This account of my time in Mulu isn’t a ‘report’ of new discoveries, nor is it any substitute for the information that can already be found on the website- www.mulucaves.org It’s a personal diary of my time in Borneo that I would like to share with anyone interested in reading it- I’m just sorry that it’s so damn long!
The team on the first leg of the journey to Sarawak was Tim A, Jane A, Robbie, Mark W, Kevin Dixon, Meg Stark, Andy Eavis, Roo Walters and myself. Collectively, we were to be the laser scanning and photography team who would also do the expedition shopping in Miri and arrange to get it shipped up to the park.
We got our flight from Newcastle at around 1300 and flew to Dubai, arriving some time late at night. Relieved to get away from the screaming kids, we rushed off the plane and into the bustling hubbub of Dubai International Airport. The Airport was colossal, feeling more like Meadowhall on a busy Christmas weekend (but with more people sleeping on the floor). It was here that I found out that my card wouldn’t work to buy some food so Robbie ended up paying. A quick call to Natwest told me that some helpful chap had stolen £1 from my account which had prompted them to cancel my card- great!
The second part of the flight from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur went without hitch and we were all soon piling onto an airport bus with far, far too much gear. The driver seemed a bit miffed by the fact that we filled the luggage racks then moved on to filling seats all over the bus with bags and big blue drums of flash bulbs but after we accidentally paid him twice he seemed to calm down and we were on our way to KL’s older, smaller airport for the flight to Miri. Getting off the bus, I was hit for the first time with the heat, having spent the last 15 hours or so in air conditioned airport lounges it did come a as bit of a shock to the system and very quickly everyone started to look very sweaty!
The flight to Miri was mercifully short and we were met at the airport by Veno- our local ‘fixer’. I was to get to know Veno more and more as the expedition went on and would soon find out exactly how valuable he really is to the organisation of the project.
This year we were all staying at the King Wood hotel which was OK but I was sharing a room with Mark W and Robbie…
My initiation to the night life of Miri came that evening and as promised, didn’t disappoint! We started off at the Ming café just up the road, ate dinner and swallowed several large bottles of Tiger beer. Mark, Robbie, Tim and I then went on to the famous Wheels bar for more beer and G&T’s then to a karaoke bar for some rather interesting dancing with the locals. After amusing the people of Miri we moved on to a small bar up some stairs which Robbie had been to before. It was here that Robbie tried to set me up with a prostitute for a laugh although I’m not sure he realised quite what she was until a man came over to ask me if I liked her because he could… I didn’t let him finish before politely declining his kind offer! In the absence of Tonic water we drank some gin and lemon cordial (I think). We stopped off at one final bar on the way home, picked Mark up put of the gutter and got back for some time just after 0500 in the morning!
Shopping day! Roo, Kevin, Andy and Meg left in the morning to head up to the park, leaving the rest of us to start with the expedition shopping. Brunch was excellent- Rotichani at a favourite old haunt of the expedition. Rotichani is like some sort of big folded pancake with an egg or meat in the middle and a curry dip at the side- eaten along with a glass of Lemon Ping it was delicious.
Robbie, Mark and I were given a list of things to go and buy- sharpening stone, string, candles etc. It was good fun but admittedly would have much easier without a stinking hangover!
We also went to the cash and carry and bought and boxed 2800RM of food to fly up into the park. Our leader then allowed us the remainder of the afternoon as leisure time where we mooched around a bit at the hotel, recovering mainly, then went over to the Apollo for a cracking Chinese meal.
Tomorrow we have more shopping to complete and Mark and I may even get a chance to start writing the Rowter hole article for Descent!
So far I have found Miri to be a fascinating place. I’m surprised how much English language there is around the place, most people seem to speak at least some and the majority of road signs and shop names are all written in English. The people are all very friendly and welcoming, restaurants, bars and cafes are all very basic but the food they produce has been excellent. Miri seems very far away from home but somehow very familiar, certain things look different and the buildings and roads aren’t quite as refined as they are in the UK but the people here and the lives they lead are all basically the same as they are back home. It’s a nice, familiar feeling.
I woke up feeling a lot better than yesterday morning, Robbie, Mark and I walked around Miri looking for the final elusive bits and bobs. We took all the food and kit to the airport and with the help of Veno arranged the freight up to the park. We booked in 411kg to be flown up and somehow, during the course the 2 shopping days we spent a total of about 11500RM!
We were all sat around late afternoon at the Ming Café when all of a sudden there was an almighty bang from just round the corner. A flock of birds was sent flying out of the trees nearby and tourists stopped momentarily to see what it was… it turns out that there is a man living just round the corner who regularly shoots his gun at the trees to scare away the birds which perch outside his window!
In the evening we went back to the Apollo for another Chinese meal then all 5 of us went over to Wheels bar, even Jane had a G&T before taking Robbie back to the hotel to chase up his spare camera body over in the UK. Tim Mark and I carried on with the double G&T’s in Wheels for a bit, I have no idea how many we got through but it was a lot! We nearly got back to the hotel when someone decided it would be a good idea to pop into SOHO and carry on with the G&T’s which here, were much much bigger. Before we knew what had happened we were incredibly merry and on the phone to Dick Willis and Pete O’Neil. All the metal shutters apart from the ones immediately adjacent to us were closed up so we had one final drink, finished our chips and staggered back over the road. Mark decided that the street between the bar and the hotel could do with a bit more colour so did a touch of ‘decorating’ on the way over. When we arrived back in the room, Robbie was still up and had managed to get onto Skype to Gina. Mark dived at Robbie, swerved at the last minute and banged his head on the bedside table, leaving a trail of blood running down his face- he still doesn’t remember what happened that night.
No sooner had I woken up than I realised that last night was a bit of a mistake. We had to be at the airport fairly early to get the plane up to the park. The flight was good, nice scenic views and plenty of leg room. We got off the plane and drove the short distance to park HQ in a pickup. We were staying in part of the old park HQ building which will soon be demolished. Although old, it was pretty comfortable and we had plenty of space to spread out in. We sorted out some food and unpacked then had a quick snooze and headed up to Deer cave… my first glimpse of a cave so far on the expedition!
The walk up took about 45 minutes on raised timber walkways which wound their way from HQ right to the entrance of the cave. Passing the bat observatory, we were suddenly faced with a colossal cave entrance. The boardwalk continued through the cave and we stopped to let everyone catch up in one of the biggest parts. Words can not describe the feeling of sheer, vast size that felt as I stood, speechless, open mouthed just looking around and feeling quite emotional about the whole thing! Yes, it was a show cave but this epitomised what Mulu caving is all about- bigness!
Robbie and Jane stopped to take a photo so Mark, Tim and I went through, off the boardwalks and into the streamway (getting my boots wet for the first time- probably never to dry for the next 2 weeks!). Walking through the last part of the cave brought us out the other entrance into the bottom of the Garden of Eden- a huge ‘bowl’ of limestone, surrounded on all sides by steep limestone cliffs.
The walk back was pleasant and when we arrived the rest of the team were there so we heard about the laser scanning from Kevin, Meg and Roo- it was going well and Andy got back shortly after having done a quick recce of the Nasib Bagus streamway in preparation for the scanning and photography trips that were to follow. We had a couple of beers in the café and a Mie Gorang for dinner which was smashing.
We awoke in a lovely cool room thanks to the large ceiling fan. Mark stayed in bed whilst the rest of us went for breakfast which, as usual involved noodles and chopsticks. Andy and Kevin were going back up to Deer cave to continue with the scanning so Tim, Jane, Mark, Robbie and I went up with a load of photo gear to get some pictures of him. We took several shots which involved me climbing up some pretty precarious, slippy, guano covered boulders. The results were pretty good. Robbie also re- took the popular shot looking out of Deer cave using a panoramic head which, although a lot of effort ended up being a beautiful picture.
On the way back we took a slight detour to the canopy walk, a series of narrow platforms and rope bridges strung between the trees over quite a long distance. The tower that takes you up to the start of the walk was locked…. But then mysteriously wasn’t- which was nice, so we set off around the walkways. The way down at the other end was also locked and this one was covered with barbed wire so unfortunately didn’t mysteriously become unlocked so we had to go all the way back round the course to the start! It would have been just as much fun doing it the second time were it not 10 times hotter up in the canopy than down on the forest floor.
We got back, did some crosswords and looked at the day’s photos until Roo came in to tell us that he had been feeling particularly unwell since arriving and things weren’t improving for him. It was very sad but he really didn’t feel up to tomorrow’s task of installing the scanning team in Sarawak chamber. He was bitterly disappointed and we all felt for him but when we found out that Meg was also feeling a bit off colour the plans were changed to give us another day at HQ and the scanners another easy day in Deer cave.
The scanners went off to Deer cave for the day and Tim, Mark, Robbie, Veno and myself went to find Barangs entrance to Clearwater. We were going to re- survey from the entrance through to Clearwater 3 to try and better tie- in these parts of the survey with the master.
We set off around 0900 and walked for a couple of hours up to the Melinau Paku River. The further from HQ we got, the less defined the paths became until we were eventually following Veno through the undergrowth with his Parang. When we got roughly to the right area we walked up the river in the water for a fair way and cut through the jungle to where Veno thought Barangs was. We found a cave entrance but it turned out to be the entrance to Drunken Forest- useful to know but not the right one! We re- traced our steps to the river, flicking off leeches on the way and walked downstream searching the vegetation on the cliff and river banks for a dark area with a breeze moving leaves around. After perhaps a kilometre or so, Robbie spotted something high up in the bank which, after a little investigation turned out to be the right entrance. Tim Mark and Veno went ahead to the junction with the Clearwater 3 streamway (about 1km) and surveyed back towards the entrance. Robbie and I went surveying in from the entrance. When we all met up, we leap- frogged through the Clearwater streamway- Tim, Mark and Veno route finding then working backwards whilst Robbie and I always worked forwards. We moved quickly through the cave, from CW3-CW2-CW1 and into “the best stream passage in the world”… I have to say, although this is a very grand sweeping statement, it is hard to believe that there is much else out there to rival the Clearwater streamway. It certainly is the finest piece of cave passage I have ever had the pleasure of traversing. The passage averages over 20m wide and something like 30+m high, the wide, slow flowing Clearwater River meandered through the clean cut limestone and we followed it all the way to the show cave entrance at the resurgence of CW1. We climbed onto the platforms and made our way out just as darkness fell. As we were descending the last few steps down from the show cave we heard a boat engine rev and shoot off down the river, only moments before we got there- looks like the long walk back then!
The walk took an hour and 20 minutes and we got back to HQ at 20:00 just in time for dinner with the others then bed with very sore feet!
We had a lazy start today to allow us to recover from the previous day’s long trip. We walked up towards Deer cave at about 12:00 with the aim of finding black hands cave to do a short bolt climb that had been seen by Andy and Robbie a couple of years ago. It would also provide a good opportunity to get a photo of some bolting with the new drills to give back to our sponsors- Makita.
We left the path about 15 minutes before Deer cave and headed up a very steep, very indistinct overgrown ‘track’. The going was pretty tough and it was extremely hot but Robbie managed to take us almost straight there which was pretty impressive really. We were quickly in the cave and making our way towards the current known end. The climb turned out to be nothing too worthwhile so we gave it a miss. I did see an awful lot of bats, cave crickets, earwigs, cockroaches, huntsman spiders and ‘hairy marys’…. Something to do with the colossal volumes of guano and flies that seemed to be all over the cave. We stopped at the entrance on the way out to get a photo of Mark W and a load of bats then beat a hasty retreat from what was actually in hindsight, a relatively unpleasant cave!
I had a beautiful beef radang for dinner (new favourite meal out here now) and we all got stuck in preparing the kit for tomorrow’s long walk to Sarawak chamber.
Today was always going to be a big day but I’m not sure any of us realised quite how big until it was all over!
The whole team was up and ready to go by 08:00 with all bags packed, ready to take the survey team up to Sarawak Chamber to start the 4 day camp and laser scan. The walk up was slow, it took over 3 hours with numerous river crossings and countless leeches to get to the entrance of Nasib Bagus. When Andy was there a few days before he waded in through the streamway and had left a marker at the entrance, heavy rain last night however meant that the marker was now 2m underwater!
Veno and our 3 porters set about making a raft out of 2 tyre inner tubes and some sticks cut from the forest. We piled all 9 bags onto the raft and of course it immediately tipped up!... we decided to split the loads and the team so 5 people and 5 bags would go upstream then two would return with the raft for the remaining 3 people and 4 bags. Mark B and myself went in first to pull the raft using a rope and Kevin, Meg and Andy pushed from behind. The water looked still and was very slow moving but there was a current pushing us back out of the cave. When we had moved only about 20m in 5 minutes we realised that a new approach was needed so Mark B and I took it in turns to swim ahead with the rope to a ledge, hold on to it and pull the raft with the other 3 towards us. The 3 would then hold the raft in position and we would swim ahead and repeat the process. We did this for what seemed like ages until reaching the final big challenge- the narrower cascades. We fought the raft through this, found a small beach and unloaded the kit. By this point Veno had swum along and caught us up so he and the other 3 went on with 4 bags whilst Mark and I returned to the entrance with the raft to pick up Tim, Mark and Robbie. The second swim up the canal was easier as we now knew what we were doing and used a longer rope and second person for the pulling.
Once we were all through the wet bit, we started up the traverses and boulder piles towards the base of Sarawak chamber where the surveyors were to make their camp. The area we found wasn’t the most comfortable place I have ever seen for an underground camp but it would do the job!
We left Kevin, Meg and Andy at around 1600 and headed out as fast as possible. It took an hour to the entrance then 2 ¼ hours at a very fast march back to HQ just in time for a beef randang and Tiger beer- long day!
We awoke feeling a little sore from last nights march back to HQ but we had an easy day ahead of us. Today we had to get all our kit and food for 4 days from HQ up to camp 1.
We had called in to camp 1 on the way to Nasib Bagus yesterday so knew what to expect. As we started to put everything together, we realised that there was more kit than first anticipated so we ended up with 6 porters and 2 guides- Veno and Chris. The walk was pretty painless and we got to camp 1 around 17:00 ish. The camp is a wooden structure raised off the ground with a tin roof. The walls don’t quite reach the roof to keep the air circulating. There is a sort of ‘balcony’ out the back with a sink and food preparation area. The bench at one end of the balcony overlooks the fast flowing river just next to the camp which we used for washing in and all around are tall trees and dense rain forest. It’s a magical place!
We had a lovely dinner cooked by Chris and Veno then all settled into our mosquito nets to catch up with diaries, books, crosswords and wonder how the scanning was going in Sarawak Chamber.
Another 12 hour day……. This time, most of it spent clambering around in the biggest chamber in the world!
Last nights sleep wasn’t the greatest- the 3 or 4 local guys who stayed at camp 1 last night doing some chainsaw work clearing fallen trees from tracks in the area, were up before the crack of dawn cooking breakfast. I think that we have been spoiled a bit by the mattresses of park HQ, even if they are just sat on the floor.
The walk up to Nasib Bagus took about an hour and when we arrived I was surprised to find the water only wading height. We all made our way easily up the streamway where we met up with Andy on the traverses, he told us that the scanning was going really well and should be done ahead of time- fantastic news! We spent an hour or so photographing the scanning in the chamber which came out really, really well then we all spread out whilst Robbie did his photographic recce of the chamber. I spoke earlier about Deer cave feeling vast but this place was truly beyond belief. 6 of us with the new Scurion 1300 lumen lights barely illuminated half of the chamber, the roof was smooth and dome shaped with a couple of spectacular soaring arches. The floor of the chamber was scattered with a mixture of boulders and patches of shale and gravel. Some of the boulders were bigger than my house making navigation and travel very difficult! Eventually Robbie had seen his photograph and the call came over the radio to move out. I started walking towards the bottom corner of the chamber where the Nasib Bagus streamway exits to eventually take us out to the surface when I found myself stood on the edge of a huge gulley looking down on a pile of 15m high boulders! It took several attempts to find a route through these but I eventually did and re- emerged at the camp site. It took about 45 minutes of fast scrambling for me to get from one side of the chamber to the other- and that was the short way… un believable!
We got back to camp 1 after dark having stopped at the beautiful whirlpool on the way out of Nasib Bagus for some photos. Veno had stayed at camp during the day to allow his sore foot to recover and had prepared a feast for us! Sweet and sour pork, rice, vegetables and chicken curry- all cooked on an open fire.
I finished the day with tired feet and a full stomach and lay in my net reflecting on what an extraordinary place Sarawak Chamber is, excited that today wouldn’t be the last time I saw it!
We didn’t see the biggest of anything today (apart from maybe a leech) but we did visit Drunken Forest.
Full up on a breakfast of noodles and egg, we were all ready to depart for the days activities. Tim, Jane, Mark B and Robbie were going to photograph the entrance of Nasib Bagus in the sunlight then go on to Drunken Forest. Mark W and I were going to go and have a go at climbing to the cave entrance that could be seen high in the cliff above the Melinau Paku River. Suddenly, Mark W came hobbling in with blood all over his heel. He had caught his foot on the corner of the corrugated tin door on the outside toilet building and the cut was pretty substantial. Sadly, Mark had no option but to stay behind so I went with the others to Drunken Forest.
The formations in DF are pretty cool, there are a lot of old stals formed on mud banks which, at some point in the past have collapsed, coming to rest at bizarre angles. Immediately adjacent to them however are stals just as big which have managed to remain upright resulting in a rather odd looking scene! Robbie took some nice photos of the drunken stals and of some large columns and we got ourselves back to camp for a rest before the big day photographing the chamber tomorrow.
I wasn’t going to write my diary up tonight but as I sit here under my mosquito net I keep re-playing this incredible day over and over in my head…..
We were up fairly early and quickly packed as most of our kit was already in the chamber waiting for the day of the big shot. We got to the entrance around 09:30 ish I think and headed upstream to the waiting blue drums full of flash bulbs. We divided the bulbs between everyone and Robbie, Mark B and I scrambled up to the very back of the chamber. The floor of the chamber is quite steeply sloping, you emerge out of the streamway at the bottom corner of it and to get to the furthest point is a long hard walk uphill all the way, over a steep ridge in the middle where the floor and roof pinch together slightly then under a huge domed roof to the back. We eventually made it to the back and after a quick rest and a look around; Mark B and I took up positions with flash bulbs just before the ridge and Robbie took the photo looking 600+m down the rubble slope towards Mark W, Tim and Jane at the bottom of the chamber.
Next, Robbie moved down to the ridge and set up station on a boulder he had sussed out the other day. We all spread out in the lower half of the chamber in the carefully planned positions Robbie had already decided on and after “a big think” by the photographer the first of 5 shots which would eventually make up the panorama was taken. We all had a Scurion 1300 with spare batteries, 30-40 PF300 Meggaflash bulbs, firer, reflectors, water, food and a radio with us. More than once, Robbie had me stand on a rock then directed me around the chamber over the radio looking for a better rock before eventually leading me back to exactly the same stance as before… very frustrating! Moving was slow and dangerous so everyone had to be very patient. It was particularly difficult when asked to stand on a very high, precarious rock with a big drop in front of you, hold a flash bulb, turn your light off, look up, close your eyes, hold a pose, fire the bulb then count to 20 before turning your light back on!! Wobbly doesn’t quite cover it! Because of the shortage of sensible sized drums to safely house the bulbs in, we had to have them loose in bags on our backs. Acutely aware of how valuable these bulbs were and quite how vulnerable they were loose in the sacks I was taking great care not to fall over on the wobbly, precariously balanced rocks. Obviously the inevitable happened though and as I stood on a boulder it rocked violently sending me falling backwards quite hard. I got a hand down but still fell onto the bag on my back and heard a crunch… oh shit I thought (I think I said something a bit worse than that out loud). I had used bubble wrap and some cardboard to pad the bulbs as best I could and had been putting the old bulbs around the outside to protect the good ones. I daren’t tell Robbie who was concentrating hard on his photos so at the first opportunity took every last bulb out of the bag for a look- I had broken 1! Thank god!!
After 6 hours of photographing and exhausting moving about, we had the 5 shots in the bag and beat a hasty retreat out of the chamber for the last time.
Taking the picture had been great, it had forced us to spend a long time in there with the best lights money can buy (or sponsors can lend) just looking around. We saw much more in those 6 hours than most people ever do in there, it was a great thing to have done.
On the way back we sort of split into 3 groups as we went- Tim and Jane at the front, Robbie and Mark B next then Mark W and myself. We marched on towards the camp but after 12 hours underground we weren’t quite concentrating as we should have been and all of a sudden I had the feeling that we were on the wrong track. I asked Mark but he said we were right so we carried on. Things were familiar to me, I had been here before but was sure it wasn’t the right track. We passed by a very distinctive tree root that I remember thinking looked like an ammonite last time I saw it but that wasn’t on the way to camp 1….. all of a sudden we saw lights up ahead on a river bank so Mark shouted Robbie and we jumped out of the forest into the water and stumbled up onto a shale bank only to be faced with 4 very surprised looking Penan ‘locals’! We quickly realised that these guys were bird nesters having spent some time underground illegally removing swift’s nests to sell on the black market, they were now on their way back to their jungle camp for the night. We asked if they had seen anyone come this way ahead of us and when they said no we finally realised we were definitely in the wrong place! Very aware that we had just stumbled on 4 men with machetes doing something suspicious and illegal in the middle of the rainforest late at night we quickly made our excuses and beat a very hasty retreat! Mind you, they were probably just as shocked by the experience of 2 tall, dirty, tired western men with very powerful lights leaping out of the forest at them in the dead of night… it made us chuckle as we got back on the right track and made our way closer to food and bed. We were in for one last treat however before we got back- as you walk through the forest at night, the light on your head picks out thousands of tiny eyes looking back at you- frogs, spiders and all sorts of other creepy crawlies. When looking around at these eyes I suddenly saw a huge pair of glowing beacons staring back at me out of the undergrowth only about 5m away! I whispered for Mark to stop and we stood looking at a Sivit cat. It stared back for a while as Mark instinctively made the squeaky noise one makes to a domestic cat to tempt it over…. “hereeee pus puss puss” I whispered… then I think we both realised what we were doing and immediately stopped! The cat gave us one last bemused look then turned and walked slowly away- what a magical moment!
We walked back to the HQ in high spirits having accomplished all of the Sarawak chamber objectives. We had 6 more porters to help bring all the gear back from camp 1.
Robbie and I set off at a fast pace and were back at HQ in about an hour and 20 minutes, we were showered and checking out the photos when the others arrived back. The survey team were there enjoying a well deserved rest but excitement started to grow as the panoramic picture came together- it was magnificent!
We spent the whole afternoon chilling out but soon became restless after a week of such intense activity. Because of this we ended up in the Sweetwater bar just over the river. Once we had drunk the bar dry of beer, Mark B got a bottle of Touac (locally brewed home made rice wine). Robbie had suffered a particularly heavy night on this at some point in the past and point blank refused to touch it, the rest of us had a shot and continued trying to persuade him that it was fine stuff and he should try it again. In an attempt to demonstrate this, Mark W picked up his second glass, shouted “iiiiiinnn one” and downed the wine, he immediately stood up, lunged for the edge of the decking and proceeded to throw up over the railing. Without even batting an eyelid, Tim continued with the goading “… anyway, don’t let the vomit put you off Robbie, it’s nice stuff”! Needless to say Robbie’s glass remained untouched for the rest of the night.
Yesterday Mark B and myself had decided that we needed something to do for today so we would go and have a look at the climb to the cave entrance in the cliff between Tiger cave and Nasib Bagus. Discussing it over dinner, Andy also decided to come along and lend a hand. Mark W’s foot was still not great so although it was one of his main objectives for the short time we were in the area, he decided not to come along. I felt pretty bad about going to look at the climb without him, knowing that it was ‘his thing’ but he seemed to be OK with the situation so I didn’t pursue it with him.
The team of 3 set off at 0900 (with groggy heads) to find the entrance. We had some hand bolting kit, a couple of 35m ish ropes, 2 harnesses, radios, parangs and a little food and water each.
It took us about 2 hours to get to the point where we were stood looking directly up at the cave entrance on the other side of the river. We guessed it to be about 100-150m high in the cliff just above the tree line. Andy took a ‘point and go’ bearing on his GPS that would guide us roughly in the direction of the cave once were under the canopy and we set off into the forest led by Mark B with his parang. In about 20 minutes we had reached the top of the talus slope and were faced with a vertical wall of rock with very dense vegetation growing on ledges, out of cracks and seemingly off sheer vertical rock. We spread out left and right to find a less intimidating way on and settled on an upwards sloping ramp to the right. We zig- zagged up the narrow ramps for a fair way to the point where we were definitely no longer scrambling but had to start concentrating on some proper climbing. It was here that we got the ropes out and put harnesses on. Mark hadn’t brought his harness or a helmet so he stopped on a ledge for a while whilst Andy and I went up to see how things were ahead. Very soon, we were leading pitch after pitch of steep vegetation covered rock and it became quickly apparent that Mark just wouldn’t be able to follow us up this. We went up for 3 or 4 pitches, sometimes on a bit of rock but usually climbing on tree roots and tufts of moss and old leaves perched on shallow ledges. We had 5 or 6 short tape slings with us so I was choking them round any roots or small trees that seemed strong enough to use as runners.
Before long we started to get a tad disorientated on the cliff and when we reached a large bench we stopped and got Mark to go back down to the river to try and spot us and guide us in. With a lot of faffing around waving branches and tackle bags he eventually spotted us and guessed we were about 40m horizontally and 20m vertically off the entrance. With this information, we headed up off the bench until reaching another very steep section. I climbed off up through a load of Rattan (barbed grassy stuff) to a precarious belay and brought Andy up. “Is that as dodgy as it looks?” were his first words after rounding the Rattan bush…. sadly it was!
The next pitch was probably the hardest and scariest of the climb, I pulled up over an overhanging cornice of mud, leaves and tree roots tearing most of it off as I went. This got me to a small stance with a young tree on it. I choked a sling high up around the trunk of the tree and set off on a very dodgy traverse over a sizeable drop on small sloping ledges covered in leaves and moss. The traverse ended with a big lunge for a fairly reasonable tree and as I set up the belay, panting with relief I realised that it was actually quite a long way back to the tree with the last runner on- probably not lethal but it would have been an interesting swing to take at that point in the day! I got on the radio to Andy and mentioned that I couldn’t help feeling that things were just starting to feel a little bit silly but he decided to come up and we would re-assess the situation from this new belay. Andy set off and a minute later came back over the radio “bloody hell, that was harder than it looked from down there”, within a few more minutes he was on the small ledge removing the last runner from the tree and looking at the traverse with some apprehension. He peered back over the edge at what he had just come up, shook his head, looked over to me and said “Mark, you are a fucking lunatic!”… I chose to take this as a compliment. Once we were back together we called Mark again who told us that he could see us and we were immediately below the entrance- great news! With that it was decided- we would push on. 2 final pitches was all it took and at about 5m from the entrance I finally saw it for the first time. This just shows that without Mark in the river below us we wouldn’t have stood a hope in hells chance of finding the entrance. I felt pretty sorry for him actually, heavy rain late morning had swollen the rivers and he ended up spending around 6 hours on an ever decreasing shale bank in the middle of the river with no food, guiding us in to the cave- a stirling effort.
As I pulled over the edge at the top, the cave came into view- and it was definitely a cave! The entrance was lovely, large stals decorated with greenery hung from the roof, the floor dropped away steeply leading into a 25-30m high passageway with an overall width of around 8-10m.
Andy arrived, we organised ourselves and walked into the cave for a quick look- did it go?? The passage sadly reduced in height and was quickly choked with stal and mud with no discernable draught. There was a tiny cave racer snake on a small ledge at the end though- very nice!
Although we only found around 40m for all the effort we put in to getting there it was the first 40m of cave passage I had ever helped to find and the first 40m I have ever had the pleasure of been the first person to set foot in. We gave Mark estimated measurements and a bearing off the GPS over the radio and he recorded them on his video camera for later- next time we will just remember to take a pen and paper with us!
We allowed a few moments to admire the spectacular view before turning our attention to the problem of how to get down from the entrance. We only had one short rope so would have to rig pull throughs all the way. Andy pointed out that a ‘traditional’ pull through with a krab would snag on everything all the way down so we devised a system whereby we would tie off the middle of the rope, I would abseil down to the next belay and tie myself off then tie the end of the rope I had abseiled on. Andy would untie the rope at the top and pass it straight over the tree we had used, then come down the opposite side to the one that I had tied off at the bottom. When he joined me at the next stance we would both hang from the next belay and pull the rope through and repeat the process. There were 1 or 2 problems with this though- The rope would only allow about a 15m abseil at a time, because the route up was so zig-zagged, we would have to go virtually straight down- into the steep looking unknown and finally, Andy didn’t bring his descender- so he would use my Stop and I would abseil on an Italian hitch!
When we set off, the system was fairly slow but we had to take care, particularly abseiling in the Italian hitch. The sun started to set and the pull throughs kept coming. We abseiled ‘blind’ off some overhanging sections of rock then would swing into the top of a tree, both of us perched on the same branch- the trees were usually growing from a crack in the vertical wall! Once ‘comfortable’ we would pull through and abseil out of the top of the tree to the base, attach to the base of the trunk so we were hanging in space below the tree and continue the downwards progress. I have found myself in some strange positions through caving but none as bizarre or precarious as sharing a branch with Andy Eavis 220m above the floor of a jungle with only a 15m abseil rope watching the sun go down on the horizon!
The descent got harder as the sun went down and I really had no idea where or if the next belay point would appear so every opportunity to tie off and pull through was taken. Often there wasn’t anywhere suitable to tie the rope off at the bottom so I would tie the rope off to my harness and Andy would then abseil off me as I hung on a root or branch. We once had to both deliberately abseil off the end of our ropes to reach the next ledge then climb back up to retrieve the rope- not good! After a mere 15 abseils and 4 hours we were back at river level, we had somehow managed to come right down the centre face of a large rock buttress which fell straight to the valley floor, bypassing all the ledges and ramps we had scrambled up earlier in the day… oh well!
We were all safe and relieved but very thirsty and incredibly dirty, scratched and bitten. A 2 hour walk got us back to HQ at around 2300 making a 14 hour epic day and one which I will never forget.
I bloody ached today! Yesterday’s climb took its toll so I slept in until about 1000 and missed breakfast. Kevin, Meg and Andy were going back up to Deer cave to finish off the last few ‘shadows’ in the laser survey and try to shoot something up into Antler passage, the high level passage in the roof of Deer cave. We (Robbie, Jane and I) hung around at HQ until after lunch then went up with 2 electric strobes and 30 or 40 flash bulbs. On the walk up the plank walk Jane and I spotted a pigmy squirrel running along the handrail in front of us. It was about the size of a hamster but with the characteristic bushy squirrel tail- lovely!
We took a couple of pictures in the cave with Kevin and Wall- e (the laser scanner) in the foreground, each took several attempts as the old bulbs we were using were particularly unreliable. Jane was very dismayed to see me wearing my expedition polo shirt and that it was becoming more and more covered with guano as the day wore on.
The climb up to Antler passage isn’t too hard but there is a long slippy ramp in the middle requiring a rope. The in-situ rope was a very slick piece of stretchy polyprop which made things rather difficult but with a bit of teamwork we soon had everything up at the mouth of Antler passage and were able to spare a minute to admire the view. Deer cave looks big from the ground but seeing it from high up really puts everything into perspective. The boardwalk became a thin ribbon of grey winding it’s way along the edge of the cave and people started to look like ants on the piles of guano, I’m glad we went to the effort of going up there and experiencing the cave in a way that most people aren’t usually lucky enough to do.
Towards the end we were joined by Pete Hall and Ian and Liz Lawton who had just arrived at the park- it was nice to see them and nice to chat to Ian and Liz about my first experience of Mulu as it was also their first time there.
We all walked quickly back to the HQ in heavy rain and settled down in the café to enjoy our last night with the Tiger beer and beef randang.
Tuesday 29-Wednesday 30th
Travel days- Mark W and I travelled home together, we managed to see Matt Kirby, Sam Allshorn and Hugh StLawrence in Miri for an hour or so, mooched around for a bit in Miri, got our flights without any trouble and spent a lot of time sitting, sleeping and reflecting on the 2 weeks we had just enjoyed. As I sit and write this in KL international airport I find my mind wondering what awaits me at work, if the bank have sorted out my internet account hacking, how many spam e-mails I have had sent from my email account without knowing, if the house is still there…… It’s depressing really and the realisation that the adventure is over, at least for now, is a sad one.
Reflections on the Expedition
Since becoming a part of the expedition 3 or 4 months ago, I have met and become friends with a fantastic group of people and an incredible group of cavers. I feel very, very privileged to have been allowed the opportunity to take part in something so special with such a dedicated team of remarkable people.
In my 2 short weeks away I have learned an awful lot, everyone on the expedition performed and behaved admirably and each was a credit to him or herself. I feel like I really was away with the best possible team of people I could ever hope for.
I have seen many incredible things- snakes, sivit cats, pigmy squirrels, bats and swifts in their millions, giant butterflies, weird and wonderful insect and plants and have been bitten nearly every day by leeches. I have had a trip through the Clearwater- probably the biggest cave in the world by volume, been in Deer cave- probably the biggest cave passage in the world, had my picture taken in Sarawak Chamber- the biggest chamber in the world, done 2km of surveying, swum nearly a mile in Nasib Bagus pulling a raft, crossed countless river, sometimes in flood, climbed 220m up a cliff to enter an unexplored cave and sampled a whole new culture and way of life on the other side of the world. After 2 weeks with this team of people though, the one thing that strikes me the hardest is the fact that I have only just barely scratched the surface of what is still out there waiting for me… waiting for us- the Mulu Caves Project!
For all the information relating to the project, please visit www.mulucaves.org
I would like to thank the following people for making the expedition a great success;
Tim Allen- Expedition leader. Without his dedication to the project and his wealth of experience in expedition leadership none of this would have happened.
Jane Allen- Thanks to Jane for her help, advice and encouragement, for being there to look after everyone and make tea for those who most needed it, when they needed it the most!
Robbie Shone- Thanks for asking me after our 93 hour trip to come and help create something amazing- I can't wait to see the results of all the hard work on the wall of national park HQ in 2 years time! ;-)
To all our sponsors for the generous donations of equipment- Sealskinz, Leica, Buff, Meggaflash, Makita and Scurion.
Finally, thanks to everyone I spent time with in Mulu for making it a fantastic 2 weeks.