Sunday, February 18

Kumzar


Our second day in the Musandam region was spent on a private day trip to the remote village of Kumzar. This delightful little village is perched in solitary splendour at the northernmost tip of Musandam, hemmed in by sheer mountains and accessible only by a 2.5 hour boat trip. Garry and I spent 45 minutes visiting the town with our guide while our boat captain waited offshore.

Until 2015 tourists were prohibited from coming ashore making this a truly unique destination.  I was keen to visit simply because it looked postcard perfect online. I also loved the idea of somewhere unspoilt by hordes of day-tripping tourists. However, the more I read about the town the more fascinating it became.


Geographically, Kumzar is a paradox. By land, this is one of the most remote and inaccessible settlements in Oman. By sea, however, the town overlooks the Straits of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Its unique location has created some fascinating cultural quirks that make Kumzar unlike any other place in Oman. 

The locals speak their own unique language called Kumzari. They trace their ancestry back to a hotchpotch of ethnic groups ranging from Yemeni to Zanzibari.  The 700-year-old village is also said to have become home for European and Indian sailors shipwrecked off the nearby coast.

Kumzar’s population currently stands at around 5000, with its own school, hospital, power station and desalination plant. The inhabitants live largely by fishing for nine months of the year, netting barracuda, tuna, kingfish and hammour (much of which ends up in the restaurants of Dubai).  During the scorching Summer months locals retreat to a second home in Khasab.


The ride to Kumzar was almost worth the entire journey itself.  We cruised past the magnificent sea cliffs that fringe the coast, past the entrance to the fine Khor Ghob Ali, and then Goat Island (Jazirat al Ghanim), ringed with fluted limestone cliffs. 

In the past, local Kumzaris would often bring their sheep and goats across to Goat island by boat to graze, given the lack of suitable pastureland around Kumzar itself. Today much of the island is out of bounds. Its northern headland is populated by military buildings housing a growing array of sophisticated electronic surveillance technology.

Beyond Goat Island you enter the Straits of Hormuz, with magnificent seascapes, craggy headlands and a considerable number of oil tankers.  It’s here that we passed through a narrow strait where three rocky islands collectively known as the Jazirat Salamah form the most northerly piece of Omani territory. We also saw the UK’s Royal Navy on patrol including the rather large and imposing RFA Cardigan Bay.


Ten minutes or so later we rounded a final headland and got our first glimpse of Kumzar, with its colourful huddle of buildings backed up against a sheer wall of mountains behind it. Space is very much at a premium here. Buildings crowd together.  The main street is effectively a wadi flood channel with houses perched on the highest points of the surrounding gravel beds.  

The town even has its own distinct urban zones.  Lots closest to the cliff face are reserved for dozens and dozens of goat sheds, the centre of town houses the inhabitants and the pebble beach foreshore is home to a handful of stores and cafes where the locals congregate for an afternoon of sweet tea and gossip.


Three highlights stood out from our day trip.  The first was the town's children.  They followed us everywhere we went.  One small boy dashed off suddenly only to reappear a few minutes later carrying a baby goat that was almost as big as he was. It was clearly his pride and joy.  Our guide subsequently encouraged us to buy a large bag of chocolates which we then proceeded to hand out as we walked through the town's narrow, gravel-paved alleyways.


The second highlight was an opportunity to witness Iranian smugglers racing across the Gulf in powerful speedboats.  Every day dozens of boats make their way to Khasab to load up on contraband in a brazen display of contempt for international sanctions. However, the Omanis demand that they vacate the port before sunset resulting in whitewater armada of speedboats racing from the town at the same time each day. We later learnt that smugglers are granted a 12-hour pass to visit but aren’t allowed further into town than the Old Souk.

The final highlight was rather more terrifying.  We'd made our way up the coast in a local dhowl boat in relatively calm seas.  However, as we round the northern headlands for home we discovered the Gulf had been transformed into a roiling sea covered in white-capped waves.  It took us almost four hours to return to port riding up and down the surging waves.  I valiantly locked my eyes on a relatively stable horizon and quietly prayed that I wouldn't get seasick. Fortunately my stomach held out as we gained an unexpected insight into the perils of sailing in the Persian Gulf.

No comments: