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Salalah Sink Holes and Caves

Tawi Atair

- the Cavern of the Birds.

Cemal Dervish-Uman, c/o CGG, PO Box 253, 116 Mina Al Fahal, Sultanate of OMAN,



Or "a Driller, a Financial Advisor, a Geophysicist and a Photographer go caving in Salalah."

Word had got around of 'the world's biggest Sink Hole' having been found on a Karst limestone plateaux in Dhofar, a southern region of Oman. Cavers are a rare enough breed of lunatics at the best of times, and new caves rarer still, so when Paul Saville, Andrew "Crash Test" Davidson and Cemal Dervish-Uman heard of a possible large new find it was only a matter of time before a new adventure would be planned and executed. And when we heard that PDO photographer Prakash "Bathe It Daily" (of Majlis fame amongst many other achievements) would be available as Expedition Photographer, the date was quickly set - the week-end of 3-4 June 1999.  

The Plan is Executed. 

Tradition has it Paul does all the donkey work of phoning around, booking flights and the general organisational grind necessary to get 3 cavers, a photographer and 130kg of kit in the right place at the right time. And so it was to be on this occasion. Good old Paul; cheers mate. 

We left Muscat on the Oman Air evening flight on Wednesday 2nd June. Paul had of course booked these, gaining concession for extra baggage at the same time. He'd also arranged for PDO Employee Saed to meet us upon arrival at Salalah Airport. Saed was to be our guide to this new caving opportunity. We had checked in early at Seeb Airport to avoid the inevitable Wednesday evening crush, and whiled away the wait for boarding by downing Beck's in the Lounge Bar. All agreed this was definitely the way for any expedition to begin, and tanking up before the 'dry' flight was essential. The only hiccup had been when the security guard at the Seeb entrance X-ray machines searched Andy's bag and homed straight in on the bottle of scotch thinly disguised as a hikers water flask. "What is this?" Asks the guard; "Alcohol" answers Andy, looking him straight in the eye. The Guard nods wryly, and shoots Andy in the head. Or did he just replace the flask and let us move through unhindered? I honestly can't recall. 

Our plane landed on time at about 22.30, and apart from a small Indian lady nicking our baggage trolley for no more than her handbag (!) while we waited for our ton of kit to roll off, we exited the airport and collected our 2 G-class Land Cruisers without ado. By 11.00 we had checked into the Beach Villas and after drawing the short straw, your intrepid reporter found himself sharing a room with Paul "Growling Bear" Saville. Boy can this guy snore. 

Up and at 'em at 6.00 am on Thursday, we were to be met by Saed and his cousin, also cunningly named Saed. We wolfed down slices of toast and bowls of Cornflakes in preparation for the day ahead. We'd packed a 200m rope, and a 120m, plus some odd lengths, and all our SRT gear. And of course Prakash's million dollar camera kit.  

The two Saeds were pretty prompt, and we made our way to the 'new cave' in a convoy of 3 Cruisers (Saed1 had a PDO wagon for the day). Up to this point, Saed1 had been somewhat lean with the amount of information supplied, such as the name of his intended destination. However, when we got there, Paul quickly realised that this was a place he had visited with his wife, Elvira, whilst sight-seeing a year or so ago. Not exactly a 'new cave', especially since there was the remains of a sodding great gantry built to house a military water pumping station located on the rim of the hole. This was none other than the Tawi Atair as reported in "Caves of Oman". Oh well, we were here now, so we'd jolly well better deliver some good caving photography.  

The Cave is Plumbed. 

We rigged the pitch head main belay off slings on two massive iron girders set into the old structure's prefab. concrete base, and set a second rope (which did not reach the cave floor) on a parallel set of girders. This led down about 10m to a convenient ledge, from which Prakash would take shots of Paul rigging the remainder of the pitch. Rigging for SRT caving basically involves ensuring that at no time does a load bearing rope ever come into contact with rock. This is achieved by hammering in bolts at these rub points, and tying off the rope into hangers screwed into the bolts. The trick then is for cavers abseiling or ascending to be able to pass these tie-off points without disconnecting themselves from the rope and plummeting to an untimely demise. A bit of practice near ground level with Prakash a few days before reminded him of the techniques employed to achieve this.  

Descent order was Paul, Cemal, Bathe it Daily (who simply swapped onto the main rope from his ledge whilst I watched) and lastly Crash Test. The last man was bringing the bulk of the water, and had been repeatedly reminded not to forget it. Although about 10deg cooler than Muscat, it was still bloody hot down there roasting in the sun. Incredibly, and unlike many similar trips, nothing essential was forgotten. Joy. The sink is completely open, and descends about 80m from the pitch head. Two bolts at roughly 10 and 15m are passed before an enjoyable 45m drop to the floor of the hole. 

We then romped about the cave bottom, nipping in and out of small caverns and arches and generally have a good pose for the camera. Marvellous fun, and basically a piece of piss. In fact the scariest thing that happened all day was our first sight of Saed1 that morning, boldly bearing a Browning 38. He was also sporting a fetching self-photo Tee shirt, emblazoned with a snap of himself carrying a machine gun the size of a bazooka. He was hereby nicknamed Rambo. Apparently this is perfectly normal in these parts. Yikes.  

No one wanted to be first out, but then I thought of shade and water up above, so selflessly volunteered to go first. This wasn't such a soft option, as I'd have to wait for Prakash beyond each bolt, to make sure he didn't make any foul-ups. Losing the photographer would have been a bit like losing the cook at a boot camp.  

Anyhow, all went to plan, and we were out the cave before dusk. At the top we met - you guessed it - another Saed. Saed3 had been with the Slovakian cavers who had passed though some months ago. He knew exactly the whereabouts of this "biggest hole in the world" and so we resolved to visit the place tomorrow. Things had started to look interesting again... 

Day 2. Tayq Waterhole.

Friday morning got off to a somewhat slow start as we waited for the Saed’s to arrive. They were the traditional hour late, blaming mobile phone problems. In other words, they were unable to tell us they were going to be an hour late before actually being an hour late. Fortunately they showed up just as we were about to go off on our own.

We drove back to Tawi Atair village to collect Saed3. After coffee and egg shwarmas we drove some 20kms inland, up onto the Karst plateau to an elevation of some 1200m (I think). We were able to drive to within 500m of the edge of what appeared to be the sheer side of a vast wadi intersection. Closer inspection revealed the feature to be a collapsed ‘doline’. It was indeed vast, some 1x1.5m area and 300m deep to a side. We walked back to the cars where we met a lone mountain Jabali. Tall, slim, and very noble in appearance. His age was perhaps mid-forties. He carried a 303 rifle and a pair of Karl Zeis binoculars. At a guess, these were maybe souvenirs from a time not so long ago when British SAS and men like this had fought closely together to forge the modern Oman governate. This is pure poetic speculation by your admittedly historically ignorant author however, and could be total hog-wash. In any event, he was a pretty cool dude, with a thoughtful & wise demeanour. I took an instant liking to this man, so different from the city dwellers of Muscat 1000km away in the North.

Saed3 ascertained that this man knew of a pass to the bottom, and no caving ropes would be needed. He also mentioned that caverns were present, and a torch would be useful for exploration. As far as anyone knew, none of the passages went very far. By now it was around 11.30, and the Saeds1,2,3 were keen to return to their village for Friday prayer. They left us with the Jabali, promising to return some 21/2 hours later.

Stocking up with several litres of water, we were less than wild about the idea of a 21/2hr round trip in the midday heat. However, we are all Englishmen, and the mid-day sun holds no fear to those brought up in a country where it is rarely ever visible. Ignorance is bliss…

We were guided to the head of a well-worn path, which incredibly, seemed to disappear over the sheer edge. As we drew nearer, one of the most geometrically perfect natural features I have ever witnessed was revealed. A vertical slice of the cliff wall had been displaced laterally by a few meters, forming a walled stair case to allow us to descend the steepest top 50m with consummate ease. Here our guide bade us farewell. The track switched back and forth in a convoluted path that rendered a gentle gradient to the bottom. The dryness of the ground and soil was absolute, and the lead walker kicked up choking clouds of dust, causing followers to lament their relative slowness. There are times I really hate having short legs!

We explored a couple dusty side passages, each barely more than 20m into the rock. One led to a filthy festering pool - apparently a sump, but no-one was going to investigate further. There were also some bloody big weird looking flies. They seemed particularly fond of Andy, much to the relief of the rest of us. They didn’t bite, however, so heaven knows what they wanted. Company? A free ride? Salt? They were unperturbed by 50% Deet Jungle Juice, and clung with incredible tenacity, for no apparent reason.

On our return we investigated the largest of the chambers, passed on the way down and saved for later. It was about 80m diameter, 20m high, and open to perhaps 20deg of a side. It wall full of bat guano, and smelt foul. We took a bunch of very posed photos, and made tracks. I had to work very hard to convince the guys that this was not a nice lunch spot. I succeeded, and 20m round the corner we lunched under a shady overhang, cooled by a breeze. Restored and rested to some extent we made our way back up the hill. This time short legs seemed to help, so I breathed less dust.

True to their words, the Saeds were all present, and we spent the afternoon driving the long way round to another cave that the Slovaks had explored. This was far more like the real thing; however there was no way we had time, energy or equipment to explore what was allegedly a proper multi-pitch cave. This would have to wait for a return trip next spring.

And so it was that that evening we found ourselves munching huge steaks quaffed with cool beer at the Holiday Inn.

Our final day was spent sight seeing by car, with a drive to Yemeni border via the famous mountain pass. Wow! I must say, almost a tourist attraction in its own right. I had delusions of coming back and cycling it. A real mountain road-pass in the Middle East to rival those seen in Tour de France. We also found a reported ‘Sea Stack’ on our way back. Only 20k out of Salalah town. In truth, it was land bridged lower down the cliff and therefore not a real ‘stack’. That said, the routes looked quite do-able, and on well protected good rock. The photo-opportunities would be marvellous. More delusions? You never know…

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Last updated: July 3, 1999