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SPELUNKING in OMAN:
Brilliant Caving in the Hajar Mountains.
Safe & Affordable One-Day Side Tours.


By John Hessburg, General Mgr
U.S. Dive Travel Network


© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel. All rights reserved.


The lower you go, the higher you feel!

This grinning contradiction fuels the creative tension behind spelunking -- also known as caving -- & it's a life-enhancing adrenal rush for adventurers around the world. If spelunking is your cardio-trip, then Oman offers cave tours that will astonish you.

Many of these world-class Oman caves are remote, accessible only by weeklong expeditions with pack mules, loads of supplies, technical climbing gear, furlongs of rope & a failsafe GPS system. One of these awe-inspiring treks is coveted by cavers on 6 continents, however, we dare not tell you how to get there. That's because visiting "Majlis Al Jinn" -- The Spirits' Waiting Room -- second-largest underground chamber in the world at 4 million cubic meters, is such a monumental undertaking that only the toughest cavers should even dream of it.

"MAJLIS AL JINN" -- This ONE'S STRICTLY for the PROS:
The crux of Majlis Cave is a free dangling rappel down a static line, normally tied to a truck chassis (parking brake ON!), or a desert rock, or to a drilled-in steel anchor placed there by the cave's pioneers years ago. This means your feet touch only air, as you slowly spiral downward until you touch the bottom. Oh, did I mention -- one entry route is a 518-foot direct drop (158 meters) to the chamber floor? But there's hope for the dauntless. The mellower entry is a mere 387 feet (118 meters) to the deck. Even that takes some Herculean ascender work to grind back up the static line when the day is done. Kind of makes a guy want to bring a power bar & some Jolt Cola, eh?! (All the sugar & twice the caffeine...)

The three vertical sinkholes that lead to Majlis Cave are the stuff of spelunking legend. Just make sure you remain a living legend, amigos. Once you get down there, you would find a semi-domed room about 120 meters high (394 feet) & a floor area about 60,000 square meters. The volume of this mega-chamber in Majlis Cave is second only to the Sarawak Chamber in the Mulu Karst sector of North Borneo, & is more than 3 times larger than the USA's Carlsbad Big Room. You actually could fit more than five entire Al Bustan Palace Hotels inside this mega-chamber; & Al Bustan is one of the largest hotels in Oman.


U.S. Dive Travel offers caving in Oman.
Women pause to enjoy the treasures of Al Fallah Cave.
© Copyright Werner Thiele, Waterworld.


FUN CAVES for EVERYDAY HIKERS:
All pipedreams aside, here's the good news for weekend warriors like most of us. A few caves in Oman are moderate scramble-hikes, extremely safe if done exactly as your guide directs you; & they offer spectacular rock formations worthy of the day trip from Muscat. We will tell you about the best of these Oman cave tours in a moment. All you need is one sturdy flashlight in perfect shape, hanging from a solid lanyard around your neck, a second smaller backup flashlight or headlamp, a couple extra flashlight bulbs, a bag of extra batteries, a lightweight climbing helmet (optional), a couple liters of water & some snacks, a light backpack, good hiking boots, & light cotton beachside garb -- rugged nylon shorts & a T shirt will do.

One more thing you'll need for the cave tours -- a little intestinal fortitude.

This cave is not falling-off-a-log easy, but it's do-able & loads of fun if you're reasonably fit & don't mind barking a knuckle or a shin on a 3-to-4-hour round-trip descent & return. Are you game? Well great, let's continue on to one of the most tourist-accessible caves of all, which has made Oman a spelunker's Mecca. The popular though incorrect name for this magnificent underground cavern & lake system is "Hoti Cave." The proper name is actually Al Fallah-Al Hota Cave. We recommend this cave trek with enthusiasm.

I took the Al Fallah Cave tour with adventure guide Rob Gardner mainly to kick myself, because I have always suppressed a phobia about moving through confined spaces. Yet I hate feeling hemmed in by irksome anxieties even more than by rocky walls. Fear bites! Unless you bite right back. When the day's trip was done, I was flushed with excitement, delighted in every way by the visual rewards of the Great Chamber in Al Fallah Cave. And I would do this again in a heartbeat. Make that about 100 heartbeats per minute.

AL FALLAH CAVE, BEST of the EASY CAVE TOURS:
Hoti Cave, or better the Al Fallah-Al Hota Cave is a 2.7 km (1.7 mile) tunnel, with dozens of intriguing ancillary chambers & offshoots, that carves its way from north to south, running slightly downhill through the flanks of a large mountain. So far, spelunkers have explored & mapped about 5 km of total passageways. The ancient underground riverbed, basically a desert wadi but deep inside the peak, is located about 140 km (87 miles) due southwest of Muscat as the crow flies, in the Central Hajar Mountains. The actual back-country drive is closer to 165 km (102 miles) from Muscat. This scenic trip takes 2+ hours of driving, much of it off-road in a good 4WD. You will see splendid mountain vistas, multi-colored rock towers, blase' camels sauntering around the desert flats. The approach trip to Hoti Cave goes by in a wink.

When you reach the end of a safe dirt & gravel track, about half a mile to the north you can see a cliffside looming up, & a vast rocky plateau above it. Below this cliffline & further below a massive overhang of rock is a big black space, maybe the size of a couple city buses. This is the gaping mouth of Al Fallah Cave. After less than 20 minutes of easy hiking, your final approach mincing along a shoulder-width ledge, you are there. The Al Fallah entrance to this cave is the most popular, & easiest. The more challenging Al Hota entrance, on the other side of the peak, is probably not an appropriate cave tour for amateurs.

So how do you get down into this cave? There are three one-meter-wide holes on the rock shelf right below your feet. One of these is the safest & easiest, & your guide will direct you properly. DO NOT attempt this descent without a guide, nor without a rope for the entry hole, nor without all the proper safety gear -- that would be foolhardy.

U.S. Dive Travel offers caving tours in Oman.
One wall of Al Fallah
Cave's Grand Chamber.

© Copyright Rob Gardner, DAC.


A DANDY DESCENT into AL FALLAH CAVE:
Rob & I have had ample rock-climbing experience, so we worked our way down the entry shaft without a rope, but that was the trickiest part for me. This would have been a Mickey Mouse rappel (our European friends call it "abseiling") but we free-climbed down to save time. Rob scampered it, since he's been down into Hoti Cave many times. I under-estimated the cave & came shod in my ratty old sneakers. They were devilishly slippery, so I had to inch my way down, gripping the rock with eagle claws to avert a tumble. Lesson learned -- better to have sticky-soled rock shoes, or half-shank rubber-soled approach boots with a solid block toe, for maximum stability.

All of our clients will have the benefit of a descent rope, which makes this a hand-over-hand cinch. The crux of the first decent is about 15 meters (50 feet) of moderate downclimbing, over & around some huge boulders, no dangling free abseils nor scary squeezes, just a little exposure at one part, but nothing to write home to Mom about. On the initial descent you'll use some wide-leg stemming & jug handholds, nothing too severe. But you still need to proceed cautiously. Some of the slabs we were frictioning were glass-smooth obsidian, (black glass-like volcanic rock), worn by many years of visitors' feet & covered by a light patina of dust. Once you're at the bottom of the shaft, it's garden variety hiking the rest of the day. And up-climbing on the finish of Hoti Cave is MUCH easier, quite exciting actually as you see the sunlight overhead, beckoning. And you smell the fresh clean desert breezes.

At the bottom of the entry shaft you enter a large room with a meter-wide ledge on the right-hand side as you're facing north, & you shuffle alongside this ledge, then hop down a short ways onto easy ground. Near here, around a corner, is an intriguing bat's haven, with dozens of those cuddly critters hanging out & staring balefully at your flashlights. You will always feel slight winds underground, since this cavern is known for its geologic breathing. As ambient air pressure climbs around the mountain, the outside air rushes in. Then cave air rushes out when the outside air pressure drops. The temperature inside the Al Fallah section is very pleasant, & a bit cooler than the outside but still fairly humid. This is typical of most Oman caves in the Hajar Mountains.

MELLOW HIKING NORTHWARD:
You proceed northward for about half an hour of easy hiking, just a slight bit upwards. Off to your left you can hear a steady trickling sound, as water moves down the stairstepping rock shelves on the Al Hota side of this cave (the north end), flowing downhill to the southern mouth of the cave -- the Al Fallah side. And here's the rub, mates -- preferably NOT the rubout! If it is about to rain the morning you choose to visit this cave, or if it starts to rain while you are down under, by all means get the living heck OUT of this hole immediately. Some Oman caves do have their feisty side, so be careful please any time you dig deeply into the Hajar Mountains.

IF IT'S RAINING -- STAY AWAY -- PERIOD.
Remember, this cave is basically just an underground wadi -- or desert riverbed -- & therefore a flood plain. Big downpours in the mountains to the north might cause a flash flood down inside the cavern, which would be a nasty experience, & might strand you down there for a couple days until the water flow subsides enough to allow your safe passage back to the exit chimney. And who needs that kind of jolly old time?

To place this in proper perspective, my trip in November 2000 occurred during the first major rains Oman had experienced in three years. Rob & I were down there while water coursed constantly through the channels into the two underground lakes (yes, you heard that right!), but we were never in any danger. That's because it was not raining while we were underground, nor for hours beforehand. However, Rob is pretty sharp with his caving, & he has the instinct that we should just stay out of the Al Fallah section of this cave if there's even a hint of major rainstorms brewing. Probably little problem with sprinkles or light rains. But no need to take a risk, since the cave will be just as beautiful, & just as accessible, the day after tomorrow when the rains fade.

The UNDERGROUND LAKES:
On the plus side, the desert rains are the force that formed not only this magnificent cave, but the huge lake that blankets the nadir of this cavern. Scores of little pinkish-gray fish live in the lake, most of which have no eyes, just long feelers for sensing their way. When it's not high summer, the water temps in this lake are about 23 C (73 F), but PLEASE do not swim in the water at all, as this would sully the purity of a highly delicate ecosystem. Just look but don't leap. There's a small northern lake probably not worth the long hike, & a much closer treat -- the main central lake -- which is at least 800 meters long (2,624 feet).

Guided caving adventures in Oman.
Back wall of the Al Fallah Cave Grand Chamber.
For scale, check the hiker at upper left corner!

© Copyright Werner Thiele.


The GRAND CHAMBER of AL FALLAH CAVE:
But the piece de resistance of this day tour is the huge chamber of Al Fallah Cave, the size of a hotel's grand ballroom, located about 300 meters north of the entry chimney. Make sure you all have super-bright halogen flashlights, or video strobes, & train them on the back walls in unison, to wring the finest colors from the cave formations. You will be amazed at the breathtaking sculptures that millennia of trickling water have carved down here. This is what makes all the challenges of Oman caving well worth the effort.

There are scores of stalagmites (the rocky "icicles" that jut from the ground up), & some of the larger formations are stalagtites (they hang from the top). They are carved in magnificent patterns that no human hand could ever duplicate, & they come in light-pastel hues of pearly white, yellow, tan & gold, plus chocolate brown & slate gray. There are fissures in the ceiling of this huge chamber, from which mineral-rich water slowly percolated over the centuries, leaving the deposits that cause these awesome formations. Some of the stalagmites look like gnarled brain corals, some like upside down squid taking a steep dive, others like blobs of beautiful melted wax on the cavern floor. Of course down here the rule is "look but don't touch," as these formations are ultra-delicate & we want to save their beauty for many future generations of cavers.

By all means try the Al Fallah Cave experience, even if it gives you the armchair jitters right now. I am living proof that you can step on your heebie-jeebies & have a great time down in the heart of an Omani mountain. I would not trade that afternoon in Al Fallah for anything. Remember, fear bites! Unless you bite right back. Cave tours in the Hajar Mountains are a fun way to get a grip on what's hiding in those head caverns, way down below the id. Go for it, & go lightly.

( Check our Oman Prices webpage for some ideas about
caving side tours you can add onto your Oman diving holiday. )


Imagine this, funseekers: Oman has one cave chamber that is more than
5 times larger than this massive structure -- the Al Bustan Palace Hotel!

© Copyright John Hessburg, USDT.


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FOR MORE INFORMATION or RESERVATIONS:

Please Contact -- Susan & John Hessburg, Mgrs
U.S. DIVE TRAVEL Network
PMB 307 / Suite # 116
15050 Cedar Ave. S.
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA 55124-7047

Voice Mail: 952-953-4124
Fax Line: 952-431-5023
E-mail: divetrip@bitstream.net

Website: www.usdivetravel.com

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IMPORTANT NOTE about PRICES & TARIFFS:

First things first for your Oman scuba diving holiday. Please remember that you will need to secure a formal visa from the Omani Consulate closest to your hometown, before you will be allowed entry into Oman. Visas for most U.S., Canadian & European citizens are very easy to secure, & take only a couple weeks. In many cases you will be able to get your entry visa shortly after your plane lands in Muscat. The Oman Embassy staffers in Washington, DC are exceptionally gracious & helpful. They are geared up to encourage eco-responsible tourism; this is quite evident. Visa fees are nominal & paid via cashier's check to the Omani Embassy or Consul General nearest to you. Make sure you prepare well for your Oman scuba diving trip.

OMAN VISA PROCESS -- Passport & visa required for all tourists, & for all Oman vacations. Tourist/business visas for multiple-entry issued for stays up to 6 months & valid for 2 years. Both business or tourist visas require a special official application form & cholera immunization if arriving from infected area & a self-addressed stamped envelope for return of passport by mail. For transit & road travel, please check with the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman, 2535 Belmont Rd., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008 (202/387-1980, -1981 or -1982).

All package prices listed here for Oman diving holidays are subject to possible change in this steadily evolving travel market. Land prices are traditionally stable, while air prices may fluctuate for Oman vacations. Until air tickets are issued, all airlines reserve the right to change airfares without notice -- a longtime industry standard, per FAA rules. We at U.S. Dive Travel will price-protect you to the utmost of our professional ability; & that has been our pledge for one decade now. We normally secure excellent discount air tickets. Remember please, the federal government has deregulated airlines, so only they control their pricing -- not any travel professionals. But our lodging & Oman diving contracts are set for one year at a time, & therefore are rock solid nearly all seasons.

Unless specifically noted, these above packages are prices for only the land-based or vessel-based portion of your Oman scuba diving vacation, in most cases reflecting double-occupancy rooms. At most vacation resorts there will be no triple-occupancy rooms offered. Some exceptions may be noted. International air tickets & commuter "island-hopper" airfares are always extra above these land costs. Nominal service fees are also extra for air tickets & the lodging + diving components of all Oman vacations. The baseline tariffs for all clients start at $35 per person for the land portion + $20 pp for published-fare air tickets. Late-booking clients may receive slightly higher tariffs on the lodging + diving. Solo clients will always pay a single supplement to secure a private room on their Oman diving holidays -- normally 35% to 50% more -- & possibly a doubling of the standard double-occupancy rate at some resorts.

For our U.S. or Canadian clients, the preferred payment mode for all lodging, diving & side tours is by cashier's check or wire transfer in U.S. dollars for Oman dive vacations. All clients living outside the USA or Canada will need to pay only via direct wire transfer in U.S. dollars -- no exceptions please. No personal checks or credit cards will be accepted for the lodging or land-tour portions of any Oman dive vacations, please. Thank you for your gracious understanding. Our service level is the highest & our prices the lowest in this industry, & thus we need to preserve a reasonable margin to keep the Ship of State afloat, thereby ensuring that your Oman diving holidays will be brilliant & affordable.

For published-fare air ticket bookings on your Oman diving holiday, USDT always accepts Visa & Mastercard, even from non-U.S. clients. For discount wholesale air tickets, however, USDT accepts only cashier's checks or wire transfers, please, since we are giving you exceptionally low net rates, below the lowest published discount fares available.

Remember, all clients to all foreign destinations will be asked by local officials overseas, upon departing the airport on your final day, to pay a nominal government departure tax, usually between USD $25 - $45 per client. USDT cannot collect this tax beforehand, so you simply pay it down there, in your host country. Be sure to stash away a little cash for this final moment at the airport, so you'll get your exit visa stamped quickly with no fuss; & away you go. Best of luck with your travel plans. We hope your Oman dive vacations are all safe & satisfying adventures. Blessings & best wishes.

Best fishes too!

>////*> <*\\\\<

John Hessburg, General Manager
Susan Hessburg, Operations Manager
Founding Partners of the U.S. Dive Travel Network.


© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel. All rights reserved.


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