Good Oman: Acquire a taste for Musandam

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Musandam: north-eastern Arabia. Once ruled by Portugal, then used by Britain to unite a vast empire, its isolation could drive men 'round the bend'. Now it's a rational antidote to Dubai, says Simon Calder

Telegraph Island: possibly not the holiday destination of choice for Elliot Morley, Michael Gove or other MPs whose expenses claims have made the front pages. But this fragment of rock in the Strait of Hormuz, where the desert crumbles into one of the world's most strategic shipping lanes, is well worth a visit, even though the former British telegraph station is officially off-limits.

You know the Strait of Hormuz, where the Arabian Peninsula tapers to a dagger that points at the underbelly of Iran, and smugglers' dhows wobble in the wash from warships and oil tankers. Zoom in, though, and the area begins to look like a serious slip of the cartographer's pen.

A childlike squiggle delineates the boundary between raw rock and serene sea. The "Norway of the Middle East", they call it, though there is no evidence of glaciers having carved towering fjords. Nonetheless sheer walls of sun-baked rocks impede sea traffic, with the added hazard of detritus from geological cataclysms strewn offshore.

Most of these islets are as nameless as they are pointless. The exception is Jazirat al Maqlab, universally known as Telegraph Island. It is a lozenge-shaped outcrop about the size of a football pitch – but bare, bleached and baked by the sun in this land just beyond the tropics.

In the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, the young science of telecommunication opened up the possibility of near-instant communication with the Crown's most precious possession, India. In 1863, a cable system was completed: "Public messages are being daily flashed between all parts of the civilized world and the chief cities of our Indian empire," reported the Illustrated London News at the time.

The primitive technology of telegraphy required a series of relay stations. One was built on this forlorn lump of land. More than a century after the last message was received from London and transmitted on to India, it looks as timeworn as a classical temple in Greece. Uneven stone steps clamber from the water towards a stone platform with a tree – rare in these sun-ravaged parts – peeking out.

Peeking is all you can do, because it is regarded as an important military site – though there is no view of the Strait and its heavy-duty shipping. Indeed, Telegraph Island is hidden around the bend from Musandam's main town, Khasab. It is said that the mind-bending monotony of being based here was enough to trigger madness among some of the men. In time, the phrase "going round the bend" took root as a description for a mental breakdown.

Yusuf, the amiable captain of the dhow on which I was sailing, completed a circuit of the isle and then set a course for home. We half-dozen passengers – including an Emirates stewardess between flights and an Australian construction engineer searching for work in Dubai – sipped tea appreciatively as we made our escape from Telegraph Island.

From Dubai, the first part of the journey to Musandam is trivial. Heading north-east along the coast, almost every junction on the motorway signals a new Emirate: Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah are quickly ticked off without formality, the equivalent of counties or states within a single nation. But then the fast highway ends. As often happens on the approach to international frontiers, the road deteriorates and the traffic dwindles, as you approach Oman, or at least the northernmost chunk of that fractured Sultanate.

The main part of Oman starts about 100 miles south of here, and the capital, Muscat, is many hours away by road. A teardrop-shaped patch of territory pops out of the map just north of Fujairah, an enclave completely surrounded by the UAE. Musandam is a third component, hard to reach from the capital – though there is talk of a new fast ferry from Muscat. It remains to be seen if the meagre population can sustain the link: these austere landscapes resemble poverty writ large. And man has barely scratched his initials on this terrain.

The greatest drives run counter to gravity and intuition, and the Musandam Corniche snaking north from the UAE frontier qualifies. Aeons ago, the impeccably horizontal and striated rock was ripped apart to resemble the wreckage of a cosmic collision jutting out at painful angles to the surface of the Gulf. Decades ago, a road was carved out along the coastline, connecting Khasab – the provincial capital of Musandam – with the rest of the world, or at least the UAE.

"Stop if water is on red," instructs a sign by a ford, though this month the prospect of any moisture looked laughable. The carriageway swoops and swerves to Khasab, where the main attraction (in none too competitive a field) is the castle.

Oman's strong suit is fortifications, but this one is special. Four centuries ago, when the Portuguese were busily empire-building, they constructed a fort here with square and round towers of such naïvety that it resembles a child's idealised castle. Yet it proved very secure, thanks to its sophisticated design. The main entrance was built in such a way that obliges you simultaneously to crouch and clamber over a sill – not great circumstances for mounting an attack. And the inner and outer doors are offset, to thwart a charge with a battering ram. The well-preserved structure has been sensitively embellished to become a museum – indeed the main cultural repository for all of Musandam.

Inside the courtyard stands a larder, known as Bait al Qufl ("house of the lock"): until quite recently, most people migrated with the seasons, staying in Musandam to harvest dates and fish in summer. Food needed to be safeguarded while the family left for the winter to more promising lands. So a storehouse was built around pottery jars so large that they could not be removed through the narrow door, which itself had two locks of surprising sophistication. Their summer houses, made from timber and palm fronds, were elevated to maximise air flow – a cooling technique whose time has come.

Few tourists dwell for long in Khasab, since the best way to see the peninsula is from the sea. Which is where Yusuf, dapper in his Armani T-shirt, comes in. His is one of a fleet of traditional sailing vessels now devoted to visitors. For around £30 Yusuf will take you out for the day, ply you with mint tea, lend you snorkelling equipment to scrutinise the rich life below the surface (with sea urchins brought on board for inspection by more timid passengers) and throw in a decent lunch.

For anyone wearied by the hyperactivity of Dubai, it provides the ideal antidote. Should you want to stay longer, Yusuf can take you to camp on remote beaches with only the cormorants, and perhaps some ancient graves, for company.

Despite the hostile environment, makeshift villages cling to some of these shores. The most notable is Kumzar.

Virtually exiled from their countrymen but visited by passing ships from strange lands, the Kumzaris have embellished their language with elements of English, Hindi, Portuguese and Farsi. In this remote land, communication triumphs over isolation; your mobile phone will work fine, with the curious exception of the environs of Telegraph Island. Maddening.

Getting there

Because the Musandam Peninsula is detached from the rest of Oman, and has no international flights, getting there is tricky. You can fly on Oman Air (0844 482 2309; non-stop from Heathrow to the capital, Muscat, with a good connection for the daily flight to Khasab. British Airways (0844 493 0787; also flies Heathrow-Muscat, but stops en route in Abu Dhabi. From Muscat, Oman Air flies each day at 10.15am. An easier way to reach Musandam, however, is to fly to Dubai and travel overland – a two-hour drive to the frontier of Oman.

Red tape

Visas are no longer required by British tourists to enter Oman, but if you approach by land then you will need to pay 25 dirhams (£5) to leave the UAE and 6 rials (£10) to enter Oman.

Getting around

Plenty of local agents sell dhow trips. You can contact Yusuf on his mobile, 00 968 9978 6203 (so long as he is not near Telegraph Island) or email

More information

Oman Tourism:

Suggested Topics
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence