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Khasab: Smugglers, Dolphins, and Dhows in the Fjords of Oman

Smugglers run goods to Iran, oil tankers rest on the Strait of Hormuz, and dolphins swim bright, coral waters surrounded by arid cliffs. This is Khasab.

“Those are the smugglers,” said Hassan. “Just wait until we come back from the fjords later, there will be hundreds more of them.” A few small boats, laden with boxes and crates covered in makeshift tarpaulins, were gunning their engines and setting out across the Strait of Hormuz toward Iran.

I hadn’t been in Khasab for long, but Oman’s isolated exclave was already proving to be a very intriguing place. Hassan, a local from Khasab, was captaining a traditional Arabian dhow through the Fjords of Oman, one of the most untouched areas of the country.

The Fjords of Khasab

Rocky, barren, and dry, high cliffs tower over a vast network of waterways that sprawl outward from the port of Khasab. Traditional villages line the escarpments, and the only form of transport here is by boat.

Khasab is a place where life for everyone, except the smugglers, is slow. The port is quiet for most of the day. A few dhows like the one I was on set out with tourists from the harbour to disappear amongst the fjords before returning again in the late afternoon. The strange serenity hides the fact that this is one of the most important locations in the Strait of Hormuz, and when evening strikes, the waterway becomes a flurry of speeding smugglers.

ABOVE: Boatman Hassan in the fjords of Oman.

Khasab is the main city on the Musandam Peninsula. Politically, it’s part of Oman, but geographically, it’s separated from the rest of mainland Oman by the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is in turn separated from Musandam by high mountains, which until very recently were almost impassable by land.

ABOVE: Smugglers speeding from Oman.

Across the water is Iran, and through that narrow channel that lay ahead, thousands of oil tankers and shipping containers ply through the Strait of Hormuz every day. The proximity to Iran makes this region a hotbed for smugglers, but it’s the isolation and rugged beauty of Khasab that has long made it a favourite amongst travelers.

The Dolphins of Oman

“Dolphins!” Hassan shouted as we left the open ocean and began our journey into the fjords. The dhow was by now surrounded on all sides by thick, impenetrable cliffs, and Hassan had spotted a pod of dolphins skimming across the water.

The Fjords of Oman have become a well protected and diverse area, where dolphins and other marine life can flourish in the protected, isolated waterways. These were Humpback Dolphins, and they swam alongside the dhow and under the hull, before tiring and disappearing again into the blue waters.

A few local boats were travelling from village to village, and I enjoyed the isolation before the dhow crew dropped anchor into the water to bring us to a halt by the prominent rocky outcrop of Telegraph Island.

Telegraph Island: Going Around the Bend

ABOVE: Dhows from the infamous Telegraph Island.

Telegraph Island is one of the largest of the many rocks and islands that are found strewn through the fjords. It takes its name from the fact that for years British sailors were stationed here to operate a telegraph relay system that sent messages onto India or back to London.

In the baking hot sun, surrounded by salt water and high cliffs, the beauty of this land was lost on the poor sailors who spent month after month marooned on this deserted island, surrounded by cliffs, coral, and occasionally hostile locals. Men went insane, and the phrase ‘Going around the bend’, to lose one’s mind, was coined by those unfortunate enough to be sent around the bend in the fjords to this remote post.

ABOVE: Sunset on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

With a mask and snorkel on, I was in a much better position than the British sailors to appreciate the coral reef that surrounds this small island. The fjord was full of marine life and the coral was colourful and bright in the shallow, clear water.

Remote Isolation

ABOVE: Smugglers head into the open sea.

The fjords stretch for miles and I saw only a fraction before the light began to fade and Hassan turned the dhow around. Locals waved from their small boats as they returned to their homes from Khasab; the dolphins came back alongside the boat as we neared the entrance to the fjord. As Hassan had predicted in the morning, there were small boats lined up in the waters and spread across the harbour.

Business in Khasab revolves either around smuggling to Iran or tourism in the fjords. In many ways, life here hasn’t changed much at all in the past few centuries. Khasab’s remote, isolated location at the tip of the Musandam Peninsula has always a comfortable position for smugglers. Muscat has always been far away, and Iran, with its lucrative ‘trade’ opportunities is always much closer

ABOVE: Omani flag over the arid cliffs of Khasab.

Just as smugglers have always passed through the port, so too have travellers like myself, drawn by its very remoteness. There might be more visitors these days, and the smuggled contraband may have changed from spices and frankincense to televisions and fridges, but Khasab remains an authentic and isolated part of Oman that’s quite unlike anywhere else in the country.