March - 2019

Benerat 2000 – Edited from an article by Dick Willis published in Caves & Caving in January 2001.

For me, Mulu is a measurement of how small the world has become in the last 20 years. Not because the caves over there have shrunk, far from it: year by year the surveys inch across the outline of Mulu’s limestone peaks as we extend the caves into new areas. Sarawak Chamber remains vast, no matter how many adventure cavers visit it, and Clearwater is as awesome as ever. No, the world is small because now you can leave the UK one day and be caving in Mulu the next.

Flying into Camp 5 in the Melinau Gorge. Photo Andy Eavis

On my first visit there in 1980, we flew into Kota Kinabalu and spent a night in a cheap hostel that smelt as though it was next door to a necrophiliac’s parlour. Maybe it was. The next day took us to Miri, an express boat up the Baram to Marudi and a transfer to a longboat with one outboard motor. Chug­ging up the vast brown river past rafts of cut logs, Chinese trading launches and local people paddling their canoes by hand, was a wonderful, if uncomfortable, experience. We spent the night in a long house and the next day travelled to Long Terawan, where the newcomers were introduced to borak -the ‘interesting’ local brew that would sell wonderfully to the NHS as an emetic. By the end of the day we were in Mulu, sunburnt, cramped, jet-lagged, knackered and ready for a long sleep.
In November 2000 the scene was differ­ent. The longest delay was the excruciating moment at Heathrow when we waited to see if we would be charged for excess baggage. Tim and Pam Fogg sat out of sight with our too-big hand-baggage while Colin Boothroyd and I tried smarm and charm. Finally, the fabulous glossy brochure that Jerry Wooldridge had compiled for us did the trick and a small mountain of gear disap­peared on the conveyor belt: we were off. We changed planes at Kuala-Lumpur, where Tony White joined us from Sydney; touched down in Miri for a coffee to collect Andy Eavis & Tim Allen, who had arrived earlier to sort the bureaucracy & shopping, and then we were back up in the air with Mulu clearly visible in the distance.
We touched down at Mulu airport, got into our taxi and drove to Long Pala, where our 1980 base camp site was hidden under the Royal Mulu Resort: 180 rooms, restau­rant, mountain bikes for hire, air-con and (bliss) a swimming pool. Pete Hall and Pete O’Neill arrived the hard way up river, hav­ing accompanied our gear, and we had the first of 3 strategy meetings: one in the pool, one in the restaurant and one in the bar!

Top of the climb into Powder Mountain, Cobweb Cave. Photo Andy Eavis

Back at the airport the following morning we weighed and stacked our gear ready for the chopper to carry us to Camp 5. First to go were Tim Fogg and Colin – itching to get Cobweb after 16 years of absence. By the time the sec­ond group were in the air, they had already left Camp 5 to locate the Cobweb entrance and begin to re-orientate themselves with the entrance series. That’s what I mean by a small world – leave London one day and be caving in Mulu the next!
Camp 5 was different too. The old wood and corrugated iron hut looked as though it was still there but in fact it had been re­built to one side … Now a bigger structure stood on its old site. It is probably the world’s best base-camp, with 5 bunkrooms, show­ers, flush toilets, kitchen, an eat­ing area and glorious views across the Melinau Gorge to the cliffs of Benarat and the Tiger Cave en­trances
The value of arriving so quickly, of course, is that we could get going so much faster. After all, 16 years is a long time to be away from some of the best leads in the world … The Cob­web Cave survey, 15 km of pas­sages explored in ‘84, had a number of tantalising question marks. Benarat Caverns had the Super-Ramp, still going after 70 m of ascent. It also had the long, abruptly curtailed line of Benarat Highway heading up the middle of the mountain, straight towards the new American discovery of Deliverance Cave – a potential through-trip if there ever was one. Finally, out in the Melinau Gorge, at the foot of a blank section of cliff, was a draughting choke located by Ben Lyon, Mike Meredith and Tama Bulan in ‘84. Actually there were a few draughting holes – Andy Eavis and I had done a one-week recce’ in ‘99 and spotted a few likely places, although none seemed to answer Ben’s de­scription.
The next few weeks were the usual expedition switchback. Long periods of nothing going, inter­spersed with manic activ­ity to push and survey the breakthroughs when they came. An early good start was Catapult Passage-just inside the entrance of Cob­web where a huge passage loomed in the darkness above a 15 m high, 8 m overhang. Colin and Tim decided that it could be tackled by throwing a line through an obvious thread, below the main passage and a second line through another, off to one side for protection. A happy few hours were spent as several of us tried our hand at precision weight throwing. Eventually Tim got a line through the main thread but the other proved impossible.
Back at Camp 5 the spirit of Baden-Powell walked free. I asked Edwin Abang, one of our local team, to get a suitably shaped piece of wood and shortly afterwards we had a functioning catapult. The next morning, after a satisfyingly limited number of attempts, the line was rigged and Colin began the ascent. Once up at the thread he demonstrated his keen sense of risk assessment by placing a succes­sion of 25 mm anchors into soft calcite, rather than just asking us to pass up some longer ones … At the top we ascended a slope and stood looking along a classic Mulu passage, disappearing into the distance.
Catapult gave us about a kilometre of new passage but the next breakthrough was not so easily won. Tim Fogg and Tony White turned their attentions to the Powder Mountain. Deep in the system and across a flood-prone river was a vast slope of dry guano. At the top of this was an unclimbed and obvious lead that had been left at the end of the ‘84 trip. They carried in gear and began a pattern of 3-day underground camps.

The bivi camp at Husky Hall. Bird nesters had used the camp before us! Photo Colin Boothroyd

The character of Cobweb soon re-established itself. Unlike most of the other Mulu caves there are very few places in this system where you can move without constantly looking at your feet. The entrance series, which seems to comprise at least half the cave, is an interminable succession of boulders – sharp, broken and very slippery. It’s hard work without gear and exhausting with a couple of bags. Route finding is consistently difficult. Even Tim and Colin, who did the original survey, took several days to re-familiarise themselves with the cave and learn to ignore the multitude of navigation marks scratched and burnt onto the rocks by illegal birds’-nesters. This was a new problem; nesting was unknown in Mulu until recently but it is now big business. It’s hard to ignore the reality that many of the local people, with whom we have caved over the last 20 years, are now engaged in the trade.  For the first time we did not routinely go caving with any local people and we were cautious about describing our discoveries to them.
The ‘84 underground campsite was rapidly abandoned in favour of a new site in Husky Hall, close to the Rubik Tubes. This almost perfect site was marred only by the large amounts of nesters’ graffiti on the walls – testimony to lots of nervous young men, a long way from home in a very alien environment: in ‘99 one nester was lost in Cobweb for 11 days, before being found on the point of death.
From here, Tim and Tony returned to the foot of the Powder Mountain, flogged up the dry guano and began to bolt the climb. After considerable effort they reached the top and came down into a large chamber from which a passage promisingly led off north­wards, towards Deliverance. On a subsequent trip Pete O’Neil joined them and they romped along with lightweight camping gear, through some beautifully decorated passage. Growing ever more confident of a through-trip, the end came as a bitter disappointment and the vaguely draughting choke was named ‘Duelling Banjos’.
Their despondency was made even worse when Andy Eavis discovered an easy bypass to their main climb during a subsequent photographic trip!
Out on the surface, Pam Fogg and I were systematically traversing the side of Benarat at the same level as Cobweb, trying to ensure that we identified any entrances. Finding caves in the sides of Benarat is worse than finding needles in haystacks. The forest cloaks most holes and going caves are more a matter of luck than systematic search -you can easily miss an entrance despite passing within metres. We found a few but invariably they closed down, all except one that is still going where a nasty loose choke covers the top of open draughting passage. Unfortunately it is really loose, and collapsed, pinning me with a large boulder on my back as the rocks fell away under my feet. Fortu­nately, Laing Lawai was with Pam above me, and he managed to lift the boulder away. (It must have been bad, even Colin decided to leave it alone on a later visit.)

Tim Allen bolting 200m above the floor of the giant Super Ramp. Photo Pete O'Neil

In Benarat, meanwhile, the men-in-tights were hard at work on the Super Ramp. (Orange boiler suits and leather boots have given way to wellies and body-hugging running tights as un­derground garments of choice.) Tim Allen, Pete Hall and Pete O’Neil bolted their way up and up and up.  Days were spent in physical testament to the power of cordless drills. At 200m above the floor, they topped out. Nothing; it was blind … Undeterred, they moved loca­tion to a place with a better view – an entrance in the cliff face east of Benarat Caverns, almost visible from Camp 5. They got up into it, but it too choked.
Bolting was not getting them anywhere, so their attention turned to Cobweb. The attrac­tions of the underground campsite and carrying large bags through the entrance series were obviously overwhelming and the men-in-tights began pushing at the southern end of the system in ‘Paper Tiger’. Pete Smart had left this at the end of the ‘84 trip, with that en­trancing word ‘continues’ printed on his survey. Out of time, he had stopped at an awkward sediment ledge. A succession of traverses and loose climbs, up and down mountains of fill, now led through a network of passages including: the ‘Welly Slicer’, where Tim almost lost his toes (saved by steel toe-caps), ‘Hand-Stabber’ passage and back up into ‘Paper Tiger’, through a boulder choke.

Streamway Zero, Cobweb Cave. Photo Andy Eavis

Another ‘84 lead was a westward-head­ing passage between’ Bogeydom’ and ‘White Fern’. Tim Allen and Pete Hall, together with Park Guide Syria Lejau, descended an unpromising, draught-free climb into a large passage that choked in one direction but went in the other. Pushing on, the trio even­tually found their way down to the main river, ‘Streamway Zero’, which turned out to be the best section of river passage in the mountain. A succession of trips followed over the next few days, through passages and problems of considerable variety and this section still continues. The exploration is steadily pushing away from camp and easily maintains the Cobweb standard of’ ‘no  relaxation’. The difficulties of exploration here are considerable; Cobweb is a serious cave, the ultimate in phreatic mazes and unremitting in its demands for constant attention. Greasy, sharp boulders and repeated ascents and descents would make a serious rescue almost impossible from deep within the system. Despite the world shrinking, this is a long way from home.
21st Century technology should make the’ process of drawing up the surveys much easier than in ‘84 and Itronix had kindly lent us a robust laptop. This had been loaded with Compass software, because Dave Gill had previously loaded much of the earlier Benarat survey data into that programme. Data entry  was easy and the resulting digital line survey could be rotated, enlarged and, best of all, printed. Unfortunately, just as the volume of discoveries became significant, the hard-drive died, leaving us to return to earlier methods of logging data and converting to Cartesian co-ordinates with a programma­ble calculator. The effect of this was substan­tial, not only did we have a much more laborious task of drawing up, but the pro­duction of the final survey has been far more long-winded, hence the lack of a survey with this article. To see it, you’ll just have to get a copy of the full report when it’s finished….

A hidden entrance in Just a Mile, Cobweb Cave. Photo Colin Boothroyd

By now, Colin had been converted to the new mode of attire. He’d set his eye on doing a 60 m bolt-climb in the roof of ‘Top of the World’. With lots of other leads going, this seemed silly to the rest of us. However, Martin Holroyd, fresh off the plane, was instantly nobbled by Col. Unfazed, he donned his tights, packed a bag with a mountain of rope, bolts, batteries & drills, and went underground for 3 days. Lesser men would have been driven mad, but strangely he came out smiling – doubly strange because his antique, metal generator split within min­utes of entering the cave, leaving him lightless. For­tunately, Colin was able to spare some light – he had decided not to use carbide on the trip and had fitted his helmet with a 9-LED unit, plus a similar detachable one. This meant that he went smugly un­derground with a handful of AA cells, while we struggled with pigs of carbide: never again! He gave Martin the de­tachable light and they carried on.
In the event they did not need to do the bolt route. They ascended an awkward climb in ‘Swift Highway’ to gain a passage with hanging death in the roof. It looked hope­less, but a small draught led to a reappraisal, and a bit of work with a hammer modified the way enough for them to pass. The climb was called ‘LED the Way’ in honour of the new lighting technology, and they were off … Hoping to locate a pitch down into ‘Top of the World’ they searched back on themselves but an easy route proved elusive.  The next day took them out to a new entrance, apparently in the side of a doline. An adjacent gave them a succession of 30m legs back into the hill, to a temporary halt at a choke and then through this to more big passage. Their 1.7 km of survey earned the name ‘Just a Mile’. On a later trip Martin returned with Pete O’Neil and gained more big passage but, disappointingly, the se­ries eventually ended at a choke.

The time for digging had arrived in Mulu. Hurricane Hole entrance. Photo Andy Eavis

Out on the surface the recce of the westside of Benarat had revealed no new going systems. Our patron, Dr James J. Masing (the Sarawak Minister of Cultural Development) had flown in to be with us for a night and kindly lent us his helicopter to do a fly around. The pilot soon got in to treetop mode and we were spotting for possible entrances. One vast one, near the Terikan, made us very excited until someone pointed out the survey of Lubang Gawai in the ‘84 report! Andy (now also converted to tights) and Pete O’Neil did a long walk around the back of Benarat, but were unable to find any open entrances. We also tried to locate the position of Deliver­ance, both from the air and the ground, but failed, confused by a network of tracks at the north end of the mountain.
Pete Hall, being the largest member of the team, took responsibility for some of our smallest prospects. Up the Melinau Gorge to the east of Camp 5 area number of small wet caves, charmingly named after their occu­pants – Snail, Rat and Bat – together with Pinnacle Cave. Pete explored them seem­ingly relishing the low, damp UK condi­tions, but high water meant that he was unable to complete the task.
The cliffs at the southern end of the mountain left us with two mysteries – the first was an open entrance high in a cliff created by a massive rock-fall two years ago. Pam, Tim F. and Pete O. tried to get to it, but the rock underneath is very loose and the cliff above vegetated and overhanging. The second was Tiger Cave. In ‘84 Martyn Farr and Tim Lyons had climbed the 300 m ascent up the cliff to gain Lower Tiger Cave and access, via ramps, to Upper Tiger Cave. On our arrival we had been told that the nesters were active in Tiger Cave and we assumed that they had repeated the climb. However, an examination of the foot of the cliff revealed a shorter climb up to a much lower entrance, from which a climb as­cended to Lower Tiger Cave – obviously the nesters’ way in. When we re-examined the ‘84 survey we were astonished to see that this entrance was clearly drawn, but was not marked as an entrance. With our Inmarsat phone we called Tim in Australia; he had no recollection of this bottom entrance. On return to the UK I called Martyn – no recol­lection there either. Weird. (As a logistical point, the phone was also really handy for ordering fresh food and beer supplies!)

Hurricane Hole, Break through on the last day of the expedition. Photo Colin Boothroyd

Up at the north of Benarat, however, another mystery was resolved – the ‘78 survey of Terikan River showed a possible lead just inside the resurgence. This had been surveyed by Tony Waltham and had nagged away at him for years. Taking ad­vantage of being on holiday in Asia, he and his wife called in to see us and Tony was able to go for the swim – but it didn’t go.

Time was running out but one lead re­mained – Ben’s draughting hole. Ben him­self had called in to visit us during the trip, where his presence was a great relief to all of us – he magnanimously attracted all the biting flies. He confirmed the location of the stalled-up entrance, which blew a gale in the right conditions. It had received spo­radic attention in between bursts of explora­tion elsewhere, but on the final afternoon of our time at Camp 5, Andy Eavis and Tim Allen decided to pay one last visit. Some hours later, as we were having supper, they returned, their expressions deadpan. When they had the undivided attention of all the cavers and our guides they broke into grins and told us that they had got through into big passage. This sparked contro­versy: was it, or was it not, going to connect to ‘Home­ward Bound’ in Benarat Cav­erns? There was only one way to find out and a final outing of the men-in-tights (and Colin) resulted in an overnight trip. Needless to say, it’s still going!
Despite our best endeav­ours, Cobweb is still going. We surveyed approximately 13 km of new cave passage, with the majority of the discoveries in Cobweb Cave. We extended the total mapped length of this system from 15.1 km to 26.7 km, making Cobweb the 2nd longest cave in the National Park and the 5th longest in S.E. Asia.

Flooding of the Melinau River during the last days of the expedition. Boats are unable to pass the bridge to the Royal Mulu Resort as the river is some five metres higher than normal. Photo Colin Boothroyd