Snorkeling in Oman (AKA Defeating Death in a Boat’s Bathroom)
That second title might seem melodramatic, but it’s not far from reality. Let me back up a second.
We knew our time in the United Arab Emirates would mostly be spent coaching clients and working on consulting projects, so we wanted to plan a true day off before we moved on to Azerbaijan. During a trip to Washington, DC in June, we had the chance to visit the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, where we viewed an exhibition about Oman’s culture. We were both fascinated by what we learned, and disappointed we didn’t really see a way we could work an Oman visit into our trip. But after some research, we discovered we could join a day trip from Dubai to the northernmost tip of Oman, the Musandam Peninsula.
The Musandam Peninsula is known for its mountains and fjords (it’s often referred to as the “Norway of Arabia”) and is separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates. The peninsula is also just a boat ride across the Strait of Hormuz away from Iran. A day trip wouldn’t be the extended time in Oman we wanted, but it would at least be relaxing and a small exposure to Oman.
After more research, we learned that some of the trips went through a formal border, while others did not. In addition, some of the trips spend much of the day stopping at specific shops and only a short time on a boat, which sounded more like forced shopping than the kind of cultural exploration we prefer, or the relaxation we wanted.
Ultimately, the prospect of relaxation and a passport stamp won out, so we booked a day trip that would take us through a formal border and farther into Oman, while also allow us to spend much more of our day on a dhow. We would board the dhow in Khasab, the capital of Musandam located on the northern tip of the Musandam Peninsula. It is home to about 18,000 residents, a 17th century Portuguese fort, and a harbor. While it used to be known as a town where smuggled goods were brought on their way to and from Iran, today Khasab is home to companies and individuals offering traditional dhow boat excursions to travelers drawn by the scenery and snorkeling in the Strait of Hormuz. The area has many steep and rocky wadis, or valleys, and Khasab is located at the foot of Wadi Khasab overlooking the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, so the last 30 minutes or so of the drive there was especially scenic. The cruise would take us to Khor Sham, a 10 mile long fjord known for its clear water and high mountains.
The company we booked through actually used another company to run the boat tour, but we paid about 867 AED total, or $240 US for two, after some back-and-forth. The price did not include our visas, which we would need to secure via http://evisa.rop.gov.om. The visa took about 10 minutes for the online application, 5 OMR ($13 US) each, and less than 20 minutes to receive the approval. (Others in our group secured their visa by paying cash at the border, but our company stressed that we needed to secure our visa in advance, and we had read that visas on arrival are no longer available.)
The driver picked us up at our hotel at 6:30 a.m., and, at our request, dropped us off at the Dubai Mall at about 8:00 p.m. (Normally the company drops you off at your hotel, but we opted to be dropped at the mall to get dinner there.) Taking the boat tour on a Friday, a day when most offices are closed in the UAE, meant both that the ATMs were turned off (a problem for one of the other passengers on the boat) and that there was virtually no traffic, so the trip was faster – about 30 minutes shorter in each direction – than it would otherwise have been, even with stops to drop off and pick up other travelers.
The thought of spending 14 hours in a swimsuit wasn’t remotely appealing to me, so I opted to wear regular clothes and change into my swimsuit later in the day. Reviews online indicated this wouldn’t be a problem because there was a bathroom on the boat. Great, I thought. As we drove, we stopped at a gas station, and there were bathrooms at the border leaving the UAE and the border entering Oman. None of the bathrooms were air conditioned, and the temperature was 100 degrees that day. (The bathrooms also mostly lacked toilet paper, and weren’t exactly places I wanted to spend extra time.) No biggie, I figured, I’ll change on the boat. We arrived at the dhow (a traditional Omani boat) in Khasab, and took our shoes off. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was comfortable, with rugs on the floor and lots of space to sit, though not necessarily in the shade.
Our captain (more on him later) welcomed us on board, introduced us to the crew, and explained the bathroom. The toilet emptied directly into the water. So, if you were to use the bathroom while the boat was stopped and people were snorkeling, anyone nearby would be exposed to your waste. Yuck on so many levels.
We began our journey with dolphins swimming and playing right alongside the boat and seeing some of the fjords. It was exactly the relaxation we’d been wanting.
Assuming, though, that the condition of the bathroom would get worse as the day went on, I went to change early in the ride. I locked the bathroom door and realized there was no room to move. It was so small that the sink was outside the bathroom itself, and I can only imagine that tall people might find their knees hitting the bathroom door if they sat down. Fine, I thought, I’ve changed in somewhat larger airplane bathrooms plenty of times. I can do this. Then I realized the bathroom had zero ventilation except when the toilet was flushed. Leery of the door (which didn’t seem super reliable) coming open, exposing me to the entire assemblage of about 20 other passengers, I tried to keep part of my clothes on as I put on my suit. Did I mention that it was 100 degrees without considering the humidity? Being in this tiny, closed up bathroom about the size of a coffin standing on end in my clothes while I tried to fold myself into a pretzel meant that I just kept getting hotter and hotter. Which meant I was sweatier and sweatier. And if you’ve ever tried to put on a wet swimsuit, you know what happens – the swimsuit sticks to you. And don’t forget that I was on a moving boat, and we weren’t going slowly.
After a few minutes of being tossed about and wrestling my swimsuit, headlines began popping into my head: “Chicago woman found dead of heatstroke in Oman toilet, unable to outsmart her swimsuit,” “Woman bakes alive in her own clothing,” or my favorite, “What a way to go with the flow: Woman drowns after being sucked through toilet into the Strait of Hormuz.” After long enough that another passenger had time to give up on using the bathroom, cover up with towels and change into her (two piece) suit on the boat itself, I finally managed to escape the . . . crappy . . . fate I feared, and outsmart my swimsuit. Needless to say, I left it on for the rest of the day and night.
After my swimsuit debacle, sweaty and exhausted, I was glad to have the chance to cool off when we stopped to snorkel. (The boat provided snorkel equipment and one towel per person.) The first snorkeling stop was near Telegraph Island, which earned its name when the British built a short-lived telegraph station on the island in 1864. We saw loads of fish in the cool and clear water. After the first snorkeling stop of about 30 minutes or so, we had a delicious included lunch of rice, stewed vegetables, chicken, salad, hummus, and a special bread made in Khasab.
After lunch, we had a relaxing ride and saw (from the boat) the Musandam mountains and tiny ancient Bedouin villages, most with from 50 to 150 residents. We learned that children in these remote villages often attend school in Khasab, which requires that they travel there by boat each Saturday and are brought home each Wednesday. We also learned that the Omani government goes to lengths to maintain these traditional villages, including providing water and other public services free of charge.
Later we had a second, 15 minute snorkeling stop near Seebi Island, at the end of the fjord. This stop was somewhat disappointing as there were virtually no fish there, and it was such a short stop. After the second snorkeling stop, we traveled by more ancient villages before returning to the dock about 4:00. Throughout the ride, other fruit and beverages were available, which was good because it was so hot, even with the breeze from the moving boat, that liquids were a necessity.
Overall, the trip was well worth the expense and an investment of a day of our trip. We saw ancient villages and dolphins, got to cool off and relax, and met some really nice and interesting people, including Dylan, an adorable Australian 11 month old who kept us all entertained. It was both memorable (in many ways . . . ) and a nice break. I’m not sure I would use the same company though, for two main reasons:
- We were given a “survey” (really just a sheet to sign and say you were satisfied or not) to fill out and give back to the captain on the boat itself. It was uncomfortable – who is going to say anything negative at all on the boat with the captain and another hour or so to go?
- The biggest issue: the captain made several comments that clearly made passengers uncomfortable, including suggesting that a young male passenger who was traveling with three young female work colleagues was sleeping with the female colleagues.
All in all, though, our day trip to Oman was the highlight of our time in Dubai, and I would love to do it again in the future, hopefully as part of a much longer trip to Oman. (And with my swimsuit on before boarding.)
Some tips in case you decide to do this tour:
· Wear your swimsuit for 14 hours rather than changing into it on the boat. Unless you are more limber, have better balance, and are smarter than I am.
· Bring lots of sunblock and reapply regularly. (Part of why we wanted to go to the mall afterwards was because I needed after sun to apply to the spots my sunscreen stick missed!)
· Bring cash for tips and don’t count on being able to get cash during the day. (You can use UAE money; no Omani currency is necessary.)
· Bring tissue as the toilets at the stops may not have any.
· Apply for and print your Oman visa in advance. Others in our group were ultimately able to show the visas on their phones, but the driver was very concerned and reported that the border guards aren’t always willing to accept them that way. (Our Dubai hotel was happy to print ours for us.)
· You don’t have to be a super strong swimmer, but you do need to be comfortable in very deep water where you won’t be able to touch bottom. Not everyone in the group was, and they didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as those who didn’t mind the depth. Life jackets are available.
Have you been to Oman? What should we see next time? And am I the only one who’s been convinced they were about to die at the hands of their own swimsuit?