark we suddenly left the motorway and came to a stop on a bit of waste land on the outskirts of Muscat to find our wonderful Muscat guide Saqer waiting for us in a Toyota Landcruiser. The first thing he did for us was to get very welcome sandwiches and drinks. Our new French friends stayed with our original driver – I hope they got to where they needed to be in Muscat.

Picture gallery: Oman Part 1: Musandam and Khasab

Click to enlarge

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