The drive from Jeddah to Harrat Khaybar Lave Field, 160 kilometers north of city of Madinah, was long and started just as the sun was coming up and I was grateful for the coffee I was slowly nursing as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. We were a caravan of 7 cars headed down a highway that seemed to stretch on forever. The further north we drove, and colder and more beautiful the scenes around us became. Majestic mountain ranges began to blossom on the horizon and it made the six hour drive to our destination all the more enjoyable.
Within the territories of Khaybar, lies an intricate and ancient geologic system of three lava tube passages believed to be 3-5 million years old, Umm Jirsan being the longest in the Arab region measuring up to 1,890 meters long, 45 meters wide and 25 meters high. These lava tubes were formed by rivers of molten rock that had drained out of a volcano millions of years ago and eventually solidified, leaving behind its fiery wake, an encrusted channel of basalt, ash and sediment.
Eventually the stretches of highway and mountains gave way to the oceans of petrified lava fields of Bani Rasheed, who greyish contrast stood out against the deep blue hues of the Saudi sky, and we finally made it our destination. Travel weary and sore, we started to set up camp and I was surprised at how cold it was. I think it was the first time in living memory that I had to put on thermals and a heavy jacket in Saudi.
After setting up our tents, the instructors gave us hard helmets and masks and we were off to explore Umm Jirsan. We hiked down a steep pile of rocks and crawled through a narrow opening and then we saw it, the gaping mouth of Umm Jirsan ready to swallow us whole into its blackened belly.
Nothing is more humbling then standing before a 3 million year old cave opening. There was something ominous, and yet wonderfully enticing about it and I took a deep breath and pressed forward with my tribe of fellow explorers and felt the heavy curtains of darkness enfold around us.
Other than our headlights, It was pitch black and it took my eyes a moment acclimate. Once they did I began to look around and absorb the magnanimity of the cave, which held ancient wonders and mummified glimpses of the past. Umm Jirsan has played host to a variety of animals such as wolves, foxes, bats, birds, snakes and human beings for thousands of years, and is still used by animals for shelter today. As we continued to make our way through the snaking lava tube, we noticed unusual geologic formations, such as hardened molten earth that had solidified millions of years ago and now resembled folds of the human brain. After inspecting the mounds of rock and bones that littered the floor, I looked up to the high ceilings of the cave. Twisted formations of basalt patterns stared back at me and they seemed to hold grimacing faces within their geological swirls. The air was dense and thick as we kicked up the soft powdery sand that was mixed with ash and (to my delight) guano charitably left by bats that have lived in Umm Jirsan for thousands of years.
Twenty minutes into our hike through absolute darkness, the instructor called us to gather in a circle. Once we had all congregated together, he explained that in order to truly experience the darkness and silence of this cave we needed turn off all of our headlamps and anything else emitting light and just stand in silence. And so, with apprehension we did. The darkness was crushing and I felt as if the entire cave had turned into a cocoon that began to wrap itself around me. My claustrophobia kicked in and I struggled to take deep breaths through my mask. I have never experienced the meaning of true darkness until then and I just wanted to run back into the comforting rays of the sun. We stood there not knowing which was up or down anymore and I wondered how much longer would we have to endure. Finally after what felt likes hours, a flickering light sliced through the blanket of black. It was one of the instructors who had walked ahead of us and surprised the group with a fiery torch and I breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the golden flames that softly glowed against the blankets of ash, stone and bone.
We continued and after an hour and I finally felt at ease in the darkness, and soon the cave had come to an end. The growing light of day spilled into the cave’s exit and we hiked up back into the open sky just as the sun was setting over the lava fields of Khaybar.
Nigh time in the desert is truly spectacular and I spent most of the night with my eyes heaven bound looking upwards towards the deep blue and black canvas of the night sky. Before us was a blanket of kaleidoscopic celestial bodies, composed of starts and planets that seemed to wink at us from space.
The next day we explored the second cave, Majlish Al Jinn, whose cave opening consisted of a gigantic mound of 6,000 year of swift and bat guano and explored its dark corners. For the finale, we had the wonderful and terrifying opportunity to repel down the side of sheer cliff that fed into the cave opening.
Driving back to Jeddah, covered in a thin layer of ash and earth, I felt grateful for having the opportunity to explore a side of Saudi Arabia I did not know even existed. As we left the petrified lava fields of Harrat Khaybar and headed towards the city, I began to miss the silence and serenity of the desert and silently promised that I would be back to explore the caves of Khaybar once again.
Written by Laila Yafi