February - 2019

Undaunted by failure in 2003 the ‘Pointless Crew’ continued their hunt for Blackrock Cave determined to prove it wasn’t a dream.

The Search for Blackrock: Matt Kirby, 2005

Blackrock Cave had been discovered in 1988 by Matt Kirby, Richard Chambers and Noah Abang. It had been visited several times over the following years but after that, exploration in Hidden Valley and Benarat meant that the cave was not visited for 12 another years. Matt & Richard returned to the Park with the Benarat 2003 expedition to head southwards, re-find Blackrock and continue to search northwards as far as Camp 5. Sounded simple but little did they know what and epic this would turn out to be.

A diary note from Tim Allen’s 2003 diary read:

“Matt & Richard head off on another pointless attempt to find Blackrock”

So it was that we became known as “The Pointless Crew”

During 2003, access to the Blackrock area had been made either via a long round trip past Leopard Cave (24km) or by hacking from the Headhunter’s Trail through the forest to the vicinity of the Racer entrance. Although three trips were made, none of the Blackrock entrances had been found. On one trip a bivvy had been made in a small cave near the Centipede entrance when the team became benighted without locating the Blackrock entrance.

Access to Whiterock had been made from the 6km mark on the Headhunter’s Trail with a difficult south-easterly route over low lying karst. The area between Whiterock and Blackrock’s Racer entrance had never been visited and this represented approximately 2km of unexplored ground.

In order to continue the exploration of Whiterock, a new track had been established from just north of the new bridge over the Melinau. This cut through some swampy ground which became ‘interesting’ in wet weather

Day 1

The Pointless Crew plus Tim Allen headed off for the Whiterock area to explore southwards, hopefully to cut a track through to Blackrock. The Whiterock track meets the limestone approximately 300m south of the entrance at a point now known as the Whiterock Junction at which a GPS fix was established.

Equipped with parangs and a new found enthusiasm, we headed off into the unknown. Richard and I led on with Tim bringing up the rear, hacking distinct track marks to ensure that the return was well marked. He didn’t want to spend the night going round in circles with the Pointless Crew.

At first, the route was fairly straightforward; the plan was to keep to the side of the mountain in order, hopefully, of finding some familiar sign of one of the Blackrock entrances. After approximately 30 minutes the track turned east as it rounded a small cliff, this had the appearance of an enormous boulder as it was detached from the main slope and a GPS fix was obtained here, too (The Big Boulder). Old Penan tracks appeared and were followed for a few yards before disappearing. Various areas of tree-fall were passed before the track turned onto the limestone. Following this proved a mistake as the going became difficult before ending up on top of tall cliffs above a small valley and stream sink. A retreat and awkward traverse down led back to the base of the limestone. The sink formed a steep valley with the ground beyond rising up onto alluvial terrace. Within a short distance an old Penan shelter was found and another GPS fix made (Penan Camp). Beyond the shelter the going became very difficult with dense forest, frequent tree-fall, rattan, thorny palms and steep muddy slopes. I remembered a large tree somewhere near Blackrock’s Racer Entrance but it was remarkable how many ‘large trees’ there were, all of which looked familiar! (Most things in this area should have looked familiar considering the time we had spent in this area in 2003!).

Although there were signs of old tracks, these were poorly defined and easily lost. After approximately two and a half hours we arrived in the vicinity of the Centipede entrance. Richard headed further south and up-slope, intending to traverse back towards Centipede at a higher level whilst I headed off up a ‘familiar’ looking slope and explored an area of tree-fall against a cliff which had the appearance of the Hayloft entrance; no luck. A climb was made and a small entrance found which could have been Centipede had it been drafting but it wasn’t – still no luck. The old bivvy cave used in 2003 was never found, although Tim did find a small entrance.

At about this time Richard shouted down from high above. He was well up with views out over the canopy and was trying to climb back down but had ended up at the top of a big cliff. Some awkward backtracking and dodging around the cliff revealed a large entrance; bingo, success! This was one of the Dapa entrances, discovered in ’88 immediately above the Centipede entrance. A GPS fix was made (Dapa Entrance).

Time was now pressing on and shadows growing longer. In order to make sure of getting back to the Whiterock track before dusk it was time to depart. Once again the main entrance to Blackrock had us beaten! Interestingly, not very much of Tim’s ‘well marked track’ was found on the way back and so the second route was established.

Day 2

The rediscovery of the Dapa entrance had provided a fix by which to pinpoint the other entrances; at least, that was the theory. All the ’88 & ’89 survey data was in Camp 5 and we began the business of punching this into Survex.

Armed with coordinates and filled with confidence, Richard & I decided to go for it and head back to find the Racer Entrance complete with sufficient gear for a one night bivvy. The plan was that another team would head into Whiterock to drop a pitch into what was thought to be Firecracker. The two teams would meet up the following morning in Firecracker and share a can of Tiger Beer… Never make plans – at least, not where Blackrock is concerned!

The Pointless Crew left Camp 5 at 9.30 at the start of what was to be our longest day! A coordinate had been established for the Racer entrance, based on the ’88 data and a rudimentary understanding of the UTM grid system. As expected, this had placed the entrance near to the Penan camp. All went remarkably well and we reached the Penan camp and recommenced the search. Our start point was at the head of a small washed-out stream bed which ran alongside the mountain. From here we worked up and northwards (remember this…). After about fifteen minutes the heavens opened and we decided to head south towards Dapa entrance for shelter. Unfortunately however, this proved further than expected and the rain eased off somewhat so we returned to continue searching. The area between the ‘tall cliff’ stream sink and the Penan camp were thoroughly searched in very difficult conditions. Scrambling around on steep, slippery, karst slopes in rain is recommended as a certain way of breaking a bone.

It was now 3.30 and the light was beginning to fade so we decided to cut our losses and head for Dapa Entrance to bivvy. This was a mistake; it would have been more sense to head back to Camp 5!

The slope beneath Dapa entrance is very steep and littered with vertical cliffs. Richard had had a lot of trouble getting down after finding the entrance a couple of days earlier and he had the benefit of midday sunshine and dry conditions. On this occasion the light was fading, the rain was falling and everything was soaked including the explorers, their spirits and their heavy rucsacs. The GPS had no trouble fixing the entrance, 70m @ 70º, the slope became steeper, 50m @ 80º, steeper still, 30m @ 90º. Unfortunately the 30m was a vertical cliff towering above our heads. By now the light was all but gone. Backtrack, try to climb up further to the south, a slip, a fall, could have been nasty, this was getting silly. Now 7km from Camp 5, no sign of Blackrock other than a useless GPS fix, soaked, filthy, bedraggled, tired, disheartened, dejected, but never lost! What to do? The words of a wise Berawan came to mind, “never travel through the forest at night”.

It had been very difficult to climb back down the slopes in the half light. Travelling through the forest in daylight is bad enough but to embark on a forest journey in the dark, after heavy rain and without a good track is a serious challenge. Although we are some of the most experienced surface bashers out of all the Mulu veterans and knew the risks, there was little option other than to head back to Camp 5. This was going to be a long and interesting night and it was now 7.00PM.

A few squares of chocolate and we were off. During the day views are never more than 10m ahead, at night this reduces to the beam of the head torch, which gives no indication of distance, detail or form: everything beyond the beam is blackness. By this time we had been on the go for nine hours. All the streams were in full spate and the ground was running with water. The slopes were muddy and slippery and the rattan showed no sympathy. I recalled an entrance just south of Racer; a possible bivvy site? Remarkably we found it, right beside the track. Unfortunately it was a bouldery little hole with more drips inside than there were out. We gave it a miss; if only Blackrock had been as easy to find.

Navigation was by compass, generally heading north east but keeping as close to the mountain as possible. Unfortunately seeing the mountain was impossible unless it was within touching distance: progress was more by feel than sight! A track would be found, followed and then lost as it ploughed into tree-fall.  Inevitably the route drifted away from the mountain in order to get around obstacles and this led into swampy ground which added to the discomfort. We then had to head due east to make contact with the limestone again. This process was repeated numerous times and our progress was more a zig-zag than a direct route. Occasionally a cut twig would be found, bingo – back on track again but not for long, we were in the clutches of dense tree fall, yet again. The only way was to cut through it, again. Snakes, what snakes, they’d be long gone after hearing us thrashing around, just avoid the rattan..

The forest is a very different place at night: bats wheel around at low level, occasionally flying up at your head torch to take an insect trapped in its beam. The sounds are intense. Eyeballs reflect in the beam of your lamp, some spiders, some frogs, others moths, some seem like creatures that would be at home in a science fiction movie. One set belonged to a Moon Cat, shining back with great intensity. The animal stalked around, a safe distance away, always looking towards the light. It stopped, made a move to climb a tree, then as quickly as is appeared it was gone into the blackness.

Eventually, we were heartened to arrive at the Big Boulder. By now, the rest of the team would be relaxing in camp, probably drinking Tiger Beer!

Half an hour later we were at the Whiterock junction; our journey had taken three hours but we weren’t out of the wood yet. Although the track back to the Headhunter’s trail was well defined we decided that one would go ahead and one stay well back to ensure one person was always on the known track. This proved a wise decision, as the lead man lost the way in a couple of places. The swampy areas were now very swampy indeed but teetering around on logs trying to keep feet dry was the last thing on our minds – by this time everything was wet for the tenth time.

The Pointless Crew arrived back at Camp 5 at midnight, with aching limbs, fifteen hours after we left. We had never stopped. Defeated again on yet another pointless attempt to find Blackrock!

Day 3

Not to be beaten, further studying of the ’89 survey data revealed a surface traverse between Centipede and Racer. This would be a more accurate way of pinpointing the Racer entrance as it was a single traverse made on one day, unlike the numerous traverses made over two expeditions which had been used to establish the underground route. An error was also found in the underground data which altered the calculated position of Racer slightly.

The coordinates were punched into the GPS and, undaunted, the Pointless Crew headed off on their sixth attempt to find Blackrock. This time we were joined by Pete (I’ll come with you to loosen up my bad back) O’Neil and Mulu veteran Dick ‘The Choke’ Willis – if any group was doomed to failure, this was the one.

Things progressed well, apart from the route-in being completely different to the last four. The group arrived at the head of the small washed out stream bed from which we had started some days before. The GPS fix suggested the entrance would be south from here, not north as previously thought. We decided to head further south, past the GPS fix, then the head up slope and split into two teams to head north at different levels. Myself and Pete immediately found a small hole at base level with a powerful draft emitting – things were looking up. We continued on a sloping track generally north-east, up slope and another drafting hole was found. Our theory was that there would be a howling gale coming out of Racer so it would be easy to find since the cold draft runs down slope; just keep going and wait for the draft to blow you over – wrong again!

Climbing further up, we came to a large area of tree-fall and a difficult route was taken through this on loose rocks and rotten timber. The ground below was fairly steep. Climbing down to investigate the lower area, I came on some dense foliage which appeared to be shivering, bingo! Racer entrance had been found, at last!. It was totally obscured by foliage with a large tree trunk lying across the opening complete with branches and new growth. As a result we had to cut our way in, through thick undergrowth. The draft was intense but rather than running down the slope, as expected, it was directed upwards and into the tree cover. Clearly this entrance would not have been discovered easily from below, as it gave no evidence of its location.

Apart from the camouflage it was just as we remembered it. We headed in as far as the pitch down into the Snake Pit, had a bite to eat, then returned to Camp 5. On the way back a positive attempt was made to stick to the side of the mountain, never climbing onto the limestone but always walking just off it. This proved a great success and was the easiest of all the routes taken through this ground; the sixth!

After six attempts The Pointless Crew had redeemed their reputation and re-discovered a cave which had only taken us two days to discover in 1988! Racer was fixed on GPS, oh and we were never lost!

Unfortunately, there’s still the niggling matter of the Centipede/Hayloft Entrance. It’s out there somewhere! Will it ever be found? Are you tough enough to rise to this pointless challenge..?

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