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