Dhows, with their slanting triangular lateen sails, evoke images of exotic ports like Muscat and Zanzibar, of merchants being driven across the Indian Ocean by monsoon winds, of pearl divers, fishermen and smugglers. Although still used for trading along the coasts of the Gulf, Oman and the horn of Africa, dhows are a relaxing way for travelers to enjoy a day on the water and none more so than plying the sheltered khors, or finger-like inlets, of Oman’s Musandam peninsula.
Although everyone’s experience is different, there are at least three major highlights among the host of pleasures during the day.
- The physical landscape of Khor Ash-Sham
- The pods of dolphins
- Snorkeling and swimming in the crystal waters
The seventeen-kilometer-long inlet of Khor Ash-Sham is a mysterious place of silent grandeur. Long claws of rocks reach out into the glittering waters and formations appear like petrified monsters from the deep, or from some prehistoric world, while mauve, ochre and rust-colored limestone heights soar 900-1200 meters into the air. When a heat or dust haze, brought by southerly winds from the Empty Quarter, hangs over the area, the landscape resembles something out of the Lord of the Rings, and as the sun sinks low in the afternoon sky, there is almost a sinister feel about the darkening and shadowy heights. Five tiny isolated stone fishing and herding villages scattered along the khor, sitting precariously at the foot of slopes that suffer periodic rock falls, are the only signs of human habitation in this breathtakingly stark land.
For most people, the appearance of the dolphins is the highlight of the day. They appear as if summoned by some invisible force from out of nowhere and, for forty minutes or so, play first on one side of the dhow, then diving underneath, reappear to frolic on the other. They prove quite a challenge to the avid photographers.
Each dhow has its own supply of snorkeling gear and there is an extended break for enjoying the aqua waters off the tiny, flat-topped Telegraph Island (Jazirat al Maqlab), a famous landmark. It was once the site of a British telegraph station for five years, established in 1864, to protect the first telegraph cable that ran from India, through Musandam to basra in Iraq. The waters off the island are filled with grouper, snapper, manta rays, turtles and hundreds of the little compressed disk-shaped butterfly fish pecking at the coral polyps with their thin snouts. As they dart in and out of rock formations, their intricate patterns and vivid hues catch the diffused shafts of sunlight that penetrate the turquoise shallows.
As well as these highlights, there are many pleasures: the delicious food conjured up by the captain, the chance to trail a fishing line behind the boat, watch the large floating and roosting flocks of birds and the changing colors of the cliffs, or allow the khor’s silence and the dhow’s gentle motion to lead you into a meditative state.