Something is breathing beneath the Nafud Desert

© 2005 by John and Susy Pint -- Updated September, 2013



THAT'S NO HOT AIR  - Mahmoud Alshanti harnesses the  powerful (and cool) airflow of the Munbateh blowhole.. 





On our last visit to the caves of Habikah in Northern Saudi Arabia, a soldier had led us to a small, strongly blowing hole which we hoped might be connected to a vast cave beneath the desert.

 On May 13, 2001, a small team set out to have a good look at the Munbateh blowhole and possibly penetrate its secrets. Mahmoud Alshanti and I were joined by Susy Pint, who would be heading out to the desert for the first time since her return to Arabia.

We drove from Ar Ar to the little village of Abu Ruath and from there due south to Munbateh. The tracks were not quite as "kula wahed" (All going the same way) as Mahmoud imagined and we frequently found ourselves with no track at all. But this just increased our chances of finding spiny-tailed lizards, known as dhubbs...

Every time we found a dhubb, we had to slam on the brakes and run out to catch the unlucky beasts. Susy declared that this is more of a machismo rite than anything else and I suspect she is right. At any rate, as we drove along, two captured dhubbs were unceremoniously tossed into the back of the Land Cruiser where they immediately disappeared under all the camping and caving gear. As we drove along, more than once I imagined I could feel the hot breath of a dhubb on the back of my neck and I fully expected to have an ear nipped off before the end of the ride.  

As evening approached, we arrived at Munbateh. The blowhole is located at one end of a shelter cave in a depression about two meters deep in a flat area offering absolutely no shade. As soon as we had arrived, set up camp and tied up the dhubbs, we went to see if the hole was still blowing cold air. Well, it was doing a better job than most floor fans but we had no sooner entered the shelter cave when we got thoroughly distracted by a little creature we found sitting there enjoying the natural "AC." It was a young hedgehog (gonfud, in Arabic) which immediately rolled up into a prickly ball about the size of an apple. After a while, however, we saw a tiny nose peek out and soon small, delicate paws appeared which looked like tiny hands. Soon Mahmoud had tempted the little guy to munch on bread crumbs and it seemed happy to receive endless attention from Susy who rated it five stars for cuteness.


This Cave Sucks

After a delicious meal prepared by our driver Hamadi, we put Gonfud (as we called him from then on) into a box and hit the sack. The temperature was pleasant and the place was dead quiet. However, at three AM that morning a powerful wind suddenly hit our tents, causing an uproar of flapping and shaking. After half an hour it stopped. Since I was now awake, I got up to have a look at the cave entrance as I had my doubts about the Bedouins' claim that "It always blows." On my way to the hole, I spotted Gonfud's box. It had been turned over by the wind and the little hedgehog was gone. I continued to the cave entrance and discovered that the hole was now sucking air, more noisily than when it was blowing. In other caves, this in and out movement has always indicated a large space containing air under more or less pressure than on the surface.  Since Dahl Sultan does the same, but maybe only a tenth as strongly, I figured we could find passages below at least ten times longer than Sultan's. The discovery that Munbateh is another of these "breathing" holes may add weight to this hypothesis.

Then I shone my light around the shelter cave next to the blowhole and what did I spy but little Gonfud, peacefully sleeping on a tiny ledge 'way in the back while just nearby him frolicked a really beautiful, fat, light brown country mouse who wasn't at all bothered by my light. I clambered up the slope and was stopped dead in my tracks by a loud hiss coming from right in front of me. I had forgotten all about the dhubb Mahmoud had tied there (the other one had already escaped) but the dhubb had obviously  not forgotten about me!

I went back to bed and dreamed a dream in which we three explorers were wearing ski masks and goggles, crawling forward against a mighty wind. The tight crawlway we were in twisted and turned and brought us to an opening at the top of a vast chamber dripping with stalactites, giant shields and rippling flowstone. It looked a lot like Lebanon’s famous Jeita Caverns. Off in the distance a deep river could be seen (somehow I knew it contained pleasantly warm water) and beyond stretched passageways that continued forever.


Through the Blowhole

The reality turned out a bit different. After breakfast I crawled into the blowhole -- no ski mask or goggles required...

...Inside, I found a smooth, slippery downsloping tube which led to a vertical drop over a room only a few meters below. We ran a rope from the car, through the tube and down into the lower room. Then Mahmoud and I rappelled in...

As you can see from my hair, the hole was blowing when this picture was taken... 

A rectangular-shaped room lay below, filled with great chunks of breakdown from end to end. The entrance tube and the area just below it were covered with white flowstone, but elsewhere there were precious few formations to be seen. A  layer of white powder about a centimeter thick covered most surfaces in the room. Without a doubt, we were the first people ever to step into that place and disturb the fine powder, which appeared to be gypsum. However, we felt very little satisfaction over this privilege because the whole scene looked more like the aftermath of an earthquake than the entrance to a grandoise cave.

Mahmoud entering the Powder Room. Taken with a point-and-shoot camera that didn't want to focus on the right spot (Mahmoud's nose, of course).




Indeed, we had to be extremely careful negotiating our way among the jagged, precariously balanced rocks in search of passages leading out of the room. This investigation was not helped at all by the fact that the airflow had slowed down to zero. It was the moment of transition  between sucking and blowing and it left us with no way to locate a possible connection between this room and the elaborate cave system that might lie beyond. Tight crawlways we did find, at all four corners of the cave, but they had the look of fragile cracks, not smooth, friendly cave passages and neither Mahmoud nor I felt enthusiastic about wriggling into such unstable looking places. Maybe if we had felt a strong breeze from one of the holes, we would have chanced it, but both of us were uncomfortable with this Powder Room and we advised Susy not to bother coming down. After taking a few measurements, we returned to the surface, sorely disappointed, I must admit.

However, we still had several options available to us in our search for the Big One. On our way to Munbateh we had spotted and taken the coordinates for a hole with a nice cool airflow. It looked like an easy, horizontal cave and was located just a few kilometers away, so off we went to check it out.

The Star Gate Beckons

Mahmoud had named it Kahf Al Najimah (Star Cave). The small entrance hole opens onto a very wide room with a low ceiling, just low enough so you can rarely stand up and therefore irksome. Moreover, the dank air reeked with the musky smell of animals...

"There are wolves in here," declared Mahmoud as if there could be no doubt. It was definitely a creepy place and it took some gumption to forge ahead. After a few steps, we spotted fox tracks and then near some very old-looking stalactites and columns, we came upon a pile of bones which looked like they'd been recently gnawed on. About 40 meters inside, we found huge slabs of breakdown which reminded us of those in Munbateh's Powder Room. Among these there was a great slab of rock that seemed to be balanced on its side, held up by a fragile finger of stone. It looked like all we had to do was kick away the prop and have 20 tons of rock fall on us.

On the left, one of the two entrance holes to Star Cave. On the right, you can see Mahmoud among some old columns in the cave, attempting to defy the laws of nature. You never should have eaten that candy bar, Mahmoud!


At the back of this room, we found a sort of doorway. Cold air was literally roaring out of it, much stronger than at Munbateh. We were amazed. Since this opening is maybe eight times bigger than Munbateh's, it gets the medal for strongest-blowing hole in Arabia (so far). I looked into this doorway and found a large rock resting atop a deep fissure. Near me, the fissure was only about a foot wide, but it grew progressively wider in the distance, so much so that chimneying would be impractical and dangerous. At a distance of less than ten meters, the fissure seemed to end at a hole heading straight down. I was sure this was the doorway to my dream cave, but how could I proceed without the risk of falling into the crack? Even if I were belayed, I could end up stuck down in the fissure. Now I am sure a rock-climber could negotiate this tricky bit, but less talented folks (like me) would need a traverse line. Once again, I came to the conclusion that what we needed were bolts or pitons but, of course, we had none because never before in Saudi Arabia had we encountered a rigging situation we couldn't solve with a rope tied to our car. Just standing at the Star Gate, staring into that passage, I got so cold I began to shivver, so we went out to get survey gear, realizing this was an important find, and we mapped all of Star Cave that we could.

With Susy Pint eyeballing on the sideline, Mahmoud is lining up the Disto with the surface. It's the second time we've used this handy digital measuring device for cave surveying. This gizmo makes it a snap to take up, down, left and right measurements at every station in a matter of seconds.


The Ruins of Kfaitan


At this point Khalid Otaibi, our soldier guide, showed up and we went with him to have a look at the huge dahl at Kfaitan. This hole is only 28 meters deep but it's almost perfectly round and one of the most impressive pits in the country. This one, at least, should be easy to rig. Just near the dahl are the ruins of a village abandoned within the last 100 years. Here we found many "water wells" according to Khalid, who believed they were used to catch channeled rain water. He says there are over 40 of these in the area. To Susy and me, they appear to be entrances to a qanat, an underground aqueduct often used in the Middle East. This technology was eventually carried to the new world by the Spaniards. See Qanat La Venta under Reports at 

The round holes at Kfaitan are spaced 11 to 12 meters apart, just as in the qanat we found in Mexico and many are in a perfectly straight line. Heaps of dried mud alongside them hint that the qanat got silted up and maybe that is what finished off the community that once lived here.

Each person in the picture is standing above a hole penetrating the hard limestone.

It would be interesting to know what an archaeologist or a historian would have to say about this place. After looking around, we returned to camp and had fun playing with Gonfud the hedgehog.

Wild Winds of the North

During the night, the wind picked up and steadily grew stronger, straining our tents to their limits. "My tent was practically flat and one wall was right on top of my nose all night long," complained Mahmoud, who got no sleep at all. Meanwhile, with earplugs and eyeshades in place, I slept like a baby, not realizing that Susy had been battling the tent wall, like Mahmoud, all through the night. I owe you one, Susy!

Next morning we noticed that the Munbateh hole was blowing much more strongly, apparently due to the wind whistling outside (moving air probably creates a vacuum over a depression.) The combination of strong wind and burning sun left us no choice but to prepare breakfast inside the shelter cave. While we worked on this, we also attempted to measure the strength of the airflow from the blowhole, which shifted from sucking to blowing while we were breakfasting. Dahl Sultan, we figured, had the force to lift a Kleenex but probably not a ghoutra (head cloth). Munbateh, we soon discovered, could support a whole box of Kleenex, unopened, and in fact, we couldn't get the box to fall into the hole for anything. Soon we had a variety of small objects bouncing around in the stream of air. This, however, we judged to be an "abnormally strong" state, influenced by the strong surface wind or possibly a momentary low pressure zone in the area. To calculate cave volume by airflow, one would surely have to factor in the changes affecting air pressure on the surface.


We still had one last chance to find our Big One. After breakfast, we traveled a whole 300 meters over to the Munbateh Fissure, which also blows cold air with gusto. This crack is about 12 meters deep. I rappelled down only about four meters to a spot where the crack is too narrow to permit passage. Just one meter over to the side, the space is wider, but once again we were stymied by the need to put a bolt there to allow us to move the rope over to the right side. Without a deviation of some sort, you would come back up the rope to a crack you couldn't fit through. So we derigged, broke camp and headed back towards Ar Ar. But our exploring was not quite finished...


The Secret of Kahf al Makr

Khalid Otaibi had given us a set of cave locations found by a friend of his and one of these just happened to be right along our route. Its name is Kahf Al Makr, which means Clever Cave and it turned out to be quite interesting..

Susy preparing to climb down to the first level.

 Not so clever was a message on the wall just above the two-meter entrance drop. The sprayed writing proclaimed that "There is gold in this cave." This marks the first time in Saudi Arabia that I've seen signs of treasure hunters in action.  

We attached a cable ladder to the car and climbed down to the first level of the cave, a horizontal passage which had an area covered with smooth, white gypsum and off to one side a people-sized hole leading to a lower floor, again about two meters below. Here we found a passage going both ways. In one direction, we came to a pool of water several meters in diameter. We've not seen anything similar in the Ma'aqala-Shawiah area, but  in the book Out in the Blue, Tom Barger indicates that as recently as the 1930s bedus in that area could find pockets of water just like this. Deep rope grooves in pits like Dahl Hashami suggest that standing water could be found there over a long period of time, whereas today, the most you could hope to see would be a tiny puddle such as the one Dave Peters found at the end of Hashami's horizontal passage. It will be interesting to see how many dahls of the far north contain pockets of water.


The water in Makr is at least a meter deep and it appears we were looking down through a hole into a much wider pool. The situation needs to be investigated, because if this pool extends for a great distance, it could be a useful resource and a “treasure” indeed...


We had no time to check this out, but by jumping into the pool, we will see how much air space there is between the water surface and the roof. At the other end of Makr's second floor we found a slope leading down to a third level. Unstable breakdown makes this slope a bit dangerous and we had run out of time, but this next level would be well worth a return visit, even though there was no hint of blowing air.

So it was that all of us, including Susy, got to explore a quite nice cave at the very last moment of our trip. If the rest of Khalid Otaibi's leads are like this, we cavers have plenty of work ahead in the area south of Abu Ruath. And, who knows, maybe next time we’ll finally wander into The Big One.

John Pint