Caving in Dubai

Don’t be frightened of what lies beneath, we head under Jebel Hafeet to discover a peaceful world right below our feet

Caves tend to make people feel a bit weird. They get unnerved: ‘Oh, I wouldn’t like that’ and ‘I’m freaked out by small spaces’, and so on. There’s a prevailing belief that, if you go caving, you will inevitably become wedged deep beneath the ground, probably founded on a diet of alarmist TV rescue dramas. 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 mousetail 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 warmup canyoning at the almost forgotten Wadi Kabanha. Its distance from human habitation, aside from a few sunbleached date plantations, has kept the wadi pristine.

After meeting at a fairly early hour on Al Wasl Road, we jump into Land Rover’s 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 strap them on, much to the amusement of a couple of Pakistani date farmers who stare at us as if they’ve spotted a pack of sleek, black ETs wandering through the desert.

Julie tends to keep groups to around six to set a good, consistent pace and once we’re into the wadi, we begin a lengthy but easy-going scrabble through deep-water pools. As the sun gets higher, collapsing into one of these unbelievably cold pools, which literally snatch your breath away, has a strange exhilaration to it. 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 a pack of frogs who bounce off 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 fi le through chamber after chamber, the squeak of hundreds of bats just audible. I can tell Julie is almost gasping to break into the Indiana Jones theme tune as my behind bursts indecorously through a tiny gap and dust puffs into the air.

We come into 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 animals or colours we associate with achieving them. But, as she talks, I drift off into my own thoughts and am surprised to discover that any inherent fears I had been holding on to have gone and, in their place, there is a unique peace – the type you can only fi nd deep inside a mountain.

Scheduled expeditions: March 21 and April 18, Dhs500 per person. Tailored trips also available (050 659 5536)

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