February - 2019

As a newcomer to the Mulu Caves Project, 24 year old Mark Richardson, gives a personal view of the first two weeks of the expedition.  This includes buying supplies in Miri, first experience of Deer Cave, laser scanning and photography of Sarawak Chamber, a survey trip into Clearwater Cave and the chance of a new discovery…..

As I sit here writing this story 3 months on, my memories of Sarawak are as fresh today as they were back in February. The Mulu Caves Expedition 2011 was to be my first Mulu adventure and would prove to be one which I will always remember. Although I was only there for the first 2 weeks to help with the photography and laser scanning I would see and do more than I could have ever hoped for, here is my record of what happened during those first 2 weeks….

The team which departed Newcastle for the first part of the expedition included Tim Allen, Jane Allen, Robbie Shone, Mark Wright, Kevin Dixon, Meg Stark, Andy Eavis, Roo Walters and myself Mark Richardson. Collectively, we were to be the laser scanning and photography team who would also do the expedition shopping in Miri and arrange to get it shipped up to the park.

We got our flight from Newcastle to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai which went without hitch and then continued onwards to arrive in Miri late on one evening. It was remarkable that we didn’t have any problems getting the large blue drums full of flash bulbs and very expensive, delicate laser scanning equipment through the various airports but it was a huge relief to see them off the last conveyor in Miri- the journey was long but we were finally there. We were met at the airport by Veno Enar- who would make all our local arrangements. I was to get to know Veno more and more as the expedition went on and would soon find out exactly how valuable he really is to the organisation of the project. A short taxi ride from the airport got us to the King Wood hotel which was an OK place although I was sharing a room with Mark W and Robbie……who initiated me into the night life of Miri!!

The team split up in Miri the day after our ‘night out’ and Roo, Kevin, Andy and Meg left to head up to the park, leaving the rest of us to start with the expedition shopping and courtesy visits. The food in Miri was excellent- Rotichani at a favourite old haunt of the expedition was my first taste of Miri cuisine and left me looking forward to the next meal.

The shopping team split up and went around Miri collecting all the bits of food and equipment we would need for the entire expedition, we also went to the cash and carry and bought and boxed 2800RM of food to fly up into the park.

I found Miri to be a fascinating place. I was surprised how much English language there was around the place, most people seem to speak at least some and the majority of road signs and shop names were all written in English. The people were all very friendly and welcoming, restaurants, bars and cafes were all very basic but the food they produced was excellent. Miri seemed very far away from home but somehow very familiar, certain things looked different and the buildings and roads weren’t quite as refined as they are in the UK but the people there and the lives they lead are all basically the same as they are back in England. It was a nice, familiar feeling. Having said that, we were all sat around late one afternoon at the Ming Café in Miri when all of a sudden there was an almighty bang from just round the corner. A flock of birds was sent flying out of the trees nearby and tourists stopped momentarily to see what it was… it turns out that there is a man living just round the corner who regularly shoots his gun at the trees to scare away the birds which perch outside his window! Perhaps not all so familiar!

The flight up to the national park was good, nice scenic views and plenty of leg room. We got off the plane and drove the short distance to park HQ in a pickup. We were staying in part of the old park HQ building which will soon be demolished. Although old, it was pretty comfortable and we had plenty of space to spread out in. We sorted out some food and unpacked then had a quick snooze and headed up to Deer cave… my first glimpse of a cave so far on the expedition!

The walk up took about 45 minutes on raised timber walkways which wound their way from HQ right to the entrance of the cave. Passing the bat observatory, we were suddenly faced with a colossal cave entrance. The boardwalk continued through the cave and we stopped to let everyone catch up in one of the biggest parts. Words can not describe the feeling of sheer, vast size that felt as I stood, speechless, open mouthed just looking around and feeling quite emotional about the whole thing! Yes, it was a show cave but this epitomised what Mulu caving is all about- bigness!

Robbie and Jane stopped to take a photo so Mark, Tim and I went through, off the boardwalks and into the streamway (getting my boots wet for the first time- never to dry for the next 2 weeks!). Walking through the last part of the cave brought us out the other entrance into the bottom of the Garden of Eden- a huge ‘bowl’ of limestone, surrounded on all sides by steep limestone cliffs.

The walk back was pleasant and when we arrived the rest of the team were there so we heard about the laser scanning from Kevin, Meg and Roo- it was going well and Andy got back shortly after, having done a quick recce of the Nasib Bagus streamway in preparation for the scanning and photography trips that were to follow. We had a couple of beers in the café and a Mie Gorang for dinner which was smashing.

Andy and Kevin spent another couple of days in Deer cave, giving everyone the chance to acclimatise to the heat and for the photo team to get a few pictures of the scanning.

Whilst at the park, the photo team got chance to go off to find Barangs entrance to Clearwater. We re- surveyed from the entrance through to Clearwater 3 to try and better tie- in these parts of the survey with the master. We set off around 0800 and walked for a couple of hours up to the Melinau Paku River. The further from HQ we got, the less defined the paths became until we were eventually following Veno through the undergrowth with his Parang. When we got roughly to the right area we walked up the river in the water for a fair way and cut through the jungle to where Veno thought Barangs was. We found a cave entrance but it turned out to be the entrance to Drunken Forest- useful to know but not the right one! We re- traced our steps to the river, flicking off leeches on the way and walked downstream searching the vegetation on the cliff and river banks for a dark area with a breeze moving leaves around. After perhaps a kilometre or so, Robbie spotted something high up in the bank which, after a little investigation turned out to be the right entrance. Tim, Mark and Veno went ahead to the junction with the Clearwater 3 streamway (about 1km) and surveyed back towards the entrance. Robbie and I went surveying in from the entrance. When we all met up, we leap- frogged through the Clearwater streamway- Tim, Mark and Veno route finding then working backwards whilst Robbie and I always worked forwards. We moved quickly through the cave, from CW3-CW2-CW1 and into “the best stream passage in the world”… I have to say, although this is a very grand sweeping statement, it is hard to believe that there is much else out there to rival the Clearwater streamway. It certainly is the finest piece of cave passage I have ever had the pleasure of traversing. The passage averages over 20m wide and something like 30+m high, the wide, slow flowing Clearwater River meandered through the clean cut limestone and we followed it all the way to the show cave entrance at the resurgence of CW1. We climbed onto the platforms and made our way out just as darkness fell. As we were descending the last few steps down from the show cave we heard a boat engine rev and shoot off down the river, only moments before we got there- looks like the long walk back then!

Following our Clearwater trip, we then had a day out to follow some leads in Black Hands cave with the newly arrived Mark Brown. We left the path about 15 minutes before Deer cave and headed up a very steep, very indistinct overgrown ‘track’. The going was pretty tough and it was extremely hot but Robbie managed to take us almost straight there which was pretty impressive really. We were quickly in the cave and making our way towards the current known end. The climb we were there to see turned out to be nothing too worthwhile so we gave it a miss. I did see an awful lot of bats, cave crickets, earwigs, cockroaches, huntsman spiders and ‘hairy marys’…. Something to do with the colossal volumes of guano and flies that seemed to be all over the cave. We stopped at the entrance on the way out to get a photo of Mark W and a load of bats then beat a hasty retreat from what was actually in hindsight, a relatively unpleasant cave!

When we eventually got round to our first trip into Nasib Bagus, we knew that it was going to be a big day out but I’m not sure any of us realised at the time, quite how big until it was all over!

The whole team was ready to go by 08:00 with all bags packed, ready to take the survey team up to Sarawak Chamber to start the 4 day camp and laser scan. The walk up was slow, it took over 3 hours with numerous river crossings and countless leeches to get to the entrance of Nasib Bagus. When Andy was there a few days before he waded in through the streamway and had left a marker at the entrance, heavy rain last night however meant that the marker was now 2m underwater!

Fortunately Tim had foreseen this possibility and purchased inner tubes and a pump, now Veno and our 3 porters made good use of them to make a raft. Initially we piled all 9 bags onto the raft and of course it immediately tipped up! We decided to split the loads and the team so 5 people and 5 bags would go upstream then two would return with the raft for the remaining 3 people and 4 bags. It worked like a dream!

We left Kevin, Meg and Andy along with their camping and surveying gear at around 1600 and headed out as fast as possible. It took an hour to the entrance then 2 ¼ hours at a very fast march back to HQ just in time for a beef randang and Tiger beer- long day!

After installing the surveyors in the chamber, the remaining team members took themselves and all the photo kit up to camp 1. We ended up with 6 porters and 2 guides- Veno and Chris Victor. The walk was pretty painless and we got to camp 1 around 17:00 ish. The camp is a wooden structure raised off the ground with a tin roof. The walls don’t quite reach the roof to keep the air circulating. There is a sort of ‘balcony’ out the back with a sink and food preparation area. The bench at one end of the balcony overlooks the fast flowing river just next to the camp which we used for washing in and all around are tall trees and dense rain forest. It’s a magical place!

Next day was to be our first recce of Sarawak chamber itself, and fortunately the water in the streamway had dropped to wading height. We all made our way easily up to where we met with Andy on the traverses, he told us that the scanning was going really well and should be done ahead of time- fantastic news! We spent an hour or so photographing the scanning in the chamber which came out really, really well then we all spread out whilst Robbie did his photographic recce. I spoke earlier about Deer cave feeling vast but this place was truly beyond belief. 6 of us with the new Scurion 1300 lumen lights barely illuminated half of the chamber, the roof was smooth and dome shaped with a couple of spectacular soaring arches. The floor of the chamber was scattered with a mixture of boulders and patches of shale and gravel. Some of the boulders were bigger than my house making navigation and travel very difficult! Eventually Robbie had seen his photograph and the call came over the radio to move out. I started walking towards the bottom corner of the chamber where the Nasib Bagus streamway exits to eventually take us out to the surface when I found myself stood on the edge of a huge gulley looking down on a pile of 15m high boulders! It took several attempts to find a route through these but I eventually did and re- emerged at the camp site. It took about 45 minutes of fast scrambling for me to get from one side of the chamber to the other- and that was the short way… unbelievable!

We got back to camp 1 after dark having stopped at the beautiful whirlpool on the way out of Nasib Bagus for some photos. Veno had stayed at camp during the day to allow his sore foot to recover and had prepared a feast for us! Sweet and sour pork, rice, vegetables and chicken curry- all cooked on an open fire.

After our trip into the chamber, the photo team had a day to kill.  The surveyors used reflective markers for their tasks which could only be removed once they had finished.  Therefore the big shoot had to wait.   Mark W and I were going to have a go at climbing to the cave entrance that could be seen high in the cliff above the Melinau Paku River when suddenly, Mark W came hobbling in with blood all over his heel. He had caught his foot on the corner of the corrugated tin door on the outside toilet building and the cut was pretty substantial. Sadly, Mark had no option but to stay behind so I went with the others to Drunken Forest.

The formations in DF are pretty cool, there are a lot of old stals formed on mud banks which, at some point in the past have collapsed, coming to rest at bizarre angles. Immediately adjacent to them however are stals just as big which have managed to remain upright resulting in a rather odd looking scene! Robbie took some nice photos of the drunken stals and of some large columns and we got ourselves back to camp for a rest before the big day photographing the chamber.

The day of the big photo, we were up early and quickly packed as most of our kit was already in the chamber waiting for the day of the big shot. We divided the bulbs between everyone and Robbie, Mark B and I scrambled up to the very back of the chamber. The floor of the chamber is quite steeply sloping, you emerge out of the streamway at the bottom corner of it and to get to the furthest point is a long hard walk uphill all the way, over a steep ridge in the middle where the floor and roof pinch together slightly then under a huge domed roof to the back. We eventually made it to the back and after a quick rest and a look around; Mark B and I took up positions with flash bulbs just before the ridge and Robbie took the photo looking 600+m down the rubble slope towards Mark W, Tim and Jane at the bottom of the chamber.

Next, Robbie moved down to the ridge and set up station on a boulder he had sussed out the other day. We all spread out in the lower half of the chamber in the carefully planned positions Robbie had already decided on and after “a big think” by the photographer the first of 5 shots which would eventually make up the panorama was taken. We each had a Scurion 1300 with spare batteries, 30-40 PF300 Meggaflash bulbs, firer, reflectors, water, food and a radio with us. More than once, Robbie had me stand on a rock then directed me around the chamber over the radio looking for a better rock before eventually leading me back to exactly the same stance as before… very frustrating! Moving was slow and dangerous so everyone had to be very patient. It was particularly difficult when asked to stand on a very high, precarious rock with a big drop in front of you, hold a flash bulb, turn your light off, look up, close your eyes, hold a pose, fire the bulb then count to 20 before turning your light back on!! Wobbly doesn’t quite cover it!  Obviously the inevitable happened though and as I stood on a boulder it rocked violently sending me falling backwards quite hard. I got a hand down but still fell onto the bag on my back and heard a crunch… whoops, I thought (I think I said something a bit worse than that out loud). I had used bubble wrap and some cardboard to pad the bulbs as best I could and had been putting the old bulbs around the outside to protect the good ones. I daren’t tell Robbie who was concentrating hard on his photos so at the first opportunity took every last bulb out of the bag for a look- I had only broken one! Thank god!!

After 8 hours of photographing and exhausting moving about, we had the 5 shots in the bag and beat a hasty retreat out of the chamber for the last time.

Taking the picture had been great, it had forced us to spend a long time in there with the best lights money can buy (or sponsors can lend) just looking around. We saw much more in those 8 hours than most people ever do in there, it was a great thing to have done.

On the way back we sort of split into 3 groups as we went- Tim and Jane at the front, Robbie and Mark B next then Mark W and myself. We marched on towards the camp but after 12 hours underground we weren’t quite concentrating as we should have been and all of a sudden I had the feeling that we were on the wrong track. I asked Mark but he said we were right so we carried on. Things were familiar to me, I had been here before but was sure it wasn’t the right track. We passed by a very distinctive tree root that I remember thinking looked like an ammonite last time I saw it but that wasn’t on the way to camp 1….. all of a sudden we saw lights up ahead on a river bank so Mark shouted Robbie and we jumped out of the forest into the water and stumbled up onto a shale bank only to be faced with 4 very surprised looking ‘locals’! We quickly realised that these guys were bird nesters having spent some time underground removing swift’s nests to sell on the black market, they were now on their way back to their jungle camp for the night. We asked if they had seen anyone come this way ahead of us and when they said no we finally realised we were definitely in the wrong place! Very aware that we had just stumbled on 4 men with machetes doing something suspicious in the middle of the rainforest late at night we quickly made our excuses and beat a very hasty retreat! Mind you, they were probably just as shocked by the experience of 2 tall, dirty, tired western men with very powerful lights leaping out of the forest at them in the dead of night… it made us chuckle as we got back on the right track and made our way closer to food and bed. We were in for one last treat however before we got back- as you walk through the forest at night, the light on your head picks out thousands of tiny eyes looking back at you- frogs, spiders and all sorts of other creepy crawlies. When looking around at these eyes I suddenly saw a huge pair of glowing beacons staring back at me out of the undergrowth only about 5m away! I whispered for Mark to stop and we stood looking at a Civit cat. It stared back for a while as Mark instinctively made the squeaky noise one makes to a domestic cat to tempt it over…. “hereeee pus puss puss” I whispered… then I think we both realised what we were doing and immediately stopped! The cat gave us one last bemused look then turned and walked slowly away- what a magical moment!

I mentioned earlier the objective of climbing into the cave entrance in the cliff between Tiger cave and Nasib Bagus. Mark B and I decided to have a go at this and discussing it over dinner, Andy also decided to come along and lend a hand. Mark W’s foot was still not great so although it was one of his main objectives for the short time we were in the area, he decided not to come.

It took us about 2 hours to get from park HQ to the point where we were stood looking directly up at the cave entrance on the other side of the river. We guessed it to be about 100-150m high in the cliff just above the tree line. Andy took a ‘point and go’ bearing on his GPS that would guide us roughly in the direction of the cave once were under the canopy and we set off into the forest led by Mark B with his parang. In about 20 minutes we had reached the top of the talus slope and were faced with a vertical wall of rock with very dense vegetation growing on ledges, out of cracks and seemingly off sheer vertical rock. We spread out left and right to find a less intimidating way on and settled on an upwards sloping ramp to the right. We zig- zagged up the narrow ramps for a fair way to the point where we were definitely no longer scrambling but had to start concentrating on some proper climbing. It was here that we got the ropes out and put harnesses on. Mark hadn’t brought his harness or a helmet so he stopped on a ledge for a while whilst Andy and I went up to see how things were ahead. Very soon, we were leading pitch after pitch of steep vegetation covered rock and it became quickly apparent that Mark just wouldn’t be able to follow us up this. We went up for 3 or 4 pitches, sometimes on a bit of rock but usually climbing on tree roots and tufts of moss and old leaves perched on shallow ledges. We had 5 or 6 short tape slings with us so were choking them round any roots or small trees that seemed strong enough to use as runners.

Before long we started to get a tad disorientated on the cliff and when we reached a large bench we stopped and got Mark to go back down to the river to try and spot us and guide us in. With a lot of faffing around waving branches and tackle bags he eventually spotted us and guessed we were about 40m horizontally and 20m vertically off the entrance.  Several hairy pitches later and we were there! We pulled over the edge at the top and the cave came into view- and it was definitely a cave! The entrance was lovely, large stals decorated with greenery hung from the roof, the floor dropped away steeply leading into a 25-30m high passageway with an overall width of around 8-10m. The passage sadly reduced in height and was quickly choked with stal and mud with no discernable draught. There was a tiny cave racer snake on a small ledge at the end though- very nice!

Although we only found around 40m for all the effort we put in to getting there it was the first 40m of cave passage I had ever helped to find and the first 40m I have ever had the pleasure of been the first person to set foot in. We gave Mark estimated measurements and a bearing off the GPS over the radio and he recorded them on his video camera for later- next time we will just remember to take a pen and paper with us!

The descent proved to be very ‘interesting’ and just as much effort (mentally and physically) as the climb but some time just before midnight we were back at HQ. We were safe and relieved but very thirsty and incredibly dirty, scratched and bitten. It was an epic 14 hour day and one which I will never forget.

Before we left park HQ, we had one last day in Deer cave finishing off the laser scans and taking some more pictures, Towards the end we were joined by Pete Hall and Ian and Liz Lawton who had just arrived at the park- it was nice to see them and nice to chat to Ian and Liz about my first experience of Mulu as it was also their first time there.

The surveying and photo team had accomplished everything they set out to do and more. In this respect the first 2 weeks had been a fantastic success,

Since becoming a part of the expedition 3 or 4 months before it’s departure, I have met and become friends with a fantastic group of people and an incredible group of cavers. I feel very, very privileged to have been allowed the opportunity to take part in something so special with such a dedicated team of remarkable people.

In my 2 short weeks away I learned an awful lot, everyone on the expedition performed and behaved admirably and each was a credit to him or herself. I feel like I really was away with the best possible team of people I could ever hope for.

I have seen many incredible things- snakes, civit cats, pigmy squirrels, bats and swifts in their millions, giant butterflies, weird and wonderful insect and plants and have been bitten nearly every day by leeches. I have had a trip through the Clearwater- probably the biggest cave in the world by volume, been in Deer cave- probably the biggest cave passage in the world, had my picture taken in Sarawak Chamber- the biggest chamber in the world, done 2km of surveying, swum nearly a mile in Nasib Bagus pulling a raft, crossed countless rivers, sometimes in flood, climbed 220m up a cliff to enter an unexplored cave and sampled a whole new culture and way of life on the other side of the world. After 2 weeks with this team of people though, the one thing that strikes me the hardest is the fact that I have only just barely scratched the surface of what is still out there waiting for us!