Geographically speaking, Musandam is an exclave of Oman, which is separated from rest of the country by United Arab Emirates. That means that we weren't on the mainland of Oman, where Muscat and all the other major cities of Oman are situated. Four wilayats (districts) form the Musandam governorate:
1. Al Bhukha
3. Dibba Al Bayah
The dhow cruise we were on started from Khasab, which is the regional centre. It's not a very populated place. You do see small settlements of fishermen here or there, but mostly it's more of a tourist attraction. The rugged mountains and the coast line are very similar to the ones in the polar countries. In fact, many people refer to Musandam as the "Norway of Arabia".
We were told by Mr. Binoy that our dhow was dhow no. 1, which happened to be the closest one to the dock. Lucky we! We were the only Pakistanis on board. The dhow was a sort of small global village. There were people from America, France, China, Japan, India, and a family who looked like they were from some central European country. Our 'captain', Captain Waleed was an Omani, so was his 'second-in-command', while the tour guide was probably a Moroccan or Algerian. I am only making an educated guess about the tour guide, because he could speak fluent French, as well as Arabic and English. He may well have been an Egyptian or could be from Brunei for all I know!
The Chinese family was sitting on our immediate left, while on our right side were an American family. While the (presumably) Central European family and a south Indian family were sitting across. While rest of the tourists were partially hidden from our view by a cabinet-cum-table that was in the centre of the dhow, in and on which were stored provisions, refreshments etc. The youngest boy of the South Indian family was reading "Horrid Henry Rules the World". His mom was reading a title by Sidney Sheldon, which I don't recall. But I did wonder why anyone in their right senses would want to read on board a dhow, when there is such scenic beauty around them and they could have easily done that sitting in their living room.
When we were seated our tour guide, a jovial,stocky fellow collected our tickets and gave printed handouts to all of us which had a map of Musandam on the front and the travel itinerary on the back side of the paper. According to that hand out, and I quote verbatim:
The Khor Sham is a sheltered, 17 km long fjord. The water is crystal clear and calm, very inviting for snorkeling and swimming. The mountains rise out of the sea and reflect back on the water. There are almost always dolphins playing and following the boats as they cruise around the villages.
Of course, we were mainly doing the cruise for the dolphins and snorkeling! And the guide reassured us that there were always plenty of them to be seen. On both sides of us, we could see majestic mountains standing tall. We were mesmerized by the splendour of the mountains, and the quiet, crystal clear water enchanted us. "The sea is so calm" exclaimed A. for the one hundred and twentieth time. The water was emerald green, still and so clear that you could see the sea floor.
A few minutes after the dhow set sail were offered Arabic qahwa by the short but sturdy fellow(previously referred to as the 'second in command'), he was basically a jack of all trades sort of guy. He served refreshments and fruits to us; took off his clothes and jumped into the water to secure the boat with an anchor whenever the need arose; served the 'buffet' to all on board; and when the hour of need arose, he helped captain Waleed in managing the boat and so on. Soon afterwards he served fruits to us on a big, round platter. And we chuckled when we remembered the description on the website of the tour company, "You will have unlimited snacks, refreshments, fruits and a buffet lunch'. More about the buffet lunch will follow later.
One of the attractions of the cruise were the villages which were on various small islands. The first village that we passed by was Nadifi. Its population was approximately 100 inhabitants, who are mostly fishermen. The tour guide explained to us that they fish for six months, mostly in winters, they take the fish to the town of khasab for selling. Since they aren't connected to the land by any road, almost everyone in the village owns fishing boats or small speedboats which they use to travel to and from the village. There children travel by boats to Khasab, and stay in the boarding houses from Saturday to Wednesday, and come to their homes on the weekends only. We were also informed that the government of Oman provided amenities like electricity and water to them even in this remote area, free of charge. The local children's academic expenses were also paid by the government.
We stopped near Qanaha, another small village for 15 minutes or so. A cluster of stone houses could be seen from afar, since we or any outsiders weren't allowed to travel beyond that point and go any close to the village. In the old days, this used to be the first line of defence against invaders. Some of the houses were almost the same colour as the mountains behind them. This was done in order to conceal them from the view of invaders, especially pirates, the tour guide explained.
Our first main stop was going to be on the Telegraph Island (Jazirat al Maqlab). and I refer to the handout again:
"...the most famous landmark in this area. Here the British laid the first telegraph cable in 1864, it ran from India to Basra, Iraq and the island was manned for 10 years...watch out for butterfly fish, groupers and the coral growth is among the best in this fjord."
"I wonder where all the dolphins are" said our tour guide somewhat anxiously. He sounded apologetic, as if they were his pet dolphins and were meant to have been there on schedule. "I think it's too early and all of them are sleeping" he joked. "They must be very tired, it was a big night last night" the American guy at our right chimed in. Everyone laughed at this, still everyone was looking around for signs of any movement. None, very quiet and still so far.
We made our first main stop at the Telegraph Island. Almost everyone left excitedly to climb the rocky island, except for me, the (presumably) central European lady, and a south Indian lady; and a very fat south Indian guy who was fidgeting about. He asked the short, sturdy (second in command) guy if the water was too cold. Then our jack-of-all trades guy looked analytically at him, hopped down from the boat, was back in a jiffy and declared that no it was perfectly fine for swimming.
The view was very spectacular from atop the telegraph island, but alas I was meant to stay behind. But since the island wasn't very big, and there are only so many photographs that you can take and so much looking at the mountains and the sea that you can do, soon everyone was back. Excitedly changing into their bathing costumes and donning the snorkeling gear! The young French children were the first to undress and jump into the water. The American mother and daughter were next. "It's just the initial shock, after that the water is just fine" the young American girl shouted to the still reluctant fat south Indian guy. So he finally took the plunge and dived in the water with a big splash. He was so bulky that he seemed to float without any effort at all.
A. took ages changing into a t-shirt and shorts, and fidgeting with his snorkeling gear. Then I had to literally shove him into the water(he is so not going to agree with this part but it's true!) After that he sort of disappeared, while I wondered where he had gone and regretted all the nasty things that I had said to him till now, of which there were many. Apparently he had gone under the dhow and on the other side of the rock. The water was so clear, that I could see shoals of fish, even while standing on the deck of the boat. The water was a deep green, the fish were of various colours. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the snorkeling and swimming, while those who like me couldn't swim or snorkel, enjoyed watching everyone playing and having fun in the water. We were going to stop there for an hour.
To be continued...