March - 2019

SARAWAK ‘84 – Editied from an article by Martyn Farr published in Descent Magazine in October 1984.

MULU: mile after mile virgin passage, no crawling, nice and warm: what more could any caver wish for? The aura of an Eavis/Lyon expedition was such that being invited to go was like hitting the jackpot at first attempt. That others were of a similar opinion was obvious by the fact that of the 16 names on the final team list all bar three (Tim Fogg, Tim Lyons and myself) had been on one or other of the two previous expeditions to Sarawak in 1978 and 1980.

Melinau River rope bridge at Camp 5. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

From the outset Sarawak ‘84 was a grand design, master­minded by those veteran organisers, Andy Eavis and Ben Lyon. It was a mega-task planning what was in effect two separate expeditions to two different areas within the isolated Gunong Mulu National Park. The basic plan was quite simple: Andy would work the southern Mount Api area with his team (consisting of Jon Buchan, Dave Checkley, Dick Willis, Tony White, Dave Brook, Phil Chapman and Nick Airey) while Ben worked on Mount Benerat with his team (Mike Meredith, Jerry Wooldridge, Colin Boothroyd, Tim Fogg, Tim Lyons, Pete Smart and I). In the field the two groups would operate independently but maintain radi links to facilitate co-operation in the event of any serious problems developing
To   a   newcomer   or   an onlooker preparatory meetings might have appeared casual.  Inevitably there were several nail-biting anxious meetings with potential sponsors, but once Malaysian Airline System – MAS – had generously agreed to fly us all out, and the first Ultimate Award had been secured, there was an air of confidence; Sarawak 84 was virtually guaranteed to be a major success.
Just four days out from Britain and we were being helicoptered into the mountains; everything was running like clockwork. Andy, Tony White, Tim Lyons and Tim Fogg had flown out a week in advance of the main group and had paved the way. There were a few problems associated with the freight and while Andy  and Tim Fogg were seeing to these Tony White had set out with local labour to establish the southern base camp in the south Melinau Paku Valley.  Tim Lyons made similar arrangements for the second team’s base camp lOkms away in a direct line, at the mouth of the Melinau Gorge.

Swift Highway, Cobweb Cave. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

At the start of the expedition there was an imbalance in numbers operating at the two camps. Jerry Wooldridge and I were seconded to the southern camp for two weeks: for Jerry to organise the Sarawak Chamber photographic project and for me to push the sump in Clearwater Cave.

Sarawak Chamber: three times the size of the world’s previously known largest chamber. How Jerry would obtain a shot of this incredible void goodness knows. But he had done his homework well, and just four days after arrival at base camp a sub-camp had been constructed at the entrance to Nasib Bagus and a mountain of gear was on its way into the system for a three-day camp.

Tremendous assistance in terms of permission, labour and boats was to be given at every stage by the Sarawak Forestry Department, and Dr Paul Chai, head of National Parks, accompanied the group to witness the spectacle. A comfortable bivi at the edge of the chamber was memorable for its swiftlet flights, as all night long flocks of the small ‘click-clicking’ birds echo-located their way around the vastness, searching put their own little nest nearly two miles from the entrance.
The big picture
The following morning serious work commenced as commanders Jerry and Andy deployed their forces at strategic locations around the chamber. Controlling and repositioning could only be undertaken by means of radio, and in this respect Andy was in his element For hours and hours people stood at the same spots, were instructed to angle flashes up or down, here and there.
“Dave Checkley, could you move towards camera, over”.
“DC could you get out of that hollow, over”.
“What happened Dave? over”.
“Can you hear me, Dave? over”.
Some 2,000ft away Dave definitely drew the short straw! The rest of us just sat, stood, waited and tested circuits, exchanged bulbs and sympathised with DC.

Tiny figures dotted around Sarawak Chamber. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

From a single vantage point high in the upper reaches of the chamber Jerry operated a battery of cameras, consulted a Polaroid to check on exposures, and shot picture after picture. Something like 200 PF 60s were blasted into the night – the blitz of Sarawak Chamber! It was a fantastically spectacular sight Two days were spent in the chamber and some stunning shots were obtained.
As the Nasib photographic project wound to a conclusion the real explorations commenced. Tony and Dave Brook had already started an assault on the eastern flank of Api in an attempt to reach the high-level back door to Clearwater Cave via the Hole in Time Entrance.
Hacking through dense jungle on steep slopes was to prove the key to the discovery of many new caves over the coming weeks, and this was probably the hardest physical work of the expedition. As Jon Buchan’s discovery of Drunken Forest Cave was to illustrate, every yard of crag had to be covered in the quest for new stuff. A totally insignificant little eyehole, possessing no  draught,   led  to  a  large abandoned passage with an unbelievable wealth of stal – a 1.3km long fabulously decorated cave.
During their early wanderings from the Nasib sub camp Tony and Dave Brook had discovered another substantial resurgence only a few hundred metres from Nasib Bagus. Nick Airey subsequently swam up this for 500ft/ 150m before he and Dave discovered a dry fossil entrance up slope from the canal. This was Cobra Cave which, after 1.5km, joined the waterway at a point that was obviously flood prone.
A 10m swim, with a metre of airspace, gave access to a further large continuation and ultimately a system aver 3km in length running parallel with Nasib Bagus and Clearwater, and heading straight towards the isolated Hidden Valley.
Here Tony and Dave Brook became the first people to fall foul of the elements, becoming cut off overnight beyond the swim when, following heavy rain, the water level rose by 9m. Tony took such occurrences nonchalantly in his stride; on the previous trip the same thing had happened at Blue Moonlight Bay Cave!
River dive

A sump in Cobweb Cave. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

Barely had the photographic assault on Nasib finished than Andy whisked a team of eight over to the Clearwater Resurgence for me to dive the major river which emerged at Sump 2. To a British cave diver a large resurgence conjures up an image of Keld Head or Dan-yr-Ogof. In a place like Borneo the site was predictably of a rather greater magnitude – and the river about the volume of the River Wye.
It was a gruelling half day’s journey through jungle and swamp to gain the surface river downstream from the cave. Forty minutes’ travel in a native longboat then brought us to the gloomy ravine where dark sinister waters welled to the surface from a flooded boulder choke. High above the Clearwater entrance made a first class bivi site, and early next day seven of us set off.
Deep and potentially hazardous river crossings followed closely one after the other, which wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the shortage of life jackets. Our chief porter, Tom, had never been caving before, but as he was by far the strongest and most agile member of the team he was entrusted with the heavy 105 cu ft cylinder – a weight of over 25 kilos. Our other Malay team member was now an experienced caver (he’d been on a trip to Nasib Bagus) and accordingly he earned the next heaviest load. It took 4.5 hours to reach the sump but at least everyone and everything arrived there safely.
With three sets of diving apparatus, six lights and over 300 metres of line, it took a considerable time to kit up. Fortunately, visiting New Zealand cave diver Tim Williams was at hand to act as chief assistant In the event of the sump being short and easy it was intended that I should return to base and kit him out in order to make a thorough exploration of the passages beyond.
On diving the current proved disturbingly strong and progress was made by pulling along on the rocks on the floor. At 75m the sump was passed to reach Clearwater 3. Large wide-open passages beckoned invitingly.

Clearwater Three River Passage. Photo © Andy Eavis

Normally one can fin into an area of shallows and dekit on a patch of dry ground. Once one has passed a sump in Britain, for example, one’s problems are over. Here, however, they were just about to begin. The river occupied the entire 18m width of the cave, and tumultuous little waves raced directly to the back of the sump pool. Weighted down with so much gear finning to the shore was impossible. It was at one and the same time extremely frustrating and frightening being repulsed back into the depths. At any second my mask might have been displaced and, with its bed of rocks, the river constantly threatened to damage the other equipment and the diver.
A tiny alcove was located where with caution I could dekit chest-deep in water. But having succeeded in reaching dry ground, time for a recce was short The discarded gear was now extremely vulnerable to any rise in water level and one could rely on the fact that every afternoon it rained, heavily. Over 500m of passages were covered in an attempt to locate a sump by­pass, and by the time I returned to the river from a section of side galleries my worst fears were beginning to be realised. The water was cloudy; the river was rising.
Rushing back downstream the gear was reached not a moment too soon. It was just on the point of disappearing. Kitting up was not easy, but, hand-holding the third set, barely a fin stroke was required to regain the anxious crew sitting at base. Borneo’s first cave diving operation had lasted two hours and had left many vast passages untouched.
The irony of the situation lay in the fact that one week later continued prospecting by Nick and Phil along the eastern flank of Api uncovered a major inlet to the Clearwater system. Part of the Paku River disappeared on a bend and gave access to 800m of passage down to a major subterranean confluence – Clearwater 3. When the Api team was mustered in strength 9km of new cave was surveyed.
Open Leads

Bypass Bypass, Cobweb Cave. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

Following the departure of Jerry and myself to join the northern, Benarat team everyone was working flat out on Api. There were almost more open leads than teams to explore them.
Up at Camp 5 in the Melinau Gorge, Colin Boothroyd and Tim Fogg had been working at breakneck speed, so much so that doubts were cast upon Colin’s sanity. Benarat Caverns had been the primary objective in the area but despite several marathon efforts the cave had failed to realise their ambitions. The wall of sediment at the northern extremity of the system had been climbed and passed, and gave access to a mere 300m of additional passage.
Homeward Bound, the major southward-trending passage set about half-way in, had been penetrated rather farther to an equally hopeless choke, and many pitches and climbs had been tackled. Tremendous effort, of an unusually technical nature, had been applied, but disappoint­ingly Benarat had only yielded one kilometre of new cave -extremely disappointing.
Sakai’s Cave, the other immediate objective, was to prove equally as frustrating and this was to occupy much of Ben and Mike Meredith’s time.
Three weeks into the expedition and there were gloomy looks on several faces at the northern camp as lead after lead closed down.
Tiger Cave

The climb up to Lower Tiger Cave. Photo © Martin Farr

The pattern of activity was now well established at both camps, namely groups of two or three people working independently at whatever project commanded their attention. Tim Lyons and I now decided to try and tackle Tiger Cave, an imposing but tantalisingly elusive site set well up on the sheer cliff face on the north side of the Melinau Gorge. This was in every way a big gamble. The rock climbing was not easy due to the nature of the rock, and as much of the face appeared to be over­hanging and covered in jungle navigating a direct route would require considerable luck. Rather than commit two teams to an uncertain project, Colin and Tim Fogg disappeared to the northern end of Benerat in the hope of better things.
After three days and installing 200m of rope on the cliff we reached a cave which was christened Lower Tiger Cave. About 400m of large strike-aligned passage was immediately explored and the potential realised. Geologically the cave lay in the same bedding plane as the main Tiger Cave set 100m or so higher in the face. Several climbs confronted us underground and it appeared as though an under­ground route could provide rather easier access to what would inevitably be a major system running parallel to the section of cave already explored
High traverse
The days spent up at Lower Tiger, bivouacking in the cave entrance, were certainly exciting and technical. A 50m wall traverse (Wildside) at a height of 30-45m above the floor was the first obstacle to be passed, leading to a succession of pitches and traverses.

The Wildside Traverse, Tiger Cave. Photo © Jerry Wooldridge

Directly above Wildside Traverse a further climb of 100m led through the main Tiger Cave and, ultimately, the impressive entrance high on the face of the Melinau Gorge. We had reached our initial objective. The overall length was to run to 3.5km but work had to be terminated prematurely due to illness and shortage of tackle.
Colin and Tim Fogg were by this stage notching up kilometre after kilometre on the western   flank   of   Benerat.  Deception    and    Menagerie were      each      about      2kms,   but   the   most complex mature system was Cobweb. This cave soon led to a   large   underground river associated with the Terikan Resurgence,     the     principal outlet for Mount Benarat 
The possibilities were legion in both upstream and downstream directions and all bar Tim Lyons and I were quickly drawn in to assist with the work. Amazingly the survey of this 13 km system – the longest completely new discovery of the expedition -was to take little more than a week! Disappointingly the streamway was to end in a series of sumps, but due to the siting of this fine cave it is clear that there is considerable potential yet
Much untouched
Over 50kms of new cave was found during the course of the two-month expedition, a slightly higher proportion of which was discovered by the southern group. But possibly the most interesting reflection on caving in this area was the fact that by far the majority of the rugged mountain areas remain untouched. The discoveries made to date have resulted from prospecting at the foot of the mountains and compara­tively little attention has been given to areas at higher eleva­tions.
From 100m to 1500m the slopes comprise dense jungle which renders access acutely difficult. On foot it is rarely possible to see more than 30-40m, and entrances are easily missed. From the air the situation is little better but at least big features can be located – reaching them, however, is another story.
As time ran out it was clear that once again there is tremendous scope for the future. Clearwater Cave alone is certainly worthy of a trip in itself.  There is so much still to do.

Sarawak 84: verdict- a great success.