THE CAVE OF THE FALLEN STAR
Copyright, 1999,2009 John J. Pint
Deep in a canyon with walls overhung by a caramel crust, only a few kilometers from the tepid waters of the Persian Gulf, I met a geologist who told me of a curious hole he had seen out in the desert north of Riyadh. Some of the local people claimed the hole was bottomless, while others held there was a river far below and that a tree trunk thrown into it had surfaced in Hofuf, 500 kilometers away...
THE CAVE OF THE FALLEN STAR : Dharb Al Najem, Arabia's Deepest Caveby John Pint
THE SIXTEEN-SECOND-STONE-FILLED-PEPSI-CAN PITI might have scoffed at the tree-trunk tale, knowing that desert dwellers wouldn't throw such a valuable find down a deep hole, but what of my informant's claim that a stone-filled Pepsi can had continued clattering and bouncing for a full sixteen seconds after he had dropped it into the void?
At this time (1985) I was an English teacher at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, now called KFUPM, but on weekends, my wife Susana and I would roam the desert, usually in search of caves. So my students were not surprised when I queried them about the bottomless pit near Riyadh and one of them immediately replied that a friend of a friend knew the location of this very place and he would be happy to make arrangements for the trip, how about next weekend?
In no time we put together a small, but truly international crew for our expedition: Abdulaziz Al-Agili, my student and a descendant of one of the men who helped King Sa'ud capture Riyadh and thus unify Saudi Arabia; Ron Kummerfeldt, a hardy, mountain-climbing Survival Trainer from Kenya; my wife Susana Ibarra, a Mexican who had only recently been bit by the caving bug; Ron's dog Cricket, a Vizsla pointer from Hungary and me, representing the USA and its biggest caving organization, the National Speleological Society.
All of us were packed into a new Land Rover that was soon speeding past the sand dunes, escarpments and barren wastes found along the road from Dhahran to Riyadh. Our precise destination was Majma'ah, a town 186 kilometers northwest of the capital. There, on the following morning, we were to meet Aziz's contact who, because of Aziz's family connections, turned out to be the town's municipal president.
At 1:00 AM we rolled into brightly lit, but soundly sleeping Majma'ah and located our meeting place, the second gas station on the left. The only problem was that Abu Nassar, our guide, wouldn't be coming until 6 AM. We camped in a dusty spot on the outskirts of town, caught a few winks of sleep and somehow managed to creep out of our tents at sunrise. Little did we know it was going to be one of the longest days of our lives!
While Susy and I prepared coffee, Ron and Aziz went to meet Abu Nassar, a friendly and very efficient man, who took one look at our puny cookstove and cold-cereal breakfast, turned around and drove back into town. He came back in no time with an enormous barbecue grill, charcoal, two legs of lamb and several large sacks of tomatoes and onions. He had no intention of letting his guests starve in the lonely desert.
We drove out of town for about thirty kms and then headed off into the desert until we reached a picturesque, grassy spot, just beside a low escarpment. "This we call a rawdah," said Abu Nassar. "For us, this is a woods."
It was a rich green meadow with hundreds of low trees, just tall enough to provide shade. We were now more disposed to believe the tale about the tree thrown into the pit, which we assumed was somewhere nearby. But Abu Nassar informed us this piece of paradise was merely our camping spot (who could argue!) and that we should unload our gear and set up our tents. We'd then be off to the hole in no time. This said, he drove away and we unloaded.
Just a few minutes later a Datsun pickup appeared. It was Abu Nassar's friend Sa'ud. "Are you going to leave all these things here?" he asked. "They'll be stolen! Better put them into my truck." Only later did we discover that Sa'ud was the top police official for the area and knew what he was talking about. So we picked up our scattered gear and dumped it into the back of his truck, jumped into the Land Rover and followed Sa'ud along a track that parallels the escarpment.
HOLE-TO-HOLE TOURSa'ud knew we were interested in holes in the ground and made sure we didn't miss a one. The first was a pit about four meters deep. Some years ago it had been a flat spot. Then a shepherd and his flock passed by. Suddenly, the whole thing caved in, killing several sheep and shaking up the shepherd. We climbed down to admire the strange, edible flowers growing at the bottom and to try photographing some shiny black beetles sporting white polka dots on their backs. While thus engaged, I glanced up at one of the crumbly dirt walls of the pit. A gruesome, grinning thing was staring at me from within a hole in the wall. I must confess I felt a moment of panic, figuring I was about to be devoured by Son of Alien, but a second later it turned into the harmless skull of a sheep, no doubt one of the unfortunate victims of the cave-in.
We continued to follow the escarpment and suddenly came upon the last thing we expect to see in a desert: a lake! It was only 20 yards or so in diameter and its water was slightly salty. Once again, this hole was associated with a sudden collapse. This time it was a camel herder and his animals, crowded around a well that used to be where the center of the lake is now. The herder didn't survive and the twenty-foot hole slowly filled with the water that had fed the well.
THE GREAT CRATERWhen we finally came to The Pit, we immediately knew it. First of all, someone had gone to the trouble of bulldozing a dirt rampart all around the place, an enormous circle about 50 meters in diameter. Then, there was the stillness. It felt menacing. We climbed atop the wall of dirt and gazed at an open maw a good 25 meters across. You couldn't really see into it from there or from any safe vantage point, so we cautiously crept to the fragile looking rim, lay down flat and peeked over the edge. We were peering down into what looked like a great crater with steep, nearly vertical sides. In the middle of the crater's floor, we could see a big, square hole and beyond the hole, nothing but inky darkness.
"You're not going down there?!" exclaimed Susy. Ron and I put on our best macho fronts, gulped down any second thoughts about how much bigger this was than what we had expected, and began studiously to check each side of the hole for the most advantageous rigging point. Since cavers in Arabia normally tie their ropes to their vehicles, our first plan was to drive over the rampart in order to get closer to the edge. But for some reason, we changed our minds. It turned out to be a wise decision. ]
HANGING IN SPACEWe had no idea what lay beyond the ledge overlooking the square hole, so we tied our longest rope (100 m) to the Land Rover's towing hitch and threw just enough out toward the center to get it into the fifty-foot square hole. Then we eased the rest of the rope over the side, hoping the other end would reach the floor of the "bottomless" pit.
We now had an audience of young boys who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and who gaped in wonder as we put on our harnesses and snapped on carabiners and various pieces of clanking climbing gear. Next, we padded the spot where the rope passed over the crater rim and put a short line or "tail" alongside, to make it easier to get over the lip on the way back up. Everything had to be perfect, as our lives would depend on this one rope... at least that's the way cavers usually do it, but when Ron suggested we use a belay or safety rope, I couldn't think of any good reason not to, although I've heard cavers say they just get in the way. So, when I leaned over the edge, ready to jump off, a brightly colored mountaineer's rope was attached to the sturdy triangle on my harness.
I took the final step into nothingness and began to fall slowly into the abyss. The rope was sliding through the aluminum bars of my rack, a favorite rapelling device of American cavers, and I glided down to the floor of the crater. I made my way to the edge of the great, square hole and peeked over. I could barely see anything. This lip also got padding and a tail, after which I slipped down into the shadows of the deep void.
I expected to be going down a shaft about twelve meters wide, but I had barely got over the edge when I discovered where I really was. As I descended, the walls began to move away from me and as my eyes got used to the weaker light, I saw that I was hanging in free space at the top of an enormous, nearly spherical room, as wide as it was high. I was the size of a tiny spider coming down through a knothole in the ceiling of a vast basement. Suddenly, I heard a great WHOOSH and the flapping of wings all around me as a flock of grey rock doves shot up out of the hole, indignant at being disturbed in the intimacy of their private chambers.
DISCONNECTEDI continued down, reflecting upon the relative thinness of this big room's ceiling and how lucky we were not to have parked the Land Rover any closer to the crater's edge. Then Ron shouted: "How much further to go? I have about forty feet of safety line left." I peered down at the chasm below me. It seemed we had greatly miscalculated the distance. I was at the top and the bottom was nowhere in sight! I slid down another ten meters, stopped and disconnected the safety line. I began to understand why cavers don't bother with them. I ventured another look at the bottom and my heart skipped a beat. At last I could see the floor, but it looked like the rope did not reach it. I glided down a little more, looked again and seemed to make out a foot or two of rope lying on the bottom. I stopped holding my breath, relaxed and looked about me.
I was halfway down a vast cavern that looked a good hundred meters in diameter, with walls made of crumbly dirt. No limestone or rock of any sort visible. As I lowered myself down, I was very slowly rotating and along the distant walls, I could see doves nesting in long, horizontal fissures which looked ready to fall at the flap of a wing. Most of the floor was covered with rocky rubble, forming a sizeable hill. I assumed this had originally constituted the missing portion of the ceiling. When I finally touched bottom, it felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was delighted that, by sheer luck, the rope was exactly the length we needed, plus an extra meter to spare.
Then I looked up. This was the most overwhelming moment of the whole trip. The wide gap I had come down through, now appeared like a tiny white square, miles above me. A shaft of sunlight was streaming from it, all the way down to a spot on the floor of this huge room and dozens of doves were soaring in and out of the long, slanting beam. I stood transfixed, unable to believe I had come from 'way up there. Then a few stones came trickling down from the surface. Whether they had been dislodged by the doves or tossed in by the kids up above, I didn't know, but I decided to get away from the center of the room. I detached my rack from the rope and clattered towards the wall, making my way over and around large boulders which obviously had fallen from above. Only now did I notice how cool the place was. I also noticed that my knees were shaking, so I sat down for a few moments, once again gazing up at the incredible height and size of this cathedral-like chamber.
BALD TIRES AND HEDGEHOG BITSI made my way to the wall and found myself standing on a smooth, dirt floor. I started walking and, every few steps, would jump back in surprise as a startled dove rose up out of nowhere in a wild fluttering of wings and shot past me. Apparently they felt so secure in this inaccessible spot, that they had taken to nesting on the ground. Soon, I came to a muddy area, obviously the lowest part of the pit. The water that had stood here had never risen above an inch or two in depth and nowhere could I see signs of drainage.
So how was this hole formed? This was the question I pondered as I made my way along the almost perfectly round perimeter. If this room had once contained dirt or some mineral, where had it all gone? Maybe the place was just a large version of the collapses we had seen earlier, but how had it come about and how could such a gigantic empty space sustain itself with only dirt walls and ceiling?
I heard a tiny peep of a voice far above me. Ron had just come over the edge and seeing him up there brought the whole room into proper scale. He looked the size of an ant! It was a spectacular sight and I stared in awe.
I couldn't wait to see Ron's reaction when, after making a safe landing, he first looked up at the far-away ceiling and the tiny looking hole he had come through. When he hit bottom, before he removed his harness, Ron slowly turned, taking in the whole panorama. "John this isn't just big, it's BIG!"
We continued my tour of the perimeter and came upon one of the few snakes I've ever seen in a cave over nearly thirty years of exploring. Of course, according to Saudis, not to mention Hollywood, there ought to be at least a dozen snakes per square foot in any cave worthy of the name. This lonesome creature was about two feet long and beautifully mummified. The only other creatures --aside from the omnipresent birds, which we now estimated to be in the thousands-- were prickly little hedgehogs or what was left of them. Their porcupine-like quills were in fine condition, but not the rest, which had been completely devoured by whatever predator had dropped them there. We suspected there were more than just doves living in the crevices far above us.
We made a complete circuit of the well-lit room, peering into every crack for signs of a side passage, but all we found were more flustered rock doves. Had we found a passage, each of us was generously prepared to give the other the honor of crawling into it through the thick layer of bird droppings plastering every nook and cranny.
But no passages appeared and, having done our duty as cavers, we headed back towards the rope with only an occasional nervous glance at the millions of tons of soft dirt being held up above us by forces beyond our comprehension. We picked our way among the boulders, bald tires and rusty basins, carefully stepping on every Pepsi can to see whether it might be full of stones and sixteen seconds' worth of dents. No luck. Though neither of us is an archeologist, we both had a strong suspicion artifacts like these were not going to require carbon dating.
IN A TOMATOI prepared myself for the trip back up. I put on my harness and snapped three ascending devices onto the rope. Alternately lifting my legs and pushing down with my feet, I began to climb the rope, "frog style." Twenty meters up, I heard Ron utter a word not fit to print. He had just discovered he was out of film. "Susy can throw you one of ours," I suggested. Then, as I slowly made my way up, I heard this conversation:
Ron: Hello, Susy!
Ron: I'm out of film. Would you mind throwing me---
Ron: I -- am -- out -- of --
Ron: FILM ... THROW .. DOWN ...
You'll have to believe my version of this conversation, because I was the only one able to hear what both parties were saying! Yes, this was a mighty deep hole and the dialogue sounded like two people trying to shout through a brick wall. I made my way up a bit higher and called down to Ron that I would solve the whole problem by speaking to Susy in her native tongue.
John: ¡Hola, Susy!
John: Tira una película... (Throw down a film...)
John: Una película... ¡ ¡ UNA PELICULA ! !
John: (a few feet higher) PE - LI - CU - LA
John: Sí sí sí sí sí sí -- ¡Película~ ¡Envuélvela en algo suave! (Wrap it in something soft.)
Susy: ¿En qué?
John: Algo suave ... ¡ SU - A - VE !
Susy: ¿En un TOMATE? (In a tomato?)
John: ¿Qué? Un tomate? (What? a tomato?)
Somehow, part of the message must have got through, for, a few minutes later, a plastic bag came whizzing through the air and disappeared into the shadows below. Ron's voice was barely distinguishable: "...only slightly exposed, I think..." were the few words I caught. Apparently, the film magazine had exploded on impact and Ron was trying to put it back together in a desperate attempt to get at least one shot of the spectacular view from the bottom. Unfortunately, we had decided to take only one camera down. Ron was to get pictures from the bottom and Susy from the top.
CLIMB LIGHTLYI kept inch-worming my way up until suddenly the safety line was beside me. Although emergency ropes "just get in the way," I found myself snapping this one to my harness with a sigh of relief. Now I could relax for a few moments to take in the magnitude of this impressive pit and enjoy looking down at Ron, who once again appeared the size of an ant.
With Aziz belaying, I reached the first lip and discovered that the rope my life depended on had been rubbing against a rock throughout my ascent! Apparently, it had slipped off its padding when Ron went over the edge. Part of the outer sheath was gone, but the inner fibers seemed okay. I got up and over the spot in a flash, padded it and told Ron to climb "as lightly as possible."
Then I looked up and saw a sight I had never seen before, a scene I would immediately have described as sheer fantasy had anyone ever suggested such a ridiculous idea. I saw my wife Susy standing in a crack at the very lip of the crater, high above me, leaning over the edge, snapping pictures like mad.
"Hey," I shouted, "I didn't know you had a twin! If that's you, what happened to your vertigo?"
"It's gone," she replied, she who used to clutch the nearest tree with both arms and legs at the slightest hint of a drop four yards away. And though she didn't descend that particular pit, from that day on, Susy has been the most ardent rapeller in our organization and usually needs to be restrained whenever we drive over high bridges, so strong is her urge to jump over the edge.
DHARB AL NAJEMSusy, Aziz, Sa'ud and his little daughter all welcomed us enthusiastically as we came over the crater rim. They had been languishing in the heat while we had been strolling around the cool bottom of the pit. So we immediately got to work pulling up our ropes and gathering our gear. Meanwhile, I asked Aziz, "Just what is the name of this hole and has anyone ever been down it?"
"The local people call it Dharb Al Najem," he replied. "Dharb means a hit and Najem is star, so you could call it The Hit of the Star or The Place of the Fallen Star and you are definitely the first to reach the bottom and come back up alive."
EAT! EAT!Sa'ud brought us back to Al Nadhim, "The Grassy Place," where we immediately set about the task of roasting the half-ton of meat given to us that morning, as well as cooking eggs, hot dogs (beef, of course), potatoes and other foods we had originally planned to eat. Aziz guaranteed he'd be able to eat anything left over. There is something universal about the size of teen-age appetites!
All around the oasis, there were other groups of picnickers gathered around smoky fires. It was, after all, a beautiful Thursday night, the end of a long working week. Somehow, word of our exploits must have spread among the barbecuers. A tall, heavy set man came toward us carrying a big metal pot and shouting, "Eat! eat!" He had noticed we lacked the traditional mountain of rice to accompany our half ton of roast lamb and so, here was a pot of kapsa to help us scrape through. A pot of salad soon followed and, eventually, a visit by our mysterious benefactor's entire party, all of them dressed in flowing white thobes.
One of our four visitors spoke excellent English and well he should have, for he introduced himself as the local Minister of Education. He and the entire group were most interested in the depth and size of the Dharb Al Najem and, of course, the amount of water that might be in it. As we talked, we discovered that the man who had brought us all that food was no one less than the regional governor! Another member of the party was the local Minister of information and the jolly old timer who had cooked the kapsa turned out to be the local Minister of Water.
In the course of that evening, we had to decline numerous invitations to tea and further dinners. Someone brought us a pailful of laban, the watery yogurt that is popular as a refreshing drink in this part of the world. The donor was urging us to drink more (We still had three-fourths of a bucket to go), when the first drops began to fall.
DESERT STORMIn Saudi Arabia, a sprinkle of rain is a real treat, but we had been so busy entertaining guests and stuffing ourselves that all of us had neglected to put up our tents. The rain pattered on as we hurriedly set them up, threw our belongings inside and jumped in to escape what was now a genuine drizzle.
No sooner were we inside the tents than we began to feel that drowsiness that follows a long and strenuous day. Time for bed, no matter whether our watches -- so out of place in this natural paradise-- insisted that it was only 8:00 PM! After a little while, the drizzle subsided and the stars came out, but Susy was already asleep, Ron was snoring in his bag, stretched out beside his car and Aziz had just crawled into his gently flapping tent. All was quiet, except for an occasional clap of distant thunder...
Thunder? In Saudi Arabia? Yes, it's true that it only rains but rarely in the desert -- all the more reason for nature to put on a real first-class show. In seconds, the far-off flickers turned into lightning bolts right over our heads. Then the gale hit us full force. First, the northeastern side of our dome tent bulged inward until it touched the southwestern! Then a ton of water hit us like a tidal wave. Both of us leapt up and pushed back the sail-like wall, which was already soaked through and dripping. I reached through the fabric and grabbed two of the fiberglass poles that had been bent almost to the snapping point. We leaned against the bulge and our combined strength was barely enough to keep the wind from turning over the tent, which, of course, we hadn't pegged to the ground. Dome tents don't need it, right?
For ten minutes we held on, rainwater streaming down our arms. Both flashlights had perversely decided to quit on us, but I could feel what was happening to the floor of the tent: sleeping bags, clothes, books, shortwave radio and cosmetics were all floating in a cold, wet, muddy soup. KRRRACKK! A bolt of lightning exploded an inch from our bedraggled shelter, scaring the daylights out of us, whatever daylights are!
ABANDON SHIP"Abandon ship!" I yelled to Susy. "Grab anything that's worth saving and get it into Ron's car! I'll try to keep us right side up a few minutes more!" Trembling, Susy unzipped the tent door. Outside, the storm was raging. Lightning flashes showed camping gear flying every which way. Ron and Aziz, safely inside the truck, understood our need at once. Ron started the engine and drove closer to the tent, unknowingly squashing the boxes we had stored beneath the Land Rover.
One hour later, four wet cavers and a ton of gooey equipment, all mixed into one great heap, were rolling in the open desert. It was 9:00 PM. Somehow we found our way that dark and wild night across thirty kilometers of rough wasteland and actually came upon the Majma'ah road. After that, we drove in shifts until, bleary-eyed, we pulled into Dhahran at sunrise, Friday morning. The entire Dharb Al Najem adventure had taken place on one very long Thursday, but some of us didn't recover for a full week. And, of course, we realized that the pit we had bottomed couldn't have been the deep hole the geologist had spoken of. What adventures will befall the lucky people who first descend the real Sixteen-Second-Stone-Filled-Pepsi-Can Pit?