For some reason I have been enjoying Riyadh just recently. Maybe it's the weather. Or maybe it's the fact that we had a good break with the family over Christmas that I'm still buzzing about. Or perhaps it s the attention that The Husband has been paying me recently. Whatever the cause, life has felt rather upbeat just recently. And in this positive frame of mind The Hubster was more than happy to go in search of some caves out on the Dhana Dunes.
There are a group of cavers (or spelunkers if you'd prefer) in Saudi. We are not one of them. But after having read about caves in Saudi, I decided the idea of roaming around caves in the desert sounded kind of cool. So, for the past few years I've been attempting to find the location of two caves on the Dhana Dunes that don't require spelunking gear.
For very good reasons like vandalism, the dangers associated with caving and the general brainless activity of wrecking anything they find, cave locations aren't published to the general public by the spelunking crew. It has taken a good deal of Googling to find what I was looking for. Or at least I thought I'd found it. (If I knew any spelunkers I would've just asked, but I don't, hence the need to Google).
As the dunes we needed are only three hours away and we presumed to know exactly where we were going, our departure from Riyadh was left till late in the afternoon in our rented Fortuna packed with some of our new camping gear. This was a perfect weekend, we decided, to test out our new purchases - namely some great big heavy duty swags that don't actually fit anywhere in our apartment, so are stacked on top of each other in a corner of the lounge, next to our bicycles that also don't actually fit in the apartment, but there's nowhere else to put them except in the lounge.
Hubster was guided directly to the Google co-ordinates I'd unearthed. It turns out the co-ordinates were to a RawDhat - or park area -completely fenced all the way round obviously to keep people out so that plant life has a chance to grow. Initially I thought we'd stumbled on a local cemetery so wasn't that keen to go find a cave in the middle of it. It took driving almost the entire circumference before Hubster and I decided we'd come to far not to go traipsing through looking for our cave. We didn't find it. (And it wasn't a cemetery).
It must be around here somewhere, I said to Hubster as we were retracing our tracks toward the highway.
Why don't we ask the people in that tent, says Hubster.
What people, I said given that there weren't any people to be seen.
And there, parked by the tent that on our arrival had been flapping in the wind, was a Ute.
We drove around the tent, as you do in Saudi, and nobody was there.
But a little way off was an SUV. And just beyond that were makeshift metal pens with a number of goats (or sheep - I can't quite tell the difference with the animals up this end of the world. NZ sheep look like sheep. ME sheep could be goats and vice versa!) And outside the pens was a Saudi bloke. We drove over and he came to the car to say hello. We managed to communicate thanks to his daughter whose English was sufficient that between us we could all get our messages across.
We are looking for caves, we said.
He was surprised and there followed, in pigeon English and Arabic between the four of us, this conversation...
Him: It is late in the day. The sun will be setting in just over an hour. You can't go into caves now.
Us: We'll find the cave and then camp beside it and go searching through it in the morning.
Him: What! Camping! You can't be camping out tonight. No, no, it is too cold to be camping. Come back to our place, eat, sleep and we can take you to the cave tomorrow. It is too far tonight.
Us (to each other): What do you think? I don't mind if you don't mind.
Us (to Him): Ok, that is very kind of you.
(Obviously the entire conversation wasn't quite as black and white as all that, but as a summary it's spot on).
Once the invitation to his home was settled he called us over to the pens to meet his wife who was busy with the hired help, a young bloke from India, attaching baby goats to adult females that were tied to the pen fencing so they couldn't argue with the fact they were there to feed. (On closer inspection I decided these were goats).
The wife was given the news that there would be extra company tonight and she seemed perfectly OK with the idea. It was as though this family were quite used to strangers rocking up late in the day and being invited for dinner. And soon we were being shown how mothers are attached to fences and kids to mothers. (I wish I had taken more photos!)
We followed this family out of the desert to their home in the nearby small township. On arrival Hubster headed to the tent near the entrance of the house to spend the evening with the men while I was shown the way to the ladies hang out, out back.
The house was not the huge flash triple story buildings that you see in the city. No. This single level dwelling was a family home. And the family were quite happy living in it with its collection of comfortable rooms circled around a large central courtyard, in the middle of which was another big tent.
I was taken to one of the rooms alongside the tent that was decked out as a Saudi salon - brightly colored wall to wall carpet with cushions up against the walls for leaning on and covered squares scattered about for added lounging comfort. Next to that was a large kitchen and a store room (almost like a huge walk in pantry) and next to that was the parents quarters. Round the corner was the bathroom - a toilet, shower and washing machine were housed in it - a simple yet functional space. Another large room took up an area on the opposite side of the square that I understand the boys slept in that night, while behind the tent was yet another building presumably providing various rooms for the rest of the family.
Mum organised qahwah and dates and also gave instruction on what was to be prepared for dinner and soon we were joined by other female members of the family - daughters, daughters in law, aunties, nieces and grandchildren most of whom, I learned, lived in houses next door. We sat around the gas heater that had been lit to warm the room. Dad had been right. It was a very cold night.
Dinner was a simple yet delicious meal served up in the middle of the circle of ladies all sitting croiss legged on the floor (except me...just haven't got this leg crossing position down). Throughout the evening the women chatted and the kids went running in and out. They were happy to practice the English they had been learning in school and I used the tiny bit of Arabic I know, turning to the dictionary on my phone for everything else. The evening passed very pleasantly indeed and I felt perfectly comfortable in this gathering.
The Hubster let me know what went on in the man tent. He said they asked lots of questions about NZ, were constantly making sure he was attended to with qahwah and dates and were somewhat bemused we didn't have a GPS to assist our travels (a Google Map on iphone doesn't rate as GPS), and just couldn't believe we would go camping alone in the desert. Although Hubster does not understand much Arabaic at all, he could tell by the warmth of the men he met, and in particular on the face of father who invited us to his home, that we were extremely welcome.
By 9.30pm the dinner things were cleared up, the women bid goodnight and Hubster was brought over to the salon. It was time for bed and he was going to be sleeping in here with me. I gather from this family that Saudi in the rural areas go to bed early which was fine with me - I was tired. We bought gear in from the 4WD - pillows and our backpack of clothes (the swags had to be left for another day) - and settled in for a very comfortable sleep.
I woke around 6am the next morning and, after getting dressed, decided to go for a walk to take some photo's of the area. Dad was up already and he had the fire lit in the guest tent with thermos's and kettles lined up beside the fire keeping warm. He waved me in and I curled up by the open fire place while Dad offered qahwa and dates followed by some hot and sweet milky tea and we used hand signals and short sentences to talk about families and work and caves and living in Saudi. Hubster wandered in later in the morning and then I was called back to the ladies area because breakfast was ready. It was being served in the big tent.
After breakfast one of the sons, with a few of the kids on board, was charged with guiding us to the nearby caves. Dad was wanting us to come back and have lunch, but we had imposed enough. Plus our time was limited as we had another event to attend that evening back in Riyadh.
Hubster couldn't believe the caves when we reached them. He had been expecting a massive hole in a hillside and was wondering where the heck such caves might be given the landscape we were driving through was relatively flat and sandy.
Desert caves are holes in the ground. And not particularly large holes either. The first was just a little gash out of which birds where flying. If you stood close enough, though not too close else you'd slide in with the sand, you could hear them twittering. The kids picked up stones and threw them into the hole and we listened to see if you could hear a thud as they landed at the bottom. (Nope, heard nothing).
The second cave was much larger, but unless you knew where to find it you'd have difficulty locating it because only as you get close do you see the hole in the ground. We are amazed at how Saudi's know their way in this flat seemingly featureless and always changing desert. This cave was big enough that we could walk down into it as, it was obvious from the graffiti on the walls once we were inside, numerous others had. We thanked our new found friend and guide and set about walking down into the cave.
The sandbank ended in a rather large cavern that people had been using as a picnic spot, evident, as per usual in Saudi, by the rubbish left behind.
As part of my research to locate caves in Saudi, I'd also been reading the Saudi Caves website and picked up a bit of info on the different formations that can be found underground. Though not optimistic of finding much because crappy humans had been here making a crappy human mess, I wandered off into the recess with my torch to see if I could spot anything. I attempted to explain to Hubby why I was taking photo's of the cave ceiling. It was difficult to create enthusiasm in my caving partner when I don't know exactly what I'm looking for nor precisely why it's of importance. Perhaps next time I'll bring a passionate speleologist along for the ride who can do all the talking.
After taking a few pics of the cavern I looked around for my buddy and he had disappeared. He'd gone over to the other branch of the cave. Naturally, I followed him over there.
He was nowhere to be seen. And the rock pile at the branch head didn't look particularly easy, nor safe, to clamber over. I wondered how he got over it! I gave a shout and he answered when I called. Come on down, he said. On closer inspection a narrow strip of a sand bank ran down the side of the rocks. The quickest way down was to walk and slide down the sand. There was always the thought that loosened sand may destabilize the rock fall, or perhaps I've watched to many Indiana Jones type movies. Anyway, once that first foot hit the sand there was no looking back. Getting back up was gonna be a butt and thigh killer!
Hubster was standing on a shelf part way down - among more rubbish. He'd broken off a tiny piece of white rock from the roof and proudly showed it to me, saying there was a lot of this all over the place. It has taken a few years, but I have learned that the best way to tell The Hubster something he may not like the sound of is to start with, 'darling I love you but'....I think this stuff takes years to form and breaking it off isn't really what you should be doing in the interests of cave conservation.
Oh, he says. You're right. Sorry
(He may not always listen, but when he does he's a quick study).
I took a few more pictures from the shelf. It looked as though this cave came to an end a short way down - more rubbish was down there. We decided we'd seen enough. There was no need to go further. Apart from the fact it got a bit narrower on the way down and we aren't exactly thinly built, it was going to hard enough walking back up the sand from our current position.
Coming back up to the surface into the bright sunlight you can appreciate why caves were used by Bedu for shelter from the elements. It's a pity the modern desert visitor doesn't treat the place with a bit more respect.
We spent a bit of time just marveling at what lay beneath the desert. If we could we may have tiki toured about looking for more caves, but time was not on our side. We had to head back to the city. And it would soon be time for lunch. We still had our chilly bin full of food, having tried and failed to give any of it to our hosts the night before.
Sitting over the smoke of the fire was the only way to eat our meat in peace this day because the wadi we had chosen was full of plant growth which attracted goats, sheep and camels, which attracted flies. It was funny. I had to laugh. What a weekend we had had. It began searching for caves, wound up finding fabulous bedu hospitality, continued roaming around underground and ended cooking over a fire beside a dried up river bed with roaming camels and evading flies. Some days, you just gotta love Saudi.