When I was living in Malaysia from 1995 through 2000, I found myself traveling to often, mostly for motorcycle riding. Through these motorcycle tours I also became interested in ‘s tourism infrastructure and began making many contacts in the tourism industry there. One contact I made was Robert Basiuk who went on to become the Minister of Tourism for Sarakak Province in East Malaysia on the island of .
Robert knew I liked to write about adventerous activities, so when a group of cave explorers approached Robert to work out permissions for a scientific exploration of the caves of central , Robert asked them if they were in need of a journalist to record their trip. They said yes. Robert called me. And thus the story below.
Cave photography is quite a technical undertaking because of the total absence of light so I did not take any of the photos. I also am not in possession of any of the original tranparencies so these photos have been scanned from the original hard copy of the magazine in which they appeared, Action Asia, in August 1997. This is the reason why the quality of the images is so poor.
Looking back on it, this was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
With absolutely no previous speleological experience I somehow found myself deep in the heart of on a full-blown, scientific caving expedition. And the first thing that I discovered about cavers is that they did not live up to their name. For although the expedition members were certainly “speleo”-oriented, they were not very “logical” at all, especially concerning their own bodies.
These highly motivated zoologists and scientists from every discipline had somehow missed the most basic of all human hygienic lessons; that of keeping one’s blood on the inside of one’s bodies. An astonishing array of cuts, scrapes, bruises, and bites was on display, the likes of which I had only seen in escape from Devils Island movies.
I was already pretty antsy after reading some preliminary caving literature. I like animals as much as the next person, but huntsman spiders, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, and cave racer snakes are not on my favorite critter list. Bats I can live with.
When I entered the base camp and glimpsed all the walking wounded, a primeval alarm bell started clanging in my brain. Serious doubts about participating clambered to the surface, and the incessant rainforest downpour on the tarp-covered campsite was further muddling my decision process.
One aspect wasn’t jibbing though. Instead of morosely acting like train wreck victims in a leaky emergency ward, all the cavers were extraordinarily chipper. There had to be more than meets the eye if everyone was in such an upbeat mood amidst such carnage.
I reluctantly gave caving a whirl, and awfully glad I did, because I discovered a fascinating and brand new world.
THE LAST OF EARTH’S EXPLORERS
My mentors called themselves the Buda Expedition, and they were stationed for six weeks besides Gunung Buda, a giant limestone massif just outside world-famous Mulu National Park in Sarawak Province, East Malaysia. This was the second field trip to Buda for this predominantly American group, and they hoped to expand upon their expansive, 1995 survey.
One of the primary expedition goals, besides discovering new caves, was to show Malaysian authorities that a world-class cave system exists inside Buda. This could help Buda attain the National Park status it is seeking, which would in turn, halt the surrounding logging activities that threaten the very caves themselves.
The prospects seemed good because this part of Sarawak is Caving Heaven. The three main conditions for earning a gold star on the world caving map exist here in abundance: extraordinary length, as in the Clearwater Cave system that meanders for over 100 continuous kilometers; sheer size, like Sarawak Chamber; a single cavern spanning forty acres of floor space; and rare and unique speleological features. There was no reason to doubt that similar wonders exist in Buda just waiting to be discovered.
But a cave is a mighty tough mistress to crack and reveals her secret charms reluctantly and only to those willing to pay a sacrifice. Or until it is turned into a show cave.
Even Auntie Olga will never have to wet her Birkenstocks, get muddy, or sweat when visiting a show cave. It will be illuminated with spotlights, paved with boardwalks, accessed by staircases, and kiosked with an entrance booth.
Expedition caving is a completely different kettle of fish and is the essence of the expression “down and dirty”. Expedition caving is the actual discovery process, the sum labor of the men and women who hack through jungle, scale cliffs, creep around in guano, jam themselves through tiny passages, shimmy up and down pits and cracks, crawl over floors littered with loose boulders, all for the esoteric pleasure of being allowed to measure and map caves so that future generations can enjoy with ease what they paid for in blood, sweat, and tears.
Earth in its entirety has been trekked, traversed, and climbed. Expedition caving is the last frontier left on dry land, and speleologists consider themselves the last of the explorers.
Before I could enter their world full on, I was given a crash course in caving techniques, starting with the basics.
George Prest, the expedition organizer, an ex-Viet Nam vet, ex-professional ski racer, and all-around adrenalin junkie, drawls through his chaw of tobacco that there is real good caving in Buda, “belly crawling” as he puts it, and promises to start me out “nice and easy”.
A wry Virginian, Ron Simmons, welcomes me to the camp, then sidles up next to me to let me in on a big secret, “Psst. We’re an underground organization.” I am surrounded by a bunch of most colorful characters.
GEARING UP AND DRESSING DOWN
I am paired-up with Joel Despain, the expedition co-organizer, and Mike Futrell for my first cave. Joel is one of a tiny fraternity of professional cavers and runs the caving program in Sequoia National Park in California. Mike is a grad school student who is too busy caving to graduate.
We are to go on a leisurely survey trip in Fruit Bat Cave. They assure me it is a gentle cave, a nice cave, well mannered and pretty. But no matter how cuddly a cave is, you must wear the proper gear. They set me up.
The essential piece of equipment is a helmet-headlamp combo. The helmet stops your skull from cracking into low ceilings and deflects falling rocks, and the attached light frees up your hands. Two back-up lights are mandatory, as are extra batteries.
Mulu Foot is quite painful so proper footwear is imperative. This is a fungal growth found in Sarawak caves, a bloody athlete’s foot that bypasses your skin and eats away at the underlying tissue. If you do catch a dose, at least it clears up quickly. The only prevention is to keep your feet dry, which is virtually impossible in a rainforest or in a cave.
Whatever you wear, be prepared to kiss it goodbye at the end of an extended caving trip. The jungle moisture turns leather to mush, and the rocks rip apart anything they come in contact with.
Knee pads and gloves are de rigueur.
In an alpine caving environment the biggest hazard is hypothermia, so heavy clothing is worn to keep warm and dry. Clad this way cave never touches skin. In sweltering , hypothermia is not a factor; roasting alive from the heat is. So your front-line protection from rocks as sharp as razors; clothing; is the first to go.
“This is why,” Joel explains with a lopey smile, “everyone is so sliced up.”
The cavers are not thrilled about looking like crash-test dummies, but it is preferable to sweating to death. Thorny jungle foliage and voracious insects add their own Technicolor touches to exposed flesh.
MY VERY FIRST CAVE
I feel the entrance to Fruit Bat Cave way before I see it from the cool air wafting down the slope. We switch on our helmet lights, and duck inside a smallish hole set in a medium rock wall mostly hidden by dense jungle underbrush. Within the next few minutes many of my long-held cave notions are shattered.
MISCONCEPTION #1- You climb down into caves. Wrong. You climb up into them. Caves that speleologists frequent are overwhelmingly way up high in the mountains. Caves are originally formed at ground level by running water. Geological forces over eons pushes the land upwards, thus stranding caves ever higher inside mountains.
In most places if you went caving below flat land the water table would quickly interfere. Caving is possible but scuba gear is necessary. Cave diving is said to be the single-most dangerous activity a human can do
MISCONCEPTION #2- Caves stink. Not true. They do have an odor, but not an objectionable one. Passing a city Dumpster smells far worse than a cave, which smells a bit like a house that once had a fire, a stale, moist mustiness. In all the caves I visited, I did not once sniff a single, gut-retching odor.
MISCONCEPTION #3- Caves are pitch black. Partially true. In only one place is a cave pitch black; behind you, which is the one area you are not concerned about. Everyplace you look is clearly illuminated thanks to your helmet light. It is much darker back home during an early morning toilet visit.
MISCONCEPTION #4- Caves are filled with horrible and disgusting creatures. Hardly. The caves in Sarawak are among the most fertile in the world. Yet compared to outside it is an extremely sterile environment. The nasty animals I mentioned earlier are simply not worth worrying about and you have to search carefully to spot any. None of them fly so they tend to stay put, and a close encounter is rare. When and if you do see one, instead of being repulsed, you are attracted to these fascinating animals.
With gusto, Joel and Mike jump into their surveying work, which is the heart and soul of everything the expedition does. For cavers, the survey is the exploration and the reward unto itself. It is the self-appointed duty of expedition cavers to document and map each new cave they find.
They take this responsibility seriously. “Thou Shalt Not Scoop” is the caver’s first commandment. Scooping is the dirtiest of words in caver’s circles and means scooting deep into a brand new cave for that terrible sin of just looking around instead of measuring it in a systematic fashion.
Starting at the entrance, Mike holds a long tape measure at one selected point, while Joel walks in with the free end in a straight line as far as he can. The distance is recorded in a logbook. Joel squints through a special instrument that gives the degree of inclination between the points. Then he peers through a caving compass and records the relative compass heading.
A sketch is made of the cave cross section at each survey point, and estimates of the ceiling height and both wall distances are jotted down. All the important geological features, like stalactites, stalagmites, and streams are entered in a form of cave hieroglyphics. When this data is keyed into a computer, the expedition cartographers create a road map of a cave system which future spelunkers can follow.
We scamper down to the far survey point and repeat the whole procedure, working ever deeper into the cave. I find all this data recording a bit boring, yet Mike and Joel are absolutely ecstatic. “This is what we live for!”
What is not boring is the cave itself; it is mesmerizing. My eyes wander around, soaking up the details inside my first cave, wondering how in the world rocks seemingly melt and drip and recompose into such fabulous formations and shapes.
Above, a few bats flit around in complete silence. Swiftlets also stir. These are the birds whose spit is worth a fortune to Chinese gourmets. They fly through total blackness using a crude form of echolocation produced by making rapid, clicking noises.
Swiftlets are amazing birds. Ponder this: a swiftlet chick is raised in nest in a pitch-black cave where it must learn how to fly, blindly. Then on its maiden flight it somehow follows its mother out several kilometers through a cave system, where, for the first time in the baby bird’s short life, it is assaulted by a brand new universe bathed in visible light. Talk about sensory overload!
A few hours later we call it quits and head back to camp with 428 brand new meters mapped in their logbook to be added to the expedition’s cumulative total. All in all, a pleasant and very interesting afternoon.
After dinner everyone huddles around the computer screen, and each of the five daily survey teams key in their numbers. The program crunches the data, then displays it as little squiggles (each squiggle representing a surveyed cave) inside a three-dimensional grid within the ghost outlines of Gunung Buda. The cave systems, with all their tiny and intricate parts, can be viewed electronically from any angle and direction and can be zoomed in or out to either show details or general tendencies.
The cave systems expand daily, and some are already 20 kilometers long. Viewing Buda as if the rocks are invisible is a great way to follow the expedition’s progress and to plot future exploration strategies.
New caving groups are formed for the morrow, teaming up informally where concurring minds think the most productive leads will be. A lead is an unsurveyed piece of a cave system. The discussions turn to any specialized equipment that is needed to push a lead. Climbing gear is often essential.
SPLISH, SPLASH, AN UNDERGROUND BATH
Nothing will dry in unless the sun comes out, which it doesn’t do for days on end. Slipping into wet, filthy clothes and shoes each morning is not a pleasant way to start the day. For me, this was the least appetizing part of my caving experience. I rationalize it as an admission price well spent. Today, my wet clothing does not matter in the least.
On my second caving day, I am swapped to the team of Dr. Roger Mortimer, the camp physician, and Damian Ivereigh, the lone Brit. I like the idea of caving with a doctor, because if anyone is going to need one, it will probably be me.
Several rivers bore through the base of Buda and exit from the opposite side. One was surveyed inwards to the point where it enters a sump; a place where water fills an entire passage leaving no breathing room for the explorers. This same river was surveyed flowing out of Buda from a second sump. This left a big, unknown gap in the middle of the mountain between the two sumps.
Our object was to survey this gap. Damian warned that we would get very wet and stay wet all day. When we grabbed three inner tubes on the way out of camp, I realized we were going tubing inside a mountain.
We plop onto the tubes and paddle upstream on our bellies a half kilometer into the cave to the sump, but it is no longer a sump, it is now called a duck, because the water level had lowered and stopped 3″ short of the ceiling. This is what we have to “duck” through to see what is on the other side, and I am not thrilled with the prospect. We tie up our tubes to a rock because they will never fit.
The procedure to get through a duck is to tilt your head way back until the only thing poking out of the water is your nostrils and lips; the other 99.5 % of you must stay completely submerged like a vertical crocodile. Then you have to float through this tiny passage with your nostrils practically scraping the ceiling, and you have to do this without making a ripple or splash or else water will run down your nose.
Damian demonstrates the technique and gets through the duck to the other side that thankfully only happens to be twenty yards away. I am a strong swimmer, but I never practiced this kind of hydro-locomotion. It was the longest twenty yards of my life. I make it without inhaling a drop and become giddy with relief on the opposite side.
After Roger nostriled through, we found a big, domed room that was more lake than river. After surveying three hundred meters inwards we came to the inflowing sink and a dead end. There weren’t any side passages to survey, which was just as well because we were all shivering from being immersed in water all day. Roger’s hand was shaking so much he had trouble holding his pencil. But we filled in this missing gap and added our tiny bit to the mapping of planet Earth.
As we paddle out I notice an acrid smell and ask Roger what it is.
“Bat urine. It does that when it hits water and vaporizes. Remind me to give you some leptospirosis pills when we return to camp.”
“Leptospirosis. It is a nasty disease that is terribly hard to diagnose. Some people die or go into a coma even before they catch it from an allergic reaction to the vapors. Your lungs seize up. I guess you’re not allergic.”
“Roger? Are you sure you do not have any lepto pills on you RIGHT NOW!”
We approach the entrance (caves do not have exits, only entrances) and pop out of the mountain. The blue of the sky and the green of the jungle are dazzling, the colors intense in a way I never noticed before. The smells are as sweet as the visuals. I am experiencing Caver’s High, triggered by re-entering the world of light after hours of sensory deprivation.
With today’s cumulative expedition data, it is almost certain that two out of the four main cave systems being investigated are somehow connected. The closest are only two kilometers apart with many leads heading toward each other. Tomorrow a vigorous assault is planned to connect two of the systems. A friendly race is on to be the group that finds the breakthrough passage.
A LOST WORLD
After the third consecutive night of teaming rain without let-up, I tag along with Roger and Damian again, plus Damain’s wife Djuna whose nickname is “the Djungle Queen”, truly a woman of super-heroine proportions. The fifth member of our team is Bill Frantz, a fifty-two year old ex-hippie, guitar strumming computer consultant who hasn’t cut his hair since 1969.
Not all speleological activity takes place beneath the ground. We climb part of the way up Buda’s 3161′ flank to explore a doline for fresh cave entrances. A doline is a big depression formed when the roof of a cave system collapses. Without a solid roof, there should be lots of new places to wiggle inside Buda.
It is a lot easier moving around inside Buda than outside it because this mountain is a morass of steep, jagged, jungle-encrusted slopes. This part of is subjected to an astonishing 10 meters of rainfall per year, one of the highest levels in the world. All this rain erodes the limestone and forms an acid that further speeds up the corrosion and cave forming processes. This has been going on unabated for millions of years and is responsible for a unique rock structure called pinnacle karst; long, thin, spiky projections left over when the rest of the rock has been eaten away. Not only are they as sharp as knives but also as brittle as porcelain.
A lot of Buda’s slopes are covered with pinnacle karst and it makes climbing a nightmare. Handholds break off easily and my weight crushes the rocks underfoot. Some rocks that look solid are nothing more than loose scree. The pinnacles are ripping my shoes to shreds and blood is saturating my socks.
This was the most dangerous hike I ever imagined, compounded by the steepness; straight up-and-down steep. On some parts I had to hump blindly around a cliff projection without seeing what I was grabbing onto. As Damian so aptly put it, “It is not the size of the step. It is just that you can not afford to screw up.”
I have never been so scared for such an extended period of time. I watch very carefully what the other climbers are doing and copy them exactly. It took around ninety minutes to make it to Loris Cave at 500′ above the forest floor. We cut through Loris, up and out a ceiling entrance, and find ourselves at the lip of the doline.
They name it Lost World, and that is basically what it is. We are probably the first humans ever to set foot in there. It is overgrown with vegetation. A few, ancient trees soar skywards, and the bottom is strewn with room-size boulders. This inverted bowl is estimated to be 100m wide, 200m long, and 50m deep.
We climb down the doline, surveying as we go, until we hit bottom and do a very human thing and have a picnic lunch. It was a lovely spot, totally untouched.
The four other members start scrambling around the insides of the doline looking for entrances. I sit at the bottom on a big rock in silence, listening to the birds and watch two chipmunks play tag around a tree trunk. I am conserving my energy for the trip out.
Climbing back down was much trickier than going up because it is harder to see where to place your feet. Macabre thoughts cross my mind so many times; “If I make a mistake here, I die!” I was not enjoying this at all. With extreme caution I descend Buda and make it to the bottom with no major problems.
I am so relieved to have survived this ordeal that when we return to camp, I stagger into the river to bathe with all my clothes on, too drained to even undress.
GREENER GRASS ON THE OTHER SIDE
Herb Laeger, a retired physicist, found a string of frog eggs hanging on a root just inside a cave entrance. Inside the eggs were not tadpoles but perfectly formed baby frogs that were moving around getting ready to hatch. They could be an undiscovered species. Herb volunteered to show them to Djuna and me tomorrow.
This entailed another, hair-raising climb, even worse than the first. I swear this will be the last time I go cliffhanging. When we get to the frog eggs, four of them had just hatched and the tiny froglets were climbing up a root tendril. The rest of the eggs were busily stirring.
We return to camp early in the afternoon. Herb decides to cross the river with a few other camp loafers and wander around Benarat, the mountain in between Buda and Mulu. I decline their invitation because of my shoes. They are so many holes in them that I have to ration their remaining mileage.
When Herb and crew return in the early evening they have a faraway look in their eye and talk in hushed tones full of awe. They mumble something about a major new discovery.
Mark Rosebrook actually found the entrance. “This was a once in a lifetime experience, what every caver dreams about. It begins with a heavily decorated bore hole and ends at a cliff facing a room so huge that our five lights couldn’t hit the far walls. This is a world-class cave.”
Ron adds, “This is the largest cave I’ve never seen.”
All the cavers are dying to witness the new discovery. George promises that everyone will get a chance in groups of six on a rotating basis. The discoverers will have the honor of returning first. This is the cave I shall save my falling-apart shoes for.
That night the camp was also abuzz because a link was made between the Green Cathedral and Upper Turtle cave systems, making for over forty kilometers of connected passages. Celebratory California Red, imported for just this occasion, flowed after dinner.
DELIVER ME SOME SANITY
George, one of the larger cavers, had a harrowing adventure today. “Oh, I can get small, and I like it deep, dark, wet and tight! But this time I thought I was a goner!”
He became wedged in a tiny passage facing downhill on his back, his shoulders jammed in solid, his arms pinned helplessly at his side, his body weight corking him in tighter and tighter. His group had to sit there for three hours banging away at the rock tube with a hammer, one chip at a time, before finally freeing him.
George adds, “People do die caving when they become stuck like that. The rock sucks out all your body heat and you die from hypothermia. Knowing this gave me my first ever panic attack until I forced myself to calm down.”
After a midnight nature call, I snuggle back into my bedroll and a high-voltage shock surges through my upper thigh. I pound my leg and feel something go squish. A bug had crawled into my pants through my open fly. The culprit had fangs the size of #22 trout hooks and skewered me with two, bloody penetration holes. It was an assassin bug and kills its prey by injecting it with digestive juices. From now on I hold my flashlight far away from my body when I have to take a nighttime leak.
I inventory my wounds. My thigh is oozing a pus-like substance. My thumb and palm are swollen from grabbing onto a pin-cushion tree. My feet are bloody where the holes in my boots are. I have a rash on both shoulders and can’t begin to count the insect bites on my arms. My muscles are sore from all this unaccustomed exercise and I am moving real creaky. I am beginning to fit right in.
On my off day I bathe, do my laundry and try, unsuccessfully, to catch up on sleep. An afternoon nap is impossible because of the heat build-up inside the tent. Sweat beads form atop every pore on my body and neither run off nor evaporate. I am covered with thousands of tiny water droplets like a dewy leaf.
Merillee Proffitt, a digital information specialist, returns to camp ashen. A boulder the size of a washing machine dislodged and crushed her hand. It is swollen and ugly, but nothing is broken. Her biggest worry was not when her hand will work again but how soon she could go back caving.
After dinner it pours for hours and the river is at an all time high. The Benarat survey group is still out, probably trapped on the other side. No one seems worried. They are superbly qualified to take care of themselves.
During the next day’s breakfast we hear whoops from across the river. It is the Benarat crew and they look like death warmed over. Ron is the first to stumble across and practically collapses with exhaustion. He is missing his pack and one of his shoes but says that is much better than losing his life, which is almost what happened to him and Herb. When the rest wade across the river the full story comes out. Djuna describes it perfectly in the expedition journal. Here are her words:
“We ducked through an unassuming entrance into one of the most fabulous passages any on our team had ever found. A showerhead ballroom of sorts, an entrance chamber studded with a dozen active showerheads, and showed no signs of ending …
Below a 35m rope drop, a 60m tall passage tore along a strike in both directions…., one heading led to a beautifully decorated chamber (including a calcified snake skeleton!). The passage domed to 35m high by 65m wide. Half a kilometer later it keeps on truckin …”
Coming home long after midnight… crossing a side river chute, Herb and Ron were swept off their feet into the raging current. Hurtling towards fearsome strainers, Herb clung to a submerged log just feet from certain death. He grabbed Ron as he swept along shortly behind. Both released their packs that held thousands of dollars of camera gear……
We arrived across from camp at 7 am, just in time for breakfast, beer, cipro (ciprofoloxacin), and cigarettes. “Deliverance Cave” had named itself, and somehow the 1400+m of survey notes survived the epic aftermath.
Because of this incident, the expedition constructed a river crossing for everyone’s future safety. It is called a highline or a Tyrolean, and it is a long rope spanning the river tied up high between two trees on opposite banks.
If I want to visit Deliverance Cave I have to learn how to maneuver along ropes and I will also need these skills inside Deliverance because there is a thirty-five meter cliff that needs scaling.
WHAT GOES UP CAN’T STAY THERE
Damian volunteers to teach me the ropes. I don a harness similar to what rock climbers wear, and Damian clips onto me a few pounds of hardware and explains the purposes of each piece. Two pieces allow me to ascend a rope, one lets me descend, and the rest aid in moving across a rope horizontally. Threading the rope through all the hardware is the tricky part. If you don’t thread the rope through all the metal pieces exactly right and in the right order, two things can happen; the best being you will get stuck and have to be rescued; the worst is dying or grievously injuring yourself. Simple as that. If you do it right, it is virtually foolproof. One thing you don’t have to worry about is the rope itself; it can hold a dump truck; and rope failure is practically nonexistent.
I pay close attention.
Damian throws a practice line high up a tree behind our camp and teaches me, step by step, all the things I have to learn to traverse the highline; descending the cliff in Deliverance will be the easy part.
First Damian teaches me how to use two ingenious gadgets called ascenders. They allow movement up a rope but any downward pressure activates a cam, which locks me in place as solidly as a nail in a concrete wall.
The ascenders get me to the top fairly easily with a minimum of exertion. Then I have to change hardware in order to come back down. Damian shouts up at me one bit of advice I shall never forget, “MAKE SURE YOU ATTACH SOMETHING TO THE ROPE BEFORE YOU TAKE ANYTHING OFF!”
The apparatus that takes me down is called a repeller. It is the most complicated and confusing of all the equipment because it is filled with gears, loops, and brakes. From high up in the tree I display my repeller-threading job to Damian who peers up at it from the ground through binoculars.
“If you use the repeller that way you will crater.”
“What is that?”
“That is the impression your body will make when it hits the ground.”
“You have it completely backwards. Remember, you put the top of the rope through the bottom end, and the bottom of the rope comes out the top. Got it? Try again.”
“Easy for you to say. Is it okay now?”
“What do you think?”
“C’mon Damian. Please tell me!”
“It’s fine. Go for it.”
Going for it takes blind faith. There is one moment when it seems gravity will take over and smack me down to the earth where I belong. But the rope bites and I descend as light as a feather.
Damian next demonstrates a rebelay. A rebelay is when you have to change ropes, like from a vertical rope to a horizontal rope. Then he teaches me how to negotiate the highline. For this I use a pulley, which attaches to my harness and snaps over the highline. The pulley allows me to slide most of the way across the river just like the army special forces do.
Sounds confusing? It is, especially your first time.
We go through the drills again and again and again: up the rope, rebelay, down the rope. I never get the whole sequence 100% right and I am beginning to run out of energy. Whoever is around camp pokes their head out of the tent to watch my progress and shout up advice and encouragement. They all say I can do it, I wish I was as confident.
After supper I practice threading rope through hardware until I can do it blindfolded. George watches me closely and finally gives me the go-ahead. There is no turning back. Tomorrow I go to Benarat.
THE WONDER OF IT ALL
In the morning at the riverbank I climb the rope to the highline with no problem. I switch hardware, slide across the river and repel down from the far tree none the worse for wear.
We trek a few kilometers across the jungle floor to Benarat and have a remarkably easy 700′ climb to Deliverance’s entrance. Once inside with head lamps on, an involuntary “Wow!” escapes my lips and it is the only utterance I am capable of making for the next fifteen minutes.
The sheer enormousness of the passage, the other-worldliness, the shapes and textures of the rocks has me stunned. With no similar reference points, my brain has trouble processing what I am seeing. We are in an immense tunnel that travels downward at a fifteen degree angle into a darkness where our lights can’t pierce.
I sit on a rock that can double for a sculpture, wowing away, and Mark says, “I know. Wow!” He points out extremely rare showerheads, dozens of them, sprouting water from the ceiling like open fire hoses.
Some of the rocks are called flowstone, and look like liquid rock frozen solid in mid-flow. Others are moonmilk, also extremely rare, believed to be made from calcium carbonate mixed with a living organism. Crystals and cave coral grow on breakdown boulders in every texture: brittle, rough, smooth, webbed, spiked.
Things that look hard are delicate, and things that look delicate are tough as iron. Rocks are melting into each other, growing together, reacting, bubbling.
Deliverance is an extremely active cave. Water drips everywhere, splattering all around me, falling into collecting pools, echoes over echoes. The air is filled with a fine mist, and steam wicks thickly from everyone’s bodies like escaping souls.
The smallest features around me have taken thousands of years to form. Many could be older than thirty thousand. No one knows for sure. The creation processes in caves are mostly conjecture.
I understand why many cavers are addicted photographers; the interiors cry out to be captured.
A huntsman spider sits on a rock next to me, motionless, six green eyes glowing, its body big enough to cover a silver dollar, legs long enough to palm a basketball. Not far away a cricket is quivering its 10″ long antennae, tasting the air, certainly aware of us invaders.
It is pleasantly cool with a chill breeze blowing up from the unseen depths into which we head. I move very slowly, not only because many things are delicate and unstable, but because everything I see fascinates me, every stride reveals new wonders. It is a magical world and I never want to come out. This is what caving is all about. Being here is the reward. The hardships, pain, discomfitures, are temporary. The cave experience is forever and overwhelming. I could never have imagined such stunning vistas.
The passage narrows and suddenly stops at a big cliff. We face into an enormous room. Only a powerful searchlight can reach the floor, ceiling, and opposite side. More “wows” are uttered.
I don my climbing gear, show my set-up to Damian, and repel 136′ down into total blackness. When my feet touch floor I let out a tremendous whoop of relief.
Still shaking with excitement, I walk along the breakdown to the opposite wall and up to the same level as the cliff I just descended. We all sit there, soaking up the scene, thrilled to the core. Then Djuna sets up her camera and three of us spread out holding her flash bulb units, trying to light up the colossal cavern. It takes twenty flashes before enough light covers one frame of film.
Too soon it is time to go and we head back to the cliff with the dangling line. It looks like the Indian rope trick where a rope climbs out of a basket into thin air. I can not see where it is tied to because it disappears into blackness.
Going up is much scarier than descending because it takes much longer and gives my mind plenty of time to scare itself silly. I chase away morbid thoughts and concentrate on the task at hand, watching the cliff face, foot by foot, recede below me. A second, even mightier yahoo rings across the cave when I make it to the top.
Out the entrance, a scramble down Benarat, across the high line, and we are back in camp at 5 am. It was a radical day, an extreme day, doing things I never dreamed of attempting, doing things I shall never forget. I understand caving, thanks to my twenty-one patient teachers. And I want to learn more. I can’t wait to go back in. Skin heals. THE END.