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The fascinating legend of Hibashi Lava Tube: is it true?


THE LEGENDS OF HIBASHI CAVE

PHOTOS BY JOHN PINT EXCEPT WHERE OTHERWISE INDICATED -  © 2005 by John and Susy Pint Revised 2013

 

“Man Survives Deadly Cave Ordeal for Twenty Days”

The headline was worthy of a supermarket tabloid. A man had wandered into Ghar Al Hibashi, located deep inside Arabia’s Al Buqum lava field. He had battled ferocious wolves and hyenas, breathed poisonous fumes and endured the bites of disease-laden bugs, all this while trapped inside the cave for nearly three weeks. During his ordeal, he had eaten grass, drunk “cave water” and stumbled around in the dark until he surfaced through a hole located 17 kms from the cave entrance. Such a cave appeared worthy of investigation, even if it turned out only one tenth as long as the newspaper claimed.

During the first week of January, 2003, we set out on our quest. All we knew about the cave’s location was that it lay somewhere between Ranyah and Turubah… that meant a mere 130-km stretch of tire-eating lava to check out. “I think I’ll sit this one out,” Susy had commented, “until you actually FIND the cave… if it’s really a cave at all.”

For this trip, we had two Land Cruisers, fitted with nearly worthless Dunlop tires – and a large truck big enough to carry several of the pickups SGS usually assigns us.

Ten and a half hours after setting out from Jeddah, we were still nowhere near the cave and the sun was about to set. Since you can’t find a black hole in black lava in the dark, we pulled off a nice wide track we had just discovered and began to make camp near the mangled remains of a tanker.

 

A ROAR IN THE DARK

As usual, I picked a spot far from the camp to set up my tent, knowing how late the others usually stay up. I found a patch of sand between some lava chunks and thorn bushes and had just finished putting on the rain fly when I heard a very strange sound in the total darkness, somewhere far behind me. It was a long, slow, throaty growl and it made the small hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up in fear - almost enough to make me want to take meditation classes! Then I heard it again, this time a lot closer.

I couldn’t believe my ears as it sounded exactly like a lion, but there haven’t been any lions in western Arabia for thousands of years.

The rumbling growl came again, even closer. Could it be a wolf? There are definitely plenty of wolves in these parts. I edged away from the tent and carefully made my way back to the cars. Without a doubt, there was something weird out there!

I told Mahmoud I thought I had heard a lion and he gave me a very peculiar look. Then he asked everyone to shut up and he heard it too. His eyes bulged and he walked over to the truck and picked up a heavy metal pipe. The whole gang of us now tiptoed behind Mahmoud as he very carefully made his way toward my tent. Suddenly, we saw a movement in the beams of our collective flashlights.

Mahmoud stopped, turned to me and in a low voice, said, “John, there is your lion,” pointing towards a camel, whose head could be seen just above a large bush behind the tent.   NOTE: A few months later this camel - or a relative - got revenge for the bad press we gave the local herd, by sneaking up to our campsite early in the morning and eating our entire supply of apples, oranges and bananas -- peels and all!

The rarely-photographed Arabian lion.

THREE SOMALIS FAR FROM HOME

We spent a very cold night and the next morning at breakfast, I took one of the cave thermometers out of the watertight box it was stored in. The reading was 5 degrees C and I suspect that during the night it must have been just above zero C.

In the middle of breakfast, a thin, dark-skinned man suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. Of course, we invited him to sit down and join us. Immediately, two other equally forlorn-looking men stepped forth from behind the cars and suddenly our one guest had become three. These men could speak enough Arabic to tell us they were Somalis who had walked all the way from Yemen, looking for work. How they had ended up in this desolate spot so far from even a small town, we didn’t learn, but they seemed very grateful for the food and drink we gave them.



A tasty Afghan Omelette prepared by Abdulwahed Al-Afghani, who really knows how to contribute to "the relaxed life" on a caving trip.

After breaking camp, we found some local people who gave us a rough idea of how we could find our way to Jebel Hibashi, near which—we assumed—we’d find our cave.

LOST IN THE LAVA

Noon found us wandering all around Jebel Hibashi, trying unsuccessfully to communicate among our three vehicles using some cheap walkie-talkies we’d bought and hoping one of the tracks in the area would lead to the cave. None did, however, and we finally decided to use our Global Satellite telephone to call people at SGS who might have the GPS location of the cave..



On the slopes of Jebel Hibashi: no cave and no lorry

 

Hélas! (French) the person who might have had this vital info was out of town. So, Halas! (Arabic), enough expensive phone calls. After removing rocks stuck between our double set of truck tires, using a metal pipe as if it were a giant toothpick, we rolled on toward whatever our destiny would be.



Extraction of the offensive rock.

Amazingly, we drove a few meters to the top of a low rise and from there saw, in the distance, several large white tents, neatly arranged all in a row. Bedus!

As usual, a couple of these astoundingly generous people immediately volunteered to lead us to the cave, which they said was nearby.

After a km or so over typically savage lava-field tracks, we were standing on the edge of a hole nearly 30 m across… and freezing.  Yes, a lively wind had risen and it was a relief to jump from rock to rock down into the shelter of a room so large we couldn’t make out the other end of it..


"You really want me to sleep in that hole?" asks Saeed Amoudi.

 

UNDERGROUND HOTEL

Because it had a flat floor, plenty of room and a pleasant temperature, Mahmoud declared that here is where we were going to camp. There were a few looks of surprise at this and a few murmurs about the minor problem of transporting our gear (you can’t imagine how much stuff we take on these trips) all the way down from the surface. But soon we were busy forming a human conveyor belt.



A local tent... definitely not for backpacking!

 

 



Our Bedu guide pointing out a few of the many wonders of Hibashi Cave.

 

 

There was just one slight problem. As so often happens, somebody had decided this cave was a fine place to throw his dead sheep, and there were three bloated carcasses perfuming the air of our new home. Fortunately, there were sandy spots near the sheep, so I decided to abandon the chain gang and bury the bodies. This turned out to be more of a job than I had figured, but in the end it was well worth it as our new home smelled as lovely… well, as lovely as you could ever expect a cave to smell.

Picture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-ShantiPicture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-Shanti

 

 

Burying sheep and raising dust

 

WALL TO WALL CARPETING

 

Which brings me to the subject of the cave floor on which we spread our carpets and tarps.  This lava tube, like all the others we’ve seen in this country has a deep layer of powdery sediment covering the original floor. Now, a dirt floor would not be bad to camp on, but this first room of the cave had obviously been used as an animal corral in the past. Most of us thought goats had lived here, but Abdulrahman, our resident Bedu, declared that the billions of little balls on which we were camping had been produced by sheep, over a long, long period of time, I should guess.

Once we had settled in, the drivers prepared a meal. As usual, chicken kabsa was the only item on the menu, but this time it was lightly spiced with the dust which rose every time anyone took a step on the sheep dung floor. After a few cups of tea, it was time to go have a look around the cave.



Our campsite occupied only a small corner of the huge entrance room.

We put on our helmets and picked up a Coleman lamp because the great size of the passage facing us – plus the flat floor – suggested this was going to be an easy-walking cave. We also took along a couple of stout sticks because we had spotted the large imprint of an unknown, five-toed animal’s paw on the ground.

 

 

On the left, our sheep-dung carpet and on the right, a ,mysterious paw print... Could it be the Arabian lion again?

 

DRIBBLES AND DIRT

The passage we were in had a semi-circular arched ceiling and smooth walls 16 m apart. It felt like we were walking in a man-made tunnel. The floor was dusty dirt which had been blown or washed into the cave during ages. Here and there we saw holes dug presumably by treasure hunters...



This T-junction was a favorite spot for digging.

 

Obviously the floor was at least a meter thick, but comparing the ceiling arch to the shape of several Icelandic lava tubes where you can see the original floor, I would guess that this Saudi lava tube may hold several meters of dirt, deposited during more than a million years. If pollen is present in this sediment, much could be learned from it about past flora and weather on the Arabian peninsula. What archeological treasures --as well as bones --lie buried here is anyone’s guess.

Our driver Ashak joined  us on the first exploration of the cave and  made his own unique contribution to speleo  haute couture.

 

Picture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-ShantiPicture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-Shanti

On close inspection, the side walls revealed runny lava “dribbles” and many lava formations, including some  lumpy lava stalagmites, up to 30 cm high and covered with a thin layer of mud (Many parts of this cave were once flooded)...

Here you can see a "dirty" lavamite looking just as we found it, as well as an "improved" one, washed and scrubbed with a toothbrush. Which do you prefer?

 

...But the most interesting formation of all was a lava channel, about thirteen meters long, on the inclined floor of a side passage, with “banks” alongside the deep groove running down the center of the channel.



Instead of lava, the V-shaped channel now contains a nice , unburnt sample of the guano which caught fire.

 

BURNT CAVE

A few steps further, the floor suddenly turned to ash. Bones and even rocks lying on this light-grey surface were charred on the bottom but not on top. The burnt area covered a large part of the cave and appears to be a layer of guano that caught fire and smoldered for a long time.

 

 

The top and underside of a well-toasted bone.

Some parts of the ceiling in this area are covered with a shiny, very thin coating of black “tar” caused by this fire, We had seen several small wood fires on the floors of various passages in this cave, perhaps used for lighting purposes and it may have been one of these that set the guano on fire… but how long ago?    The tar ceiling was also dotted with tan-colored stalactites of a rather soft, sticky substance. At first we thought they were somehow connected with the guano fire, but later we found many more of them on the ceiling of a chamber filled with unburnt guano, so perhaps these are a by-product of bat urine sprayed on the ceiling. We hope a chemical analysis will explain the mystery.

 

 

On the left, Mahmoud and the tar-covered wall. On the right: "stickytites"

An interesting feature of this cave is a very large, well-shaped dome with the usual high heap of large chunks of breakdown beneath it. We placed a hygrometer and mini-max thermometer in this area and got 48 degrees humidity and a pleasant temperature range of 22-24 degrees Celsius.

 

THE MURDERED MAIDEN

The next day, the three geologists mapped a large part of the cave while I went around taking photos. They got the worst end of this arrangement because three people stir up a lot more dust than one and all of them returned to Jeddah with bad coughs and burning throats. But by being off on my own, I missed the most exciting find of the whole trip. Deep inside the cave, Abdulrahman found a large rock upon which someone had placed two parts of a human skull. Because the cave has had vandalic visitors in recent times (thanks to that wildly exaggerated newspaper article) and because the skull parts were no longer in situ, it was decided to remove them from the cave for handing over to the proper authorities. We have already had enough experience with skulls and artifacts vanishing because we left them where we found them.

 

 

 

Expert advice, sent to us by email, suggests this was the skull of a young woman who may have been murdered.

 

 

 

 

CAVES BY CANDLE LIGHT

Here are our first attempts to do cave photography by votive lights. This was Mahmoud's idea, so we should call this the Shanti System.

 

 

On the left is a shot of our second camp inside the cave and on the right you have proof that this is one of the dustiest caves you could ever find. In fact, after both trips to Hibashi Cave, the survey team was out of commission for several days with hacking coughs ,reminiscent of a typical case of Mexican histoplasmosis!.

 

On our last day of camping in the cave, Mahmoud looked up at the wall we had been living next to for so long, and said, "John, do you see any animals on this wall?"  For the next hour, we found all sorts of patterns that suggested everything from bulls to elephants. These had to be seen by the daylight streaming in from outside and would disappear when lit by a lantern.


Did ancient people see what we saw?

Do YOU see anything here?

 

Carrying our tons of gear up the long slope to the surface was not exactly fun, but the cave had given us shelter and warmth, a fact we were reminded of the moment we were blasted by the cold wind whistling across the stark stretches of Harrat Buqum...



Much of the gear was wrapped up in a tarp to form a gigantic bundle which was carried to the surface, but not without a few moans and groans.

 

 

Photo by Mahmoud Al-Shanti

We in the Land Cruisers had only one flat on the way back – a miracle, considering that our tires were paper-thin. The truck fared worse, we learned later. Apparently most of its six tires fell to pieces on the way back after that beating in the lava field and it took the driver days to reach Jeddah.

 

Upon our arrival home, we sent pictures of the skull to various knowledgeable people by email. “It is a human skull,” they assured us, “and the teeth indicate it was a young woman 12 to 18 years old… and didn’t you notice that the brainpan has been sliced off?” So it seems this skull tells us a story of foul play. Perhaps carbon dating will tell us just when it took place.

 

We found neither wolves nor biting bugs nor poisonous fumes nor grass nor seventeen-kilometer passages in Hibashi Cave, but we did find enough other things to start a few legends of our own.

John Pint

Harrat Nawasif: Y'all come back!