Text 2013 by J. Pint; Photos
by their authors, as indicated


Winter Enrichment Program at KAUST

This year's Winter Enrichment Program at King Abudullah University of Science and Technology brought in speakers on all sorts of topics...including caves!

Sigurjon Jonsson of Iceland
Geophysicist Sigurjon Jonsson of Iceland made arrangements for the course on Saudi Caves and the visit to Hibashi Lava Tube (shown on map).

Many KAUST students get around by bicycle.
Many students and professors prefer to get around the KAUST campus by bicycle.

Seawater canal at KAUST
Canal view: It might look like Venice, but it’s Saudi Arabia. Dr. Sigurjon Jonsson at a seawater canal inside KAUST university.

View from KAUST dining hall
View of the sea from inside the dining hall at KAUST.

“My, these ants grow big in Saudi Arabia.” John Pint meets a techno-bug on the KAUST campus

Ready for the Cave!
Ready for the cave!

Evening on the campus
Sunset  at KAUST.

John Pint en route to KAUST
John Pint test-drives a mechanized seat  in Lufthansa's business class: It's something between a barber’s chair, a Transformer Robot and a trash compactor," he claims.



By John Pint

Inside Hibashi Cave: Kneeling, Ibrahim Alabdulmohsin, standing Nabil Masmoudi and...who's that masked girl?In 2009 I heard rumors that a new university had opened its doors in Saudi Arabia. It was said that King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was vibrant, dynamic, staffed by the world’s greatest scientists teaching the world’s most brilliant students, a truly international university which its founder, King Abdullah, Arabia’s reigning monarch, envisioned as “a bridge between people and cultures…and a beacon for peace, hope and reconciliation.”

Naturally I contacted KAUST, suggesting that Saudi Arabia’s caves—many of which are over a million years old—would be ideal natural laboratories for KAUST researchers to carry out projects and, quite likely, discover new species of cave life while uncovering bones and artifacts thousands of years old.

“We’ve barely opened our doors,” replied my KAUST contact, Dr. Sigurjon Jonsson, a geophysicist from Iceland. “Give us a few years to get organized.”

Finally, in 2012, I got the green light. “Come tell us about the caves,” said Sigurjon, “during our Winter Enrichment Program in 2013.” This WEP, I quickly learned, was an annual three-week event in which students could attend presentations on almost any subject by the likes of environmental advocate Philippe Cousteau, Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier and Egyptian archaeologist Zaki Hawass…and, this year, yours truly, giving not only a course, but leading a field trip to a Saudi lava tube as well.

So now, on January 10, 2013, I find myself in the middle of a 30-hour journey from Guadalajara, Mexico to Thuwal, a fishing village on the coast of the Red Seal, amazingly transformed into an enormous university campus which is practically an independent city. KAUST has kindly treated me to business class on Lufthansa Airlines and I am having the time of my life, playing with my mechanized seat, which converts to a “near bed” at the push of a button, but with vibrations, whirrs and clunks suggesting this device is something between a barber’s chair, a Transformer Robot and a trash compactor.

A mere 30 hours later, I am installed in a suite at the university’s guest house. I step out onto my balcony and behold a scene right out of the Arabian Nights: a vast promenade lined with palm trees, a majestic mosque at one end and the glittering Red Sea in the distance. What a place!

View from my balcony

The next morning, jet lag works in my favor, helping me to rise early and off I go to the university dining hall, a ten-minute walk that immediately orientates me to the world in which I have been plunged. Soaring structures of extraordinary architectural beauty rise above me while hundreds of students and professors on bicycles criss-cross my path and shoot past me. This is a new-millennium university—and it’s co-educational: almost as many women as men pass me on their bikes. Posters, billboards and electronic signs remind me that it’s WEP time: Philippe Cousteau will talk about the oceans, historian Sami Nawar will take us on a journey through old Jeddah. I marvel at all this. These students come from China, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and dozens of other countries, including, of course, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

The students are all post-graduates and they came here to specialize in their own careers, but this WEP is exposing them to widely diverse, fascinating subjects well beyond their fields of expertise. This is dangerous. What could happen? KAUST could easily give birth to a new Renaissance Man…and Woman! WEP could turn half these cyclists into Leonardo Da Vincis! My God, this university might even accomplish what King Abdullah says he’s been dreaming about for years: a new birth of scientific enlightenment in the Middle East, a flashback to those fabled times when Arabs gave us Algebra, Alchemy and Astronomy and were the only ones in the world who bothered to preserve the teachings of Aristotle.

I muse on all these things while preparing my course on Limestone and Lava Caves and the Secrets of Cave Photography. I am amazed that around 100 students show up for each of my PowerPoint presentations...

Students taking course on Saudi Arabia's Caves

...I show them beautiful caves decorated with gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, ideal for transformation into tourist caves. I list the many artifacts and bones we have found, including part of a human skull over 4,000 years old. I point out that there are at least 40 unexplored lava tubes located only 300 or so kilometers north of KAUST, many of them up to 25 kilometers in length, housing who knows what treasures placed there by early man 70,000 years ago. I casually mention that no biologist, microbiologist or archaeologist has ever studied these ancient caves, located so close to the very cradle of humanity.

And now it is time for our field trip to Hibashi Cave. “Only 20 students can go,” Sigurjon tells me, “but there are over 100 on the waiting list.”

Hibashi Cave lies 225 kilometers east of Mecca in the middle of a wide, inhospitable lava field. It is probably the most celebrated cave in Saudi Arabia today, as it was placed on the list of the World’s Ten Most Important Lava Caves, due to the abundance of rare minerals found inside it. On top of that, NASA collaborators at MIT are using Hibashi as a model for a Martian lava tube, due to the meter-thick layer of fine, powdery silt covering every inch of its floor. It’s this silt or loess that forced us to limit the number of visitors to twenty-some. No matter how carefully you move, this 5,000-year-old “dust of ages” soon fills the air.

On January 16, the lucky twenty plus a few of us leaders meet after my last course, ready to board our bus to the town of Taif and (tomorrow) Hibashi Cave. Amazingly, our small group represents ten different nations—we are a KAUST in miniature.

The bus appears on time, but, alas, with a window newly smashed by our driver while making a tight turn.

“We’ll have to wait for a new bus,” announces Sigurjon. So we start our journey 90 minutes late, but after an hour on the road, a student shouts from the back of the bus: “Another window is about to fall off!”

Awaliv Hotel in Taif - Photo by Sigurjon JonssonAh yes, no matter what sophisticated project you launch, whether in Saudi Arabia or Mexico, somewhere deep in the infrastructure you just might run into primitive conditions which—as in this case—usually respond well to primitive solutions. “Somebody hand me the duct tape!” shouts Sigurjon as he climbs on top of a land cruiser our driver has dangerously parked next to the bus, right in a lane of fast-moving traffic.

As usual, duct tape saves the day, and in a few hours we are in Taif, relaxing in the stunning Awaliv Hotel, where, the next morning, we watch the sunrise from a revolving restaurant on the 29th floor. What a view!

Our bus has been replaced by a third one with all of its windows intact. We speed east through wide expanses of flat, volcanic rubble toward a spot on the road where six land cruisers are waiting to transport us over ten kilometers of rough, sandy tracks heading every which way through tire-eating lava. I can only hope that the track I recorded on my GPS nine years ago will actually bring us to Hibashi Cave.

Suddenly there is a round of applause as our Bedu driver pulls up next to a great, black gaping maw 14 meters wide. Hibashi Cave at last!

Entrance to Hibashi Lava Tube
Sigurjon passes out helmets, lights and face masks and soon we are all 26 meters beneath the surface inside a passage darker than the darkest night, decorated with lava stalactites and stalagmites and filled with animal and human bones carried into the cave over the ages by hyenas, wolves and foxes. The students have all chosen projects to carry out underground, such as measuring the depth of the silt and collecting samples of the cave’s soil, dove and bat guano and thousands of perfectly preserved coprolites scattered throughout the cave’s 581 meters of passages. To see  photos of these enthusiastic young explorers in awesome Hibashi Cave, just amble over to
KAUST Students Explore Hibashi Cave.

To my great relief, a head count proves we have left no one inside the cave and after a tasty meal of chicken kabsa, we begin the long drive back to Jeddah and Thuwal.

Philippe Cousteau talks about oceansTwo nights later, Philippe Cousteau, who was raised by his grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, addresses a packed auditorium at KAUST. He tells us about the “osteoporosis of the oceans,” the result of carbon being absorbed by sea water, spelling doom for shellfish, and he discusses successful solutions to oceanic problems, such as Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo, which he calls “the best-managed Marine Protection Area in the world.” And Cousteau also has a word to say about KAUST, which invited him—and me, too—to participate in its Winter Enrichment Program: “What an absolutely spectacular place!” he says. “KAUST is a hotbed of ideas and potential.”

I can only echo those words. King Abdullah’s dream seems to be turning into reality.

KAUST is located a one-hour's drive north of Jeddah

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