If you know nothing else in the Musandam, make certain you take at least a four hour cruise on a dhow, a traditional Gulf Arab fishing boat. More properly called a boom – the real dhow was very much larger -- they’re around 50 to 70 feet long with a 14-18 foot beam. Not large by any means, but big enough to instill some confidence in passengers with little sailing experience. Ours was on the small end of that scale, and I was surprised by a couple things: first, although the craft had an inboard motor, it was steered by a young Omani manning a tiller. Second, I didn’t realize that the deck was curved rather substantially from fore to aft. Even though I’ve seen them many, many times, I had never really noticed that before.
Anyway, we were scheduled to leave Khasab Harbor at 1:00 pm. After following a very odd, roundabout route to the dhow harbor, which is separate from the quays where larger vessels tie up, we arrived in time to see much to-ing and fro-ing of dhows and smaller boats. It wasn’t clear why ships kept changing position, but they did. One problem was that our dhow wasn’t tied up directly to the pier but to another dhow. We had to cross over two others to get to ours. The only other place we’d run into that was in Dubai when boarding the little abras – or water taxis – which ply across The Creek. In any event, we finally boarded ours and settled in.
Once we set off, we soon discovered that first, it was a lot cooler than we’d expected – fortunately we both had windbreakers along – and second, the bay we were crossing before entering the fjords was rather rougher than we’d anticipated, though not so bad that it caused anyone any discomfort. A half hour or so after leaving the quay, we approached cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet nearly straight down. The scenery became more and more dramatic the farther we went. Looking at the sides of those mountains was like looking at photographs in a geology textbook. These mountains would be an absolutely ideal geology lab: I could even spot sedimentary and metamorphic rock structures, and it’s been a few decades since I last cracked a geology text.
Perhaps two hours into the cruise, there was a shout from one of the crewmen: dolphins! There weren’t a lot – I’ve seen far more from the ferry to Catalina Island of Los Angeles – but the kids on board went nuts. As a photographer, I found it all a little disappointing because they rarely came out of the water but were satisfied with following alongside the dhow just underwater. There was one highpoint for me, though: there were two females with small calves not much more than two feet long swimming beside them. That was something I had not seen before.
After the dolphin interlude, if you could call it that, we anchored just off a small island to allow the swimmers aboard to do a little snorkeling. Neither of us indulged; the water is simply too cold this time of year – early January is just about the coldest part of the year in the Gulf – but for the Germans, French, Americans, and Brits on board, it was probably downright balmy. They certainly weren’t complaining at any rate. Oddly, I heard no one raving about the fish – or even the coral – down below, so I’m not sure how it was in that respect. Meanwhile, off in the distance, we noticed a very large, very expensive-looking motor yacht that was tied up a couple kilometers off our starboard bow. My wife and I figured it probably belonged to some Gulf royal; however, we found out later that it is owned by a UK billionaire of some kind – didn’t find out who. Apparently he keeps it in the Gulf permanently – and probably has a few more moored in other strategic spots, I’d guess.
After the snorkeling, we went up another little inlet, turned around, and started back towards Khasab. As the afternoon light was beginning to fade, we sped up. But the little mini-adventure wasn’t quite over: about a half hour out of Khasab, we saw a group of seven or eight motorboats off the starboard side. According to the crew, they were almost certainly Iranian smugglers. For them the Iranian coast was only about three hours away. These guys come over routinely to buy cigarettes and small electronics to take back. This kind of black market trade has been going on for centuries, apparently. Add to that a fairly impressive sunset over the craggy mountains and we felt we had had a pretty enjoyable afternoon.
As for costs, the four hour cruise we took, cost 15 Omani rials a head or roughly $40. An eight hour all-day cruise is only 20 rials and includes lunch, which is, clearly a rather better deal. It all depends on how much sun and salt air you can deal with in one go...