The Pirate Coast of Arabia

The eastern edge of Arabia holds the countries of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Both are a beautiful mixture of mountains and desert, and both have a fascinating and adventurous history which supports them as they move into the 21st Century. Both countries count the Land Rover as the first motor car that they experienced, and the Green Oval is still strongly represented there today. I’m just taken my Camel Discovery from the Smugglers’ Coast of Oman to the Pirate Coast of the UAE, known by that name during the 1800s thanks to the locals’ habits of raiding British shipping bound for India. Along the way I’ve been taking in the strange creatures that inspired the myth of the unicorn, dodging tribal gunfights and finishing the trip in a Series One exploring the dunes south of Dubai.

Dusk in the Eastern Emirates

            Musandam is an exclave of Oman – separated entirely from the mother country by the eastern Emirates of the UAE; Fujairah, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. It’s very mountainous, and I crossed through the hills on loose gravel tracks from my base in Fujairah to get to the capital “city” – a small town called Khasab. From there I swing the Camel south onto more gravel trails to head up into the first objective for the trip – the ‘lost world’ of the As Sayh plateau. For years As Sayh was cut off from the world – a flat valley hidden high in the mountains, unknown to most of the outside world and accessible only by a single track from the south. The population are not Arabs – known as Kumzari, they are more closely linked to Iran and their language is a variant of Persian or Farsi. The As Sayh plateau is still a quiet backwater dotted with small farms and goat herders and I spend a few days exploring here. My Camel Discovery is on Michelin road tyres – all that were available in Fujairah at the time – and with a steel roof rack and locally-made drawer system in the rear she scrabbles for grip on some of the steeper sections. Note to self – MT tyres needed – or at least All-Terrain! The cliffs that surround As Sayh and cut it off from the outside world are steep and often unclimbable – I explore one scrabbly ascent called the Stairway to Heaven and, from 40 degrees Celsius at the bottom it drops to close to zero at the top thanks to a scouring wind. No wonder nobody came here from outside!

The coast of Musandam, with a traditional dhow (now diesel powered!)

            Then it’s back to Khasab for supplies, and a quick run out into the ocean by boat. This strip of mountainous coastline, often called the Norway of Arabia because of its fjord-like steep-sided valleys that open into the sea, has another name – the Smugglers’ Coast. It’s very near to Iran – a 40-mile hop by fast boat – and smuggling has been rife here for years. Every evening in Khasab harbour a fleet of fast, low-silhouetted powerboats assembles, and with nightfall they blast off across the Straits of Hormuz towards the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas. They carry goodies from the West – alcohol, stereos, computers and so on, and bring back cigarettes. The trade is illegal in both directions, so the navies of both Oman and Iran are out hunting for them. I hop into an Arabian dhow, a traditional wooden sailing boat, to explore the local coastline and as we chug under auxiliary diesel power into the bays and inlets we are checked out by both Omani police launches and gunboats bristling with cannon and automatic weapons.

Omani gunboat comes to check us out

The dhow takes me to Telegraph Island, an outpost of the British Empire that was abandoned in the 1870s. Originally it was the point of landfall of the telegraph cable from India, which kept the eastern and western ends of the Empire talking to each other, but it was an unpopular posting for British staff – sunbaked and surrounded by hostile tribesmen. The word was that many of the soldiers and administrators stationed here went a little crazy because of this, and were evacuated round the curved tip of the Peninsula back to the town of Dubai for some chill time. This is said to be the origin of the phrase “going round the bend”!

The ruined British signal station on Telegraph Island

Sailing back to Khasab in the early evening light, sure enough, we are passed by some of the smugglers’ boats getting ready for their risky run north. It’s not unknown for some of them to make the long run to boatyards in Dubai after a crossing to Iran, with bullet holes in their superstructure from Iranian gunboats, and urgently in need of repair. Adventure is alive and well in Musandam.

Sure enough, as I walk out from the small food store in the centre of Khasab after buying some water and food for the next leg of the trip, gunfire breaks out on one side of the village square when I’ve parked the Discovery. High-velocity rounds ping off the buildings nearby. A troupe of goats in the square wander across and shelter behind some parked cars. Villagers, who have been pottering about on their daily business, all quietly go indoors as an answering fusillade of Kalashnikov fire erupts from the other side of the square. The lone British idiot, standing, mouth open, in the middle of a gunfight with two carrier bags of shopping, wonders whether he is dreaming. What seems to be a tribal feud starts to get quite enthusiastic as other automatic weapons open up and the crossfire howls across the village square over my head. It’s probably a good idea to leave, I muse. Loading the shopping into the Camel I trundle out of town, hoping that I don’t look like anyone the locals are irritated with.

It’s a good job that I seemed to get on with everyone I met in Khasab, as the bright yellow Camel Trophy Discovery isn’t exactly low-profile. It seems the gods look after idiots because I get out of Khasab unscathed, and head for the coastal road to the west. It skirts the narrow strip of land between the Al Hajjar mountains and the Persian Gulf and I cross back into the UAE north of the city of Ras Al Khaimah. From here it’s a drive on good roads to the dunes to the south of Dubai. My 1998 Discovery 1, a v8 automatic, really is the best of both worlds in many ways; comfortable and smooth on the highway and extremely capable offroad. Of course she’s thirsty, bringing in about 10mpg with the heavy roof rack and expedition gear on board, but a couple of jerry cans and Rotopax fuel containers deal with the extra petrol needed.

In the Hajjar mountains

My destination is the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve where I’m going to meet with Tiago from Platinum Heritage, a company that uses Series One and Series Two Land Rovers to make safaris into the dunescape and deserts to the south of the Emirate. Into the desert south of Dubai the Camel rolls steadily, and I know when I’m getting close, as two Series Ones zip past me as I enter the area of low dunes. Ahead is a high fence which reminds me that this area is not only Dubai’s first National Park but it’s also Royal land – and sure enough, a black Range Rover belonging to the Dubai Royal Family wafts past as I slow down for the gateway through the security fence.

Range Rover doing her thing

Platinum Heritage are based in Dubai and offer desert safaris in either Range Rovers or a range of Series trucks – Series Ones and Twos of varying wheelbases, all immaculate and well-maintained. They emphasize the role of the Land Rover in the heritage of the Emirates and run pretty much standard Series trucks, keen to showcase the ability of their charges. Some are fitted with an extra electric fan to allow them to run at speed in the dunes but otherwise they are pretty much as they left the factory. Some of the tyres are a slightly larger size than standard, and are run at 12psi for the dune conditions, but they swoop up and down the dunes with an efficiency and grace that show their designers knew exactly what they were doing. Tiago and I hop into a Series Two 88” for the afternoon and head into the dunes to look for Arabian Oryx – a rare species of longhorned antelope which is thought to be the source of the myth of the unicorn. The petrol-engined Series purrs away happily as we climb and descend innumerable dunes, acacia trees dotting their northern slopes, and, after an hour or so of travelling deeper and deeper into the desert, in the distance we see a herd of Oryx, their huge horns making them very visible. It’s now that the quiet engine of the four-cylinder petrol really comes in handy as we quietly slide closer to the grazing antelope and coast to a stop to watch them for a while. I can understand how early travellers, seeing glimpses of these creatures in the heat haze of the desert, would have mistaken their twin slender horns for one thick one on their strangely horse-shaped forequarters. Unicorns indeed.

Arabian Oryx

Time to move on, and we head to camp. It’s a Bedouin camp high in the dunes where I’m made very welcome with traditional Arabian hospitality, and I fall in with a crowd of locals to enjoy the evening meal. As the night falls they break out their drums and start to sing the ancient songs of their home – a magical place. Sleep comes fast under desert stars.

Bedouin camp at dusk

Before dawn the next morning I’m up and about around camp, and after some strong Arabian coffee spiced with cardamom we hop into a Series One, an 86”, for another exploration of the dunescapes nearby. Unlike other parts of the Emirati desert, this National Park is off-limits to most travellers, and so, thanks to an arrangement Platinum Heritage have with the government, we have the place to ourselves, apart from a group of falconers, hunting with their peregrines as Bedouin have done for generations. The Series One purrs away like a sewing machine as once again we plunge into the dunes and in the distance we spot another S1, a 107”, heading back into camp. I feel like I’ve been transported back into the fifties when this desert was new and unknown to most Westerners – it’s an amazing experience. The desert is cooled by a welcome breeze this morning that blows freshness across the bonnet of the tough old Land Rover – another day in Arabia dawns.

A Series 2 fits right in

The Series One is agile and capable in the dunes – again, running at low tyre pressures, and we head out into the empty wilderness and enjoy the huge open space of the Arabian desert. It feels a world away from my heavily-equipped rumbling Camel v8 and I understand how the first motorized explorers of this beautiful desert felt in the early 1950s, and why they, Britons from our tiny rainwashed island, fell in love with this part of the world. All too soon, the onrushing cascade of time overtakes us and I have to head back to our start point, and swap from the jewel of a Series One into my suddenly huge and clumsy-feeling Camel Discovery.  The road back to home base in the Eastern Emirates beckons, but this drive through the deserts of time in Series vehicles has kindled my thirst to buy a Series 2……


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