By Kerry van der Jagt

Salalah frankincesne souqIn Salalah’s perfume souq the sweet, yet astringent smell of frankincense fills the air as women weigh portions of teardrop-shaped pearls, from oatmeal-coloured orbs to amber clumps. The Sultanate of Oman has always been famously fragrant, with locals using frankincense daily; dissolving it in water to treat upset stomachs, burning it to freshen their homes or chewing it like gum. Omani men even dip the tassel of their robes in the perfume to maintain the aroma throughout the day.

A product of the Boswellia tree, frankincense was a prized possession of the ancient world, with the finest incense coming exclusively from Oman’s Dhofar region. I’d started my foray into frankincense in the capital Muscat, an easy one-hour flight from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where I’d sniffed my way through the Muttrah Souq, visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, ridden a bicycle along the elegant corniche and eaten my body weight in dates, dahl and biryani. One day I sailed aboard a luxury catamaran, past centuries-old villages and swimming with sea turtles, with Clara Zawawi, owner of Ocean Blue.

From Muscat it is another hours’ flight to Salalah, the coastal capital of the Dhofar region, home to four key archaeological sites, registered jointly as the ‘Land of the Frankincense’ by UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage list.

Summer sees the annual monsoon (or Khareef) wash over Salalah, cooling the air significantly and turning the landscape a totally unexpected and startling lush green colour. The city is going through a renaissance, with a brand new international airport (opened June, 2015); plans for more hotels and resorts, such as Alila, Anantara and Club Med; and an upgrade of Salalah’s harbour, including a cruise ship port.

Last year 17,000 Australians visited Oman, which was a nine per cent increase on 2013. This trend is expected to continue as more Australians travel to the UK/Europe through the UAE and Qatar, with convenient airline tie-ups (like Qantas-Emirates, and Virgin Australia-Etihad) driving this relatively new route for Australians.

Oman has a modern, integrated road system, so it is easy to use Salalah as a base and visit each UNESCO site as a day trip with a private guide and driver.

Suhail Amer El Mahri picks me up from my beachside hotel for the drive to the Sumhuram Archaeological Park, an excavated port city that once controlled the entire frankincense trade. On the way we pull into the fishing village of Taqah for an unscheduled stop at Suhail’s cousins’ place.

“Come in,” says our host, his long white dishdasha swishing at his ankles as he ushers me inside his mud brick home. “You must be thirsty.” After introductions I’m handed a delicate glass of cinnamon-infused tea, while a tray of dates appears as if summoned by Aladdin.

Suhail explains that the Omani form of Islam is neither Shiite nor Sunni, but Ibadism, renowned for its hospitality and acceptance of all religions, races and creeds. Ruled since 1970 by a benevolent and much-loved leader, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman is a safe and welcoming country. In 2015 the World Economic Forum ranked Oman #9 in the world for Tourism Safety and Security out of 141 countries (Australia was ranked #13). This ranking is based on factors such as crime and violence, reliability of police services and incidence of terrorism.

On the second day we travel to Shisr, passing Bedouins driving their camels to the coast, through the dusty Dhofar Mountains and into the southern edge of the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter) to the ruins of Ubar, known as the ‘Lost City’. What was a famous trading city now lies in ruins, spread across the desert like an abandoned sandcastle. On another day we visit the Museum of the Frankincense Land and the adjacent Al-Baleed Archaeological Park, site of the 12-century port city of Zafar.

To visit the groves where the frankincense is harvested requires a sturdy 4WD and a knowledgeable guide. The frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) is a squat, Dr Seuss-like bush, with curly green leaves and a paper-thin bark. Suhail draws his knife and makes a small incision across one tortured limb, causing milky droplets to bleed from the wound.

“Taste it,” he says, handing me a sticky pearl of resin. “This is the finest in the world.” I close my eyes, savouring the gum with its warming kick of pepper and pines, thinking of the Queen of Sheba, who hand-delivered Dhofari frankincense to King Solomon; or Emperor Nero, who burned a year’s supply at the funeral of his wife; and those wise men, who carried gifts so far.

Blessed with natural beauty, from wind-blown deserts to 2500 kilometres of coastline, welcoming people and a rich heritage, Oman is one of the best places in the Gulf to experience traditional Arabia and to get close to its ancient spirit.

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