The Desert Caves of Saudi Arabia
by John Pint
Over the centuries Arabia has hosted a variety of Western explorers attracted by its inaccessible beauty and the vastness of its deserts and rocky plains. With the fresh eyes of outsiders, they saw significance in the commonplace and recorded both their observations and the remarks and customs of the people they encountered. They created an invaluable resource for posterity. With the recent passing of Sir Wilfred Thesiger some writers have described his demise as the end of a long line of Arabian explorers.
However I would disagree. There is still one man who is continually exploring the Kingdom and discovering the most amazing places. Places that the others completely missed because as they traveled over the desert, he has crawled beneath it. His name is John Pint and his book, which I hope will be the first of many, is The Desert Caves of Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Pint at work
The book begins with a brief technical explanation by Peter R. Johnson of the geological genesis of these caves located near the town of Maaqala, approximately 150 miles northeast of Riyadh. Written in laymans terms and concisely illustrated, this overview sets the table for the visual feast that ensues.
After fruitlessly examining a series of holes that led only to sand-clogged tunnels, Mr. Pints first discovery came when he found "a small hole no wider than a dinner plate." A light, warm breeze emanating from this cavity encouraged him enough to enlarge it with a chisel to perhaps the size of a serving platter. Then trusting fate and a thin cable ladder, he squeezed into this small hole to descend into a dark void. John and his companions must have been overwhelmed by what they found. Huge caverns studded with strangely shaped stalactites and mazes of passages that continued for miles. They named it Dahl Sultan. Dahl being the Arabic word for cave and Sultan the name of their local guide. This cavern was to be the beginning of Mr. Pints 20-year odyssey in quest of the natural treasures beneath Arabias surface.
In the pages to follow, the reader is treated to a fantastic collection of photographs, most especially those taken by Lars Bjurström, richly reproduced to the demanding standards of Stacy International, the UK publisher. There are pictures of subterranean cathedrals as well as tiny intricate crystals whose beauty would have humbled Faberge. There is the gaping maw of Dahl Abu al Hol, The Father of Fear, that could swallow a gigantic 18-wheeler truck without a trace. There is Gecko cave where these small reptiles guard over a bewildering array of stalactites.There are the bats and spiders that inhabit these nether regions and, of course, their mummified companions. There is a nearly 2000 year-old Arabian Red Fox that looks as if just arrived fresh from an ancient Egyptian funerary.
Dahl Abu al Hol from below
Gecko guarding a stalactite
This book makes it clear that cave exploration is about more than adventure and awesome pictures. These caves are absolutely vital as a kind of drain for the countrys infrequent rainwater to replenish its underground aquifers. The mud floor of an undisturbed cave literally entombs, in layer after layer, centuries of spores, pollen and minute insect life that compose a virtual catalog of the Peninsulas natural history. The health of these dark habitats contributes to the living lizards, bats, foxes, insects and other creatures that maintain a healthy desert ecosystem. Dr. Maher Idris, the director of the Saudi Geophysical Survey, deserves enormous credit. He understands the importance of these underground labyrinths to the geological health of his country.
And he recognized that Mr. Pint's blend of deep core-experience and infectious enthusiasm made him the ideal man to explore Arabia's caverns and teach the craft and delight of spelunking to a generation of Saudi geophysical specialists. The scientists who will investigate the secrets of these many caves. The guardians who will protect and preserve these delicate, national treasures for generations to come.
As a somewhat claustrophobic reader who would never consider entering a hole in the ground the size of a serving platter, this book took me to an Arabian world that I could have never imagined. If I have any complaint with The Desert Caves of Saudi Arabia, it would be that it ended too soon. Hopefully in the future John and his wife, Susana, an accomplished Saudi-caver, writer and photographer, will produce another volume that will allow me to continue my subterranean journey beneath the deserts of Saudi Arabia, from the comfort of my armchair.
Tim Barger, Editor ~ Selwa Press
The Desert Caves of Saudi Arabia, 120 pages in Arabic and English with countless photographs. Published by Stacey International, London 2003. Available in Saudi Arabia at Jarir Bookstores. In the USA at www.speleobooks.com, in the rest of the world direct from www.stacey-international.co.uk.
For more information about this book or the work of Mr. Pint and the Saudi Geophysical Survey connect to www.saudicaves.com