The GPS:

Friend or Foe of Desert Caves?

What can it do for you?

Should you get one?

By John Pint

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I discovered that the GPS has both a bright side and a dark side and even though the device has evolved over the years, it continues to be a source of both good and evil for this little old planet of ours.

In Arabia, I spend many years looking for and exploring caves in the desert. Yes, there actually is limestone underneath many of those famous sand dunes, with marvelous labyrinthine passages filled with shimmering stalactites, sparkling crystals and caches of bones thousands of years old. Just click on the Reports button, if you don’t believe me!

The entrances to many of these cave systems, however, were often small holes only 50 centimeters around and relocating one of these holes in a “featureless” (to everyone but a Bedu) desert, was like trying to find a bread crumb in a sandbox. You could literally be standing three meters from the entrance to a major Saudi cave and not see it at all. If you want to know just how difficult it was to get around in the desert in the past, see The Joy and Terror of Caving in Arabia in the Early Days.
Susy Pint in the entrance to Surprise Cave...not so easy to find without a GPS.

But along came the GPS, a navigation device that receives signals from the Global Positioning Satellites originally put in place by the U.S. military for their own purposes. At first they deliberately distorted the signals so the accuracy of the thing was limited to 100 meters—only if you were a civilian, of course. What this meant was that in the desert, we often had to drive back and forth across a 200-meter-wide circle in order to find our cave—but we did it without complaint.

Then, in May of 2000, the U.S. Armed Forces reluctantly turned off their “fudging machine” and GPS units all over the world were suddenly accurate to within about three meters. What used to take days before the GPS now took minutes: it was incredible!

Only much later did we discover the evil Jinn that lives inside the GPS. People would go out in the desert, discover some marvel like a half-buried mammoth tusk, an area full of sharks’ teeth or a cave full of delicate formations and the next day they’d email the coordinates to their friends—all of them nature-lovers, of course. Emails, however are soooo easy to forward and eventually the coordinates would reach The Bad Apple…or maybe in Arabia we should call him The Rotten Date, and this individual would forward that email to his less-ecologically oriented friends, maybe the kind of people capable of breaking off and carting away every last stalactite in a cave or covering the walls with graffiti.


What Hath the GPS Wrought in Saudi Caves?

With little help from the GPS and the availability of free GPS androids apps such as GPS Navigation & Maps Sygic and My location GPS Maps apk , certain individuals have managed to wreak havoc even in remote and isolated caves. The walls of previously virgin Dahl Sultan have been sprayed with graffiti. Many of the delicate and awe-inspiring stalactites of Surprise Cave—thought to be one million years old—have been broken off and carried away. Human skulls and ancient artifacts have been stolen from Murubbeh (Shawiah) Cave, never to be seen again. Obviously, it’s not the fault of the GPS that this has happened, but of the human beings who use it. Like so many of the world’s problems, this one is caused by a lack of awareness. We hope that education may help provide a solution and that’s why you’ll find articles like this one on


Mahmoud Al-Shanti shows broken stalactites in Surprise Cave

John Pint trying to wish away the graffiti in Murubbeh (Shawiah) Cave. Photo P. Forti.

One of two human skulls later stolen from Murubbeh Cave, almost certainly with the help of a GPS.


Should I Buy a GPS?

Assuming that you are not a cave vandal, let me share what I know about whether or not you should buy a GPS.

Let’s say you are a person who enjoys hiking off the beaten track, as I do. First of all, the main benefit of a GPS made for hikers is, in my opinion, that it automatically records every step you take. So, if a local guide takes you along a convoluted route to a heavenly swimming hole in the middle of a chaotic lava field, you’ll be able to go back there on your own next week or five years later. You just have the GPS save this “track” and pass it to your computer for future use. The automatic recording is also useful if you happen to get lost. You just turn on the “trackback” feature of your GPS and it will faithfully lead you back to your car or wherever you came from.

These features are found in small units about the size of a cell phone, made for hikers and boaters, such as the different models of the Garmin Etrex. Most of these models now feature “high sensitivity” (HC in Garminese), meaning they work quite well under tree cover or inside cars.

On the downside of the many hikers’ GPS’s made by Garmin and other companies, is that every one I’ve ever seen is so user-unfriendly that you really have to put in time to figure the thing out. Like so many modern electronic marvels, these gizmos were designed by nerds for nerds and they just can’t resist giving you 10,000 options you really don’t need.

Conclusion: if you like to wander about in the boonies, you’ll get a lot of benefit out of a hiker’s GPS, but if you’re the kind of person who needs to ask someone else to put a new entry into your mobile phone’s address book, forget it. Otherwise, go out and get yourself an Etrex (with HC, of course). You shouldn’t have to spend much more than US $100 for one.

Umm Jirsan Cave, lost deep inside Harrat Khaybar Lava Field. Without a GPS, we'd have a hard time finding it.

The Talking GPS
Now let’s talk about the “car GPS.” Unlike those mentioned above, it is designed to be super user-friendly and to do everything automatically. It has a big, full-color screen, talks to you in a variety of voices and accents and costs just a little more than a hiker’s GPS. These babies are made to be used on streets and established roads and they talk you to your destination most efficiently. My travelling-musician brother[link], William Pint swears by his TomTom for navigating the streets of London or finding his next venue in large and small towns across the USA and Canada. “TomTom is the easiest, most reliable GPS I've ever used,” he says. It has been dead-on accurate, simple, elegant and a pleasure to use.” I must add that even my computer-allergic sister Ruth easily reaches destinations in Denver and all around Colorado guided by her smooth-talking TomTom.

On the downside, these talkative marvels are not designed for hikers wandering along a cow path in the mountains of Mexico (I tried). Nor should their authoritative-sounding directions be trusted in situations where a mistake could be fatal.

A case in point is the tale of John and Starry Rhoads, an Oregon couple in their 60’s, who, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail, spent three days stuck in the woods when their talking GPS directed them down a remote forest road on Christmas day, 2009. The friendly female voice of their car GPS led them 40 kilometers along an unmaintained road in a wildlife refuge until they got totally bogged down in snow. Garmin, which manufactured their unit, later released a statement reminding customers that “directions offered by the device are only suggestions.” The Rhoads were more fortunate than a British woman who drove her $200,000 Mercedes into a river while following GPS directions. According to the Globe and Mail, she was pulled from the car before it was swept away.

In spite of all this, the GPS is not only here to stay, it is—like the Internet and Google Earth—destined to creep into every nook and cranny of your life and will in short order be incorporated into your wristwatch, your cell phone and probably your belt buckle. Getting lost will be a thing of the past…and who knows? Once you have that GPS, you may even decide to join Mohammad Al-Fares for geocaching in the desert!