Musandam Untouched

I’m curled up with my knees bent towards my chest, my head only able to move a few centimetres above me otherwise I will hit the sharp rock above. I can hear the wind whistle and whirl around me, as I lay in this animal lair.

Thankfully my thermarest mat provides some mild padding from the rock floor and shields me from the dried-up goat droppings under me. I can barely move, and even my feet protrude from the entrance, exposed to the elements of the wind and driving rain.

Fortunately, I had the hindsight to empty my dry sack and use this as a protective cover bag over my feet and legs. I’ve bivouacked in some obscure places in the past, but not on top of a mountain, squeezed in a small rock cave half the size of my body! I had previously been searching the summit area, moving quickly around, beaming my Petzl head-torch around in the twilight to find some adequate shelter for what I sensed would be a wild night. My location – Pano Peak (real name – Khawr Habalayn Peak), some 714m above the majestic Musandam fjords.

Six hours later, I wake up dreary eyed at dawn and there is dead calm. I wiggle and twist my body out of the lair, into the twilight and stretch my body. This is where my story begins.

Let’s rewind 36 hours…… my orange sea touring kayak is loaded on the roof of my blue Toyota 4WD, car packed with a carefully planned equipment list. My expedition list has been weeks of meticulous planning – yes, I need to take this, yes if only I had space, OK – strike it off the list. Gear mitigation experience has been gathered from similar kayak expeditions. Equipment planning needs to be precise on these types of trips due to limited kayak storage space. This was especially challenging on this adventure due to the amount of camera and videography equipment I planned to take, along with the necessity to include some hiking and camping equipment. The end goal was to film and direct a short movie, the results below:

Most of equipment also needs to be packed in dry bags and in the specific order, so gear can be accessed quickly. I had no room for a tent or sleeping bag, so would need to rely on a sleeping bag wool liner (which provides a mere +2DegC of extra body warmth) in the hope that I would find some adequate shelter! However, I was expecting more protection from the elements than what turned out.

The plan for this expedition was straightforward. A month prior, an adventure enthusiast friend of mine (John Young) and I planned a kayak to this Peak (credit to John for map- ping this).We set off and paddled out from the fishing village at the only accessible point into Khawr Najd. We reached our destination via a detour in about five hours, and hauled the double kayak onto the pebbly beach. We explored the area, lit a fire, ate well, camped out under the stars and got bitten by mosqui- toes. The next morning, we rose early, and after consuming some strong coffee, started the climb up into the wadi and navigate the steep technical climb to eventually meet the plateau. The vantage point was stunning, however we needed to press on and continue to the summit peak. I estimate we reached the summit approximately 4 hours from start.

Oh my God – this location, views and total isolation looking down into the Khawr capti- vated me. The summit provided a complete 360-degree view into the southern part of the Musandam fjords and the Straits of Hormuz.

I immediately decided that I would make a repeat trip, loaded with my camera equip- ment – and this is where my next adventure was quickly taking shape in my head.

Back in Dubai and finally, a week later I have some head space to re-engage on my prior thoughts. We had returned safely and I was still massively buzzed up about returning to Pano Peak but wanted the return journey to be executed with a twist? I then started studying the Musandam sea charts and kayak distances through the Straits of Hormuz. My plan was to kayak back out and climb Pano Peak, do some videography and capture the amazing views but extend the distances to

essentially make the journey more challenging. The uniqueness of this destination other than having the most ultimate vantage point of the fjords was its extreme in accessibility to reach – hence the title of this article. My new extended route meant kayaking along the entire length of the Khawr into the Straits of Hormuz, turn north and paddle approximately 10km along the rocky cliff-face and turn into the next main Khawr. I would then find a suitable mooring point, attempt the long hike up to the ridge and onto the summit. I would then bivouac at the summit and capture the panorama of the fjords at sunrise. Sounds straightforward?

I phone John – and after some discussion my plan was agreed. Date was set, logistics, food and shared expedition equipment agreed. I then receive a phone call 24 hour prior to departure regrettably telling me he now cannot join the trip. (work priority came up – yes, we have all been in this situation). I am now going solo….

Good news. I had been tracking the weather and the forecast looked stable, although since it is winter this can be highly unpredictable in the mountains. Since I was now going solo – I needed to tweak my gear list, including checking the sea-worthiness and preparation of my single kayak. The total round trip distance would be approximately 50km kayak, 10km hiking distance with a 700m vertical ascent to the summit.
I calculated this should be (just) ‘doable’ in one day considering the limited winter daylight hours and subject to tides in the Straits, wind and chop.

As I paddle through the silky-smooth water into the main Khawr Najd fjord, the water surface is like a mirror. Each paddle stroke powers me further into Khawr Habalayn, and I’m constantly focusing on my navigation to the next headland. My Garmin GPS watch helps track my precise compass bearing, distance and pace. Suddenly a silver coloured ribbon of hundreds of fish launch into the air, there one second and gone the next.

Kilometre after kilometre I progress. After an hour, the water develops a confused look and the chop builds and splashes onto my spray deck. I see in the distance a few Omani fishing boats passing in the way off distance. I am all alone, and to be brutally honest very exposed in the large expanse of water that surrounds me, paddling equidistant between the towering cliffs either side of my dwarf size craft. This is where it crosses my mind how vulnerable I am if I do capsize. Although I am wearing a life-jacket and my kayak is a self-bailing hybrid design, the thought of how I would recover my craft if I did capsize needs to be discarded from my mind. This was especially so since it is loaded with expensive electronics equipment. There is no back-up plan – and it’s a matter of focusing on keeping a straight nautical line and watching for any irregular swell that may hit my kayak side on and cause me to capsize.

I make steady progress, and have small breaks to suck water from my camel-sack bladder and keep my energy levels up with bananas and muesli bars. The challenging part of this long kayak section is since the Khawr sides are vertical cliff faces, there is a very limited spot to easily moor up to and take a rest. If you decide to stretch your legs, this means taking a side excursion into one of limited inlets – meaning extra paddling distance! I continue and ignore these rest spots and eventually after 2 1⁄2 hours reach the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz. Looking straight ahead is Persia, a mere 50km away over the horizon.

As I round the entrance of the Khawr and head north, the swell significantly increases, making both navigation and balance challenging. I paddle skirting close to the side of the cliff face for protection, only to real- ize this makes the instability of the kayak worse, as back swell bounces off the cliff unstabilizing my side motion. Concentration is paramount and I was not enjoying this experience. An hour later I thankfully could relax slightly when I navigate left into the Khawr entrance and the swell decreases back to calm waters. I am now close to

the point where part one of my journey is complete.

I haul my kayak onto the pebbly beach and tether it to an old discarded fishing boat. Rucksack is packed and I start to climb up into the steep wadi and onto an escarpment. An hour later I pass the remnants of an old village, hundreds of years old. The area is scattered with many ancient stone houses, some with clay pots lying abandoned on the floor. I continue to walk and stumble upon a large perfectly flat circular grassy area surrounded with a small stone wall. Was this once the village football pitch or perhaps a communal area? I continue, and stumble upon a nearby area with some peculiar rock slabs pointing vertically. I then recognize this as being the village cemetery. I study the rock slabs and grave outlines, alerted by the graves less than one metre long. I wonder how many children had died during the existence of man living up in these wilds? I think about the hardships of how these village tribes people must have lived during this time. They would have lived off an existence from growing crops and herding goats. One advantage would have been their prime lookout over the Khawr for defending themselves against the pirates along the coast. I continue to make my way along the ridge line and the evening draws in. As I make my way up the rocks towards Pano peak summit, I feel the cold wind and droplets of rain on my face. My final challenge for the day is where am I going to shelter for the night?

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