It is good we are doing this in the darkness. We'd never dare, if we saw what we were doing.'
H. Bliss

Shangi-la, Styx, Maxwell, Bliss, the Eagle, Dardanelles, La Minaret, La Pagode, Pantheon, Chaos, Thompson, Crusaders Column, Rapids de l'enfers, the Tunnel…
What am I going on about?
What images do these wild places inspire?
For they are all actual places soon to be seen by me for the first time!

To start.

How are we doing this? How are we finally being taken by Sami to see Jiita through his eyes. The only thing I will say at this point is Sami Karkabi is Jiita. If there is anyone who knows, lives, breaths, and loves this cave it is he.

A couple of months back he had said he wanted to tell us the history of Jiita. We (Issam and I) told him that it would so much better to go into Jiita and then he can explain the history on the ground. He agreed. We couldn't believe it. Sami Karkabi after a 20 year abscence was entering the lower gallery of Jiita to spend two days in the cave he helped discover and map.

So this was it.
As simple as that.

We were all meeting up at 2pm in the parking lot of Jiita to enter the cave (For me this was the first time in this area of Jiita so excited doesn't even begin to explain how I was feeling).
We had arrived slightly earlier than Sami as we wanted to prepare all the bags before we went inside. Sami was also notoriously known to get very angry if anyone if late.
But true to form we all arrived together! At least we were on time for once. Sami's reputation precedes him.

We had arrived at the parking lot of Jiita Cave in our cars but the pioneering explorers could only access the cave using donkeys to carry the supplies down into the valley, a 2.5km trip that used to take around half an hour. Our boat was made of an aluminium alloy with a flat hull. In 1873 they used a few planks of wood tied together and supported on inflatable goat-skins (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

After placing all the sacs in the boat we all got in. Marc was steering at the front, Issam and I were rowing, next sat Sami and finally Joe, who was steering from the back. A steerer at the front and one at the back does not make for good steering, 'too many cooks…' came to mind very often. (Last count there were 13 sacs, four cameras, lots of food, a gallon of water (Earlier in the week we had gotten the lecture from Marc that the water in Jiita is contaminated with epoxi-hepi-fluoro-sewage-bacterium-includis-agrevis…… no-one ever understands Marc but we didn't want to take the chance and end up with the previously mentioned disease so we took our own water….ever heard of 'Water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink?'), 2 writing books, lots of smiles, and the feeling that something special was happening.)

We were finally on our way. The first 400m were the illuminated tourist section. Lac Thomson, named after the first person to explore and write about the cave. Here we saw the Screen, a narrow passage now and where Sami had dynamited the rock to allow the boats to pass through. Before the dynamiting the barrier of rock meant that the boats had to carried over the rock and then replaced into the water. Then came The Tower of Pisa on the right, a leaning stalagmite, the Weeping Willow on the left, a beautiful curtain wall, the Flic (The police roundabout) a protruding rock in the middle of the water.

We stopped at the sand mound on the right just after the Flic and before Maxwell's Column. Sami and Issam photographed, we modeled, held flashlights and listened to Sami as he explained the history.

In 1873, W.J Maxwell, an engineer from London commissioned by the water board entered Jiita with the purpose of studying the cave to see if the water from the Dog River can be used to supply water to the city of Beirut. The other men who entered with him for the exploration were W.G Huxley his second on the engineering staff, Rev. D Bliss, then president of the Syrian Protestant College (Later to be the AUB), and R.W. Brigstocke. Maxwell had read a previous account by a Dr. Thomson, an american missionary, who, in 1836, had fired a gun into the cave and judging from the echoes he heard said the cave must be very big. He had no boat at the time to explore but he had seen the beautiful concretions at the entrance (With foresight this a good thing because in his account he states that he longed for a boat so he can gather the stalactites and stalagmites, (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990)). He became the first 'caver' to write an account of a cave in Lebanon. Unknowingly he had entered the first 50m of Jiita (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

From the sand mound we were standing on we could see Maxwell's Column. This gigantic column is a landmark in the cave. I recognized it from all the old photographs and etchings I had seen in the Ouatouats. Issam of course found some concretions that got him all excited. Decalcification seems to get him all hot and bothered these days.

We all got back into the boat and made our way to Maxwell's Column. Surrounded by sand this pillar is stunning. It is approximately 8m high and seems to stand as a guard to the rest of the cave.
In Maxwell's report he writes that this column was so imposing and grandiose it stopped their exploration for a while,
' Standing out in bold relief, with fine fluted front and continued to the rear in a mass of pendent drapery, like a sheet let down in graceful folds from the roof. The leader of the party, amid ringing cheers was compelled to allow his name to be given to the central attraction.' (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990)
From that time on the pillar came to known as Maxwell's Column.

We climbed the rocks behind it only to discover a small bottle placed on top of colonette. We opened the bottle and read the paper that had been placed inside, 'Christmas 2000, Dr. Nabil Hadad.' (Dr. Hadad is currently the director of Jiita cave). Sami didn't like this very much as all the bottles that had previously been placed in Jiita were placed as a reward and proof of the explorers' feats in the cave.

Around the back of the Column lots of plastic bags, metal and light bulbs were found. A huge plastic sheet covered the electricity boxes (placed for the lights). On the next sortie into the cave we have to have a team that cleans up all the rubbish in the cave.

I was wandering through the forest of stalagmites on the slope next to the column and Sami asked me, 'So do you recognize this?' I thought and thought and then I recognized the photos. I had used it many times and here it was in front of my eyes. I shouted the answer to Sami and he smiled. This game was to carry on through the entire trip. I loved it. We had reached 'the Minaret' and 'the Pagoda'. Marc was wandering through the stalactites, Joe was sitting on a rock, I was watching Sami and Sami was just standing there. What must have been going through his head? It has been 20 years since he has been in this cave. He had lived, breathed, explored, slept for 15 days straight, twice, while he was drawing the map and exploring. For twenty years this cave was his life and during the civil war in Lebanon, due to political events, it had been taken over by someone else to manage. What a feeling. He was standing now back in the same places. This was a cave he had told us repeatedly that he would never enter again and this outing was especially done for us by Sami. But here he was. I guess when you love something the heart always wins over the mind.

We left Maxwell's Column to pass through 'The Dardanelles', a series of water channels between protruding rocks. After that we arrived at a well known site. The old lira note in lebanon portayed a part of Jiita. We were sitting now looking at the real thing. We passed a curtain concretion called the Medusa, or 'the jellyfish'. The English called it 'the Parachute'. In this passage we passed the postage stamp (original photo taken by Manoug) illustration called the 'camel'. Behind the Medusa, above, lies pockets of red straws. We pass by the elephant's ear, pipes that are used in the upper gallery surrounded by fan-like algae.
We stopped at a mound of eboulis. An iron ladder was placed at the top. It was old, rusted and connected the lower gallery with the upper one. Here was where they had placed the mat and gone up to discover the beauty of the upper gallery. Marc and Joe went up to walk around a bit.

In 1957 a mat was bought from Grenoble in France. This was used by Raymond Khawam, in 1958, who went up and placed a rope. Later George Farra went up but it was finally Kasparian, Sami Karkabi and Ramond Khawam who went up and reached the upper gallery some 55m up. They actually climbed 80m upwards and came down 33m to reach the upper gallery. On the first attempt they found themselves on the opposite side of what is now the touristic upper gallery. Then they took ladders and connected with the other side. President Chehab approved making the upper gallery touristic from photgraphs taken by Sami. While they were exploring so many rocks fell below that a boat was destroyed.

We walked around this area and Issam found some 'eggs' concretions. There was also some decalcification happening on some calcite. We are now some 600m into the cave. Marc found an old coin thrown apparently from the top. Asking Issam to photograph it didn't go down all that well with Issam. Marc had thought that the coin was stuck on the calcite but Issam was able to take it out and later on at the end of the sortie Issam gave it to Marc who lets put it mildly didn't like the offer and immediately told on us to Sami. Sami just laughed it off. My comment of, 'It is not a naturally occurring element in a cave so it is good we took it out' was met with a hostile look. Oh well!

Rapid Bliss.
Where were they?
We could not find them.
We were then told that was due to the dam that had been built at the 'entrance'. The water level had gone up and the rapids were lost.
And now, the Pantheon.
Maxwell explains.

More than a half mile underground we find ourselves in a spacious cavern, whose roof is lost in the gloom. Under this dome, standing out clear as alabaster in midst of darkness, is one of the most beautiful stalagmite formations of the grottoes, which, from its resemblance to the Pantheon, has been distiguished by that name (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

As we rowed we missed the place were we could go up into the Pantheon. We tried to go up from another place but the rock was covered with a black slimy coating. Later we found out that this was manganese oxide. We went back to the proper de-embarkation point which we new was correct as there was a mapping point at the top that we found on the map as well. We explored inside the pantheon and here Sami told us that we need to map this part of the cave as they had not done it. We followed the black cable and arrived at a sand plateau. Here we found Issam..his nose (already very big) stuck in some rather interesting concretions. Hot and bothered again! We were, at this point, getting used to it. He photographed them. We named them at that point the 'delta' and 'recrystalisation'. There is a small passage that also needs to be explored. Issam tried to explain this phenomena to Marc who only seemed interested in peeing and filling his arianne with water. A small fight ensued over where Marc should pee. In the water or the sand…finally the sand won…As he was doing this Marc noticed bubbling in the water. He got all excited that this was a spring but Issam soon put an end to that saying it was his weight pressurising air in the sand and it bubbling out under the water. We make our way around the rest of the Pantheon which doubles back to the main river. We saw the bottle from the top. Issam and Joe were photographing it. Issam also photographed some good looking 'popcorn' here.

We were back in the boat. We passed by Bliss's bottle. This bottle had been placed at the top of a stalagmite. It is calcified now and the note inside is unreadable. Explorers of the cave have tried to shake the bottle loose but to no avail as explained by E. Thompson on his 1927 expedition.

In it (the Pantheon) is an island that rises to a peak, icy in pallor, and in slipperiness, on whose summit is the bottle containing the names of the first explorers, placed there more than fifty years ago. It stands in an incessant rain, and is now a solid part of the rock; we could not shake it in the least (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

To date:
The known bottles with notes inside that were placed in Jiita by the early explorers are:
-Bliss's bottle, Pantheon, 1873
-Bottle (unknown who placed it but probably Maxwell), Pantheon, 1874
-West and Crawford's bottle, Lake Dorothy, 1926
-Thompson's bottle, Thompson's Cavern, 1927
-Sami's bottle, unknown location,
-Gorra, Anavy, Ghanuum, inscription at 2800m (Falaise Karkabi)
As we row we find we are approaching the 'Potern' and what seems to be a very narrow opening. In fact it is just large enough to fit the boat. 1.5m wide by 0.5m high from the water. A semicircle hole in the rockface. Sami said that they had to blast certain areas to allow the boat to go through. The tourist boats used to reach here (800m) but they were stopped due to too much time taken to reach here. The route was decreased to 300m so that more people could see the cave for less time. This is where Maxwell and Huxley stopped on their 1873 expedition. In 1874 they reached 1060m.

No….. I mean the place!
1000m into the cave.

We had arrived at our bedroom for the night. Chaos is a mountain of rocks surrounded by beautiful curtains of concretions, one, the torpedo, was 12m (after a haggling match with Marc), two sisters (Two identical large, white stalagmites) but what stood out was a column on the opposite side that was massive, known as Crusaders Column. We had to carry our equipment up as we were sleeping in Shangri-la. We took a break hear and Sami once again started talking.

In 1892 and 1902 a professor A. E. Day reached the 1000m accompnanied by a crew from the water works.
In 1923, Odinot reached 400m only researching the source of Jiita.
In 1925, Dr. Lamarche, Odinot, Delanges and Janvier enter reaching 1000m.
In 1926, Dr. Lamarche, Brun, Delanges and Janvier reach 1100m, using a boat made of material.
In 1926 W.A. West and J.P. Crawfard reach 1320, reaching and naming Lake Dorothy and the 'Tunnel'.
In 1927, E. Thompson, D.H. du Bois, H.Hall, P. W. Ireland explored the cave using rafts made from 16 benzin tins.
1940, Clan Lyautey, 1060m. Lionel Gorra was not allowed to enter with them. He was told that he was too young (18) but it is believed that he was not allowed because he was Lebanese.
1946, L. Gorra, A.Anavy, L.Eid, N. Elnékavé, 1950m - The first Lebanese led expedition. Louis Eid was to discover Shangri-La. The Lebanese had finally taken back their cave back from the Americans and the French.
1947, 1949, 1951 all saw Lebanese led expeditions into the cave. They reached 2800m (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990). The speleological age of the Lebanese had begun, there was no stopping them now.

As we were transporting the sacs Sami told Issam that he had no photo of the Crusaders Column (This was thus called because the 1940 expedition by the French were from the clan 'crusaders'). So Issam went down to check the site out. At this point I was praying. For what? I hear you ask.…well my prayers were not answered as a few minutes later I heard Issam's voice….'RENA…come here….' Oh well I guess it will be a bit of flash holding for me and modeling….so grudgingly I went down and posed next to the column. The fact that Issam forgot to tell me when he had taken the shot left me standing still for a good five minutes…my scream of 'Haven't you bloody well taken it yet?' got him out of his trance releasing me from my very awkward position, one foot on the column and the other on a rock effectively putting me in a 'splits' position. I was never one of those flexible women!

It seems that Jiita Grottoes has gone through lots of name changes, from the Grottoes of Nahr el Kalb, Djaita, Jehita, to finally ending on Jiita (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990). The name change from Grottoes of Nahr el Kalb to Jiita Grottoes seems to have happened in 1927 when in newspapers the name Jiita Grottoes was used. Naher el Kalb was the name of the river that runs through Jiita Grottoes but the entrance to the cave is an area called Jiita which means 'roaring water' in aramaic.

So we were all in Shangri-la finally. After a small clamber to the top of the Chaos's rockfall we found that we can see the entire room from the top. It was like a balcony overlooking a landscape. The Crusaders Column was directly in front of us. The Torpedo concretion was to the left. The beautiful draperies of Chaos were to the right, and behind us was the 'Jug'. A huge stalagmite shaped like a Lebanese jug. The old explorers had reached here wearing swimming suits and carrying candles. To just be standing here knowing all the work Sami and the others had put into this place made me feel like I was walking on sacred ground. Marc ofcourse decided to smoke the cigar Sami had given him on this jug.

And it does have this feeling of being holy. Sami also told us of the dry 1600m upper passage that leads to the Clayton's Passage which starts from here. Basically it is a passage that runs on an upper level but on the walls of the lower galleries.

To sleep per chance to dream…
No such luck!
We settled in for the night. First things first. Candles lit up the place making it appear to be like a temple. Food. Sahngri-la turned out to be a 10m by 6m white room undergoing decacification. The floor was stone much to our distress….Sami told us this was the first time anyone had ever slept in Shangri-la. Marc argued that he would have liked to sleep on sand rather tan rock…
'Did someone say 'karkabi'?' Sami asked,
'I had no idea what he was talking about until he pointed to the mess we had made with our stuff. 'Look at the 'karkabi' in Shangri-la!', he continued. Of course to all foreigners reading this part, you are not going to get the joke! As the noodles were cooking we asked Sami what they had eaten on their expeditions. On short ones dry things were on the menu. For long expeditions rice, chicken, eggs, stews….Sami had also only allowed one glass of Arak a day for each person. He told us that he checked all bags that were entering the cave to see if anyone had brought with him (and I stress him…later to be explained) any useless stuff.
What was on our menu?
Curried noodles, salami, jambon, mushrooms, hot dogs, wheat, bread, a bottle of wine and a cigar for Marc brought by Sami.

All the food was packed and we settled to sleep. All the lights were switched off and it was so dark I couldn't tell if my eyes were shut or open. This was the time for thinking. If I had been born in Sami's time I would not be here. Sami had told us that he didn't allow women in explorations as they distract from the work. They only came on 'picnics' sorties. I am glad things have changed. Issam told Marc to put the alarm at 5:00am. Wheneveryone had settled in for the night Issam got his camera out and started photographing us asleep. Sami shouted at him 'voyeur!'.

Sami wakes us up. Marc had forgotten to put his alarm and if Sami had not woken up we would have slept even longer. The joke of the night was that we will wake up when the sunlight appears…well it was funny at the time and I guess you had to be there….

Anyway, to continue.

We were making breakfast debating why Shangri-la was called Shangri-la. Sami said it was 'paradise'. I think he guys had other ideas. Breakfast consisted of tea, cheese, bread, fruit salad (Isaam, who else?), croissant and wheat.

We packed all out stuff and placed them back into the boat.
Carrying the dinghies we were on out way. We could hear the Rapid's d'Enfers also known as Hells Rapids also known as Huxley and Bridstockes's Rapids…these rapids had stopped many of the earlier expeditions.
After walking for about 10minutes Issam climbed up to rig a ladder. I tried to find another way to go up and I did. Sami didn't like this a lot as he said we were trying to retrace the old explorer's routes. Issam gave me a 'look'…sorry…I just thought it would be easier. At the top of the rock we found old wine bottles from the 1902 expedition. Then we reached the rapids. Marc went ahead to find the walkway that would get us past them safely. He found it and we followed. There was wall walk and then a protruding rock from the rapids was used as a foot hold and over to the other side, a wall walk and then another cross over until we reached a deep passage we here we had to blow the dinghies up and use them. All clear? Me and Marc had a little race over the wall. He was not impressed when I got his feet wet! Calling me a little cheat was all I could hear in the distance as he ate my dust!!!…just kidding…he also swore unprintable things! Thompson in 1927 had written about this part of the traverse,

You lower yourself from ledge to ledge, to a place where you can stretch one foot to a split rock in mid-water, an inch or two below the surface. The upper side of the split is firm; the lower is loose and is better not stepped on. From this rock you spring across, and then climb. Though never so high again (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

Here, in this passageway the two inscriptions that were made in could be found. The first was 1873…the other being '1875 another hundred feet'. These were made by the 1873-1875 expeditions.


The dinghies were placed in the water and Issam and Sami went first so that Issam could rig the second ladder. There was an old eschelle still dangling and Issam climbed the rockface (about 2m) and rigged the ladder. The water here is very strong as we are close to a waterfall. We followed and climbed up the two meters to a ledge. The dinghies were transported with us, carrying them over the climb and past the waterfall, Deversoir Lamarche. We then walked through the 'Tunnel'.

Thompson, in 1927, had built his rafts inside the cave using tins and planks of wood they had carried in with them (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).

The Tunnel turned out to be exactly as its name portrays. The whole of it is an easy walk. It looks much like a deep, straight canyon. The dinghy, for at this point we only needed one was used to pass Lake Dorothy. Again this took two goes transporting Sami and Issam and I first, and then going back to get Joe and Marc. Lake Dorothy is not really a lake as such. It is just where the river becomes thicker and deeper.
We had finally landed on the sands that is Thompson's Cavern. This immense room is massive. After walking for 5 minutes over rocks and sand beaches we arrive at what is commonly known as The Eagle Obelisk. This large stalagmite has what looks like a head of an eagle on its top. We are now at 1700m. I stood at the bottom of the pillar while Issam photographed and Marc and Joe held flashes. Sami was wondering between the rocks and we followed him a few meters behind.
Then we arrived at was to be out final location. The Gours. These turned our to be the most beautiful Gours with cave pearls the size of marbles. What a sight….One by one we took our shoes off and walked on the wet gours. Joe placed a bottle here with all our names. Who knows, maybe in one hundred year some one will find it and wonder. Issam, Joe and I are the only ones who know what was written on that note. I hope someday someone reads it and agrees with what was written.
We put our shoes back on and made our way back. Back through Thompson, The Eagle, Lake Dorothy, The Tunnel, The Inscriptions (at this point I have to tell you that we didn't actually see these writings but I am sure we will on later occasions), The Hell's rapids, The Crusaders Pillar, Chaos, Shagri-la, Styx, Pantheon, Maxwell's Column, Le Flic, The willows, Lake Thomson….Exit.
P.S. Sami did show Marc where there was a phalic looking stalagmite. And oh was it! Marc this remains Marc's choice to show you where it is!
So we were finally back where we started.
It is 2:00pm. Our boat was called Caroserce Abillama. Thank you for not tipping us into the water.
We carried all our sacs towards the cars. Sami wanted to get photgraphed under the sculpture that now stands outside he lower gallery of Jiita. The God of the Cave I presume. So we take the most touristy photos ever. All smiles and laughter. We had actually done it without any major mishaps. 2000m upstream with its history being told. We still have a lot to do. The history continues. We have how the lebanese expeditions were made. We have the upper gallery explorations. We have to fully re-explore the cave. We have to work with Jiita to make this history and the names that are Jiita known.
I came out of the cave with so many emotions inside me. I felt that this was something so special. Probably never to be repeated. Sami promised to take us to the upper gallery and tell us about that. The next report will contain names like Anavy, Gorra, Khawam, Kasparian and of course Karkabi. It will contain places like Cascade Mica, Falaise Karkabi, Salle Blanche, Salle Rouge, Salle du Dome, Palace of the Thousand and One Nights, Grand Chaos, I can go on and on….
At this point I would like to point out that Sami is 72 years old. Just a thought to ponder on.
Thank you Issam, for being patient with my endless questions.
Thank you Joe for being so reliable.
Thank you Marc for not asking too many questions.
But most of all thank you Sami for being who you are and loving caving so much.
Thank you Jiita for still having secrets you want to share with us.
Until next time.