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The Norway of Arabia: Rhona Wells travelled to Musandam, which travellers have likened to Norway in Scandinavia because of its majestic fjords.

The Musandam peninsula forms the northernmost part Of Oman, jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf. At its nearest point it is just 55 km from Iran across the strait. While Salalah in the south of the sultanate is famed for is lush greenery, this region offers some Of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere in the world. Its sheer mountains soar straight out aquamarine waters giving rise to the fjord-like appearance of the coast, most superbly evident from the air.

The entire landscape is a living lesson in geology and how the earth was shaped by rock movements. The geological changes the Arabian Peninsula has undergone over the years are apparent everywhere. It is almost possible to visualise the spectacular events resulting in the separation of tectonic plates between Arabia and Eurasia. To observe fossils embedded in rock at a height of some 3,000 metres above sea level is nothing short of amazing, all the more fantastic when one realises these fossils of tong dead sea creatures are confirmation, of how these once submerged rocks have folded, collided and emerged from the waters as the perpendicular mountains that today dominate the Strait of Hormuz.

Shell fragments, fossils and bachiopods in limestone clearly indicate continental shelf conditions. These limestones were deposited from the early Jurassic to the Cretaceous period and are reckoned to be more than 65 million years folded in a north-south incline,

The harshness of Musandam's terrain is contrasted with the occasional flat ledges of land that have been terraced for small scale agriculture. These small dots of green are only clearly visible from the air, in stark contrast with the sharp, sheer rocks that surround them look like missing pieces of an almost complete jigsaw puzzle. Low walls are built round the cultivated areas to trap surface water, again a triumph of human endeavour.

Driving into the mountains our guide indicated a tiny shack, with a corrugated iron roof perched high up the mountain on what appears to be a very narrow ledge. This shack he explained, is the home Of the local hermit, known as Sultan, The man, an estimated 90 years old, lives on a small ledge along with five or six goats, which he herds from one patch of scrubby mountain pasture to another. Local people leave food at the bottom of the hill and the local government provides him with a tank of fresh water. Sultan waves and we exchange greetings across the ravine. As we climb back into the comfort of our air conditioned jeep we marvel at this man's survival in temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius during the hours of daylight, falling to as low as 15[degrees] at night.

The main town of Musandam, Khasab, is protected from flash floods by three large dams. The Portuguese built Khasab fort at the beginning of the 17th century at the height of their naval presence in the region. The natural harbour there gave shelter from tough seas. Unlike many forts, which were built on high ground for defensive purposes, Khasab fort was designed as a supply point for dates and water for Portuguese ships sailing through the strait. Thick date-palm groves lie to the west of the inlet.

Khasab has an interesting trading position, which hinges on its proximity to Iran Iranians import sheep and goats in small fibre glass boats with very powerful engines into the local port, from where the animals are dispatched to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in trucks. On their return trip to the Islamic Republic, the sailors load their boats up with electronic goods and American cigarettes. They most arrive in Khasab port after sunrise and leave before sunset to conform with Omani immigration laws. We watched as 50 or so boars gathered outside the port in the late afternoon, taking off together at high speed at some unseen signal. Since the trading is illegal under Iranian law, they must avoid the Islamic Republic's coastguard as well as all other shipping in the busy waters of the Strait. The crossing is hazardous since the vessels, piled high either with livestock or with numerous boxes must avoid the path of the scores of oil-tankers which pass through the Strait in a transverse direction daily.

Access to the area by land was virtually impossible until recently, when a modern coast road was built which allows fast access from the UAE, making Khasab a potential week-end destination for people living in the Emirates. The new road also allows access to the village of Tawi, where prehistoric drawings of boats, animals and warriors can be seen in the rock face.

The fjords are inhabited by people living in the hamlets Nadifi, Qanaha, Seebi and Sham at the end of the water creeks. With only water in front of them and a sheer rock face to the rear, the 100 or so inhabitants in each village live off the rich local fishing. Large species, such as king fish and tuna abound in these beautiful waters, where boats are an essential part of life. In these small fishing villages life, once spartan has been considerably improved by the installation of electricity power lines and enormous fresh water tanks which are kept filled by local government service officials.

The children of these villages sail to school in Khasab, boarding overnight from Saturday to Wednesday when a boat returns them home for the weekend. Despite attempts to relocate these populations to Khasab, the fishing communities have made clear their desire to stay put and retain their independence.

Off the coast of Musandam there is a rocky outcrop known as Telegraph Island. The British arrived there in the mid-19th century, staying for 10 years while laying a telegraph cable from India to Basra in Iraq. Taking the cable "round the bend" of the Gulf is thought to have given rise to the colloquial expression, since living on Telegraph Island in the summer heat must have driven many men crazy. These days, the island is noted for the rich underwater life it attracts. Dhows stop off to enable tourists to climb onto the rock and snorkel in the magnificent clear waters that surround it, among parrot and butterfly fish, displaying an array of shimmering colours. The waters are a wildlife paradise: flying fish skim the waves, cormorants dive, returning triumphantly to Telegraph Island with large fish. Dolphins play in the turquoise depths, swimming under and alongside the dhow, as if enjoying a game with us on our return to Khasab harbour. As the sun begins to set, the Iranians begin their dangerous journey home and I return to the comfort of the hotel to prepare for the flight back to Muscat in the morning.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic
Author:Wells, Rhona
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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