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SAUDI GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

FIELD TRIP TO SURPRISE AND FRIENDLY CAVES

NOVEMBER 1-5, 2000  -- Updated September, 2013

 

FIELD TRIP TO SURPRISE AND FRIENDLY CAVES

2005 by John and Susy Pint

NOVEMBER 1-5, 2000

At 8:30 AM on Wednesday, November 1, 2000, four of us - all members of the Saudi Geological Survey - headed for the Jeddah airport, the plan being to fly to Riyadh where our two drivers would be waiting for us with our expedition vehicles (driven all the way from Jeddah!). My three companions were Mahmoud Al-Shanti, Mohammed Al-Kaf (whose last name means "cave"!) and Saeed Al-Amoudi for whom this would be his second trip to the big karst zone. Unfortunately, Mohammed Halawani was off giving a conference and was unable to join the expedition. This trip would give my three companions a chance to put to the test the many days of Cave Exploration Training they had undergone in trees and on rooftops in Jeddah.

  At the airport, Security went through the Pint bags with a fine-tooth comb. All that camera and caving gear looked awfully suspicious! A letter stating that I work for the government didn't help a bit.

We arrived in Riyadh around noon and found Lars Bjurstrom waiting for us. A few hours later we were sliding around in the sand at the base of the Aramco tower we use as a meeting place for the Dhahran cavers. We had enough daylight left to calibrate our GPS's (I had 3 myself!) to the Ain El Abd 1970 datum and to compare their readings.

 Thanks to the wood Lars brought, we had a nice campfire, and enjoyed tea and dates, bedu style. By 8:30 most of us were already in bed, except for Greg Gregory of Aramco, who pulled in around 2:00 AM, bringing with him a few drops of rain.

THE ROAD TO RUIN

We were up and about at 6 AM, even Greg, poor soul, and soon on our way. At the lonely gas station between Rumah and Shawiah we saw the bed being laid for a new stretch of blacktop heading north. It looks like Shawiah will soon be connected by road and reachable by one and all. Once word gets out and maps show this road, the highly sensitive karst area will begin to receive visitors of all kinds. Picnickers will be able to drive to Murubbeh Cave in a matter of minutes and we can expect the traces of garbage inside to turn into huge heaps. Some of the visitors may have flashlights and may discover the 1000-year-old bones and the extremely delicate and unique "frosted feather" formations. Will they admire them or take a handful home as souvenirs? Another result of this road may be a dire need for a Cave Rescue organization in Saudi Arabia. We may soon see desert explorers trapped at the bottom of dahls. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no organization in the country prepared to do cave rescues. It may be time to think about how members of the Red Crescent or the Military could be trained for rescuing... but, of course, the only way to train cave rescuers is to start with experienced cavers. Here's a subject that needs some thought. Meanwhile, the blacktop road is creeping toward the caves!

We drove from Tower 1 to Shawiah, where we met a group of the local citizens, including our old friend Faraj, a prince of Shawiah who once helped us explore Dahl Iftakh. He and his friends offered to help us find all the dahls we want.

 REVISITING CAVE SITES

Next we drove to Murubbeh and began nailing down the coordinates of a number of caves that we know best. Now that the satellite signals are no longer distorted by the US Military, we can at last enjoy real accuracy. We also went to several caves explored by the UPM-Austrian team in the 1980s to see how good their coordinates are (excellent!).

 Late in the day we found Teapot cave, which I could hardly recognize, as sand in that area has been blown away and the entrance hole looks a lot bigger than I recall. The dahl was blowing air, but unfortunately also the stink of rotting animals. Soot on the shaft walls indicated someone had got a fire going in the shaft or at the bottom... all signs that one of the prettiest caves we've ever seen may no longer look the same. Dahl Sultan also has dead animals at the bottom and it is clear that these special caves need to be gated as soon as possible.

 At last, we drove off to Lars' favorite campsite among the dunes. Here we had an unexpected visitor: a very large skink or sandfish that came to eat a scrap of tomato. He was so busy nibbling on it that we could get in close for some fine pictures. Then he dove back into the sand and "swam" away.

Our two vehicles got stuck in the sand a few times until we finally let the air down to 15 lbs. Not having a strong, reliable air compressor (like Lars's), our drivers opted for moving camp to a less sandy spot. Everyone agreed you need a good tire pump out in this territory. So, goodbye beautiful dunes!

 

TROGLOTERMITES?

 With the GPS in the hands of my three caver trainees, we found our way from the campsite to Dahl Surprise, Saeed being the one who actually found the hole. Surprisingly, my el cheapo Magellan Blazer 12 proved more accurate than the Garmin 12XL in locating this spot! Next we rigged the hole with rope and cable ladder and we all rappelled in, including Lars, who, however, did not use the strange "fat bar" rack he got from Mike Gibson.

We visited and photographed some of the outstanding parts of Surprise, with the geologists noting many features. For me, the big discovery of the day was that the ceiling of the JAWS room is covered with termite tunnels. No termites were spotted and one wonders how old the tunnels may be and what those termites used to eat.

By the time everyone was out (giving all of us good belay practice) and the cave was derigged, it was time for Lars and Greg to depart and us to eat a quick lunch. This cave visit took about five hours and all were enthused by Surprise's beauty.

  Next, we went to Friendly Cave and hunted for a good campsite where we could get some protection from the ever-increasing wind. Our crew set up a big 4m by 4m canvas tent to protect sleepers from the wind, and then we sat around the campfire drinking Mahmoud's chicken soup, chatting and even holding an English class for Saeed.

FRIENDLY SURVEY, UNFRIENDLY LIP

  On Saturday, November 4, we rigged Friendly Cave, once again with both rope and cable ladders and began surveying right from the top. We thought this would be a short task, but at the far end of the cave we found a passage that just kept on going, opening into ever larger rooms. Computer tape was strung all along, so someone had been there before us. After several hours of surveying, we agreed it would be necessary to return again to finish the job, and we took some time for photographs.

  Getting out of Friendly proved a challenge for my trainees, as we had not practiced techniques for going over a lip with the cable ladder pressed against a wall. However, all of them gave it their best effort and we succeeded, especially with a little help from the strong arms of Sa'ad, one of our drivers. There were lots of "bismillahs," sighs of relief and slapping the back of each person once he got over the tricky lip. I think this ascent convinced everyone that we are involved in a game of life and death where we can't afford to make mistakes.

CHECKING ALTITUDE

  After another of Mahmoud's unforgettable soups, we did an altitude check by finding spots on the map and comparing the GPS version of the altitude (which proved 20 meters too high). We also had just enough time to go look for Dahl Abu Marwah. We had seen it on our 1:50,000 topo map and knew it was close, so we calculated its location on the map, keyed this into the GPS and voila! we drove straight to the famous old hole. On our way back to camp we spotted a curious dahl with two openings like the "eyes" of a mask. We planned to check out "EYES" the next morning, but it was not to be.

  On returning to camp, the wind started in seriously. First we put up tarps against a barrier made by the two trucks, but soon it was necessary to move the kitchen into the sleeping tent where we enjoyed a supper of tuna fish, tomatoes, halwah and honey. By this time it was really howling outside. Sand filled the air and Mohammed had problems breathing due to an allergy. My little tent, held in place by the same kind of sturdy pegs used for the bedu tent, was stretched to the breaking point, relentlessly sand-blasted. Yes, it was a real Shamal and we suspected a heavy rain might be right behind all the blowing sand, which would be bad news, since the bedu tent is not waterproof and only I had a poncho. On top of that, our tarps were all torn up by the wind, so there was no way to cover either the food or people. Amazingly, my tent held strong all night, even though I got a head-to-foot sand "bath."

SUNDAY SHAMAL

To my surprise, sunrise brought no calm, but ever stronger winds and the first drops of rain. We canceled all exploration plans, realizing that a full-blown shamal could leave us stranded and a rain storm would be a disaster, since only one person had brought along a poncho (guess who?) and the only tarps we had with us had been ripped to shreds during the long night.

  With Mahmoud's good eye (He could see Shawiah's tower from just beyond our camp, while I saw nothing) and two GPS's we had no problem reaching Shawiah, which we entered via a hard-packed, rough gravel road which lies just east of the tricky, slipsliding track over the dunes that we normally used. Thus, we zipped through Shawiah and headed across the long stretch to THE gas station. Smooth going, but at one point the GPS proved very useful.

Finding the Riyadh airport could have been more difficult than navigating the desert, but our map demonstrated that we could get to the airport without entering Riyadh at all. On our way back, we discussed what we had learned on this trip. My companions emphasized that getting out into the caves was a real eye-opener allowing them to see the realities and dangers they must face in a way that just doesn't come across through slides or climbing practice in trees.

I mentioned to Mahmoud that it was too bad Ramadan was approaching and there wouldn't be time for another cave trip before then. "Why not?" he asked. "We can squeeze in one more trip, no problem." I was delighted to see this spirit after a hard trip and we immediately began planning the next expedition.

 

John Pint

November 12, 2000

 

Ma'salaama from the Saudi Geological Survey team (M Alshanti)

 

group.jpg (63971 bytes)

and Lars, of course! (photo: J. Pint)]

Lunch in Rumah

To test our accuracy, we took the coordinates of some landmarks, such as this Saudi Aramco well

Our campsite among the Dahna dunes (photo M. Alshanti)

Sandfish visitor (Photo M. Alshanti)

Mohammedabout to rappel into Surprise Cave (L.Bjurstrom)

Termite trails cover the walls of the Jaws Room (photo: J. Pint )

A great many of Surprise's formations are cracked of fallen (J Pint)

The Chandelier is an awe-inspiring sight. (photo: L. Bjurstrom )

Harnesses and nylon webbing were used to belay the cavers (photo: M. Alshanti)

We climbed out of Friendly using a sturdy Lyon cable ladder. (photo: M. Alshanti)

Mohammed takes a break from surveying in Friendly Cave. (photo: M. Al-Kaf)

Thanks to Mahmoud's great organizational skills, the expedition was a success! (photo: J. Pint)

These large tents can stand a shamal, but you may not get much sleep inside. (photo: M. Alshanti)