Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Boating in the Musandam with Abdul Hameed Alawahdi and Friends

Approaching Telegraph Island
Abdul Hameed, left, is a natural-born host and organizer.

Last year, camping with Abdul Hameed was the highlight of the season, and has remained the all-time most popular blog story. Unfortunately, this year Abdul couldn’t set up the camp because he was unable to borrow Salim, his Bangladeshi man Friday, from the family farm for the season. Salim learned how to cook at camp, and now he cooks at the farm. Without Salim to watch over camp during the week, everything could disappear. And it isn’t easy to hire someone for only a few months, even for the well-connected Abdul.

So instead, Abdul Hameed organized a boating trip in the Musandam with Khasab Travel & Tours.

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The Norway of Arabia
Musandam is in the northern tip of the Arabian peninsula, jutting out into the Straits of Hormuz. This Omani exclave, geographically separated from the rest of Oman by UAE borders, shares control of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran. It’s also a tourist destination because of its rugged beauty and opportunities for fishing, diving and dolphin watching. It’s a fantastically remote and peaceful place. You would never know that you were in one of the strategic hot spots on the planet.
The Musandam has Iran as its neighbor to the north, across the Strait of Hormuz

 Our boating trip began in the town of Khasab, which dates to the beginning of the 17th century at the height of the Portuguese naval presence. To get there, we left Abu Dhabi on Friday morning, driving northeast through Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah (RAK,) where we rendezvoused with Abdul, his cousins and the other Arab guys from Mark’s work who were coming on the trip. We had Tom riding with us. Dana and Deb were in Dana’s car along with Dana’s son Jared and Jared’s girlfriend Hollie, who were visiting from Pasadena, California and had spent the previous two days in Dubai. Our boat would leave on Friday evening and return 24 hours later, on Saturday.

Americans in the Arab world.
The American guests: Hollie, Jared, Deb, Dana, Anne, Mark, and Tom

But first, we made a stop at the Barracuda liquor store, which is located in a run-down looking resort of the same name in the emirate of Um Al Quwain, between Dubai and RAK. Barracuda is quite famous with expats for being the best place to buy alcohol, even if you live in Abu Dhabi, which is hours away. While there are small liquor stores scattered around – we have a High Spirits near our apartment compound – it’s always hit-or-miss depending on what they have in stock. And there is absolutely no packaged alcohol sold in the hypermarkets or anywhere but a liquor store. Just like pork, you have to go someplace special. Although I must admit that it’s easier to get booze than pork.

We bought some of these pre-mixed cocktails
which come in very handy on road trips.

Barracuda has a wide selection of everything. Two rooms of wines from around the world, pretty good selection of beers, and a great selection of vodkas, high quality scotches, the best tequilas – you get the idea. And it’s all beautifully displayed. For me, it’s fun just to get to see the displays, many of which are custom-made, or “bespoke” as they call it here, and really deserve their own blog photo story.

We picked up a few bottles of this and that, a couple cases of beer, sampled some cheeses at the gourmet store, and were on our way again to meet Abdul.

After lunch at a mall food court, we formed a car caravan and headed up along the rugged RAK coastline to the Oman border crossing near Shams. Border crossings are always a crap shoot for expats. With Abdul and the other Emirati nationals patiently waiting, we went inside and found ourselves delayed because they had run out of the forms they require us to fill out. Um, hello, this is the only thing they do here! You would think they could just ask us for the information and type it into the computer but … oh well, the forms finally arrived, we paid our exit fees, got passport stamps, and we were almost through the gauntlet. One more check point, where the Omani border guards looked in the back of our vehicle. We briefly wondered if they would want to know what was inside the telltale opaque bags from Barracuda, but apparently that wasn’t what they were checking for. Sweet relief.

The boat dock is a colorful scene.
Khasab Travel & Tours is
a large operation with many boats

We wound our way along the coastline to Khasab, pulling into the parking lot at about 4:30 p.m. just as our boat was arriving in port and unloading a group of passengers. In no time, they had hauled all of our belongings across several day trip boats to our modified three-level dhow, and we were motoring out.

The guys were unwinding from the big IDEX military expo.
What would a boat be
without cushions and Persian rugs?

Meanwhile, we wasted no time getting relaxed. There were several coolers of ice for the beverages, and Abdul had brought several bags of snacks. The guys were still unwinding from a very busy week at the IDEX International Defence Exhibition and Conference, which Mark has said he will write a guest blog about but I'll believe it when I see it, inshallah. They were ready to kick back.

Our cabin, with its own bathroom.
The private bathroom was very nice to have.

The boat had eight cabins containing two bunks each, and private “heads” – bathrooms, which were equipped with showers. We had three couples on board, and the rest were “bachelors” – which is what we in the U.S. sometimes call men who are traveling “stag.”

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Our host and Arab friends

We learned way back when we camped with Abdul last year, and it’s been reinforced in many ways since then, that Arab husbands and wives do many activities separately. American women usually see this leaving the wives behind as unacceptable, but it’s totally normal for them. The fact is, Arab men spend time with their families. And they also do a lot of the grocery shopping.

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Limestone layers

If you expect a coastline with at least some vegetation, it will be a visual shock to contemplate the barren limestone of the Musandam peninsula. This place, called “The Norway of Arabia” by the tourism industry, is the definition of stark beauty. We motored out, and as we gazed at the rugged cliffs with their undulating layers, uplifted and bent by the collision of the Asian and Indian tectonic plates, Abdul pointed and said, “There are jinn there.”

Ah, jinn! I’ve been reading up on them, and I am fascinated with their prominence in the Arab culture, particularly in the mountain villages in Oman and the UAE, and how they have transitioned into American popular culture. According to Wikipedia:

The jinn, or genies, are spirits mentioned in the Qurʾān and Islamic theology who inhabit an unseen world in dimensions beyond the visible universe of humans. Together, the jinn, humans and angels make up the three sentient creations of God. The Qurʾan mentions that the jinn are made of a smokeless and "scorching fire" and they have the physical property of weight. Similar to humans, jinn have free will allowing them to do as they choose (such as follow any religion). They are usually invisible to humans, and humans do not appear clearly to them. Jinn have the power to travel large distances at extreme speeds and are thought to live in remote areas, mountains, seas, trees, and the air, in their own communities. Like humans, jinn will also be judged on the Day of Judgment and will be sent to Paradise or Hell according to their deeds.

With Cindy and Mohammed at
Al Bidya mosque near their home
I mentioned that jinn are in the book I’m writing about my American friend Cindy Davis who married her Emirati husband Mohammed Ali Alhammadi in 1982 at age twenty. Abdul knows them well. Cindy once had trouble with a jinn in the house, or some kind of black magic.

“She married a jinn,” Abdul said. What!? Mohammed Ali? A jinn? “What makes you say that?” I asked. “Bad things happen and Mohammed is there,” Abdul replied. I don’t know, because jinn are not human and human are not jinn. Perhaps Mohammed is a jinx! I’ll have to ask Cindy what she thinks of this comment.

Omani sunset.
Arabian sunset

As we watched the sun sink, the little fishing pangas that were dotting the sea began to race back toward their villages. We were anchored far away from but within sight of the Omani navy base.

The moon, which was a day shy of full and visible all afternoon in the sky, brightened. There was a big discussion about why the moon appears white with grey spots. What color is it, really? People had theories, but the group never could agree.

This fishing is hard work!
Dana had an interesting fishing technique.

Then, we fished in the dark. Abdul had brought a few kilos of fresh squid, sliced and ready to go. Personally, I would have been happy to just dip the squid in some batter, fry it up, and enjoy it as calamari fritti. It was that fresh.

Mark couldn't seem to catch a fish bigger than his hand.
Mark's first fish.

Using thick nylon fishing line on large spools, we each baited a couple of hooks and dropped them to sit on the bottom. Pretty soon people started pulling in fish.

Tom's fish.
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Dana caught one of the first fish.

Dinner buffet.
Abdul was going to bring more food, to be sure we didn't
run out. Fortunately, the tour company convinced him
not to do it, saying "We have never run out of food!"

We decided to have dinner at 9:30 p.m. and right on time, a buffet spread came out with all of my Arab favorites. Hummus, mutabal (eggplant dip), garlicky yogurt dip, Greek and fattoush salads, rice, chicken, and delicious barbecued fish – not the fish we caught, but larger ones that had been marinating since we came aboard.

Nobody slept inside the cabins.
Some people got up early to fish while others slept.

We fished more after dinner, there was some talk of card games, but people started dropping off to sleep. In the end, nobody slept in any of the cabins. It was just too wonderful not to sleep out under the moon and stars. Despite the full moon, Mark and I spotted Orion and the Big Dipper although he insisted they were in the wrong place.

The instant Nescafe in little packets tastes really good on a boat. 

I woke up to see the sky getting light as the sun lingered behind the crags. I love seeing the sunrise on a boat even more than I love the sunset. There is a very practical reason for this. I tend to get seasick on overnight races if I see the sun go down and stay on deck until after it’s dark. I lose the horizon, and I lose my equilibrium.

The bow was a good seat for fishing.

But when the sun comes up, and I can see the horizon, all is well including me. Plus, I just feel such peace and promise in the rising sun.

The Omani Navy came over to greet us in the morning.
The boat was equipped with at TV.
That's the Omani Navy outside.

A boat came over from the naval base and lurked near us, so we weighed anchor and motored out. We then drifted offshore and fished more. I finally caught a few of the little pink fish that Mark had been catching which Abdul called Sultan Ibrahim.

The fish were down so deep that when they came up, their eyes and tongues  popped out.
Mark mimics the way
the fish's tongue hangs out.

Mark threw his first one back, but Abdul said “No, no! it is good to eat. The smaller the better.” I’ve since looked them up and found them in the food blog of an American wife called Emiratican Kitchen which will now be my go-to source for information about how to cook the local foods. Sultan Ibrahim, when they are small, seasoned and deep fried, taste like shrimp.

Breakfast: eggs three ways, fresh fruit and veggies ... heavenly.

Breakfast was served. There were eggs three ways – scrambled, cheese omelet, and boiled. Also, fresh fruit – the watermelon and cantaloupes you get here are wonderful. And with every meal, there is delicious yogurt and Arabic bread.

Approaching Telegraph Island
Approaching Telegraph Island

Next we headed into the Elphinstone Inlet, home of the famous Telegraph Island – which I had never heard of but Mark and the other guys knew about. According to Wikipedia:

In the 19th century, it was the 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. It was not an easy posting for the operators, with the severe summer heat and hostility of local tribes making life extremely uncomfortable. Because of this, the island is, according to some travel agents and journalists, where the expression "go round the bend" comes from, a reference to the heat making British officers desperate to return to civilization, which meant a voyage around the bend in the Strait of Hormuz back to India.

Today, Telegraph Island is an eerie reminder of the British Empire. Abandoned in the mid-1870s, the island has remained deserted and only the crumbling ruins of the repeater station and the operators' quarters can be seen. As tourism has grown in the Gulf region, so the island is regularly visited by dhows carrying tourists to view the ruins and to fish and snorkel in the waters around it. However, the intense heat (particularly in the summer months) endures.

Our boat stayed in the western Musandam, but around the bend from Khasab, about 60 miles south of the tip, is the town of Dibba. Dibba’s natural harbor is another popular place to catch a boat tour up the eastern Musandam, and there are several 5-star resort and spa hotels along the coast as well.
Musandam boat tour Google Earth
The tip of the Musandam Peninsula
Touring the Elphinstone Inlet on the SUP with Hollie
All that yoga paid off.

We anchored at Telegraph Island, and everyone got ready to swim. I inflated my ULI stand-up paddleboard and took a little cruise to the shore. The snorkeling didn’t look that good, which Mark confirmed later. He had brought his scuba equipment, including two tanks that we rented in Abu Dhabi, but he didn’t use them. I gave Hollie a little quick instruction on the SUP, and she turned out to be a natural, which I suspected she would be after she told me how much yoga she does.

Touring the Elphinstone Inlet on the SUP with Hollie

Later, Hollie and I paddled across the inlet to explore the shoreline.
Touring the Elphinstone Inlet on the SUP with Hollie
The brown dhows are for day excursions. Ours was the white one.

I must admit that I didn’t walk on the Telegraph Island – I had forgotten to wear shoes on the board and when I stepped onto land after giving the SUP to Hollie, I could feel the coral slicing my feet, so I swam back to the boat. Warning: be sure to wear shoes when you are walking on rocks and coral anywhere in the Middle East! Tom’s wife Lucy (who in case you are wondering is back in the USA taking care of the two elderly mothers, hers and Tom’s) got a cut bad enough to need several stitches last year just on a tiny piece of coral that was in the sand in the Abu Dhabi mangroves.
The dolphins swam with the boats, and the babies stayed right besie their mothers.The dolphins swam with the boats, and the babies stayed right besie their mothers.

Next was lunch which was another huge and delicious spread, and then dolphin watching. The Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin is the most common cetacean in the Gulf. They are slightly narrower and lighter in color than other Bottlenose and are very social, swimming over to the boats and leaping out of the water. We often see the very social Bottlenose when we’re out sailing in the waters off of Abu Dhabi, where they swim around and play with Unwind. We also see the shyer, less common  Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. I believe the dolphins we saw that day were Pacific Humpbacks. Although they did swim alongside the boats a bit, they did not put on the porpoise show that we would expect from Bottlenose, and they had the humps and elongated fins. The Pacific Humpback and even more rare Finless Dolphins are considered endangered.
After the dolphin watching, we cruised around the shoreline, napped, and listened to Tom’s eclectic iPod mix while trying to finish up the chilled beverages in the coolers.

Another remote fishing village.
Isolated little fishing towns dotted the coast.

I was fascinated by the remote fishing villages, where ruins of mud and stone buildings crumble alongside newer structures, and I wonder if they have been there for centuries. The only way to get there is by boat. Do families live there, or just “bachelor” fishermen, while their wives and children live in town? Mark and I were curious about what looked like power or telephone lines strung on poles along the shoreline. How and why did they come to be there?

At 5:00 p.m. we pulled back into the harbor at Khasab, and it was over all too soon. But I heard a rumor that Abdul is already planning another trip in April, for big game fish. Maybe we'll go "round the bend!"

Watch for the next post, in which we spend a night at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Khasab, have lunch at Abdul's home in Dubai, and meet his Moroccan wife and children.

Thanks for reading, and try not to step on any jinn..


Edward said...

Musandam Khasab is a great place i love to visit there.

Julia Angel said...

wow, so nice and amazing pictures. This would have been really a great trip. i will also plan such a trip wit my friends and family.
Yacht Rental In Dubai

Shanawar said...

Khasab Oman is really a nice place to spend holidays & weekends. Nice article & wonderful pictures.

Mohamed Ismail said...

Musandam Khasab is the fantastic place to see the dolphins, fjords, snorkeling etc...

Sunita Patel said...

Excellent post about Dubai Fishing Trips!