And so to 2003. Once again the team was able to take advantage of the new infrastructure to be in position quickly and exploration in Cobweb was quickly underway. A major priority was to push southward, towards the strongly draughting Sakai’s Cave and Tiger Cave, high in the cliff above. Several days of hard caving pursued all the known leads to their conclusions but no connections were made. Northwards, an ascending lead at Duelling Banjos offered the prospect of a connection to Deliverance Cave and a Benarat through-trip to the Medalam Gorge but once again the cave closed down. Nonetheless, the team’s combined efforts had added a further 4.4km to the length of the system.
Out in the Melinau Gorge, Hurricane Hole beckoned. Entered on the very last night of the 2000 trip, Hurricane potentially offered either an entirely new system or, if Colin Boothroyd’s interpretation of a muddy splot as a footprint was correct, a new way into Benarat Cavern’s Homeward Bound series. Debate raged and the only way to prove the case was to get back underground. In the event, Colin’s instinct was proved right, even if the position of the footprint was logically impossible. However, Hurricane still contains an undescended pitch with a 4.2 second freefall: Mulu always keeps tantalising.
With other leads closing down, the team refocused attention on the Terikan System where a number of prospects remained, left over from the early Mulu trips. Their rewards were immediate Tim Fogg, Dave Scott and Colin Boothroyd found the first of the entrances to the Elevator, a stunning, multi-tiered set of passages with some awesome phyto-karren in the entrances. One of the entrances was only 10m from the trail where a combination of Andy Eavis, Wookey, Robbie Shone and James Alker opened up a vast new area, including the River of Sound named after the noise created by bats wheeling and clicking along the passage ahead of them.
Elsewhere, the components of a Terikan master cave were being put together concerted efforts linked Terikan, Menagerie, Eagle and Deception Caves and opened up a possibility of a connection with Cobweb. Daud’s Cave, which sits between the two systems, was pushed hard by Pete Hall and James Alker, unfortunately without success, leaving a frustrating 150m gap. The team, with Park Guide Lawai, also tried hard to create to create a connection via Deception but that too failed, in this case with a 230m shortfall.
By the end of the expedition, Benarat had a further 18.6km of cave. Meanwhile, across the Melinau things were happening again in G.Api. Matt Kirby and Richard Chambers had been driven by a masochistic desire to scrabble through the forest in search of the entrance of Blackrock. They failed dismally but towards the end of the expedition, traversing the foot of the mountain, found themselves in a guano-tainted, cold down-draught. This is one of Mulu’s quirks in the correct atmospheric conditions and at particular times of day the caves breathe out, sending a cold stream of air down onto the plain and, often, carrying a strong smell of batshit. This is a certain indicator of a big system and Matt and Richard cut up the slope to discover Whiterock Cave.
As so often on expeditions this last-minute discovery turned out to be the find of the trip. In the dying days of the expedition the cave soaked up the team’s resources, revealing more and more passage apparently squeezed between Blackrock and the edge of the mountain. As preparations for departure were carried out, surveying went on at a fast pace underground and the team left Camp 5 with 3.7km of known passage in this new system and an awful lot of leads.