March - 2019

Daydream Believer – Edited from an article by Rich Gerrish published in Descent magazine in May 2006.

For four weeks in the autumn of 2005 cavers were busy in the awesome caverns of Gunung Benarat, a mountain deep within Sarawak, Ma­laysia. Here, Rich Gerrish writes about how the expedition continued exploration in this land where daydreams come true.

Syria Lejau admires admires newly discovered formations in Whiterock Cave. Photo Robbie Shone

THE roof of the passage described a wide arc 40m across and, despite the sheer scale of it, a cool breeze beckoned us on into the unknown. The flat floor made for incredibly easy going; it allowed me to forget where I was putting my feet and gape around in awe at the walls and roof, only just visible with my dimming light.

After highlighting the station for the next survey leg, I stared into the black space, mes­merised by the intoxicating wonder of what lay ahead.

‘Haven’t you got a job to do?’ said Tim, who had now joined me at the station and woke me from my hypnotic state. I mumbled some­thing incoherent before picking up my lower jaw from the floor of the cave passage and stumbling on, disorientated, to find the next survey point.

At the day’s end of exploration, in White Rock Cave, came the best discovery of all when Daydream Believer, the route we were follow­ing, split into two at a large chamber. We left these leads for a future camping trip and re­turned to the surface knowing we would be back without delay.

The Night Watchmen. Whiterock Cave. Photo Robbie Shone

Sure enough, on the following trip we dis­regarded the time and at 8pm returned to the exploration limit. New passage came big and fast. Long, easy legs were filling up the pages of Tim Allen’s survey book at an alarming rate. Some of the passage was well decorated, but none more so than the impressive Night Watchmen, which brought memories flooding back of the Hall of the Thirteen in the Gouffre Berger.

At 2am we lay flat-out on a sparkling white, crisp, calcited floor that smothered a soft bank of mud like a layer of Artex. We were utterly beat, having surveyed just over 2km. Our end point was a short distance away atop a gar­gantuan pile of steep boulders that provided an inconvenient floor in an otherwise fair-sized chamber. We had located the way on but the time of the night, our failing minds, knackered bodies and the distance between us and our camp convinced us to bail out. Later, at 5am, we finally bedded down with bellies not quite full enough of pasta, but with contented 2km-wide smiles on our exhausted faces.

We found another 2km on our second day underground and returned with reinforce­ments for the following camping trip. Push­ing the ongoing cave further southwards, we made good progress using a Disto (a laser distance meter) to shoot huge legs into the huge passage.  However, after a short time we came upon a frustrating problem-a vast sheet of black space piled into the unknown behind a chaos of megalithic boulders. With a 20m drop and no ropes or vertical gear, we de­spaired that we would be unable to continue our exploration that evening. Splitting up, we ditched the surveying work and began to search the jumbled mass for a way through.

Soon enough Dave ‘Moose’ Nixon descended a short, steep climb beside the largest boulder underneath a false roof of rocks and sand, through a gap between other blocks and down a final slot onto a lower balcony. I followed him and from here, with our combined lights, we could make out an easy route down to the passage floor.  Even better, we could also see the start of what we were about to get into.  Straining our eyes into the darkness, great slabs of rock formed the frame of a tunnel that drew lines of perspective to an impossibly black van­ishing point. I felt a wave of vertigo overcome me as if I might tumble into it horizontally, to be swallowed up in its depths.

‘What have we done?’ I laughed nervously to Moose. Minutes later, I was on the floor feeling overwhelmed and overjoyed as  moved my feet swiftly over the eerily flat ground. Occasionally, I would steal a look back. Moose’s light hung in space like a bright star and his booming shouts carried easily to my ears: ‘Keeeeep gooooinnnnnng!’ By the time I set my target for the Disto, there must have been about 130m of passage separating us. Try as we might, however, the Disto could not match the cave – the normally small red spot it projected onto the target was now several centimetres wide, striated and shaky. Despite being dead-on aim it just refused to yield results.         

I returned the way I had come and we sneaked the leg in at just over 75m, At that time we had no idea that we would soon be  moving into a small, sandy-floored camp at one end of this passage, or that the sleepless nights we would suffer as a result would eventually give this spectacular borehole its name: Insom­nia.

Cooking deep underground at the Insomnia camp. Photo Robbie Shone

Insomnia continued on to even greater glo­ries when Moose and Mark Brown pushed the main ongoing lead past an almost terminal boulder choke to break out into the side of the vast Api Chamber, over 900m in circumference. Photographing this on another camping trip proved to be quite amazing. Robbie Shone set up his camera, with its ridiculously wide-angled lens, on top of a huge rubble heap at one end of the chamber. Almost immediately in front of him stood Rob Eavis who, dressed in bor­rowed overalls and looking something akin to a red Smurf, provided the foreground figure for scale. I stood in the middle of the chamber  on top of a large boulder, clutching an equally oversized flashbulb. Up on the loose boulder slope to my right was Andrew Atkinson and about 100m in front of him was Moose. Way, way, way in front of us all was Mark Brown, who remained at the breakthrough point on the opposite edge of the chamber.

The radios crackled as we all checked in and relayed our positions and readiness. A short pe­riod of silence was broken when Robbie’s voice cut though.

Three … Two … One … Fire!’

The dark of the chamber was shattered by multiple explosions of light as four flashbulbs popped in random succession, leaving images burned onto our retinas as well as the camera. Surveying this huge space to the sound of Pink Floyd echoing out from Rob’s iPod was a very surreal experience indeed.

Preparing to dive the sumps of the Terikan System. Photo Rich Gerrish

Unfortunately, the grandeur of Api Chamber was offset by the fact that it also marked the termination of our previously unimpeded stam­pede south towards the Hidden Valley. How­ever, consolation was found in two difficult connections to Black Rock Cave and the knowl­edge that White Rock’s now (almost) 21km ad­dition to the Clearwater System had extended this to just under 130km, placing it as the tenth longest cave in the world.

Divers emerging from the Terikan Resurgence after the connection dives. Photo Rich Gerrish

Elsewhere on the expedition Martin Holroyd and John Volanthen succeeded in passing the upstream and downstream sumps in Terikan River Cave West and all the way through to the rising, uniting the Terikan caves into a 32.6km system.     Dick  Willis  moaned on behalf of the whole team as he portered dive tanks to a third sump in Blue Moonlight  Bay Cave. The cave’s romantic name is mis­leading, as the route up and over the jagged pinnacles and jungle was nothing short of masochistic. The perverted enjoyment of misery shone through, however, and we all had a fun time with it (even Dick – though Dick later said that any such suggestion was an outra­geous lie, as it was hell). Unlike the other sumps, the one in Blue Moonlight was vertical and John turned back at a depth of 53m with no sign of a way on other than straight down. Oh, how we enjoyed carrying all those lead weights back to camp…

The Entrance to Moon Cave high above the valley floor. Photo Robbie Shone

Robbie and Mark Wright struck gold early on in the expedition when, near the start of a mind-boggling 300m bolt climb to a cave high on the cliffs of Gunung Benarat, they found an unseen entrance only 50m up. Moon Cave tanked-off northwards through 7km of blank mountain and Mark was subsequently seen without a drill, going caving and reportedly enjoying it. Fortunately for Mark, he left before having a chance to share this year’s ex­pedition chore-carrying a bag for Pete O’Neill, who injured his back in a fall. Andy Eavis and colleagues subsequently es­tablished a connection from Moon to Benarat Caverns via the Big Mistake pitch, and a set of footprints some 3km into the cave indicate that birds’-nesters have made a further connection from elsewhere. I was not involved in any of the major exploration of this cave but managed to wangle a last minute trip to the end in search of the elusive way on. It was a bril­liant thrill to relive the challenge and rewards the others must have felt during their explora­tion. As we left Moon Cave that evening we were just in time to witness a glorious sunset. The heavy rains that had set the cave streams rag­ing had stopped, leaving a blanket of dense mist in the depressions of the forest canopy for as far as the eye could see. Everything

Big passage in Moon Cave. Photo Robbie Shone

else was crystal clear and fresh with a sliver of gold radiating from a slit in the clouds to the west. The sun set slowly on a magnificent day un­derground and a picture-perfect view of Sarawak’s wonder.                       

At the end of their previous trip in 2003, Ri­chard Chambers and Matt Kirby had discov­ered White Rock Cave, and we had now ex­tended it to just under 21km and linked it to Clearwater. As we stood at the entrance and took in that glorious view, I wondered if Moon Cave would continue to yield the new passage and potential connections to Benarat’s other caves. Another trip beckons…

Api Chamber, the second biggest cavity in Mulu. Photo Robbie Shone