Oman is now getting attention for what’s hidden underneath its craggy peaks. Majlis Al Jinn has the world’s ninth largest cave chamber, while the pools and caverns of Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab attract a growing number of visitors every year.
Of the country’s many caves, Al Hootah is the only one with guided tours, and it reopened earlier this season four-years after severe floods in 2012. The 45-minute tour offers a small peek into this cave’s 4.5 kilo-metre network, following a paved 700-metre path up and around two chambers. It’s an easy walk.
The tour begins with a piece of local lore, told from the base of the cave’s first cavern, a sloping chamber that leads to a 150 metre by 30 metre hall and the cave’s underground lake.
“The story goes that a shepherd lost his goat and that’s when the cave was discovered in 1960,” our guide Yaqadan Al Hattali, 21, tells us.
There are eight of us on the tour and entering the cave is like walking into a cathedral. Encompassed by silence, we unconsciously shift to speaking in whispers. Stalagmites and stalactites on the edges of the cavern are lit by amber lights, casting shadows across the cave’s pockmarked ceiling. But we are not alone. The cave is home to water beetles, snails, hunting spiders and blind, semi-transparent fish called garra barreimiae. When Yaqadan stops speaking, the only noise is the chirping of mouse-tail bats.
The goatherd’s tale is the official story of the cave’s discovery. But Yaqadan, like all of the guides, is from one of the local villages, and knows that Al Hoota cave was once used long ago as short- cut and an escape route in troubled times. He knows men who have entered through its lake, swimming 950 metres to reach the cave’s main hall and scrambling over boulder patches in the darkness to the other side of the mountain.
We enter through a less adventurous route, a five-minute electric train ride on the mountainside that moves at Kodak speed over a shallow wadi.
Yaqadan, an engineering graduate who studied in Indiana, speaks and walks quickly, giving us a crash course in geology. The cavern around us is at least 2.2 million years old, formed at a time when Oman was a greener, wetter place. Rainwater dissolved carbon dioxide in the soil, making carbonic acid that seeped into the rock, dissolving it into vast caverns.
This cave’s geology is not unique in Oman, which is covered in unexplored cave networks. Al Hootah Cave was surveyed in 1995 and opened to tourists in 2006. Following renovations to the main centre and repairs from the 2012 floods, it reopened in September 2016.
The cave’s relaunch may be the beginning of Oman’s cave tourism. “People talked about it like it was lost for so many years,” says Yaqadan. “I think in the future there will be more caves like this for people in Oman because people say it’s fabulous, it’s amazing. You see what’s beneath the mountains.”
Part of the government’s economic diversification strategy includes new tourist sites promoting Oman’s unique geology, above ground and below it. The government plans to develop Majlis Al Jinn as a tourist destination and has done surveys in the 230-metre deep Tawi Attair sinkhole near Salalah to see if it has potential for cave tourism.
Those plans will take awhile to bear fruit. Al Hootah cave does not have the wow factor some other sites in Oman do, but it is perfect for families. Many of the best sites in Oman’s Hajar Mountains, like the trek at Balad Sayt village or the hike along Oman’s grand canyon, Wadi Ghul, are only for the sure-footed with a head for heights. Al Hoota offers a way to experience the region’s incredible limestone geology without the risk. While the short tour alone might not merit the two-hour drive from Muscat, it is a worthy stop on a visit to the Dakhiliya region.
The centre has a geology exhibition, gift shop and a restaurant. Al Hoota Cave is located near the town of Hamra, at the base of the Hajar Mountain’s highest summit, Jebel Shams. Spring is a perfect time to visit, after the winter frosts and before the humidity of summer. The weeks ahead are almond blossom and rose harvest season. Nizwa and Bahla, two old capitals of Oman’s interior, are 35 and 25 minutes from Al Hoota respectively, so you can get to know the Hajar Mountains from the inside-out.
• Al Hoota Cave tours run every half-hour from 9.30am to noon and 2pm to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and should be booked in advance (00968 25 42 21 97). Tickets are 3.5 Omani rial (Dh33) and 1 rial for Omani adults and children, and 6.5 (Dh62) and 3 rial (Dh28) for other nationalities. There are discounted rates for educational groups.