Monty's Musandam Adventure
Being called Monty has its drawbacks, you know. For a start, whenever someone shouts your name in a park, several bewildered labradors come running, and anyone you ever meet for the first time always says: ‘What, as in The Full Monty? Ha ha!’ Stranger still, everyone tends to associate you with the lisping field marshal of El Alamein fame. For me, this has always served as a reminder that I had never really done a decent journey in a desert. So, in the midst of a deep, bone-crackingly cold British winter, I decided to flee a rampant flu virus and exuberant vomiting bugs and have a crack at some proper desert travelling. Or, as the original Monty would have put it: ‘Have a cwack at some pwoper desert twavelling.’
Joined by my girlfriend Tamsin, I embarked on a drive-and-dive adventure, with two days in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to visit my sister, and then five in the Musandam Peninsula, an exclave of Oman surrounded by Emirati territory. We duly landed in Dubai to spend a short time and a colossal amount of cash in a place that could essentially be a theme park called ‘Money World’. It’s shiny and big and full of shops that glint and glimmer, and it has the world’s tallest building, which – let me tell you – is really, really tall.
I also decided to have a henna tattoo before heading into the desert, saying to the slightly baffled lady in the small stall that I’d like ‘two leaping dolphins please, right here’, pointing at my shoulder. Something must have been lost in translation, as she plainly thought I had asked for two angry kippers. She shrugged and got on with it, and then relieved me of an astronomical sum of money, before bidding me farewell with a cheery wave. Happily, the henna fades after seven days, although the faint sensation of having been ripped off remains much longer. Mind you, my sister laughed so hard she started crying, and I haven’t seen her do that since I puked while on my hands and knees in a puddle when I was ten, so it was money well spent.
The drive to Musandam took more than two hours, and was fairly dull, failing to deliver any of my desert fantasies. At the border, a bored official gestured us through after checking our documents and relieving us of a few bob. ‘Welcome to Oman,’ he said to no-one in particular. From the border, we were into the mountains, and things began to change.
The Musandam Peninsula has a very colourful history indeed, jutting as it does into the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. Control these waters and you control 45 per cent of the world’s oil supply, as well as all manner of international trade. The region has always been a refuge for adventurers and smugglers, and to this day, every day, there are fleets of very small boats with very big engines hurtling out of tiny coves tucked beneath precipitous cliffs.
We twisted along roads carved into vertical hillsides with the sea leaden and heaving beneath us, a scene straight out of a Top Gear special, until after 40 minutes or so, we finally arrived at Extra Divers. The dive centre is part of the Golden Tulip Resort, an imposing structure that sits on a promontory, looking very much like a Beau Geste fortress. The dive shop is tucked discreetly beneath it, and because it was raining, we had the entire place to ourselves. We were met by our smiling hosts Matt, Chica, and finally (to avoid any name-related confusion or faux pas), another Matt.
The overriding impression on meeting them was how proud they are of their dives and their operation. Matt number one smiled broadly as he shook my hand. ‘Welcome to our little outpost,’ he said. ‘We’re like the Foreign Legion here. Nomads from another life.’ It turned out that the other life Matt and Chica had been leading was in the Maldives, working for the extremely posh Four Seasons Explorer. They had both decided after several years that they wanted a different challenge and seemed delighted with their choice.
‘Oh, it’s different all right,’ said Matt number two. ‘The local town Khasab is a typical frontier port. I’ve been here two years now, and it has a certain quirky eccentricity, shall we say. Anyway, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. You must be tired – I’ll show you to your accommodation.’
Our room was in a spacious villa in town, very close to the square. It was no luxury dive retreat, but it was clean and airy and based in the heart of Khasab. You wake to the squabbling birds in the date palms outside the window, and drift off to the call to prayer. This echoed and boomed around the mountains, drifting into colossal crags and rugged canyons, carried away on the desert wind.
Having squelched our way to the dive centre the next morning, it was decided that, as it was a tad blowy, we’d dive in the shelter of one of the main ‘fjords’. Musandam has been described as the ‘Norway of Arabia’, and the analogy is a good one. The peninsula is divided into deep channels, bays and inlets, the vast majority of which have never been dived. Most of the region is split by colossal ridges, making much of the shore accessible only by boat – it is one of the few diving areas that still have a whiff of the pioneering spirit about it.
Our boat skipped along at a fair old lick due to the snorting presence of twin 250hp engines at the stern, closing the gap between the harbour and the headland at an impressive rate. ‘We’re pretty swift, as we need to access some fairly remote sites,’ said Matt number two. ‘The only boats faster than us are the smugglers’ and the police’s. To be faster than them is... unwise.’
It is worth pointing out at this juncture that we were very much out of season in diving terms. The sea temperature was a nippy 23°C, and it was still raining. Later in the year, the whale sharks and mantas scull through the region, the water warms up, and the visibility clears dramatically.
Our first dive was tucked in beneath towering cliffs close to Khasab, the walls twisted into arthritic folds by the vast forces that created them. My expectations were not set particularly high as I jumped in for my first dive, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, the dive was good enough to distract me from the unbelievable stench coming from my wetsuit. This was a very, very old suit that I’d had to grab at the last minute from home as I’d recently lost my other super-Gucci one. It smelt, very strongly, of a combination of my garden shed and ancient wee.
The coral cover really surprised me, being extensive, diverse, and healthy. A recent study found 100 previously unrecorded species on Oman’s reefs, 52 of which were new to science.
There were all the usual suspects on this first dive, with damselfish bustling over coral heads in flickering shoals, iridescent blennies and gobies guarding tiny caverns, and yellowtail barracuda keeping their distance in the gloom. We found a very beautiful, very bright lionfish making stately progress along the reef – a swaying firework of spines and stripes. When I got back to the boat, I was delighted to find out from my fish ID book that it was called a Mombasa turkeyfish – precisely the name I would have come up with had I been given several hours and bottle of very good whisky to aid my creative thought processes.
Over the next few days, the seas calmed, the sun came out and morale soared. We dived a lovely little wreck of an old landing craft, the hold of which contained a small aeroplane and some very proprietorial clownfish. I find that you get very different personalities in clownfish, with some showing a Ray Winstone level of ‘do-you-want-some-Bubbleboy’ as you approach, and others adopting a more Flashman-esque ‘do-anything-you-like-to-the-anemone-but-don’t-hit-my-pretty-little-face’ – a technique I’ve employed with some success throughout my rugby career, incidentally. The wreck, and indeed the reefs, bristles with urchins, a waving mass of delicate, rustling spines moving slowly on tubed feet like elaborately armoured cars.
Our final day of diving was in a truly outlying island, a lump of parched rock jutting into the Strait of Hormuz. Iran was visible on the horizon, mysterious and forbidden. As we anchored in an echoing amphitheatre of limestone cliffs, our skipper Ali proudly pointed out the wheeling forms overhead. ‘Sea eagles!’ he shouted, flashing white teeth in a broad smile. Looking more closely, I could just make out that they were ospreys, shrieking and tumbling in blue skies as we bobbed beneath. Their calls were echoed and amplified by the cliffs, a quintessential sound of wild Arabia.
The dive yielded a glimpse of this region at its best. The coral cover was outstanding, the marine life akin to that of the Red Sea, shimmering and pulsing over complex reef formations. It was also notable in that I was chased by a very grumpy, very large honeycomb moray, back-pedalling furiously as it tried to bite the front of my camera. Tam did absolutely the right thing by ascending slightly, laughing a lot, and then complaining when we got back on the boat that she hadn’t had her video camera with her.
Musandam is a wild place. It provides adventure, history, a touch of subterfuge and the chance to dive in a land far off the beaten track. It is worth pointing out that at no point did we feel a hint of hostility, and in fact there was great warmth and interest from the local people throughout our stay – living proof of the proud traditions of Arab hospitality. Most of the dive sites have yet to be discovered, and at the time of our visit, the waters were just beginning to warm, the visibility just beginning to clear and the first massive shadows of whale sharks and mantas were being reported as they moved in on their annual migrations.
As we motored away from this final dive site, it dawned on me that we all began to dive because we wanted a hint of the unknown and a chance to blaze a trail. Musandam – where hidden inlets are guarded by stark ridges, where giant animals drift over busy reefs, where ospreys circle overhead, and where history is etched into every disputed channel and distant island – provides a rare opportunity to do just that.
Need to know
Monty and Tamsin were guests of Regaldive (01353 659999; www.regaldive.co.uk) and Extra Divers (www.musandam-diving.com). Regaldive offers holiday packages to Musandam from £785 per person based on two sharing, including flights with Emirates from Heathrow to Dubai, transfers and seven nights at the Extra Divers Villa on a B&B basis. A ten-dive package costs £246 per person.
Hire directly from Hertz at the airport or pre-book at www.hertz.co.uk. Hertz will provide the car documentation you need to cross the border when you pick up the vehicle, although you must mention that you are going to drive to Oman when you book. You’ll also need extra insurance for travelling in Oman, which the company can also arrange.
It’s important to have the right documents at the border. These include a car registration certificate, an Omani insurance certificate, and a passport. The border crossing costs about £50, although this varies with the exchange rate and who you talk to!