Soak up history and nature in southern Oman
The manager of the Salalah Hilton is sitting in the lush gardens of southern Oman, lapped by the Arabian Sea. This is a place where rain is important. And while the other Gulf states are suffering temperatures of between 40 and 50ºC in midsummer, the coastal region of Dhofar, of which Salalah is the capital, becomes an earthly paradise for a parched desert people. Instead of date palms, there are bananas, papayas and mangoes. The traditional welcome in Salalah is a fresh drinking coconut.
For visitors for whom rain is less of a draw, the best time to visit Salalah is November to March. The weather is warm and dry but the green aftermath of the rains remains and the staggering beauty of the entire country – endless white beaches, magnificent mountains, oases, blowholes and even fjords – can be enjoyed without an umbrella.
Oman is the most southeastern of the Gulf states and its proximity to India explains the rains. They are called al khareef, monsoons that fall in Salalah and along the small strip of the Omani and Yemeni coastlines as a constant drizzle. In July and August the rains make the gardens burst into flower, turn the grand sweep of the southern slopes of the mountains, the jebel, green and fertile, change wadis (valleys) to fast-flowing rivers and transform stark cliff faces into waterfalls.
It is not just Oman’s weather that confounds Western expectations of the Middle East. This is a stable, peaceful country. It is spotlessly clean – the streets are swept twice a day, it is an offence to have a dirty or dented car and teams of cleaners polish the ornate streetlights – and there is an enviably low crime rate. The people are courteous, welcoming and eager to talk of the renaissance they have undergone since the bloodless coup in 1970, when Sultan Qaboos deposed his father to create a modern Oman. (The old Sultan’s remaining years were spent in the less-than-trying conditions of London’s Dorchester Hotel.)
Oman’s modernity, however, is not that of Dubai or Bahrain. There are no steely skyscrapers here and the architecture is vernacular, its inspiration unfailingly arabesque. While the country has opened its doors a little wider to visitors in the past few years, there are no plans to follow in its neighbours’ footsteps to create vast tourist cities. Development has continued at a steady, although comparatively slow, pace for the region.
The black gold beneath the sands may have funded this particular renaissance, but prosperity is nothing new for Oman. Dhofar is one of the few places on earth where the frankincense tree – the foundation of southern Arabia’s wealth in the ancient world – grows and the region has been the hub of trade in this precious commodity since about 5000BC. This was the incense the Queen of Sheba gave Solomon as a gift, and the wealth it brought to the area was fabulous. Queen Hatshepsut burned it in her Luxor temple in 1500BC, Alexander the Great gave it as a present to his old tutor to prove he had conquered this region, and, in 430BC, Herodotus wrote: “The trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents.” It was thought to be food for the phoenix that, every 500 years, would be reborn from a pyre made from its wood. It was one of the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
After such a build-up, the frankincense trees themselves are, when you find them, slightly disappointing. They look not just ancient but, frankly, half dead, with papery bark rustling eerily in the breeze. They are anything but dead, though; their riches lie hidden within. The treasure of this extraordinary tree is harvested by making an incision that allows its sap to flow out and slowly crystallise. It can be pale as sand, golden or brown and its function is to smoulder slowly on a special burner, known as a megmer. The smell is Oman’s signature. It wafts through souks, grand hotels and the humblest of homes. It perfumes clothes and hair, and is even used as medicine – swallow some, I’m told, to improve digestion.
Frankincense wealth produced cities and palaces of dazzling splendour. One of the most famous, Omanum Emporium, featured on Ptolemy’s map of 150AD. It was an earthly city surrounded by marble walls, set with precious stones and topped with golden roofs, and its gardens were filled with singing birds and exotic flowers built to rival paradise. Lawrence of Arabia called it “the Atlantis of the sands”. Known as Irem in the Koran and Ubar in The Thousand and One Nights, its debauchery and paganism provoked the wrath of Allah who buried it under the sands.
There it stayed, despite many expeditions to find it, until an octagonal fortress with nine towers was discovered by satellite in 1992 in modern Shisr. Surrounded by a web of caravan tracks thousands of years old, Shisr could well be the fabled capital of the frankincense trade. Now, though, there are only scant remains to be seen and it is the journey there that is of more interest to the present-day traveller. About 150 kilometres north of Salalah, Shisr is a breathtaking drive from the empty beaches, populated only by fishing boats and flocks of flamingos, through fertile river valleys and into the magnificent jebel, home to soaring eagles. In Shisr itself, you are on the very edge of the Empty Quarter and 650,000 square kilometres of a windswept, shifting sea of sand.
Only the foolhardy venture into the Empty Quarter, but for those who want to sample desert life in Oman, the Wahiba Sands are just a couple of hours from the capital, Muscat. The dunes are breathtaking: 90 metres high, separated by deep hollows and with colours that range from amber to gold to orange. At sunset they glow with ever-richer tones, and cast long shadows, the very essence of desert romance. The dunes are moving at a sedate pace away from the coast – around 10 metres a year – blown by sometimes fierce winds.
Bedouin live out here with their goats and camels, and there are now a handful of encampments made for visitors. For true desert solitude, you can also have a camp made just for you, with camel rides into the sunset, stories told by bards with the silvery tongues of a Scheherazade, or music and dancing beneath a starry sky. For those of a less poetic disposition, there is always dune driving, the 4WD equivalent of throwing yourself off a soft sand cliff.
This is a country full of natural wonders. At Hawiyat Najm (literally ‘the star fell’), a huge crater made by a meteor has filled with deep, green water from beneath the desert. Schools of dolphins – hundreds at a time – frolic off the coast. Beneath the water, vivid corals bloom in one of the planet’s best diving destinations. The country has some of the world’s largest underground caverns, such as the majestic Majlis al Jinn, where some believe Aladdin (Ala ad-Din in Arabic) found his lamp. Every year, 20,000 turtles come to lay their eggs, leaving them to hatch in the warm Omani sands. Green mountains and golden cliffs plunge into the deep blue of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Man has left the lightest of footprints here, often building a house of sand that crumbled back into desert and simply blew away. Forts and lighthouses still stand across the land, many dating back to the days of Portuguese colonisation in the sixteenth century. Archaeologists have found the remains of the Arabian peninsula’s most ancient boat. In just such a one did Sinbad sail? Legend has it the Queen of Sheba had her palace here in the ancient city of Sumharam (40 kilometres east of Salalah), built on the riches of the frankincense trade. Fable drifts like sand in the wind…
At Salalah’s souk, in the Al Hafah district, you have to bargain – expect to drink a lot of strong, sweet Arabic coffee and just enjoy the game. This is the best place to buy frankincense with burners and charcoal, although even this isn’t as simple as it sounds. There are different colours, sizes and qualities and it all needs to be explained in detail – so more of that Arabic coffee. Heavily veiled women sell exquisite perfumes (bukhoor and attar), then there are leather, pottery, gold, silver, hunting guns and silver-sheathed knives – khajar, the national symbol of Oman. All the treasures of the Orient, in fact.
This is not a land where minimalism comes naturally. It may be some time since the Queen of Sheba passed this way, but a love of opulence and voluptuousness lingers like the scent of frankincense in the air.
Emirates offers return fares from Australia to Muscat via Dubai. The airline flies from major Australian cities to Dubai, with daily onward connections to Oman.
There’s not much in the way of budget accommodation, but Oman does do luxury rather well. In Salalah, the Juweira Boutique Hotel has 82 rooms, all with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean. Dolphin-watching excursions and snorkelling trips can be organised by the hotel. From about US$170.
Between adventures, relax by the beachfront pool at Hilton Salalah Resort. Twelve kilometres from the city centre, it has 147 rooms and suites (all with views of either the ocean or mountains), four restaurants, two bars and a dive centre. Rooms from about US$180.
Omanis drive on the right-hand side of the road and most roads are sealed and in very good condition. Petrol is cheap, too. When getting out of the cities, most travellers use the service of a private guide in a 4WD, which is very affordable. For more information, visit tourismoman.com.au.