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First visit to lava tubes in Harrats Khaybar and Ithnayn 
plus a town that wouldn't stand still

THE TOWN THAT WOULDN’T STAND STILL

 

AND OUR FIRST LOOK AT LAVA TUBES IN HARRATS

KHAYBAR AND ITHNAYN

2005 by John and Susy Pint  -- Updated September, 2013

Photos by John and Susy Pint

 

 

It was an inauspicious beginning. Our friend John Semple, had flown from Riyadh to Jeddah with the plan of buying a used Suzuki on Monday with the help of our mutual friend Peter Harrigan. The two of them would then drive with us the following morning – in that same car -- all the way to a remote town in northwestern Arabia where large caves had been sighted. Please note that in the paragraphs below we are changing the true name of this town to "Shisma" to avoid overwhelming it with publicity (and incursions from the throngs of cavers who read these reports).  (2013: OK, I think it's now safe to reveal the truth: Shisma is really the delightful town of SHUWAYMIS!)

It was a perfect opportunity for Murphy’s Law to make an appearance and we were not surprised to get phone calls all through Tuesday notifying us of delay after delay in the agonizing process of buying a car. But by the end of the day, the deed was done.

So it was that our journey to Shisma began on Wednesday, November 6, 2002, which just happened to be the First of Ramadan, 1423. This meant everyone but us would be sleeping in extra late that morning, and we hardly saw any cars all the way to Medina.

We proceeded northward and when we finally rolled off the highway onto our first dirt road, there were still a few hours of daylight left.  A wide track covered with powdery dust stretched before us. “This track goes straight to Shisma. We can’t miss it,” said our companions. “We should get there just in time for Iftar.”

Alhamdulillah, we thought, because Susy and I were both dead tired. Iftar, by the way, is the meal that breaks the fast (which is very strict and allows no food, drink or even swallowing saliva all day long) and it begins exactly at sunset, which is announced by a cannon shot in many cities.

Well, we heard no cannons and enjoyed no Iftar meal because, as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, our wide track had utterly vanished and we found ourselves in a lovely but lonely plain dotted with acacia trees and surrounded by low mountains.

“It seems like we missed it after all,” announced our friends, who then mentioned that they didn't have the GPS coordinates for Shisma because it had been so easy to find, the first time they'd gone there.

So, Peter figured out the coordinates from the topo map, put them into the GPS and we set out to find Shisma in the dark, although I would have preferred to camp right there in that beautiful spot and do our hunting in the daylight the next morning...

Programming coordinates as the sun begins to set. 

Well, bad luck continued to plague us because when we reached the spot which coincided with the location of Shisma on the map, there were no bright lights anywhere to be seen, only utter darkness shrouding what looked like the remains of a ghost town. But we could see a dim glow in the far distance and we assumed that was Shisma.

Off we drove through billowing clouds of choking dust until we finally came upon a few buildings and several human beings. We asked if this was Shisma.

“Shisma?” It’s twenty kilometers from here, thataway. Just follow the wide track – you can’t miss it.”

Ah, but we could miss it and we did, once again finding ourselves on an ever narrowing track, winding through sharp-edged basalt rocks and growing fainter by the moment. “Let me try to reprogram the coordinates from the map again,” suggested Peter..

An hour later we were back at the ghost town.

“What else can go wrong on this trip?” shouted John and Peter. Now, I believe this question was meant to be rhetorical, but the answer came literally with a bang as one of our tires exploded.

Next we discovered that the ruts underneath us were so deep that there was no way to set up the jack without wriggling into the space between the bottom of the car and the sharp rocks and choking dust. It was the sort of place even a caver would hesitate to crawl into and, once I had squeezed underneath, I was hardly overjoyed to discover that our official Toyota jack required the strength of Hercules to crank. Well, we took turns grunting, sweating and cursing until we were at last able to raise the car and change that poor, destroyed tire. It was approaching midnight when we finally limped to the least stony spot we could find in the neighborhood and tried to get some sleep.

Here we present two flat tires for the price of one. Notice how Peter's Petzl headlamp, shown on the left, can be used for purposes other than caving, but not quite as much fun!

In the end, the sumptuous Iftar meal we had dreamed of, came to nothing but a miserable bag of potato chips. Yes, but with a beginning like this, things could only get better!

In fact, a new day dawned and we celebrated it with a truly luxurious breakfast which even included  pancakes, whose batter Susy had prepared in advance. Now that it was light, we could see a town not far away and we assumed it must be Shisma, but, once we got there, we weren’t greatly surprised to find that it wasn’t. “Well, where is it?” we asked the two Bangladeshi mechanics who were busy patching the huge rip in our tire.

  “Shisma?  It’s about twenty kilometers from here. Just follow those power lines, you can’t…”  Well, we didn’t bother waiting to hear the rest of the sentence and, of course, the power lines soon went off in one direction while the track went in another.

But at this point, our luck finally changed. We had flagged down an old man with a long white beard, who had told us we were still twenty kms from Shisma (This, of course, was hardly surprising to us, anymore) and who was giving us directions, when Peter and John happened to mention they were friends of the Headmaster of Shisma.

The old man did a double take, his eyes lit up and he reached out to shake our hands, as if we were meeting for the first time. “Hayakallah!” he said, which is a warm greeting that bedus use amongst themselves. We had obviously moved up to a much higher category in his estimation and the greeting ceremony was being repeated in a proper bedu manner.

  “I will take you to Shisma!” shouted the man as he jumped into his truck, even though he had been headed in the opposite direction.

  At last, we broke the 20-km barrier and arrived within sight of the Shisma water tower, where the old man bid us Ma’asalaama. On arrival at the Headmaster’s house, we were greeted by his son Khalid who told us his father was out in the hills and was worried that we hadn’t shown up the night before. “I will take you there,” exclaimed Khalid, and off we went.

Along the way, we came to a vast, perfectly smooth area which glistened as if it were covered with water. It was, however, a dry, tan-colored mud flat where nothing grew and not even a stone could be found. “In this place a famous horse race was once held,” said the Headmaster’s son,  “and that race resulted in a war that lasted forty long years...”

At last we came to a wind-sculpted sandstone jebel where we finally met Headmaster Mamdouh Al-Rashid, who, from that moment on, took care of us as if we were his own children.  Of course we told him all about the frustrating attempts to locate Shisma.

  “Ah, but Shisma is in the wrong place on all the maps,” explained the Headmaster. “You see, we moved the town to a new location many, many years ago. The place your GPS kept leading you to is the old, abandoned site of our town.” At last, the mystery of the inescapable ghost town had been resolved.

...And at last we got to enjoy a Ramadan Iftar, which Headmaster Mamdouh, realizing how tired we were, arranged to take place right in front of the high sandstone jebel where we would camp for several nights...

 

 

...The star of the event turned out to be a beautiful falcon whose picture was taken at least a hundred times that evening...

 

 

 

“I’m going to take you out to a dahl,” announced Mamdouh the next day. We learned that people in this area use the word dahl for caves which hold water and kahf  for the dry ones. The five of us piled into the Mamdouh'’s car along with his young son, because it was taken for granted our poor-quality tires would never survive the trip!

On our way to the dahl, we wound our way through sprawling fields of volcanic rubble. Then we spied a small lagoon, a sight you rarely see in Saudi Arabia, proof that more rain falls here than in other areas we know...

 

...I remembered that people had warned me about lakes in certain harrats. “There is a large, black water snake that is extremely vicious and capable of jumping out of the water and attacking people standing by the shore,” I had been told. Fortunately, the Headmaster assured us there were no such jumping serpents in his area and after a pleasant stroll around the lagoon, we drove on, past a mountain, over 1600 meters high, until we were well inside of Harrat Khaybar, where Saudi Arabia's most picturesque volcanoes are located.

Soon we arrived at the entrance to Dahl Rumahah, which you would never find if you weren’t looking for it. But what you do see is a long, low, curving wall built of rocks. ...

This is just a small section of the wall.

“This wall channels runoff rainwater into the dahl,” explained our guide. “Once upon a time this cave was kept secret and its entrance hidden because it was a valuable source of water, a reservoir actually.”

 

Headmaster Mamdouh at the long, low entrance to the dahl ...  

    

...and ready to defend us against the wolves commonly found in caves like this one.

 Mamdouh was amazed we planned to go inside with our dinky little headlamps and flashlights. “Now, this is the kind of light you need for a cave,” he announced, holding up a gas lantern, which, indeed, gave off plenty of light, but was a bit too fragile as far as Susy and I were concerned.

As soon as we went inside, we assured the Headmaster that his dahl is indeed a lava tube (a point that had been disputed). The ceiling had the classic arch and a few small levees here and there. Surprisingly, the cave meandered in several directions and had a couple of side passages. 

In places, the ceiling and walls were draped with impressive flowstone...

This is probably calcite from leakage through ceiling cracks. As you can see, in all these pictures we had as a model, Mamdouh's son Ahmed, who seemed to have a natural talent for the job.

Bones and the petrified scat of hyenas and wolves covered the floor in some areas. ...

Click on the picture to see how extensive this cache of bones is. Fortunately, we didn't meet any of the creatures who had been munching on those bones.

We also found two “natural bridges” in this cave... 

Here Ahmed shows us the thin bridge, where you can see an intact section of the crust that sometimes forms on top of the hot river of lava inside the tube.

This second bridge is remarkable for its thickness, since the levees we've seen all point to a crust similar to the Thin Bridge above. So why did the lava continue to flow beneath this Fat Bridge, which must have taken quite a while to cool?

 

Dahl Rumahah  may hold the answers to more than one question about the mechanics of flowing lava.

 

 In one area, we came upon small pools of water and marks on the walls indicating that once upon a time the water level had been waist high...

...The humidity in this part of the cave has left areas of the wall covered with tiny drops of water which look like a coating of white paint from a distance ...

These drops may be growing on a layer of "cave slime," as seen in Iceland. The bacterial content of the slime may be very interesting.

Back in the 1980’s Headmaster Mamdouh had measured this cave with a 50-meter long tape, probably making him the first person to survey a lava tube in Saudi Arabia. He recalled the cave as being about 500 meters long, but, unfortunately, had not drawn up a map of it.

We returned to our campsite near sunset and fried our hamburgers even though we’d be having another Iftar just a few hundred meters down the valley. We didn’t want the meat to go to waste, and it didn’t. Each of us ate a hamburger and then we left three more of them in the frying pan, which I deliberately placed on the ground. As we walked toward our friends’ camp, we found their saluqi dog along the way, staring at our cooking area with rapt attention. “I don’t think those hamburgers will last long,” I told Susy, and sure enough, when we got back we found the frying pan licked clean. Later, however, we were told that this particular saluqi would never do such a thing. So we figured it must have been..

THE MOUSE

What mouse?  Well, later that evening, as we sat in the dark listening to the BBC news on our WorldSpace satellite radio, Peter shouted  “Hey! Some animal keeps bumping into me!” I switched on my light and there was a cute little mouselike creature, tan and white in color with big eyes and a long tail. It reminded me more of a gerboa (without the powerful back legs) than your average mouse. Anyhow, it moved away very slowly, as if reluctant to be interrupted while scrounging for crumbs at Peter’s feet.

The next morning,  while we were brewing our gourmet Camp Coffee, John asked Peter a curious question: “You weren’t eating potato chips somewhere near my cot last night, were you?” He had woken up and found chip crumbs everywhere inside his sleeping bag. “It wasn’t me,” replied Peter, “but I think I know who it was. That mouse was rattling the potato chip bag all night long and I bet I know exactly where he went to eat them: a nice, warm, snug place next to you, the world’s heaviest sleeper.”

Peter went on to tell us how John had once slept through the Thunderstorm of the Century which had sent everyone but him out of their tents and into their cars for safety.

Over breakfast we also heard a number of stories about four-wheel-drive Suzukis, such as the one John had just purchased and which had not given us the slightest problem on this trip. “I came upon a chap in Africa who was preparing his Land Rover for a trip across the Kalahari. He spoke like one who knew everything from A to Z about safaris and at a certain point he turned to me and cast a disparaging eye upon my fully loaded Suzuki.

‘Shame on you for endangering human lives by trying to take a toy like that across the Kalahari. If you don’t have a Land Rover you shouldn’t even consider such a trip.’

‘Actually, I’m not considering it because I have just come from there. In fact, I crossed the Kalahari in this very Suzuki and on the way I passed at least three Land Rovers like yours, stuck in the mud and unable to move.’ ”

The next day we drove off to Hazm Khadra, a scoria cone located in Harrat Ithnayn. Like Jebel Hil, this volcano has a series of holes leading away from it, marking the path of a lava tube....

The biggest of these collapses stands out like a sore thumb, but is filled with dirt.

 Unlike Jebel Hil, you don’t have to hike for twelve kms over nasty Aa lava to get there. In fact, we drove straight to the most interesting-looking collapse and camped next to it. It was our first look at a lava tube in this area.

The entrance hole was a long slope piled with huge chunks of basalt and reminded me of the entrances to some of  Iceland’s biggest caves.....

Susy Pint at the top of the slope.

 ...As soon as we stepped into the first room of the cave, we suspected this was going to be the biggest lava tube we had ever entered in Saudi Arabia. The first room was really high and ledges could be seen far above us, perhaps the remains of enormous levees. 

There was no time for surveying, but I paced off 700 “big steps” from end to end and we found several other rooms impressively high and wide, including one with a nice round dome ceiling. As for stalactites and stalagmites, there wasn’t much to see, nor were there any signs of the gypsum formations we had seen in other lava tubes. There were plenty of bones, however and in the evening we saw a few bats exit the cave..

"Cave Ghosts" painting the wall of the dome room with light.

Walking along the surface toward the scoria cone, we found some holes filled with dirt and others with short pitches promising passages below. We also saw “kites” or stonewall corrals with one very long wall extending off for a great distance. Supposedly, people drove animals to the wall, which they would follow until they found themselves trapped in the corral. As if to corraborate this theory, Peter found fragments of ostrich eggshells lying on the ground. Is this what those ancient hunters were after?

As we headed back towards Shisma, we got another flat tire. This was easier to change now that we were experts in the business, but we didn’t feel too great about putting on a spare with an inner tube inside and a huge gash outside. We then said goodbye to Headmaster Mamdouh and drove off towards the highway in the usual clouds of dust. In the first town we came to, we discovered that our luck had truly turned. We found brand new Bridgestone tires for sale, exactly our size. Peter and John assured us these were far better than our Dunlops, so we bought them and began the long journey back home, quite delighted to have visited two different Harrats in one trip and to have found remarkable caves in each of them.

 John Pint