Musandam and bust

I was pleased to be waved through the border crossing at Dibba.

I was pleased not to have to pay for a new Omani visa.

I was less pleased to now be an undocumented foreign national. 

To complicate matters further non-GCC nationals (me) aren't allowed to pass between border crossings here. Travelling from say Dibba, north to Khassab and then on to re-enter the UAE at Ash Sham was prohibited. 

A shame indeed, as that was exactly my intention. I'd read about dolphins cavorting in the fjords around Khassab and I meant to see them.

Bureaucracy be damned.

So I scooted out of Dibba to make camp.

An obliging acacia grove provided a discrete and comfortable spot. 

Magical Musandam.

Draped on the north eastern tip of Arabia like the bones of some long dead leviathan.The lower jaw of the straights of Hormuz.

An artificial rendering of the peninsular as if observed from an elevated position to the north.

My few paltry pictures and the hollow words which follow fail utterly to capture her grandeur, silence, scale.

It felt like being on the moon.

A pre-dawn start saw me pass a closed convenience store under the last lingerings of moonlight. Had I known it was the last between me and the mountains I might have waited for it to open. Bought provisions, charged my phone, general sensible stuff. But I was doing well for water and had enough food for a couple of days so I blithely sailed by.

I was underestimating Musandam's remoteness.

Oman's population is three million and change. Less than Croatia, Ireland, even Singapore.Yet she is about the same size as Poland. Bigger at any rate than Italy or the UK. This makes Oman the 23rd least densely populated countries in the world (out of 241) besting famously empty countries like Saudi Arabia, Norway and Finland.

Most of those scant three million inhabitants are found in the fertile coastal strip around Muscat which I'd recently left. Tough terrain, inhospitable mountains, inaccessible fishing and smugglers coves, and cut off from Oman proper. Musandam is then one of the least populated areas, of one of the least populated countries, in the world.

So no Tom, there wont be a Tesco round the next corner.

Leaving behind the lowlands and the last of the dwellings. 

The mountains crowded the narrowing valley and the modest farmsteads petered out along with the tarmac. A hard left turn around the arm of an encroaching crag brought me face-to-face with the my first obstacle. A half dozen Omani troops sporting some fairly serious hardware. I rolled to an abrupt stop and was told I couldn't go this way.

An army checkpoint was a rather more tangible and immediate bureaucratic barrier than I'd been expecting. I chose friendly obstinance in the face of authority.

Rubbing my chin and nodding ruefully I squatted down a respectful distance from the soldiers. I rolled a cigarette then offered round the pouch. Tongues loosened, I passed round my map and outlined my intention. Was that a grin or two? After half an hour of scuffing my heels they came round to the idea of letting me pass but warned of check points, patrols and unspecified trouble further on. With a cheery, "I'll take my chances", I was back on my way.
Valley became canyon as the wadi's winding course led through the increasingly imposing mountains.

As the hours passed the silence became almost complete. Not oppressive or unsettling but unignorable.

Sat on a rock I let me ears accustom themselves to the quiet.

Two days to cover the 110 kilometres between me and Khassab would usually be plenty but I wasn't counting on it here. I rationed out provisions for a miserly four days.Water would have been my primary concern had it not been for occasional, much welcomed, water drums along the route. Satisfied I kicked back on the roadside rock and continued soaking in the utter, all pervading, silence.

Not a creature was stirring, not even a goat.

Then a rumbling. Almost imperceptible. I strained my ears. Definitely a rumble.Listening intently I found my self tense and alert. After a few minutes the rumbling resolved itself into the unmistakable sounds of a motor coming closing in from further up the gorge. I picked up the heavily loaded bike and heaved it over some conveniently sited road side boulders and took up a discrete position shielded by the scant shrubbery. An interminable wait followed as the engine whine and gravel crunch rose in intensity.

Eventually an army truck appeared and roared past as I hid in the alien landscape.

With just a hint of undercover bravado I emerged from my hideaway feeling unduly self satisfied.

With the sun high and hot the canyon eventually opened out into a bowel where the wadi sourced. The only way out was to follow the dirt road upwards.The valley side was steep and the too few switch-backs didn't prevent the incline from topping 20%. Before too long I was off the saddle and pushing. Back and arms braced, calves squeezing out the inches.

Turning back crossed my mind. Shifting gravel and a sweaty grip more than once brought me to a stand still, arms shaking to prevent backsliding. However, stubborn mule like plodding has its own momentum. To stop and turn back was harder mentally than to carry on. So I did. If only out of a stubborn desire to see what was at the top.

Looking back from something like halfway 

Perhaps an hour of slow, sweaty progress later I found out. A rocky broken ridge-line ahead and an amused ahoy hoy from my right.

A man, cool and collected, dressed in white. Grinning like a Cheshire cat. He seemed unreal like a spirit guide or a bad mushroom trip. Clearly I was over heated.

Evidently amused to find me on his isolated door step he invited me in for a cool drink. Had I been less parched I'd have slobbered on him in my haste to accept. Even after some much needed shade and hydration Muhammad's place still appeared to me like something from a dream. A rustic goat herd house meets mountaintop chalet with a dash of Emerati exuberance. Somehow luxurious and spartan. Two Bangladeshi man servants and a host of goats completed the household. I was given a guided tour. Over many generations the buildings had proliferated from the original cliff hewn low ceilinged bunk room where his great grandfather had put down roots. A labour of love over successive generations to which Muhammed returned regularly from his life in Abu Dhabi. Invited to spend the night, I accepted without hesitation.

We four spent the evening chatting amiably outside watching the ever changing hues of the naked strata in the valley below as the Earth revolved eventually revealing a milky way of uncommon clarity. I fell gratefully asleep on a carpeted floor in one of the outhouses to the sounds of shuffling goats and a huffing-puffing generator failing to charge my phone.

After an early breakfast I said my goodbyes and picked my way along the broken back of the mountain. It was not long before I was brought to a standstill.

Take a moment to imagine with me the feeling of stumbling upon The Grand Canyon without warning or expectation. 

Believe me when I say that this picture cannot but come up short in capturing this views majesty

Having never been to The Grand Canyon I can't truthfully stand by the comparison but I have been here and can say without hesitation that it was stupefying. 

I sat for a long time. Marveling. 

The last vestiges of battery deserted my phone.Leaving me with only my notebook to document the stark beauty. Oh to have an ounce of artistic talent.

Eventually dragging myself away I got to enjoy the virtue of potential energy for only a short way further before a vertiginous drop had me bumpily slaloming towards a narrow valley bottom. Twisting and turning I spotted another army truck climbing towards me. Squealing brakes and a sideways scuttle behind a handily situated rocky spur allowed me to let them pass without incident.

Descent completed the track immediately began to climb steeply. The road to Khassab was not paved and the landscape, despite its undeniable beauty, bore me no good intentions. White knuckle brake wearing drops followed long, hard, slow, hot climbs.

The day wore on.

Early afternoon I rounded a bend and ran slap bang into a road block. Guns rise in unison. That will teach me to listen to music while riding where I shouldn't. I'd make a terrible secret agent. There was nothing for it but to resort to diplomacy. Big smiles from me, hard faces from the armed men ahead.

I could usually feel when defeat was coming in rugby. A lack of control, dislocation between intention and outcome, things happening in places on the pitch that I wasn't prepared for. Here in Musandam things were happening too quickly. Food dwindling, country borders blurring, gradients varying wildly and now a double whammy: The road block was manned by both police and army. Two sources of authority each sizing up the other for mistakes. Much less room for leniency and rule bending. Then, digging around for cigarettes to share, I realised that my kindle was no longer with me; bounced out perhaps on one of the helter-skelter descents. My big smiles faltered.

If I have learnt anything about myself in the last 28 years it is that I am an arch consumer. Despite my cultivated lack of expenditure this fact remains. Not having a book, something, anything, to entertain my mind and avoid being thrown back on my own mental fortitude and originality is a torture.

So it was that I turned back. Partially rebuffed by the road block and partially desperate to find my lost e-book reader.

I slowly picked my way back south searching in vain for the lost device. The search was methodical if not meticulous. Pushing the bike up hills scanning the road and verges. Reaching the top only to turn around, leaving the bike, and slowly retrace my steps under the hot sun.

The process was unbearably slow. I made a grumpy camp as I lost the light still determined to find this possession which I had carried so far and on which I had come to rely for company. Musandam was teaching me the bitter taste of defeat to accompany the roaring silence now magnified by the lack of distraction.

More of the same followed the next day and after six hours of fruitless search I found myself back at Muhammed's place. He took me back in and I spent that rest of the day looking both on foot and from his truck to no avail.

So it was that I came to leave Musandam from the same place I entered. I even camped in the same Acacia grove on the outskirts of Dibba that I had occupied only a few days prior. I could not mourn my failure to see the fjords and their cavorting dolphins and smugglers coves with any degree of leisure. The day of my flight to Australia was approaching and I would have to ride hard.

I hit the long motorways of which the UAE is well provisioned at an ungodly hour and fairly rocketed. First south to Masafi then west towards Dubai. Eating up the distance on the long flat tarmac surfaces. What might have taken three days at, my usual meandering pace, ended up taking just one
Long flat and wide. Bicycles may be banned on these behemoths but to reach Dubai in time they were unavoidable 

Desert dunes rolled by to the sound of the Stones blasting in my ears and I found myself on the outskirts of Dubai. Entering the city from the south east by bike was no easy task. It's all very well cycling along the hard shoulder of a huge 12 lane free-way but what happens when there is an exit 4 lanes wide and you need to go straight on? Well the answer is that you very carefully pee your pants and wait for a gap in traffic that's going a hundred miles an hour.

I headed for the city's youth hostel, situated conveniently close to the Airport. I found the least hostel like hostel one could imagine. All sleek modern lines and swimming pools. There was no room at the inn due to some sort of hostelling conference which I found a little ironic and the abrupt staff gave short shrift to the notion of me putting a tent up on their lawn.

Unimpressed I considered my options and poked around the neighbourhood. Some fenced off wasteland behind a nearby mosque presented itself as a viable option. I asked a few locals if I might camp there. Bemusement followed but a friendly Egyptian invited me in for a cup of tea and offered to call the Imam. Finding the Imam unavailable my knight in shinning armour suggested I go and ask at the nearby sports centre instead.

I was a little thrown on seeing that the centre catered for disabled athletes however, seeing few option but to impose, I ventured to the reception and set out my odd request. Barely a raised eyebrow later I was being ushered into the office of the Vice-President. There I met Majid, a young academic looking man suffering from MS. Upon hearing my request he steepled his fingers and said I had two options:

1. He would pay for me to stay in a hotel nearby.
2. I could camp in the centre's grounds.

Elated I said that option two would do very very nicely and thanked him profusely before spending a pleasant evening; watching and chatting with archers, footballers and weight lifters and generally being an enthusiastic crowd of one.

The next day was spent preparing my bike for its first flight.This involved riding to Arun's (my host on my first visit to Dubai) and then a local bicycle shop in an effort to unstick stubborn pedals  before heading back to the airport through some motorway tunnels that I had absolute no business cycling through.

After a mildly stressful day I was ready to depart on my 01:00 flight.
Skilful use of two luggage trolleys to manoeuvre my newly packed up steed.

Watching my constant companion, of 15,000 kilometres and some twenty two countries, disappear into the merciless modernity of Dubai Airport was upsetting.

The cord had been cut and the almost unbroken overland line that had been trailing behind me since I left a quite corner of northern England some nine months earlier was obliterated.

A twenty four hour interregnum followed. A petite mort lost in the angelic blue sky upon the sterile seats of Royal Brunei Airlines. A sojourn in Brunei without so much as a chance to sniff the jungle air or catch a glimpse of Borneo's imposing peaks. This was luxury. Quarantined from the world. I hated it and loved it.

Bicycles, boats even slowly driven buses go at understandable, human, speeds. More or less within our spans of comprehension. This was something different. I felt my grasp on position within the world spread thin and then collapse as I stared at the blinking plane on the blue and green background of my in-flight screen. Space and time muddled as I sat immobile. This was superhuman. This was time travel.

Spat out in Melbourne with a cheery grin and a thank you for flying by the cabin staff; I reset my phone to 7:00 am local time and went to be reunited with my bike.

Sat, cross legged, at arrivals I put her back to together. Re-tightening pedals, pumping tires and attaching panniers before cycling out of the concourse past the waiting taxis to follow the well designed cycle route from the airport into the heart of Melbourne.

The culture shock was real.The gradual changes from one biosphere to another by bike provided no preparation for this. Macrobius's Terra Australis violently tangible all around me. Eucalypts and Butcherbirds.Currawongs and Banksia. More shocking still to my newly middle eastern acclimatised sensibilities: Beer and women.

 Ben, an old university friend and his housemates Jo and Michael took me in and reminded me what western civilisation is all about

Seemingly within moments of arriving I had a beer in my hand (the first for at least two months) was eating BBQ and talking sport. It didn't take me long to overcome the culture shock. This was after all a groove I'd spent a quarter of a decade whittling. Though I shall admit that it took me a little longer to stop furtively glancing around at the welcome female company I was newly returned to.

It had been some 40 hours since I'd boarded the plane in Dubai. Ben had kindly got me a ticket to the final 20-20 match between England and Australia at the MCG. A few more beers in the late evening warmth, the sound of willow on leather, and England's abysmal performance made for a comfortably familiar lullaby.

*Due to my phone running out of battery the last two pictures of Musandam have been taken from GoogleEarth to better break up the wall of text. (How cool is Google Earth by the way that you can trace your route and see other peoples pictures from the exact same spot. Awesome!) Frustratingly I couldn't work out how to identify the photographer but if someone can help me do so I should like to credit them properly.

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