plus a town that wouldn't stand still
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.
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.
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
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
“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
even though he had been headed in the opposite direction.
“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
tower, where the old man bid us Ma’asalaama. On arrival at the
house, we were greeted by his son Khalid who told us his father was out
hills and was worried that we hadn’t shown up the night before. “I will
you there,” exclaimed Khalid, and off we went.
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.
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
ago. The place your GPS kept leading you to is the old, abandoned site
town.” At last, the mystery of the inescapable ghost town had been
“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.
“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!
...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.
“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.”
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 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...
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..
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
Kalahari in this very Suzuki and on the way I passed at least three
like yours, stuck in the mud and unable to move.’ ”
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.
...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.
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.