Tawi Atayr
The well of the birds

(Tawi Atayr, Tawi Atir, Tawi Atair, Tawi Attair, Tawi Ateer)

April 2009

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Tawi Atayr sinkhole on way down with in centre a steel contraption at the middle level where the hole narrows to a circular shape.
The sinkhole of Tawi Atayr (Attair) is located in the Qara Mountains of Dhofar in South Oman not far from Mirbat. Tawi Atayr is Arabic for "well of the birds" which is a very appropriate description as there are many birds nestling in crevices, cracks, holes and ledges along its sheer vertical walls.
At the surface it measures approximately 140m in NE-SW direction and about 100m in NW-SE direction. Its vertical depth is about 210m. Halfway down it narrows to an almost circular hole of approximately 60m across. As such it belongs to the largest sinkholes in the world.
How to get there:
It is an easy drive from Salalah and signposted "Tawi Atayr" from the Salalah Mirbat road close to Taqah. The road takes you to up the limestone scarp and through the gentle rolling landscape of the Qara limestone plateau to the village of Tawi Atayr about 19km from the turn-off. The village is not clearly signposted and you may drive thru before you know. The sinkhole is not clearly signposted either, depending on where you enter the village. If unsure it is best to drive to the small Al Maha petrol station and ask where the sinkhole is. They will point to a small shade in a valley behind the Tawi Atayr Administrative centre (17 6' 48.6534" N 54 33' 19.8364" E WGS 84, UTM 239886.2 E 1893580.7 N, Google Earth Track file attached). Not surprising this is the lowest point of the valleys connecting to it, See also Google Maps.
We visited the area while staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the middle of the palm grooves at the eastern edge of Salalah (Ad Dahariz). This is an ideal starting point to discover the eastern coastline to Mirbat and it will take you only 30 minutes by car to get tot wadi Dirbat and the archeological site of Shumhuram where wadi Dirbat meets the sea at Khor Rori.

Watch out for the camels, donkeys, cows and goats that roam freely on the roads. The views from the road to Tawi Atayr are stunning. The village itself is a quiet backwater surrounded by extensive meadows and features a school and a government building.

The visitor parking place is directly to the NW of the hole. A newly surfaced path takes you to a viewing area on the edge, but because of shrubs and its location you can't really get a good impression of its depth and size. The more adventurous can walk around the sinkhole to get better views, but one should be careful because of the sheer vertical drops at most sides. A relatively easy way halfway in is by following a clear path down a gully from its western side. This leads to a first horizontal narrow ledge from which one starts to appreciate the dimensions of this big sinkhole. A bit of a steeper climb down takes you to approximately halfway in the sinkhole. Here is a metal framework, anchored in concrete, hanging over the vertical face of the now circular deeper part of the hole. If you are not afraid for heights you could climb around the sinkhole using a reasonable rock-ledge at this level. Alternatively sit and watch the many birds nestling in cracks, hollows and on the many ledges. When we were there we noticed many swifts, doves and what looked to be a few birds of prey circling higher up. If you are interested in birds check-out the Birdwatching guide to Oman that includes a few pages on Tawi Atayr. The happy sounds of many birds will certainly accompany you on the way down.

A bit of geology

The sinkhole is a karst feature that developed in the thick limestones of the Qara plateau. The valleys connecting to the sinkhole all lead down into it and there is only one way for water to go and that is down into the limestones. Over time the dissolution of the limestone rocks created caves at successive deeper levels. These later collapsed in an upward sequence, ultimately breaking through to the surface creating the big hole that we see now. One can see the walls of the sinkhole decorated with stalactites and stalagmites. More extensive horizontal cave system connect to the sinkhole at the water level. The Qara plateau features many caves, sinkholes and dolines.

The cave is described by Hanna & Al Belushi, 1996. Impressive pictures can be seen in a 2003 issue of the National Geographic Magazine (Crouch, 2003).


Tawi Atayr cross section taken from Hanna & Al Balushi, 1996. Note the schematic path at its western side.

Above and right, seen from the visitors viewing platform, which shows only the upper part of the sinkhole.

View from the upper ledge

Overhanging plants on the upper ledge

Upper ledge from the path down

Middle ledge with steel construction hanging over the steep deeper part of the sinkhole
Left: stalagmites and rock ledges seen from the middle ledge in the sinkhole
The following is taken from a story by Mohamed Alian (2010) that was published in the Observer.

"....Its local name Alsharkh literally means 'the fissure' . Certain translation of Tawi Ateer to "well of birds" is wrong. Of course 'tawi' is Omani for 'well', but Ateer is not birds, but rather the name of cow herders settlement next to it, an ancient human settlement site thanks to the lakes at the bottom of the sinkhole. However, hundreds of swifts and rock doves nest in crevices, holes and ledges along its walls.
The birds fly around inside the immense space and their coos and twitters echoes between the sheer vertical walls. The experience just stirs the soul. Old locals told me the used to fetch water from the bottom. Even live with their cows in the upper ledge during bitter winters! One can descend halfway down till he or she reaches a no-longer used water pump metal base. Down from here the huge space narrows to an almost circular hole of approximately 60m across, leading to the water. There British cave explorers discovered in 1980 a depigmented new fish species: Garra
dunseiri, after Arthur Dunsire, the collector. British Museum (Natural History) has to say about it: "It seems to be geographically very isolated even from any other species of fish; the closest species is found more than 600km away." Tough eyes appear normal it can not use them in those pitch dark passages. Instead it uses tentacles and vibration sensing to navigate around.
A Slovenian cavers team has been exploring these lakes and underwater passages since early nineties. They believe they are connected with both nearby Taiq submerged cave, among the world's largest and wadi Dirbat spring. There is talk about turning the sinkhole to a tourist attraction and as a member of Oman Environmental Society, I must say this will bring ruin to its sensitive ecological system eventually ending its immense environmental importance...... "

As a side note it is not surprising to find the name 'Ateer' associated with the village next to the sinkhole. Ateer or attair does mean 'fly or the flyer' and the name is therefore closely linked with the birds and the sinkhole where many birds live. The nearby Taiq 'submerged cave' (most likely a collapsed cave) mentioned in Mohamed's story is many times larger, but less spectacular.  

References

  • Alian, M., 2010, The largest sinkhole in Oman. Observer Weekend, Wednesday 21 April 2010.
  • Crouch, G. 2003, Caves of Oman. National Geographic, April 2003 issue.
    http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0304/feature2/index.html
  • Eriksen, H.&J and Sargeat, P&D., 2001, Birdwatching Guide to Oman. Al Roya Publishing. www.alroya.com
  • Hanna, S. and Al Belushi, M., 1996, Introduction to the Caves of Oman, published by the Sultan Qaboos University, International Printing Press, Ruwi, Sultanate of Oman.

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@ J. Schreurs April 2009