Volume 35 Number 2 Article 1
Arch Cave - Part 1
Selmah Plateaux, Eastern Hajar, Oman
Cemal and Paul
During my first year in Oman, with the help of Andy Hall, Mel and Sandra Wilkinson and my father I had collected as much information as I could about the caves in Oman. The largest known system was the Selmah System, consisting of five entrances (Arch Cave, 3 windows, 7th Hole, Funnel Cave and Khaf Tahry). These entrances had all been explored during the 90's and connected during a large expedition in 1997. The plateaux itself is at an altitude of 1450m. Although I was in Oman in 1997 and could have attended the expedition, I decided not to. I thought it was not a good idea to arrive for a new job, then immediately take two weeks off, however I always regretted missing such an opportunity. Now there was a group of us who were keen to explore the caves of Oman. In late 97 I bought lots of gear and 1 km of rope which was sent by air freight and arrived in December 97. The members of the 97 Expedition had nearly all left Oman. However, I did have one contact, who was reported to still be in Oman; but after several months of leaving messages and ringing around I gave him up as a "missing person". (However we did meet later as you will read). In April we had a meeting while propping up my bar and made plans for a trip up to Selmah. I wanted to do a recognisance trip first, to get a feeling for the logistics that would be involved, to locate the cave entrances and to meet the local villagers. It was also clear that we would need some training sessions to let everyone get to grips with passing bolts and deviations. With this in mind we planned a weekend in Wadi Mai, where there are cliffs on which we could set up a mini training wall. Then we would make a recognisance trip and finally on a third weekend there would be the trip itself to descend one of the caves.
Only myself and Cemal were available for this trip. We left Muscat on a Wednesday afternoon by 5 pm. The skies looked horribly black as we drove around to the south of the mountains and then the heavens opened up. We contemplated turning back; apart from the caves being out of bounds in wet weather, the roads up in the mountains can easily be washed away during severe storms. After 20 mins we came to a traffic queue, at first we thought it was a car accident, but then we realised that a Wadi was flowing. We sat nicely in line, but as time passed the Arabic temperament took over and soon the entire road was taken up by three lanes of traffic all going in one direction. A real good old cluster fuck was in the making. The oncoming vehicles were driving on a dirt track just off the road. It looked muddy, but it was passable, besides which they had no alternative. This line was temporarily halted when a fully loaded petrol tanker found a huge puddle which turned out to be very soft ground and it promptly keeled over until its axles bottomed out. The driver was scratching his head and contemplating how to explain a 20 degree listing tanker to his boss. "Shall we?" I asked. "What the hell!" replied Cemal, and off road we went ourselves. We drove about 2 km up to the front of the queue. I would have expected to get some miffed looks, but on the contrary, people smiled and waved. The attitude is simple, if you have a big 4WD, then you can do that sort of thing. When we got to the wadi crossing the queue politely parted for us and we moved in. Just ahead was a 20m wide river washing over the road. The police where on hand to stop the traffic if it got too rough. It appeared that the worst of the flood had passed. We watched a small Honda Civic cross, you could visibly see the force of the water slide the car sideways as it crawled forwards. A flowing wadi needs to be treated with great respect.
Several months ago I had a brush with disaster while crossing a much bigger Wadi, which was in full flood in Jabal Akdar. We had waited with the locals at the confluence of two huge wadis which were in full spate. It was a long wait, so we left the queue and drove a few km's back to a quiet corner to cook up some grub. After several hours the water volume had visibly reduced and the local men deemed it safe to cross. One of them drove back to inform us that all was clear. He also told us that the crossing was some 200m downstream from the normal track crossing where the Wadi was wider and shallower. We drove back to the spot just downstream of the confluence. All the locals had indeed crossed and we could see the crossing line. I dropped into low ratio and ploughed into the torrent. The flowing water piled up against the side of the car. It was certainly deeper than the running boards. I didn't loose any traction and just ploughed on. Many pickups had already crossed, so it was safe. 2 km further we had to cross again. Here the river was much narrower and several pickups were parked on the opposite bank. We stopped to check it out. It was certainly deeper and faster flowing. However some four land cruisers were ahead of us. We guessed that the lighter pickups were sitting it out until the levels dropped a little. So we decided to go. The river was about 10m wide, with bubbling waves of brown water as it flowed over the bouldery bottom. When the car was into the flow I could feel it sluing sideways. I kicked down on the gas and surged forward, I could feel the wheels spin, dig into the cobbles and kick up stones under the car. We drove out on the far side and crunched over a few branches that the local men had used to block the road. They jumped up from their fires and began to jabber on, we passed greetings but I couldn't understand what they were raving about. The driver of the Land Rover that crossed behind me said it looked "impressive". Later we decided that they must have thought us nuts to attempt such a crossing. As to where the other cars had gone? Well, there was a village just after the first crossing and we could only guess that they must have been residents there and had simply gone home. Perhaps we were the first cars to cross at this second point. The danger of wadi crossings were really put into perspective when, on Monday at work, we heard that during these same storms one of our Omani colleagues had lost two brothers and an uncle when their pick-up was washed away while crossing a wadi. We now have a healthy respect for flowing Wadis.
To return to the current adventure. We continued and had to cross three other small wadis, but the flow was greatly reduced, confirming that the storm had already passed over several hours before. We fuelled up before heading into Wadi Naam. It was already dark now. I switched on the GPS so that we didn't over shoot any junctions while driving across the gravel plains. After 50 km of driving we were at the base of the Eastern Hajar, 10 km of steep driving and switch backs now climbed some 1400m up onto the plateaux. Once on top we drove another 15 km over a bedrock track to the camp. The site was known as the Shab Tombs. Scattered around the mountains here are some 90 be-hive shaped dry stone walled tombs, which are over 3000 years old. The tallest are around 10m high and 6m in diameter, the masonry looks so good that it could have been built yesterday. We set up the tent and sat back to enjoy a few beers.
We woke by 5.30 and packed our rucksacks with 8 litres of water, caving gear and 200m of rope. They weighed about 20 kg. Our objective was to look at Arch Cave, a 150m shaft. We drove down the north side of the hills to a small village. I wasn't looking forward to a 9 km walk with this pack. We parked up and were immediately mobbed by kids and teenagers. Amongst all the shouting I occasionally heard the word "Donkey". I didn't need to be asked a second time. "Is Rashid here?" I remembered that the articles I had read talked about how invaluable Rashid and his donkeys were. There were blank looks, followed by some squabbling. "Okay. We take one donkey, bring it quickly." The donkey arrived within five minutes, but it took 1/2 hr of arguing to fix a price and the number of men to accompany us; which was fixed at two. One guide called Said and one donkey driver called Fahd. At least we would have no packs and as a result we made good time walking to the caves. Cemal had put the GPS co-ordinates of the caves into his machine. Again more of a re-assurance, the entrances are huge and the locals know exactly where they are. The route was down a wadi then a climb of 150m to a small pass. From here I got my first view of the huge plateaux. It was about 10 km long and some 2-3 km wide. Bounded by huge wadis to the North and South. Across the flat plain we could see several large wadi systems which just appeared to end. A great spot for caves. Meanwhile, Fahd had raced away down onto the plateaux and he was now 1 km ahead of us. We then realised the first mistake we'd made in using donkeys, don't pack all your water into your rucksacks and then load them onto the beast. We tried, but couldn't catch up with Fahd to get our water. The more we ran, the dryer our throats got and the less we could shout to get him to stop.
1 and 1/2 hours later we were stood at a huge cave entrance, Arch Cave, although we couldn't see any feature of the cave entrance to hint at its name. The GPS agreed. Said and Fahd had led us to a spot where they said that "2 small caves where next to each other". Cemal's GPS confirmed the position of Arch Cave. However we also had a mystery. We had passed a huge entrance some 400m back, and that did not coincide to "3 Windows Cave" in the GPS. I refused to believe that such a huge hole would not be mentioned in the exploration of the plateaux. Cemal was adamant that it wasn't 3 Windows. I on the other hand wasn't happy to drop into a cave, which I didn't know, and which could now turn out to be the wrong cave in any event. "Shit". We walked to the GPS point of 3 Windows. "According to the GPS the cave should be here!". We stood in the middle of a stony plain, surrounded by piles of goat shit, with a dry wadi meandering away into the distance. "Well it isn't is it! So f*k the machine". I remembered from the survey that 3 Windows is about 500m south of Arch cave. The suns there. That's about south, so what we passed back there must be 3 Windows." We got out a compass to confirm. It made sense. So what was wrong with the GPS. We checked the data that was entered for the 2 caves and found that they both had exactly the same Northing... "oops". No wonder it didn't quite fit". Problem solved; "Shit in-shit out". Now onto the next one.
Faced with a funnel over 100m wide at the top, where does one descend from? The survey and cave descriptions were of no help. Our guide remembered people going down from "that tree...". He pointed to a ledge some 30m down with a tree on it. It looked a reasonable bet. We climbed down to the ledge and traversed to the tree. I saw a hanger and maillon lying on the ground by the tree..."bingo". We then found several studs in the rock. The Bosch gang had done some work here. The survey showed a drop of 20m then 30m, followed by one of 80m. I started with 70m of rope and dropped a short way into the tree covered wadi bottom. The route seemed to go down the side of the shaft. A further 10m landed in a dry plunge pool. There was a stud in the wall and below was the main shaft. It was a crap place for a main belay. I hoped that there would be another few studs just over the edge. I couldn't find anything. Below I could see a huge sloping ledge. The rope would rub. I descended further desperately looking for some studs. The hang missed the big ledge and stopped on a smaller ledge. I tied off the end of the 70m rope to an eyehole. We needed the 100m rope, so Cemal came down to join me. We looked around for more studs but there was nothing. I wasn't happy. The start of the route was bolted, so how come in the main shaft there's screw all? "This doesn't feel right Cemal, if anyone was to rig a shaft like this they wouldn't come down this way, its too ratty". There must be another hang somewhere. I dropped off the ledge on the new rope in a last ditch effort to find a few bolts in what was an obvious nose of rock. "Mafi".
I rejoined Cemal. Time was dragging on. We had the bolting kit but I decided that this simply wasn't a place to put a route down into the cave. It had to be somewhere else. We climbed back out to the plunge pool. I decided to traverse out round an obvious ledge. Cemal lined me. The ledge was 5m long and about 20 cm wide. I could look straight down to the bottom, about 100m below. It was an awesome spot. "Cemal, if you had to rig this then it would be from here". "So there must be some studs there then". I looked around for five minutes but couldn't see any studs. This was weird. How in the hell did they get down?. For us we had timed out.
We returned to the surface. Fahd and Said came down to the ledge, there was also another new face. This we were told was Rashid. The famous Rashid! He was overjoyed to see cavers again. We talked a little and he continually asked after Mr. Dave. I took this to be Dave Humphreys, the chap I'd been trying to track down for several months. I promised to deliver a message of greetings to Dave.
Said and Fahd were keen to go home. They had drunk the water and eaten the biscuits we had given them. When I saw that they had simply scattered the plastic bottles and refuse all around I got angry. I made a big show of collecting it up and putting it in a bag. Cemal kept quite, he'd seen this all before in his time in Oman. "It's good that you do it, but they don't have a clue why it's wrong." I could see that they thought I was acting like a nutter, but I just couldn't let them see any indifference from our side to screwing up this pristine environment. It was now 4 pm. We decided to make best use of the time and locate the other entrances, but our guide would have none of it. Fahd complained that his donkeys were tired, sick and thirsty. "All at the same time!" I shouted. Cemal checked my temper and said perhaps we should go. "Bugger this Cemal, they know how to look after donkeys, its their trade. Besides when we came over past 3 Windows we saw those other donkey guys getting water from the cave." I turned to Fahd and in a calmer mood pointed and suggested he get water for his donkey from that cave over there. He smiled and then returned to sit under his thorn bush and sulk. With threats of "Mafi Rials" (no money) we set off to find 7th Hole using the GPS. This was not a good start to our relationship with the villagers. It was almost an African way of doing business. Take them for what you can today, because you may not have a tomorrow. Rashid came with us and when Fahd saw this he scampered after us. "He's scared to loose business." We agreed that we weren't too keen on our imposed guide. Fahd on the other hand seemed okay. We located 7th Hole. It was a huge Wadi ending at an equally huge hole. The sun was now low in the sky. Time to go. Returning to Arch Cave. I'd expected the donkeys to be loaded up, after all these guys were in a big hurry to get home. Fahd however was taking a snooze and when the donkey was loaded they set off at a run. We could hardly keep up with them. Cemal panted "If I have to walk any faster then I put this down as my running pace". I was too out of breath to answer. In under 1 hour we were back at the car.
We paid our fees to Fahd and Said and arranged for four donkeys to be ready for two weeks time. We drove back up to the tombs. It was 8 pm and dark. We debated driving back to Muscat, but decided that it was safer to set up the tent, cook some grub, drink beer and sleep. There was no hurry. Once again Cemal was up by 5 am. I prayed that it was only for a piss and that he'd crawl back into his pit. No such luck. He took a few deep breaths. "It's nice 'n' cool now. I just love the mornings, clear skies, no haze, you can see for miles. Do you want some coffee, I'll get breakfast..." "oh F*k off". As we drove back to Muscat we mulled over our trip. It was disappointing that we didn't get to the bottom of the shaft, even more so, we couldn't actually say that we knew where the route down was. However we had sorted out the location of various entrances, we had met the villagers and knew all about donkeys! We also knew that driving up to the plateaux in the dark posed no major problems, it just required more caution.
Part 2 in Volume 36 Number 1.