Take the slow boat along Oman’s secret coast

Take the slow boat along Oman’s secret coast

The best way to explore Oman’s Musandam Peninsula is from the deck of a dhow. In fact, with very few roads there, it may be the only way.

It’s not a great start. I’ve allowed 90 minutes for our convoy of cars to travel from Dubai, on the United Arab Emirates’ west coast, to Dibba, a small port on the opposite coast, just across the border inside the Omani enclave of Musandam. But traffic congestion heading out of town means we arrive at the port almost two hours late.

Our 14-strong group has been looking forward to Al Marsa Musandam’s two-night dhow cruise alongside the rugged peninsula all week, so the delay has tested our patience. By the time we actually board, excitement has given way to relief.

That phase passes the moment we dump our bags in our ensuite cabins. One by one we find our way to the top deck, where banana lounges and deck chairs point towards the bow. Bottles of wine and beer are opened and the sea breeze begins to work its magic. This, we all agree, is closer to how we imagined the weekend to pan out.

The Musandam Peninsula’s heavily indented coastline measures roughly 650 kilometres. Mountain peaks reaching heights of more than 2000 metres plummet into the Persian Gulf on one side and the Gulf of Oman on the other. The two bodies of water meet at the tip of the peninsula, where they squeeze through a slender passage separating this part of Oman from Iran. At its narrowest, this choke point – known as the Strait of Hormuz – is just 34 kilometres wide.

For thousands of years, this strait has formed part of a busy sea trade route connecting the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East and beyond to the Mediterranean. For that reason, the Musandam Peninsula is valued as a strategic commercial and military stronghold. It’s also an area that’s brimming with dramatic scenery. Comparisons have been made with Norway’s fjord system, although the Scandinavian version is certainly greener than the arid country on offer here.

There’s no way we can possibly sail around the entire peninsula in just 48 hours, so I ask Al Marsa’s Ziad Al Sharabi if we can make it as far as Kumzar, the isolated fishing village at the tip of the peninsula.

“We can’t get there. It’s too far and the currents are too strong,” he says. “The people are also very conservative. They don’t really like strangers walking around taking photos.”

Ziad instead maps out an itinerary that will take us north along the east coast for four hours, travelling through moonlit darkness to Sheesa Bay. He promises we will wake inside the sheltered headlands of Ras Qabr Hindi and Ras Khaysa, where we’ll be surrounded by jagged peaks whose twisted and contorted cliff faces will look as though they’ve been torn from the pages of a geology textbook. From Sheesa Bay, we’ll follow the contours of the coast – more slowly this time – back to Dibba. Along the way we’ll anchor in various locations to snorkel, dive or swim.

It’s well after 9pm when we set off from Dibba. Clear skies and calm waters mean there is little risk of seasickness, and the boat’s gentle sway is hypnotically comforting. Many are lulled to sleep, either below deck in their cabins or on the banana lounges up top.

Al Marsa’s dhows always tow tenders behind them for shore excursions and to ferry divers and snorkellers to exotic undersea locations. But when we wake in a cove inside Sheesa Bay the next morning, ours is gone.

Our dive master, Abdul Karim, tells us not to panic. There are only two divers on board our dhow, he says, so another crew has seconded our boat to accommodate the greater number of underwater adventurers on board their vessel.

“A replacement will arrive soon from Dibba,” he tells us, “so we will wait here until then. But this is an excellent place for snorkelling, where the currents aren’t dangerous.”

After 26 years in the Royal Navy of Oman, Abdul Karim knows a thing or two about the reefs in these parts. It’s been just 12 months since he handed in his resignation, so it’s fair to say he’s devoted most of his adult days to being in the water. “I’m like a dolphin,” he says. “If I don’t dive at least once a week, I become agitated.”

And waiting around is no problem. Since it’s our first morning, we’re happy to spend it snorkelling, napping, reading and diving from the top deck into the water. Dolphins swim off the bow and a sea turtle surfaces shortly after.

Captain Dilip signals a crew member to pull up the anchor soon after lunch. He motors north through Sheesa Bay to Red Island, a spectacular and protected mooring inside an extinct caldera.

Each of us jumps in the water, either to snorkel or to explore the island, where a beach covered in shells and broken coral connects two rocky bluffs. Just offshore, hard and soft corals cling to a gently sloping reef heavily populated with spotted starfish. Large schools of mackerel swim past with mouths agape and parrotfish gnaw away at the corals. Angelfish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish and damsels scout around the periphery, and shy groupers peer out through rocky crevices. A sea eagle hovers above.

As the sun sinks beneath the peninsula’s sawtooth ridgeline, Captain Dilip is once again at the bridge, setting a southerly course towards Ras Sakkan. We anchor inside the safe haven of Khor Qabal, wondering why we’d bypassed the bigger Khor Habalayn, the peninsula’s widest and longest inlet. Abdul Karim says it would take us six hours to reach its furthest point. “And it’s no good for snorkelling,” he adds. “There’s too much sand.”

In Khor Qabal, we’re wrapped inside a natural amphitheatre of sharp peaks. As we sit down for dinner, the temperature is ideal and the night sky twinkles and flashes with a million stars. Had the moon not been close to full, they would have been even more spectacular.

We were all too exhausted to savour our evening meal the previous day but this time it’s different. The mood is festive and there’s plenty to laugh about as we swap stories across the dining table. The only time we’re silent is when Abdul Karim outlines the following day’s excursion. Because of our forced layover that morning, the crew has planned a day packed with activity, he tells us.

“We’ll see everything that’s detailed on the itinerary, and more,” Karim says. “And as a treat we’ll take you into Lima village, where you can all have a walk around.”

I rise early, just as the sun begins to warm the peninsula’s spine. Others in the group eventually join me on deck and the late risers trickle up top when Captain Dilip warms up the engine.

Barely a word is muttered as we exit Khor Qabal. Shaded valleys form long dark lines tumbling towards the water from creviced peaks shrouded in mist. Far below, seabirds plunge headfirst towards shoals of leaping fish that splash against the glassy surface like raindrops. It’s an entrancing view.

The two divers in our group, husband and wife Paul and Anna Egan, board the dive boat for the short commute to Octopus Rock and we leave them behind to continue on to Lima Bay. There, when we’re anchored beneath bare cliffs inside a cove, we eat breakfast on the top deck. Before we’ve finished dining, the divers are motoring towards us.

“That was brilliant,” says Paul, as the two of them join us. “The best dive I’ve ever done.”

“The rock you can see above the surface is like an iceberg – only a small part of what’s beneath,” adds Anna. “It broadens below the surface, getting thicker deeper down. And bits have broken off it, leaving behind some big gullies and terraces where heaps of fish hide.”

After our morning meal, we all squeeze into the dive boat to rush towards terra firma. Like Kumzar and a handful of other villages sprinkled along this peninsula, Lima is accessible only by sea. With 4000 inhabitants, it is the largest and boasts the type of facilities found in highway towns. There’s a hospital, school and police station – it even has sealed roads so that the school bus can collect students from farming communities located further inland, in dry valleys known locally as wadis.

From our boat, date palm plantations resemble mini oases against the town’s craggy backdrop. Fishermen with heavily lined faces repair nets on the volcanic black-sand beach and goats appear to have the run of the town – they’re scattered by roadsides, against walls and even perched up trees.

Abdul Karim arranges a brief tour on the school bus of the wadi. We stop to collect a hitchhiking desalination plant worker, and again to ogle a venomous snake slain by a villager with whom it had the misfortune of crossing paths. We then head back to the port to reboard our dhow.

The sun feels hotter away from the water and we’re keen to cool off when we return. While the divers make a beeline for Lima Rock, the rest of us don masks and snorkels 
to swim alongside the narrow isthmus of Ras Lima. The highlight this time is seeing a good-sized eagle ray resting on a sandy patch of seabed.

The two divers are again wide-eyed when they catch up with us and they scroll through photographs of electric rays, moray eels and lionfish near the surface, and of reef sharks deeper down.

“That dive was frightening,” confesses Anna. “The current pulled us along – it was pointless trying to fight it. We saw a turtle and tried to follow it, but the current just dragged us away.”

We sail around Ras Lima towards Ras Kaha’af. The richly coloured turquoise water between the two headlands signals a sandy seabed, but the darker shades around the fringes hint at a reef. It looks like another promising spot for snorkelling until Abdul Karim suggests we accompany him in the tender to a sea cave around the corner. He navigates through a gaping hole encrusted with barnacles and we slide into the water.

Pufferfish drift in the currents and batfish and jackfish shoal together in the shadows. Sea snails with fluorescent body markings cling to the rocks. The biggest creatures, however, are those below us – the divers, whose air bubbles leave a trail behind them as they disappear beneath a deep rock ledge.

As we sail back to Dibba – and the thought of once again having to deal with the traffic on the road back to Dubai – we begin to reminisce about our days on board the dhow. The divers and snorkellers each rave about their experiences and everyone feels significantly more at ease than when they first boarded.

Without exception we agree on one thing, and that is that two nights was not enough. A week would have been better.

Get there

The Musandam Peninsula is best approached from Dubai. Qatar Airways has return flights Sydney and Melbourne, via Doha. Connections are available from other Australian cities.

You can obtain a United Arab Emirates visa on arrival at Dubai International Airport. Australian and New Zealand citizens who have a UAE entry visa don’t require a separate visa for Oman.

Stay there

Several hotels and resorts are scattered in and around Dibba. The best of these is the luxurious Six Senses Zighy Bay, with its award-winning spa. Each of its villas has a private pool, and there are a number of activities on offer, from paragliding to sunset dhow cruises. Rooms start at US$595 a night. The Golden Tulip Resort, which has 54 rooms on a private beach, is a more affordable option, with rooms starting at about US$90 a night.


Tour There

Al Marsa Musandam runs half- and full-day tours, as well as live-aboard dive and sightseeing cruises, that run for between one and seven nights. It also offers dive training and PADI certification.

Words Mark Daffey

Photos Mark Daffey

Tags: cruise, diving, liveaboard, oman, snorkelling

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