• Overground/underground - a caving archaeology project in the Yorkshire Dales

    1st June 2-4pm at Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

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Breakthrough in Mulu

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
A photograph trip to Serendipity.

The attrition rate was still high. Three of the four original explorers couldn’t return with one injury or another. Chris was to lead us, Mark to photograph and me and Will along for the ride – and to help carry the kit and pose a bit I suppose.

I mentioned there was an entrance to the Just a Mile passages and locating this had been a priority during the first few days of the expedition. We had employed a local tracker, Jarrah, and by combining our modern GPS locations and traditional knowledge the entrance had finally been located. This had then been used for all the exploration in the higher levels of Cobweb.

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The Upper Cobweb entrance - finally found.

Our photographic trip set off from Camp 5 around 8am. Accompanying us was Becka, Loz and Stu who were to look at some side passages off Just a Mile. Camp 5 is on the south side of the Melinau River, Benarat lies on the north so the first part of the walk is the short trek up the gorge to the wire bridge (the one in my video above). It takes sixty-two wobbly steps to cross. I have counted. You do need to grip on tight to the wire handrails but at the same time watch out for the large soldier ants which also use the bridge to cross the river. The large open space of the rarely used helipad follows and then it is into the tunnel of the rainforest canopy for the 4.5km ramble along the Headhunters Trail. This is a motorway of a track which runs parallel to the mountain and eventually leads to the most northern gateway to the National Park after a further 11km.

We arrive at our track mark, a blaze on a tree, which signifies our turn off. It is only 50m more of flat going and then we reach the rugged, steep limestone and it is up, up and up. We ascend a sort of valley, not that you can see much of it. Even on the limestone the forest is thick. Heavens knows how anything grows here, the limestone is bare except a covering of roots, decaying matter, moss and other thin vegetation. Every plant has its niche, from those who race to the light after a tree fall to the fungus which devours the mighty giants. It is the sort of thing to contemplate as we climb up the hill, sweat pouring out with the exertion, but ticking off the landmarks as we go; the small draughting entrance with its cool breeze, the log balancing bridge, the mossy highpoint and the final drop down into the doline and the entrance across the other side. It has taken a speedy two hours and everyone rests to try and cool down.

We all have large transporter sacks. Marks photo gear is split into a pelicase and two darren drums. We have five ropes and SRT kits for the pitches, water bottles, food and only essential other bits and bobs. We discuss where we can fill up with water so we can pace our water consumption. I always carry a one litre Nalgene bottle. Its wide top allows it to be filled quickly from drips and small inlets. We drink water from this type of source unfiltered with no problems, but it is critical to make sure we drink regularly, litres of the stuff. On a long trip you can knock down a litre at every water source, fill another for the journey between, eventually get back to camp, drink more water, several cups of tea and still not manage a piss all night!

We set off into the cave. I have only been here for one trip during the original discoveries in 2000. I’m not going to remember much of it. I do remember, however, one of the first obstacles – a bloody crawl! The large 20x20m passage is blocked by a choke and the only way through is a crawl under the wall on the right hand side. It is bouldery and sharp but the big difference between here and caving at home is that we are nearly naked with just the thinnest of thin garments to try to protect the skin from scratches. With the big bag it is not a speedy manoeuvre nor very pleasant.

Like the surface the terrain underground, in this passage at least, is also fairly inhospitable. It is nearly all up and down over piles of boulders. Rare is anything really easy and we watch our footing at every step. There are traverses and climbdowns, walls of crumbling sediment, even a skylight to pass. There are dry rocks, muddy rocks and downright lethal slippery rocks and it is often hard to distinguish between the types. Every now and again a cry goes out, someone has slipped, but it is ok. We carry on.

There is delay, something is going on behind. Yet another shoulder strap has broken on these bloody awful Petzl Transporter bags. Three will break on this trip alone. It is a glaring design fault but Petzl doesn’t seem to care. The strap is tied up to the waist band and we carry on again. After an hour or so we all fill up at a convenient water stop. An inlet falls from the roof, splashes down onto the sloping wall and disappears into a bedding crack. It re-appears as a spout near floor level. Perfect.

There are two more chokes which involve a bit of a crawl but nothing as bad as the first. Swiftlets, remarkably, fly through these too. Why do they come all this way in when the passages before already offer all the roosting space and protection they might need. They are incredible birds. Imagine being born in a nest high on the wall of a cave, several kilometres from an entrance. They must fledge in pitch blackness, learn to fly and find their way out of the cave to feed. We might have it easy in that respect but flying through these caves would have its advantages. The cave floors in Mulu can be pretty bad, boulder strewn, but the roofs are nearly always the grandest features, beautifully shaped, if only we could be up there too.

Eventually after a couple of hours we come to FFS chamber where the others will leave us. At FFS (For Fucks Sake) it gets bigger and there is a pitch to rig. Stu points out the belay they used. A thread in a large rock embedded in the mud. I rig and drop down the wall. Rope free. The boulder floor soon starts dropping steeply down, the scree at the very limit of its angle of rest. A long way down we come to the final choke, the Arm Stabber. Lots of pointy stal and popcorn everywhere as we thread our way down and through. It is really just the same boulder slope but the roof has come down to practically close up against the scree. It opens out again and here we are at Outrageous Junction where the scale is big again.

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FFS - looking back up to the top of the pitch. It is only the start of a huge boulder slope.

We work our way between the house sized rocks and come to a drop. It is a muddy boulder climb. I scrabble down before realising that I am actually carrying a rope for this climb. Oh well! Will is nearly down as Mark starts climbing at the top. He sends a rock down which Will has to catch like a rugby ball coming out of a scrum. It takes both hands, one of which is really needed for holding on. He sort of skis to the floor holding the rock. It is actually quite funny to watch!
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
Here we are at the Rocky Horror Show. The base of the 20m pitch up. It is higher than I thought and the rock even more shit for climbing. Hats off to Mark and co. We decide we will stop for lunch at the top and I head up first. We gather on a pleasant mud bank. What is for lunch? Unusually we have all dipped into the snack bin at camp 5 separately, aware I think of the need to have plenty of fuel for our individual needs but not wanting to carry a huge picnic. I’ve got lots of chocolate, it’s manufactured differently out here so that it doesn’t melt in the heat, peanuts, peanut brittle, and a tin of curried tuna,, which is actually really nice and has potato in it as well. Others have taken a lucky dip from the variety of the dried fruits we purchased. Dried purple sweet potato seems popular. They kind of look like black liquorish sticks but taste totally different – edible though.

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Mark silhouetted at the top of Rocky Horror. From here it all looks very pleasant but below....

Refreshed we plod on. It’s a great discovery and we pass some amazing formations. At a knotted rope climb a large side passage goes off and the terrain reverts to boulders. We pass under an arch caused by a huge, I mean huge, block leaning against the wall and some way beyond we come to the cairn built in 2020 as the limit of exploration. We know it is not now far to the river.

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Chris admires the many weird formations

The river junction is impressive and we pause to sort photographic gear and have another snack. It has taken us five and a half hours from the entrance to reach this point. The river is below us running left to right, straight ahead the passage continues on the other side. A four-way junction! Wow the explorers must have been excited finding this. It is a pitch down a long steep slope and then a final 3m overhanging drop, landing in knee deep water. The flow is swift but a very comfortable size. I wonder how it might react in flood – it always rains here.

I put those thoughts out of my head and we head downstream. This is fun and I am glad to have made the effort to see this myself. Chris points out some of the best sections to photograph as we race downstream. Eventually Mark calls us back. The roof has started to get muddy as we approach the downstream sump. No good for photos apparently. We head back and start work. Mark is pretty quick as a cave photographer and I like his style. I reckon Mark will be happy with five or six quality shots. Of course each of those photos will take dozens of shots to get the lighting and posing just right. We take some close ups and a long passage shot, going backwards and forwards trying to remember the best bits. We don’t actually look at the whole length of passage which is about a kilometre long and the longest section of river in the system.

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Ha ha. My phone captures the exact moment of a famous Burkey shot.

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Hand on hip, the master surveys the river passage looking for his front cover shot!

Finally, we take some photos at the pitch on our way out. It is my turn to pose. After numerous flashes Mark says I look bored. I try harder to find the right facial expression and he tells me that is better. I hope so. I don’t want to ruin his picture.

We derig the pitch and start the long journey out. I guess we have been just a couple of hours in the river. We speculate what time we will get back to camp 5. Early hours of the morning for sure. There is at least seven hours to go!

We start back following the same route. We are effectively climbing from the lowest point in the cave to the highest levels. I have changed into a dry pair of socks at the Rocky Horror. It is my one luxury as feet need to be looked after more than anything in Mulu. The route through the Arm Stabber choke is not so obvious from below and it takes a little searching to find the correct way. As soon as we do find it there are arrows and cairns to guide us through.

I feel quite good until about half way back through the cave. Despite the fresh socks my feet are starting to ache. I think we are all engrossed in our own little bubble of pain. Mark certainly is. He has slipped on a rock, put his foot down a hole and wrenched his knee. We try to keep together so that Mark can follow without having to route find as well. Whoever is in front must pick out the best route, the worn path, often the only way to traverse the 20m wide passage. It becomes endless. I think of what might be the next memorable feature and it takes ages to materialise. There are hours of this still to come.

Eventually we reach the skylight, although everything is dark. We only know we are there because the rotting chunks of tree are suddenly so foreign to the environment. We arrive at the squeeze. It is absolute torture now to get our tired bodies and bags through. The strap on Will’s transporter breaks – a final insult to make the journey back even harder. My older style transporter is one I’ve had for over ten years, it’s been on many expeditions and, although tatty and worn, performs well. Petzl – what has happened to you man!

The entrance arrives. Vegetation, leaves and trees – there is a new smell. There is the patter of rain, or certainly dripping from a recent shower. Most of all there is noise, the whop-whop frogs, cicadas and a million insects trying to make themselves heard. After a rest we pull ourselves up for the final push and set of out into the forest. It is well after midnight.

I’m in front. Mark has said not to wait for him as he is happy to limp back at his own speed. Behind me I hear Will and Chris stop to look at a large tree gecko they have spotted. I can’t stop, I just need to plod on. The route down from the entrance is steep and the limestone unforgiving. The knees are protesting now. It takes a long hour to regain the alluvial plain and the Headhunters trail. I can’t hear the others now. I drink my remaining water and fire in a spearmint gum before starting on the final 4.5km to where it will end. I now want the day to have had been.

It is such a plod, a sheer hell in many ways, feet bruised and on fire, knees aching, rucksack heavy, digging in. It goes on forever. The kilometres tick down slowly and then after an age there are lights through the trees – camp 5 at last. Surely no one is up, it must be three in the morning. A final wobble over the bridge and I spot Balang, our assistant camp manager, then Steven (camp manager) appears too and starts to cook. The others follow in soon after. Wash, change, food and hobble to bed. A monster eighteen-hour trip – I’m going to be chuffed to death with that in the morning. I hope the photos are worth it. It is difficult to stay awake….looking forward to a lie in…….zzz.

Dreaming of this...

 

rm128

Active member
On a long trip you can knock down a litre at every water source, fill another for the journey between, eventually get back to camp, drink more water, several cups of tea and still not manage a piss all night!
Sounds like bliss. Where do I sign up?

... oh yeah, great write-up.
 

Speleofish

Active member
I'd always believed that Nare etc (including Gamvo, Kille and various others) were unbeatably wonderful. Looking at the Mulu photos (from the late 70s to now) makes me wonder if I'm right? I suspect the rather unpredictable flood-ability of Nare, the ginormous rivers and the remoteness of New Britain gives those caves an edge. However, are the New Britain caves genuinely better? Tim has played in both. What does he think?
PS I suspect there may be lots of chinese and other south east asian caves that are equally wonderful...
 

Tritim230

Active member
Hi Tim,
Some great reports on what sounds like fantastic caving. Long may your trips continue.
Get a book written before the details fade - I know what I said but I promise I won't come sniping after you!
Hear, hear. I've really enjoyed reading your book Harry. Thanks for putting your memoirs to paper for all to enjoy. Tim, no excuse now 😉.
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
What are the prospects for a connection between Cobweb etc and the Terikan river?
Unknown. We reduced the distance to just 115m, but the two closest points don't appear have passage in the right direction. It would need a concerted effort to check out every lead in the vicinity.
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
I'd always believed that Nare etc (including Gamvo, Kille and various others) were unbeatably wonderful. Looking at the Mulu photos (from the late 70s to now) makes me wonder if I'm right? I suspect the rather unpredictable flood-ability of Nare, the ginormous rivers and the remoteness of New Britain gives those caves an edge. However, are the New Britain caves genuinely better? Tim has played in both. What does he think?
PS I suspect there may be lots of chinese and other south east asian caves that are equally wonderful...
They're all fabulous caves in their own way. The PNG caves, river caves like the Nare etc, had a real 'danger of death' about them. Totally exciting as you will remember. With Mulu it is the scale and complexity that is most intriguing. They both feel very remote. Both have awesome caves. In foreign parts especially, it isn't just about the caves - it's the whole cultural and geographical immersion that plays a big part too.
I also love the caves in the Dales, but they don't compare in scale, beauty, remoteness, etc., but they do have a certain je n'est ce pas. :)
 

Badlad

Administrator
Staff member
I'm hoping to write up another story as soon as I have time. In the meantime I should make a comment on the cost of the expedition which was budgeted somewhere north of 30K. This is spread across the three main factors of flights, insurance and field costs. All have gone up considerably in recent years. Although the majority of the spend was covered by individual contribution the team is very grateful for the significant grant assistance we received from both the Mount Everest Foundation and the Ghar Parau Foundation.

If anyone wants to read the preliminary report of the expedition it is attached.
 

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David Rose

Active member
They're all fabulous caves in their own way. The PNG caves, river caves like the Nare etc, had a real 'danger of death' about them. Totally exciting as you will remember. With Mulu it is the scale and complexity that is most intriguing. They both feel very remote. Both have awesome caves. In foreign parts especially, it isn't just about the caves - it's the whole cultural and geographical immersion that plays a big part too.
I also love the caves in the Dales, but they don't compare in scale, beauty, remoteness, etc., but they do have a certain je n'est ce pas. :)
I think you mean je ne sais quoi. Je n'est ce pas means "I am not it".
 

Fjell

Well-known member
It just means something you like but don’t have the right words for.
It is not my working experience that French people actually lack words though. After using the phrase they generally spend ten minutes describing whatever it is in detail. Usually invoking three philosophers, five writers and an artist or two. If you are very lucky they don’t mention Jeanne D’Arc.
 
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