‘There are only two ways up and both of them are off lim­its’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

When the three wise men came from the East bear­ing gifts for the baby Je­sus in Beth­le­hem, Mary and Joseph would have been rather pleased to re­ceive their presents. The gold would have proven handy to pay for some de­cent ac­com­mo­da­tion and the myrrh use­ful to anoint the new­born in­fant, but the frank­in­cense was per­haps even more valu­able. Weight for weight, it was worth more than gold and was not only widely lauded as a pri­estly air fresh­ener, but also re­puted to have heal­ing prop­er­ties.

Two thou­sand years ago, as Je­sus was be­ing wel­comed into the world by these mys­te­ri­ous vis­i­tors, Dho­far was at the heart of the lu­cra­tive frank­in­cense trade. For mil­len­nia the pre­cious resin had been used as a valu­able cur­rency be­tween the roam­ing Be­douin tribes. The Boswellia tree, from which it comes, evolved in the unique bio­sphere of the misty moun­tain plateau and its sheer in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity ac­counted for its worth.

As such, Dho­far, in mod­ern-day Oman, was the source of the great­est trade route in the Mid­dle East. Frank­in­cense was ex­ported through what is now Ye­men, Saudi Ara­bia and up to­wards the Holy Land. The prized cargo was car­ried in car­a­vans, mainly by camel, but also on don­keys, mules or in bas­kets on the heads of slaves. The traders were vul­ner­a­ble to loot­ing by ban­dits or be­ing heav­ily taxed for pass­ing through for­eign ter­ri­tory. Cen­turies of boom­ing trade made the towns and cities along the route wealthy and pow­er­ful. De­mand grew as far away as In­dia and Europe, and ports were built on the coast of Dho­far to ship in­cense over the waves.

Frank­in­cense be­came a revered sym­bol of the ut­most ho­li­ness and a sta­ple part of re­li­gious rit­u­als in churches or tem­ples. It was a key sub­stance to mask the rot­ting odour when em­balm­ing bod­ies and the white smoke that ap­pears as it burns was be­lieved to reach heaven. Chris­tian priests have been walk­ing down the nave swing­ing their smok­ing thuri­bles ever since and to this day the Catholic Church buys frank­in­cense by the bas­ket. The trees them­selves grow in the moun­tains of Ye­men and So­ma­lia, too, but the Oma­nis have al­ways claimed that their sap is the finest.

Hadi al-Hik­mani knew these moun­tains bet­ter than any­one else. He was a man my own age who worked for the Oman Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Af­fairs, pre­serv­ing leop­ards and other en­dan­gered species, and there wasn’t a track or trail in these moun­tains that he didn’t know. I’d been in­tro­duced to Hadi through a friend in the Army, who ran a busi­ness in Mus­cat, and he came rec­om­mended as the re­gion’s ex­pert.

Hadi was wait­ing at the foot of the moun­tain in a dusty car park with six camels.

“Salaam alaikum, Lev,” he said. “Ready for an ad­ven­ture?”

I smiled back. “Come and meet the boys,” he added.

He led me over to the camels and on the far side, four men were busy stuff­ing wa­ter bot­tles and ra­tions into hes­sian sacks.

“This is Salim Suhail,” said Hadi. An old man, who looked to be in his 60s or 70s, stood to at­ten­tion in a sarong and green checked shirt and shook my hand with a firm grip, af­ter­wards touch­ing his chest. “And this is Ali Said, his cousin.” A slightly younger man, who looked to be 50 or so, with a grey stub­ble that matched his tur­ban and smil­ing through per­fectly white, shiny teeth, grasped my hand and pulled me to­wards his face. For a sec­ond, I thought he was go­ing to kiss me on the lips and in a slightly awk­ward fash­ion, I did the most English thing pos­si­ble and puck­ered up in re­luc­tant ex­pec­ta­tion.

For­tu­nately, he was just grac­ing me with the typ­i­cal Omani greet­ing, a touch­ing of noses.

Next to him were two much younger men, in their 20s. “This is Said Suhail and Said Salim.” Said num­ber one, re­splen­dent in a full ma­roon out­fit, wore a pair of stylish avi­a­tor sun­glasses and bran­dished a huge hunt­ing ri­fle. The other Said said noth­ing and just held his hand on his heart. These were the sons of the older men.

“It’s to pro­tect against wolves and hye­nas,” said Said in Ara­bic, as he saw me eye­ing up the ri­fle. As I walked away to sort out my own bags, Hadi whis­pered in a con­spir­a­to­rial fash­ion, “It’s ac­tu­ally to pro­tect against the smug­glers.”

Of all the men, only Hadi wasn’t wear­ing the tra­di­tional dress of the Je­bali peo­ple, that be­ing a wrap­around skirt, a bit like a sarong, with a long-sleeved checked shirt, mil­i­tary-style waist­coat and an am­mu­ni­tion belt with a long, curved dag­ger stuck down the front. De­spite hav­ing been born in a cave in the moun­tains, Hadi was a mod­ern man. He had been to the city and even stud­ied in Eng­land for a while.

When ev­ery­thing was loaded up, we set off from the road to­wards the loom­ing cliffs. From here they looked al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble. “There are only Aud­ley Travel (01993 838430; au­d­ley­travel. com) of­fers an eight-day Dis­cover Salalah Tour from £3,920 per per­son, based on two shar­ing. The price in­cludes flights, trans­fers, lux­ury ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion in Salalah, ex­cur­sions, some meals and a hire car for part of the trip. High­lights in­clude spend­ing a night camp­ing un­der the stars in the desert of the Empty Quar­ter, snorkelling in the In­dian Ocean from Mir­bat Beach and ex­plor­ing the dra­matic coast­line at a leisurely pace in a hire car. Aud­ley’s spe­cial­ists also rec­om­mend hik­ing in the Jebel Samhan moun­tains with a pri­vate guide, who will ex­plain how the area cap­tures the mois­ture that al­lows frank­in­cense trees to grow.

two ways up,” said Hadi, “and both of them are off-lim­its. But I have spe­cial per­mis­sion.”

The es­carp­ments rose sharply; a steep climb lay ahead and even though I could not see a path, Hadi as­sured me there was one that wound up through the val­leys and into the rocky cliffs ahead. I had no idea how on earth the camels would man­age it.

Hadi laughed when I told him. “Ha! You haven’t seen our camels. They’re proper camels, the ships of the moun­tains, never mind the desert, not like town camels. These can carry 150 kilo­grams [330lb] and will still fly up these cliffs. Don’t worry about that.”

I watched with amaze­ment. Hadi was right. These an­i­mals barely needed any en­cour­age­ment. Their padded feet seemed to glide right over the jagged rocks, and they weaved be­tween the enor­mous boul­ders with ease.

The nar­row foot­path led to the base of the cliff, where un­der the shade of an aca­cia tree, a group of soldiers marked the en­trance to the jebel. They wore a mix­ture of or­ange and black cam­ou­flage uni­forms.

“They’re the Oman army,” said Hadi, as we neared the ma­chine­gun po­si­tion, flanked by sand­bags. The soldiers in or­ange tur­bans, with fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing ri­fles, seemed sur­prised to see us. “Wait here,” said Hadi, as he went ahead to greet the soldiers. I no­ticed two more mil­i­tary men get up and shake hands with my new guide. They looked dif­fer­ent, though; these two wore flip-flops and green head­scarves. Hadi waved me and the camel men over and we ap­proached with cau­tion.

“These are the Firqat,” said Hadi, in­tro­duc­ing me to the two ir­reg­u­lar fighters. “They’re the lo­cal tribal mili­tia. They’ve guarded these hills since the war.”

“Why are they here?” I asked, won­der­ing why they were needed.

“To pro­tect against smug­glers,” said Hadi. “So­ma­lis come by boat and sneak into the jebel to har­vest the frank­in­cense il­le­gally, and they usu­ally come armed. And as you know, Ye­men isn’t far away. The sul­tan has been care­ful to make sure these passes are guarded against in­sur­gents af­ter what hap­pened last time.”

Le­vi­son Wood talks about his re­cent trav­els and his new book in an ex­clu­sive video: tele­graph.co.uk/ tt-le­vi­son On top of Jebel Shams moun­tain, left; frank­in­cense and its source, the Boswellia tree, be­low

The ad­ven­turer pho­tographed in the desert of Dho­far, Oman

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.