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ON A DHOW OFF OMAN

Cruising down the Strait of Hormuz, you can only see the dolphins and the cliffs or take a safari around giant sculptured mountains

“Wish I could enjoy and live life the way the dolphins here do,” laughs Diane as she relaxes on the sun deck of the wooden dhow – or the boat as it is referred to in Omanese — that has anchored in the aqua-hued Gulf of Oman. The 17-year-old student together with her parents and our little group of tourists in the waters off Musandam’s Khasab city have just had a charming up, close and personal encounter with these charming sea creatures.

Dolphin-spotting is one of the most delightful treats that the region offers. Needless to say, several of them raced along with our dhow as its ‘captain’ and his helper clapped and whistled, sending across signals to them that a game was on. And they sure were game for it — racing along, slicing the crystal clear waters with envious ease and of course, giving us splendid views of their neat jumps in the rippling waters.

A pause here to talk about our destination — Musandam – a little slice of Oman separate from the rest of the country in the tip of the Arabian Peninsula along one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world, the Strait of Hormuz. We were in its pretty little capital city called Khasab – lovingly referred to as the ‘Norway of Arabia’ — famous for its tall and ‘naked’ (since there is almost no plant life) desert mountains boasting artistic, near-symmetrical patterns on their rocky surfaces that seem to have been painstakingly carved by Mother Nature over millions of years. Driving along its coastal route unveils some of the most spectacular vistas ranging from mountainous landscapes to snaking fjords and sheer cliff faces dropping straight down to the water surface.

We’re privy to this spectacle standing on our dhow that is a two-deck vessel comprising both an open space area covered with beautiful carpets and cushions spread out for those wanting to relax under the open sky. A covered zone houses a dining space that offers not just meals but also a regular supply of fruits and soft drinks. And not to forget the rooftop deck for those wanting to sun-bathe or seeking those precious me-moments that our busy life often deprives us of.

The day cruise also offers opportunities for snorkelling and swimming. “Carry your swimsuits,” we were told; snorkeling gear will be available on board. Having changed, we jump into the waters that after first seeming icy cold, quickly warmed up to us. With life jackets on, since we didn’t want to tire ourselves in the deep waters, it was great seeing the world from a different ‘perspective’.

Later, over a sumptuous lunch, comprising both seafood and vegetarian fare, prepared by the onboard cook, the dhow ‘captain’ talks about the Telegraph Island, that goes back to the time of the British.

The island is believed to have got its name from the telegraph-cable repeater station that was built here in 1864. Another amusing aside emerged from one of the members of the group – that this is where the term ‘go round the bend’ came from: it was when, tired of the posting here, young British officers would go to India – taking the route around the bend in the Strait of Hormuz.

As the dhow glides back over the fjord waters and anchors at Khasab, all of us, suitably refreshed — both physically and mentally – disembark. And boarding a four-wheel drive set off for a mountain safari moving along a gorgeous coastal route.

The affable driver, Fadia, is all smiles when he hears that we’re from India. “We love your movies – all of us have watched ‘Secret Superstar’,” he states. As we move towards Jebel Harim, the highest mountain in Musandam that stands at 2,087 metres, our guide – Eldho Verghese – who is originally from Cochin tells us that many from his home state Kerala are working in Oman. “So much so that it often feels like home here only,” he smiles.

With the rugged mountain ranges towering over us, its rocky face often seems to play tricks — looking as if some gigantic sculptures have been carved on it. Fadia often stops the car en route, letting us enjoy the scenic views that unfold at every turn. There are dry ‘wadis’ – areas that once seemed to have water flowing past them – something that seems hard to believe given the water levels down below.

Finally, we stand at the highest point in Musandam. There are some caves here, we are told, where, in earlier times, women would seek shelter when their menfolk went fishing or for work. Now, an army unit is stationed here to keep an eye on the regions around.

And then, he takes us to the piece de resistance of the area — the fossils and rock engravings that go back millions of years. In the glare of the sun, we could have missed them but the trained eye of Fadia and Binoo, our other guide, knows exactly where they are. He pours water on the rock surface and the real picture emerges – and one can see fossils of fish and other water life and even drawings etched on the rock surface. A fascinating spectacle indeed!

On our drive back, Fadia tells us that the town of Khasab, in its present avatar, goes back just about 40 years. “Before that it was a fishing village. It changed completely after the Sultan came to power and today, it is very developed. Besides schools and a hospital, we also have supermarkets like Lu Lu and hotels too too,” he informs.

Soon, we stop outside the Khasab city fort that goes back to the 17th century when it was built by the Portuguese to keep an eye on the Strait of Hormuz. Going past two canon guns placed on either side of the entrance. The moment you step in, you feel like going you are going back in time.

The round tower in the centre and the other areas of the fort display objects that reflect its great history including weapons, kitchen jars, jewellery, clothes and wedding decorations besides, of course, three impressive Omani dhows.

And in the distance, as the evening sun casts its bronze light over the rippling waters of the fjords, we salute the artistry and craftsmanship of those that Khasab takes pride in even today.