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Al-Wahba Crater: A natural marvel.

JEDDAH: SAMI NAIKSometimes the travel bug really gets into you and you decide it is time to travel somewhere. You make a plan, choose the destination and off you go.

My friends who I shall refer to as musketeers, decided to visit a volcanic crater that we had checked out on the Internet. The view astonished us so much that we musketeers made a plan to see it for ourselves. We packed our bags, filled our petrol tanks, set the GPP on the mobile to avoid getting lost and set off on our journey in a Hyundai Veloster 2014.

We would cover a total distance of 437 kms over a five hour duration traveling at a conservative speed of 120 km/h. We planned to start from Jeddah to Makkah, a distance of 75.7 kms. Just as we reach Makkah, we will divert to Al-Huwaya, 116 kms away. From Al-Huwaya, a straight road over a stretch of 184 kms will take us to a village known as Umm Aldoom and then onward toward Nimran at a distance of 28.5 kms. This is the last inhabited spot before we reach the crater, at a mere 32.7 kms.

The road has many bends but where there is no mention of speed limits, we can usually drive faster than the standard 150 km/h. I took the Airport road on my way to Al-Huwaya where you can see the Prince Sultan Military Hospital to your right, and the Taif Airport and a Sports Complex on your left.

It is almost dark as we approach the village Umm Aldoom and we move cautiously trusting the car's headlamps to navigate us safely on. I turn left toward Nimran and from there I can almost glimpse the volcanic crater which is called Al-Wahba Crater.

The nights are starry and bright in the open desert, a rare sight often eclipsed by the dazzling lights of the cities.

Al Wahba Crater is 250 m (820 ft) deep and 2 kms in diameter. It is so deep that if you throw a stone from the top, you will hear it hit the ground after 6 seconds.

The bottom of the crater is covered with white sodium phosphate crystals. It is a protected site under the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD), who are responsible for developing and implementing plans to preserve wildlife in Saudi Arabia. This crater is almost similar to Barringer Crater located in the Arizona desert of the United States.

There has been much speculation about the origin of the crater. Many believe a meteorite hit the place. According to Wikipedia, geologists agree that Al Wahba Crater is classified as a Mr Crater which is caused by a phreatomagmatic eruption-an explosion caused by groundwater coming into contact with hot lava or magma. As far as size is concerned, mr craters can measure 200 to 26,000 ft across and from 30 to 660 ft in depth.

David J. Grainger, Senior Geological Editor with the Saudi Arabian Directorate General of Mineral Resources, with reference to this crater, stated in the journal 'Geology Today' issued back in January 1996 that "A Quaternary phreatic event drilled out a crater 2 kms in diameter through Proterozoic basement rocks and Quaternary lava flows. The crater is rimmed with a tough ring of debris from the explosion." Climbing a crater is almost like landing on the moon or reaching the peak of Mount Everest. I also descended pretty fast, in just 25 minutes.

The NCWCD has ensured that there is only one route to follow and that it is hassle free. There is no need for a guide to assist you. Steps have been cut out of the rock to facilitate the walk. Not surprisingly, there is no mobile signal there.

Gazing down, the large thorns and bushes look microscopic from the amazing height. We, musketeers-cum-geologists explore the land mass which is covered with white sodium phosphate crystals glinting tantalizingly in the moonlight.

We walk carefully not to lose our balance on the tilting surface of the crater as we try to examine the land. As I am not a student of petrology or geology, I am not able to describe the land in scientific terms. One-third of the layer looks like whipped cream frosting over a ME[micro]venpick chocolate chip ice cream. As I bend down to touch the ground, I find that some layers are brittle and break with a loud crack.

The crater is also surrounded by lava rock, dead branches and bushes, probably from some latent heat emanating from the bowels of the crater.

Some bloggers and visitors claim that they saw a snake in the field but we didn't. After walking for a kilometer around the crater, we were glad to see the pale grass where we planned to rest for a while. It was 8 in the morning and the sun's heat had begun to beat down strongly. One of the musketeers reached the top of the crater first leaving us in awe of his climbing skills. One caught asthma and the other overweight musketeer came down with a severe backache. I was in pain too as my ribs seemed to be squeezing my lungs and breathing became an ordeal in the air.

The sunshine became an irritant as the heat seared our eyes and bodies. Looking up at the trail, it seemed as if a hawk was staring down at you. Although I had descended in 25 minutes, my friend's backache delayed him by 90 minutes to reach base.

We were really exhausted and decided to take some rest. I kept on thinking of ron Ralston in the movie '127 hours' and how he had survived the ascent trapped underneath a boulder.

When we finally woke up, there was pin-drop silence but we were refreshed enough to start again. One of the musketeers came like an angel bearing with him a bag of mineral water, orange juice and energy drinks. I was lucky to have left my car keys with him before leaving for the crater. In another 15 minutes we were good to go and I felt fit enough to drive back to Jeddah despite the physical exhaustion of the climb.

To sum up my experience, I forward the readers a 'Wahbah Crater hiking checklist', so you can manage a perfect trip to the amazing place: 1. Extra water (min. 3 large bottles) 2. Pack of snacks 3. First-aid kit 4. Pocket-knife 5. Extra pair of hiking shoes 6. Whistle 7. Bandana or hat (for protection from the sun) 8. Pair of gloves 9. Binoculars 10. Insect repellant 11. Toilet papers (plastic) 12. Plastic bags (garbage) 13. Duct tape 14. Two sets of hiking ropes 15. Small microfiber towel In the end, I am thankful to my fellow musketeers who made the trip delightful, unforgettable and worth the adventure.

Oscar Wilde once quoted, "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."-- Follow me on & @saminaik_asn

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Jan 14, 2014
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