Good Oman: Acquire a taste for Musandam
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
Saturday 16 May 2009
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.
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; omanair.aero) non-stop from Heathrow to the capital, Muscat, with a good connection for the daily flight to Khasab. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) 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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
Oman Tourism: omantourism.gov.om
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