March - 2019

A Youngster in Borneo – Edited from an article by James Alker published in Descent magazine in September 2004.

In 2001 James Alker was a newcomer to the awesome caves of Gunung Benarat, an attractive, Cave rich mountain in Gunung Mulu National Park, located in Sarawak, Malaysia, that cried out for further exploration.

LUSH, bright green forest canopy blurred past my feet as huge white limestone cliffs came out of the swirling mist before me. The helicopter banked, revealing a stunning, sheer-sided gorge and tiny cavers standing in a clearing below. Just over a day after standing in Leeds/Bradford airport it was touchdown at base camp in Mulu National Park – the location of some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world.

The expedition helicopter backloading 'rubbish' from Camp 5. Photo Andy Eavis

Gunung Mulu (Mount Mulu) is surrounded by a forest plain that stretches to the horizon, broken by a limestone ridge. The ridge is divided into three mountains by gorges cut by rivers flowing off Mulu’s sandstone. For thousands of years these rivers have flowed through the limestone mass, eroding the caves we had come to explore. The ridge runs from Gunung Api in the south, which contains such famous caves as the 110km Clearwater system and Sarawak Chamber, the world’s largest known cave chamber, to Gunung Buda in the north. Between the two lies Gunung Benarat, our destination. Until an expedition in 2000, Benarat had been ignored for sixteen years; that visit clocked up 12km of passage, mainly deep in Cobweb Cave. Now, back with a team of thirteen for five weeks, our first objective was to return to the furthest leads, which had been left to gnaw in the minds of the explorers.
We acclimatised to this humid, sweaty world by finding our way into the system, rigging and leaving depots for the bivis required for subsequent pushing trips. Cobweb’s survey looks just like its name: a multitude of passages running in all directions on many levels. As a newcomer to Mulu, I scrambled wide-eyed through Cobweb’s entrance series of huge phreatic passages, smooth wide-arched ceilings and notches cut 2m tall in the walls, which provide walking routes as an alternative to the boulder-floored main passage. I ducked to avoid a swift, which clicked its way through the darkness, only to have another fly into me; then I jumped as I nearly put my hand on a pure white cave racer snake. The food chain is awesome, with creepy-crawlies living off bat guano and swiftlets bringing in plant material for nests. Everything from cave-adapted crabs to scorpions and the occasional porcupine means that you are never alone.

Stunning phytokarst at a cave entrance. Photo Andy Eavis

In the first week, teams went to each end of Cobweb for three-day pushing trips but, despite making some discoveries, they were quickly frustrated at not achieving the hoped-for breakthrough. The bivi sites were fantastic, with flat packed-mud floors and water close to hand. One team enjoyed a fine shower while the other possessed a natural basin. The team’s youngest member learned to bounce as he discovered the frailty of handholds on an 8m climb, while the Irish were in fine voice using the cave’s perfect acoustics.
The expedition ‘youngsters’ received some stick for not being on the trips that made discoveries, so we climbed and bolted our way 50m up a cliff to an 8m wide entrance and used a lasso around a stal to struggle over the final bulge. Disappointingly, the passage was choked after only a few metres but was named Help the Aged Hole as we looked out across the sea of trees. The youngsters went on to find some extensions in Cobweb, called the Jonah series, with beautiful two-level passages and multiple routes leading off some dry, mud-floored chambers. Fortunately, park guides Syria Lejau and Jenny Malang were great at finding the way out of the forest at night, but they made us look wimps in the heat.
Meanwhile, at the northern end of the mountain, Colin Boothroyd looked at some 25-year-old leads in Terikan Rising Cave, off a chamber called Wilford Hall (named after a pioneer geologist in Mulu). Here, the reputation for Mulu limestone being like Swiss (or, rather, Yorkshire) cheese was again proven. The spur on the north-west corner of the mountain (Batu Mentawai, where the Terikan River rises) contained passages cutting back and forth on many levels, and more entrances began to be found. Just off the main park trail an incredible new entrance, Elevator Cave, contained five distinct levels of development.
A camp for six people was set up near the Terikan River resurgence, to be close to the new entrances. Here, near the Brunei border, we could lie in cool water, smugly smiling to the camp radio’s surreal news reports about London winter traffic jams. The Sultan of Brunei has the station beamed to the area!

Looking towards one of the many entrances to the Terikan System. Photo Andy Eavis

From Elevator’s entrance, a massive passage with canyons cut into the sediment-filled floor was followed by mountainous scree slopes and knee-deep guano. These led through the River of Sound, named after the noise of running water that always seemed to lie somewhere ahead of the explorers, but in fact came from a big bat colony being herded down the 50m wide, 60m high passage. Where it narrowed, a window through a calcite flow provided a fantastic place to cool off in the force of the draught being sucked through. While the photographers scratched their heads, pondering how to light such a big passage, more entrances were located – rather a surprise as we thought we were moving deeper into the mountain. Go On, Go On, Go On Passage was named as we popped out of bright, white-walled tunnels with dark mud-and-guano floors to be faced by yet more choices about the direction we should take. Over 25 new entrances were found, some containing monkey skeletons and pieces of ancient pot, along with the best phytokarst any of the team had seen.
Elevator connected with Terikan Rising Cave, although the Terikan system actually comprises three individual caves separated by two small sumps that have yet to be dived. Potential connections were being made increasingly possible by targeted exploration, the result of plotting all the known Benarat caves into the Survex computer program and adding 10km of surface survey, which accurately links all the caves. In this way, the Terikan East Cave was successfully connected to Blue Moonlight Bay Cave. The computer survey team of Wookey and Oily Belts proved their value, even to the old-timers in the team.

The River of Sound. Photo Andy Eavis

A lead off the River of Sound was checked; it appeared wide open, but quickly closed down to a rift – the draft kept pushing Colin onwards, but lack of kit left a pitch undescended. On the return Colin, Robbie Shone and I rigged down a slope on the side of a large chamber to where it dropped off. Colin placed a bolt by hand and received plenty of stick for taking so long – he stomped off in a sulk to investigate a side passage. On his return, we received lots of reciprocal abuse for not noticing daylight at the far end of the chamber!
After deviously scaling a cliff, Colin came into his own – he knew he had been to the spot before but couldn’t remember where so, at his insistence, we surveyed all the way out of what proved to be Menagerie Cave, discovered and previously surveyed in 1984. The original explorers’ footprints led through beautiful tubes past a cave racer, coiled on a wall ledge, to a junction chamber and then via walking-sized passage to another chamber where, frustratingly, we knew we were only metres from the surface. We could smell the forest, but still Colin couldn’t remember the way out. After a tense half hour and thoughts of having to go all the way back, we found the exit and were back at camp fifteen minutes later.
This connection brought the limits of the Terikan system much further south and cemented the belief that further connections could be made relatively close to the surface, rather than deep inside the mountain. The possibility of a link to Cobweb also became very real so Colin and Andy Eavis took me to their new discovery, Eagle Cave; after furtling in here we popped into Deception Cave. This had already been linked to Menagerie, thus bringing the Terikan system to within 230m of Cobweb. When this important connection is eventually made and the two short sumps are dived, it will create a 63km system.

Interest is high at Camp 5 when new survey data is processed. Will the caves connect? Photo Andy Eavis

In the final days of the expedition, Pete Hall and I unsuccessfully burrowed around in Daud’s Cave to try to close the gap with Cobweb, before moving to the southern end of Deception Cave, which is the nearest to the main system. Here, a dry, mud-packed tube out of which a strong wind whistled had been opened up a few days previously. A small air space had been enlarged using a parang (a double-bladed knife) to cut the mud into neat blancmange-like slices, creating a new entrance: Parang Cave. The new way in was rapidly connected to previously surveyed passage in Deception and provided a quick route to the leads. After fighting with sticky mud slopes and some interesting climbs, we found more passage but, unfortunately, it was heading in the wrong direction. Breakdown chambers and digging led us around and up to the calcite flows of an entrance named Thunder Cave and we squeezed out on our bellies, hoping not to meet a snake as an afternoon storm blasted the hillside.

Richard Chambers and Matt Kirby are Gunung Api addicts and, even after a week of wandering through forest with machetes in a failed search for the entrance to the Black Rock system, they doggedly kept going. Their persistence paid off when they found a promising new entrance and, in only two trips, surveyed 3.7km of very straight, multi-level passage on the bedding. Here, an electronic measuring gadget, or distometer, came into its own with passages such as Disto-fever and Ahh Disto being named as 100m legs were bagged. The ongoing theme of the expedition was also highlighted with this team of oldies naming Pensioners Paradise. The cave was named White Rock and, when fully explored, promises to extend a long way south in Api, perhaps even to join the Clearwater system.
AS is traditional, a couple of people had the joyful experience of Mulu Foot, a red, itchy rash which gave them plenty of time to draw up surveys in the comfort of Camp 5. The camp was also the home to many rats, possibly the cause of leptospirosis attacks which resulted in intensive care episodes for Pete O’Neill (the team medic!) and Colin, back in the UK.

No obstruction is too great for the black millipede. Photo Andy Eavis

In Mulu a long trip doesn’t just end as you reach the light, which knifes into an entrance through dense foliage. Emerging into the noise of the forest is an unforgettable experience, always providing an interesting continuation to an underground excursion. In late afternoon the skies usually opened and the gradual tap of the first raindrop on the canopy filled me with energy. As the noise increased to a roar, the drips started to make their way to the forest floor and two minutes later we would be soaked to the skin. On other trips back to camp, the forest noise would turn up a notch as it went dark. Frogs belched and we would stop to try to locate the noise at our feet, a frustratingly impossible task. Shiny black-shelled millipedes crossed my path and heartbeats were missed as I moved my foot at the last second to avoid an aggressively coloured snake coiled on the track, or when a large animal suddenly ran through the undergrowth. A great memory of the expedition is of being finally back at camp, in good company, poring over surveys with a beer in hand. Many thanks for organising everything must be given, in particular, to Tim Allen and Dick Willis.
So to the future. As with so many Mulu expeditions, more people have been inspired to return and push further to make that elusive connection: one expedition breeds another. A couple more discoveries and the system could penetrate completely through Benarat and that would offer a hell of a trip. The leads are gnawing away in my mind right now.