Text by Maurine Proctor and photography by Scot Proctor
In the next articles we’ll talk specifically about the geography and archaeology of the area.
When Nephi spoke in such glowing terms about Bountiful, this place of “much fruit” where they “exceedingly rejoiced” by the “seashore”, it sounds refreshing, and no doubt it was after years of bitter desert travel. Yet, having pitched a tent ourselves—with an international team of researchers– in this best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful at Khor Kharfot, we have to admit there are a few things Nephi forgot to mention.
Come with us to Bountiful and be on site as we share with you what archaeological exploration looks like when you are “boots on the ground” through photos, videos and stories.
To begin, you can’t travel lightly if you are camping out on a remote, uninhabited Arabian seashore. Into your suitcases from home are jammed a tent, air mattresses, sleeping bags, a solar generator, extra food, cameras, film equipment and a tripod. All of this has to be hefted through multiple airports and then into the back of a rental car. But that wasn’t the end.
We flew into Muscat, Oman and then on to Salalah. For a mental picture of the area, this is where in the movie, Captain Phillips, the ship is docked before they take off to sea and is attacked by Somali pirates.
From Salalah, we drove west for two hours on a road that snaked through canyons and passed camel herds to an army checkpoint. Many other Omani’s breezed through this checkpoint but our vehicles, filled with our international team of archaeologists and researchers, included people with passports from England, Italy, Australia, Canada, Pakistan and America, so they pulled us over to wait while they peered at each one.
It was not surprising the soldiers, looking glum and responsible, checked as we were about 4 miles from the border of Yemen, where al Qaeda is nestled in.
Then, the road began its deep and winding descent from the higher desert to the seashore and the fishing village, Dhalqut where we had arranged for a fisherman and his boats to take us on into Khor Kharfot, the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful. We know, however, what happens to best-laid plans. When we arrived at the village our fisherman was missing and no one else would volunteer to take us along the seacoast by boat to the beach at Khor Kharfot where we were to stay. Some said, “It’s too dangerous.” Others complained they didn’t know how because there was no way to land a boat there. Our view was of a sea of fisherman all shaking their heads that they wouldn’t take us into the place, inspiring each other in their adamancy. “No,” they shook their heads. “No,” a dozen heads in unison agreed.
Three hours later and two more stops through the army checkpoint where they checked our passports with the same diligence as if they had never seen us before, let alone in the last 45 minutes, we found our fisherman, who had slept in. Suddenly, some of those same fishermen found they could take us into the beach.
Excitement is tempered by fear riding in those fishing boats along the Arabian seashore. The excitement is for yourself to be headed to a place so potentially significant. The fear is for your belongings, particularly your camera and film equipment. Even though we had them tightly squeezed into sealed river bags, these boat journeys can end with you in the water, or at least your stuff drenched by a wave. Goodbye camera equipment with one soak.
The way you land on the beach takes some skill, too. The three boats we were in rendezvoused about 800 yards from the shore while people and gear were switched to balance weight, and boats took more than one trip. The boat technique is this—go fast as you can and ram the shore, water flying, then hit hard.
Then began the chore of lugging all that equipment we had packed at home from the beach inland to a campsite.
For this April expedition, we purposely chose to come at the driest month of the year, when the trees on the mountainside were gray instead of green, and the vegetation across the area was burned back, revealing an array of archaeological remains that spread across the landscape. In wetter seasons, the grasses and plants obscure these remains, but to study and map them, you have to see them. These pictures show mountains grayed with branches that have dropped their leaves; in many seasons it is all a welcoming green.
This place is an anomaly for barren Arabia, green because for four months of the year it is pounded by monsoon winds and rain that come in from the sea and just touch this tiny place along the shore, while the rest of the year it hardly rains at all and the landscape begins to dry out. Beyond this small area, the land does not receive the monsoon rains and is as typically scorched as the rest of Arabia.
The driest time of the year also coincides with the hottest time of the year. Temperatures soared the first time we visited this area 22 years ago to 120 degrees. That is painful heat, which is as hard to endure as plunging cold temperatures that freeze your feet. This time we had a “moderate” 100 to 105 degrees. Still, heat was a constant. There was no escape. Heat that was so blistering that when the sun rose over the mountains every day we thought, “Oh no, here it comes.” You can’t think because you are so hot. You can’t breathe—because this is a heat you can’t escape from.
Going into the tent was worse. It was a box that trapped heat. The fine mesh of our tent windows allowed no air to circulate. When we got a little breeze for a moment, it felt heaven-sent.
The routine was for the entire team that included archaeologists, a geologist and various support people whose job it was to explore and record structures, ecology and landscape to begin their day early, arising at 5:30. Then we’d work hard and fast until about 11:00 a.m. and take three hours off because work when the sun is high in the heat of the day was impossible. When we resumed at 2:00 we’d work until late when the temperature was cooler.
During that mid-day break, we gathered in folding chairs under an enormous fig tree and a suspended yellow tarp, edging ourselves tightly into that little patch of shade.When the sun moved and the shade moved, we did too, so that not one ray of direct sun could assault us. We were like a moving clock, as we slid under the shade as the sun moved. Our mantra? Don’t get too comfortable in any one place, because you’ll be moving soon.
A Pristine Paradise
Because Khor Kharfot is pristine, untouched by modern inhabitants, it is teeming with wildlife you might not see otherwise. The beach is dotted by cones of sand, made from ghost crabs that run across the surface and then bury themselves instantly. Coconut crabs take to holes under palm trees, but when they emerge they are huge with pincers so strong they could take off your thumb. I could see our daughter, Mariah, gasp clear across the beach when she saw what she thought was a huge black tarantula that only turned out to be a big black crab.
The British Exploring Society sent a team to Khor Kharfot in 2013 and recorded 83 bird species, 15 kinds of dragonflies and 23 butterfly species. They also recorded four species of bats. The bats flew across our campsite at night and sometimes we would throw bits of food or pebbles in the air and watch them swoop down to snatch them. We marveled at the dragonflies that came in bright colors like red orange and purple helicopters hovering in the air.
The birds were beautiful in bright hues resting on the trees. We particularly laughed at the mocking birds which so perfectly could echo every four or five-note tune we sent their way. They mocked Scot’s wolf whistle perfectly.
It was always a little disconcerting to see all the new snake trails in the soft dirt right near our camp. Our daughter, Mariah, saw six different snakes during this adventurous week. Others saw an Arabian viper (at night) and Scot had seen a large cobra in our first visit here.
The British Exploring Society also captured an Arabian Wolf, Striped Hyena, Caracal and African Wildcat in their camera traps. We saw something even more surprising. Our campsite was just a few yards from a spring. One night we ventured over with our flashlights when we saw something interesting glowing back at us.
We explain what we saw in this video below, but first tell about a tick encounter we had on our first visit to Khor Kharfot. Watch this and get a flavor for the place.
The first night we were there, as we mentioned in the video, we walked with our headlamps to the spring just a few yards from our camp. We saw glowing yellow eyes staring back at us across the little spring through the darkness. The animal was as mesmerized and surprised by us as we were by him. The next night we saw it again, but this time Scot got a good look as he turned and walked. It was the endangered and rare Arabian leopard. The third night we saw another set of glowing eyes, but these were closer set and not our leopard. Perhaps a wildcat?
The British Exploring Society reported that four such Arabian leopards frequent Khor Kharfot, all of them caught in their camera traps. Our actual view was even better, unforgettable and way more intriguing than frightening. We tried to see the leopard every night when it showed up between 8:00 and 8:30, but it must have decided it didn’t like our company and changed its schedule.
As for the tick adventure from an earlier trip I described in the video, this was not repeated—undoubtedly because we didn’t sit again in a tick breeding ground. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for cockroaches. I think we set our tent up in a major and probably quite advanced cockroach community—and in doing so learned something about how your standards can slip.
Because our tent was small and didn’t afford enough space for our bags of gear, we were forced to leave them out overnight. The first morning anything that wasn’t closed by a zipper, any extra flap for holding a cup or a folder was crawling with light tan cockroaches—most of them an inch long and some another half-inch beyond that. We’ve seen cockroaches before, but this was a new variety for us, and I am not certain why cockroaches automatically elicit a shudder, but they do.
So we set our standards. We were adamant about them not getting in any of our bags no matter what. After some time we could bear it if the cockroaches were in our bags, but it would be too much if they got into our clothes hanging out on a line to dry. Then, with time, of course, the cockroaches found our clothes hanging out—and our standards changed again. We could bear it if they were in our bags and on our clothes, but we couldn’t bear it if they came in the tent with us.
When we found one in our tent, we screamed and had to change our standards again. We could take everything else, but we couldn’t bear it if one came in our sleeping bag with us. By this point, you know what happened and the cockroach that found its way into our sleeping bag looked quite cozy. When we slept every little twitch of a nerve felt like the legs of a cockroach dancing across our skin.
Our rock-bottom final standard was that we didn’t take a cockroach home with us. We shook everything and repacked it all very carefully the day we left. We saw the last cockroach as he tried skittering across the floor in our very proper German hotel, thinking to take up a new residence. We got him.
Our last view as we finally took down the tent was of a scorpion, clearly trying to find a way in for a visit.
Though some of the fauna at Khor Kharfot was harassing, other species were delightful and we wanted to report what we could. Some of our team went out exploring many evenings hoping to see and photograph vipers or small mammals or cats. Our goal is to be thorough in understanding this place and bring in the experts who can catalogue and understand both the flora and fauna. Since Khor Kharfot may be vulnerable to development, we hope to have as much knowledge as possible in a bid to save it.
The archaeologists and geologist this week at Khor Kharfot spent their time looking, analyzing and measuring the extensive archaeological remains on both sides of the wadi. They began early each day, often setting out with equipment in hand to aid in measurement. Dr. Carl Phillips from England and Dr. Michele Deglie Eposti from Italy both have had extensive experience in Southern Arabia and were particularly interested in pre-Islamic culture and the interaction of this area with the rest of the region. The information they gathered was presented at the Seminar for Arabian Studies in London this past July (2014).
Dr. Richard (Ric) Hauck has background in the Middle East, but has specialized in Mesoamerican and American Southwest archaeology. He became acquainted with the site to begin to develop a long-term research design that would integrate many specialists to determine what the history of this place might have been from the remaining, extensive evidences. Because he is LDS, one burning question for him was if any of this was here in 600 BC? In addition, did the wadi flow straight into the sea then, thus being a perfect place to build a ship?
Walking through the extensive remains with these archaeologists was an exercise in opening our eyes. What looked like a line of rocks, with a few that had fallen and many displaced, was evidence to Dr. Hauck, of a retaining wall that channeled water from springs that ran off the mountain in an earlier wetter time here. What looked like a random gathering of stones to us was clearly a mosque to their experienced eyes.
We scoured the area and asked hard questions. One large rock had carved steps up the side and under that rock, it had been clearly sealed. Some of us shimmied ourselves into the hollow inside the rock where there had once had been an opening. This had perhaps been a grave that had been long ago ransacked and robbed. We learned that most grave robbing happens within the first hundred years or so of something being sealed up like this.
We walked with our eyes glued to the ground looking for shards, little evidences of the past that could be dated. We found some, but since this was a preliminary search without yet having permits to dig, we had to assume that this site had few ceramics. Of course, anything we found we left in place.
Dating would follow when the archaeologists can dig and find material that can be dated—like ceramics. For now, preliminary assessments and hypotheses can be made about who was here.
We’ll share some of those findings in articles to follow.
If there is a place to explore, a cave to climb to and enter, members of our team did it. At night when we were finished with our sweaty days, we sat around the campfire and wondered about those who had been there before. Those of us who were Latter-day Saints particularly wondered.
The stars are bright when you are away from light pollution and the constellations of the south look different. We used a laser pointer to trace the Southern Cross that sat in the sky and knew we were far from home. The leopard nearby didn’t choose to join us. This wasn’t home for us, but it may have been home once for Nephi and his family.
We need financial help to continue with this major effort. If you can help with this project by contributing (this is all tax deductible) please click here:
This archeological exploration of Khor Kharfot, the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful, cannot happen without your help. To this point a very few people have stepped up to make this happen. We have had major results from their efforts—with an academic paper already presented and a research design in place. The team of botanists headed into the fall has also already been funded by generous people.
But without your help, that is as far as we can go. We cannot even send in our two directing archaeologists in the fall unless the Meridian audience steps up to help. This is important because this is a fragile environment that is facing pressures from a number of directions and likely will not always be pristine as it now.
Everybody thinks somebody else will put in money. Or you may think that you already have your favorite charity. Bottom line is even if a lot of people put in $10 or $20 a piece it would make a difference. If you can do more, that will make a big difference.
This is a window of opportunity for exploration that may not come again.