As planned, the following year, 1988, I returned to Oman to begin the search, this time with my wife Michaela. The first nudge from above came almost immediately after we landed in the country, in Muscat, the capital. While awaiting our connecting flight down to Salalah I was browsing through the little airport bookstore and noticed a postcard showing an abundance of greenery, including trees. I knew from my previous visit that it was not Salalah, but the postcard did not name the particular location.
Nearby stood several young local men, easily distinguished by the immaculate long white “dishdashas” that only Omanis can wear. I turned to them and asked if they knew of this place and one of them replied “Yes, it is Rakhyut.” Over the previous year I’d been able to source better maps of southern Oman and that name appeared on them. It was a good beginning. We flew to Salalah and early the following morning drove west out of town.
On my previous visit I had been unable to go further than Mughsayl, a picturesque town that sat at the beginning of the Qamar mountains, a rugged range that ran along the coast down into Yemen. This time it was possible to drive along an impressive new road, still being completed by a Chinese company, one providing the first direct road access to the most westerly towns of Oman. After driving up to the top of the mountains we had to pass a military checkpoint before continuing further. In just over an hour we arrived at the turn-off to Rakhyut. From here on the road was unsealed but as we descended toward the coast the bumps were more than compensated for by the rapidly changing scenery. With barely any transition, the arid terrain suddenly gave way to bright green vegetation. Trees began to appear, growing larger as we bumped our way. Though we were still quite high there was a sudden glimpse of distant ocean.
Eventually, we reached the point where the road veered left on a zig-zag descent to the town of Rakhyut itself. The ocean lay directly ahead so I stopped the car and walked over to see what was visible along the coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself gazing westward along the coast at a beautiful green bay just a few miles away. Lines of waves crashed silently onto a white sand beach and what appeared to be a narrow lake or lagoon glistened blue to the right. Clusters of trees lay scattered about. There was no sign of buildings or people. Above it all rose a prominent peak completely covered with deep-green vegetation and distant glimpses of the coastline beyond. The moment remains vivid even today. I retrieved my tripod and used the camera’s zoom lens to look closer. The view through the lens conveyed a powerful impression of a peaceful, hidden place. The name “Shangri-La” actually came to mind. I pressed the shutter.
Although this first glimpse of the Qamar coast had been truly impressive, I hesitated to consider that what we had seen could possibly be Nephi’s Bountiful. The reason was simple: the maps we had obtained showed that this Shangri-La could only be a bay, perhaps one of several, hemmed in by steep mountains that would make it impossible to access by land. No route from the interior desert reached the coast. Lehi and his group could only have reached such a place by sea or helicopter; neither, of course, were an option. So we continued driving down until we reached sea-level. The fishing village of Rakhyut was a modest, but uninspiring place. We ate the packed lunch our hotel had provided and looked out across its bay. I wondered how it would be possible to explore more of the coast.
On the return drive we drove slowly to make sure we had not missed any other roads (we hadn’t) and then returned to the sealed road. Another half hour driving through barren terrain brought us to a final checkpoint just a mile or so from the Yemen border. To go further required permits we didn’t have so we retraced our path. Again we descended towards Rakhyut to marvel at how quickly the vegetation changed. After 12 hours driving we arrived back safely in Salalah. We were sunburned, tired but happy, for I realized that while we may not have found a viable candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful, we had still learned something vital. I wrote in my journal that night:
…we can finally lay to rest the myth that Salalah is unique and the most likely candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful. It has also reinforced for us the need for actual exploration of the areas we suppose are connected to scriptural accounts. We took with us the latest and most detailed maps available and found them to be very incomplete and full of errors….
A small step forwards perhaps, but it was at least in the right direction.
Fast forward another year to October 1989 and I was back in Salalah, this time with the eldest of my children, 14 year-old Claire. She was a perfect assistant, helping carry camera equipment, making notes every time we stopped to film and a good second pair of eyes. We had a meeting set up with the local governor for a permit to cover the last few miles of the road, but the area proved still too sensitive for such access to be granted. Determined to push further, we eventually drove back to Rakhyut and after some considerable negotiating managed to convince a local to take us down the coast in his fishing boat.
Mid-afternoon we launched into the surf and were soon powering westwards.
We rode past the Shangri-La location without stopping; it seemed much less impressive from the sea and so we continued along miles of rugged cliffs until we reached the westernmost town on the coast, Dhalqut. The steep mountains marking the Yemen border lay just miles away. Our plan was to land here and explore it, but the seas were too heavy to attempt a landing. We turned back. Now, however, Claire’s female genes asserted themselves and she insisted that we stop somewhere so that we received value for our money. By this stage tired, I reluctantly agreed and within minutes we were landing on the beach of “Shangri La.”
The sand bar across the bay was some ten feet high, obscuring almost everything behind it from view. We climbed up and stood transfixed. The late afternoon sun streamed through gaps in the mountains, illuminating birds, insects and pollen. The place was alive. In front of us lay the lagoon, bordered by thick beds of tall reeds, to the right strange shapes, obviously man-made, stood covered with vegetation. Everything was green. Cows grazed on fields of grass and a thick blanket of trees lay on both sides of the bay. Claire was excitedly telling me “This is Bountiful Dad! It must be!” Outwardly, parental wisdom and caution prevailed, but I had to admit to myself that it was quite amazing. But how could anyone have reached it overland? Looking inland only rocky heights behind the trees was visible. Perhaps…. just to be safe, I took some photographs and video sequences. Our boat was waiting.
While “Shangri La” appeared an exciting possibility for Bountiful, the question of access overshadowed everything else. The most fertile place in the world could not qualify as Nephi’s Bountiful if it lacked a way to reach it overland. I needed to explore it more and was more determined than ever to also continue searching the Arabian coast. That would mean trying to reach the coast of Yemen.
I returned to Shangri La the following year, 1990, beginning a series of visits where I camped alone so that I could explore it more fully. I packed a lightweight tent, cameras, insect repellant and some basic food items. A freshwater spring not far inland provided safe drinking water. The heat was the main obstacle and I learned early on to begin work at first light each day. By late morning it was too hot to work without shelter, so I would use the time to write up notes and rest until mid-afternoon. The remainder of the day could then be spent working until it became too dark. Sometimes breezes would blow down the wadi and bring the temperatures down. Gradually this little valley, Khor Kharfot, began to reveal itself.
My first priority, of course, was the question of access, so I spent several difficult days clambering over steep terrain before finding that Kharfot was actually the end of a very long valley, Wadi Sayq, a river-course that stretched back inland. As it arrived at the coast at a very oblique angle the wadi was not readily visible, creating the impression that this was just a bay. Finding that it was not drove me on to find what else lay hidden there.
My resolve to explore the entire coastline never wavered; I reasoned that not only did Latter-day Saints need to know what was there, but critics would always be able to attack the research if I did not examine all possible areas. To stop before that was done was not good enough.
1990 marked an historic change for Yemen which had long been divided into the pro-western “North Yemen” and the Marxist “People Democratic Republic” (informally known as “South Yemen”), closed to the outside every bit as much as Oman had been. A brief but bloody civil war erupted between the two countries and when it ended, with little warning, on May 22nd 1990 the two Yemens suddenly reunited. After my first explorations at Kharfot I headed back to Yemen, hoping that at last I could see the eastern coast. Although Yemen lay just a few miles away from where I was camping, I still could not cross there by land. To reach it I had to fly back to Muscat, across to Bahrain and then down to Sana’a to enter the newly-unified republic, followed by a further day driving down to Aden and then up the coast toward the Oman border, 3 days travel in all.
Yemen was not then, and is not now, anything like Oman. While its people are among the friendliest and most hospitable one can ever hope to meet, Yemen has always had more than a touch of the Wild West about it. The influence of government at all levels extends only a short distance from any city or town; beyond that the local tribes hold sway. While I was already familiar with the old northern part, conditions in the south came as a shock. Yemen was, and still is, a poor country. South Yemen, isolated and languishing for years under a failed ideology, was poorer still, lacking much of the basic infrastructure that we take for granted in most places. Roads, schools, hospitals, gas stations were only the top of a long list. 1
That was the first of a series of exploratory forays along the coast, some 900 miles in all. I was determined to see the terrain at ground-level, not by flying over it. With only a couple of exceptions, the coastline proved desolate and barren…endless stretches of sand with occasionally a small village of fishermen for whom a vehicle was a rare sight. East along the coast from Aden sat the ancient port of Qana, the modern Bir Ali, once the literal beginning of the famous incense trade routes. Incense arrived here by sea and then carried by caravans of camels over two thousand miles to the Mediterranean area. It proved to be a place of small shrubs and trees but little else.
Roughly halfway along the coast the largest wadi in Arabia, Wadi Masilah – a continuation of the famous Hadhramaut valley inland – arrived at the coast. Surprisingly, despite its great size, it too was marked only by some irrigated fields and shrubs.
After 4 years of exploration I completed the final stage leading right up to the border with Oman. This is the first – and still only – time that the Arabian coastline has been explored from LDS perspectives. By its end I knew that Khor Kharfot stood head and shoulders above any other location. This did not prove it was Bountiful, but now it was certainly the most credible, most plausible, candidate.
To be continued.
1. Since 1990 the old “South Yemen” has rebounded to largely catch up to the rest of the country.