Khasab in Oman’s Musandam Peninsula is the country’s best kept secret. Text and photos Raul Dias
Truth be told, Oman for me always conjured up images of Sinbad the Sailor and his merry crew of weather-beaten sea dogs navigating the country’s vast ocean in their spice-seeking ships, setting their sights on newer, more mysterious lands. But that day in Khasab, all my senses were assaulted by cliché-busters, one after the other.
As the capital of the Musandam Peninsula — a region of Northern Oman, separated from the rest of the country by the sands of the UAE, Khasab shrugs off every Middle Eastern trope like a fashionista would last season’s couture. If you’re after camels, caravanserais and undulating dunes, then this region is sure to disappoint. But if off-the-beaten-track action gets your juices flowing, then Khasab is the place…
On our way to check out the ‘Other Oman’ as it were, my posse of five friends and I decided to make Jebel Harim or ‘Mountain of Women’ our first stop. Our purpose: to scope out the pre-historic fossils found in abundance over the slopes of this once sub-oceanic mountain that today stands proud, 2,087 mt above the very sea level that it once lay submerged under.
But first, our guide Mohammed — a Sanjeev Kumar doppelganger — said we needed to see the petroglyphs in the mountain village of Sayah. Surrounded by lush palm and acacia and the dry river beds called wadis, it's the rock paintings that command serious attention. Over 3,000 years old, the petroglyphs' depiction of ancient agrarian scenes are vivid and striking even today, thanks to the ‘paint’ mixture of sulphur and pigeon droppings. Ogling them was enough to lull most of us into semi-suspended animation.
However, the still, early morning somnolence suddenly found itself punctured by a shrill, Banshee-like cry. As our eyes adjusted, we found a blur of black inching towards us. Arms akimbo, one bearing a wooden staff and the other a scythe, the ‘apparition’ came close, with her metallic face mask or burqa reflecting the harsh rays of the Arabian sun.
Wildly gesticulating and pointing to my friend’s camera, her rage reflected in her dark, kohl-lined eyes. It was then that realisation hit us. Capturing this Bedouin tribal lady through the camera was my friend’s gravest folly. Well, at least in these parts of Oman it was, said Mohammed. Here the tribal people believe that a camera captures one’s soul. Sure that we were cursed by the lady, despite the picture being deleted, we sped off into the rising dust, towards friendlier locales.
Passing through Al Khalidiya nature park, we made several detours on the way to take in the superbly preserved fossils of fish, molluscs and numerous trilobites that lay plastered across rock surfaces. They seemed to come alive when water was splashed on them, defining their shapes better.
Back on sea-level, the intriguing lapis lazuli-hued waters of the Arabian Sea seemed like a good idea for a bit of aquatic action. We took a four-hour cruise in a traditional wooden dhow that careened from Khasab Harbour, along the waters surrounding the Musandam fjords that give the region the moniker of the ‘Norway of Arabia’.
Munching on the sweetest khallas variety of dates, bowlfuls of saffron-rich Omani halwa and potent shots of kahwa coffee dispensed out of a gleaming gold coffee pot called a dallah, we each charted our own courses of action as the dhow dropped anchor off Telegraph Island. An island that once served as a repeater station to boost telegraphic messages along the Persian Gulf submarine cable (part of the London to Karachi telegraphic cable) for the British when they occupied parts of Oman in the mid 19th century, today Telegraph Island is a rubble-ridden tourist pit stop.
While some of us donned snorkelling gear and sliced though the cool, coral-infested waters of the fjords, others preferred to hone their kayaking skills. I lost myself in the soundtrack of the day — provided by a pod of frisky dolphins whose squeaks and clicks followed our dhow.
A stone’s throw from the harbour, we found ourselves at the mighty gates of the Khasab Castle. Now converted into a museum, this picturesque stronghold was constructed in the 17th century by the Portuguese who were seeking dominion over the maritime trade on the Strait of Hormuz in nearby Iran, which can easily be seen from the castle’s ramparts.
And that’s just where we ended our action-packed day in Khasab, as the setting sun’s salmon pink offset the sea’s silver luminescence. Thus bestowing upon us one more surreal montage to add to the gazillion others we had amassed all day.
My guess is we weren’t cursed by the masked Bedouin lady, after all… try blessed!
There are a number of daily direct flights to Muscat from all major Indian cities. From Muscat, there are daily flights of an hour’s duration to Khasab. Travel by road to Khasab and to the rest of the Musandam Peninsula is not recommended for non-GCC nationals, as one needs to pass through the UAE from mainland Oman to reach the peninsula, which can involve a lot of paperwork and UAE visas.
Travel within Khasab is easy with many taxis plying between its neighbourhoods. It is also possible to hire a vehicle for a self-drive vacation; do note that in Oman vehicles drive on the right side of the road.
Best time to visit
From October to April Oman experiences a pleasant climate.
There is a good range of accommodation available in Khasab. The average cost for accommodation is around 50 Omani Rials a night for two, with breakfast.