March - 2019

The advance crew of Tim Allen, Mark Wright and Robbie Shone flew out to Miri on 12th January 2009.  We were met by our local organiser, Veno Enar, our man about Miri, Leo, and a lot of wet weather that had flooded major parts of Sarawak.  Following a sleepless night I was up early partly due to jet lag but also because of late night noises from firecrackers (it was close to Chinese New Year) and the early morning call to prayer from the Mosques.  This gave me the opportunity to finalise supply lists before we headed up river to the Gunung Mulu National Park.


A small string of Deer Cave bats run the gauntlet of bat hawks. Photo © Robbie Shone

Over the next two days we purchased all our supplies for the first month of the expedition from at least a dozen different sources and sent it all up to the Park as air cargo.  This was in addition to supplies sent up in advance by Miri resident Dave Clucas. We visited Mr Abang of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation to check all our permits were in order, made other courtesy visits to old friends and completed all the other preliminary tasks necessary when organising a caving trip to this part of the world.  We then flew up to Park Headquarters where the intense heat and humidity made itself felt as we shifted gear and supplies about ready to start shipping them up to camp 5 in the Melinau Gorge.  We discussed our requirements with Veno and National Park staff over a cooling Tiger beer before retiring to one of the splendid rainforest lodges that the Park has to offer.  Over the following three days 54 Penan porters were employed to take our supplies up the Melinau River to Kuala Lutok and then overland for a further two and a half hours walk to Camp Five.

Weird formations in Whiterock upper levels. Photo © George North

While our supplies were in the capable hands of Veno and the porters we went caving.  First a tourist trip to see the famous Deer Cave bat flight and to check out the new visitor attractions of the half kilometre long canopy walk and the Garden of Eden swimming hole.  Next day we had the more serious task of a long trip deep into the Clearwater System.  This was to establish the most direct route from the Clearwater River to the high level Armistice Passage.  One of the early objectives in the second half of the trip was to create a new survey line from the highest fossil levels down through the system to river level at the southern end of the cave.  The route from Clearwater 2 river, up through Inflation, Junction Cavern, Revival, Volcano, Scumring and along the Snow Slopes to Armistice proved to be the most direct route. 

As these tasks were completed the rest of team one started to arrive.  James Alker was followed by Rob Middleton, Adam Spillane, George North and Pete Hall.  We then accompanied the last group of porters up to Camp 5 with our cook and camp manager for the duration, Mannit Epoi.  Once the kit was sorted and inventories of food supplies made it was time to re-establish the track to Whiterock entrance as this was to be the main focus for much of the expedition.  The track was soon found and improvements made and on 20th January the full team entered the cave for the first of many three day camps.  

Whiterock Cave

More strange formations in the Borderline series. Photo © Robbie Shone

Background:  Whiterock cave was discovered at the end of the 2003 expedition.  Hemmed into a small area of the mountain by the Racer Entrance Series and the main route of Firecracker Passage everyone thought it was destined to be just a small extension to Blackrock cave.  However, in 2005 a 70m ramp was climbed which lead to the huge southern trending passage of Daydream Believer.  This terminated in Api Chamber (200×300m) and together with the discovery of even higher levels the cave reached 20km in length.  By the end of the 2005 expedition Whiterock Cave had been connected to Blackrock Cave and therefore the Clearwater System, which itself now stood at 129km in length.  In 2007 further extensions were made towards the Melinau Gorge in the north at both the mid and highest levels.  A second major route was discovered cutting across the beds into new ground before heading south and as the expedition drew to a close many leads remained unexplored.  By the end 22km had been added to the survey leaving the total for the system at 151km and one of the ten longest caves in the world.

A huge roof spans part of the great Borderline Chamber. Photo © Robbie Shone

Initially we focused our attentions on the high level leads in the east of the system.  The first exploration teams were immediately rewarded with the discovery of the Borderline and Big Issue passages which proved that a major high level trunk route ran consistently between 1954 in the north and Api Chamber to the south.  This combined route and its associated side passages yielded nearly 9km of survey. 

Most of the exploration of the Borderline Series was carried out be George, Pete, and Tim with later assistance from Adam.  Borderline starts off as 20m wide canyon with deep popcorn and breakdown covering the floor. Over the first 600m numerous windows look down into a lower level (Lower Borderline) and holes in the roof on the east of the passage suggested a third, upper level.  In fact, little did we know on the first trip that a few days later we

A dusting of white crystal covers Lower Borderline. Photo © Robbie Shone

would be completing a desperate climb down from one of these holes.    The upper and lower routes converge at a 50m diameter chamber where small refreshing waterfalls pour from the roof.  From here the passage increases in size to 40×40m before turning into an impressive canyon.  Eventually this ended at a vertical boulder climb which mirrored the description of the southern end of 1954. Indeed the border had been reached, and after some faffing on the climb a survey cairn was located at the top and a huge loop completed.  Our attention moved to Lower Borderline where at one point the roof drops down over a crater in the floor and the passage is coated in fine white crystals. There were several holes back to the upper passage, the last of which was a tight chimney to enter the bottom of Borderline Chamber.  Two down dip side passages gave a moment’s hope for a connection to The Northern Line and a short cut back to camp but it wasn’t to be.  Another passage on the western side, The Soapmine, was floored with knee deep gypsum crystals and had a draught.  Unfortunately, exploration was cut short by a falling stal and a bashed knee.  The upper holes led to Cream Cheese and Treble Clef passages.  The later paralleled the main passage for half a kilometer before terminating in a choke.  Near the end a hole led to a possible short cut back into the main Borderline route.  The opportunity to avoid a long detour saw two [foolish] explorers on a very committing climb down, some 30m up in the roof!

One of the new short cut ramps linking between levels. Photo © Robbie Shone

The Big Issue passages were explored by taking the southerly lead opposite the entrance to the Borderline series. James, Rob and Robbie were largely responsible for surveying several kilometres of large passage running parallel to Bigness South, before finally reconnecting not far from the start of Janet’s Way.  Along its length several connections were made to the mid level passage of Daydream Believer potentially reducing commuting times to the southern end of the Whiterock.  In due course this was taken advantage of by Pete, James and George and a camp set up in Janet’s Way.  From here many rising ramps were investigated heading up to the east with potential to enter either a new level or to bypass the terminal Api chamber.  However, despite determined efforts surveying over 2.5km no major routes were found in this direction.  

 Other leads in the central area of the cave, at both the higher and mid levels, were explored with mixed success including the 1.6km long Reluctant Explorers.  The final three day camp was given over to photographing the new discoveries.  This camp was hampered by Mulu foot but never the less Shone and his trusty assistants worked their magic in both Borderline and the Big Issue

 Hole of the Moon

Team members rest at the nesters camp before the first descent. Photo © Robbie Shone

Although explorations in Whiterock dominated the first team’s activities three other objectives were investigated.  The first was an entrance high up in the Benerat cliffs which later became known as the ‘Hole of the Moon’.  This cave had been on the radar since 2000 but easier objectives elsewhere had prevented any effort being put in to gain access.  Access was the key decider here, could a way be found over the mountain from the west to a point directly above the entrance where a straightforward but exciting abseil could reach the entrance, or should a climb be attempted from 350m below?  Neither would guarantee success and even if the entrance could be gained would the cave actually go? The 2005 expedition thought it might be possible to bolt up to the entrance from below but when the expedition arrived at camp 5 we could see bird nesters had already gained access to the cave from above.  An unsuccessful attempt to climb the cliff did lead to the discovery of Moon Cave but proved access from below would require considerable and sustained effort.  It was decided the best course of action would be to establish contact with the bird nesters and try to arrange for them to guide us up to the top of the cliffs by their secret route.  Word was put about but it took four years to bear any fruit. 

A self portrait on the descent with Camp 5 way, way, way below. Photo © Robbie Shone

Swinging in to Hole of the Moon. Photo © Robbie Shone

At the beginning of the 2009 expedition I was introduced to one of the nesters and arranged for him to guide a team up to the entrance.  The first trip involved Mark, James and Robbie.  They were guided up a very steep track onto the south-western flank of Benerat and up to the ridge where there was a small nesters staging camp.  The route then followed the top of the cliff line, over some very rugged terrain with many rope and stemple climbs.  After three hours they reached a second nesters camp directly above the cave.  Mark rigged the rope and began the 70m abseil into the Melinau Gorge. The view was spectacular, situated approximately 400m above the dense, tree covered valley floor.  Finally there is a 15m pendulum into the entrance which was made easier by the in-situ nesters rope (spare a thought for the nesters who get lowered down and hauled out of the cave).

The Belly Squeeze. Photo © James Alker

 Sadly the first half kilometre of this cave is heavily nested and all manner of litter is strewn around the deep piles of guano.  Thousands of flies attacked the headlamps and made it very difficult to enjoy surveying this part of the cave. However, beyond this the nature of the cave changed and became far more pleasant. The flies disappeared along with the deep banks of guano, as did the graffiti on the walls and the litter on the floor.

 Following the general direction of Moon Cave some 200m below, the 10×10m passage bored straight into the mountain.  A few pits were passed and one side passage that doubled back towards the entrance, but which soon choked.  Another pit nearly cut off the entire passage and was only passable by a tight squeeze under a fallen slab resting on the edge.  This was called ‘The Belly Squeeze’ after one member of the team struggled to get through.  Just beyond here a passage on the left headed back in the direction of Tiger Cave.  This was left for later exploration and after nearly 2km the main drag ended at an impenetrable choke.  The team turned around at this point and re-traced their footsteps back to the entrance by which time it was dark and into the early hours of the morning. This made the 70m ascent rather exciting, still well aware of the huge drop below but unable to see it!  The rest of the night was spent in the nesters shelter before returning to Camp 5 the next morning.  Surely there would be a second trip in the second half of the expedition.

Bat Cave entrance. One of the marginal caves. Photo © Robbie Shone

The marginal caves

The second objective to receive attention from the team was the small marginal caves on the North-East corner of Api.  Back in 2000 Rat cave had been left with a going lead into a possible passage and nearby Frog cave was close to a prominent resurgence.  In the event a number of wet, flood prone passages were re-explored and a route discovered which connected the two caves together.  Other wet passages were investigated very briefly but were not surveyed due to the dangers of flooding.  No good leads remain. 

 Hurricane Hole

The third lead investigated by the first team was a huge undescended shaft in Hurricane Hole, the most easterly entrance to the Benerat Caverns System. 

The Wizards Wand. Hurricane Hole. Photo © Robbie Shone

Hurricane is an unusual cave by Mulu standards as it has a number of awkward squeezes in the small entrance series, it also requires over 200m of rope to be rigged just to get to the lead.  Over the course of three hard trips the route was tackled up and the shaft descended.  At 80m deep it became known as the ‘Mother of all Voids’.  Despite being a spectacular shaft there was no way on at the bottom.  The point of entry onto the shaft was a window from the ‘Wizards Escalator’ and above this window the 60m diameter shaft soared out of sight.  Whilst we were photographing the shaft on the first descent a stream erupted out of the roof (it must have been raining on the surface) and Robbie and Mark had a very wet ascent.  Fortunately myself and Rob had seen it coming and got to the top in time.  Amazingly the flood pulse can be seen  heading our way on the last photograph we took.  There were plans to attempt a big climb up to the source of this water but this was abandoned due to the effort required and the flood risk.  Back in 2003 Robbie and I had discovered a fabulous formation

The Mother of all Voids pitch with the flood water just visible in the roof. Photo © Robbie Shone

which we named the Wizards Wand.  Robbie didn’t have his camera with him at the time and had always wanted to photograph it.  Unfortunately getting there involved another long sharp torturous crawl, so leaving Mark to sit it out we disappeared for a few hours until Robbie seemed happy with the results. We arrived tired but satisfied at camp 5 at 1.30am after a cracking days caving.  The final

trip detackled almost 400m of rope and bolting equipment.  Emerging into the forest late at night it had poured with rain again and the normally small stream gullies were full to the brim with brown flood water.  Many of these required waist deep wading and made the journey back to camp almost as sporting as the cave itself.

 By 11th February time was up for team one and we headed back down to Park HQ.  Before continuing on to Miri there was just time for a tourist trip up the Clearwater 1 river.  Robbie fatefully decided to take his camera and get some pictures of this classic passage.  Unfortunately whilst swimming out of the cave his waterproof camera case leaked and his brand new very expensive camera and lens were ruined.  This threw Robbie into a severe bout of depression to the extent that as we boarded the plane to Miri he was heard to say, “I hope the plane crashes and we all die!”  Needless to say it didn’t and we arrived in Miri just in time to meet up with the second team who had arrived only moments before from the UK.  It had been a highly successful first part to the expedition and there was just time for both teams to celebrate all those big discoveries before we went our separate ways…..