Natural History: The Khasab Fjords

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If you want to take a trip out of the UAE and into Oman for the day or a quick overnight, then a great location to visit is the fishing port of Khasab at the end of the
Mussandam peninsula.

The easiest way to access the Port of Khasab is to follow the E11 up through RAK to the border then cross over (details coming up!) and keep following the main coastal road all the way until you reach Khasab, with its international customs and immigration for Cruise ships stopping off and the Beautiful Fort. There is also a big Lulu’s for you to stock up on ice, cold drinks and picnic food! If you plan to stay the night in Khasab then you can check into one of only a handful of hotels:

Atana Musandam Resort – 670 AED a night (summer) with no breakfast for a family of 4
Atana Khasab Hotel (used to be called the Golden Tulip) perched on the cliffs before you enter Khasab – 570 AED a night (summer) with no breakfast for a family of 4
Diwan Al Amir – 310 AED a night (summer) with breakfast for a family of 4
Khasab Hotel – 525 AED a night (summer) with free breakfast for a family of 4

Crossing the border is easy enough if you time it to avoid crossing with a big group. To get out of the UAE you pay a 30 AED fee (by using an electronic Government card, which costs another 10 AED to buy one) and get an exit stamp before entering Oman at a cost of 5 Omani Ryal (50 AED by credit card, not cash) and filling out an application form to get a visa with a stamp. Exiting Oman on your way home you cancel the Omani visa for free and it costs nothing to re-enter the UAE, but you do need to go into Immigration with your whole group so they can see you all. As you cross into Oman it is likely your car will be searched and it is illegal to take Alcohol into Oman. When my family and I crossed last week into Oman at 06.30am, it took 37 minutes with no other people in immigration to cross from the UAE into Oman and be on our way again. This was after a 1hr 30 minutes drive to the border crossing from our house in Al Hamra Village in RAK, and after this it took a further hour for us to drive to Khasab. In Oman you will see 3 Petrol (Gas!) stations on the route to Khasab (one in Khasab itself) and fuel in Oman is about 50 per cent cheaper than fuel in the UAE.

It’s easy to book activities from the hotels in Khasab, and there are a range of things to do there. One of the beaches at the start of the Fjords has bolted climbing routes and you can book an overnight camp there with a BBQ to make the most of it with groups of friends (don’t do it in the summer!).

The diving in the area is excellent and my favorite is a 12 meter dive down to a WW2 Landing craft which has a British aircraft in pieces strapped to the deck. You can even swim with the bat fish through the Captain’s Bridge!

Wildlife watching from boats or along the coastline is superb and there is a wide range of birds and sea creatures to attract you. Socotra Cormorants (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) live along the coastline in colonies thousands of birds strong, and the sea and skies can be black with them when they fly.

Socotra Cormorant Colony
You can also whistle and bang the wooden hulls to attract dolphins to swim and frolic in the bow wave of the Dhows when out on trips, and these are wonderful to watch. My 21-month old son was mesmerised by a family pod of four of these beautiful mammals. These dolphins are the Indo Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin (Sousa Plumbea – which is the more Western variety up the coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula). They are characterised by a Hump out of which the Dorsal fin rises up, and a long bottle nose. Their Chinese Counterpart can be quite pink in color (Sousa Chinensis). Sadly, due to illegal trawl net fishing and from too much interaction with humans making them less afraid of big boats, these dolphins are regarded as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN). This species is very much coastal based and prefers shallow waters up to 20 meters which makes the Fjords in Mussandam the ideal area to find them.

Indo Pacific Humped back Dolphin
All along the coastline in the Fjords and around the many small islands you will see small fishing villages. The interesting thing about these is that they have no fresh water of their own. The Omani Government, in an effort to encourage people to stay in their tribal homes, offers free water and electricity to everyone in the area and on a daily basis you can see big Tanker ships carrying fresh water, mail and supplies around these coastal villages to keep them supplied.

Water Stop for Fishermen
The main destination of a Dhow cruise out here is usually to visit the world famous ‘Telegraph Island’ which is locally known as Jazirat Al Maqlab. The island gets its English name for being the old ‘location of a British repeater station used to boost telegraphic messages along the Persian Gulf submarine cable, which was part of the London to Karachi telegraphic cable.’

Abandoned in the mid 1870’s, this Island stands as a last Bastion of the former British Empire and is most well known for coining the phrase; “Going round the bend” (meaning, ‘to go mad’). If you visit the place and anchor there for some snorkeling and lunch you might appreciate just why this posting was such an awful place for the British Officers to be sent. Stuck on a bend of the Fjord and exposed to the relentless sun before AC was ever conceived, and surrounded by marauding not so friendly tribes, it would drive anybody crazy being posted there for months on end!

A half day Dhow trip (ours started at 9am) usually takes in Dolphin watching and a stop at Telegraph Island for snorkeling. Here the myriad of fish darting amongst corals and rocks in kingfisher blue waters is beautiful, and in the warmer months the sea’s temperature can be as much as 35 degrees, making a quick dip in the sea rather like taking a warm bath! These trips cost between 150 and 250 AED per person and includes fruit as snacks and a range of soft drinks and water on ice or hot Arabic tea or coffee with dates. You find yourselves spread around the gunwales of the boat sat on Omani carpets and resting against big cushions. The sea breeze when you are under way is the equivalent of a strong AC, and despite it being 45 degrees under the sun (and maybe 35 under the awning), people were wrapping scarves and blankets round themselves!
A full day trip usually has two snorkeling stops and plenty of dolphin watching time. It will include a main lunch of local Arabic food and many people will enjoy an afternoon nap under the shade of the awning with the cool sea breeze in their face. This trip is between 250-400 AED per person. If you choose the overnight option, which is perfect if you are using the Dhow as a base for diving trips and enables you to get four decent dives in, then you are going to spend around 600 AED for the food and sleeping on deck or in tents on a beach. Diving kit and a Dive Master is extra.

As a simple opportunity to introduce your children to the Natural History of the Arabian Peninsula, these Dhow trips and a visit to Khasab Fjords are an excellent way to have a fun day out and learn a lot too. If you go at the right time of year you can see Whale Sharks (May to October) and Whales, as well as an enormous range of fish and birds. Eating a picnic on the boat is fun and you can all relax (although parents keep an eye on children so they don’t fall overboard!). The staff on the Dhows (usually a Captain and a First Mate) are friendly and informative and will cook delicious fresh sea food. There’s a toilet on board and a fresh water shower to wash off the sea salt after you finish snorkeling.

Snorkeling Photo copy
As always when you venture out into the Wilds make sure you take some essentials with you. A day’s Dhow trip is likely to need:
• Sun tan lotion
• Sun hats
• Sunglasses
• Swimming shorts
• Snorkel, Mask, Fins (or wet shoes)
• Rash Vest
• Towel (Some Dhows provide them)
• A few snacks (But most dhows provide food)
• A good camera and if possible a waterproof one like a Go-Pro
• A book to read as you relax on the dhow!

(You won’t get a signal in the Fjords so you might as well leave your mobile phone in the car!).

Most important of all, a Dhow cruise is the perfect opportunity to relax and have fun with family or friends, take loads of photos and make loads of memories!

Relaxing on a Dhow

Words + Photos By: Dan Wright

Dan Wright is a Wilderness Expedition Guide and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS). He has a degree in Environmental Science and works as the Project Manager of the ADAPT Adventure & Field Studies Center, based in RAK. Dan writes for a range of publications in Arabia and Asia on Environmental Issues and Personal Development. His wife Nirjala is the former Nepal National Mountain Bike Champion and their son Percy is an adventurer in the making! They spend all their spare time exploring the UAE.

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