Volume 34 Number 3 Article 5
Kahf Hoti, Jabal Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman
Party: P.Saville, E. Saville, E. Meiss.
On a fine Wednesday afternoon, I left work early and by 3:30 we were on the way to Nizwa. Weekends here are on Thursday and Friday. It takes a hell of along time to get the brain switched off the standard weekend and talking about Saturdays and Sundays and the old "Monday morning". The only bad bit of driving anywhere round Nizwa is the road to Nizwa itself. The standard of driving is suicidal. There are simply no rules. We watched in amazement as a guy pulled out to overtake on a long straight road (km's of it), only someone was coming the other way. No problem! ....here that lucky guy is expected to pull onto the dirt. But in true arrogant style he too refuses to give in. This is not a game of chicken, just who is the most stubborn. Eventually the oncoming car realises all is lost and swerves onto the dirt. Our triumphant overtaker casual pulls in and only then does he speed up to 140 km/hr to rush off to his next accident. Forget the Italians.... these people are the experts. We passed Nizwa and drove 40 km further before leaving the main drag and heading towards the village of AI Hamra. There we headed off down a wide wadi on a dirt track for 10 km towards the impressive looking resurgence of Hoti Cave. The camp spot was on a small ridge overlooking the resurgence. We set up camp and enjoyed a cool beer as the sun went down. Eric was being an eager beaver and left work late. At 8:30 we saw a beam of headlights bouncing around the hills. I walked up the ridge with my Petzl. That way he could see where the track up the slick rock started, the final 200 m to the camp was a drive over the limestone pavement. We sank a few beers and planned the trip. The mozies started to bite. We had planned to sleep in the open, but soon put up the tents. I had a poor nights sleep. It was over 30 degrees, humid and the mozies were still trying to attack us through the net. In January this year I was sick with Malaria, a souvenir from Nigeria I was told by a very enthusiastic lab technician. "This is excellent, a very rare type, wonderful to see. It's so good that we could catch you in time to see it in the blood..." I was too exhausted and delirious to punch him. That's another story, but I can confirm that it is not a pleasant experience. This was the reason why I couldn't sleep. A sort of paranoid reaction to the buzzing of mozies around the tent just kept me awake.
We had every door and flap of the tent open, but there was no wind to cool us down. We woke by 6:30 am. The sun was already blasting down and it was simply too hot to stay in the tent. We put up the shade tent and had a long breakfast. By 9:00 we were walking to the cave.
Kahf Hoti lies in the steeply dipping limestone beds on the northern side of the Jabal Ahkdar. It is a 4 km through trip, with 250 m of vertical elevation. The cave entrance is by the village of Hoti. The resurgence is in the valley and that is where most people begin the trip, to check out the water level in the canal. I had read several articles on the cave and we had a copy of the survey. The first 1.5 km of the cave is a large boulder floored passage following the natural dip of the limestone. There is then 1 km of what looked like fine sporting streamway with gours and short lakes and a series of pitches down cascades. After this the cave changes character and there is a 1 km long lake. The passage here is up to 20 m wide, with a roof space of 1-10 m. The articles and pictures sensibly showed that the way to pass this was by boat. The lake ends at a 60 Degree incline of shingle, which provides a frightening reminder of the power of the water when the cave floods. To see a wadi in flood is beyond description, and here we had a cave which acted as a drain pipe for a huge wadi. The final 0.5 km of passage is a large boulder strewn gallery with formations leading to the entrance choke. Most "Wadi Bashers" (that's the name given to the expats who spend their weekends driving round exploring the dessert and mountains in their 4WD's, camping, swimming and having a good time) visit the cave and explore the resurgence up to the lake. We decide that we would first have a recognisance into the resurgence, take our boats and go up the canal to a low section referred to on the survey as "the Canopy", which was indicated as having the l m airspace. That way we could be sure the lake wasn't sumped and enjoy our through trip the next day.
We arrived at the lake within 1/2 hr. I had been here once before with "fatha", then it had taken us I hr, but on the way back we discovered that if you follow the left hand wall you can walk easily, instead of climbing around house sized boulders in the main passage floor. The two dingies were quickly inflated. Eric and myself took to the big boat and towed Elvira along in the second boat. The water temperature was 25 Deg C. The passage was big, 20 m wide and 5 m high. We zoomed along. After 50 m we rounded the first corner and then 30 m further the roof came down. There was also a distant roar. This grew louder as we scraped along the roof trying to stay in the boats. The noise became very load. It sounded like water. I shook the thought out of my head. We'd only been underground 1 hr and the skies were blue, bright blue. If it might rain that wouldn't be until the afternoon and it would take a few hours to react. We returned to the main passage and parked the boats on a mud bank. It was then that I realised what the roar was. The lake must be virtually sumped off and the noise was that of the air blasting through some tiny gap. (Those who have heard the sump crack open in otter cave will remember the sound, like being in the underground when a train approaches). We set of for a swim. We approached the low spot. 20 cm of air space narrowing to a small notch. The roar grew louder. Some 5 m beyond the notch was a long low chamber, a cross joint. The roar was coming from this chamber. All around was sumped, but through a small round joint hole we could see blackness beyond and all the cave draught was blasting through this hole. We swam over. It was possible to put your arm through to the other side and quite easy to see that beyond there was open passage. A small rope was tied off on this eyehole. "Well" says I. "Jammer" says Eric, he's Dutch and they say thing like this. I decide to glug under and see what the continuing passage was like. With one hand firmly on the other side of the blow hole I ducked under. The passage on the other side was big again.
Eric joined me. We treaded water for a while-there was nothing else we could do. We decided that to continue we needed some floatation aids. The lake was after all I km long and we didn't know what else was waiting for us. We returned to the boats. Elvira was enjoying the true beauty of the lake passage. I took a few photos. We paddled back to the end of the lake. When the boats bumped against the shingle slope, we looked up the huge gravel bank. With an automatic reaction we all turned and looked back down the tranquil lake passage. Each of us imagining the volume and force of water that must blast up this 40 m slope. Weird.
We deflated the boats and scampered back outside. By 12:30 we were back at camp, under the shade net. It was over 45 Degrees outside. It was a disappointment to find the high water. But just how high was high water? This was after all the middle of summer. There had been huge rains and floods in March and April. Had the shingle bank grown in size and raised the level of the lake or was it so huge that it simply takes months to drain away down to its natural level. We had seen the passage beyond the blow hole and that was big again. Myself and Eric decided to go back in. This time with two inner tubes. He had a 2 mm wetsuit and had brought along his diving flippers. I would simply be in my ronhills and T-Shirt. How long it would take me to get cold in 25 Deg C water I didn't know. We got ready and then took some lunch. At 2:15pm we left the camp and walked up to the resurgence.
Within 15 mins we were at the lake. Eric put on his frog outfit. We tied the tyres together with 5m of cord. He took a rucksack for gear and stuffed some empty water bottles in it for floatation. We slipped into the water. He swam ahead and towed me along. I relaxed and looked ahead. I could see the dark still water, the semi circular passage with dull brown walls weakly illuminated from Eric's lamp. He was simply a vague low blob in the water, with a lump on his back from the rucksack. He was surging through the water, and I was pulled along behind in the wake from his flippers.
As we approached the blow hole we noticed that the noise was much louder. We passed the small duck and approached the blow hole. The roar was so loud that we had to shout to talk. The water in front of the blow hole was rippling and bubbling as the wind blasted across it. We decide that since it was now the hottest part of the day, the temperature and density differences were acting at a maximum on the caves air system and hence the wind had grown. It sounded like a good theory and better than thinking that some huge flood pulse was blasting down the cave.
We made a plan on how to get ourselves and the gear through. Eric went first. I then passed the middle of the cord tying the tyres together to him. Then he pulled the rope, while I tried to push the tubes down and after a struggle they popped through. It was hard to apply any leverage at all while treading water in 20 cm of air space. I followed. On the other side it was calm and quiet. We got back on the tubes and for the next 400 m cruised along in a wide high passage. It was magnificent. In the distance we again heard a noise. Another low section perhaps. As we approached this one sounded much more like water. It must be an inlet. Although I did not remember any side passages marked on the survey. We rounded a corner into a wide section of passage, almost like a chamber. On the opposite side was a shingle bank. It turned out to be mud, but we were at least able to rest. I opened my barrel container and took out the survey. No inlet was marked. Eric went for a peek. From a distance it had looked like an enlarged joint. He shouted that there was a waterfall, "an outlet, looks like there might be a pitch down". Those Dutch are always getting confused I thought. As he swam back I replied "You mean an inlet". "No the water goes down." Eh? We were in a long canal passage and here half way along was an outlet with a pitch down. I decided to check it on the way out.
I had warmed up a bit. In the canal I could feel myself very slowly getting a bit chilled. We floated of down a huge joint controlled passage in a straight line for around 100 m. Then we found a real gravel bank and got out of the water for a rest. A quick look at the survey and we found the "long straight bit". We were 2/3 of the way through the lake. Ahead was a low section called the "Canopy". The cross section on the survey showed this as the lowest bit. We pushed on. After 100m the roof came down. The passage here was 20 m wide. Ahead there was around 15 cm of airspace. We dropped off the tubes. Eric went first. In about 10 m he came up in a cross joint. I joined him. A series of these cross joints were marked on the survey for the next 150 m. We were beginning to feel a bit remote now. "How far do you want to push this?" asked Eric. After all we had achieved much more than we anticipated, we'd both expected the lake to sump or be impassable much earlier on. "I'll try the next one and see what the score is". I'll leave the tube here. I looked forward. It was again about 15 cm, lower in a few spots I thought, but overall the roof was as flat as a pancake. I couldn't see the next cross joint. I tilted my head sideways as best as I could, but trying to swim a bit and then tread water to look ahead for the highest bit proved uncomfortable, so I sort of swam on my side and glugged air when required. After 20 m I came out into a large passage again. I shouted to Eric. He followed. We then jumped on the tubes and sped off again. After another 200 m of fine canal we arrived at a 2 m climb up a small flowstone cascade and onto terra firma. We'd made it. We had a rest and a look at the survey. There was 500 m of streamway, with gours and lakes to swim. Eric took his fins off. It had taken us 1 I/4 hours to do the lake. We decided to take our tubes because on the survey it looked like some of the lakes were long.
This was sporting caving. For 30 minutes we scrambled up cascades, climbed over gour dams and floated through short lakes. There was a small stream flowing. I began to get warm again. The air temperature was definitely a few degrees higher than the water. Eventually we ended up at a long lake, called "Fish Lake". This ended at the base of a 6m flowstone cascade. We drifted along to the cascade and went behind it. This was the end of our exploration.
We returned to dry land and ate some goodies. 2 hrs to this point. It had seemed like much longer because of the distance we had covered. Eric's fins had allowed us to cruise down the 1 km lake very quickly. We scrambled back down the passage to the 2 m cascade. Eric put his fins on and back we went. We soon got back to the low bit. Eric set of first, I followed 5 m behind, after all our tubes where tied together. After 10 m or so he began to feel uncomfortable. I got level and said I'd take the lead. I moved around him, the rope between the tubes got tangled, we sorted it and I moved on. I then came to a low bit... too low. I turned to the right and saw the air space bigger. "I'm too far to the left - go right a bit". We emerged 10 m later and got back on our tubes. Now the nasty bit was over we relaxed and sped off along the passage. "I thought there was a second low bit Eric?" "We must have done them at the same time, by going too close to the left hand side, that's why it was messy this time".
We sped onwards. After 10 minutes we heard the sound of water, this was the inlet or was it outlet. We rounded a corner and came face to face with the tape sling hanging down the 2m climb. It took a minute for it to sink in. We couldn't believe it. Somehow we had managed to do a 180 Degree turn in the low wet bit and emerge in the same passage we had left. In the back of my mind I wondered if the water level had risen and the way forward had been sumped and I'd simply followed the low roof round in a curve. "Okay, back we go".
At the low bit, we adopted a different strategy. We unroped the tubes. I went first and kept on going until I emerged in the cross joint. Eric remained behind so we knew that I was on the other side. Then he joined me. We did the same for the 2nd low bit. Then we got back into the "long straight bit". Only the blow hole to go now. On the way back I checked out the "Outlet". Indeed there was a cascade going down out of the lake. Perhaps the reason that this was not marked on the survey was that the lake water was lower and hence there would be no cascade noise to attract anyone's attention. I climbed down a 2m drop into a miserable rift. I followed it about 5 m but had no desire to push it.
We returned to the blow hole. This time things went smoother. From this side, just to the left of the blowhole we could see the duck was much shorter. Only a matter of 1/4 m or so and the roof dipped down less. It was much easier to shove the tubes through. We emerged in the small chamber. Eric went right, it sumped. I looked around and noticed the short duck over to the left. We passed through and were in the main lake passage again. We quickly returned to the shingle bank, sorted out our kit and headed for the entrance. We had a gentlemanly handshake. It had been a great of a trip, different to what we had imagined and we were pleased to have reached the half way point in the cave. Eric's fins had saved us lots of time. Our determination to push on in the second low section, when we could have easily called it quits, had given us the key to the trip. We were outside by 6:30 pm. We shouted to Elvira, and rushed back down the wadi to the camp.
The first beer tasted great, the second even better. The total trip had only taken 4 hrs, but we had moved very quickly, only stopping four times for five minutes. I think subconsciously neither of us were at ease being in such a long lake passage, without knowing the cave well or the conditions.
The following day we visited Hoti Sink. Here the wadi is 80 m deep and 50 m wide and it just ends at a cliff, in the base of which is a huge cave mouth. We asked the villagers the way down. They indicated to follow the slope then head left. This ended at a cliff. After closer inspection we found a ledge which we followed to a gully. Here the villagers had built a huge drystone staircase in sections down the gully. We clambered down and walked to the cave entrance. It was 30 m wide and 10-20 m high. The floor was full of house sized rocks. All nicely rounded from water erosion. We agreed that the next trip would be our through trip. But for this weekend our reconnaissance was over. It was hot and we were tired. We climbed back up to the village, a collection of 10 small stone walled huts. We were invited for coffee. We sat under a tree and drank hot coffee laced with cardamom, and ate dates. At first the whole village was gathered there to see us. Then the women and children left. We were asked questions and blabbered away as best we could on which country we came from and where we lived. The men usually have rifles. Some of the boys were playing with empty cartridges. On all my trips I'd always wondered what the they were shooting. The days of shooting each other had passed. There were also very few animals left. We mimicked animals, like Oryx, goats, Ibex, birds, rabbits, lizard (yeah some of them get big up here!), you name it, but only got puzzled looks. They kept on pointing to the hills. In the end they dispatched a young lad up the hill side. After 50m's he stopped by a huge boulder and pointed. We felt pretty dumb when it dawned on us that they simply shot at a rock for target practice. Ah well that's the joy of mixing with different cultures. You can always learn.
In November we will return for a through trip; complete with some new gear that I never thought would be part of the standard caving kit; rubber rings, flippers and all that good stuff.
Link to Part 2