Khasbar Cave

March 2010


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A walk to caves with ancient rock art

Dhofar, Salalah, Oman

The mountains of Dhofar, Oman's most southern province, are famous for their multitude of caves.

Bent (1900) has the following to say about the people and their caves in the Dhofar:

"The Gara, in whose country we were now, are a wild pastoral tribe of the mountains, travelling over them hither and thither in search of food for their flocks. They are troglodytes of a genuine kind and know no home save their ancestral caves, with which this limestone range abounds; they only live in rude reed huts like ant hills, when they come down to the plain of Dhofar in the rainy season for pasturage.

and continuing

It is interesting to read in the 'Periplus' (p. 32) a description of this coast and of the high mountains behind, 'where men dwell in holes.' We often went to visit the troglodytes in their cave homes, where we found men, women, and children living with their flocks and herds in happy harmony. The floor of their caves is soft and springy, the result of the deposits of generations of cattle; in the dark recesses of the cave the kids are kept during their mother's absence at the pasture, and though these caves are slightly odoriferous, we found them cool and refreshing after the external heat. In some of them huts are erected for the families, and in one cave we found almost a village of huts; but in the smaller ones they have no covering, and when in[260] the open the Gara cares for nothing but a tree to shelter him. All their farm implements are of the most primitive nature; the churn is just a skin hung on three sticks, which a woman shakes about until she obtains her butter. Ghi or rancid butter is one of the chief exports of Dhofar. They practise too, a pious fraud on their cows by stretching a calf-skin on a stick, and when the cow licks this she is satisfied and the milk comes freely. They have but few pots and pans, and these of the dirtiest description, so when we got milk from them we always sent our own utensils." 

People must have lived like this in their caves for thousands of years. Not surprisingly we now find their scribbles, drawings and paintings in many of them.

Ali Ahmad Mahash al-Shahri, a Dhofari, has for many years been collecting these. Ancient rock art, painted, scratched or pecked onto the cave walls or overhangs; all in the same style. Some feature writings of an unknown script but their number is so small that deciphering has not been possible to date (see also Rosmee's blog).

Ranulph Fiennes in his "Atlantis of the Sands" (1993) devotes a number of pages to this remarkable Dhofari and his quest to resolve the riddle of Dhofar's ancient script.

"Ali took us to the homesteads of his people, the Shara, high on the grassland downs of Kizit, where there are cattleherders, and deep in the Wadi Darbat, where they keep large herds of camel. The caves near each settlement reflected in their paintings the business of the region. Camels were everywhere, depicted walking, trotting, emaciated, fat with large humps, couched in pairs or in long caravan lines, suckling babies or milked by herders. Pictures of camels being ridden immediately told those of us who had previously listened to Juris that the paintings must be later than 2500BC, when camels were first domesticated. We were fast becoming amateur archaeologists.
There were also goats, cattle, horses, foxes, snakes, wolves, ibexes and leopards. Less frequent were palm trees and plants, crude maps, planets, especially the sun and the moon, and various types of sailing ship..."

We had read about a cave near Jabal Khasbar, not far from Salalah, featuring interesting paintings of horses and camels and decided to try to find it. The instructions were reasonably clear and pointed to the road leading to Ayn Tobruk (signposted along the main road from Salalah to Mirbat) and from there up to Jabal Nashib in the direction of Madinat Al Haqq. 

Jabal Khasbar turned out to be conspicuous conical peak dominating the skyline above Ayn Khasbar. It also features an ancient fortification, originally built to guard the water supply below, re-used by the Portuguese and even more recently in the Dhofar war.  For a lot more details about this fort check out Ross Hayden's story (Rosmee's Blog).

Google Earth map. 
Tracks can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file.

How to get there:
A weekend to Salalah is easiest when flying from Muscat on Wednesday evening and returning of Friday evening, giving you almost two full days to explore.

Most roads described are accessible by normal car, but for the steep gravel road up to Jabal Khasbar you better have a four-wheel drive car.

Take the coastal road from Salalah to Mirbat and turn left at the junction signposted Ayn Tobruk. The tarmac road will take you to a junction with one road to the right, leading to Ayn Tobruk and the road up to Jabal Nashib and beyond to Medinat Al Haqq. A detour to Ayn Tobruk is worthwhile. It is a nice spring with an intricate channel zigzagging to keep the visitor interested. High up is the conical hill, Jabal Khasbar, where you would want to go next.

When you wonder about the many little sandy hills in the bushes on the slopes around you, some a few metres across and up to a metre high, just wonder how much m3 of soil the termites (yes these little ants are their buiders) have been moving around.

Return to the junction and continue the steep ascend. The tarmac ends where the steep slope up starts. At approximately 2.7 km from the junction to Ayn Tobruk is a tight curve with ample parking space safely on the left side of the road (@ 17 6'13.94"N -  5418'57.33"E). Walk slightly up to the next turn where a clear path starts on the right side of the road. The first 550 metres is an easy walk on a good path, essentially following the contours. When you cross a small side wadi (@ 17 6'31.72" -  5419'1.17"E) you will spot a large tree downhill and even deeper downhill a large dead tree. If you take these as your markers while walking down and subsequently head left, down towards the wadi below, you will get to another clear path that leads into the wadi (some 400m from the place where you started your descend). From there you should see the caves and overhangs to your left (north). That's where you will find your paintings (@  17 6'42.43"N -  5419'5.90"E).

Just take photographs and do not add any modern graffiti.

The path left out of the wadi at the other side will take you up Jabal Khasbar where there are the remains of an ancient fortress hidden below the grass and bush, but that needs a bit of a climb. The fortress dominates the spring of Ayn Tobruk below.

The walk is best doable when the grass is gone (there are Arabian Cobras reported in this area) and before the heat starts. Our walk in March was near ideal.

This trip can easily be combined with a trip to Ayn Hamran (almost next door), Wadi Dirbat, Tawi Atayr, the Taiq Sinkhole and Jabal Samhan, Wadi Hinna , Wadi Dirbat and Khor Rhori.   

Tracks can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file to the Khasbar Cave and  Google Earth kmz file to Samhan, Dirbat.

All coordinates and tracks are with reference to WGS84, UTM zone 40.


  A relaxing walk -with great views- will take you down into the side wadi of the larger wadi Tobruk, northwest of Jabal Khasbar. We had a bit of problems finding the right part of the wadi and the right caves, walking too far, but on the way back found the right spot.

The overhangs and caves in this upstream part of the wadi are higher than the wadi bed and therefore provide a dry and safe shelter.  

A beauty spot, with impressive fig trees pushing their convolute root systems anywhere they can, even creating a bridge for the tree to get out of the shade of the surrounding trees.

Ancient Graffiti

Hidden in the recess of the first overhang to the right are many paintings of horses and their riders, these ones with a fresh blackness as if they were made yesterday.
Horses with riders, most of them faded, but still clearly visible. The vertical striping on most of the surfaces at first sight looks like faded horse legs, but they are clearly aligned in bands and one starts wondering whether these are a kind of tallies. Rosmee's blog also shows examples of possible tallies. There may even be script hiding in these strings.

Clearly once a cave system with the original stalactites and stalagmites in place.
Up in the trees small colonies of weaver bird nests swinging in the wind

Also camels and an intricate pattern of dots, looking as if they were made with fingers dipped into the black paint, having the right size and fitting fingers.

Not only paintings, but also drawings and these look as if they were made with charcoal. Note the shape in the upper left, which looks like a sailing boat? Simple drawings but too high up on the wall to have been made by children.
  The conical top of Jabal Khasbar, quite impressive from below, but up here just a small notch. It does feature an ancient fortress hidden in the bushes. 

A bit of Geology

Salalah is situated at the edge of a coastal plain that is bounded at the back by steep mountains. Steep to the sea (south) side, but gradually rising from Oman's interior desert plateau from the north. Wadi drainage patterns clearly illustrate this, with long wadis draining the mountains to the north and short, deeply incised wadis cutting the steep nothern scarp. Most of this mountain plateau consists of carbonate rocks with a Tertiary age. Unlike other mountains these are not strongly contorted and folded, but can be best described as a thick slab of limestones, tilting to the north and sharply cut by faults in the south.  The thick sequence of limestones is most eroded in the south and that's where the older limestone units form the mountain plateau. Further to the north the younger limestones cover about half of Oman's interior desert plateau. The Tertiary limestones  belong to the Hadhramaut, Dhofar and Fars groups (from bottom to top). Most of the Dhofar caves occur in the limestones of the Hadrhamaut Group, which form also the highest edge of the mountain plateau.

Simplified Geological map of Dhofar by Hanna & Al Belushi (1996)

The Hadrahamaut Group comprises from bottom to top the Umm Er Rhaduma Formation (its limestones home one of the best aquifers in interior Oman), the Rus Formation (shales and evaporites, sealing the aquifer below) and the limestones of the overlying Dammam and Aydim Formations. The overlying Dhofar Group again mainly consists of limestones of the Zalumah Formation passing upwards into the marls sandstones and limestones of the Ashawq Formation. The thick fine white chalks of the Mughsail Formation partly belong to the youngest Fars Group with overlying limestones and conglomerates of the Adawnib Formation and conglomerates of the Nar Formation (Hanna & Al Belushi, 1996)

The Dhofar Mountains are exposed to the summer monsoon rains (the Khareef from June to September) and together with a possible even wetter climate periods in the past this has caused extensive dissolution (karstification) of the limestones. Water draining into the honecombed limestones of the Umm Er Rhaduma feeds this aquifer deep below into Oman's interior desert plateau all the way out to the last waterholes at the edge of the Rub Al Khali (such as Shisr / Ubar).
All were worried when I disappeared in the undergrowth of the wadi too far upstream and they sent Jandam on a rescue mission. That's what friends are for. The booklet literally mentioned "that if you want to have a long and happy life you should try to avoid the Arabian cobras that are well known from this area", Danka certainly appreciated that when we told her afterwards. Shirin and Cyrus patiently followed wherever I disappeared into the bushed on the quest for caves. 

References (Visitor)

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@ J. Schreurs March 2010