Cathay-Pacific Airways MULU 80 – Edited from an article originally written by Andy Eavis, Dick Willis and Lindsey Dodd published in Caving International Magazine July 1981.
The 1978 Royal Geographical Society’s Expedition to Gunung Mulu established the National Park as one of the world’s greatest caving areas and it was hardly surprising that a follow-up expedition should be planned. The Sarawak government was keen to establish the full range of the park’s resources and offered logistical and personnel support through its Forestry Department to a team of British cavers jointly led by two members of the ‘78 expedition, Andy Eavis and Ben Lyon. The expedition was seen to have several major aims: continued exploration, survey, photography, scientific study, the training of local people in caving techniques, and to make a documentary film of the caves of Mulu.
The British team was split into two groups, one flying out in early December, the other, mainly scientists and film crew, arriving at Mulu in early January. In addition, a small advance party flew out in mid-November.
Despite the poor economic climate in Britain sponsorship was good, with Cathay Pacific Airlines providing free flights (and lending their name to the expedition title), Europleasure Ltd. providing much of the expedition’s clothing and cooking equipment, and numerous other organisations providing finance or help in kind.The advance party of Phil Chapman, Hans Friederick, Andy Eavis, Mike Meredith and Steve Crabtree arrived in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city, on November 20. Setting a pattern that was often to be repeated during the trip, Andy began a one man war on bureaucracy in order to get all the gear through customs and up to the base camp at Long Pala. He succeeded totally with the exception of one item, crate 14, which was stranded in Hong Kong and unfortunately contained a lot of essential gear, for example carbide, bolts, bolting kits, survey equipment …
The others of the advance group joined up with a team of local cavers from the Forestry Department to carry out a reconnaissance of the caves of Bau, an area near Kuching.
While the work in Bau was being completed Andy, helped by Shell Sarawak and the Royal Malaysian Air Force, was organising an airlift of equipment to Mulu. At this point the team was joined by Tony White, en route from Australia to England, and shortly afterwards lost Steve Crabtree who returned to Singapore suffering from hepatitis.
The first main group of cavers arrived at Long Pala on December 6. It had been planned to build a ‘longhouse’ ready for their arrival, but this had been delayed and as a result base camp was very over crowded. Most of the new arrivals, therefore, moved out the following day on the one hour boat ride and two hour walk (in good conditions) to Camp 5. This was a semi-permanent structure built during the ‘78 expedition at the mouth of the Melinau Gorge and was equipped as an advance base for work around the Gorge and to the north of the Park. Andy, Tony, Dave Checkley (D.C.), Colin Boothroyd and Nick Airey then set out to establish advance camps from which to explore the area around Gunung Buda in the north.
Jon Buchan, the team’s doctor, and Dick Willis stayed at Camp 5, where they were later joined by Mike Meredith, and with the help of porters began cutting a track up the side of Gunung Api with the intention of exploring an enormous feature which had been seen on the aerial photographs. A number of tracks were cut up Api, but all had to be abandoned because of the extreme terrain — steep slopes covered in razor sharp fretted blocks of limestone and obscured by dense moss forest. Because no points of reference could be seen through the trees, much of the track cutting was done by inspired guess work. Eventually, Jon forced a solo ascent to the top of a steep, loose scree slope, broken by short cliffs and affectionately called by Mike “The Mad Doctor’s Death Defying Descent.” The next day all three went up to bivvy and explore, reaching the feature at the same time that Andy and Jerry Wooldridge, the expedition photographer, flew over in a helicopter. Unfortunately, there was no obvious cave development although there was a fine view of the famous pinnacles.
Up in the north, a camp had been established by the Buda Gorge from which several days were spent exploring the surrounding area. A track was then cut through the gorge to the east finishing at a sink in a depression 300 metres in diameter. This obviously needed ropes, but because much of the essential equipment was in ‘crate 14′ it was left for a later visit.
A number of small caves around the gorge were explored with a total of about eight kilometres of passage. Then the team pulled back, exploring caves in the cliff line as they progressed south. They set up another camp, Palm Beach, beside a resurgence while they explored Beachcomber Cave and cut a track over the mountain to the cave’s probable sink on the eastern side. On top was a lot of evidence of old, choked passages in an area that needs further investigation.
By this time Christmas was approaching and, well pleased, the team rejoined the group at Camp 5 where a promising 100-metre shaft had recently been found on the side of Gunung Benarat.
Back at Long Pala the others had been busy. Phil Chapman and Martin Laverty had explored Leopard Cave on the Goldwater River which ran along the west side of Gunung Api. Here they followed a streamway to a sump which they by-passed, reaching a canal with very sharp rocks then another sump, floored with quicksand. A slot in the roof near the first sump led them into several kilometres of fine passage and another climb up through boulders from the bypass took them into a chamber where they found a leopard. This animal not only gave the cave its name, but also put a stop to further exploration.
At the Snake Track Camp, below the middle (Snake Track) entrance to the Clearwater Cave system, Tharg’s Cave with its impressive half-kilometer-long streamway had been explored, and was later connected to Clearwater by Colin and Phil. Inbetween exploratory trips Phil was also carrying out an extensive program of biological research. Hans Friederich had been very busy setting up stage recorders, rain gauges and other hydrological equipment in various localities. This involved carrying a stage recorder, with its awkward two-metre-long plastic column and metal frame, up to the Hidden Valley. This track was generally considered to be the most strenuous walk in the park and Hans repeated it on a number of occasions to check the equipment.
On one such trip he checked the cliff line from Tiger Cave back around the Melinau Paku River to the southern end of Gunung Api. In the process he located a large resurgence which was later shown to be of immense importance. A dye trace from the Hidden Valley soon proved that this was where the water resurged, in a staggering 4.5 hours, and not into Clearwater as was previously suspected.
The whole team then congregated at Long Pala for a monstrous Christmas eve supper of wild boar washed down with large quantities of alcohol, which left Colin in a semi-conscious state for nearly two days. The meal was prepared (as were many others) by our base camp organiser Uschi Trosch, a member of the ‘78 expedition, who was assisted by Sandra Baya Malang, a local villager, and Rachel Williams, a beautiful volunteer from Miri. A Christmas Day soccer match at Long Terawan, the main local village, was a near disaster. Not only did the expedition lose, but the ball hit D.C. in the face, smashing his glasses and cutting him badly above the eye. A good-natured attempt by the villagers to poison the cavers en masse with borak (claimed to be a rice beer, but more like an emetic) fortunately failed, although it did slow several people down for a day or two. In fact, the hospitality of the locals was marvellous and the expedition owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the people of Long Terawan.
After Christmas, D.C. and Nick returned to Camp 5 and established another camp north of the Terikan River close to the Medalam Gorge, where they were soon joined by Tony and Colin. From this camp, ironically called the Medalam Health Farm, they began the steady exploration of the superb Blue Moonlight Bay Cave. They eventually surveyed over ten kilometres of passage in this cave, which is the upstream continuation of the Terikan River Cave. Their progress was repeatedly slowed by problems with sore feet, affectionately called Mulu foot by the ‘78 expedition, then further slowed by a serious fever which caught Colin and then D.C. This is now thought to be Leptospirosis, and is contracted from the rats which were very common at this camp. They were, however, helped considerably by their excellent team of porters, Sakai, Nilong Manni and Weng, all of whom turned out to be keen and capable cavers.
Back at base camp Jerry, Mike, Martin and Dick set up camp under the immense arch at the northern entrance to Deer Cave. Andy was back in Miri to greet the next influx of cavers and to throw a ‘Thank you’ party for government officials and the staff of Shell Sarawak who had given considerable help.
From Deer Cave the team carried out photographic trips in Deer and Green Caves and climbed into the first inlet of Green Cave, discovering several hundred metres of gigantic passage, with interesting eroded formations which terminated in an impenetrable boulder choke.
Dick, Jerry and Mike also climbed the large ramp on the east wall of Deer Cave which led into Antler Passage, a 130-metre-long 40 degree slope of dry guano terminating in a boulder collapse and a set of massive formations. From the top was a very impressive view down to the floor of the main passage, lit by daylight, 190 metres below. Two porters, Lying and Mukti, subsequently found Porcupine Cave in a direct line with Antler Passage and it too ended in a boulder collapse.
By now serious exploratory work was underway in Clearwater. From the Snake Track Camp trips were made into Revival, and Tony, Andy and Colin had also gone through the Dune Series to relocate the tiny northern entrance. An additional one kilometre of passage was found in this area. Here, Andy slipped and damaged his coccyx, which was very painful for a week or two. On one trip into Revival Phil, Tony and Martin ascended one of the immense ramps on the east wall of the passage and to their amazement broke out into a huge parallel upper level from which other ramps went up still further. Tony and Jon subsequently explored north along these levels finding a series of alternative routes back down into Revival, and also a huge aven which was not tackled. Further explorations produced Ronnie’s Delight, and a 100-metre pitch which was descended much later by Colin, but ended in sandy, choked passages. Dick and Phil explored south, hoping to find a way down into the streamway. Instead, an acrobatic lead by Phil up a very greasy climb led to a chamber, Dr. Fu Yen’s Earthly Paradise adorned with massive stalagmite bosses where the route closed down.
On January 3, Andy returned with the first of the scientists, Pete Bull and Pete Smart. The others, Jim Rose, Barry Webb and Marjorie Sweeting arrived the following day bringing with them an epidemic of ‘flu’ and some appalling weather. That evening Ronnie, one of the senior porters, arrived after walking down from Clearwater in the dark with the news that Jerry Wooldridge had slipped in Leopard Cave and had cut his thigh seriously (in fact the rock was so sharp that Jerry hadn’t noticed the cut at first). Jon immediately set off with two fresh porters to Snake Track where, with the help of Hans and Martin, he cleaned and sewed up the wound. This prompt action probably saved Jerry’s leg although he later had to be evacuated to hospital. His loss was a major setback for the photographic program and he was desperately disappointed, but relieved that the cut was neither deeper (in which case the femoral artery would have been cut) nor higher!
After recovering from the effects of travel and flu the scientists quickly set about their work, and Ben and Barry set off for Camp 5 where they carried out a number of trips up the Melinau Gorge to establish the geology. The film crew, Sid Perou, Lindsay Dodd and Geoff Yeadon fought off the attacks of a million creepy crawlies then proceeded to take over 25% of the longhouse and promptly turned it into an electronics work shop. While gear was checked and frames for the 12-volt battery packs made, Jim Rose set up a camp at Long Bera where, with one porter, he cut track from the river to Gunung Api in order to be able to use his level and map a profile of the terraces.
At this point the entire expedition ground to a halt for several days because of severe floods. Sixty centimetres of rain fell in three days at Camp 5 and at base camp the river rose about three metres, flooding the site to a depth of eight centimetres above the floor of the longhouse! Boats had to be used to move around the camp and travel further afield was impossible.
Eventually, the water fell and the rivers became navigable again. With great relief everyone left Long Pala, which was by now rather unpleasant after the flooding of the latrine pits. The scientists moved up to Clearwater; Andy and Hans to the Paku resurgence for the preliminary exploration; Dick and Mike set off after several delays for Camp 5, against the advice of the local porters, and both nearly drowned at the river crossing on the way. At Camp 5 the river was still a raging torrent and a tyrolean was rigged to ferry people and gear to the far side.
This was immediately used when porters arrived from the Medalam Camp with the news that Jon, Tony and Nick were trapped underground by floods. D.C. and Colin, still recovering from fever, could do little to help them. A rescue party set out from Camp 5, but on arrival found the cavers safe, Tony White having free dived the sumped section and then returned to lead the others through. Meanwhile, Ben had begun work on his ambitious project whereby he disappeared into the bottom of Gunung Benerat through Tiger Foot Cave and attempted to reappear in one of the massive entrances visible in the cliff 150 metres higher. He and Barry bolted up a ramp at the end of Tiger Foot and entered a large phreatic tube heading N-S. The southerly extension choked after a short distance but they surveyed several hundred metres north until stopped by a hole in the floor with an awkward move around it. The following day, reinforced by an enthusiastic group back from Medalam they returned to the new series, christened ‘Benerat Good Trip’, passed the hole in the floor and continued north. The main passage contained good formations, including beautiful fans, and was strewn with the bones of bats. Many were cemented in place, although no evidence of live bats was seen in this part of the cave. After about one kilometer of dead straight passage up to 20 metres across a chamber was reached.
In this area were a number of side passages. Most were choked, but one led to a spray-filled pitch. Ahead was a steep ramp covered with gypsum flowers which choked at the top beyond a strongly draughting hole in the floor. The main passage swung abruptly east past a large pit (a seven second drop) to a descent down a boulder pile into a chamber called ‘Hanging Bogey Hall’ in honour of the horrific, sharp, loose boulders which filled it.
Beyong this the survey team found themselves doubling back on their original line and entered a complex series of smaller passages with heavy showers falling from avens into numerous shafts in the floor. Soon they found their way back to the continuation of the main line, an impressive 40 metre diameter tube heading straight back towards the cliff. Here they broke off the exploration and returned through a heavy thunderstorm across the alluvial plain to Camp 5.
The following day brought bad news on the radio. A petrol shortage (caused by the floods at the coast) meant that the regular boat trips to the northern camps could not be made. Tony, D.C. and Dick, who were soon due to leave Mulu, decided to catch the last boat back to Long Pala that day, and Ben and Barry accompanied them, despite the open leads in Tiger Foot.
Back at base Andy, who had returned to base camp to collect the dinghy, was preparing for a return trip to Nasib Bagus, the resurgence discovered by Hans. Logistics dictated that he could only take two other cavers with him so he eventually set off with D.C. and Tony. This left Hans, who was a little disgruntled at having to walk up to Camp 5, and Dick, who made the biggest mistake of his life, as it turned out, by volunteering to carry gear for the film crew on an underground camp.
Initial exploration of Nasib Bagus was difficult, however, as the water flowed out of a canal, which was only passable by swimming or boating. The exploration of the cave was further hampered by two factors. Floods forced the party to make camp in a small cave entrance for two days as the jungle was four metres underwater. Second, Sid Perou had decided to film the exploration. After a recce to confirm that the cave went, Andy and Hans were filmed paddling their way along the canal, fighting the rapids and jumping into a superb plunge pool.
The cave was impressive on account of its 50-metre-high, 300-metre-long entrance canal, which led to a series of cascades and places where the roof was over 120 metres high. After the filming, Andy and Hans explored about 600 metres more, surveying as they went. The passage narrowed into a steep-walled traverse. Geoff Yeadon and Danny (one of our best porters) worked overtime to ferry the film crew and equipment back and forth along the canal. Despite the fact that the cave was “one of the biggest things in Sarawak” exploration had to be curtailed and a retreat made to base camp.
The following day enormous loads of filming equipment were carried through the floods to Snake Track and on into Clearwater. Fortunately, there was only one place in the 2.5 kilometres of passage between the entrance and the camp site where the roof was too low to allow walking. The camp, near Junction Chamber, had been set up to allow the scientists to carry on their work deep inside the cave. On arrival, the film crew found Pete Bull laid up with bad feet, and Martin and Pete Smart about to set off up the ramp to the upper levels. Everyone was complaining about Phil’s terrible choice of camp site. Sid set up his lighting gear and a thousand watts of illumination was briefly let loose giving everyone a first clear look at the immensity of Revival. Long after they left camp, Pete and Martin could be seen slowly moving upwards.
Several hours later Phil and Ronnie returned from an exploratory trip into the main southerly line of Revival, above and beyond Junction Chamber. They had surveyed 600 metres, and had walked on a further 300 metres along the seemingly endless Infinite Improbability Drive. They later returned and surveyed on for a total of one and a half kilometres. The passage eventually broke up into King Seth’s maze, where Phil was repeatedly pursued by an irate two-metre-long snake. The following day, after successfully filming the scientists at work, the site was evacuated and the gear ferried out of Snake Track.
At Snake Track Camp (named after yet more snakes) the next day we had a scheduled radio contact with base camp. In adverse conditions radio communication generally led to more confusion than conversation …
“Snake Track calling base camp. Do you read me? Over.”
”Base camp. Andy here, not reading you very clearly. Pass your message.”
“Could we have a boat at Clearwater tomorrow?”
“Did you say someone has fallen off a log?”
“Negative! Could we have a boat at Clearwater tomorrow?”
“Is this an emergency? Over.”
“Negative! Negative! Negative! We need a boat tomorrow.”
“Do you need a doctor?”
But getting provisions was even more problematic … “Could we have 10 man days of food plus carbide? Over.”
“I copy 10 man days of food. But how much cardboard do you need?”
All things considered it was quite surprising that the next message got through from Andy . ..
“We have found the biggest underground chamber in the world in Nasib Bagus Cave — it’s at least twice the size of the Salle Verna.”
Despite rotting feet, Andy, Tony and Dave had pushed on in Nasib along the stream, up across a huge area of sediment, up a massive scree slope to an area where the light of their lamps rarely reached the walls, and never reached the roof. Eventually, they completed their survey realising they had returned to their starting place. Sarawak Chamber, as it came to be known, is 700 metres long by over 300 metres wide, and never less than 70 metres high. The volume is at least 12 million cubic metres!
Meanwhile, a short trip had been carried out in Cave of the Winds by Martin, Pete and Dick in the hope of finding the elusive connection with Clearwater. An easy 30-metre climb up the skylight led into a 20 metre diameter N-S trending passage containing eight-metre-high banks of sediment. To the south it choked, but the northern way ‘Not Before Time’ was followed for several hundred metres to a boulder collapse. This was passed via a hole in the wall into a low, wide, mud-floored chamber from which a passage led up towards Clearwater. This was left, however, in favour of the obvious way on east through large stalagmite columns. This passage quickly degenerated into a boulder choke, but an awkward climb led into the huge chamber of Babel, and Pete spotted a glimmer of light high on one side.
A dozen 30-metre survey legs up through a forest of massive stal pillars led to a small entrance, but by then night (and rain) had fallen and nothing could be seen. They turned back, but on reaching the river found that it had risen a few metres making it impossible to get back to Clearwater camp. After an abortive attempt to traverse around the cliff they spent an uncomfortable night under an overhang. The following morning, with the river lower, they waded across and returned to camp. Here they were joined by most of the other cavers who were on their way to Snake Track for Andy’s last fling, a mammoth photographic trip down through Clearwater to the resurgence.
Two days later, with bad hangovers and considerable regrets, Andy, D.C., Dick, Tony, Jerry and Hans set off back to England.
Now Jon Buchan, who had recently returned from Medelam camp was feverish. A few days later he was taken by helicopter to a hospital on the coast. This day in particular remains memorable. Sid Perou decided to film the climb to the high levels in Cave of the Winds which led to the discovery of Babel. This was duly re-enacted by Phil and Mike despite the fact that Sid had forgotten to load his camera. Then Ben arrived with a party of official visitors and filming was forced to a halt. During the resulting confusion a pallid scientist, Pete Bull, was discovered by Lindsey and Sid. He had suffered some kind of attack, which he attributed to the knee-deep guano. As he was helped to the entrance he suffered another attack and, going blue in the face and breathing irregularly, he gasped “Don’t forget my mud samples.”
A stretcher was built, drugs (previously supplied by Jon Buchan for use in such an emergency) were found, and a search for Ben Lyon’s now missing party started. Geoff Yeadon set off in pursuit and discovered not Ben and the visitors, but another entrance overlooking the original entrance. Shortly afterwards Ben arrived and, with Pete Bull laid out like a Viking in the bottom of the boat, they returned to base camp. The visitors were stranded in Cave of the Winds and ate us out of food before a boat eventually returned. Filming was abandoned and instead a recce of the newly discovered passages ensued. Sid found the hypodermic and drugs for Pete in his pocket, Lindsay was petrified when he nearly grasped a cave racer snake, and he and Geoff discovered yet another entrance to the cave. Pete was taken by helicopter to the coast arriving only a few hours after Jon. It’s not many expeditions that have two completely independent helicopter rescues in the same day! Nick Airey was the next man down. When the party returned to base camp his condition rapidly worsened and it was his turn to be airlifted to Miri.
We also heard from England that Andy had been on T.V. talking about the discovery of Sarawak Chamber. Apparently, he’d gone on record saying that Selby — the market town where he lives — could be fitted into the cave. It was generally agreed at base camp that this would probably be the best thing that could happen to Selby!
Sid Perou now had to have the rest of the exploration of Nasib Bagus re-enacted for the film. His crew, accompanied by ten porters and expedition members set off with loads in excess of 30 kilograms. Great deliberations had taken place regarding ferrying equipment across the entrance canal, and the building of a raft was seriously considered. It was a surprise, therefore, to find that the water level had dropped by at least three metres making it possible to walk, the water never more than chest deep. Later that day, Lindsey complained of a pain like toothache in his leg — the battery for his electric lamp had filled with water and acid was dribbling down his leg.
It took two days to reach Sarawak Chamber, which is only a few hours of normal caving from the entrance. With four kilowatts of filming lights the roof of the chamber was visible for the first time. The floor, a huge boulder-covered amphitheatre at an angle of 30 degrees was clearly seen. The view was deceptive, however, as in the flat light distances were foreshortened. It was only when people were spread out that the scale and true size of the chamber became obvious.
Most of the Europeans were suffering from Mulu foot which amplified the normal boredom of film making into untold agonies. Limping out of the cave carrying heavy rucksacks added a new dimension to masochistic caving. When feet were sufficiently recovered the remaining time was spent on photographic trips. Then a return was made to base camp.
The expedition now split into two groups, one going to Clearwater the other to Camp 5. Jon Buchan, aided by his .wife Fanny, who had arrived from England, made their way to Camp 5. This camp had become famous for the amount of food lifted there by helicopter early in the trip. To avoid carrying this food back to base camp expedition personnel felt they had a duty to eat as much as possible. It was known as the Camp 5 pigging competition.
Tiger Foot Cave was filmed, with Ben acting as guide to Danny, explaining the original exploration and subsequent breakthrough. Mike, Danny and Ben re-established the Barking Dog Camp to push the end of the cave. Though the passage headed in a straight line progress was hindered by sediment piles and boulder blockages, but the cave continued well decorated. Several rope climbs and traverses were also encountered and, finally, a slope heading upwards to a large chamber, which could be seen but not entered because the way on was blocked by an overhanging wall of sediment. The party had to return to the surface beaten by the obstacle.
Tiger Foot was certainly the best decorated cave discovered, and eight kilometres of passages were explored.
Less than 100 metres from Tiger Foot a draughting hole was discovered. A pleasantly cool wind ruffled the leaves, and as one of our porters was the first to notice this cave we named it Sakai Cave after him. A short passage led to a five metre pitch, and very soon a steeply descending, definitely British-sized phreas was reached. This continued for 60 metres, and must be approaching the valley bottom.
Simultaneously, in Clearwater, a revived Nick Airey joined Phil Chapman and Colin Boothroyd and proceeded to extend the system to the south from Junction Cavern. They entered a continuation of the massive Revival Passage and ended up in the Secret Garden. This was a large, tree-floored skylight, a mini forest within the cave. From this garden a passage was explored to an overlook on the Paku Valley.
One of the last aims of the expedition was to connect Cave of the Winds to Clearwater. Much effort failed to find a link, although a promising passage leading from Babel turned southwards and joined to Clay Hall, which had been discovered in 1978.
Ben, Jon and Fanny, Phil and Mike returned to England leaving Colin and the film team behind. Filming in Snake Track was followed by yet another underground camp in Clearwater. King Seth’s Maze was scrutinized by Sid in yet another attempt to find a link to Cave of the Winds. At the same time, Colin and Geoff descended a 40-metre pitch off Inflation Passage. They first explored north and rejoined Battleship Passage, then retracing their steps headed south and bumped into Sid and porters who had failed to find Cave of the Winds. So the elusive connection was still not made, but Mulu 80 was at an end.
In total the team had discovered nearly 70 kilometres of cave passage, much of it enormous. The largest chamber in the world had been added to the list of Mulu cave features, and Clearwater, with its many kilometres of huge passage could well claim to be the largest volume cave in the world. All the caves were surveyed and many photographs taken. The ambitious scientific program was outstandingly successful. All the major sinks and resurgences in the southern half of the park were dye tested. An ecology study was carried out that now enables Phil Chapman to predict the type of passage on the other side of boulder chokes! The work on geology, geomorphology and sedimentology was carried out to a standard never before attempted in such a remote and inhospitable part of the world. Sid Perou has got his documentary film, and above all everybody had a bloody good time. •