Friday, 30 September 2016

Al-Hoota Cave

I've been feeling this push to tick off as many Oman attractions as physically possible before the baby arrives. Al-Hoota Cave was something I read about before I even moved to Oman, but until about two weeks ago it had been closed.

Now there are two sides to the cave experience, being inside the cave and waiting to get inside. I'll start with the former.

The cave is estimated to be over 2 million years old, and while it has a total length of 4.5 km, about 0.5 km is accessible via a guided tour. Inside are epic rock formations created by water. You enter the cave via an electric train in groups of around 75 and walk along stairs and ramps to explore the various parts. The pace of the tour is a comfortable one, which is great considering it is very hot and humid inside. The guides stop at various points and tell you a bit about the history of the cave, how it was formed, animals living inside etc, and it takes around 45 minutes to do the full circuit.

The cave has been closed for the last four years, but once you step inside you can see the effort that has gone into making it suitable for visitors; there are sturdy paths and steps and good lighting (although there doesn't seem to be disabled access). The cave is mostly rocky, but towards the end of the tour there is a lake, which contains some blind fish and provides a much-needed breeze before you make your way to the exit and take the train back to the main entrance. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to fill this post with pretty pictures of the inside of the cave because you aren't allowed to take any, but it is definitely worth a visit, and in theory you could combine it with a trip up to Jebel Shams, as the cave is found at the base of the mountain. It's also worth mentioning that there is a very interesting museum that you can also visit, which has a bit more information about the cave and the general geology of Oman, and there is a place to get food and drinks.

The reason say "in theory" you could combine a trip to the cave with another activity is that getting inside is quite another thing. The cave does have a fancy new website to go with it, and there you can book tickets for a particular time slot, and find out more information about the cave. It certainly gives off a very professional vibe, and you would expect a very organised, smooth operation when you get there.

The first problem starts in the car park. Considering the cave can take 750 visitors a day, there isn't enough parking to accommodate everyone, and if you are unlucky you'll have to park a fair walk away. It's the same with the waiting area inside, and there is general chaos as everyone pushes and bundles together to either sort out their tickets or get on the train. Unfortunately, the people in charge don't do a good job of letting people know there is a system (you get assigned a group number when you collect your tickets) and it means that people just start pushing and generally being disorderly. We did book ahead and had a 12.45 time slot, but this seems mostly arbitrary, and we didn't get in until around 2.30. Interestingly on that day they had been taking bookings between 1 and 2pm, even though we were told there was a "break" at that time. I'm not sure if that break happens every day, but it's worth noting. Your best bet would be to arrive first thing in the morning, and make sure to book tickets as I've heard you can get turned away otherwise.

I don't know if we got particularly unlucky with the day we went (Eid holidays, a few days after opening) but, I hope, the running issues get sorted out quickly and the cave can be the nice addition to the Oman attraction scene that it should be.

Check out Al-Hoota Cave website, here, for more information and to book tickets.