Forts, Fossils & Dates: Exotic Mussandam

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go snorkelling, off-roading, dolphin sighting besides other adventures as they explore Oman’s northern-most Governorate Mussandam 

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Suffused with tales of Sinbad the Sailor, born in the ancient capital of Sohar to the Queen of Sheba whose palace near Salalah stood witness to the ancient frankincense trade; Oman is a tapestry of magical experiences and rich Arabian culture. A 3 hr drive from Dubai and an hour’s flight from Muscat, the northern-most governorate of Mussandam is fast emerging as Oman’s hottest destination. Set in stunning terrain of red mountains and Prussian blue fjords, the finger like projection separates the Persian Gulf from the Oman Sea, overlooking the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Here are some unique adventures…

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Visit Portuguese-built forts at Khasab & Bukha
Like Muscat, Mussandam’s seaside forts were built by the Portuguese on the site of older fortifications. At Khasab, the capital of Mussandam region, the fort has been renovated into a stunning museum. In the courtyard are specimens of a coffee-making room, kitchen, arish (summer house), granary and a grinding shed with bread oven. The upper level has theme rooms like a Ladies’ Majlis, Qur’an Study room, Wedding Chamber and Traditional Medicine, besides costume, jewellery and khanjars (Omani daggers). On one side of the central tower housing the museum, three traditional boats appear as if they had washed ashore… Or take the Coastal Road to the fort at Bukha.

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Dolphin sighting on a dhow cruise
Bobbing like a wooden chariot on the water, the traditional Omani dhow beckons one to sprawl against its plump cushions and striking rugs to enjoy a long cruise. While friendly staff plies you with fruits, cool drinks and a buffet meal, sit back and absorb the natural splendor of the scenic fjords of Musssandam, described as the Norway of Arabia. Nothing beats the thrill of dolphins cleaving through clear blue waters alongside as they outrace your dhow with graceful leaps.

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Snorkelling at Telegraph Island
Named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854, the lonely island once housed an old repeater station that boosted telegraphic messages along the Persian Gulf submarine cable from Karachi to London. Today, snorkelers flock around the abandoned Telegraph Island to view the rich marine life and stunning tropical fish. Swim with hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. With the country’s best dive sites located along the stunning coastline of Kumzar, Mussandam is making waves as a diving destination.

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Off-road drive to Jebel Harim
According to legend, local women often flocked to a lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name Jebel Harim or the Mountain of Women. A half hour 4×4 offroad drive from Khasab deposits you at Khor Najd. The fjord is one of Oman’s many natural gems and offers a mesmerizing view of snaking roads and clear blue waters. Like an open jaw of jagged brown teeth, the hills form a stunning backdrop! The winding drive towards this 2,087 m high mountain is peppered with isolated cave dwellings of Bedouins who inhabited them till the 1940s. Each humble space had a sleeping area and a rudimentary kitchen.

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Hunt for fossils and petroglyphs
Defying its earlier avatar as a sub-oceanic range that rose up when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, one hardly expects to find ancient rock art and fossils high in the mountain. In the remote settlement of Qida, intriguing human, animal and abstract figures indicate the presence of early man. Many of these petroglyphs (stone carvings) can be found along the wayside. Equally fascinating are fossils of sea creatures frozen on rocks 65 to 800 million years ago! Travel guides sprinkle a little water to accentuate the contrast of hard white skeletal remains in the grey crags.

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Pick up dates and Omani halwa at the local market
In a region baked relentlessly by the sun, the desert-friendly date palm is the tree of life. Besides Omani hospitality of serving coffee with a platter of dates, according to old traditions, planting a date palm marked the birth of a son! The plant was insurance against any eventuality since its lifespan matched the average age of a person, hence promising life-long nutrition. It is believed that eating 15 dates a day fulfills the nutrient requirements of any adult. Try Khalas, Khasab or Farah from the hundreds of fine varieties of dates and delicious Omani halwa available at every souk and corner.

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Go cormorant spotting
Surrounded by large water bodies, Mussandam is a great perch for several species of aquatic birds. The gilded high ridges are studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young in an endless dance of beating wings. A dhow cruise takes you closer to their rocky perches as they dip, dive and emerge to dry their wings along the coast. The Sayh Plateau in the mountains south of Khasab is an excellent winter base for Evermann’s Redstart while Wheateaters, Buntings and Rock thrush visit in spring.

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Smoke a medwak
While sheeshas and hookahs have enjoyed patronage in urban bars and rural settings, the slim medwak or Arabic smoking pipe is lesser known. A pinch of flaky dokha, an Iranian tobacco-based product mixed with bark, herbs and aromatic leaves is filled into its tiny bowl, lit like a regular pipe and allows no more than 2 puffs and a short heady buzz. If you don’t smoke, the medwak is a fine handcrafted souvenir that can be made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver, plastic or even glass.

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Try local cuisine
Enjoy hamour fry and fresh catch from the sea at the Golden Tulips Hotel, recently rebranded as Resort Atana Khasab. The hotel allows you to catch your own fish and they’ll cook it for you. Enjoy Arabic platters with Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with the magical ingredient sumac (lemony spice). Wash it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) or date milk.

Fact File

Fly 2½ hrs from India to Muscat and take a 50-min domestic flight by Oman Air to Khasab. For dhow cruises, offroad safaris and local excursions, contact Khasab Tours www.khasabtours.com. For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 May 2014 of The Hindu.

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