© 2005 by John and Susy Pint -- Updated September, 2013
John Roobol is the very
picture of a sea-faring man. On his weathered face are written tales of
heroic struggles against the merciless elements and
through his great frizzled beard you can almost hear him shouting to
his bone-weary crew, “Belay the hatches and be quick about it, laddies!”
One day I looked up from my desk to see the large frame of this imposing
Welshman filling the doorway (and believe me, when Roobol is in your
doorway, no one else is getting in or out!).
Well, I soon discovered that John Roobol is, indeed, a sea-faring man, but
the seas he really knows best are the seas of lava which fill much of
western Saudi Arabia.
“So yer interested in lava tubes, are ye?” he boomed. And that brief
encounter explains how we Saudi cavers ended up spending a week
camped alongside Jebel Hil, deep inside Harrat Kishb, a veritable sea of
rough black lava that is exceedingly difficult to traverse.
While flying over the crater of Jebel Hil in a helicopter, Roobol had
spotted a straight line of round collapses leading away from Jebel Hil in a
westerly direction. It had to be a large lava tube and there was no telling
how long it might turn out to be.
Upon presenting the idea of searching for lava tubes in the harrats, people
who knew these nearly inaccessible areas told me we were crazy. “Those lava
fields are full of large, deadly snakes and, at night, if you light a
lantern at your campsite, you’ll see big black scorpions running towards it
in minutes. On top of that, the place is thick with mosquitoes these days.”
TO THE LAND OF SNAKES AND SCORPIONS
|On Saturday, November 10, 2001, a
ten-man-and-one-woman expedition left Jeddah at 11 AM, a mere five
...Our hopes for success on this mission were greatly
bolstered by a bit of pure luck. By sheer co-incidence, John had been handed
a set of photographs, taken by a hunter somewhere in Kishb but with no clue
as to exactly where.
Several imposing lava-tube entrances were shown and proved that
large walk-in caves were waiting for us… if we could cross those “exceedingly difficult” lava beds.
|Darkness had already fallen as we approached Wahbah
Crater. Actually, Mahmoud would have driven his car right into it if he
hadn’t wisely stopped just beyond a “barrier” of three side-by-side oil
drums. In the lights of our three Land Cruisers and one truck, we
walked forward a few steps and discovered we were right on the edge of
a 200-meter drop to the bottom of the crater!
This, it was decided, was a fine place to camp. “The strong breeze will keep
away the mosquitoes,” said Mahmoud. Apparently there were no sleepwalkers in
the group and no-one minded camping four meters from the brink of a deep
THE FLYING TENT OF WAHBAH CRATER
Susy and I chose a spot a little farther from the edge. We put down our ground cloth, set up the tent and turned our backs to assemble the tent fly. Only two seconds later we turned around to discover – to our dismay – that our tent was gone!
“Where’s the tent?” I shouted, suddenly in shock.
Now, my night vision has diminished with the passing years, but Susy could just make out our tent bouncing along the ground in the distance, for the moment, (thank God) not in the direction of the crater. We took off like saluqis and caught up with the tent, but while trying to get hold of it, I slipped on the loose gravel and ended up with a bloody knee, a major handicap if you’re planning to spend the next four days caving.
A bit later, someone noticed that one of the (new) cars had a flat tire and the drivers took it back to the town of Oomadoom for repair. It had four punctures in it and we hadn’t even approached the lava fields!
For hours we worked our way through great black
blankets of volcanic rubble,
broken by occasional smooth, flat areas dotted with acacia trees. In one of
them we found “the only thick sand I’ve ever seen around here,” according to
John Roobol and, of course, we managed to get our ancient pickup truck
hopelessly stuck in it. After doing our best to burn out the engine, we
finally resorted to the infallible way to get out of the sand: we let the
air in our tires down to 15 lbs, drove right out, and then spent a very long
time pumping the air back in.
At last we found ourselves on top of a somewhat flat place alongside Jebel
Hil and - lo and behold! – while searching for a good camping spot, we
spotted a dark patch on a low wall. This proved to be a vertical cave
entrance about 20 meters high. Leaning over the edge, we could see spacious tunnels going off in opposite directions. Our first lava tube!
We set up camp nearby, ate and decided to go have a look at the series of
holes proceeding from Jebel Hil.
A ten-minute drive brought us to a lookout point right beside the volcano.
We had a magnificent view of the flat plain below us but, alas, couldn’t see
the line of collapses from this position.
“Ye can see everything from the top of volcano,” remarked John Roobol, who
(as is his way) immediately began climbing. Well, it was about 4:45 and it
looked like we could just make it to the top and back before sunset, so we
all followed him.
ROOBOLING UP THE VOLCANO
Ah, but this “Hil” is not a “hill” up which one can merrily prance while
filling the air with the sound of music! No, I swear the sides of this
volcano are as close to 90 degrees as I would ever want to get and only 20
meters or so on the way up you could see almost every member of the group
hanging onto some tiny knob of rock, the only thing solid in a sea of loose
scoria, ALMOST everyone, that is, because Abdulrahman, the biggest guy among
us (excluding JR, of course) was dashing up that slippery mountain like
|“Gulp, I guess if they can do it, so can I,” I
muttered and began inching my way up that wretched slope, which grew
ever steeper as the few handholds were replaced by fine scree. By then
I was halfway up and could see the silhouettes of
two of my trainees on top of the cone. I had to keep
...It seemed as if an eternity passed before I made it. After catching my breath, I began to take pictures of the magnificent interior of the crater, in which you could see a wide, flat “ledge” which had once been the surface of a lake of lava, and the collapsed hole through which lava had flowed
into what must be a mighty impressive lava tube.
And then I heard a female voice. I couldn’t believe it! Susy’s head popped over the edge! Later she said, “When I saw that YOU had made it, I knew that I could too.” Now tell me, is this a compliment?
As we walked along the crater’s narrow rim, John Roobol enthusiastically described Jebel Hil’s geology and history. Meanwhile, sunset was approaching and we were wondering just how we were going to get back down. “Well, certainly not the way we came up,” said John. “It’s much too steep. We’ll go down another way.”
We continued walking a lot farther and then checked
the slope. It was even steeper than where we had climbed up and 100%
scree. Besides, it looked like
there was a sheer drop about halfway down.
“John, how did you go down last time?”
“Well, now, the last time I was here, you may recall, was by helicopter.”
“You mean you’ve never climbed down before?”
This explains how six apparently rational beings sat down on a nearly vertical slope and tried to slide down on their posteriors, hoping they wouldn’t make the small mistake that could start them tumbling down the volcanoside like snowballs.
Well, most of us ended up shredding the seat of our pants, all except John Roobol, who used his rucksack as a sled and came out of it with his backside unscathed.
Somehow we all survived and may even have achieved fame as the first brave souls to have climbed and butt-tobogganed down Jebel Hil.
LOST IN THE DARK
That night Hamadi discovered a snake, 1.5 meters long and the color of silver, near our camp, after which the drivers decided to sleep inside the Land Cruisers, instead of under the stars, as is their usual want.
The following morning,
Monday, we sent our ancient, decrepit, pickup truck off to Oomadoom for
supplies. I figured it had a 10% chance of making this
voyage and that we’d be hunting Hamadi’s snake for food by the next day.
Unfazed by our plight, as befits intrepid and tenacious geologists, we spent the day trapsing over kilometers of harrat, all spread out in a long line, hoping to find those walk-in lava tubes in the photos. What we did find were lots of olivine gems and even a garnet. Finally, we resorted to hunting up some bedus who led us to an area where the hills resembled those in the background of the famous snapshots.
Here, at last, we found three fine caves, two of them walk-in and one vertical, a 7 meter deep collapse with passages going off in two directions. We strolled far into the walk-in cave and agreed we would survey it next day. We took the coordinates and headed back to camp where we discovered that our pickup had failed to arrive. Scraping together the last of our provisions and even opening our emergency cans of beans, we shared a meager meal, discussing the strong possibility of having to abort our mission the following morning.
|As darkness approached, everyone took turns
watching for headlights in the vast lava plain below. But how could
anyone negotiate that featureless rubble, confusing enough by day, in
the gloom of darkness, when the jagged black lava swallows the pale
headlights of any vehicle?
Impossible as it seems, we spotted car lights around 8 PM. A half-hour later,
the pickup arrived to a hero’s welcome. They had gotten lost on the way back
and had spent all afternoon working their way towards Jebel Hil. But they
made it and bought us an extra day.
BED THAT EATS SHOES
On Tuesday morning we split into two groups. Four valiant souls went to
for the lava tube holes below Jebel Hil. They trudged some 12 kms over a
very rough lava bed, visiting each entrance, noting depth, diameter and
amount of collapse, etc. Commented Mahmoud and Abdullah Eissa:
“It was prickly “Aa” lava most of the time –except close to the lava tube -- with irregular, loose chunks ready to break your ankle mixed with thin pieces ready to collapse under your weight. John Roobol kept reminding us to be careful with every step because ‘We could all die out here.’ ”
They returned, not dead, but dead tired, around 5 PM, having lost
considerable shoe leather.
I was in group two, whose mission was to map the caves found yesterday. I
“guided” our driver “”Eagle-eye Sa’ad” to the site using GPS coordinates, a
method of navigation Sa’ad did not approve of at all. On the way back he
asked me not to use the GPS and he got us home in half the time, by an
entirely different route!
FIRST LAVA TUBE SURVEY
Upon reaching the entrance to the first cave, I surprised my three Saudi
trainees by announcing that THEY would carry out the
first survey of a Saudi lava tube. Susy and I would merely assist.
We then spent a while practicing how to use the compass, clinometer and Disto digital measuring device as well as how to fill in the B&B survey book.
This lava tube is about four meters high, 157 meters long and easy walking all the way. About half-way in, we began to see small basalt stalactites which had once been drops of molten lava. According to John Roobol, the cave was 1000 degrees, walls glowing red, when this happened. Seventy-five meters
from the entrance we found a raised side chamber with what appear to be very
old hyena, wolf and who-knows-what droppings, surrounded by bones.
Twelve survey stations later we came to the end of the cave and the home of a handful of bats. The floor was smooth, hard mud, sectioned in a nice-looking pattern. Near here were also a number of “soda-straw lava-mites,” thin and delicate-looking, but, of course, hard as rock.
Exiting this cave, I asked the surveyors what they wanted to name it. “Kahf
Mut’eb,” they told me. These words mean “very difficult cave.” Now, this
was a flat, smooth easy-walkin’ single passage. So what would you name the kind where you have to take readings while lying on your belly in a tight crawlway half full of a gooey mixture of guano, mud and bat pee?
Worn out and aching for lunch, the survey crew
to stand by and let me have all the pleasure of exploring the 7-meter-deep
hole just a short walk away.
|There was a big pile of breakdown below, on one
side of the hole, so I only
had to climb the ladder five meters to reach these rocks, from which I could already see
passages going off in opposite directions...
...I walked over to the one heading west.
The entrance to it was long and low. I bent over
and peeked inside. In
the half-light beyond, I could see a large chamber filled with figures. It
was as if I had surprised a gathering of skinny goblins and they had
immediately turned to stone.
Slowly – and I do mean slowly! – I stepped into the room. “These statues
look like stalagmites,” I thought to myself, “but there are no stalactites
above them, and, besides, I’m in a lava tube, not a limestone cave."
On closer examination I found that these strange
figures were made of bird droppings. There must have been fifty of them
in there, the tallest standing
five feet (1.52 m). Now, one rock dove had flown out of that room when
I entered, but what had happened to all the others?
I also wondered how old those guanomites were, as I made my way through them, deeper into the cave. The floor consisted of fine, powdery dirt covered with a thin layer of bird guano. It crunched like snow. At one point, I broke through the crust and my foot sank down 20 cms. This was a
new sort of cave experience for me and I regret I was in a hurry and couldn’t examine the place better.
I followed this passage to its end where I found stuffy air and a handful of very small bats. Then I counted off 180 paces back to daylight.
The passage going the opposite way was also interesting. Only a few guanomites, but they were inside a huge room maybe 50 meters around. A large part of the wall and roof were covered with a crispy crust of a pure white mineral which is not calcite. At the end of this large room there was a passage heading east. I followed it a bit and it just kept going. Good reason for a return trip, I figured and headed back to the cable ladder.
Strong winds tested our tents all night long. The Eurekas won out over Coleman and even did better than our mighty North Face! Next morning we packed up and headed for Oomadoom. However, we got ourselves good and lost on the way. Fortunately, we found some local bedus who were unstintingly generous (as they inevitably are). One of them jumped in his truck and led us for what seemed hours to a wide track.
Although this track did not seem at all familiar, it led us out of the harrat. However, instead of reaching Oomadoom, we ended up in a town called Marran. No matter, we were on black top again and on our way back to Jeddah.
And we hadn’t seen a single snake, scorpion or even mosquito inside the wonderful lava tubes of Harrat Kishb.
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