Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh, Kath Jones
I crawled out of my tent, unable to sleep. It was a dark, cold night; the sky a tapestry of blinking stars. Some 20m away, swallowing the moonlight, was a black void, the width of a car and length of a lorry. It was Napoleon who said that the rarest form of courage is the two in the morning sort. And while I wasn’t going to be charging any Russian Cossacks or Prussian cannons, at dawn I would be descending that deep sink hole into the earth’s core, hoping what goes down, comes back up.
Stomping up Jebel Shams Oman's highest peak.
Fiona and I had come to Oman planning to tick off its iconic adventures. In fact, drawing up such said list wasn’t simple, with little information available on this shy kingdom at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula. Nonetheless, in a flurry of activity, we hiked the Fisherman’s Trail; descended Snake Canyon; climbed the ‘via ferrata’ in Oman’s Grand Canyon, Wadi Ghul; stomped up Oman’s highest peak, Jebel Shams; and almost purchased a goat in the Nizwa souk, when I waved at Fiona during the auction. All that remained was some scuba diving off Daymaniyat Island, before I could laze on the beach with a clear conscience.
‘The Seventh Hole should be on everybody’s bucket list,’ pronounced Justin Halls, a Pom living in Oman, who we met abseiling waterfalls in Snake Canyon.
The exciting road up to the Selma plateau.
Now, obviously, Justin would say that, given he worked as a guide for the Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre which organised trips there. However, a bit of research piqued our interest and we decided to go. After all, Oman is famed for its spectacular underground caverns, with the Seventh Hole considered top drawer. First explored in the 1980s, this labyrinth of deep subterranean chambers is reckoned to be 50 million years old.
We spent the morning in a Muscat climbing gym, familiarising ourselves with the equipment needed to get into and out of the hole. Since we’d be abseiling 120m on a single rope, a climber’s standard figure of eight wouldn’t do: it would travel too quickly and get too hot, possibly singeing the rope or, worse still, disintegrating. Therefore, we’d be using a much chunkier device called a double-stop descender, plus - on a separate back-up rope - an ASAP mobile fall arrester, to catch us if the other line failed. Then, to get out of the cave, up vertical and overhanging walls, we would haul ourselves up a rope with a jumar, leg loop, chest harness and Croll.
We pitched our tent a short stumble away from the Seventh Hole plateau.
Once Justin had explained how all these devices worked, we were strung up from the ceiling on ropes, where we hung like prey in a spider’s web, struggling, grunting, but barely moving. Till then, I’d considered myself fairly au fait with abseiling and jumaring, but these new techniques required some concentration and coordination. It reminded me of playing the drinking game Cardinal Puff, after a few too many beers.
Fortunately, we were spared prolonged humiliation by the need to depart. Stowing our gear aboard our Land Cruiser, we followed Justin south out of Muscat. On our left was the shimmering, turquoise Gulf of Oman; on our right, rising to 3000m, the jagged, grey Al Hajar Mountains. After an hour, we left the highway and turned right, on a twisting dirt road which climbed at 45 degrees alongside an alarming precipice. Immersed in a cloud of dust behind Justin’s Land Rover, we could only guess where the road was.
A nonchalent Roger about to drop in.
Once we reached the Selma Plateau, at 1400m, the road levelled out and we passed through scruffy settlements populated by threadbare camels, shaggy goats and snotty-nosed children who chased after us trying to sell bunches of wild thyme.
A stationary jeep on the horizon signalled our destination and we carefully followed Justin across the plateau, past sink holes large enough to swallow cars. Our other team members were already setting up camp, just a stumble away from a gaping abyss, which was the entrance to the Seventh Hole. Steve and Katherine Jones, and Roger Saxton were leading UK cavers, and - given they willingly spent their free time in dark, narrow underground passages - seemed surprisingly normal.
After gingerly inspecting the neighbourhood, we pitched our tent and went off to collect firewood.
‘Watch out for vipers,’ warned Justin, cheerily. ‘They look just like sticks’.
Fiona abseils in.
We spent the evening round the campfire, drinking wine and listening to tales of potholing around the world - which invariably involved being lost in dark mazes, stuck in tight fissures or almost drowned in flooded sumps. Turning in for the night and unzipping my tent, I watched Justin tether his leg with a rope to his Land Rover.
‘I sleepwalk,’ he explained. ‘And don’t want to wander into the hole during the night.’
At seven a.m., the tardy sun hit the plateau, summoning us out. Justin was already rigging the ropes, using his Land Rover as an extra anchor.
‘It’ll come in handy if we need to pull someone out,’ he laughed.
Descending into the Seventh Hole.
Roger had been nominated first to descend and was irritatingly nonchalant as he posed for photos, waving both hands, suspended horizontally over the 120m drop. We watched him ease down the rope, till he disappeared into darkness. Fifteen minutes later, the radio crackled to announce he was down and the rope was free.
‘Enjoy the view,’ smiled Justin, as I waddled backwards over the lip, resolutely refusing to look down.
After a few metres, the lip cut back, my feet left the wall and I was spinning in space. To divert my mind from the yawning void, I focused on keeping the rope running smoothly through the descender, so the ASAP didn’t lock. As the light faded out, I chanced a glance down, thinking I might be nearly there. It was like peering into an inkwell and when I switched on my headlamp, it made no impression. Sometime later, my toes touched down and I unclipped from the rope.
Signing the vistors book.
Once we were all down, we explored the chamber. With its towering, water-polished limestone walls, cool musty air, vast echoing vaults and shafts of light from the small windows above, it was like being inside a gothic cathedral. There was even a visitors’ book to sign, and I was almost inclined to light candles and leave a donation.
In the corner, a sinkhole dropped 160m into a deeper cave system, which the others eyed longingly, but fortunately wasn’t on our itinerary. Instead, we clambered up a scree slope, through an arch and into a narrowing passage. As we stooped our way along, Justin pointed out a small cubby hole, where – on a previous trip - he and a companion had taken refuge when the cave suddenly flooded.
‘We spent five hours here spooning to keep warm,’ he said, with a hint of nostalgia.
Steve modelling in the lower chamber.
The English trio all laughed and started recounting their stories of being caught in flash floods and spooning on ledges. Meanwhile, I crossed my fingers that it was a dry day up above and hastened my step.
As it was, in order to go up, we first had to descend further, abseiling 25m into a small, circular lower chamber, filled with polished boulders from prior floods. The exit from here was via a vertical 70m cliff, facilitated by a rope which Justin had lowered down the previous evening.
Clipping on, I tried to recall the drills we’d practised in the gym. Sit back in the harness, push up the jumar, stand up in the leg loop, thrust my chest forward, push up the Croll, repeat. It was a sweaty, spasmodic action, like Quasimodo dancing hip hop. Inching up the rope, I eventually emerged in dazzling, warm sunshine, near an old woman tending goats.
‘Don’t take photos of her - she’ll throw stones at you,’ warned Justin, for once displaying some alacrity. ‘I’ve seen her hit people from 30m.’
A short scramble brought us onto the plateau, not far from our tents.
The next morning, looking up from Muscat, the Al Hajar Mountains had gone, enveloped in swirling black clouds. Soon there was the rumble of thunder, followed by torrential rain. If we’d been down the Seventh Hole now, we’d be swimming and spooning. I made a mental note not to visit the underworld again, until I have to.
First published in The Intrepid Explorer