Chris Killey, Greg Gregory, Katherine Hurley, Roy Mueller, Dan Leonik, Odette Harmsen, Larry Norton, Paul and Lou-Anne Nicholson, Philippe Montaggioni, Kamal Babour, Fabrice Uran, Karl Leyrer, Kevin Devlin,Linda Holloway
Fifteen Dhahran Geoscience Society (DGS) members recently got the chance to study reservoir-prone carbonate rocks from a unique perspective: in tube-like crawlways within the rocks themselves some 18 meters (60 ft.) underground in a dahl, or cave, called Bat’n Sabsab.
Much of eastern Saudi Arabia is characterized by thick sections of carbonate strata, some lying just beneath the desert surface. In some areas, particularly near Riyadh and ArAr to the north, extensive cave networks in carbonates have been discovered and mapped.
Bat’n Sabsab is one of the few known major caves located relatively close to the Gulf.. It lies about 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the west of Dhahran and 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the nearest paved road..
Although devoid of the decorative and delicate stalactites, stalagmites and helictites which highlight many of the Kingdom’s caves, it is nonetheless a geologically significant feature in Tertiary limestone.
It has numerous passages at several levels that were formed in association with north-south trending fractures, and can be accessed from three fracture-related entrances.
Getting ready to rappel into Bat'n Sabsab: Greg andFabrice; Dan, and Kamal
The DGS members arrived at the cave entrances in the middle of a large basinal drainage area, surrounded by outcropping marly hills, after an hour-long, off-road journey through a wide spectrum of terrain.
Panoramic view of Sabsab setting; Vehicles on-site
They gathered their gear, including lights, hardhat, knee pads and water, and split into four groups. Three groups entered the gently sloping south entrance, and one rigged ropes for the 6-meter (20 ft.) vertical drop into the cave from the north entrance.
That fourth group subsequently rigged three additional steep drops in the middle of the cave, gaining access to its deepest portions -- which feature narrow, sinuous, tunnel-like passages, many of which are partially filled with cool, crystal-clear water.
It’s quite likely this was the first time that the lower passages have ever been so deeply penetrated by cavers. And, there appears to be no end in sight to the longest tunnels, which lie well below sea level.
DGS cavers penetrated at least 70 meters (230 ft.) into a deep, contorted bifurcating “pipeline,” which was choked in places with sand and “break-down” chunks from the partially collapsed cave ceiling. In a unique bonus, participants experienced moments of complete darkness and silence by turning off their lights and lying quietly within the farthest-reached depths of the cave.
Greg returning from the far distant part of the tight tunnels
The experience provided “delicious minutes of meditative repose,” said Chris Killey of Dhahran.
“In the inky blackness ... the silence was deafening. It was magical sensory deprivation [where] a pin drop might sound like a cannon.” (See more of Chris's insightful comments below - Editor)
Their distant explorations completed, the cavers gradually worked their way back up through the cave’s shallower portions. Overcoming some navigational uncertainties and challenges, they eventually made a joyous return to the sunlit surface, having spent some four hours exploring within the Earth.
Dead dhubb at the bottom of a long dark drop, way beyond the surface. How did it get so far inside the cave ??
Most of the cavers spent the night near a small canyon north of Bat’n Sabsab, where comfortable temperatures, and clear, star-filled skies contributed to a congenial camping atmosphere.
Karl entering the narrow walk down into the south entrance
After breakfast the next morning, the cavers’ convoy took a scenic northeasterly route, bouncing past large groups of camels and a deep, expansive wadi to reach the main Hanid road and head for home.
All fifteen members of the expedition gained valuable experience and insight with their cave explorations. They are eagerly looking forward to new opportunities to explore the voids beneath the desert.
Kids at camel camp, seen on the way back to Hanid
“It was a battle of bones, muscles, willpower, ego, dust and mud,” Killey said of her experience. “I can't wait for the next one!”
-- Greg Gregory
Few people can wax poetical while sliding through the mud, in total darkness, down ever-narrowing tunnels. Chris Kiley is one of those few! Her report follows. Editor
It's two days after the fact and every muscle in my body aches. It’s a caving legacy they say…
Imagine crawling along on your belly in a tiny rocky limestone tunnel, hard hat hitting the roof every few seconds, knee guards jamming in the spaces between the rocks, elbows bashing into the walls on either side. Somehow we inch along on forearms and elbows, twisting and turning hips and thighs inch by inch. Legs doing over-time and screaming at you to stop. Toes dig in to propel you forward, to yet another twist in the tunnel. Your caving buddies just ahead, the soles of their shoes lit up by your headlight. If they can do it, then so can you! They’re an inspiration… Somebody else scraping along behind you, huffing and puffing….
Thirty minutes pass by and we come to a six-foot-long puddle of water stretching across the tunnel floor. No way around but through. Only a few inches between you and the roof. Sink your chest and belly into the cool liquid and slime into it, twisting through it to the next little cave. This must be the closest thing to mud wrestling. The biscuit in my shirt pocket turns to mush. My water rations dwindling. Don’t forget to twist the bum bag around to the back – it could be the lifesaver – contains spare flashlights, batteries, water bottle and a little map of the known tunnels in this long cave. Don’t get it soaked.
Fabrice in the tight tunnels, over a silted-up crystal-clear puddle
Each little event takes on mountainous proportions. Ever rope-climbed rock walls before? Its easy when there’s no other way to go! Talk about breaking through personal boundaries! And then there’s the ego to contend with as well – of course you can do it!
Another 20 minutes of crawling goes by and we come to a real big space, about 10sq.ft with ceiling five feet up. Break time and we stop to gather our wits and rest for a bit while the hardened cavers explore new ground further along. They return after twenty minutes with tales of more narrow access ways & water pools.
Kamal, Chris, Odette and Larry, going deeper down the sloping, connecting shaft
We really take a break now; turn off our lights and lay quiet and still in the inky blackness. The silence is deafening. Its magical, sensory deprivation. A pin drop might sound like a cannon. I hope the others can’t hear my mind chattering on.
After endless delicious minutes of meditative repose, our fearless leader breaks the silence and forces us to come to life. We heave our limbs into movement again. Backtracking, we now know what’s in front of us, exactly where we’re going, and how long it will take to get back to the beginning point.
Chris climbing up the shaft above the tight wet tubes
On and on down the endless tunnel, it seems to take forever. Fifteen minutes later, someone up front says they can’t get through a narrow bit. Doubt starts to creep in and I realize that I don’t recognize any of these walls, twists and tunnel turns. Somebody else up front says they don’t think this is the right way. In my bones I feel I already know this, but hey - I’m a virgin caver; this is my first time. I can’t be sure about anything yet. Its finally a group decision – we’ve come the wrong way! - down a narrowing tunnel which will eventually lead to a dead-end… Somebody yells “Don’t anybody panic” and I immediately wonder why I’m not panicking. I’m confused about what to panic about (yet another new experience).
Chris, Odette, Larry, and Dan, elated to be in a large breezy chamber, after backing out of the southernmost tight, warm, and fetid dead-end passage.
We all slowly inch uncomfortably backwards, on and on; and finally come back to the drop which is marked with a rope and find the real entrance to the exit. It leads us to the big finish-line cave and the blinding sunlight. Euphoria overtakes me. After 4 hours underground, I make it back to the real world. It was a battle of bones, muscles, willpower & ego, dust and mud. No wonder people go back for more and more. Caving exploration must be one of the last great frontiers…
I can’t wait for the next one!
AND THAT'S NOT ALL, FOLKS!
Want to know more about Sabsab? Check out the following trip reports:
Dahl SabSab, April 19-20,
2001 by Greg
Bat’n SabSab Trip Report, March 29-30, 2001 by Marek Wiechula