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.
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.