Escaping Big City Lights

I have always been fascinated by fireflies. I love the way they fly around unhurriedly like little airplanes with no ETAs. Fireflies represented everything good about summer during my childhood in a quiet university campus. Holidays. No homework. No surprise tests. And plenty of time to do whatever one liked to do. I would capture fireflies in a bottle and watch them flit around for hours imagining that they were sending signals to a spaceship. Of course, the moment I brought the bottle inside the house, the magic would be lost. The soft glow of fireflies is not a match for the artificial lighting inside a house. Ever since, I have had a love-hate equation with light sources that are not natural.

My city-centric profession has ensured lazy summer holidays and fireflies have disappeared from my life. Big city lights, however, are a constant presence. In an attempt to redress balance, I am always looking for a chance to escape this neon-lit environment. Being based in glitzy Dubai, this, understandably, becomes more of a pressing need than a want. Unfortunately, the lack of a driving license in the initial months of living in Dubai meant my options were quite limited. I had the option to head to the beach and stare longingly at the horizon, with the city behind me. The other option was to catch a cab to the airport and take a flight to a quiet place. No yearly subscriptions to the National Geographic or the Hound&Horse for guessing which option kept on getting vetoed all the time.
But then came the day, when I got the much-coveted driving license. And I turned into Forrest Gump, minus the historic baggage, Robin Wright and that damned CG feather. There was a huge difference though. Forrest kept on running. I kept on driving. I drove endlessly for hundreds of miles on straight-as-an-arrow roads through vast expanses of desert country. I drove up and down twisty mountainous roads that ended in verdant mangroves fringing an aquamarine sea. I drove to long-forgotten villages and crumbling forts abandoned to the elements.

Once, I even raced the setting sun along a beach road. I lost.

Having exhausted all possible options in the UAE, I trained my greedy sights on its attractive neighbour – Oman. Or the Musandam exclave, to be more precise.

Musandam is separated from Oman, by a strip of the UAE, and from Iran, by the Arabian Gulf. The border crossing is relatively easy, as long as you have the required documents, namely, passport and motor insurance. With the promise of a beautiful coastal drive with the shimmering waters of the Arabian Gulf, the craggy Hajar Mountains and small fishing villages the size of Nemo for company, drives to Musandam became a happy habit.

Often referred to as the 'Norway of the East', the mountainous Musandam region is known for its rugged beauty, mysterious fjords and a sense of timelessness. Mother Earth or to get a bit technical, the Earth’s crust had a big hand in creating this dramatic coastline. The region happens to be sandwiched between the Arabian plate and the Eurasian plate. Unfortunately, the situation is far from being harmonious. A gigantic battle for supremacy is taking place between these plates for quite some time now. And the geological fact in cold terms is that the Arabian plate is being pushed under the Eurasian plate. This not only has resulted in the earthquake-prone mountains of Iran but also brings us to a rather sobering conclusion. The Musandam Peninsula is, slowly but surely, sinking. 

The towering mountains have nothing to fear, apparently, for a million years or so. But the sea is claiming the valleys, one by one. The result of this intense subterranean drama is a region that offers one spectacular view after another. Often during my drives, I’d stop at some vantage point and soak in the peaceful atmosphere, punctuated at regular intervals by the throaty bleats of ornery mountain goats and chirpy squawks of attention-seeking seagulls.

It was during my second or third drive to Musandam, when I decided to head further north towards Khor Najd (khor- Arabic for water trapped by land), the only beach in the region accessible by road. Usually, I do some research before heading out to a destination. But then after a few weeks of dealing with people who look askance at anything that make sense and specially when every mail that lands in my inbox is marked as ‘urgent’, I tend to slip into my AdventureMan* avatar and cut loose the chains of caution with my SOA (sense of adventure) laser beam.

This was an AdventureMan trip. Which meant I had left my trusted road map back in Dubai. A              
situation that necessitated a stop at one of the two gas stations in Khasab, the sleepy capital of Musandam. I had to stock up on fuel and figure out the directions. I knew vaguely that I had to drive over a mountain to get to the beach. But that bit of information was as useful as knowing I need a lot of money to climb Mt. Everest. The cheerful attendant was quite clear in his directions. I have to drive up and down a 5-km long winding mountain pass to get to the beach. But as most locals are wont to, he made it sound like a trip to the neighbourhood grocery store.

From a distance it looked like a thin gash along the mountainside. As I got closer, I realized that’s the dirt road that will take me up the mountain. Barely wide enough to accommodate one car and probably half a cycle at a pinch, the road ensures drivers stick close to the rocky mountainside rather than tempt fate by straying too close to the sheer drop on the other side. Halfway there’s a broad leveled area that provides sweeping views of the sea encircling the mountains as well as the chance to calm one’s jangling nerves. 
The (thankfully) much broader but steep sinuous path down to the gleaming bay is a lesson in trying to look cool in front of co-explorers while attempting to disguise panicky yelps as yips of excitement. I drove steadily treating each bend in the road with the respect reserved for a Roman emperor. As I pondered about whether my white knuckles would go back to its former dusky glory, I felt the crunch of pebbles under my tyres. The gleaming blue bay was right in front. I switched off the ignition and climbed out of the car with the confidence of a man who could have done the drive blindfolded.

Later that evening, as I camped under a canopy of twinkling stars with the sea a feeble stone’s
throw away, I suddenly realized, I haven’t felt this alive in years. It might have been the drive, the location or the soothing breeze blowing across the bay. Or it might have been the fact that I was far, far, away from bright city lights.

There were no fireflies. But I wasn’t complaining.

*AdventureMan is a work-in-progress name.