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Cave Woman.

Byline: Nicola Shipway

(Images: Cavewoman3.jpg)

ItAEs gratifying to know that even superwomen get disheartened. For Cheryl Jones, the blues can strike when she is exhausted, wet and buried deep in the ground. oSo many times IAEve thought why am I doing this? This is insane.o

Cheryl Jones is a dynamo. A passionate and experienced caver, she thinks nothing of venturing underground at weekends. oI take my nephews caving. IAEm trying to get them to realise that it doesnAEt matter if a ledge is a few feet off the floor or on the top of the Empire State Building. You should go down a rope with the same confidence whatever the height.o

Caving is not for the lily-livered. A physically gruelling sport, it can involve climbing, swimming and crawling through mud and rock, and it is this diversity that appeals to Cheryl. Caving can be dangerous, too - and when Cheryl and her late husband, Don Davison, lived in Oman from 1980 to 1993, there was no trained rescue team.

American-born Cheryl and Don pioneered investigation into OmanAEs caves. Their most spectacular find was the Majlis al Jinn, the second-largest subterranean chamber in the world. A gargantuan cave in the Selma Plateau, it measures around 340m long and 228m wide.

Although Cheryl and Don met at university through spelunking (the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby), caving then, as now, was not a mainstream activity. In Oman in the early 1980s, it was unheard of.

Nevertheless, she and her husband decided that there must be caves, Cheryl recalled on a recent return visit to the sultanate. Accordingly, the majority of their weight quota was taken up by their caving equipment. Their subsequent discoveries would not have been possible had Don not worked as a hydrogeologist for the government.

His position, which involved looking for large bodies of water underground, effectively paid him to hunt for caves. oA cave is a conduit for water,o Cheryl explained. The caves speak of a watery history; samples Cheryl took from a speleothem (a stalactite or stalagmite) in a cave on the Selma Plateau showed that the base of the formation was 40,000 years old.

To facilitate his work, Don was permitted to travel with pilots in the Air Force, who were then flying doctors and nurses to remote locations round the country. Travelling by helicopter provided a unique perspective of the terrain, particularly because OmanAEs geological features, bald of trees or topsoil, are visible to the naked eye.

oMy husband was seeing features that heAEd only read about in books. It was a geologistAEs dream.o Eventually Cheryl obtained permission to travel in the helicopters with Don. The pilots would drop off the cavers and return many hours later, leaving Cheryl and Don to make inquiries in villages about local springs and to investigate the landscape. Interacting with Omanis added a cultural dimension to their explorations, enabling them to visit villages and meet local people, who brought the cavers honey or camelAEs milk and talked to them of jinns. oWe were always treated with hospitality and generosity,o Cheryl recalled.

Cheryl named their discovery, Majlis al Jinn, after her conversations with the villagers. oIf the local people had no name for the caves, if they were just known as holes and were not particularly valued, then we named them. They believed jinns live in caves and often asked us if we had seen them. This cave was so huge it must have been the jinnsAE majlis.o Majlis al Jinn is unusual, and visually spectacular, in that it is illuminated by three holes in the cave aeceilingAE that admit light. The drop into the cave from one of these holes is today named CherylAEs Drop; Don had previously found the site but had saved the drop for his wife. At 157m, CherylAEs Drop was then the deepest freefall drop in Arabia.

Don died in a mountaineering accident in Chile in 1995, but despite this tragedy Cheryl remains the embodiment of positivity, hugely inspiring and energetic. This summer she plans to go diving in the Solomon Islands and hiking in the Southern Sierras.

Nevertheless, she doesnAEt think sheAEll be able to match the buzz that she and Don found underground in the sultanate. oHere, there was virgin passage - no one had ever seen it. Where else in the world can you go, except to the bottom of the ocean, which is unseen?o

A[umlaut] Apex Press and Publishing

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Jun 30, 2008
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