March - 2019

Back in Miri at the half way stage of the expedition Robbie, Adam and myself were to stay on for the duration.  We were soon joined by Hugh St Lawrence, Katie Dent, Gina Moseley, Dave Harley and Jane Allen were waiting for us at the airport.  Veterans Matt Kirby and Richard Chambers had flown in via a different route and gone straight up to Mulu and John Palmer had arrived from Australia the day before and was soon found wandering the street of Miri.

Crossing the Clearwater River. Photo © Robbie Shone

Robbie and myself now had a frantic bout of re-supply shopping which had taken us two days a month ago and which we now crammed into one day.  Fortunately it was all completed by the evening and we could enjoy a big party with the incoming and outgoing team members.  The next day whilst some went home, it was up to Mulu for the rest and back to the serious work of preparing for a big trip into Clearwater.  The aim of this trip was to check the elevations between the highest and lowest levels in Clearwater.  The old survey data we were using showed a discrepancy in this part of the system, an elevation error of 40m around a very long loop.  We hoped to correct this by completing the resurvey, so on 15th February the whole team set off into the cave.  The team split into five surveying groups, each with there own section to resurvey.  The furthest team of Tim and Robbie surveyed back towards Scumring from Armistice and everyone helped complete the task despite problems with a broken clino and a disto’s battery dying.  All in all it was a good team acclimatisation and bonding exercise.  Later analysis of the new data showed that the loop error had been reduced to 17m vertically which was much more acceptable, especially as all the Clearwater 3 survey was reconstructed from the original drawn surveys.  The next day the whole of team two moved up to camp 5.  Veno and the porters were busy moving the new supplies up and everyone soon settled in to camp life.

Exploration in Whiterock

Small going in No Country For Old Men. Photo © Matt Kirby

The distance between the northern end of Whiterock and Camp 5 was only 350m so Matt, Richard, Hugh and others decided to try to find an easier ‘northern entrance’ to the system and cut out long commutes through the known cave.  They took a survey line up to the doline sink (which has a positive dye trace to Clearwater) and searched the cliffs around that area.  Soon they had rediscovered Parangs Cave, a cave noted in old reports as having a real cave draught, but was too small to enter.   A return was made with digging equipment and a route engineered through three tight crawls over several days of skin ripping pleasure.  The cave was renamed ‘No Country For Old Men’ to better reflect both the difficulties involved and the age of the explorers.  This gave access to a complicated maze of small entrance chambers and interconnecting passages with three squeezes.  Two more squeezes were dug out before a strike controlled passage was entered for the first time, unfortunately this ended in an unstable boulder choke just 50m from Whiterock.

Another passage in Whiterock, Mysterious Ways, came close to the surface in the vicinity of the Pinnacles track.  Throughout the second month a number of people searched this area for draughting holes in vain.  The discovery of a small gorge behind camp 5 had hopes raised again but a full descent found nothing.  Eventually it dawned on the searchers that there would be no easy way in on this trip and the long underground camps resumed.

Deep underground but only 370m from Camp 5! Photo © Matt Kirby

While this work was underway the rest of the team headed into Whiterock for another three day camp.  There are still many leads to be pushed but none as exciting as those explored in the early days of the expedition.  The first to ‘go’ was Matrimony which soon turned into Grounds for Divorce as it looped down some very technical climbs to connect with the Northern Line just opposite the Green Wing.  Although a disappointment it did offer a much quicker way back to camp.  Next Silly Mid Off and Silly Mid On were tackled, located in the Northern Line these two side passages remained unvisited since 2005.  Both ended after only a few hundred metres.  However the early finish allowed examination of another side passage nearby.  Named the Thirsty Ferret this passage went for a kilometre to end at a traverse over a pit.  The survey later showed this lined up with the lower Swift Shadow passage off the Big Issue.  No return was made to check this out.  While all this was going on Gina and her band of assorted assistants began the scientific programme which included collecting samples of mud, quartz and speliothem from different levels throughout the cave.  This programme continued for the duration of the expedition.

The epic first trip into Whiterock was not over for Jane Allen, however, as an unknown insect bite outside the cave turned into a severe allergic reaction.  Red dots turned to red blotches and in turn a very blotchy whole of her body.  A relay of runners went to Camp 5 and back for the appropriate medicines.  Fortunately the reaction subsided but it was several days before Jane fully recovered.

Gypsum needles in 1954 ramps. Photo © Matt Kirby

The next trip into Whiterock was to be the last to the southern end of the system.  Six cavers headed in for a three day camp at the Hotel California camp at the Insomnia end of Daydream Believer.  One half of the team continued with the scientific programme whilst the rest used one of the newly discovered shortcuts into the Big Issue and on to check out leads in Bigness South.  One of these leads, Paint It Black, looked very good.  A small passage initially choked but a good draught blew up a pitch near the end.  The pitch dropped into a continuation and led to a junction with a much bigger passage.  Heading south it looked like it would bypass Api Chamber and after three quarters of a kilometre we stopped for some lunch.  This proved to be a mistake as the boulder pile we could see in the distance proved to be the terminal choke.  For now at least, all known leads were now exhausted at this end of the system and the camp was packed up and left closer to the entrance ready for the assault on the northern passages.

With all these hard trips to the extremities of the system one team decided to

After years of searching the obscure Hayloft Entrance to Blackrock is found. Photo © Matt Kirby

return to the lower entrance series to check out a lead first visited in 2005.  This could be made as a day trip from camp 5 and quite surprisingly the passage went.  Following a healthy draught the passage was not fully explored due to problems with the survey instruments.  The team never got round to a return visit as prospects elsewhere took a turn for the better.

One of the mysteries of the system was what happened to the high level passages in the west of the cave.  In Whiterock two large trunk routes, Api Birthday and Apprentice Passage, both ended in terminal chokes.  South of these, above Blackrock and into Clearwater, there was no sign of a continuation.  A lot of effort during the first half of the trip was put into bypassing Api Birthday but without success.  There was, however, a draughting lead in Blackrock, Pete’s Pecadillo, which headed into this area which ended at a short bolt climb.  I had discovered it in 1991 and reference to all the reports since then suggested that it remained unclimbed.  We decided to have a look but before then the Blackrock entrance had to be found.  This was no easy task and it took a full day of sweat, flies and rattan for veterans Matt and Richard to locate the small entrance which had not been visited by our group for 17 years!  John, Dave H, Katie and I then took a camp in to the Milliways Junction.  It took a day to re-locate and re-climb the ramps up to Pete’s Pecadillo, so it was a day later that we finally arrived at the bottom of the climb.  It still looked very promising but bolts were found on the climb and also a pitch down further on.  Someone had been here before.  There were two further climbs which the lack of footprints suggested had not been attempted and although we managed to scale these, both routes ended in draughting boulder chokes.  The mystery remains.

The Northern end of Whiterock

Upstream Whiterock River. Photo © Robbie Shone

Having failed to find a short way in to the northern parts of Whiterock from the Melinau Gorge the team of Matt, Richard, Hugh and Dave Harley were joined by the newly arrived Dick Willis for a camp in 1954.  Some new passages were found heading out towards the Gorge, including the half kilometre long Mysterious Ways, but all ended in chokes with no sign of a way through.  Other ramps and side passages were followed to a conclusion and the team derigged the camp as Matt, Richard and Dick headed home leaving just one lead remaining.  It was Hugh who lead a return to this passage close to the end of the expedition and the discoveries made ensured that the whole expedition ended with a bang rather than a whimper.  In fact the discovery of 3.5km of river passage and another 2km of dry side passages close to camp 5 and the Melinau River allow for some exciting speculation.  These passages are some 60m below camp 5 and as such it possible that they could extend underneath the Gorge and connect to low level passages in Benerat.  What a system that could be!  Hugh St Lawrence tells the story of the exploration of the river passage and other discoveries at the northern end of the system.

Hole of the Moon

Sampling sediment in Hole of the Moon. Photo © Robbie Shone

A second trip was arranged to the Hole of the Moon this time with two porters to help carry the equipment.   Robbie Shone, Tim Allen, Gina Moseley & Katie Dent had been tipped off by the local nesters about a strongly draughting tube just beyond ‘The Belly Squeeze’ and heading north into the mountain. Sure enough to the amazement of the one explorer who had participated on the first trip, there was a stooping size phreatic passage trending off northwards. This was named “Tasulink’ and after 100m broke out into the side of a large fossil route, possibly the main feed into the ‘Hole of the Moon’. Sadly after only 500m this passage terminated at a major collapse.  Back on the main route, however, a link towards ‘Tiger Cave’ was made through a boulder choke squeeze and into several breakdown chambers before ending at a blank wall.  At the base a possible way on had been filled in with rocks, apparently by the bird nesters to stop rival groups entering the cave from this direction!  The pit in the floor, on the sharp corner by ‘The Belly Squeeze’ was descended to a complex area at the bottom where at least four routes ended either at chokes or further pitches down.  Other pits remain but the major leads were all looked at.  On the return trip out, the team carried out sampling lead by Gina Moseley. Small quartz, mud and speliothem samples were taken, at such an altitude Hole of the Moon should be one of the oldest caves in the park.  A few photographs were made to record the cave and once again the team didn’t reach the entrance until very late.  In total 2.51km were surveyed. Potential for future exploration is certainly possible but not as strong as some of the other more exciting locations in Mulu.

Double Passage in Hole of the Moon. Photo © Robbie Shone

Very little work was done under Gunung Benerat this year with the exception of Hurricane Hole and Hole of the Moon.  Word reached the expedition that bird nesters had blocked the route up from Cobweb into the higher level of the cave.  It was in this area of the cave that a number of leads interested the team but the only known access was up LED the Way which would be very time consuming to reach especially if it was blocked when you got there.  There was a high level entrance but this had only been found from the inside.  It was suspected that it was this entrance that the bird nesters were using.  Three attempts were made to locate this entrance using GPS co-ordinates derived from the survey data.  John and Jane tried several routes but on each occasion the ground became near impossible the closer they got to the fix.  These attempts were abandoned in favour of exploring river passage in Whiterock but remain high on the list for future trips.

The expedition was deemed a great success.  With 27,350m of new cave surveyed, most of which was in very remote parts of the Clearwater System.  This enormous cave is now over 175km long and although not the longest is undoubtedly the largest cave system in the world, by volume at least.

By Tim Allen