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This would make Columbus's journey a bit of a joke, but no one is saying any of this is true yet
written and photographed by PINAKI CHAKRAVARTY

We are waist high in vegetation, looking for a track that leads straight off the edge of the cliff, almost 100m above the sea. Everyone had said there are only two ways to get to the uninhabited beach below us, a beach as anonymous to most of the world as it has become near-mythical. One way is through the wadi that spills out onto its deserted beach, which you can supposedly trace, over days, up the mountains and into the interior desert of the Empty Quarter on the other side. The other is by boat from the nearest village, Dalkut. And we were about to discover the third: straight down the mountain. Few people in the sultanate know of Khor Kharfot, and with good
reason. This inlet is tucked away between cliffs towards the Yemeni border in Dhofar. Although inaccessible by road, you can get there after an hour of downhill climb (as we found out) or about half an hour by boat if the sea isn't too rough. No people live there, and its sliver of beach isn't reason enough to draw the wanderers. So why would you go to Kharfot?

The legend of the Mormons

History and intrigue, for starters. While few Omanis apart from those in Dalkut are aware of its existence, a little-known group called the Mormons now based chiefly in the Americas has been eyeing Kharfot very closely. The term Mormon isnÕt their official name it comes from the book they follow, The Book of Mormon. But it is a vague-enough term that has come to identify them, and we use it here so as not to get into specifics of their beliefs.

The Mormons believe that their ancestors made a monumental 3,300km journey over land down the entire Arabian peninsula, to what is present day Yemen and then through the edges of the Empty Quarter and to the coast. After this epic land crossing, they reached a valley that eventually opened out on the sea, and a natural harbour. This valley had everything they needed: fresh water, fruit-bearing trees, beehives with honey and a waterfront for easy fishing. It also had all the ingredients required to leave this land and continue their journey: trees large enough with which to build a ship, and iron ore deposits to smelt rudimentary tools. Most fantastically of all, the Mormons believe their ancestors eventually built this ship here and sailed to the new world, i.e., the American continent. This would make Columbus's journey a bit of a joke, but no one is saying any of this is true yet. This is all part of the legend of the Mormons, described in the writings of the leader of the group that made the journey, Nephi. And the Mormons believe that Bountiful could be what is now known as Khor Kharfot.

Navigating to the beach

Kharfot looks undeniably beautiful from the cliffs above: lush green, with a massive growth of vegetation through its central spine that follows its fresh water as it trickles towards the sea. The wadi disappears to the left into the mountains, and to the right you have the sea: pristine waters that lap at the shore of a blissfully empty beach. A few villagers know of this way, where you set off down the road that is an offshoot to the one going to Dalkut. The new tarmac ends at a sprinkling of houses, and from here you will have to drive in a 4WD through the waist-high grass, and then down a tough,
narrow route over a forested hump of the mountain, till you can drive no further. The last part is difficult to tackle and should be done in the lowest of 4WD gears, with a local navigator.

From here you will be on foot, and going downhill till you hit the valley. The way itself is not tough at all, you just have to be up to an hour of slipping down a slope of tangled vegetation and rocks. There are lots of footholds and you'll probably end up following natural ridges and man-made paths. You will also be under a thick canopy of trees so will be shaded from most of the sun, although it could get a bit humid depending on when you time your visit. Think tropical jungle, not the usual Omani landscape of bare rock or sand.

When we finally did get down, what had looked like the softest of grass that you would want to roll through turned into dry, brittle stalks that you had to crash through, which left little barbs in your trousers that made it look like you had just walked away from a porcupine attack. After a few minutes of stomping through, cutting our path towards the beach, we got to the sea. The beach is supposed to be a relatively recent addition, a sand bank that the waves have brought in recent time, which probably wasn't there when Nephi and his group were building their ship.

Looking hard for clues

The beach isn't as pristine as it looked from above: you will see the discarded remnants from fishing trips, pieces of plastic, fishing nets, even the odd kettle kept on a rock, ready for the next boat stop. It is an unremarkable beach, and you will be quickly drawn away to the leftovers of a much older story, on the other side of the strip of freshwater. There is a mound of rocks here, definitely man-made, now grown over by a tangle of plants that do not let you see much. This is quite obviously ancient: perhaps a burial mound, certainly not a watchtower. From it, almost lost in the burnt grass, a double row of stones has been placed that seems to be leading to the sea, but seemingly vanishes before you can make enough sense of it. On the other, eastern side, we had stumbled over what could have been a low stone wall, parallel to the waterfront, also largely hidden by vegetation. People who have been here talk of the remnants of old walls, and perhaps even channels like those of a falaj system, but
we found nothing more this time. It might be easier to see what the ground holds at a different time of year when the grass has completely died away or perhaps this is as good as it gets. Kharfot had given a little, but kept much to itself.

So is this all there is to it, an anticlimax after researching the Internet, looking for maps, tracking down local guides, flying 1,000km from Muscat and then driving hours over the mountains? Of course, it would be disappointing, on a certain level: no one is suggesting you might stumble upon a hidden trapdoor leading to an underground chamber of inscribed tablets. What a visit does prove is that yes, Kharfot is as it has been described in the Mormon writings, and it was inhabited by a people a very long time ago.

The other argument

Of course, this is all good but is it remarkable in itself to elevate Kharfot out of obscurity? Not really. Dhofar is an undeniably ancient land, now filled with the tribes that are the successors to its ancient inhabitants. This land was once the centre of the world, the most important source of frankincense that was coveted by distant empires, so precious that its trade route made and broke kingdoms. If Nephi traced what we know now as the Frankincense Highway backwards, it is a remarkable journey for a lone group, but one that was done a countless number of times by the camel caravans. Of course this is oversimplifying it a bit he didn't wait at the nearest truck stop and hitchhike down Arabia but the point is a lot of people have done so through other routes. You will find their remnants too, and many other ruins along the coast, one of the most famous of which is Samharam, in what we now call Khor Rori. The fact that you can find a mound of stones at Kharfot isn't remarkable in itself, for you will find an entire city at Rori, or Shisr, and a thousand other bits and pieces now strewn across the mountains and deserts. What would make Kharfot remarkable is if it is proved that it is indeed the place described in The Book of Mormon Ð and that its temporary settlers built a ship and sailed it to some place along the eastern coast of the American continent.

What the Mormons think
So why are the Mormons so enchanted by a few stones in the grass, on a beach no one is interested in? It is because, after decades of exploring the eastern coasts of Yemen and Oman, Khor Kharfot triumphs all other possibilities as the legend of Bountiful. Earlier suggestions revolved around Salalah and Khor Rori, but they are far away from the descriptions of the point where Nephi reached.

The points that work for the Mormons, but which we cannot corroborate, include the fact that Nephi had said that Bountiful was due east from his last stop, Nahom (now present day Nehem in Yemen), which Kharfot apparently is. Bountiful was accessible from the interior desert, and most places along the Dhofar coast are not Ð Kharfot might be one of the few that is, through its contributing wadi, Sayq. We looked up a detailed map and it could be true, although we havenÕt tried it. The Mormons have apparently also found sources of iron ore deep in the wadi, unusual for this part of Oman. We would need to return with a geologist to see if this is true. This is what Nephi and his followers used to make their tools.

What we can agree upon are the more geographical points. Yes, Bountiful is as its name suggests. There are trees big enough to provide timber, a supply of fresh water and enough sources of food. Khor Kharfot is even sufficiently fertile to support cultivation, but we don't know if this was ever done here. And, lastly, someone was here, a long time ago, and spent a lot of time near the beach.

The next step
What is lacking is an official, scientific publishing, excavations at the site, historians going on record. So far all we have are clues, possibilities and the dreams of a very small group of people on the other side of the world hoping Kharfot will add legitimacy to their book. Latest reports suggest the Mormons have also been digging at Mughsayl in the recent past, to return in the coming future. Whatever the outcome, it promises to add even more intrigue to an ancient patch of Oman already rich in stories.

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