Rob Stansfield

Philomorph with a sense of adventure and lots of curiosity

Down and out in Oman 1993

Camping in the Wahiba sands

Leaving the Wahiba sands in the Sultanate of Oman was slightly less dramatic than arriving there the day before. The women and children walked from the campsite to the main track. None of the women wanted to drive, honest! After digging out each vehicle a couple of times within thirty feet of the campsite, we drove them back to the track. Low gear, high revs and don’t stop unless you really can’t see what’s over the ridge were my instructions. It’s the closest thing to flying a car I’ve ever done, although “car” is hardly the word, given that a Mitsubishi Pajero with a six-cylinder three-litre engine, four-wheel drive and air-conditioning is a far cry from the Renault 4 we used to drive.

Once out of the sands we drove back up the tarmac road for about half an hour to the town of Ibra. We reflated the tyres as soon as we could, filled up with petrol (except me who forgot) and put the cars in a prominent position to attract the attention of Tony, Joanne and (another) Rob who we’d arranged to meet there. They found us in the local cafe/restaurant drinking freshly crushed fruit juice. Soon, after a family picnic lunch in the shade of a tree, two cars left for Muscat. Anne took Penny and the kids back in the Pajero, Philip and Pascale left with their kids Alexine and Magali.

Then began my first adventure of 1993 on the first day of the year. Jerry drove me in the (borrowed) Daihatsu “gulf stream” Rocky, and Tony drove Joanne and Rob in his Nissan Patrol fitted with “desert dueller” tyres. (No, I’ve never been obsessed with cars before). We quickly left the tarmac road and started on a “graded road” which is a bulldozed, sometimes leveled, dirt track. Jerry had notes from three months before so I could navigate and we measured the distances between significant landmarks. It was better to be in front, the second car had to drive in a cloud of dust.

The scenery got wilder and wilder and the track got less believable. After thirty five miles we started to climb the mountain on a track that swooped and banked and rose like the flight path of a helicopter in a dogfight. I had to hold on with both hands. Occasionally we would pass rudimentary dwellings made of stone with date palm fronds for roofing, some goats about, but few people. A permanent village was visible across a valley. Mainly, it was high and precipitous rock, dry, sandy, and with colours ranging from white calcium through pink and orange to black volcanic outcrops. We were climbing to a mountain plateau at about seven thousand feet altitude.

Another fifteen miles, and on the plateau we came to a number of old tombs in the shape of giant beehives, built five thousand years ago on high meandering ridges. Jerry left the track to climb onto such a ridge where we could camp next to a good example of one – twelve feet in diameter, about twenty feet high and with a small passageway at ground level to let the spirits out and the curious in. From partial ruins, it seems the circular walls were built twice, making them extra thick. The slate-like stones fit together perfectly making a smooth curve that contrasts with the fractured, irregular landscape. We had brought wood and made a fire to cook our supper.

With an alarm set for five in the morning, we got up in the dark, breakfasted, and broke camp at six with the sun. Another half an hour’s drive and the track finished at a village made of crude rock shelters and caves in the hillside. We then had a two hour walk which I enjoyed enormously, the first proper walking I’d done in Oman, despite the nearly three weeks we’d been there. We climbed out of the steep sided bed of a dry stream, crossed a couple of ridges, and descended to a sandy plain. There was occasional thorny scrub which sheltered animal droppings, and there were myriad paths criss-crossing the plateau, but precious little to navigate by. We were walking into the sun as a ghostly mist came up to the plateau from the direction of the sea. Jerry announced that we were supposed to head for a single tree on the skyline, now invisible. Walking in a desert, at altitude, in a thin mist, is really spooky.

We got to the first hole in the ground after one and a half hours, which was good going. The second hole was the one we wanted, about fifteen feet by thirty feet, uneven, and which ever way you looked at it, the edges were all overhanging a deep black space. I had the 650 ft rope in my rucksack, which left not much room for anything else. Jerry rigged up the belay, laid the rope over a couple of rucksacks on the rock edges to prevent damage to it and threw the rest down. I didn’t hear it hit anything. I volunteered to go first and Jerry, Tony and I prepared racks to abseil on. Joanne and Rob were cavers and used descenders.

The most frightening bit was leaving the rock to become suspended on the rope. On the descent, the trick is to feed the rope through slowly but continuously. After thirty or forty feet my eyes already adjusted to the gloom and I began to be aware of the vast subterranean cavern. I could see walls curving away and then the bottom, without features, a long way away. A moment of vertigo came with the knowledge that it was four hundred feet to the bottom. It took me a very long ten minutes of continual descent, and at the end I was surprised how strenuous it had been. The rack was hot.

Joanne was the next down and seemed to take an age. At the beginning of her descent she was just a dot high up on the dangling rope. I went for a walk. I had landed on a slope scattered with the small bones of goats who must have lost their way and taken a long, long fall from ground level. There was a forceful impression of stillness. Nothing moved, not even the air, and there were no flies or other living thing. There was a goat carcass testament to a recent fall.

I scrambled down the slope, which was just a pile of rubble which had fallen into the cave from the roof over the years. I walked for about twenty minutes to get to the far end of the cave, and looking back, the long suspended rope was hair-like, thin and insubstantial. Light entered the cave from two large holes in the roof and one or two smaller tunnels. It was quite light enough to move around and explore. At the base of the slopes it was sandy and flat, giving the impression that every so often water ran around the base to keep it that way. However, there was no sign of an exit tunnel which would have excited the cavers.

I wandered back to the rope to meet Joanne, who was exhausted. Her rigged-up harness had not been comfortable, and she needed to get her circulation going again in one leg. If I remember right, Tony was coming down next and then it would be time for me to go back up. We wanted to keep at least two people at the top in case of emergencies. In fact, it wasn’t clear whether everyone would make it down and up the rope in the day – a minimum of six hours would be necessary – so Jerry had volunteered to be last, since he had been here before. I went for another walk but could easily hear and talk to Joanne and Tony all the time; the cave was a chamber of echoes.

Going up was something else again. I had practised the vertical crab-like movements necessary to climb the rope, on Jerry’s balcony the night before. I knew the importance of a nice tight harness with the jumar held close to the chest. But that was still mostly theory, now to be tested. First of all, four hundred feet of rope stretches a lot. So I was attempting to keep my balance, standing on the rocky slope and doing the heave-ho movements and going nowhere, for ages, although the rope was slowly passing through the jumar. Eventually I left the ground, but oh so slowly, and so far to go. With no breeze, and the exertion of jumaring, I was quickly slippery with sweat, which ran off me for the entire ascent. It seemed to last for ever, and I was breathless with the effort, not at all fit. I tried to find a rhythm, ten times knees to chest followed by a stretch of arms and legs for the next reach, but I couldn’t always get to ten before panting. After seeming hours, I could make out the roof better than the floor, but it was dreadfully slow. Coming up into the fissured hole, fresh air was fantastic and the bright light made it impossible to see below any more. Stupidly, it felt safer when I couldn’t see the distance below me.

We timed each other’s descents and ascents and I was not fast. Forty eternal minutes was my time, and the others were more or less similar, usually a bit better, until Jerry. It was great to be out in the sunlight, exhilarated from the experience. I stripped off to dry in the sun, though the air was cool, and eat chocolate, drink some water and rest. I got some photographs but the contrasts between bright ground and black cave entrance were difficult to allow for. This time I really did have a few hours to dawdle and day dream as the other Rob went down and Joanne and Tony eventually came up. The rule, of course, was never more than one person on the rope at one time. Towards the end of the day, Jerry decided we just had time for him to do the descent. He went down slowly, professionally, since a too-rapid descent would burn and perhaps melt the rope. But he came up like a bat out of hell in about twenty minutes, lathered but still with reserves of energy. Oh well, I had better go back to the gym when I got back to Strasbourg.

The walk back over the plateau was beautiful. We spread out, each at our pace and with our own thoughts, until we reached the hilly edge of the plain and the steep narrow dry stream beds that led back to the cars. It wasn’t obvious what direction to take. Several kids came to meet us with curiosity and requests for presents, from the dwellings near the cars. We hadn’t much to give, and friendly turned to unfriendly pestering and some stones were thrown as we left. The drive down was spectacular and jolting but we had to keep an eye on the petrol – my fault it was low. It was dark by the time we hit the valley, and navigating was more art than science. Jerry’s main fear was hitting a camel, their long legs mean they can come right through the windscreen. Anyway, we made it. And back to Muscat for a shower, food, a beer and a good night’s sleep. What a way to start the year.

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