Stretching from the lunar-like Hajar Mountains in the
north to lush and temperate city of Salalah in the south, the Sultanate of Oman
-- with its year-round sunshine and a stable economy -- is one of the
lesser-known treasures of the Arabian Peninsula.
But above the ground is only half of the story. Oman is
hollowed out with incredible natural underground playgrounds, including the
second largest underground chamber in the world, called Majlis
Al Jinn, or “Spirits’ meeting place”. Although currently shut indefinitely to the
public for redevelopment, there are
plenty of others that are suitable for beginners and experienced spelunkers.
Al Hoota Cave,
located at near Jabal Shams mountain near the northeastern town of Al Hamra, is
the only cave that has daily organised tours which are suitable for all adults
and older children (book in advance). Al Hoota is a two million year old
complex comprising two lakes (one an impressive 800m long) and a series of huge
underground caverns. Oman’s underground world teems with life, and you will be
sharing the depths with more than 100 species of animals including bats, hunter
spiders and water beetles, as well as a rare type of blind fish called garra
barreimiae. The 45 minute tour whisks you round 10% of the 4.5km long cavern,
long enough for you to get a sense of the majesty hidden below your feet.
If a guided tour is too tame, Hoti Cave
is a 2.7km tunnel also near Al Hamra that runs under the Hajar Mountains. There
are two entrances, Al Fallah and Al Hota; access to the former is reached by a
20 minute fairly easy hike to the large entrance beneath the Hajar cliff’s
overhang, while the latter should only be attempted by experienced spelunkers who have a
guide, safety gear and other climbing equipment. Once inside you will need
torches and a sense of adventure, the hardest part is getting there. The
tunnel, whichever way you get there, is worth the scramble. The rock strata,
stalactites and stalagmites below reveal the ancient history of the area,
through their distinctive red, yellow and pink coloured bands, formed as
different sediments settled over the millennia and compressed into rock. Eager
explorers can continue 1km on through the tunnel to a huge underground cavern
called “Cairn Hall”, said to be full of bats.
Oman being arid most of the year, the country is pockmarked with wadis (river beds) which can flood very
quickly when it rains. To see some of the country’s serious water power up
close head to Muqal
Cave at Wadi Bani Khalid A’Sharqiyah near Sur in Muscat. This is one of the
area’s greenest wadis, with plenty of natural pools and waterfalls to cool off in.
The entrance to the cave is a small lateral slit in the rock face; make sure
you take torches to see the underground rivers and falls that lie hidden inside
the actual cave. This is an easier cave to explore than Hoti Cave, but still
difficult to find without a guide.
more relaxed experience, Ettein
Cave, around 10km from Salalah, is made up of two enormous chambers and is
the largest and most well-known cave in the southern region of Oman. The
entrance is an easy walk halfway up a hillside off the main Salalah-Ettein road;
take a picnic and enjoy the lush green scenery. Anyone who is relatively fit
should be able to attempt this one, and once inside the gigantic cave expect to
see the colossal stalagmites -- watch out for the odd creepy crawly!
the reasons why Oman is still so unspoilt and its caves mostly left for
individual exploration is that there is a shortage of organised information
about most of these sites. Most caves in Oman are not signposted or marked and
will not be regulated in any way, which makes you feel like the first one to
discover them. To get the best out of your adventure always book through a
local guide or tour operator.
tour companies, such as Gulf
Leisure or Alanaka Tours, can
create bespoke trips, depending on what region you are looking to visit and how
much effort you want to put in to getting underground. Most caves detailed above
can be explored on day trips from Muscat city, but for a more of a wilderness
or eco-experience, combine them with a camping trip.
The article 'Oman’s underground playgrounds' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.