We finally manage to get to the Musandam Peninsula, after I ascertain our new driver has brought his passport. Border formalities at Al Darah are straightforward – we pay 25 dirham p.p. to leave the Emirates and about twice that to enter Oman. This Wednesday morning, we are 10 people queuing; the whole thing takes about 30 minutes. Nice and easy.

Musandam Peninsula
Near Al Darah border check point

The others are UAE residents, surprisingly scantily dressed, all off to the Musandam to catch a boat out on the khor (fjord), for swimming and snorkelling.

The Musandam Peninsula is a remote Omani province, separated from the rest of the country by two emirates (Ras-al-Khaimah and Fujairah), jutting out into the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, as it is called here), facing Iran.

Musandam Peninsula landscape

Musandam in the haze

We’re heading to Khasab, Musandam’s principal town. Winding up and down with rugged mountains on one side and the Straits of Hormuz on the other, the road to Khasab is very dramatic. Measuring sticks are placed at the lowest points, with signs warning us not to pass if the water reaches up to the red level.

Up close, the massive Hajar Mountains appear arid and inhospitable, yet oddly attractive. In places, the mountain sides look about to crumble and fall. Once or twice during the 45 km stretch of road, they have. A few large rocks block part of the road.

Near the town of Bukha, we pass by a fort, the 17th century stronghold Bukha Castle.

Just like us, our driver – despite having lived in the UAE for 15 years – has never been to Oman before:

We’re all tourists today

Khasab is clean and quiet. Very quiet. Lonely Planet has oversold this little town a bit, talking of swarthy Iranian smugglers with lusty moustaches trading cigarettes for goats and a souk “resounding to a babble of foreign languages”. Sounds quite exciting, doesn’t it?

Lively souk?

The souk is anything but lively this afternoon. A few men selling fruits and vegetables; that’s it. Across the road, another souk looks more promising, with several trading companies and a few shops; but most are boarded up. We have to imagine how Khasab looks, all full of life, with interesting people and illegal trading going on.

Khasab harbour – described as “bursting with activity”, has 10 – 15 small boats at anchor. Must be the famed vessels used to smuggle contraband between Oman and Iran across the straits. A few men (with moustaches, it must be said) haul crates onto a few of the boats. Could be cigarette cases; definitely not goats.

Off to Iran?

Although goats roam the streets of Khasab quite freely.

Khasab goat

All in all, Khasab seems deserted, a bit like a ghost town. Granted, it’s early afternoon. The heat is slightly oppressive. Perhaps the place livens up considerably at night? We’ll likely never know, as I don’t have any plans to return. There’s just too much else to see of Oman: the wonderfully named capital Muscat, the green oasis city of Salalah with its frankincense and baobab trees and leopards(!), the solitude of Wilfred Thesiger’s desert…

No denying the unique beauty of the Musandam’s landscape, though. I’m glad to have seen that. And after the Emirates, the lack of shopping malls is very refreshing.

As we head back to the border, the sparkling blue water of the khor looks very appealing. We stop for a meal at the Golden Tulip, where we meet a Dutch family just returned from snorkelling. They tell of hordes of dolphins trailing their boat.

“Dolphins!! Why didn’t we do that, mum?”

Why, indeed…