Here, the Web River vanishes into this giant underground world with its arched portals, high eroded ceilings, and deep, vaulted echoing chambers. These caves, now an important Islamic shrine named after the saintly Sheikh Sof Omar, who took refuge here many centuries ago, have a religious history that predates the arrival of the Muslims in Bale – a history calibrated in thousands, not hundreds, of years.
The first religions of this part of Africa revolved around spirit worship and ghost cults in which the most powerful supernatural beings were believed to attach themselves to trees, rocks, and, most forcefully, to caves, which became places of veneration where prayers were offered up and sacrifices made. Even today, the visitor to Sof Omar will see many signs of the persistence of such pagan beliefs and practices.
The approach to the caves is made through the tiny village of Sof Omar, perched on the cliffs above the Web River. To the rear of the village is a dark, gaping crevice down which a precipitous narrow footpath winds to the floor of the first cave.
You can explore the caves on foot, without special climbing equipment, but you must take proper precautions and not go alone. Torches or other lighting are needed, and another must is the map provided in the official brochure, available from the Ethiopian Tourism Commission as well as at the site. Local guides will also carry a copy of the map.
In this realm of dry, cool caves nature has worked a marvel of architecture soaring pillars of stone twenty metres (66 feet) high, flying buttresses, fluted archways, and tall airy vaults. Finally, the river itself is reached, a sunless sea flowing through a deep gorge. Standing on a balcony near the roof, one has a spectacular view of the river rushing along its coun~ below.
The large central hall of Sof Omar, the ‘Chamber of Columns’ – so named after the colossal limestone pillars that are its dominant feature – is one of the highlights of the cave system. At another part of the network there is a small gap in the rocks through which the river passes, about two-and-a-half metres (eight feet) wide, where a bridge can be made with driftwood to go across. The most direct route through the caves passes these and many other remarkable sights, and takes about an hour at a good walking pace.
Inside the caves, the only living creatures are bats (which do not usually trouble the visitor), fish, and crustaceans. Crocodile are to be found in the river nearby but, perhaps fortunately, seem to shun the caves themselves. The countryside around abounds with wildlife – dik-dik and kudu, serval cat, rock hyrax, giant tortoises, snakes, and lizards as well as more than fifty species of birds.
Back on the main road from Goba, continue heading east, where the road takes a sharp bend as it crosses the Web River and begins to head north, where you’ll pass through the towns of Ginir and Jara before coming to Shek Husen, seventy-eight kilometres (48 miles) north of Ginir. The site, Ethiopia’s most important place of Muslim pilgrimage, is situated on the borders of Arsi and Bale regions and quite close to the border of Harerge.
Sheikh Hussein is visited twice a year by many thousands of pilgrims from all over eastern Ethiopia, and comprises a large complex of mosques, shrines, and tombs surrounded by a stout wall. There are also a number of man-made caves and artificial ponds in the area. Holy white chalk from the caves is taken back by the pilgrims to many parts of the country.
Although the map shows a ‘dry weather road’ leading from Shek Husen to join up with the main Asela-Nazaret road, it is impossible to cross the Wabi Shebele River, which intersects the road just west of the town, so you have to retrace your steps back through Goba for the return journey to Addis Ababa.