In 1999, thoughts turned again to Gunung Benarat. The years since 1984 had seen stunning discoveries in Gunung Api but, despite visits to the Melinau Gorge, no-one had crossed the river to continue explorations in Benarat.
It was known that extensions were probable in Cobweb Cave and this formed a clear focus for an expedition. However, there was another possibility that hung in the memory in 1984, Ben Lyon and Mike Meredith had followed the base of the cliff eastwards from Benarat Caverns and had noted a small, strongly draughting hole. If this hole could be passed, then it might provide a new way into the mountain. In addition, in ‘97 an American team had located an entrance high on the slopes at the north end of Benarat, Deliverance Cave, and the possibility existed of a through trip from the Medalam to the Melinau.
In the years since ’84, the whole infrastructure of the Mulu area had changed hugely with the construction of the airport and the new Park HQ complex. The airport made access very easy and the extent of the change was reinforced when, in 1999, Andy Eavis and Dick Willis carried out a one-week reconnaissance visit to find and check out the mysterious draughting hole. This recce was successful, the hole was found, the draught was immensely strong and plans were laid for a return trip in 2000.
Unlike previous expeditions, when it took about a week to reach Camp 5 from the UK, the airport and a short helicopter ride meant that the team were caving within 24 hours of leaving Britain – Tim Fogg and Colin Boothroyd were back in Cobweb, trying to make sense of their 16 year old survey.
Cobweb is a highly complex cave, a phreatic maze of huge proportions and great beauty. It can also be treacherous underfoot and very hard work. In the entrance chamber, above a 12m overhanging wall, there was an obvious large passage. Some judicious work with a home-made catapult positioned a pair of ropes, enabling Colin to ascend, place a few suspect bolts to get over the lip and begin exploring. Catapult Passage went for about 3km before exiting through a small entrance on the hillside.
Deeper into the system, Tim Fogg bolted a climb above the Powder Mountain to reach a series of extensions heading north towards Deliverance. Expectations were high but despite the best efforts of Tim, Pam Fogg and Tony White, the leads closed down, although not before passing through some beautifully decorated sections of passage. Elsewhere, working south and down, Pete Hall, Syria and Tim Allen found their way back to the active river level in ‘Streamway Zero’ before running out of rope and having to turn back. Extensions were also found upwards, with Martin Holroyd and Colin Boothroyd forcing their way up to a series aptly named the ‘Top of the World’.
By the end of the trip Cobweb was 10.7km longer and, in true Mulu style, had more open leads than had been known at the beginning of the expedition.
But Cobweb wasn’t everything. Another piece of unfinished business lay in Benarat Caverns where the Super Ramp, a monstrous feature near the Barking Dog Bivvi, remained un-ascended. Caving equipment had also moved on in the intervening years, as well as air-access to the Park, and the 2000 gear bags contained electric drills. With these, Tim Allen, Pete O’Neil and Pete Hall managed to ascend 230m above the floor of Homeward Bound but, alas, to no avail: there was no way out at the top!
And what of that draughting hole…? A visit early in the trip had shown that it had potential but it would be difficult and then Cobweb had gone in all directions. As a result, the expedition had been so busy that it had been forgotten, until the last day, when Andy Eavis persuaded Tim Allen to have another go. This time, with some hammering, they passed the obstruction into big passage, so Hurricane Hole was discovered. Returning with others for a truly last-minute trip they later returned to Camp 5 flushed with success having surveyed nearly 400m of big passage. They were also arguing about whether or not they had seen a footprint indicating a connection to Homeward Bound in Benarat Caverns. The argument could only be resolved by continuing the exploration and proving the connection, or not.