Caving as a Life Journey

Mahmoud Alshanti
Sourced Photo

An Interview with Mahmoud Alshanti, a lifelong cave scientist and explorer.


Despite exploring several caves and sinkholes before, just the thought of descending into them is fascinating and many questions come to mind. What am I going to find inside? Is it dangerous? How long will it take to go through it? Also, to us in Saudi Arabia, we were unaware that there are different types of caves not far away from our homes. Caving and cave tourism are fairly new to us. In order to decipher all of this, I had the chance to sit down with Mahmoud Alshanti, the head of Cave Studies at the Saudi Geological Survey, and learn what caves are all about.

First of all, let us know about your history with caves. How did it all begin?

As a young geologist, I had a chance twenty years ago to work with a group of geologists who were setting up a program to explore the caves of the Kingdom. Back then, we didn’t have organized caving exploration programs and our aim was to approach the field from a scientific perspective. It was a challenge that I was willing to take despite the risks, and discovering and preserving caves became a life passion of mine from that moment on.

Mahmoud Alshanti at the limestone mossy cave in Alsumman Plateau, approximately 250 km outside of Riyadh. Sourced Photo

Mahmoud Alshanti at the limestone mossy cave in Alsumman Plateau, approximately 250 km outside of Riyadh.
Sourced Photo

So tell us about the Kingdom’s caves – what makes them unique?

We have a variety of caves in Saudi Arabia, and most are dry, which makes them easier to explore. There are limestone caves, created by a monsoon climate millions of years ago, as well as lava tubes, sea caves, and sandstone rock caves. Each area of the Kingdom has its own types of caves due to its geological history and composition. For example, as a result of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, at Harrat Khayber North of Almadinah, lava tubes were formed which look like tunnels underground. One famous example of this type of cave is Um Jersan Cave.

We need to keep in mind that these caves are filled with delicate formations that mostly took millions of years to form and any damages to them are irreversible. This awareness is crucial to anyone visiting a cave, which should always be done in the company of a licensed tourist guide who oversees safety procedures and has the knowledge and ins and outs of a certain cave. Caving alone without expert guides is a risk.

As the country is opening up to global tourists and we are moving towards geo-tourism, where does caving fall into the equation and how should cave adventures be approached?

First of all, caving attracts special kinds of tourists, those who are driven to adventure and explorations. To make the best use of our natural resources and capitalize on the niche tourist interest, we have to invest in the infrastructure and related preservation procedures.
My motto that not only do I firmly believe in but also strictly follow is, “Leave no trace: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and kill nothing but time.” This should serve as the basis of our touristic activities, making sure tourists enjoy their time while protecting our national treasures.

In this long experience with caves, what is the most striking thing you learned about them?

Contemplate this: you would imagine that those dark caves are lifeless, but a cave is not a dead static place, it is alive. Formations within a cave are continuously growing due to the water that is saturated with solutions seeping through the walls and cracks that create calcite formations.

Personally, what have you learned from caves?

Patience and persistence. Respect for nature. Not taking things for granted. The lessons are many, every time I am inside a cave I learn something new.

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Umm Jersan Cave

Photos by Mona Alzubair

Cave exploration is the next big thing in geological tourism, a major global trend for niche tourists. And here in Saudi we are more than lucky with an abundance of locations across the country for cave lovers to discover and enjoy.


Driven by a quest for unraveling mystery, I had my first experience of caving a couple of years ago while visiting and camping by the site of Umm Jersan cave. This one is quite unique as it is the largest and most celebrated cave in the Arabian Peninsula. I revisited Um Jersan recently, and it remains as majestic as it was the first time around.

Located in Harrat Khayber, a 14,000 sq.m. lava field North of Almadinah, Um Jersan is a well-known cave due to its incredible length (1,500 meters) and one-of-a-kind natural formations and occurrences. It has been, in a way, a hospitable refuge to many creatures, including humans, throughout thousands of years.

Nowadays, there are local tourist guides who are specialized in caves such as the Cave Exploring Team which is a group of licensed and trained tour guides.

Photos by Mona Alzubair

Photos by Mona Alzubair

They believe in the value of caves as an economic driver for tourism and maintain strong principles behind their work. Their motto is, when visiting a cave, you should “Leave no trace but of your footprints, no taking anything but photos, and no killing anything but time.” These are solid rules important to create awareness for preserving and appreciating caves as they contain a resilient yet fragile ecosystem of their own.

Caving is a serious matter and it should be approached with diligence. I learned that visiting caves is not a solo adventure and everyone should strictly follow the “Three People Rule” by never getting into a cave alone rather with two other people at all times. No compromise on safety is crucial.It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, this business of going under the surface of earth and into the unknown. But caves do hold within them treasures valuable to scientists, tourists and many others. There lies within remnants of once living creatures, birds, and animals who now use it as a shelter, as well as exceptionally beautiful natural formations and other features within the rocks. The damp air, silence and darkness of the cave were my opportunity to set my camera on a tripod and on long exposure mode which revealed the cave’s internal rock’s surface and illuminated the awe-inspiring details that took literally millions of years to be in its present form.

Photos by Mona Alzubair

Photos by Mona Alzubair

Back into the light of day after accessing the cave from the other side, many questions come to mind about the true value of caves beyond other apparent ones, whether scientific or recreational. Why would we care about caves? I think one of the answers could be related to their relationship with time. Given how long it took them to form and the countless stories they carry inside, caves are, in a way, a witness on time itself.

Cave Exploring Team
Twitter: cet_2030

Photos by Mona Alzubair

Photos by Mona Alzubair

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Must-Dos For Local Adventurers

Al Wahbah Crater, a volcanic crater 250 km from Taif, in the western region of Saudi Arabia.

Text and Photography By Mona Alzubair

Outdoor activities like camping or hiking present an invaluable chance to immerse oneself in an environment unlike our own. So as you pack and get ready for your next local adventure, leave your assumptions behind, live up to the experience, and own it. Here are five points that will certainly enrich your upcoming local outdoor travel.


1- Expand your horizon.
There are no limits to the amount of knowledge you can gain from an adventure. So push your boundaries, explore new surroundings, and ask as many questions as you can. What kind of terrain is it? How isolated is it from surrounding inhabitants? What kind of human impact is there? How did this location come to being from an ecological, geological, or other standpoint? As you continue to explore, you’ll thank yourself for going beyond the surface.

2- “Let the bird sing.”
Rest assured that the moment your city-life self interacts with nature, it retracts and somewhat limits your experience. It is a coded natural protection mechanism that living things guard and close on themselves when danger approaches, and yes, you can represent danger to a tree, a bird, or a wildflower!

Think of it this way: nature becomes itself when it is undisturbed and progressing on its own pace, not yours.

The delicate interaction between all the elements of nature will not be revealed or fully expressed to you or to others around you when you are loud, hurried, and abrasive.

So go about your adventure with the awareness that you are a visitor, bringing with you only respect and appreciation. Ponder on the fact that it took mountains and valleys hundreds of millions of years to form, and the surrounding younger and transformative elements are in sync with this ecosystem, moving all in harmony and in accordance to a grand wisdom. Respect it.

Ibrahim Mountain area, Bani Malik

Ibrahim Mountain area, Bani Malik

3- Be clear on objectives, everyone.  
Be conscious of why you are taking this trip. Is it a mini getaway from daily pressures? Do you want to see this specific location you’ve heard about? Do you constantly imagine yourself standing on a hill overlooking a magnificent sunrise? It could be anything, but you need to figure out what it is! As you do so, you should also inquire and align with the objectives of the group you are traveling with. The company you go with is what will make or break your trip, and if you are not aligned at least on the major objectives, expect that compromises will be made. This could range from the food you will eat if you are sharing resources, the timing of specific hikes and activities, and general rules of the group, etc. You are all in this together, so verbalize your needs.

4- Become a master planner.
Packing for a camping trip is a skill acquired through experience. Every time you do it, you become better at it, realizing that certainly you don’t need four t-shirts or your big bottle of body lotion for a 2-day trip when space is limited and every gram counts (especially if it is a backpacking trip where you will be carrying all your needs for a considerable length of time!). If you are traveling with a guide, ask questions – a good guide will let you know what the essentials are beforehand. It’s important to not let others “carry you” throughout the trip; don’t expect them to carry an extra headlight or camp chair for you, for instance. Train yourself to give up some comforts and embrace the hardships your upgraded self is now experiencing.

Al Ula is one of the tourism mega projects, a must visit for its natural marvel and historical significance.

Al Ula is one of the tourism mega projects, a must visit for its natural marvel and historical significance.

5- Aim for the stars (and/or the moon)!
As someone who practices night photography, I am fascinated by the night’s enormous potential for dream-like photographs. Among other things, the timing of your trip as well as how far you are from city lights will determine the outcome; each scenario has its own unique gifts to offer.

First thing I usually do is figure out where the moon falls in its lunar cycle. You will get a nightscape with the dominance of either the moon or the stars, not both. I once camped in a 1% moon phase in Al Ula, the starriest night I have ever witnessed – heaven was truly a place on earth that night. If you’re not into night photography, don’t discount the night time experience outdoors. Allow yourself to adjust to the darkness with as little light pollution as possible, and you will be surprised by what and how much you can see.

BONUS TIP:
The Principles of Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of international standards for outdoors decision-making.

The five points we mentioned are inspired by the spirit of LNT which informs on much more than how to minimize impact outdoors to a practical and ethical code of conduct.

These are golden rules; if you learn and practice them, you will have contributed to the preservation of the wilderness, and to spreading the love of nature.

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Wadi Zi Ghazal, Al Shafa

wadi-ghazal_photo-by-mona-al-zubair6-copy

The 100-Million-Year-Old Mountain.


Very few things in life compare to the joy of experiencing nature fully. The list of natural places to visit in our country is quite long, and we are blessed with unparalleled, rich, natural destinations to explore.

When I learned from my fellow nature explorers that our next destination was the Wadi Zi Ghazal in Al Shafa, I was thrilled about the prospect of being in the highest elevation in Al Taif region – over 2,421 meters from sea level.

Wadi Zi Ghazal is about 180km away from Jeddah, a mere 2.5 hours by car on a scenic mountain road. Since Al Shafa is locally considered a summer resort destination, going in winter meant we’d face some extreme cold weather, especially as we’d planned to camp outdoors for two full days.wadi-ghazal_photo-by-mona-al-zubair5-copy

The gracious Granite Mountain, as it is called, is becoming a new destination for the local climbers community. It was recently launched as the newest designated rock-climbing location after the climbing trail and bolts was properly laid down by the climbing community with the guidance of international experts. This sets a totally new era for the valley and the mountain.

We were lucky to have a geologist with us who explained how the Granite Mountain came to being – fire stones such as granite form under the earth’s crust in a slow crystallization process of the earth’s magma. The slow movement of tectonic plates over the years creates the pressure upward and pushes the formed granite stones above the surface. This process took approximately no less than a 100 million years. And this is basically what we are looking at today, the awe-inspiring 100-million-year-old mountain residing over the valley.wadi-ghazal_photo-by-mona-al-zubair3-copy

A climbing expert and enthusiast told me that this is a preferable mountain to climb since it is made of granite – it is solid, with minimal danger of falling pieces, and has a vertical surface which is an ideal challenge for the climbers. Climbers have been coming to Al Shafa in a quest to ‘conquer’ the mountain.

The location surrounding the mountain is astoundingly beautiful, especially in winter, when vibrant greens are evident everywhere. It was wonderful to know that this beauty is just a couple of hours away from us!

My personal reason for camping outdoors is to connect with the universe with minimal light and sound pollution, providing me with the experience of nature coming to life. Our camping companions follow the “Leave no Trace” principles and strive to respect the ecosystem, keeping the place as we found it.wadi-ghazal_photo-by-mona-al-zubair2-copy

I prepare myself with a specific mindset before going to any camping trip and that is to allow myself to be amazed and surprised, and to anticipate meaningful encounters with people or the natural environment. The universe is indeed wiser than me, and I am here to learn and be grateful. Given this understanding, nature solidifies the life fact that everything is impermanent and thus we must be fully aware of the moment before us.

One of the things I experienced in the two days I spent at the valley is hiking up the maze of rocks and encountering an ancient tree majestically situated and surrounded by young array of various species of green plants. The contrast and interplay between the two created meaning for me and I felt that closing the year 2018 off, I was ready for whatever comes in my path while bearing in mind this delicate relationship present in nature and in our own lives. I also felt that I was transported into a garden as the birds were singing in the background and the wind made its presence known via the trees – a true gift that deepens our appreciation of the plentiful, available to those who seek it.

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