There’s only really two types of business in Khasab
Tourism and smuggling
Both activities take place on the water.
The tour operators race through the fjords of Oman, spotting dolphins and guiding eager visitors through the spectacular scenery. The smugglers race across the Strait of Hormuz to nearby Iran, dodging bullets and oil tankers to deliver cigarettes, fridges, and anything else that will sell in the sanction hit country.
This lack of economic diversity in the city of Khasab has a lot to do with the fact that this is one of the most isolated cities in Oman. It’s situated on the tip of the Musandam Peninsular, a strategic location that overlooks the Strait of Hormuz and means that Khasab is actually closer to Iran than it is to Muscat. This geographic position also makes Khasab one of the world’s rare exclaves. It is entirely separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates on one side, and by rough seas on the other…
Khasab has a reputation for being a smuggling hotbed, with the few guidebook entries that deal with this rarely visited region of the Middle East actually touting the smuggling as one of the must see things on the Musandam Peninsular. And conversely, little known Khasab also has a reputation for being spectacularly beautiful.
Either way, I knew that I needed to know more about this intriguing exclave.
I was going to Khasab.
Where Even Is Khasab?
Being an exclave means that the city of Khasab- the main city on the Musandam Peninsular- is not particularly easy to get to, especially when you are in the Omani capital of Muscat. The nation state of the United Arab Emirates sort of gets in the way and while the whole of the Musandam Peninsular might be a part of Oman, there’s a lot of borders to negotiate if going by road, and a lot of mountains too.
These mountains have cut the peninsular off from the rest of the Arabian world for centuries, and the mountains and the sea have together shaped the history of Musandam, and continue to do so today.
The people here were traditionally- and in many ways still are of course- seafarers. With almost impassable mountains to cross to connect with the rest of the Arab world, the people of Khasab took to the seas. And for me, the best way to travel here was to take to the seas too.
From Muscat, I was taking the ferry to Khasab.
From Muscat To Khasab Through The Strait Of Hormuz
Without travelling through UAE territory the only way in or out of Khasab is by plane or by boat. If you follow my travels then you’ll know that I’m a big fan of slow travel- I like to take the long way around- so despite being a similar cost I was not going to be flying. I was going to take the ferry through The Strait of Hormuz and arrive into Khasab harbour from the open seas, just like the smugglers.
The Journey Is The Destination As They Say!
The ferry runs twice a week.
But not all the way from Muscat. That would be too easy of course.
No, the National Ferries Company- you can find the Muscat-Khasab schedule HERE if you are inclined to repeat my journey- run a bus from Muscat to the port of Shinas, about three hours drive up the coast, where the ferry actually departs from.
And from Shinas, the fast Catamaran takes another three hours to weave its way through the hectic Strait, along the rocky coastline and through the dense mass of oil and shipping tankers that make this one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Even in the modern age Khasab remains isolated
I watched the sun begin to set as we left the port of Shinas and sailed out onto the Strait. The container ships and oil tankers stretched endlessly to the horizon, forming an almost continuous line of shipping until the sun set over Arabia, and the darkness swallowed everything.
It was pitch black when the ferry rounded the Musandam Peninsular, the only light coming from the blinking warning beacons of ships in the distance.
In the dark I could see little but the outline of mountains along the shoreline as we pulled into the Khasab harbour and I walked in the still humid evening heat the short distance to my hotel. In the morning I would be heading out onto the water with a local tour company- Dolphin Khasab Tours– to explore the fjords that formed a beautiful network of waterways near Khasab.
I was hoping to spot a few dolphins, and perhaps run into a smuggler or two as well.
There’s Only One Road Into Khasab
In the morning I was picked up by Ahmed, a local fellow working for the tour company I’d be exploring with that day. My hotel was right on the main road, and right on the waterfront too for that matter- as most things in Khasab are- and surrounding the small city were high, rocky mountains on all sides.
The road we were on, explained Ahmed, was the only road in and out of Khasab. This road eventually ledall the way to Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, and the next day Ahmed would drive me along this incredible stretch of coastal road all the way into the UAE so I could travel onward to Dubai, and it would be one of the most scenic hours I’d ever spend in a car.
But that was tomorrow. For now, as he drove me to the harbour to board the traditional Dhow boat I’d be spending the day on, Ahmed explained that the road was only built twenty years ago, and had only been properly tarmacked around ten years ago.
Before that it was just a dirt track, and before that just a goat trail along dangerous cliffs.
Khasab had been isolated. More so than now, and Ahmed told me how he remembered visiting family in nearby Ras Al Khaimah by boat when he was younger. It was the easiest way to get around. And back then there had been no borders. Before the creation of the United Arab Emirates in the 1970’s all of this land had been run on a tribal level, and Khasab was an independent entity. When the UAE formed, the whole Musandam Peninsular was given over to the Sultanate of Oman, its strategic location across from Iran on the Strait of Hormuz ensuring that it was to be governed by what at the time was the most powerful player in the region.
Ahmed added that back then Ras Al Khaimah was just a small coastal settlement, and Dubai was a long way from its glory days. Khasab had changed a lot since he was a boy, but it was nothing really compared to the development of the cities in the UAE. But although Khasab might not have the riches, the skyscrapers and the glamour of their neighbours in the UAE, quiet Khasab’s isolation meant they ad managed to hold onto a peace and serenity that was lost years ago across the border.
The Dhow Boat
At the small harbour I met with Arundas, the operations manager of Dolphin Khasab Tours. He was from India, but he’d worked here in Khasab for years, seeing the tourism industry grow year on year. And perhaps the isolation and peace really is a big draw for the visitors to the Musandam Peninsular. Most of Arundas’ customers were either expats from the United Arab Emirates escaping the cities for a break, or passengers from the cruise ships which docked in the harbour in the cooler winter months.
As word escapes that Khasab is unlike anywhere else on the Arabian continent, they are having to cater for more and more tourists each year, all of them here to experience the fjords of Oman, which I would soon be exploring myself.
I left Arundas and Ahmed at the harbour and boarded the Dhow, to be greeted by the Captain and guide, Hussein. Dhow ships had plied these coastlines for centuries, taking Arab traders to India, Africa and Asia. In the days of old, they were wind or man powered, but now they were rigged out with motors and decked with pillows and ice cold cool boxes to make things comfortable for the tourists.
As we set off from Khasab harbour I stood eagerly on the bow of the ship, camera at the ready, and on the look out for dolphins and smugglers.
The Dolphins of Khasab
The Dhow passed the rugged peaks that surround Khasab harbour as we headed straight into the fjords. Towering cliffs rose from the sea and formed an entrance into the labyrinth of inlets that we would be exploring, while the cliffs extended for miles on either side, a maze of rock and water shimmering in the sun.
It really was spectacular.
Before long Hussein was gunning the boat in the direction of a few innocent ripples on the surface of the otherwise still water, expertly guiding the Dhow alongside a pod of Humpback Dolphins who were cruising through the fjords.
It hadn’t taken long to find the dolphin, and it seemed that they were in a playful mood, ducking and diving alongside the Dhows, jumping out of the navy blue water in a flash of grey before disappearing under the surface again.
Hussein said they were here most days, catching sardines and other fish in the still bays of the fjords. When we returned this way when the sun set, there would be even more dolphins around he added.
The Most Isolated Villages In Oman
These fjords aren’t just home to dolphins though, nor are they just a playground for tourists to gaze in awe at the continually astounding scenery that passes. Locals live alongside the waters, on the edge of the mountains that form the fjords.
Hussein pointed out villages as we travelled deeper into the fjords. Most had been here for hundreds of years he said, and being at the base of such steep peaks, there are no roads and few footpaths. The only way to travel is by boat.
Most of the locals owned speedboats, small fast boats- the same used for smuggling it would transpire- that could cross the fjords to Khasab in no more than ten minutes from where we were. This same journey had taken us at least an hour in the chunky Dhow, although I doubt the locals would stop to chase dolphins every time they went to the supermarket.
The children who lived in the villages would boat into the city and spend the week at school before returning to their families on the weekend, and many adults would commute into the city too. Being on the water, when the land you lived on was so rugged, was normality in Khasab.
Going Around The Bend On Telegraph Island
Hussein dropped anchor just off a small, rocky island encircled by a colourful ring of coral, and the perfect snorkelling spot. This was Jazirat al Maqlab, otherwise known as Telegraph Island.
This outcrop of dust and pebbles in the middle of the Khasab fjords was once the site of a British Telegraph Repeater Station in the 19th Century, and the ruins of this isolated outpost are still visible on the island today.
It’s a place surrounded by jagged mountains and turquoise water, but the few men who were stationed here were alone and at the mercy of the oppressive heat for months on end. It was enough to drive a man crazy.
Telegraph Island has gone down in the history of the English language as the curious place responsible for the phrase ‘going around the bend’, or going crazy.
This lonely outpost of the British Empire which relayed the Telegraph line across to India became known simply as ‘the place around the bend’- the Musandam Peninsular being the bend- and the place where men went insane.
After exploring the derelict remnants of Telegraph Island and snorkelling in the coral surrounding it Hussein piloted the Dhow further down the fjords, stopping at snorkelling spots and scenic spots, serving an on board lunch of home cooked Omani rice and curry before turning around to return to Khasab when the day was drawing to a close.
More dolphins were swimming along further up the fjord near to where we had encountered them earlier in the day, and as we headed out onto the open water again near to the harbour entrance, across the Strait of Hormuz small speedboats were speeding off into the mass of tankers and ships far out into the sea.
Hussein pointed at the fast boats, bouncing across the water: ‘Smugglers!’
Every minute or so as we neared Khasab boats would fly past us, all loaded up with boxes and crates held down under cargo nets. Outside of the harbour there were groups of boats just waiting in the water as we rolled past.
Then suddenly a shout went out and in a whirl of engines and spray of sea water the boats all began hurtling across the strait.
These small boats have powerful engines, and the crew know precisely how long a crossing to Iran will take. From Khasab it’s not very far at all, and the fast boats can cross in an hour if the conditions are right. They wait outside the harbour until they receive an all clear signal from their watchers in Iran who are looking out for Coast Guard and Navy Patrols, and when it was safe to cross, the boats will hurtle across the strait.
Hussein explained that the smugglers take over all manner of products, from cigarettes to electrical goods. It’s big business in Khasab. Goods arrive by road from the United Arab Emirates, and are then loaded onto the boats in the harbour before being shipped across to Iran to be sold.
It’s dangerous work though. The Strait of Hormuz is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. I could see hundreds of ships out on the water even from the harbour, and these small boats had to navigate the traffic at full speed.
The Omanis seem to tolerate the trade, allowing the boats in the harbour at Khasab in day light hours only, and taking royalties too, but the Iranians aren’t so accommodating, shooting at the speedboats when they encounter them.
Hussein said the boats would sometimes arrive in Khasab with injured, bleeding crew members after a run in with the Coast Guard. It seemed to be a blurry business, but business in Khasab, and a business which would presumably continue as long there was profit to be made.
Across The Mountains
The Dhow arrived back into the harbour as the smugglers continued to speed off to Iran. As the sun sets every evening, hundreds of boats make the crossing.
The next day I would be making my own journey across borders. Ahmed, the driver who had picked me up in the morning, would be taking me along the coastal road and through the once impenetrable mountains that separate the Musandam Peninsular from the United Arab Emirates.
I would be leaving the peace and tranquillity of rustic Khasab behind, and crossing to the glitzy lights of Ras Al Khaimah before travelling onto the opulence and extravagance of Dubai.
For more awesome pictures from one of the most spectacular places in Oman then check out my Photos From The Road HERE!
My Full Day Dhow Tour was provided complimentary by Dolphin Khasab Tours, a local operator who provide eco friendly tours in Khasab and Musandam. All the opinions in this article are of course my own though, and after experiencing Khasab with them I would certainly recommend them as an excellent way to see the fjords.