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The Cave at Jebel Kawr, January, 1999

I got this note from Peter Ochs (author, Maverick Guide to Oman), 29 Aug 2001 - "After doing a little bit of research, I found the area that you describe in your article about caving in Jebel Kaw. In fact this area is listed on the NSA maps as Jebel Kawr. (It is one of a cluster of peaks west of Jebel Shams known as the "exotics" as the geomorphology of these peaks are unrelated to the main sequence.) And its position is more due east rather than south of Ibri, assuming that the village of Amla on the map is the same one described in your article."

Jebel Kawr is not well known among expats in Oman, but it's almost as high as Jebel Shems (at over 3000 meters, the tallest mountain in Oman). Jebel Kawr conceals the 3rd longest known cave in Oman, 1.5 kilometers, but not very well, as the cave's gaping lower entrance is easily visible from the dirt tracks that enter the wadi from the signpost for Amla 53 km. south of Ibri. (I mean the rode leads in a generally southern direction from Ibri, but once you've made the turning you could very well wind up due west of Ibri, as Peter points out above).

Glenn had come to visit us at Christmas and was flying out to England and California on January 4, 1999. I had driven him to the airport, and we were sitting at an empty table in the coffee shop at noon having a last chat. The table was empty because we were half into Ramadhan, and the coffee shop was closed during the day.

My mobile rang on the table between us. It was Paul in Oman telling me he was heading up to Jebel Kawr. If I hurried back into town I figured I could pack and get to Amla by midnight. I hastened my farewell to Glenn and left to do just that.

Once I'd packed, I hustled across the border and stopped for a late dinner at Ibri, my usual roastie chicken, salad, and biriani rice. I called Paul on his mobile from a pay phone (my mobile didn't work in Oman). He said he was waiting for me at the road junction, 53 km south of there. What a friend!

Half an hour later, Paul conducted me in the moonlight back to his campsite below the cave in the mountain side. He was camped there with Sam, the only email acquaintance from UK who had taken Paul up on a blanket offer to come out to Oman to cave during the holidays. Paul hauled a round of Amstel out of his coolbox. We drank it in the bracingly cold moonlight and then went to our bedrolls. I kipped in my car, which I had purchased after testing the beds of several vehicles for stretched-out sleeping comfort. Of all I looked at, only the Blazer, the GMC, and the Ford Explorer had passed that test. A Patrol or a Land Cruiser can get you almost anywhere, but you wouldn't want to spend the night in one.

The creature comfort of the interior of my Blazer were interrupted when Paul started tapping at my car window at 7 in the morning. Paul, miserable owner of a Land Cruiser, can't sleep comfortably in his car, so he derives perverse pleasure from waking up the others in his group who are sleeping soundly in theirs. Over a furtively consumed breakfast, Paul outlined his plan to get some donkeys to haul our gear up to the plateau where the top part of the cave was. Then we could rig the shaft and check it out. There were several flaws in this plan. First of all, it was Ramadhan and the locals with donkeys didn't really want to be hauling loads up mountain tracks in daytime, when they couldn't slake their thirst. Secondly, according to the locals we talked to, all the donkeys were grazing or in the mountains with the family members who had gone up to 2000 meters for the winter and there were none available in the wadi. Third, there were only three of us, and it wouldn't really be a good idea for us to attempt a shaft purported to be 200 meters deep without reasonable backup.

Paul and Sam negotiate the rockscape above our camping spot

While we were wolfing down breakfast out of sight of any locals in the houses nearby who might have objected, we saw an old fellow wander in off the mountain. Choosing to pretend not to have noticed our breaking of the fast, he passed our camp at a discreet distance. According to protocol though, we had to shout him hello, and he politely stood off and waited for us to come out to him so that we could lay aside our food without him seeing it. Then he talked to us about the trail leading up the mountain, pointed the way, and told us where we might find donkeys in that wadi.

His name was Saeed, he lived in the nearest house a few hundred meters away, and later he came with us in our car to help us hunt up donkeys. He conducted us to a house where two donkeys turned out to be available, but Paul thought we needed four, and anyway the price for the two was too steep and we failed to strike a bargain. So we decided rather to just walk up the mountain without donkeys and reconnoiter the cave, but not descend it. We drove Saeed back home and later left our cars at his house (actually the house of the brothers Salem Rashid and Abdullah Rashid), where he said he would be responsible for them while we were away.

As we were packing for our walk, the family members we'd been bargaining with drove over to tell us they had now located four donkeys. The fact that they took the trouble to find us suggested they were prepared to be more flexible in their negotiation of the price, but the morning was by then almost gone, and with it, our interest in involving local transport. We noticed one of them was carrying a mobile, so we got his number, and agreed to have an Arabic speaker call and arrange to have some donkeys readied for us when we decided to mount a more serious assault on the cave in the months to come. This, along with the reconnoiter we were about to perform, would be the major accomplishments of our present expedition

The Matterhorn-shaped rock looking south from the plateau where the cave is

It was past noon when we started up top. Paul had been that way before but apparently not found the cave. At least he knew the trail. Essentially, it was up in a southerly direction from a square watchtower in a palm Oasis following the right hand side of the gully in such a way as to swing over to the left hand side after a climb of a few hundred meters. The route up the gully followed a faint but definite trail and passed by some large holes in the limestone on the left face which we investigated when we had more time next day on the way back down.

Once we'd broached the gully we arrived at a saddle, where we established our position on Paul's map via GPS. The way forward was then north and up to a plateau at 1500 meters. We made our way at a steady slog. None of us were carrying all that much, my load being besides food and warm clothes and bedding, mostly liquid: 7 liters of water and a flask of whiskey.

Looking north over the plateau - follow the wadi at the far edge of the plateau down to the west, and you reach the cave shaft

We got to the plateau at about 4:30 that evening to find it hospitably flat and surrounded by promising wadi beds. This type of terrain, flat bowl bordered by wadis, was reminiscent of the "airport" plain at Selma, another area of Oman riddled with caves. We ditched our packs in the flattest place with least rocks and walked to the deepest wadi to see if we could find the cave.

The wadi formed a gorge perhaps 50 meters steep in places. We followed the gorge west toward the panorama spread far below and found it ended in a wall which could only mean the water exited into a shaft at its base. Here we found the shaft of the cave we were looking for. We descended toward the abyss as much as we dared and hovered around its topside being very careful not to get too near the edge. We threw in stones to test for depth. The echoes came back 6-8 seconds later.

It was by then getting dark so we went back to our campsite where Paul put up his tent. We threw together a meal in the dark and wolfed it down. Despite the increasing chill, we huddled together to drink our whiskey and chat. This didn't distract us long, and by 9 or 10 we hit the hay. The three of us in the tent made Paul's shelter tolerably warm.

Paul peers over the edge. While there, he took the picture, below, looking down

Next day we explored the wadi more thoroughly, looking for ways into it, and especially to the pools we could see from the rim. It turned out we could reach only one, and the water in that one was full of algae. We would have to take this into account when planning our expedition's water supply.

Around noon we moved back down the mountain, stopping off as planned at the cave entrances we had seen on the way up.


The limestone here was honeycombed with such entrances, but the ones we investigated, while interesting to kick around in, didn't actually go anywhere.

We retrieved our cars from Saeed and the brothers Rashid just before Iftar, the sunset breaking of the fast. We refused half-hearted invitations to join the brothers and retired to our camping spot, the better to enjoy our Iftar with beer, which we chilled in my coolbox and in the fridge in Paul's Land Cruiser (being a Land Cruiser owner does have some advantages). After dark, another car arrived on the scene bearing Harold and Deborah, Yorkshire folk whom I hadn't met, and Andrew, whom I had on our trip through Kaf Tahry.

The plan next day was to walk up to the huge cave entrance, more technically, an exit (for water) which loomed halfway up the hill to our east. The cave appeared to be just a short walk overhead, but the way was over some rather difficult terrain that required a bit of ropework to negotiate. Compared to the cave itself, getting there was half the fun. It took 3 or 4 hours of climbing and precariously exposed walking to reach the entrance, where we left our things for the night.

There's a pool at the bottom of the gully at right. To the left of the pool, one of the climbers in our group is ascending the rock face. The cave is up the gully, out of sight overhead.

Paul and the others had started surveying this cave before and were hoping to finish it this trip. Sam and I were assigned the south lead and we spent an hour or two surveying what I thought should be called Batshit Alley. The first part of it could be done in ambient light but it soon narrowed to a tunnel which was roomy enough to stand in the whole way. It was full of bats, which fluttered close by and left a lasting impression of their distinctive smell. I don't remember how far in we went, perhaps 400 meters, but we were back at the entrance in daylight.

We met Harold and Deborah there, and they took us on a tour of their part of the cave which led to a lake. They had pushed the lake on their last trip and had encountered a pocket of bad air. There was no draft in the cave. Apparently it sumped in the middle.

Meanwhile Paul and Andrew were overhead bolting their way up to a passage they had seen previously and were hoping to push. Sam and Harold and Deborah and I sat in the dark and dodged the boulders they kicked down at us from time to time. Not knowing how long Paul would be, we decided to exit the cave. By then it was dark, and the way down was exposed in places, but we made it intact to enjoy the evening view. We were 1000 meters over the wadi bed looking at the lights on the ground and the stars overhead framed in the walls of the gully up which we had climbed. Eventually Paul and Andrew emerged chuffed from their superhuman efforts but with the news that their lead had petered out. We settled in to a routine of food preparation and whiskey. Sam's tamyam tuna concoction was particularly well received.

I slept out on a rock slab that had a view of that twinkling panorama all night long. For some reason, perhaps due to the warm air emanating from the cave or the way the cradle of rocks radiated their heat at night, it was warmer up there than in the wadi below, and sleeping was quite cozy. Thanks to the clatter of rocks falling from the cliffs above and the screech of the bats before dawn, I was awake off and on in the night to re-enjoy the view.

As you can see, getting to and from the cave resurgence was not a straightforward matter


Here are Paul's GPS coordinates, which he emailed me back in January 1999

(UTM - Zone 40Q)

Camp 0493502 2555986
Leave track. 0493053 2555856
0492987 2554764
0492714 2554198
0492890 2553689
0492319 2553248
0491665 2553041
0491691 2552781
0491413 2552707
0491176 2552349
0490915 2552366
Side track to Camp 0490116 2551733
Junction with main road 0492363 2545645

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Page created January 1999
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