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Oman On Assignment

Oman On Assignment

Oman
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.




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Underworld Wonderland

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By Gregory Crouch   Photographs by Stephen L. Alvarez



Deep in Arabia, scientists descend into some of the world's largest caverns. Their mission: To see if tourists could one day explore Oman's caves without putting their lives on the line.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Louise Hose is an odd mix of no-nonsense academic and gonzo caver. On campus at Chapman University in Orange, California, she's known as an enthusiastic geology teacher. Outside the classroom she's earned a reputation as a hard-core adventurer—confident, decisive, even abrasive.

An unlikely mission brings Louise to Oman: The government, aware of her caving credentials, has invited her to examine the country's spectacular limestone caves. Her research team will systematically survey the caves, using satellite-based global positioning technology to pinpoint cave entrances, lasers to calculate interior volumes, and air-monitoring sniffers to check for harmful levels of gases, such as carbon dioxide. The team's biologists will gather and analyze water samples and inventory the flora and fauna both above and below the surface.

Someday Oman's lucrative oil reserves will be pumped dry, so the government is encouraging economic diversification of all kinds—from copper mines to cookie factories. The caves, they hope, could be developed into a tourist attraction like New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which generates more than 30 million dollars a year.

Following management guidelines used by the U.S. National Park Service Cave Resources Program, Louise's project will generate a complete 3-D map of the largest cave system, as well as detailed geological, biological, cultural, and paleontological data. The idea of underground tourism might seem crazy, but she plans to give it a thorough testing. Are the caves too dangerous, unstable, or their ecosystems too fragile to sustain tourism? Or could they support a new national park, attracting sought-after tourist dollars to Oman?

******

Louise wants to examine Tawi Attair, the Well of the Birds, a huge sinkhole within the massif. Twenty miles (30 kilometers) east of Salalah the mountains squeeze toward the sea, and we turn away from the coast onto a road that rises into the highlands. Walls of stacked limestone blocks bound the fields, where cattle and camels graze on natural terraces—abundant herds that embody the wealth of these mountain tribesmen, the Jabalis. The landscape is emerald green.

******

We turn off the pavement and park in a cow pasture. Thick wet grass soaks us to mid-thigh as we push toward the pit's edge. Ahead of us the ground vanishes—Tawi Attair, a 690-foot (210-meter) hole that formed when a cave roof collapsed long ago. Inside, it's big enough to fit a 50-story skyscraper. Great curtains of green foliage festoon the walls. Hundreds of swifts, rock doves, and even a few raptors pinwheel inside. Their coos and twitters well up to the lip. Suddenly the idea of tourists stepping out of a bus to admire this monstrous hole doesn't seem so far-fetched.

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Multimedia

VIDEO Hear how gunfire and lost goats added to photographer Stephen Alvarez's Oman adventure.

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Rope-Cam

Watch the team rappel into the bowels of Majlis al Jinn cave, more than fifty stories deep.

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Video by Stephen Alvarez


360 Image

Get a 360-degree inside look at the mouth and interior of Majlis al Jinn, one of the world's largest caves. Then take a tour of the Tawi Attair sinkhole (described in story excerpt at left).


Wallpaper

This month bring the thrill of caving, island adventuring, and chimpanzee watching to your desktop.




More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Around A.D. 300, a city called Ubar—a bustling center along the frankincense trade routes of ancient Arabia—mysteriously disappeared. According to legend, the people of Ubar became greedy and corrupt, refusing to change their ways. To punish them, Allah destroyed the city and erased all roads leading to it. Ubar was lost for thousands of years, but the legend lived on in Bedouin campfire stories, the Koran, and Arabian Nights. Many archaeologists believed the legend of Ubar was more than a tale, but searches for the lost city came up empty. That is, until the 1990s when NASA satellites and radar aided the hunt.

NASA's help proved to be the key to locating Ubar. Images from Landsat and SPOT (Satellite Pour l'Observation de la Terre) remote sensing satellites showed tracks through the desert, identified as old caravan routes. These tracks converged at the village Al Shisr in the southwestern corner of Oman. An expedition followed the tracks to the virtual "X" in the sand and began digging. Discoveries of ancient pottery shards from distant lands, frankincense burners, and remains of a fortress confirmed the archaeologists' suspicions—Ubar was real and its demise could be explained. Indeed, the legend was right: Ubar met a catastrophic end. Excavation revealed a giant limestone cavern beneath the fortress. The city most likely was destroyed when a large portion of it collapsed into the chamber below. Today, excavations continue to discover more about life along the frankincense road over 4,000 years ago.

—Marisa Larson

Did You Know?


Related Links
Department of Energy; Energy Information Administration: Oman
www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/oman.html
Discover the impact oil and natural gas have had on this small gulf state.

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Bibliography
Callan, Lou, and Gordon Robison. Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Lonely Planet, 2000.

Graz, Liesl. The Omanis: Sentinels of the Gulf. Longman,1982.

Ochs, Peter J., II. Maverick Guide to Oman. Pelican Publishing Company, 1998.

Riphenburg, Carol J. Oman: Political Development in a Changing World. Praeger, 1998.

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NGS Resources
Range, Peter Ross. "Oman," National Geographic (May 1995), 112-38.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Oman: Guardian of the Gulf," National Geographic (September 1981), 344-77.

Putman, John J. "The Arab World, Inc.: Who Are Those Oil-Rich Arabs, and What Are They Doing With All That Money?" National Geographic (October 1975), 494-533.

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