For a solitary, somewhat surreal experience, Time Out heads to the isolated islands that time forgot
Time Out Dubai staff
Whoever said Musandam is the Norway of Arabia has got it all wrong. Sure, the dramatic, cavernous fjords might be a defining feature, but the landscape is completely barren. And, though it’s only a couple of hours away from the UAE by car, it’s retained an eerily medieval atmosphere – nowhere more so than between these fjords.
Telegraph Island, a desolate lump of rock that rises from the heart of one of these cavernous inlets, was once the site of the British Empire’s attempt to run a cable from Bombay to Basra, and it’s thought to be the very spot where the phrase ‘going round the bend’ entered the realms of English phraseology. Posted on the island for long periods of time, with only the surrounding grey of the mountains and the task of laying cable for company – needless to say, quite a few Brits lost it.
You can charter a dhow from the harbour at Khasab and bottlenose dolphins tend to chase the dhows on the approach to Telegraph Island. The waters are also ablaze with shining green fish – perfect for snorkelling. While the rocky island itself isn’t anything visually impressive, there is a strange, intense atmosphere. Mossy steps lead down to the water, and an eerie halo of mountains and limitless silence hangs in the air.
This is a good adventure to an island that reflects an intriguing part of the Musandam Peninsula’s history – a place where time has not so much stood still as gone slightly awry.
Before you start shouting, we know Kumzar isn’t technically an island, but we reckon it’s the closest thing you can get to island-like isolation because it’s only accessible by boat. Life here is completely cut off from civilisation by towering cliffs.
Dhow captains at the Khasab harbour in the Musandam Peninsula like to encourage visitors to head to their hometown; a village of a reported 3,000 people sited on a pebbly bay at the furthest point of the peninsula. Kumzar’s few inhabitants (who have a curious penchant for fluffy handlebar moustaches) speak a unique language which is only used in this tiny, forgotten settlement. It goes by the name of Kumzari, a bizarre mix of Portuguese, Farsi, middle-ages Arabic and (according to some linguists) English – reflecting a true mishmash footprint of the residents’ seafaring and colonial past.
If you visit Kumzar in the summer (when villagers migrate to the capital) it will seem near deserted and enveloped by a deafening silence, save for the sinister munching of several hundred goats. Strolling through narrow streets and between crumbling shacks, dodging tiny coral headstones that spill over from a graveyard near the mosque, it’s like stepping onto the set of a strange Arabic B-movie.
This desolate little town is hardly a resort, yet there’s something exciting about wandering through a place that feels perched at the end of the world – a wacky settlement halfway between Lawrence of Arabia and The Wicker Man.
From the onset, Kish might not seem all that crazy. It’s trying to be Iran’s answer to Dubai, with high-rise ‘seven-star’ hotel developments, sculpted beaches and sprawling tax-free shopping malls. Look a little deeper, though, and there’s a unique Persian madness about the place. That ‘seven-star’ hotel is going to be solar powered, those manicured beaches are entirely segregated for men and women and that free zone is, lets face it, not all that free.
Visited by a huge amount of UAE expats on visaruns, the absolute absence of alcohol hasn’t held back the island’s relentless bid for tourism and it has inadvertently become a haven for Iran’s party people. Its proximity to the Persian Gulf coastline means the island has a distinctive lushness and the surrounding reefs are ripe for diving and snorkelling. While Dubai builds up, Kish is building down – excavating a huge underground network of caves beneath the island to recreate the underground town of Cariz. Over 10,000 sqm of tunnels and ‘streets’ make this a real subterranean village, with shops and restaurants. Head from the main town in Kish to the ancient town of Harireh, a collection of ruins sited on the island’s stark coastline. Around 800 years old, these ruins are still very much intact, with clear demarcations between rooms. The continual battering from the wind has given the place an end-of-the-earth feeling.
For all its weird customs (did we mention the mandatory veil provided for women at the airport?), this is still a reputable slice of Iran. Like a misty looking glass into the realities of the mainland, Kish is a way to get some idea of what life in the rest of the country is like. To find out how to reach these silent and surreal getaways.