Majlis Al Jinn Cave, Oman

 
Text 2010 by J. Pint; Photos
by John Pint unless otherwise indicated


 

 "The idea is to put visitors inside a transparent Viewing Car suspended at the end of a steel cable..."

 


PHOTO GALLERY

The Asterisk Entrance to Majlis Al Jinn Cave, 139.6 meters deep.

 

How best can we make the cave accessible to tourists? Experts debate the question standing on the roof of the cave.

 

Vuggy rock: it soaks up oil like a sponge

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A village not far from the Selma Plateau.

 

Cheryl's Drop  is the deepest known free rappel in Arabia (158 m). It was first entered by Cheryl Jones in March, 1984.

 

John Pint decides to get a haircut at the Oooppsss! Barbershop.


 

 

 
Plans are Afoot to Open Oman's Unique Majlis Al Jinn Cave to Tourism



By John Pint

Photo courtesy of WikipediaRecently, I was given a golden opportunity to visit one of the world’s natural wonders, Majlis al Jinn Cave in Oman: the largest sunlit subterranean chamber in the world, big enough to hold a dozen jumbo jets parked wing to wing or to completely swallow up the Great Pyramid of Giza.

How did I end up in Oman? It all started several months ago with a telephone call that woke me up at 5 AM in Mexico. It also woke my wife Susy, who usually answers the phone. “It’s for you,” she mumbled, to my surprise. “It’s from a man named Siddarth in Oman.”

“I have been looking all over the internet for somebody who knows about desert caves and I keep finding your name,” said a voice with a decidedly Indian lilt.

So it was I became consultant to a group of Canadian architects who are actually from India but who happen to be working in Oman. They needed the help of cave scientists to lay plans for transforming Majlis Al Jinn into a tourist cave and I happened to know just the people who could do that job with ease.

So I began working with Siddarth’s organization to prepare a plan for turning this unique cave into one of the world’s most unusual tourist attractions. They warned me that the Omani government might want to meet with us on short notice, so I kept a suitcase packed and ready to go, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for another one of those 5 AM calls. “John, the board has set a date for our presentation. We’ve booked your flight to Oman and your plane leaves Guadalajara in seven hours.”

Flight to Oman

No sooner did I get on the plane than I began to miss Mexico. I was flying on a U.S. carrier to Houston and once we were in the air, I was handed something which the stewardess assured me was a “sandwich.” Well, I admit the outside of it was shaped like a bun, but it was a “bun” that had both the consistency and taste of dry rubber. I then investigated the inside of it and found two substances which had all the charm and flavor of cardboard. Now I only mention this rubber-and-cardboard sandwich in order to contrast it with the first meal I got on Qatar Airways later in the day, as I sped toward the Middle East. The contents of this meal were actually listed on a beautifully printed menu and, among other things, featured honey-glazed chicken with papaya as one of the main-course choices, served with several choices of French wines (free, of course), with chocolate layer fudge cake for desert. I was served two of these gourmet meals during my eleven-hour flight and the amazing thing was that I was flying economy class. Dare I add that even the complementary chocolate was by Godiva?

Well fed, I landed in Muscat, capital of Oman, at the same time an ancient and modern city of shimmering white buildings and wide roads. Here, craggy, weathered limestone cliffs meet the deep blue waters of the Arabian Sea and here resides the Sultan of Oman, ruler of a large country with a population of only three million nationals plus a modest amount of oil.

Oman Geologist Salim Al Maskery“The Sultan is dedicated to improving the lives of all his subjects,” Omani geologist Salim Al-Maskery told me as we raced down the coastal four-lane expressway toward the cave I needed to visit. “He’s built roads to the most remote corners of the Sultanate, wherever there’s a handful of people to be found,” continued Salim, “and there he installs power lines and builds a school, a clinic and a mosque.”

Only a few hours south of Muscat, we came to just such a road and I could immediately appreciate just how difficult highway engineering must be in Oman. We were at sea level and needed to get up to the top of the Selma Plateau, 1345 meters straight up from the beach. This meant that the two-lane dirt road we were on was—I thought—just about as steep as a road could possibly be. How wrong I was about that!

Up, up, up we went, the wheels of our brand-new 4WD vehicles frequently slipping as the ever-twisting road took us toward our goal. The rocky cliffs on both sides of us were stark and bare, but frequently dotted with cave entrances. As we had spotted numerous outcrops of limestone karst along this rising road, it was hard to say whether those caves are only in the prevailing marly limestone or whether some might be in the harder rock. It looks to me like there are enough caves in this area to keep speleologists busy for a long time.

Countless caves can be seen on the way to the Selma Plateau.



At last we reached the flat top of the Selma Plateau and drove right up to the edge of a huge, gaping black hole. “This is one of the three entrances to Majlis Al Jinn Cave,” announced Salim, “and we have a legend about where these holes came from.”

Wrath of the One-Eyed Genie

The geologist then explained that a woman named Selma supposedly lived here a long, long time ago and somehow or other got on the wrong side of a gigantic, one-eyed Jinn (Genie). Well, Selma decided to run for her life and as she zigzagged across this plateau, the Genie threw several thunderbolts at her. Luckily for Selma, the Genie’s depth perception was pretty awful, having only one eye and all, and three of those lightning bolts went astray, each one of them leaving a humongous scar in the earth.

Of course, only in modern times was it verified that the three holes are, in fact, skylights at the top of a single enormous chamber. On June 23, 1983, American geologist Don Davison Jr. rappelled to the floor of this cave and discovered to his amazement that he was standing in a single room 340 meters long by 228 wide with a 120 meter ceiling. As Davis later wrote (in AramcoWorld Magazine), “The Superdome in New Orleans—with a seating capacity of 97,365—could easily be contained within the cavern's volume, with room for a 1600-car parking lot besides.”

The Entrance to First Drop, 118 meters deep.



But it is not just size that makes this underground chamber unique. Over the years, bigger underground rooms have been found, however, it appears that none of the others feature the spectacular light shows that explorers have witnessed inside this cave in Oman, where beams of sunlight cut through the inky blackness like the legendary bolts of the one-eyed Genie.

I was able to witness this phenomenon many years ago—on a smaller scale—in Saudi Arabia’s Dharb Al Najem Cave which is 100 meters wide and 100 meters high, with a small skylight at the very top. I rappelled down this narrow opening, imagining this would be the size of the cave all the way to the bottom, but a few meters lower, the walls fell away and there I was, suspended like a spider on a thread above a giant chamber, dramatically lit by a single long sunbeam.

It is this unique and unforgettable sensation that the Omanis would like to share with members of the world community. The idea is to put visitors inside a transparent Viewing Car suspended at the end of a steel cable. The car is slowly lowered through the skylight and down into the megachamber. Once on the bottom, visitors could stroll along the walking path, admiring the play of sunbeams streaming into the cave through the skylights and constantly in motion.

Less adventurous visitors could descend a stairway through centrally located Cheryl’s Drop (named after Cheryl Jones, wife of Don Davison and the second person to rappel into the cave) to a viewing platform suspended from the ceiling.

The Easier Road

Near the entrances to the three drops we found dozens of bolts placed there by abseilers from all around the world who came to experience this unique cave. Along with them came Base Jumpers as well and finally the hullaballoo around the cave entrances became so great that the government simply forbade any further descents.

  

After a delicious picnic lunch, we headed for home. “We’ll take a different route on the way back,” announced Salim. “It’s longer, but a much better road.”

Half an hour later we were heading down a track that appeared less and less like a road and more and more like a dry riverbed. Finally it was nothing but a riverbed with a bizarre floor of the vuggiest rock (meaning full of holes) I have ever seen. Salim explained that such rock is ideal for holding oil, “just like a sponge.”



Fortunately, that rough arroyo eventually turned back into a road and we soon passed a little village which was impressively clean. When I asked what the local people live on, I was told that they raise goats, and that, in Oman, one goat might fetch the owner more than 250 Riyals ($649 US).

Now we were climbing and in a few minutes we came to the edge of a cliff with a tremendous view. My GPS said we were 900 meters high but straight down below us we could see the coast of the Arabian Sea. We could also see the road that was going to take us down to the bottom and it was even more vertical than the one we had followed on the way up!



Well, we started creeping down that continually twisting road in 4WD-low and I must admit nowhere in the world had I ever seen a road so steep. Later I sent the above picture to Louise Hose, who wrote back saying she had been down the same road and at a certain point the car she was in had rolled over, stopping just at the edge of the drop …just one more “near death” experience for Louise.

If Majlis Al Jinn is turned into a tourist cave, it will offer visitors the experience of a lifetime, an experience I think neither Disneyland nor Imax could ever hope to duplicate. And if that doesn’t make an impression on them, I guarantee they’ll never forget the incredible roads connecting the beach to the Selma Plateau. Without a doubt, Majlis Al Jinn is surely going to lure tourists to Oman from the farthest corners of the globe.


This is Oman!


 
 
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