SEARCHING FOR BLACK CAVES

Text ©2011 by Grand Scroggie; Photos
© by Grant Scroggie and Mark Hardaker,


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Caves of the Black and White Volcanoes

by John and Susy Pint


Photo Gallery
 

Approaching the White Volcanoes

 

Grant Scroggie peering into a lava tube/cave; but it did not extend very far.

 

Our party exhausted on Friday evening after all the climbing of the Jabals. My wife Maureen is on the far left.

 

Doves flew out from the one of the tubes when I went in; evidence of their presence can be seen from the guano stalagmites.

 

Grant Scroggie checking out another hole.

 

The closest we could park to Jabal Q'idr. The party is about to set off for the crater.

 

Mark Hardaker on top of a blister Cave.

 

 

 

 

 
AMONG THE WHITE VOLCANOES OF SAUDI ARABIA



Jabal Baitha seen from Q'idr Lava

When we started visiting the desert from Jeddah we probably did exactly what others have done and organized trips around the excellent booklet ‘Desert Treks from Jeddah’ by Patricia Barbor. The experience starts with one-day excursions and then quite quickly extends to longer overnight camping trips. Probably the top three trips people like to undertake in western Saudi Arabia are Madain Saleh, Wabah Crater and the Hijaz railway. By the time these have been accomplished most people will have been in semi mysterious conversations about ‘the White Volcanoes’. In speaking to people who have been in Jeddah for 20+ years most can tell you about someone they know who has been there, ‘but they have left now’.

This is exactly what happened to us and after an internet search it was reassuring to find out that they were not figments of imagination: they really do exist. Also early on, it was evident that people researching the Lava Tubes of Jabal Q’idr (AKA Jebel Qidr) write many of the articles, and John and Susy Pint are often at the centre of these.

The White Volcanoes are currently only covered by low resolution pictures in Google Earth and it seemed that finding a way to get there would be problematical. There is no clear track leading to the volcanoes although the internet articles demonstrate that it is possible. There were two different accounts of the journey; both approached from the West near Khaybar and both highlighted that it was a serious challenge.

Importantly, looking at Google Earth it seems clear that approaching from an easterly direction means that there is about 30 kilometers of problematical lava field to cross as opposed to 60 kms coming from the West. It also has to be bourn in mind that the track on the ground is over 1.5 times what the straight-line distance is.

After more research we were lucky to be provided with both the exact track from the West as well as the exact track from the East. It transpired that people who have made the journey from Riyadh have almost always approached from the East. The decision was made; we would try to approach from the East.

First Visit: Frozen All Night Long

Our first trip was in the first week end of February 2011. Six cars set off from Jeddah on Wednesday afternoon at 4.00 pm. The plan was to travel five and a half hours and find somewhere to camp. All went perfectly to plan and at 9:30pm we were in a remote location where we could camp. Yours truly and Steve decided not to put the tent up and sleep out under the stars. Mistake! The wind and low temperature meant that our heads were frozen all night long. Next morning every one was up early and the only talk was all about how cold it was, how little sleep had been achieved and the danger for Thursday night because we would be another 1,000m higher.

Petroglyphs over 7,000 Years Old

The journey to the volcanoes turned out to be straightforward using this route. There were no punctures and no real need for taking two spare tires (which was the advice for the route from the west). On the way we were approached by a Bedu who kept referring to ‘kitab’; it was only clear that he wanted us to follow him and we did. He led us to a particular spot where there was a great piece of rock art depicting a man, which we have since been told by a specialist at the Riyadh Museum is 7,000 to 9,000 years old.



rock art reflecting a human figure


We arrived at the volcano area at 10:00 am and toured the general area both for sightseeing and with the aim of finding a good camp site. The latter was resolved when we found a small sheltered wadi on the eastern edge of Jabal Abayadh (AKA Jebel Abyad). Once we set up camp we set off to climb Jabal Baitha (Bayda) which was relatively easy, bearing in mind that the road goes some way up the side and a good path leads up from there. Perhaps the climb was 40 minutes and once at the top the views were wonderful; it included a great view of Jabal Q’idr and the contrasting black lava that flowed out from its crater. Those that made it will, in the same breath, also tell you that the cold wind was just as memorable.
 

Jabal Q'idr, the Black Volcano, looms in the distance.



Back at the campsite most people wanted to relax and enjoy the scenery and recount the stories of the past 24 hours, but Steve and I went out to explore, just a little bit more. As night took over the temperature dropped, as we knew it would and it was hard to keep warm even around the campfire. Once the BBQs were eaten, the campfire chatter did not last long before we all headed off to bed. Our temperature gauges at 6:30 am told us it was 1 C.

The journey back on Friday was uneventful and we were back in Jeddah by 5:00 pm. It is always a relief on the longer drives to be home before dark. Perhaps it was also on one of the stops for coffee that we determined that we would return to climb the memorable and impressive black volcano of Jabal Q’idr.

Trip Two: The Conquest of Q'idr

This second trip took place in early June 2011 and our group was again made up of six cars; three were the same from the previous trip. This time my lovely wife Maureen was with me. She had had to miss out on the earlier journey because of a visit back to Europe. We all knew that climbing this volcano would be a longer ordeal so we had agreed to make it a three-day trip. On Thursday we travelled up and by 5:00pm we were setting up camp in the same spot as before. The journey takes 9 hours. Our worry this time was that the temperature could be too hot; in the event, the wind and the altitude conspired to make it just perfect.
 

Camp SiteOn Friday a group of nine of us set off to try and drive to a spot that had been identified on Google Earth as getting us to within two and a half kilometers of the summit. We managed to find tracks somehow hewn in the lava by Toyota pickups and were successful in reaching our targeted parking spot.


Once we started walking it was clear that lady luck was smiling on us; the walk over the lava was smooth and easy. It was not long before we came across the lava tubes that we had all read about in the papers by John and Susy. Had we seen one we would have been satisfied, but they were everywhere. The majority were quite small but there were a few that were large and deep; forming deep caves.

We were not equipped to explore them although we did venture a few meters into one and were taken by surprise when doves suddenly flew past us and out. Thinking about it, this was a perfect roost, as it stayed cool during the hot summer day. It was obvious that the doves have been using this spot for decades because there were two sizeable stalagmites, formed by dove guano.


 

 

 

A picture of the first larger and deeper lava tube we saw. It had two collapses close to each other. This is the lower one, which I climbed down into. The upper end had three tubes coming together; we did not explore it because we had no equipment (even a torch) which would allow us to do that.

 

The upper end of the collapse (but from this angle the three tubes are not visible)

 

The Crater of Q'idr

After one and a half hours we reached the lip of the crater. The experience was a little frightening because it arrives so suddenly and the drop-off, which is sheer, takes everybody by surprise. More than one person mentioned that they could have walked over the edge had a warning had not been given by someone in front.

Inside the crater of Jabal Q'idr (Jebel Qidr)

 

By 1:00 pm we were back at the campsite and met up with the three who had not made the climb. Mark Hardaker, who had volunteered to stay behind for security reasons, had reconciled himself to missing out on the climb. This would have been a pity and so I offered to make the climb again; this he quickly accepted. We followed the same route up and down and my guess is that I will be amongst the few that have climbed Jabal Q’idr twice in one day.

 

  

When we arrived back at camp we found out that Jonathan and Philip had climbed Jabal Abyadh in the afternoon; so in the end we can recount that members of our party had been at the top of all three volcanoes during Friday. In the evening Nick, Jonathan and Grant went out to see if we could get the car to the top of Jabal Baitha. The answer is that there is a car track to the top on the southern side of the crater which gets to the top; but we failed to make the steep gradient and had to undertake a tricky reverse down the scree slope.
 

Some of the landscape we saw on the way down Jabal Q'idr

 

Round the camp fire later in the evening we conjectured that it has to be possible for someone who is reasonably fit to climb all three volcanoes in one day. The feedback was that getting to the top of Jabal Abyadh is the toughest of all and would need to be undertaken first – perhaps a challenge for another day.


Cheetah on the Rock

The return journey saw us split into two convoys of three cars because one group had to be back in Jeddah early. Our three cars went looking for the rock art we had seen before and got more than we bargained for. In the same area we found a wonderful petroglyph of a cheetah, which is not unique in Saudi Arabia but is still quite rare.

On the same rock Diana pointed out what looked like a fish and we all agreed with her that she had found something special. Unfortunately the specialist in Riyadh—after seeing the photos—said that we were not right and that there was no fish. Shame. After a successful weekend climbing volcanoes and seeing great rock art, somehow the long journey home seemed short and sweet. If only I had not reversed my car into one of the only telephone poles in the desert it would have also been uneventful.



 

 We bid farewell to Harrat Khaybar, with camels on the horizon.

The area of the White Volcanoes is both beautiful and special. Like all of the desert areas of Saudi, this wonderful locality can easily be spoiled if we as visitors do not respect our environment. Two years ago one of my favorite spots was a gorge formed of huge pristine basalt crystals; they rivaled those of Giant’s Causeway (without the sea and view of Scotland). Today they are daubed with graffiti, painted on with spray paint. It is so depressing to see and the whole gorge can no longer be even classified as an attraction. My plea to everyone who travels though these magnificent lands, especially if you do go to the White Volcanoes, is to go out of your way to ‘leave only footprints and take only photographs’.
 

Grant Scroggie
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
6/16/11 6:27 PM