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Liquid gold

ISSUE 8
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John Lewisohn follows the ancient frankincense trail to the deep south of Oman


The pungent smell of fish mixed with the evocative, smoky aroma of frankincense hung heavy in the air as I followed our guide, Hameed, into Salalah's central food market. Resplendent in a shining white dishdasha and distinctive hand-embroidered Kuma hat (a style that originated in Zanzibar, which was a colony of Oman until 1964), Hameed casually pointed out a couple of hammerhead sharks, fresh from the Arabian Sea, lying on a cold slab.

 

While frankincense is also found in Yemen and Somalia, the best quality comes from southern Oman in the Dhofar Governorate, of which Salalah, 1,000km south of the capital, Muscat, is the main town. Frankincense has been traded from here for 5,000 years and Salalah was, and is, an important port. "We are more relaxed here in Salalah – laid back, you could say – compared to Muscat," says Hameed. "We eat more meat and fish so we are stockier without the thin faces you find further north." Strikingly handsome with a noble and proud air and a ready smile, he had already transfixed the female members of our party.

 

As Hameed led us through the market, we saw a vast array of kingfish, tuna and hammour, the highly-prized grouper. "How much for this hammour?" I asked a fisherman, not expecting his reply. "This 15kg fish will cost you 100 Omani rial," he said. That works out at £150; quite a catch. Close by, we watched a group of men hauling a collection of cows' heads, some skinned and some intact, into a pick-up. It was definitely time to leave.

 

Driving to our hotel, the expansive and newly opened Salalah Rotana Resort, we crossed a thickly vegetated and colourful roundabout, complete with a fake Omani watchtower and bright herbaceous borders. "His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said passed here in 2010 and was disappointed to see such a dull roundabout, so he commissioned the local government to make it more attractive," explained Hameed. "It cost over $1m." Salalah is in the same monsoon belt as India and indeed, there are echoes of India, particularly Kerala, throughout this part of Oman. Anyone who has travelled through India's lush south will be familiar with endless fruit stalls selling bananas, papayas, jackfruit and mangoes against a backdrop of palm trees.

 

I was surprised to find exactly the same in the countryside around Salalah. But Salalah has a unique feature, in Oman, at least. From mid-July to the end of August, while the rest of the Gulf is sweltering in 45°C, Salalah enjoys the evocative-sounding 'Khareef '– truly a 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', as Keats might say, when the temperature does not exceed 27°C, the land turns green and becomes a magnet for residents of the GCC desperate to escape the summer heat.

 

"I had a complaint from a Saudi family," said Claudio, the genial Italian general manager of the Rotana, over dinner. "They asked why we had put up an awning over the outdoor breakfast area as they were determined to eat under the open sky in the pouring rain, so novel was it to them."

 

A few miles inland from the pancake-flat coastal plain, the silhouette of the Qara Mountains is visible in the heat haze, green during the Khareef. It's up here that we were to see the legendary frankincense trees. We climbed through switchbacks in the arid mountain scenery before turning off the main road. We walked through a biblical landscape, devoid of any greenery. Hameed led us to two trees. Gnarled and ancient, their mottled bark and spiky green leaves made a dramatic contrast.

 

It is these trees that are partly to thank for Oman's success as a trading nation. With its enviable location on the Indian Ocean, Oman developed a great seafaring tradition, encouraging commerce and spreading its influence north to Egypt and Europe, south to East Africa and Zanzibar and east to India and China. Boats exported frankincense, myrrh, Arabian horses and leather to China, Egypt and East Africa and came back laden with ceramics and spices.

 

Hameed explained that the bark is carefully sliced on the north and south side only – otherwise, the tree will die. It is then left for two weeks for the sap to form and dry. We felt some recent sap that had the unmistakeable aroma and was exceptionally sticky. Trees located further from the coast produce the best frankincense, called Hojari, which is the lightest in colour and will retail at about £30 per kilo (in the times of the Old Testament, it was worth more than gold). Hameed explained that many Omanis have the fragrance burning in their homes all day to protect against evil spirits; some even rub it on their skin and drink it diluted in water to aid digestion. The frankincense tree is, though, endangered, thanks to over-harvesting, a decreasing interest from Omani farmers, who can grow more lucrative crops, and the plague of a beetle that eats the bark.

 

The real glory of Salalah today is the endless, stunning, talcum powder-soft beaches lapped by gentle waves of the balmy 25°C sea. One thrilling morning, we took a speedboat out and saw a number of dolphins, gorging on sardines. Diving off the boat, we managed to swim close to them. We also passed a fenced-off area where turtles hatch; in season, turtle-watching is big business in Oman.

 

Walking west along one of the glorious beaches, now reflected orange in the dazzling sunset, I can see why visitors come to Oman. The people are welcoming, the hotels stunning and the melting pot of cultures quite bewitching. But it's the almost mythical qualities of the humble frankincense tree that have really put Dhofar, and Salalah, on the map.

WAY TO GO

Book the Salalah Rotana Resort (rotana.com) via Scott Dunn with optional extras including the Frankincense Trail tour and a half-day guided tour of Salalah (Tel: 020 3468 6142 / scottdunn.com).

 

Fly direct from Heathrow to Muscat, Oman from £725 with Oman Air (Tel:08444 822309 / omanair.com).

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