The fascinating cave system of Oman is a fragile eco-system of wonder, fascination, and rugged beauty, as Swati Basu Das finds out.
Name any natural wonder and Oman has one right in front of you.
Be it a pristine shoreline, rugged mountain range, hot water springs or the golden dunes of the Wahiba Sands; each makes for a versatile landscape.
Beyond this, there is more; something that lies hidden underneath. These are the veiled chambers carving an underground passageway that runs miles across the dry and fragile limestone surface of the Hajjar Range.
Located on the eastern Hajjar range near the coastline, Salmah Plateau is called Khoshilat Maqandeli in the local language.
And this is where one of the world’s largest and most intriguing cave systems is known to exist.
With some of the most impressive and dizzying gorges, the plateau offers a panoramic view of the karst topography.
A limestone surface shaped by the erosion of water and other weathering factors resulting in the cave system, this karst opened its gates deep down into Majlish Al Jinn, and the 7th Hole cave in the region.
The Western Hajjar range, on the other hand, presents the tourist-friendly Al Hoota cave in Al Hamra and the Moqal cave in Wadi Bani Khalid.
As fascinating as they are, Oman has one of the world’s top-graded cave systems which makes it a haven for spelunkers
Ali Husain, the founder of Husaak Adventure in Oman, explains: “The caves in Oman are unlike most of the caves around the world. They are not small dark, wet and neither do they require a lot of crawling. Rather, they are a massive network of underground limestone carvings although theoretically not real yet some are big enough to fly a helicopter inside them.”
The many passages and channels inside Salmah Plateau and caverns within the Western Hajjar draw not only speleologists but also adventurers.
Depending on the level of difficulty, there are five grades in spelunking. Caves with no or small pitches are considered safe for beginners, whereas professional guidance is a must where the drops are more challenging.
The smaller caves of Western Hajjar Mountain are easily accessible on foot whereas abseiling the 170-metre vertical pitches of the caves in Salmah plateau is quite challenging and requires expert guidance.
Ali suggests: “In general, we do not recommend inexperienced hikers to visit a cave without studying the map of the caves, its nature, and its vulnerability. Level five explorations need an expert to ensure the safety of the explorers. Oman offers a variety of options for both amateurs and experts.”
The difficulty level can test your physical endurance and mental stability but once you enter these underground cavities, be sure to become amazed with what lies deep inside.
These vast underground chambers have taken thousands of years to form. Depending on the area it is located and the agents of erosion, the caves shape this unique and fragile ecosystem. The dry river bed and reserved lakes inside these chambers get their water from occasional rain and a nearby wadi stream. The cave structure even includes draperies, columns and stalactites.
The caves in the Eastern Hajjar range, which are closer to the coastline, are believed to have been formed by the constant pounding of ocean water on the young limestone rocks.
Ali explains: “The water erosion has created multiple vertical holes in Salmah Plateau. The caves in this part are larger in comparison to those in the Western Hajjar range. Cave spiders and few insects are the only inhabitants. The caves in the Western Hajjar are home to various species like bats, mice and even blind fish in the underground lake.”
It is essential to understand the ecosystem of the cave before venturing. Experts believe that caves are sensitive to human interference.
According to Ali, a few caves where crystals, stalagmite, and stalactite formations are still in progress are vulnerable. Human intervention could put their growth back by a few thousand years.
He says: “Many inexperienced adventurers in Oman are trying to violate the law of nature. The government should take steps to regulate the entrance to those caves before it’s too late.”
An underground wonder to behold, these caves unfold geological evolution. The karst landforms offer the most exhilarating experience.
Majlis Al Jin
Ranked as one of the ten largest caves in the world, Majlis Al Jin is the best in Oman. It can be found in Salmah Plateau. The presence of natural light within this cave is one of its distinctive features. It is one of the few caves in the world that has natural lighting. The 158 metres drop to the bottom of the cave from the opening, and it requires physical effort and abseiling know-how.
7th Hole Cave
The 7th Hole cave in Salmah Plateau is reckoned to be the most challenging. The journey takes you 400 metres under the surface. The first descent is around 100m, and the second one is more than 200m. It is one of the most extensive cave systems in the world.
Al Kittan Cave
Located in Ibri, this cave is known for its brightness. It is named the marble cave and is extremely challenging. The geological formations and carvings make this cave unique in the region.