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Mulu 88 – Edited from an article by Pam Fogg in Caves & Caving – Summer 1989

Over 150km of passage were discovered under the rainforest of Gunung Mulu National Park during three major expeditions between 1978 and 1984. The 1988 expedition, co-led by Mulu veterans Jerry Wooldridge and Tim Fogg, was to be a much more modest affair with only 6 members and 4 weeks in the park; an ideal scale of operations for working within the framework of the Park along with the help and co-operation of park warden Mike Meredith and his guides. The scale of the expedition may have been small but the scale of the caves waiting to be discovered was quite the reverse. Once again Mulu was to amaze and delight and an incident packed story was to unfold. .. .

Notch in the side of a passage in Wind Cave | photo © Matt Kirby

The expedition was planned for May ‘88, however due to delays with the permission it was re­scheduled for October. Fortunately four weeks before the team was due to fly out permission arrived.
‘Very difficult’, ‘impossible’, ‘it probably doesn’t exist’ — this was the general cheering reaction we had from previ­ous Mulu expedition members when we asked their advice on our first objective — the likelihood of finding the connec­tion between Clearwater (52km) and Cave of the Winds (7.5km) which were less than 100 metres apart at their closest points on the survey. Clearwater had recently been demoted to second longest in south east Asia by Mamo Kananda in Papua New Guinea (54.8km) so a connection would restore its leader position. The ‘84 team had at­tempted a link but instead had found another kilometre of new passage. Odds were particularly stacked against us as neither Jerry nor Tim had played a part in the explora­tion of this system in previous expeditions. Not the most encouraging of starts. Our enthusiasm remained undampened however and we decided to spend our first days in the park sorting out the two caves. And so there we were on our first afternoon of exploration punting up the legendary Clearwater River passage, now partially developed as a show cave, perched in a fibreglass rowing boat look­ing more like a Women’s Institute outing to Speedwell Cavern than a roughy toughy caving expedition.
On our way out the customary afternoon downpour had occurred and the water level had risen and flow increased considerably. This was why we had the boat. We sped downstream until our forward motion was abruptly halted by a traverse line stretched across the passage. The speed of flow was such that Wan, our skilful park guide, was forced to make the snap decisions of whether to take the boat over or under the line. The boat made the decision for him and elected to go through it and the W.I. outing found itself admiring the interesting rock formations on the river bed. Eventually calm and order was restored and a damp Mulu ‘88 team continued downstream with Dave Gill muttering darkly, “if this was the Nare we’d all be dead”.
Familiarisation of the two caves continued particularly in the two areas most likely to connect: Hyperspace in Clearwater and the large chamber at the far end of Illusion in Cave of the Winds. They were just as big, beautiful and complex as we had been led to believe. In those first few days we mapped an unsurveyed entrance into Illusion, bounced around Hyperspace and found a note left by the ‘84 team which read: ‘Is this Clearwater or Cave of the Winds?’ — signed Nick and Bruno. ‘Well, you may ask’, we thought.
By day four it was decided to make one final concerted attempt to find the missing link then to abandon the project as a lost cause and turn our attentions and limited time elsewhere. Dave, Matt and Edmund headed off to Illusion while Richard, Tim, Wan and I located King Seth’s Maze and finally discovered the passage which on the survey appeared to be a tantalizingly open lead heading straight for the other half of our team. At the far end there was in­deed a way on over a false floor, a 3 metre awkward climb above our heads and draughting with promise, but was it the wind from the cave of the same name? Tim was propel­led upwards and he crawled off. At the end of the 10 metre passage he called back a description of what lay above him, a solid rock wall on the right stacked with boulders, this matched perfectly the end chamber in Cave of the Winds which I had been searching in the previous day. Wan was given a leg up and together they wormed up a 4 metre high body sized, skin rippling rift to the massive boulder choke. A number of routes through the not all to­gether stable jumble were investigated until a squeeze was pushed which brought them out at the edge of a large chamber 150m by 50m. Suppressing their mounting convic­tion that they were where they wanted to be, they built a large cairn and headed off on a compass bearing across the chamber. Shortly they heard whoops which were not of their own making; it was Matt and Dave. The connection did exist and Clearwater was once again the longest cave in south east Asia at 60km. There followed a remarkably emotional reunion considering we had only parted some 4 hours earlier with much hugging and hand shaking like goal scorers on cup final day. The one can of Carlsberg which had been brought along just in case was drunk and the first exchange trip between Clearwater and Cave of the Winds took place. Wan elected to name the connection Wan Way Street. We emerged at midnight and returned by a memorable moonlit longboat journey to base camp at Long Pala.
Meanwhile a couple of park guides and Penan porters had been employed to set up a camp at Leopard Cave on the west slopes of Api 4km north of Clearwater. The initial plan was to divide our attention between extending the northern limits of Clearwater and surface search the jungle covered slopes north towards the Melinau Gorge. It was Colin Boothroyd, from his retirement penthouse in Jakarta, who suggested returning to Ronnie’s Delight. In ‘80 he had descended a 100m pitch and surveyed 200m of passage which he left still continuing and draughting well. Tim took his advice and explored on past his end point to arrive at the head of another pitch down which stones fell and bounced for 14 seconds. To continue exploration at this re­mote spot would have been a major undertaking especially when there could be so many open passages waiting to be found on the surface. The others had already found a couple of small caves.
We were still searching for THE BIG ONE. Would the legendary Mulu magic work for us as it had for the previous expeditions? Matt and Richard, working back from the limit of the Penan crafted track 2km from camp, detected the unmistakeable smell of guano and following their noses a short distance up from the alluvial plain they found an en­trance but lost the smell of guano. They explored it in. It was small, twisting, sometimes flat out, and was, in short, distinctly uncharacteristic of Mulu but it was draughting well and it was going on. Gradually the dimensions in­creased to more respectable proportions until 400m from the entrance they were stopped by a pitch. Just back from the drop a small stream poured from a narrow rift (the sig­nificance of this will shortly become apparent).
Meanwhile Jerry, Tim and I were searching in the same area. Tim detected the unmistakeable smell of guano and climbed up to discover a text book Mulu entrance: panoramic views across the canopy, lacewing butterflies, the lot. We surveyed into the large fossil passage running in both directions parallel to the slope. Just beyond day-light stal blockages quickly put paid to our fantasies, until we followed the guano smell to its nose curling source, a side chamber, home to a colony of golden eyed bats with impressive wingspans. At the far side was a climb down ending in a draughting rift which would have to be rigged the following day.
Matt and Richard returned to the camp at the same time as us with stories that they were definitely on to something. We reckoned ours was pretty good too and, yes, you’ve guessed it, everyone was right. The next day as Tim pre­pared to rig the rift in the Dapa Series he heard the dulcit tones of Matt and Richard drifting from below. The mystery of their disappearing guano smell was solved, the cave had two entrances, one above the other. We were off. Beyond the complex entrance series which produced another more user friendly entrance, was a fossil passage bunged with infill. It ran south towards Clearwater then ab­ruptly north in the next bed, getting progressively bigger and bigger. Exploration proceeded rapidly. A bivi was set up at Milliways and just beyond it a pitch was descended to a streamway, named Slipstream, flowing south. One eve­ning Dave returned with the news that we’d only been play­ing in side passages up to now. He had just surveyed over a kilometre of huge passage (Rudang’s Gallery) with a stream flowing surprisingly north away from the main drainage collector for the mountain, Clearwater. Tim and Edmund then bypassed its northern sump and found a further kilometre, Black Silk Passage. By this stage we had surveyed 7 kilometres and returned to camp to take stock.
Whilst we’d been away discovering cliches measureless to cliche our Penan guides had upgraded the camp from 3 to 5 star. They had constructed kitchen units and tables which Habitat would have been proud of. And how come their roofs woven from sago palm leaves withheld even the most torrential rain whilst we sat under our steadily drip­ping PVC coated nylon wondering if western technology was all it was cracked up to be. Meanwhile our cook, the beautiful Helen (oh, haven’t I mentioned her before?) con­tinued to stretch her culinary creativity to the limits and how did she always manage to look and dress immaculately all out of a rucksack the size of a bolt bag while we consis­tently looked like we’d all been dragged through a jungle backwards. In spite of all consuming enigmas a line survey was drawn up and we returned to the, as yet, unnamed cave to see what delights it would conjure up for us next.
Imagine if you can a river passage more elegant and im­mense than you ever dreamed possible, powering single-mindedly through a mountain on exactly the bearing you would have chosen if you had designed the cave person­ally. Stretch credibility even further by imagining that out of 74 consecutive survey legs 70 are complete tape lengths of 30 metres making a total of 2.16km surveyed in one day. Fantastical? Well you need look no further than Jerry’s photographs of Firecracker. It was lying in wait for Tim and I when we went to ‘knock off the small upstream end of Black Silk. It started modestly enough trending uninspiringly south then, after 300m, it suddenly copped itself on, swung dramatically and decisively north and never looked back. Its dimensions blossomed and it became a Clearwater look ’a’ like. After about 1.8km of ecstatic survey­ing Yusuf presented us with the conundrum, ‘How far does this passage go?’ As far as we were concerned it was heading straight for the Melinau Gorge and the huge gaps in the blank mass of Api were rapidly being filled in.

Jimmy in the makeshift stretcher at Milliways bivi | photo © Matt Kirby

The next day unrepeatable offers were being made for the 50m tape. The system had gone to 10km in that one further day of caving. It was now an arduous 12km round trip from the bivi to the end point in Firecracker. With a few more kilometres the new system would be the second longest in Mulu. Easy. Exploration fever ran high. A large team of guides had arrived at the bivi including, to our sur­prise, the lovely Helen. She really was taking her job incre­dibly seriously, (incidentally, she arrived looking im­maculate after the flat out entrance crawls).

Jimmy, a veteran of ‘84 had arrived too, bursting with enthusiasm and dying to get at it. The significance of all this will shortly be­come apparent. Yes it was as if they sensed that great things were about to happen. Well they were, but not quite what we had in mind. Within an hour of heading off to our various destinations word came that Jimmy had fallen at the ‘quarry’, a black spot in the system and broken both bones in his lower leg. He was 2km from the entrance. A major rescue followed. With 4 underground rescue co-ordinators there was no shortage of chiefs. A makeshift stretcher of hammock and branches got him to the bivi in 12 hours by which time Wan had made a too exciting trip down the flooding Melinau to Base Camp to raise the alarm. The 12m pitch was rigged, the stretcher arrived and in another 6 hours he was at the entrance. The powers that be had deemed a broken leg unworthy of helicopter aid so the unlucky Jimmy had a further 4 hours of speedboat agony to reach the hospital in Marudi 36 hours after his fall. When we called to visit him later he said all he had really wanted was an orange boiler suit. There must have been an easier way.

The Racer Series left wide open and unexplored | photo © Jerry Wooldridge

The 24 hours of caving took its toll. Nearly everyone suf­fered Mulu Foot in varying degrees. Only Matt, who wore high boots and lovingly tended his feet with baby powder had completely escaped the painful and temporarily crippl­ing condition brought on by abrasion by grit and possibly the chemistry of the water. Sadly exploration could only be resumed for a couple of days. Mike Meredith managed to tear himself away from park management to come see what all the excitement was about. Firecracker continued for another 700m to a very inconclusive sump with an easy climb leading up an on? Dave and Mike left a river flowing fast towards Clearwater. The others had to leave equally wide open passages.
14.1km were surveyed in Lubang Batau Padeng, Black Rock Cave (the Penan name for this part of Gunong Api) making it the third longest in Mulu.
A press reception in the Hilton Hotel in Kuching with the Minister of Tourism and Environment, Datuk James Wong and our Malaysian Airline sponsors was a fitting conclu­sion to the expedition.