Overground, underground

Time Out wombles through the canyons and caves of Wadi Kabanha and Jebel Hafeet

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Caves tend to make people feel a bit weird. They get unnerved: ‘Oh, I wouldn’t like that’, or ‘I’m freaked out by small spaces’, and so on. There’s a prevailing belief, probably founded on a diet of alarmist TV rescue dramas, that if you go caving, you will inevitably become wedged deep beneath the ground.

It’s possible that caves make the government nervous, too. Recent years have seen huge networks cemented closed, in part to stop untrained idiots from wandering in and getting lost, but also to satisfy the
odd belief that rainwater, as it falls on a mountain, runs into its caves, depriving the valley below.

None of this, however, has stopped Julie and Calin Lewis of Mountain High tracking down a number of completely intact, untouched cave networks with the help of other guides based in the region. It’s at one of these – an elegant run of low red and brown rock, packed with tiny mouse-tail bats and large heaps of their guano, buried at the foot of Jebel Hafeet – that they’ve kindly brought Time Out.

Mountain High’s weekly tours into the caves actually begin just over the border in Oman, with a spot of warm-up canyoning at the almost forgotten Wadi Kabanha. Its distance from human habitation, aside from a few sun-bleached date plantations, has kept the wadi pristine.

After meeting at a fairly early hour on Al Wasl Road, we jump into Land Rovers and head in the direction of Al Ain. Upon reaching Kabanha, we’re handed wetsuits with the advice that, deep in the wadi, the sun-shielded water will be chilly. We slip them on, much to the amusement of a couple of date farmers who stare at us as if we’re a pack of sleek, black ETs wandering around the desert.

Julie tends to limit groups to around six people, ensuring a consistent pace is maintained throughout the day. Once we’re into the wadi, we begin a lengthy but easy-going scrabble through deep-water pools. Collapsing into one of these unbelievably cold pools, which literally snatch your breath away, has a strange exhilaration to it – especially as the sun gets higher through the course of the day.

We duck under fallen palm logs, squeeze between precarious rocks, and Julie’s enthusiasm keeps the slower among us going as she excitedly points out the incongruous palms that jut out from the wadi walls. ‘It’s just so lush here,’ she exclaims as we scramble over moss, disturbing an army of frogs who bounce away into another pool.

Calmed and cooled, we emerge from the wadi and loop back through dense palm undergrowth to the 4x4s. After an outdoor lunch, we jump into the cars and head back over the border towards Jebel Hafeet.
We pull up at the foot of the mountain, don boiler suits and helmets and begin walking. Suddenly the group stops. There’s a barely noticeable crack in the ground, no wider than the span of my arms. It’s hard to believe that this unassuming hole is the beginning of a network of caves running deep under the mountain. We lower ourselves down, click on head torches and begin to pick our way through the gloom.

Fortunately, since waterlogged chambers feature heavily in many cave-based nightmares, Jebel Hafeet’s network is free of such concerns.

It’s atmospheric down here. There’s a wonderful silence to the place. Again, Julie’s enthusiasm is omnipresent. The lowering ceiling forces us to our hands and knees and we file through chamber after chamber, the squeaking of hundreds of bats just audible.

We enter a wide chamber of burgundy rock. Tiny, twitching bats shimmer in the light from our head torches. We’re told to lie down, resting our heads in our helmets and switch off the lights. The darkness is thick and intense, punctuated only by the soothing sound of our breathing.

Julie had previously mentioned her interest in what she calls ‘goal trekking’ whereby trekkers assign life goals to physical points on their journey. She’s done trips in Nepal where, she claims, concentrating on personal objectives through each leg of the climb elicits the feeling of completion in trekkers as each section is completed, something to take onwards. She suggests things we might visualise in the darkness; for example, our goals, and the animals and colours that we associate with them.

But, as she talks, I drift off into my own thoughts and am surprised to discover that my fears of descending into the black belly of the earth are long forgotten; in their place, there is a unique peace – the type you can only find deep inside a mountain.
For more information, call 050 659 5536 or check out www.mountainhighme.com.

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