Kerry van der Jagt joins the Queen of Sheba and Emperor Nero in succumbing to the lure of frankincense.
I've just inhaled my first breath of fresh frankincense. It was extracted at its source in Wadi Dawkah in southern Oman. It strikes a note as clear as the desert sky. Its aroma is exotic, yet strangely familiar, a blend of pine, peaches and polished wood with a hint of peeled oranges. It is difficult to believe its fragrance spawned a trade route that extended from southern Arabia into Egypt, Greece, Rome and India. As I breathe it in, I look at the strange yet lovely bush for which I've travelled so far.
Moments earlier, in order to extract it, Suhail Amer El Mahri, my Omani guide, had drawn a knife across the gnarled limb, causing fine droplets to weep from the wound like beads of blood. With his voice muffled by a section of turban across his mouth he said, "If I cut too deep the tree will die." I'd pulled my scarf tighter, the flimsy fabric affording little protection against the hot breeze. "Is it a shamal?" I'd asked, fearful of the desert mistral that's known to erupt into tantrums. "Insha'Allah [God willing]," said Suhail, squinting across the bleached sand before rubbing the sap between his fingers and handing me the sticky pearl of resin.
A product of the Boswellia tree, frankincense was a prized possession in the ancient world and, although some grew across the Horn of Africa, the bulk came from this region in southern Arabia. However, of the 20 or so species, it was Boswellia sacra, found exclusively in the Dhofar region of Oman and also the Hadhramaut region of Yemen that produced the finest frankincense. So precious was its bounty the Queen of Sheba hand-delivered Dhofari frankincense to King Solomon, Emperor Nero is said to have burnt a year's supply at the funeral of his wife and the wise men looked no further when after a gift for the baby Jesus. "Taste it," Suhail says. "There is nothing finer."
This is my third day in Dhofar, but since travel is as much about imagination as reality, my journey began 20 years earlier. A combination of Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger's tale of crossing the Empty Quarter in the 1940s, and The Southern Gates of Arabia: a Journey in the Hadhramaut, Freya Stark's account of her 1934 trip along the Yemen portion of the incense trail, stirred my imagination. Of the camel trains Stark wrote: "On its stream of padding feet the riches of Asia travelled; along its slow continuous thread the Arabian empires rose and fell."
More recently I had begun to wonder. Could a single female traveller, with limited time and a penchant for soft beds, still catch a glimpse of this ancient trade route? It seemed unlikely. But then I heard about the "Land of the Frankincense", a group of four archaeological sites in Dhofar that appear on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage list. Suddenly it sounded achievable. When a chance trip to the Middle East emerged, I knew the time had arrived.
I chose Salalah, the capital of Dhofar, as my base. Hemmed between the craggy Dhofar Mountains and blue waters of the Arabian Sea, it is a lovely destination and each of the UNESCO sites are easy day trips. I spend my first morning running around the perfume souk like a truffle-hunting pig, watching shopkeepers blend incense from old-fashioned glass bottles, before visiting the Museum of the Frankincense Land and the adjacent Al-Baleed Archaeological Park.
Omanis certainly take their frankincense or luban seriously, burning it daily in small clay pots to freshen their homes and ward off bad spirits, dissolving it in water for stomach upsets or chewing it to sweeten their breaths. The men even wear a small tassel sewn into the neckline of their ankle-length dishdashas (tunics), which they dip in scented oil. Like a mouse I nibble on a pebble-size piece, savouring the gum-like texture with its warming kick of chilli.
The next morning I meet Suhail, dressed in a crisp white dishdasha and Bedouin-style muzzar (turban). I start out in the back seat of his four-wheel-drive, as convention dictates, but we are soon chatting so much - and so easily - I swap to the front. After pooling our road trip snacks - mine is a boring Kit-Kat, Suhail's is salted camel meat mixed with hump fat - we head east for the 40-kilometre drive to Sumhuram.
As we follow the coast I learn that Suhail is a former Bedouin of the Mahri tribe, a group from the Dhofar desert whose language and customs stretches back to pre-Islamic times. "We were all Bedouins once," he says wistfully, "but in 1970, when His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power and promised us all a better lifestyle, my family, like many others, moved to the city."
Not all the Bedouins left. No sooner have we left Salalah than we see the first of hundreds of camels we'll see over the coming days. Their Bedouin owners have driven them to the coast for the chance of some green pickings. Like Brown's cows the camels wander about, nibbling at the roadside, wandering among the low dunes, occasionally lolloping in front of our car. Most are lactating females, easily identified by the maternity bras strapped to their udders. "For support," Suhail smiles. Given the bounce in some of these roads, I see his point.
After a brief stop at the fishing village of Taqah we arrive at Sumhuram, the ancient port city, which between the 3rd century BC and 5th century AD controlled Dhofar's frankincense trade. Perched on a hilltop, adjacent to the tranquil waters of Khor Rori and overlooking the sea, this was one of the most important sites along the route. Camel caravans brought the frankincense here before it was shipped to Yemen and taken overland to Petra and the Mediterranean. It is also said to be the spot where the Queen of Sheba built one of her palaces so she could hoard the best frankincense for herself.
Today it is protected as the Sumhuram Archaeological Park. Entry costs two rials a car ($5), which we pay to the two young men at the entrance gate. "They are Bedouins," Suhail says. "Though they work in the park during the day, they walk back to their camp each night."
The ruins have been thoroughly excavated, showing the neat rectangular layout of the city with its three city gates, impregnable walls, beautiful "Old Yemeni" script commemorating the city's foundation, and a residential area with private houses and artisans' rooms.
From the interpretive signs I learn there are four grades of Dhofar frankincense, the best being Al Hojari from Wadi Hajar in the eastern part of Dhofar, with the darker, coarser Asha'bi being the least precious. As Stark wrote in The Southern Gates of Arabia: a Journey in the Hadhramaut: "The most excellent incense grows a three days' camel journey from the coast."
Today it is a place of silence and beauty, our only company a flock of flamingoes (strangely white) strutting about on the lagoon's edge. With the flick of my scarf I'm the Queen of Sheba and Suhail my wise king. Strolling among the ruins we test each other with riddles ("How do you eat a camel?""One bite at a time") and discuss delicate topics (Israel-Palestine). The sun is a fireball in a cloudless sky as we bump across the sand towards the main road. Passing the exit post one attendant jumps out, quick as an oryx, and waves us down. Amid much good-natured shouting and arm waving he produces a gift. "For the lady," interprets Suhail, handing me an orange juice bottle filled instead with frothy camel milk. I barely have time to thank him before the second boy appears at my window, triumphantly brandishing a small plastic cup. Not just generous, but mind readers as well.
This generosity, a feature of the Omani form of Islam (Ibadism), comes to define my trip. It is lunchtime when we reach the old city of Mirbat, another seaside town linked to the trade of frankincense and also Arabian horses. While Suhail heads to the mosque to pray, I wander around the long-abandoned souk and crumbling Yemeni-style mudbrick houses, most of which are deserted. Fortunately not all. One is home to Suhail's cousins, who invite us to share their lunch. No sooner am I in the door than I'm engulfed in a cloud of colourful chiffon, frankincense and shy smiles.
Who knew Omani women wore such eye-catching clothes under their abayas? "Covering their traditional costumes with black tunics has become more fashionable in recent years," says Suhail, shaking his head like any man speaking of the complexities of women's fashion.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating rice with my fingers (spilling most of it, much to the amusement of five-year-old Miriam) and sharing a communal dish of steamed fish, makes me realise this journey is no longer about incense. I'm starting to see what Stark saw. "The magic of Arabia," she wrote, "which so many have felt, is due perhaps less to the sun-wrinkled arid land itself than to the innate peculiar nobility and charm of its people."
The following morning Suhail announces, "Today we go to Shisr in search of the Lost City"; 180 kilometres north of Salalah, across the dusty mountains and into the desert, the ruins of Ubar lay flattened like a collapsed sandcastle. This former frankincense trading city at the southern edge of the Rub' al Khali (the Empty Quarter) was destroyed 1500 years ago in an event so cataclysmic it was mentioned in the Koran. Reported to be "paradise", a place of unparalleled opulence and excess, it was obliterated when the limestone cave over which it was built collapsed, sucking the entire city into the sand. Now a UNESCO site, this remarkable treasure was rediscovered only in 1992 by a team lead by British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes with the aid of a NASA satellite.
The hand-painted sign at the entrance reads, "Welcome to Ubar: The Lost City of Bedouin legend". Whether this is the lost city, or just a caravan site, it is impossible not to be moved by the gawking hole and piles of shattered rocks. Alone, I wander among the stone walls and collapsed forts, the sound of my own footsteps much too loud in this city of ghosts. As the sun slips and shadows creep I stretch out in a patch of shade, lying as mute as the ruins.
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Oman Tourism.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN OMAN
Cruise the coast Enjoy the glittering coastline around Muscat aboard the 23-metre catamaran Azzura on a "Forts and Palaces" cruise with Ocean Blue Oman. oceanblueoman.com.
Soak in a souk Head to Muttrah Souk in Muscat's Old Quarter for everything from an I Dream of Jeannie genie bottle to an antique silver Khanjar (dagger).
Follow the music Catch a performance of Madam Butterfly, listen to the music of Oman or enjoy an evening of jazz at the Royal Opera House Muscat. rohmuscat.org.om.
What a dive Oman offers excellent diving conditions all year round. Charters leave from Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, a 30-minute drive south of Muscat. marinaoman.net.
Let the forts be with you Take a 90-minute drive inland to Nizwa, Oman's original capital, for an overdose of forts and watchtowers.
Getting there Emirates flies to Dubai from Sydney and Melbourne from $1900 return, emirates.com/au. Oman Air offers direct flights from Dubai to Salalah every Wednesday to Saturday ($160 one way), or alternatively from Muscat several times a day, omanair.com. Visas are required and can be purchased on arrival at Muscat or Salalah airports. Stays less than 10 days cost five rial ($12.60), 10 days and more, 30 rial. If you enter Oman via Dubai or Qatar and have an entrance stamp (not transit passengers) no visa is required.
Staying there Juweira Boutique Hotel on the marina of Salalah Beach offers double rooms inclusive of breakfast and tax from 65 rial, www.juweirahotel.com.
Touring there Sun Island Tours offers a range of trips through Oman. See sunislandtours.com.au or contact your travel agent. The dress code in Oman is very relaxed, however, out of respect, it is advisable for visitors to dress conservatively and cover their shoulders and knees. For religious sites arms and legs must be covered and women must cover their hair. A cool, comfortable headscarf works best, plus it also offers sun and sand protection in the desert.