Musandam

April 2005

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See also With the Shinas to Musandam
(April 2009)


How to get there: Getting to Musandam is a lot easier than it used to be and is certainly no longer the most remote place of Oman. Oman Air operates regular flights and there is good road access through the emirates with a spectacular road from Tiba (the borderpost) to Khasab, blasted through the cliffs. Driving to Mudandam from Oman needs road permits and double border crossing. Make sure you get the right border crossing permits as well as all entry and exit stamps (else you may end up as a illegal resident in the emirates in a customs computer and pay the bill the next time you enter the emirates. It takes a day to get there. Flying is easy but because of the short landing strip in Khasab between steep mountains a bit sensitive to weather conditions and therefore prone to cancelled flights. Air Oman provides packages that include flight, airport pick-up, guided 4WD tour, hotel, and dhow trip.

Since 2008 there is now also a fast ferry link, currently from Mutrah to Khasab, in the future from Shinas to Khasab. Check-out our trip in April 2009 with the Shinas.

Musandam features now a full-fledged luxurious tourist resort, built on the cliffs and with a lovely sea view near Khasab. The four star Golden Tulip Resort was opened in 2003 ( www.goldentulipkhasab.com ). Trips by both car (4WD) and boat (classical dhows) are organised by Khasab Travel & Tours (www.khasabtours.com).


Musandam from the air

The approach by air to Musandam is spectacular. It is as if the blue sea wants to invade the grey-white rock mass. Some compare the coastline with its many bays and long inlets (the Khors or Ria's) to the fjords in Norway . This is indeed a drowned coastline as already suggested by Blanford in 1872. The mass of rocks tilts to the northeast into the sea and the sea has flooded into the wadi's and valleys. There is only very few places where the vertical cliffs give way to narrow, muddy bits of shore. No wonder this place was considered as hardly accessible and one of the most remote places in this part of the world.


Approaching Musandam by air from Muscat; a perfect  overview of the drowned coastline.

A bit of Geology

Musandam sits on the NE extremity of Arabia and this part of the Arbian plate is involved in a gigantic struggle with the Asian plate, colliding and being pushed under this plate at the other side of the Gulf of Oman in Iran. Musandam is literally pushed downwards at a rate of some 6mm per year at the northern tip. That is about 40 cm in a lifetime. Stories of 14th century sailors diving into the sea to collect fresh water in leather bags may well be true. Springs that were once above sea level, may now be hiding below.

The white-grey rock mass sprawling almost randomly in the surrounding seas consists mainly of Mid/Upper Permian to Mid Cretaceous limestones  (250-100 million years old, belonging to the Hajar Super Group). The whole Musandam Peninsula is one gigantic whale-back fold (anticline) striking in approximately North-South direction. The eastern side of this fold dips eastwards and the western side steeply westwards or even partly turned back eastwards (overturned). Even the uninitiated eye can easily spot the large folds and faults in massive rockfaces exposed by the limestone packages. One specific darker orange-weathering chert-rich limestone package, the Upper Jurassic Rayda Formation acts as a a marker bed in the rockwalls flanking Khasab airport and the drive up to Jebel Harim. Keep en eye on this layer -and on the road- and be impressed by the massive forces that buckled and folded the rocks.

Note that the black ophiolites that dominate the flanks of the Oman mountains further to the south in Oman are not present in Musandam. The limestones of Musandam in terms of age correlate with those that form the core of the Oman Mountains, but are separated from the rest of the Oman Mountains by a fault zone that is called the Dibba-line. A geologic erosional 'window' through the limestones at Hagil shows that the limestone sequence overlies sediments of the Hawasina Group, which in the Oman mountains has been pushed on top of the very same limestones. This reversal in order compared to the rest of the Oman Mountains can be explained by a major fault system (thrust) pushing and placing the limestone package on top instead of the other way around. Evidence for associated folding and faulting can be seen in the rock faces all over Musandam.

A bit of Geography

Musandam is the most northern governorate of Oman, with steep cliffs rising almost vertically from the Strait of Hormuz. It has a very rugged relief, poorly suited for agricultural development and the mountain interior is therefore only sparsely inhabited. The original inhabitants, the Shihuh, were a tribe of semi nomadic people. Their strange language, unlike any other in Arabia may indicates a possible surviving strain of the pre-Semitic people of Arabia. Most have abandoned their hard existence and many small villages high in the mountains are now abandoned. Musandam’s main towns are Khasab, Madha, Daba and Bukha.

Musandam’s deep, fjord-like, drowned valleys (riaz) cut deep into the coastline and host an exceptionally rich marine life ecosystem. There are more true reefs in Musandam than anywhere else in Oman. This is the place to get on a boat a watch birds, dolphins, dive or snorkel.

At the other side of the Strait of Hormuz is Iran. Judging from the many fast grey motorboats that can be seen make the crossing in groups of three there must be a lively exchange of goods.....

The vertical cliffs of Musandam were feared in the old sailing days for the strong and unexpected currents that could drag the small boats to the rocky shore. Thor Hyerdahl in his famous raft voyage gives a vivid description of the impression this rocky mass gives from the sea. A radar post has been built on the highest point in Musandam, monitoring and protecting the busy shipping through the narrow Straits of Hormuz.

Ptolemy labelled Ras Al Musandam as Promontorium Asabo, a name that is recognisable in Khasab and Sibi. 

Our trip

After a scenic landing on Khasab airport we were picked-up and brought to the Khasab Golden Tulip Hotel, only a short drive through 'downtown' Khasab and along the seafront. The area is rapidly being developed with a new harbour and land being reclaimed from the sea (with sand sucked-up and piped-in). The Hotel has been built on the cliffs on a promontory northwest of Khasab, overlooking the Arabian Gulf to the North.

A quick bite and next up into the mountains with 4WD's to explore the surroundings.

Driving up is throught the Jurassic (185-150 million year) limestones of the Musandam Group. This is a monotonous sequence of dark-grey, mainly shallow-water limestones, with the orange weathering Rayda cherts as a coloured marker about 2/3 up in the succession.  

The dusty track along wadi Al Ayn provides great views back and sideways into the narrow and deep gorges cutting deep into the mountains. Rather unexpected it suddenly flattens at Sayh (1100m), where the wadi is  filled flat with sediments and green grass is growing everywhere.

The drive goes further up to Jebel Harim, the Mountain of Women, the highest point of Musandam (2087m). Again deep gorges in the hard limestones, eroded to its guts and sometimes shaped into weird buttresses and sculpted like statues. Some may recognise the silhouette of the Titanic or even the Pope with a bit of imagination. 


View northwards over the Persian Gulf from the Khasab Golden Tulip Hotel


Sayh Plateau (1100 m)

To Jebl Harim. 'The pope''

 

The highest point with its large dome-shaped radar station is off-limits for visitors. At the lower plateau-level the panoramic view around is also magnificent, but keep a hand on your hat as the winds can be very strong.

Sitting on the rocks you should feel them as well. Dissolution and erosion of the limestone has created a very irregular top surface (karstification) from very large (km) to very small scale (mm). Notice the delicate rilly surfaces in radial patterns that can be seen on top of some of the limestone blocks. These are caused by dissolution by water (dew) running down sideways over hundreds of years. Such rillen are well known from limestone pebbles in the interior desert of Oman

Keep also an eye on fossils such as very nice curly snails and shells.

Humans before us have also left their marks in the rocks. Limestone rocks are easy to work and rock 'carvings' created by hammering with sharp piece of stone are well known in the Mountains throughout Oman. There are some nice examples hammered in limestone blocks on top of the plateau, showing people, animals and weird symbols.

 

 

Panormaic View near Jebel Harim (the mountain of women, 2087m)

Rock 'carving' -petroglyph- Jebel Harim area


View over Khor (kawr) Najid (480m drop)
Down again and subsequently east into wadi Sai al A'la where a side-track next to a military shooting range took us to a viewpoint overlooking Khor Najid. A pity that modern world hits with a big telecom mast erected right on this beauty spot. In the rocks left of the Khor is a beautiful example of a folded (anticline)  limestones (now of the Triassic Elphinstone Group) striking in NNE direction. The beacj below is a bit muddy, but is one of the few places in Musandam where a beach can be reached by car.
From Khor Najid back to the main track and further east along wadi Sal Al A'la to what is known as 'the natural park'  at Khalidiya with a relatively large amount of old and impressively thick and contorted acacia trees.

 


Acacia park at Khalidiya. Notice the folded limestones just above the trees in the middle of the photograph.

Dhow Trip

Our second day in Musandam we spent on a dhow trip in Khor Ash Sham, an inlet of about 17 km long just east of Khasab.

Most dhows at Khasab are traditionally built of wood, with only an regular bumping engine as a concession to modern times. Under a canvas shade on bedouin-style pillows and carpets it is more like being part of a Sindbad story than being on a boat.

The water is blue, cool and clear, the wind is cool, the rocks are all around, the host almost perfect, with Omani coffee and dates.

 

Birds everywhere, nestling on the rockfaces and standing at the waterside. Upfront another dhow apparently speeding up for no apparent reason. Our captain quickly participates in the race and soon we discover why. Dolphins slicing fast through the water, chasing the boats, and diving underneath; it looks like a speeding game. The dolphins seem to enjoy it just as much as we do.

We pass the villages of Nadifi, Qanaha and Maqlab, only reachable by boat. The old stone houses of Qanaha blend in the cliffs and are hardly visible from a distance.


Dolphins chasing the boat or the boat chasing the Dhow

Approaching tiny Telegraph Island in front

Ruins of the 1864-1869 Musandam Telegraph Station

Telegraph Island

Halfway in Khorr Shamm is Telegraph Island, only a tiny dot, but with the ruins of the old Telegraph Station a historical place in the middle of nowhere. At the eastern side stone stairs descend into the water. We all had a swim looking for colorful fish, coral and climbing via the stairs on the the island, exploring the ruins.

 

Our boat carried a full buffet lunch and what better to enjoy than in this beautiful setting. An leisurely afternoon swimming and boating gradually circling back to Khasab.

An evening with a perfect diner in the Hotel.

The next day back home, with the raggy contours of Musandam gradually disappearing in the haze of the sea as the plane turned back south to Muscat.

A worthy departure of this lovely piece of Oman.

From: Note on MASKAT AND MASSANDIM ON THE EAST COAST OF ARABIA,

by W.T. Blanford, A.R.S.M., F.G.S., Deputy Superintendent, Geological Survey of India. Record Geological Society of India  Vol. 5, Part 3, 1872, p.75-77.

Massandim.- The whole of the promontory which, jutting out from the Arabian Coast, closes in the southern portion of the Persian Gulf appears to consist of stratified dark coloured limestone. I had an opportunity from the deck of the steamer of seeing the cape itself and the little island of Massandim, from which the whole promontory derives the name by which it is chiefly known. Subsequently in Khor-as - Shem, or Elphinstone Inlet of the old charts, formerly a telegraph station of the Persian Gulf Cable. I was enabled to examine the rocks more closely. They consist of black, brown, dark-grey, and dark-buff limestone, hard, compact and intersected by veins of calcite, with a few comparatively thin and subordinate beds of shale and sandstone. These rocks are distinctly stratified, the slight variations in the colouring of the different beds rendering the stratification distinct up to the very summit of the huge precipitous mountains which rise from the shores of the inlet. As a rule, the beds roll about with a moderate dip not exceeding 20º; in places there is much disturbance and contortion. The thickness of the beds must be very great; some of the mountains on the inlet are said to be 6,000 feet high and they evidently consist entirely of the dark limestone; indeed no trace of any other rock was to be seen in the neighbourhood. Fossils are far from scarce in the limestone, but it is unusually difficult to find any in a state in which they can be recognized. Sections of shells, both univalves and bivalves, fragments of corals, and apparently of encrinites, are to be found in several beds, but it was only after much search that I found anything which may possible be identified. These fossils have been submitted to careful examination by Dr. Stoliczka, Palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of India, who states: "The limestone contains several specimens of a Myophoria, externally very closely resembling M. Chenopus, Laube, from the St. Cassian beds, and indicating upper Triassic strata. This is the only fossil which can be even approximately determined. It occurs socially, and together with some coasts of Gastropoda, resembling Chemnitzia. "A few casts of a Peleeypod resemble in shape Anoplophora, also a Triassic genus. There are two valves of an Exogyra of the shape of the neocomien E. Conica. As far as I know, the type is unknown in the Trias. "A few fragments of a Peeten, undeterminable, occur; and several fragments of an Asteroid coral." I suspect that this great limestone-formation must occupy a considerable area in ‘Oman: and it is far from improbable that it forms parts of the great dark-coloured mountain ranges behind Maskat. This is more probable, because Dr. Carter obtained through Mr. Cole of the Indian Navy specimens of similar limestone from the mountains near Ras-el-Hsd. The most remarkable circumstances about the Massandim promontory is its form. The inlet I visited. Kher-as-Shem, runs from the Persian Gulf for, I believe, seventeen miles into the heart of the hills; it is about 17 to 20 fathoms deep throughout, and in many places even close up to rocks on each side. It is only separated by a belt of land less than a mile broad from another inlet called Ghubet Ghuzirah (Malcom’s Inlet of the old charts) which enters from the eastern side of the promontory in the Gulf of Oman, and which is still deeper. Other inlets occur, all very deep and immediately off the rocky coast is the deepest part of the Persian Gulf. There is a curious resemblance of these inlets to the fiords of Norway, but the latter are undoubtedly of glacial origin, whilst no such cause can be suggested in one of the very hottest regions of the whole surface of the globe. The sea could never excavate such land-locked basins as that of Khor-as-Shem, barely a mile across in place and 20 fathoms deep. I can only suppose that the peculiar form of this coast is the result of subsidence, that the inlets were valleys on the land produced in the usual manner by rain and streams and then sunk beneath the sea. The great depth of the Gulf of Oman off Maskat (2,000 fathoms) may point to a general and long continued subsidence along this coast and, if so, it is curious to contrast it with the evidence if comparatively recent elevation on the opposite shores of Persia as noticed in a previous paper. CAMP GWADAR, BILUCHISTAN;January, 1872.

The Telegraph Cable from Britain to India.

Like the internet now, the development of the Telegraph in the second half of the 19th century was a revolutionary development that allowed for the first time the 'fast' world-wide exchange of information (telegrams took only a few hours from Bombay to London). The laying of submarine telegraph lines connecting the continents were vast and leading edge technological projects that made the world headlines at the time.

The failure of the 1859 Red Sea and India Telegraph Company cable left a need to speed up communications between Great Britain and India. The Indian, Turkish, and Persian governments agreed to interconnect their landline systems, which required a cable between Fao, Bushire, and Gwadar. A land connection would have been through very difficult terrain, so a submarine cable route in the Persian Gulf was chosen, which also allowed the cable to be extended eastwards from Gwadar to Karachi.

A full page from The Illustrated London News dated July 8th 1865 and titled 'The Indo-European Telegraph: Mussendom Station, Elphinstone Inlet, Persian Gulf' and 'The Late Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Stewart, Director-General of The Indo-European Telegraph.

The cable was manufactured by Henley’s Telegraph Works (a company that still exists) , using core supplied by the Gutta Percha Company. A single copper conductor was used, insulated with four layers of gutta percha, followed by a wrapping of hemp, then 16 armoring wires, and asphalt outer protection.

The cableships Marion Moore, Kirkham, Assaye, Tweed, Cospatrick and Amberwitch laid the cable for the Indian Government.

The cable route was Gwadar - Karachi: Gwadar - Cape Mussendom (Musandam)- Bushire - Fao.


Laying the Persian Gulf Cable at Fao, Persian Guly. July 8th 1863.

Telegraph Island was a station along the telegraph cable that linked London to Iraq's southern city of Basra and onwards to Bombay. Although it took ten years to lay the cable from end to end, the manager's station on Telegraph Island was abandoned only five years after the it's construction in 1864. The station was moved from  Musandam to Hengam in Iran (Persia). Perhaps not surprising as it must have been a very lonely and hot post to man.

References

For the story of the Submarine Telegraph Cables see http://www.atlantic-cable.com

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@ J. Schreurs April 2005, updated April 2009