MULU ‘89 – Edited from an article by Dick Willis from Caves & Caving Magazine – Summer 1990.
1988 saw the discovery of Lubang Batau Padeng, Black Rock Cave, another huge piece of vacant space inside the limestone mountains of the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. As always with Mulu, the discovery came with too little time to ensure full exploration although the survey showed a tantalising number of possible leads. It was inevitable that a team would go back…
In contrast to 1988, when they camped in a dismal swamp at the entrance to Leopard Cave, the 1989 camp was luxurious. Perched on a high bank above the Melinau River, with views of the peak of Gunung.Api, it provided good swimming, sunshine and an inexhaustible supply of fresh fish. We sat on a d.i.y. park bench and watched the occasional boat of tourists go by.
Despite the luxury, progress was immediate. Colin Boothroyd and Tim Fogg set off to redeem the mistakes of 3 earlier trips by completing the exploration of the Ronny’s Delight series in Clearwater. Col had dropped the first 100m shaft in 1980 and Tim had returned in 1988 but was turned back at the head of “Deep Thought”, a second pitch of similar length. They set off with two day’s bivvy gear and a big bag of rope leaving Matt and Jerry to fettle supplies, arrange labour and sort the camp.
Meanwhile, Pam Fogg, Pete Boyes and myself set out to do some serious work, placing charcoal dye detectors in the Clearwater Resurgence and at Sump 2. We hoped to carry out a series of tests to establish the connections between Black Rock and Clearwater, both along the main drain and also through the streams of the edge caves. It seemed logical to introduce Pete to Mulu in a big way so we placed the detectors and then did the through trip to Snake Track and walked through the forest to the new camp.
Tim and Col eventually reappeared from Clearwater, they had found a going lead but left it for later and over the next few days Black Rock took a hammering. Matt and Pete quickly established a new entrance in the Racer Series. It was another 40 minutes walk north, but provided access to the inner cave without the crawls of the old route or the horror of Jimmy’s Quarry. Firecracker didn’t go, Black Silk didn’t go, Black Magic streamway sumped up and down. We crawled and bolted, traversed and slithered. Black Rock was now over 16km but wasn’t yielding more; gloom and despondency.
Still, Mulu never seems to close down completely. We kissed the crawls goodbye and shifted focus. When Tim dropped the Ronny’s shaft in 1988 he’d sat at his bivvy and looked up at a hole in the wall opposite. Being single (simple?) minded he dismissed it as an awkward climb and carried on shaft bashing. This time, as tea was brewing before the attempt on the shafts, he and Col had looked again at the hole above the Scumring and decided that it wasn’t quite such a hard climb after all…
In fact it was not only easy, but it led to kilometres of new cave. In boots and undies (… don’t blame me, that’s what he said he was wearing) Tim romped along a big rift floored in deep dry guano to a t-junction with a major strike orientated passage, Armistice. There was echoing darkness in both directions, it was a miracle that the two of them had come out.
So with the conclusion of hopes in Black Rock we returned to Scumring. By this time Richard Chambers had arrived and so with us, Paris and Petrus (employees of Tropical Adventure, a tour company which was supporting our work), and a group of Park Guides headed by Simon Lagang, there was a total of 14 people camping underground. There was also a shrew which took pleasure in crawling over people in the middle of the night, at least until Weng stunned it with a well aimed packet of noodles.
Surveyed passage length and spirits rose at an equal rate. The northern lead closed down in boulders but an acrobatic 12m Y-hang down a 50m pitch put us back into a lower level and a maze of big passages. Every second survey station seemed to be a cairn, marking another side lead. After 7 hours Col and I returned to find Petrus waiting patiently at the head of the pitch, still grinning; it was his first caving trip. Over the following two days, from a further bivvy, Col and Richard finished the Cairn Farm series. It was a maze of interconnecting loops but all the northward leads ended in breakdown.
The others headed south along Armistice. After a while the big passage turned downhill onto a loose boulder descent of over 300m. When they reached the bottom, joy and bliss, the passage turned back on itself and bouldered its way up again! The resemblance to a vast U-bend led to the name, the Big Uee. Fortunately Pete and Simon located a connection from the farthest point of the Uee back to the passage above Scumring via a Yorkshire style squeeze which was tight enough to require enlargement in order to accommodate Jerry’s camera gear.
Eventually Tim made up for missing the way in 1988. On a trip with Pam and Simon they located a small passage at the bottom of the Uee. They grovelled down, dropped a short pitch and found themselves in the main Clearwater River passage, just upstream from a sump, Sump 4 in fact. Close to it, Matt and Richard located a beautiful chamber, named the Alexandra Palace, and this not only felt like Drunken Forest Cave but plotted alongside it when we drew up the survey. Unfortunately no way through was found. They tried to get upriver but the walls were sheer rock and the water deep; the current stopped them after about 40m.
Colin, of course, won’t ever take anyone else’s word for an impossibility and a few days later we returned to the stream. This time, again leaving Petrus to grin and shiver .in the dark, we made 500m of progress upstream in slightly lower water conditions. Eventually we ran out of carbide, warmth and strength and turned back, surveying to Grade 3. Col, inevitably, was back the next day, this time with Simon Lagang. With lower water and unhindered by any wimps they made 1km of progress upstream. They stopped at a dry inlet which originated from the base of a huge draughting pitch – the bottom, we think, of Deep Thought. They surveyed out properly and returned to camp, Col crippled with Mulu foot. The river passage carries on, it must be the world’s biggest open lead.
That should have been the end, but then Richard remembered a ramp in Black Rock, near Damocles Hall. Tim, Pete and Paris set off. They camped at Milliways and Paris, now established as “the Secret Weapon”, a contender for the world climbing championships, danced up the ramp. A series of other climbs, straddles and a short pitch led into a maze of small tubes. Pete was convinced that Tim was only trying to get the extra 250m which would take the cave over 17km. But persistence paid off and a final climb took them up into a beautifully decorated big passage running N-S along the strike.
A final team effort was focussed on the new high levels. Northwards they ended in mud and calcite chokes close to the edge of the mountain. To the south they closed down, overlapping and frustratingly close to the northern passages in Clearwater. Despite trying, we could find no way across the beds and finally turned for home.
So Mulu did it again. We went out to look at open leads from the last expedition and they all closed down. But the mountain opened up elsewhere and revealed a few more parts of its vast 3-dimensional jigsaw. Black Rock is now 21km long and Clearwater 75km. The connection is begging to be made, either through the high levels or up that vast, black, beckoning river. It will move Clearwater up from the 11th to the 7th longest in the world. At the southern end of G.Api a new system, “Not Simon’s Cave” could also create a link from Cave of the Winds to Lagang’s Cave and further extend the Clearwater System.
It’s still all there to go for…