By John Pint, Dave Peters and Susy Pint *
Dahl is the bedouin word for a hole in the ground that’s worth remembering. The majority of such holes are useful to the bedouin as landmarks in an otherwise featureless desert or as natural garbage disposal units for decomposing sheep carcasses. A few provide access to water, and in bygone days finding them was a matter of life and death.
A small number of dahls are shown on the common bookshop map of Saudi Arabia, but only when we stumbled upon a faded, 20-year-old Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) map did we notice the unusual concentration of dahls around a tiny village on a desolate plain near the edge of the Dahna Desert. Its name was Ma’aqala.
On paper, Ma’aqala looked like a caver’s dream, and I made several unsuccessful attempts to reach it before teaming up with Dave Peters, a biologist with an amazing talent for finding lost civilizations and cavers’ paradises. One blistering day in April of 1983, we decided to “find Ma’aqala or bust”...
The Search For Ma’aqala
With a five-gallon desert waterbag sloshing behind, and a cooler full of non-alcoholic beer sloshing within, our Land Cruiser roared up the beautiful new divided highway leading to the old TransArabian Pipeline (TAP) road 150 km northwest of us. By the time we reached the unpaved town of Na’ariya, it was time to have dinner...
In most parts of the world, travelers are used to stopping at roadside restaurants. I wasn’t. It was my first such experience in almost two years of living in Arabia. The reason, of course, was that there had always been one or more women in the party, and, back in those days, anyone introducing a woman into so public a place as a truck stop would have been in danger of losing more than his Diner’s Card! (I’m happy to add that years later a network of good restaurant-motels –for the whole family -- was set up all over the country.)
We stepped inside. Instead of oriental rugs and plush pillows on the floor, there were bare tables and chairs. But the walls were plastered with the gaudiest, floweriest wallpaper a trucker could desire. In a nook at the left, we found a small sink with a bar of soap and a box of Tide. “They use the Tide for washing out their mouths after eating,” Dave explained, but I couldn’t believe it until I actually witnessed several hearty bedouin truckers working up a mouthful of suds. Fortunately, as foreigners, we were able to avoid participation in this blend of an ancient custom and a modern detergent.
Dave informed me that a menu would not be necessary. Truck stops served more or less the same thing all year round. “Kabsa d’zhuzh!” he shouted to the waiter, pointing, for my sake, to the plates of steaming hot saffron-flavored rice that everyone else was enjoying. On top of each heap of rice, there was either a whole or a half chicken. If you don’t specify nusf, you get a whole one just for you!
We sat down at one of the long tables and asked for shai which is heavily sweetened tea. Water or Pepsi were the only other choices. Then we dug into our kabsa, literally, our fingers doing the work of spoon, fork and knife. Dave had already developed an “asbestos hand” and, in five or six squeezes transformed a handful of the not-so-sticky yellow rice into a lumpy wad which could be daintily tossed into the mouth. I quickly learned to sit on my left hand to keep it out of action while struggling with my right.
Amazingly, all the parallel tracks got back together every time the terrain grew difficult. This phenomenon is called a kula wahed or all-is-one road. After a while you learn to distinguish the many versions of the main drag from similar roads leading elsewhere.
We continued southwest, through a broken escarpment rich in bright, earthy colors. Soon it was evident that whatever we were following was not the track on our map! Hours later, it took a mysterious jog to the north, and we began to feel a bit concerned. Fortunately, we had just spotted a bedouin tent in the distance, so we decided to seek assistance.
It was a classical camel-and-goathair tent and all the side panels were up. We approached slowly, to allow the womenfolk time to hide. Our salaam aleicum was answered in kind by the master of the house, who, with a gesture, invited us to enjoy the cool breeze and shade of his tent. So we sat down upon a soft, handwoven rug, dipping pieces of flat Arab bread into a butterlike liquid he called saman, and discussing the road ahead.
The Emir of Ma’aqala
The first thing we did was to present our credentials to the local Emir (excellent preventive medicine against an unexpected weekend in jail). The Emir was a distinguished, wise-looking man. He wore the same simple dress that all inhabitants of Arabia—rich and poor—have worn since Mohammed taught them the vanity and divisiveness of ostentatious garb. His spotless white, long-sleeved thobe reached almost to the ground. His head was covered with the triangularly-folded square of white cloth that protects the wearer from cold, heat and stinging sand. This is held in place by a loop of black rope, twisted into a figure-8 and folded over on itself. His sandals, too, were the ideal thing for desert living. Try climbing a sand dune wearing anything else, and you’ll soon see why!
The Emir sat us down on the thick carpet of his living-room/office and offered us tea while he and the elders of Ma’aqala carefully inspected our documents. Once they were satisfied, we cautiously produced a photograph of a typical dahl entrance. Were such places to be found around Ma’aqala?
“Na’am” (yes), replied the Emir. Such places did exist.
“Kwais” (great!), we said in our halting Gulf Arabic. Could we visit a nearby one called Dahl Abu Tuqqah, before the sun goes down?”
“But there is no water in it,” said the Emir.
“Kwais!” we replied.
Thinking we had misunderstood, the Emir again pointed out its lack of water, When we enthusiastically reaffirmed our desire to see that dry hole, he and all the others gave us a look that said: these are odd men indeed, that would go to visit a well without water. But, in the rapidly descending twilight, we were herded into a pickup and driven two kilometers to Abu Tuqqah, a small hole less than one meter in diameter, in quite solid limestone.
We removed the oil drum blocking the entrance and peered inside. We could see a floor about 25 feet below. Though he was wearing sandals, Dave began to climb down. “No! No!” shouted our companions, “you will die if you go inside!”
That was one who-knows-how-ancient myth that we quickly disproved, for the pit was easy to climb, and at the bottom we made a discovery that reimbursed us a hundredfold for those months spent searching for Ma’aqala. There were two horizontal passageways leading straight back into the darkness and one of them was blowing!
We were dying to explore these passages, and the Emir was insisting we stay the night, but we had already used up 24 hours of the Thursday-Friday weekend, and there was no way we’d be back in our classrooms Saturday morning if we didn’t leave immediately.
Wondering at the incomprehensible foreigners who had driven over 450 km of bone-joggling desert just to spend 20 minutes in a dry well, our hosts bid us ma’a as-salama, and thus ended our first visit to what would become the richest caving grounds in all Arabia.
Saved By Seestair
The following winter we decided to dedicate our entire mid-semester vacation to exploring the caves of Ma’aqala. This time we tried an approach from the south, along an ARAMCO rig road that led us to an enormous derrick surrounded by a “portable town” swarming with oil men. From there we four-wheeled it across the desert. Bouncing over sandy hummocks called dikaka mixed our food with our equipment as efficiently as a washing machine, and the prickly rock near Ma’aqala tried to make mincemeat of our tires. By the time we reached the Emir’s house, we were ready to drop, and gladly accepted his invitation to stay the night. We were elated that our new but tortuous route had taken only eight hours instead of 24!
We had been somewhat taken aback when the Emir first greeted us. He was much slimmer and younger than he had been eight months earlier! In fact, he was a different man altogether, the son of the Emir who had previously befriended us. This meant many hours of scrutinizing our documents, drinking tea, asking questions, drinking tea, conferring with the elders, drinking tea, going off to pray and more drinking tea. We would, in fact, probably have drowned, if my wife, Susy, had not been along.
A woman, of course, does not sit in the same room with a group of men. Susy, therefore, had been shuttled off to the harem. We had to drive her to a side door where, wrapped in her black abaya, she had been utterly swallowed up. Unbeknownst to us, she had quickly become the focal point of entertainment for the Emir’s wife and the other women, as she laughed, joked and danced for them. Unlike the men, the women soon dispensed with all formalities and renamed Susy “Seestair,” one of the few “English” words they knew. Eventually, news of her exploits reached the Emir’s ear. If Seestair was such a hit, those two dry-well explorers escorting her might have to be humored after all.
The next morning, after a breakfast of omelettes, olives, cream and cheese, we found ourselves once again in front of the electric heater, still sipping tea and waiting for something to happen. By now the children were getting used to our strange faces and ways. They were the only ones that could freely move back and forth between the men’s part of the house and the women’s. “Are you Muslims?” asked one little boy wearing a light grey winter thobe. “No, we’re Christians,” we answered, not at all thrilled to be drawn into such a delicate topic. “Why aren’t you Muslims?” asked the boy innocently, and we stared at each other, wondering how we were going to get out of this one with our Me-John-You-Abdullah command of Arabic. The boy’s older brother came to our rescue and proved to be wiser than his years: “They might just as well ask you why you’re not a Christian,” he told the little one. With smiles of relief, we then steered the conversation to more mundane subjects.
The best English speaker among the natives of Ma’aqala was an old man with a grey beard and a sparkle in his eye. He had worked for ARAMCO years before and had acquired a colorful, if not always practical vocabulary. His favorite expression was “Shut yer mouth!” which he always pronounced with an endearing smile. Sultan was his name (not his title) and he was the one the Emir finally appointed as our guide.
Many, Many Dahls!
Sultan first aimed us in a southerly direction, along a series of dusty trails that would eventually lead us to a hole called Dahl Hashami. Within a few minutes of leaving Ma’aqala, we spotted five very promising caves which, Sultan informed us, were mere nothings. “I’ll show you where there are many, many more!” And, in fact, not many minutes later, we came upon a place which could only be called the Plain of Many Pits. Here one could scarcely walk 50 ft without falling into a hole ranging from one-half to three meters across. “Wajid duhul! (Many dahls!) Wajid! Wajid!” Sultan repeated again and again. Although we had the impression that none of these was deeper than 10 m, we were overwhelmed by their number. The whole area was, in fact, much like a giant piece of Swiss Cheese!
Suddenly Sultan announced we had come to Abu Hashami. It was obviously different from anything we had seen previously. For one thing, it was too deep for us to see bottom from its two large (three meters each) openings connected by a kind of natural bridge. Sultan explained that this had once been a famous well, but was now dry. He then showed us a set of grooves that had been made by ropes raising water from the well. Although the rim was solid limestone, some of the grooves were deeper than two inches! We wondered how many years or centuries had been required to produce them, and decided that Abu Hashami, and whatever lay at its bottom, would definitely merit a return visit.
Now we were racing northwest, with a long series of sand dunes on our left and flatland, low hills and scrub on our right. Soon we were speeding back the other way. Sultan was having problems locating Dahl Abu Marwah, which was not surprising, since most dahls are invisible 10 ft away. After a bit of aimless wandering, we stopped near the base of the dunes. There wasn’t a cave to be seen anywhere. “Abu Marwah hallas! (finished)” announced Sultan, spreading his arms to indicate that the cave was completely buried under the sand. This we found hard to believe, and, in fact, a few minutes later Dave drove to a low spot surrounded by shrubs, and there in the middle were two smallish holes. “Abu Marwah! This Abu Marwah!” cried Sultan.
Only much year later did we discover the Abu Marwah that Sultan had been looking for: a large collapse some 35 meters in diameter, which, unfortunately, doesn’t have much in the way of cave passages.
Eventually, we brought Sultan back to Ma’aqala, picked up Susy from the Emir’s house, and set up camp in the little wadi at Abu Marwah #2, which immediately became “The Foxhole” due to the tracks we found at its sandy bottom, eight meters below.
The Foxhole, the Pigeonhole and several others we casually discovered while playing Frisbee, turned out to have horizontal passages, every one of which was filled with red sand from the nearby Dahna Desert. We decided to call such cavers’ disappointments “sand sumps.”
One cool and pleasant evening, I strolled out of our campsite towards the wide gravel plain that formed our southeast horizon. On my right was the silhouette of an irq, a long “finger” of dunes topped with whipped-cream curlicues, off to the left, a gentle rise made of sandy marl, and straight ahead a perfectly flat, featureless plateau -- featureless with one exception...
Why there was a meter-high bush growing there and nowhere else, I can’t imagine, but I gravitated towards it because the plainest things become intriguing when there is nothing else to look at. It was only 100 m from our tent, and I was almost there when I nearly stepped in a small hole, barely larger than a dinner plate. A 10-inch-wide hole is hardly worth noticing in a place where you discover cave entrances by playing Frisbee, but years of caving have created in me a natural impulse to drop pebbles down anything whose bottom I can’t see. As I leaned over to do this, a stream of air bathed my face. Within seconds, my glasses were fogged. Not only that, my pebble had quietly disappeared into inky blackness. A hole blowing moist air... too bad it was too small to squeeze through... or was it?
The room was seven meters in diameter and—alhamdullilah!—did not have the sandy bottom that characterized all the other pits we had explored. On one wall we found a shelf, with a long, low passage behind it. We crawled along inside it for several meters until it became too tight for us to fit. In this passage we found the complete skeleton of a fox and speculated whether it had reached this new cave from The Foxhole nearby. But no air was blowing from this passage, so we went back to the entrance room and moved along the rough, irregular walls, searching for a breeze and a way out. There was a crack on the south side of the room and a blast of air greeted us as we approached it...our hearts began to beat!
Dave squeezed through the narrow opening, which was almost as tight as the entrance hole above. “It goes!” he shouted a moment later, and I joined him in a wide space approximately 11 m below the surface. There was an opening to the left and another to the right. We went right, squeezed under a low ledge and carefully stood up. We were in a rather large room, maybe four meters high. Grotesque, twisting “arms” of rock reached toward us from every direction. One of these even had what seemed like a hand at the end of it and eventually this room became the Hand Room ...not the most original name, but, after all, we were newcomers at this!
The beams of our flashlights revealed what looked like another passage at the far end of the room. “We’ve got ourselves a real cave!” shouted Dave and we shook grimy hands, slapped each other on the back and wished for a bottle of champagne, not only to celebrate, but also to quench our thirst, for it was exceedingly warm and humid in that room and we suspected that we were only at the beginning of the tour.
The more we looked around this room, the more we saw. On one wall there was a cascade of white flowstone, dripping with stalactites. In a little niche we discovered a collection of pure white curlicues that looked as if they had just been squeezed from a toothpaste tube: gypsum flowers! And just above the foot-high entrance, I noticed an oval-shaped object attached to the wall.
The First Real Cave
Stalactites! Gypsum flowers! Flowstone! Our heads were spinning, for the few existing articles on Saudi caves stated that such things had never been found, and these were backed up by the findings of geologists at the University of Petroleum and Minerals and ARAMCO as well as pioneer cavers like Bruce and Anna Davis and Will Kochinsky. But now we had abundant proof that the caves of Saudi Arabia contain more than weathered popcorn, which, up until this moment, had been the most spectacular decoration anyone had encountered. There was plenty of that here, too, but we hardly noticed it as we moved back to the entrance to tell Susy the good news.
The next day our little hole was “really blowing” according to my logbook...
Merely A Toilet
When we reached the Beach Room, I turned my attention to taking more photos of our most stupendous discovery, while Dave and Henri checked out some of the leads. In the meantime, Susy wandered about admiring the room’s many treasures. This was, after all, her very first experience as a “vertical” caver!
The Tunnel Room was then dwarfed by the Banana Room and hundreds of meters of passages beyond it, passages adorned with bizarre stalagmites, and weird formations like the eerie Fickle Finger of Fate which points to a frozen whirlpool of mud, strongly suggesting another level below the present system...
By May, 1985, over 600 m of passage had been explored, with countless leads still to be checked, and no end in sight. But for all we know, the entire area we mapped may someday turn out to be, like the Beach Room, “merely a toilet.”
* © 2005 by John and Susy Pint and Dave Peters. This article originally appeared in the September 1985 NSS News. Our thanks to the National Speleological Society for allowing us to reproduce it here. Parts of this article were first published in The Explorer, official publication of the Southern California Grotto of the National Speleological Society.