Caving in Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

by

David Gough 2021

I have been out to Mulu three times and was due to go out a fourth but had to back out for personal reasons.

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Map of Mulu Karst

1992   First Trip

The initial trip took place in 1992 and was organised by John ‘Addy Tours’ Addison. John asked if I was interested in joining himself and 2 other members of Chelsea Speleological Society and I accepted the opportunity. This was to be a tourist trip with our guide, Paris, taking us into the various caves within the Mulu National Park.


John had arranged all the flights and the date for leaving and returning. I had booked three weeks annual leave but when I explained that due to rescheduling of flights it would be more than three weeks the manager who resided in scunthorpe refused to give me an extension although I was due an extra 25 days leave the next year because I would have completed 25 years’ service; he even counted off the days on his calendar to indicate my return date.


On Tuesday 15th September I met John and the two other Chelsea members at Heathrow Airport where we checked in at the Malaysia desk. The take-off time was rescheduled, and we were offered tea and cakes whilst waiting. They don’t treat you like that nowadays. The first leg of the journey took us to Kuala Lumpur on the Malaysian peninsula some six thousand miles away. From here we flew south east to Kuching, located on the western side of Sarawak in Borneo and two degrees north of the equator. We passed through immigration control without any problems.


Our next flight was going to take us to Miri but with plenty of time available I set about sorting out return flights to the UK so I could be back at my mobile bench on the correct day. A rather expensive journey but I did get back at work on time and I did get a partial refund on my cancelled original return flights.


From Kuching we flew east and slightly north to Miri where we were met by 'Tropical Adventure' reps and taken to their office in Miri where discussions took place about our onward journey to the National Park, our caving and catering. The all-in cost per person was M$2000 or a self-catering cost of M$1375. We didn’t take this first offer and left the Tropical Adventure office with a view to having a private discussion about the offer on the table.
 

We had been booked into the Grand Star Inn for overnight accommodation sharing two rooms and were quite amused as to why each room had a doorbell to be told that Miri is the nearest location to Brunei, and this is where you come for a beer and pleasure! I digress, the decision was that we would take the all-in service and with a combined price for the four members of M$7000. We wandered outside to look around the area and find somewhere to try out the local food. Good beer and food found nearby with an occasional visit from the local sewer life, but it was soon time to retire for a good sleep.


The next morning our offer was accepted so off to the bank to exchange travellers’ cheques for the local currency. I had taken Dollar travellers’ cheques which gave me the advantage that I got M$5 for my £ whereas the English version came in second at M$4.4. We were very lucky because the next day turned out to be Black Friday in the money markets and exchange rates tumbled leaving some cavers visiting Mulu struggling with their finances.


In the afternoon we had a trip to Lambir Hills National Park to the west of Miri, wandering along the high-level tree walkways before returning to Grand Star Inn. Beer and a meal followed before an early night, our proper journey to go caving would be starting early the next day.


Our journey on the Friday started at six am in a minibus heading for Kuala Baram. The journey from here is river borne, starting on the Baram River, then to the Sungai Tutoh and finally onto the Sungai Melinau. Every change of river transport is like taking a Russian doll to pieces, the boat gets smaller until you are in a long boat with an outboard motor. The journey was an enjoyable experience but is now replaced by an easy flight.


The initially boat, called a jet boat, is like an old single deck bus with comfortable seating, a television to watch to while away the time and a cacophony of noises. This is the main transport means into the interior and all manner of things are carried within the cabin and on the roof including live animals and a spare propellor. The boat is driven along by two large diesel engines driving two separate propellors. The river twists and turns like a snake with large sand banks at each turn. If the turn isn’t correctly negotiated there is a likelihood of having to change a bent propellor shaft. This first boat took us as far as Maraudi passing overloaded vessels carrying the wood bounty from the denuding of the local forests.

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Jet Boats at Kuala Baram with luggage on the roof

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Logging boat on River Barum

At Maraudi there was time for a drink and food before the second boat transported us from the Baram and onto Sungai Tutoh.  Before entering the Sungai Melinau, we transferred ship in mid river for the final stage of our journey to Benerat Lodge, our home for the next two weeks. The all-in option made life easy all meals provided even whilst underground and a nice area to sit and talk or play cards whilst the insects entertained us bombarding the fluorescent light. At this latitude close to the equator daytime and night-time are about the same length and the change from one state to the other is quite rapid with full darkness about 6 pm. The first night we retired to bed at 9 pm after being fed and watered. 

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Benerat Lodge

Most of the exploration starts with a boat trip up the Sungai Melinau. This is the main river draining the whole of the national park, the depth of the which varies from day to day depending on the previous day’s rainfall. Most days there is some form of struggle with progress; if the water is high there is a fight against the torrent and if it is low you may have to get out of the boat and walk in the river and then clamber back on board when the channel deepens.

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Changing boats for the final river journey to Benerat.

John Addison, John Hunt and Mike Hobbs

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Pushing the boat up the Sungai Melinau river during low water.

Mike Hobbs

Before we could go caving, we had to show our permits at Park Headquarters, enquiries were made about Dave Gill, but he wasn’t at home that day. A short trip to Cave of the Winds and Clearwater just to get the feel of things then back to base with the idea of viewing the bats exodus from Deer Cave but unfortunately the rain came before dusk and kept the bats at home.


The next day we returned to Cave of the Winds with our guide Thambi and completed a through trip to Clearwater Cave. After the evening meal we persuaded Paris to take us up-river to Park Headquarters to do some socialising. There was a spectacular electric storm which lasted several hours and damaged the small generator. The frogs continued to croak. Late to bed.

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Clearwater Cave

After a late start we took the plank walk towards Deer Cave visiting Lang Cave on the way. Arriving at Deer Cave we had time to look around and travel through the cave into the Garden of Eden. The swiftlets and bats produce a large amount of guano which is home to many crawling insects. Exited the cave and waited at the viewing gallery to witness the mass exodus of the bats as the day light started to recede. A marvellous spectacle with one exodus lasting nine minutes. The predator bat hawk, looking for a meal, also visits at this time of day. After an evening meal we sorted our equipment ready for the next day’s journey to Camp Five.

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Deer Cave main entrance with the bat exodus in the early evening

 

Camp Five sits in the Melinau Gorge between Guning Api and Gunung Benerat. Travel starts with a boat journey along the Sungai Melinau. With four cavers and three locals and gear the boat could only pass the shallower section of the river if we all got out and walked. The journey took us past our previous days furthest point and it was obvious why Clearwater Cave had been so named when the resurging river was compared with that which we journeyed on. The journey to Camp Five cannot be completed all the way by boat which ends at Kuala Linut, the next part of the journey being a nine kilometre walk along the forest trail with all your gear. Because of the humidity it isn’t long before you are drenched in sweat. Surprisingly one of the local porters who was in bare feet, carrying a very rough sack filled with tinned food showed no sign of sweating.

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Camp five accommodation and cooking facilities

Camp Five sits near the cliff face of Gunung Api with a small wooden structure for accommodation and dining with a smaller one for cooking. Washing facilities were at the edge of the nearby river. The food was cooked by our guide and porters as we sat in the dining area playing cards and relaxing. We had come here to look at Benerat Cave and take the trail to look at the Pinnacles on Gunung Api.


The first day of caving, just two of us with guides crossed the Melinau river rope bridge whilst trying to avoid the ants which bit. We set off on what appeared as an ill-defined track and reached the entrance to Benerat Cave within the hour. Once inside I placed a bolt on the pitch before we could access the steep ramps which were rigged with hand lines that took us higher within Gunung Benerat. A truly different cave to the others we had visited with some interesting ring formations on the floor and small animal skeletons near Arcane Arcade.

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The rope bridge at camp five

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Benerat Cave fairy ring

Having had a rest day, well just me, we set off early morning to view the Pinnacles. Travelling along the track we had arrived on, after couple of hundred yards we turned left to start the assent of Gunung Api for the Pinnacles. The climb rises over a thousand metres in just over two kilometres; the top section of the trail is fitted with ropes and occasional ladders. We didn’t have the best view, having been challenged to arrive at the vista it was mainly shrouded in cloud. Gravity helps with the descent, but it can be trickier than the ascent.

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The Pinnacles shrouded in cloud

The Pinnacles are one of the must do things for a tourist visit to Mulu. One afternoon an American lady arrived in camp and asked where the washroom was! ‘Just follow the path to the river’ was the reply. Having set out her sleeping bag in the accommodation block she produced a tin of salt and slept within a ring of salt to protect her from leeches!


We had done what we came to Camp Five for and returned to Benerat Lodge the day after visiting the pinnacles. River levels were higher due to overnight rain which meant we stayed in the boat all the way down river. The following day we visited Simon’s Cave also known as Racer Cave and spent some time taking photographs.

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Bat guano in Racer Cave

The next few days took us to Camp One. Leaving Park Headquarters via the plank walk to Deer Cave is the start of a five kilometre walk through the forest with two crossings of the Sungai Melinau Paku and its tributaries, the final section rising steeply before the accommodation came into view. The walk had taken three hours and nerves were getting a little stretched by the time we arrived in the rain. We settled in whilst our guide and porter cooked the evening meal.

 

Our next caving trip was to Drunken Forest Cave, so called because a lot of the stalagmites appear to be toppling over or are already on their sides. The journey to reach the cave was slow due to trail blazing but after two hours the entrance was located. Having done the normal process of wandering around and taking photographs we exited and sat beside the river to have lunch. That evening we played bridge whilst the guides cooked the evening meal, using a parka to shelter from the rain. John presented his running club T shirt to our guide.

Unbeknown to me until the slides were processed, the camera, probably through humidity, started to put tramlines onto the slides. There are some slides which are to badly scratched to use in a report.

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Formations in Drunken Forest Cave

The question for the next day’s visit, ‘was it possible to visit Sarawak Chamber in Good Luck Cave?’


There was no rain at breakfast time, so we headed to Good Luck Cave with buoyancy aides with a view of traversing the river and entering Sarawak Chamber, at the time the largest known cave chamber in the world. The river flowing out of the cave is dammed by an earth bank and the water was up to the top due to recent rain. We donned the buoyancy aides and progressed steadily up stream until the end of the rope was reached. At this point we were still treading water and it was impossible to swim against the current, so the trip was abandoned. Returning to the entrance and feeling cold after our swim we returned to camp in the rain.


After the evening meal, discussions took place of what it would be possible to do over the next few days. The weather was the commanding factor and trying to visit Mount Mulu or attempt to reach Sarawak Chamber were ruled out. The next day we left Camp One for Park Headquarters wearing our caving gear to save getting our ordinary clothes wet. The later part of the forest journey was wet and muddy. Arrived at Benerat Lodge in time for lunch.

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Benerat Lodge and it's waterfront location

The next day we returned to the Sungai Tutoh and visited a Penan long house where bangles and beads were purchased. The journey continued up-river which was now brown from the soil loosened by deforestation being washed into it. Having negotiated some rapids, a wall of brown water stopped the progress of our long boat and we returned to our base for lunch. Whilst the others went to visit Horse Cave, I set about packing ready for an early morning departure.

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Penan Long House

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In the rapids on the Tutoh river

In the 90’s Mulu had a small airport but the flights weren’t always reliable - planes arriving stayed just a short while to load and return. The problem was if the flight did not arrive in the morning then you had to wait until the afternoon. With this risk in mind, I set off by boat at six a.m. on the Saturday having spent 2 weeks caving in a jungle. A new tourist hotel was being built down river from Park HQ with an access bridge across the river and with the water levels running high I needed to lie down in the boat to pass under the bridge. A steady journey down to Maraudi and a wait of a few hours before catching the small plane with room for about eight passengers that took me to Miri, seemingly flying at treetop height.

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Maraudi flight after landing at Miri Airport

From Miri I flew to Singapore via Kuching. The next flight out of Singapore wasn’t for another twelve hours but I had missed the route to the transit lounge and finished up on the wrong side of the airport. Unable to get back to the transit lounge I had to change Malaysian money to Singapore money to be able to store my rucksack whilst I waited until the flight departure time. Eventually traveling to Heathrow via Zurich, where I was able to stretch my legs. Arrived home by midnight Sunday.


When I reported for work on the Tuesday morning, the Teflon Kid who was responsible for the field staff said, ‘I didn’t expect you back until tomorrow.’ I could have screamed down the phone.

1992 Team Members

John Addison, David Gough, John Hunt and Mike Hobbs. Paris Wan was our guide.

 
2014   Second Trip

I had never really thought about returning to Mulu, now designated a World Heritage Site, but one evening at the Hidden Earth conference in Monmouth I heard talk about a trip to Mulu in 2014 and my ears pricked up. I was lucky enough to secure a place on the Anglo - Malaysian expedition for spring 2014 and this mainly occurred because of my involvement in BCRA and knowing Andy Eavis.


Sometime before we left Andy Eavis phoned me and asked if I would look after the finances and I accepted without fully knowing what was involved. An initial down payment was £400 which covered twelve days of food and accommodation at Park Headquarters, all additional charges had to be paid in the local currency.


We had one meeting at what is called Eavis towers near the Humber Bridge before we departed for the expedition. The next time I met some of the team members was at Heathrow Airport at the check in desk. I had stayed at Ruth’s parents near Oxford and had been taken to the Airport on a Sunday morning in March.
 

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Booking in at Malaysia Air desk Heathrow terminal 5

Andy Farrant, Carl Clarke and Tony Radmall

I had been given two diving bottles to take out to Miri where they would be filled and then transported to Mulu by river. These bottles and my personal gear came to thirty kilogrammes. Gavin Newman had turned up at the airport to pass on some rope. Looking around who was there Andy Farrant, myself, Carl and Badger put our baggage through check in as a job lot, our allowance having been uplifted to forty kilogrammes because we had sporting equipment. I still had to pay an excess baggage charge of £136 for the journey to Miri.


Baggage was collected at Miri and then weighed again for onward journey to Mulu but the weight limit had been reduced to twenty kilogramme, so more charges were incurred. You can get away without the problem of twenty kilo allowance on the local flights if all your baggage is booked through to Mulu from Heathrow.


From the modern but simple airport we travelled the kilometre by minibus to Park Headquarters where at the end of the road a footbridge takes you over the river to a large collection of wooden lodges. What a change to twenty years ago when there were just a few buildings around a small muddy area. There is a large office block with exhibition hall and a restaurant with a large choice of local food where we had breakfast and evening meals. Electricity, internet access and running water and electric showers. At the research centre which in the nineties was the self-catering accommodation for visitors, we made our home on comfortable beds for the next three weeks, what luxury.

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Entrance to Gunung National Park

The Mulu project has its own store in one of the accommodation blocks which saves taking gear home after an expedition, and equipment is added after each period of exploration. The equipment from the store was sorted before lunch on our first day. After lunch we took a trip to Deer Cave just as a warmup, popping through into the Garden of Eden. We had intended to view the bats evening exodus but when it rains the bats stay at home, so it was back to base and an evening meal.


Most evenings were spent crossing over the river via the bridge and visiting the first bar on the left to consume Tiger Beer (no not Everard’s) from the tin. Some evenings tins were built into pyramids and it was rude to leave before a layer you had started had been completed, quite simple when you start but more difficult as the base gets larger, but an enjoyable game.

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The bridge to the bar or back to the Park

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Mulu restaurant with a typical beer can stack

As part of the group designated ‘Southern Team’ we had two main objectives, to try and connect Lagangs Cave with Cave of the Winds and assist Gavin Newman who would dive the upstream sump in Good Luck Cave and try and establish if there was a route through into the Hidden Valley.

Lagangs Cave has three entrances and is part of the tourist experience. The survey can be viewed as a ‘Y’ and at each end there is an entrance, the two at the top of the ‘Y’ called the tourist entrance and the Dreampool entrance are joined by a planked walkway which is the tourist experience with the first entrance to the cave just a short easy walk from the Melinau River.


We traversed the main arm of the cave towards the far entrance and looked around the whole area, climbing boulder slopes until it became impossible to go any further unless you wanted entombing. Also visited a high-level passage named Balcony Passage, which came to a pitch head that looked down onto the main passage near the third entrance where daylight came into the cave, just another bit to add to the survey.


The tourist entrance twists and turns before reaching a shallow arched roofed passage called the Fast Lane which takes you to the centre of the ‘Y’. We did a lot of exploration into side passages before we got to the Fast Lane. Some came to the surface after a climb over boulders, others came into larger chambers like Disappointment Passage before coming back to the surface. A ladder was borrowed from Park Headquarter to access a high level aven near the Fast Lane but no conclusion was reached. Some small sumps were looked at by the divers but no conclusion was reached here, the divers retiring after a high pressure hose failed. I did find a continuation of the Fast Lane passage but this was only 150 metres long with the end coming abruptly; this was named the Slow Lane. A little passage at the end, on the right, led to a small sump.
 

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Lagangs Cave, the end of the 'Y' near Dreampool

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Looking at Gunung Benerat from Camp 5

Some of the team had a few days away from caving to do a Pinnacles trip. The journey to Camp Five was the same routine as in the nineties with a nine kilometre walk after leaving the boat. The track was suffering in places with damage from stream erosion. Camp Five now has a lot more buildings and proper sleeping quarters although these are still open sided. Shoes must be taken off before entering the buildings and are left on the steps, the shoes soon became covered in bees who were after the salt from our sweaty feet. It was great to have a dip in the river to wash away the sweat and cool off. The next day started early for the two-and-a-half-kilometre journey up hill to the Pinnacles. A condition with this visit is that you must reach a pre-determined point in a set time, if you do not achieve this then you must return to camp without seeing the Pinnacles. Our group were successful, and the view was magnificent. Visibility was so good that the airport stood out beside the river and our guide was using her mobile phone.

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The Pinnacles instructions board

 

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The Pinnacles on Gunung Api

Back in camp and after a cool off in the river, there was time to look around before evening meal. We watched a colony of ants move a bee along a washing line and then up the tree where the line was attached. The rope bridge of the nineties had gone, and its replacement was now closed. A temporary bridge made from wire cables and with a planked walkway has been constructed further up the gorge. As you moved across this bridge the whole structure swayed making it very difficult to take photographs from. Having walked down the far side of the river, I returned via the closed bridge. The following day we returned to Park Headquarters arriving in time for lunch. Later in the day visiting Deer Cave to watch the bats exodus. Nowadays the viewing area is thronged with tourists all trying to get that perfect picture but when someone’s modern camera imitates a shutter release it spoils the value of a video camera!


Next day, Les Williams and I were taken to an area above Racer Cave. Having disembarked from the boat at Racer Cave we proceeded along the plank walk heading uphill in the direction of Moon Milk Cave and Park Headquarters. The plank walk had been constructed in the nineties to allow the tourist access to Clearwater Cave without taking a boat journey along the Melinau River. Unfortunately, this affected the livelihood of the boat people and now with the plank walk no longer being maintained it was off limits to the tourist. We were not classed as tourists! About halfway along the plank walk we stopped for a rest and then set off into the jungle trail blazing. Having passed Palm Cave our guides were having difficulty finding the correct cave entrance so one of the guides set off by himself, whilst we waited. After a while we heard the other guide call and with the help of our guide, we were reunited at an entrance to a cave which had only been visited by the nesters. We entered the cave and did a recce, after a downward scramble we were in a large chamber with gour pools, stalactites and other passages joining the chamber. When we exited the cave the route back to the plank walk was marked with tape for future forays.

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The plank walk to Easter Cave

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Route markings for Easter Cave

Over the next two weeks several more trips to this new cave now named Easter Cave due to a large stalagmite resembling a structure on Easter Island called The Moai. A lot of survey work was carried out with one member of the team realizing he had been here before having climbed a pitch in Racer Cave many years ago. The Cave was a good find with numerous passages leading off, some going to a lower level before climbing up again to terminate at a blank wall. A further very large entrance was located but no connection was made with any other cave other than Racer. There was some graffiti in one area which was the names of nesters but having investigated the area no conclusion as to which way they had entered the cave could be found. The route we had taken did not show any sign of footprints.

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The Entrance to Easter Cave

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Sunset reflecting of the Melinau river

A day to go diving was looked forward to by Gavin Newman and Laura Trowbridge, both had brought diving equipment so that they could dive the upstream sump in Good Luck Cave. Andy Eavis had been into the cave a few days earlier and put in along the wall of the first section of the streamway a rope to assist getting into the cave in high water conditions. When we arrived at the cave water levels were low and it was relatively easy to progress against the flow of the stream. In the later parts of the streamway it is necessary to climb above the stream to avoid some very narrow sections. Once above the stream the route continues upwards to an area we used as a camp for the next two days. A raft had been constructed to carry the diving bottles and was navigated into the cave by a group of porters who deposited the equipment at camp and then exited the cave. They would return in two days to collect their loads and transport out by the same method.


After a brew at camp the diving bottles were moved to the dive site, this necessitated a further climb up into the main chamber, doing a long traverse and then dropping down to the incoming streamway. After a long traverse of the streamway the dive site is reached, and the bottles were deposited ready for the following day’s dive. Back at camp more brews and an evening meal of dehydrated food before going to bed with the sound of the swiftlets. Temperature in the cave changes very little over night and a carry mat inside a bivvi bag wearing just underpants is all that is required for a good night’s rest. 

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Good Luck Cave, Frank Tully preparing a brew

The next day we returned to the upstream sump where Gavin kitted up and dived through. In a short while he had returned stating that the sump was only about five metres long and the passageway continued. Having looked at his dive computer he confirmed that the water temperature was 23 degrees centigrade, and asked, did anyone else want to join him and Laura. Badger opted to join the divers even though he had never dived in a cave or even open water. The three had soon left the dive site and gone into the unknown whilst the other three were left on the safe side of the sump to while away the time and take a few photographs. The sump was named Badgers Baptism but the passage beyond appeared to be a closed section of cave with no bats or swiftlets. There were a few little sumps but none worth pursuing and having used a rudimentary measuring device, the survey was completed, and they returned to the dive base after two hours in good spirits.

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Good Luck Cave, dive preparation

Jetske Nagtglas, Gavin Newman & Tony 'Badger' Radmall

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Good Luck Cave, Badgers Baptism sump pool

(Badgers first ever cave dive)

A long slog back to camp with all the diving gear for more dried food and another night’s sleep underground. The water level in the cave had risen due to overnight rain and this created problems for the porters who were set to arrive by ten a.m. Leaving camp each of the party of six carried two bags of gear but were able to pass over several bags of diving gear to the porters who we met just as we reached the lower stream. We then set off for a sporting trip out along the streamway. The Plunge Pool was interesting with the higher water levels and it was obvious when reaching the canal that this section was far deeper than when we had entered the cave. I used my dry bag as a buoyancy aid but when I reached the end of the canal, I realised it was no longer dry and everything inside was wet including my camera. Nevertheless it was a great trip into one of the world’s largest chambers.


I assisted the photographer Chris Howes and his partner Judith on two days going to two different locations. The first location was Drunken Forest Cave which took some finding, the entrance being located above the river on a ledge and well hidden by vegetation. What I don’t remember from my nineteen nineties visit is the tight vertical slot entrance and then the low crawl before the main cave is reached. The second photographic trip was into Easter Cave a few days later. Imagine my surprise returning home one weekend to find a large folder on the doorstep that contained two photographs on good quality paper that had been taken by Chris.

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Entrance to Drunken Forest Cave

Further looking for caves was a trip beyond Deer Cave and Lang Cave to see if there was any sign of entrances in the continuing cliff. It was thought that Mayday Cave might have a back door in this vicinity but after a lot of route bashing, we decided that there was nothing here.


Another trip took two of us to Camp One where we stayed for two nights. The building here has been replaced since I was here in the nineties and is a little larger. Evening meal was cooked by our porters who had been out in the afternoon cutting a trail for the start of tomorrow’s journey. We left camp early and crossed the river to the Deer Cave massif. Going was tough finding traction on the shale and I was provided with a third leg to help me balance. I always marvelled at how the locals travelled over all sorts of terrain in their plastic shoes. The steep climb led to a sort of col with a group of pinnacles nearby. Beyond this point travel became more difficult being mainly on vegetation holding onto the cliffs. As we progressed with route finding and route making the situation became more exposed until the decision was made that it wasn’t worth killing yourself just to find a cave. Leaving the view of the airport behind we worked our way back to the col and had our lunch only to be disturbed as the heavens opened. Although we took a better route back to Camp One, I was getting more and more frustrated by my inability to remain upright. We were lucky to arrive back at camp before the rising river level would have made it impossible to cross. Returned to Park Headquarters the next day without any problems.

 

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The valley that Camp One hides in

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There is a cave somewhere around here

Beside socializing in the local bar there were four evenings when the socializing was provided for us. We were all invited to The Park Manager, Alison’s house for tea. On two evenings we were invited to BBQ’s all cooked by the locals and washed down with Tiger Beer. We were also invited to the Marriot Royal Mulu Resort, which had recently been refurbished, for a wonderful evening of eating and drinking. Nice for a change but our accommodation was just as good and was more at home than life in a jungle hotel. 

Socialising BBQ

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Evening meal at the Mulu Marriot Hotel

Being the keeper of the purse, which at one point was bursting with the local currency, I had to pay the invoices for the porters, boat men and food. There was also the accommodation and cafeteria bills. Rope had been brought out to sell to the park, and bunk beds had been purchased to add to the beds already at the research centre. These were paid out of the kitty and then sold to the Park at the end of the trip. When I got home, I had to put all the income and expenses into spread sheets and make it balance.


Towards the end of our stay a disto X survey was carried out along the path to Lagangs and then along the river to Clearwater. The disto was mounted on a photographic tripod and the target was a white card with a dark cross mounted on a walking pole. Because the tripod was easily adjustable then the beam from the laser was easily centred on the target giving very accurate measurements.


This new survey was later compared with the older survey and although the surveys were similar there where discrepancies with the cave entrance location. There is a need to minimise discrepancies when one cave sits above another and you are looking for the most likely location to make a connection.


As the expedition drew to a close all gear was cleaned and checked before returning to the store ready for the next visit. I was the last one to leave having booked on the afternoon flight. After paying the final bill I took a taxi to the airport and waited for my flight.

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Man powered rope washing machine

When I arrived at Miri airport some of the team were still there sweating in the heat due to the air conditioning being out of action because of a mains failure. The inevitable delay occurred causing a rush from one side of Kuala Lumpa airport to the other arriving at the departure lounge as everyone was boarding.


Whilst I was in Mulu I kept in regular touch with my daughter Emily via Skype. The news arrived in the second week that I had become a grandad again to a bonny boy who was christened Lewis. Off course I was the butt of jokes for a couple of days after the pictures arrived.

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Emily and Lewis

With all expeditions there can be conflict and ours arrived in the third week. Mark Brown was unable to treat most members with respect and treated those that had caved around the Park headquarters with disdain and was expecting everyone to be active while he was around stating that you are not out here to enjoy yourselves.


As with all long-haul travel destinations it takes some time for the body to return to working with local time. In my case I was often wide awake at 5 am and starting to catch up on paperwork and assemble the expedition accounts.

2014 Team Members

25 Cavers participated in the 2014 expedition. Not all the team was in the field at the same time or for the full duration, which mostly allowed all personnel to be accommodated in the Research Centre.


From The UK.
Andy Eavis (Leader), Tim Fogg, Pete Smart, Mark Brown, Dave Nixon, Hugh St.Lawrence, Chris Howes, Judith Calford, Richard Walters, Les Williams, Frank Tully, Tony Radmall, David Gough, Carl Clarke, Andy Farrant, Nigel Ball, Laura Trowbridge, Jetske Nagtalas, Gavin Newman.

From Australia.
Fran White, Tony White.

From France.
Colin Boothroyd.

From Malaysia.
Rambli Ahmad, Veno Enar, Christopher Imang Ngau.

 
2017   Third Trip

The next trip was scheduled for 2017. A meeting was held at Eurospeleo in 2016 but by then I had returned home, and I struggled to get my name on the circulation list but eventually after some badgering another visit was on the cards.
At the end of March 2017, I was enroute to London, staying overnight in a guest house in Hounslow for a short journey to Heathrow terminal 4 the next morning. Meeting the other team members before 8 am to book in for flight MH003 to Kuala Lumpa. After arrival at KL had a coffee before moving from the international side to the domestic side of the airport for the onward flight to Miri. At Miri there was excess baggage charge for the flight to Mulu, where the heat and humidity appear oppressive when you leave the aircraft.


Soon after arrival our assistant leader had us counting and counting and recounting every nut and washer of the hardware we would be using whilst underground. What a pain in the arse the man is.


This year we had motorised transport to travel around the park with, well push bikes. These vehicles had very wide tyres and only a rear brake, but they were great for travelling along the walkways to the caves. I struggled with keeping my balance and heading in the correct direction on the pebble paths, and nearly lost my watch when I collided with a tree stump. I probably wasn’t the best person to choose as a model cyclist but the others had passed through the trap before me and Carsten from National Geographia wanted some action shots. Certainly, the other members had a better sense of balance than I did as shown by Les who set off with a double extension ladder on his shoulder and one hand on the handlebars arriving at Park HQ with the ladder, bicycle and himself in one piece.

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Motorised transport

Transporting an electron ladder, well it has alli rungs

 

Our first trip took us to Lagangs and up the rising passage to Disappointment. What was surprising was that we had not noticed the large stal boss which stood sentinel at the top of a pitch. Les believed that this was the pitch he had reached three years ago when he traversed the upper passageway which he had gained with the aid of a ladder. The next day we returned with rope and using the stal as a belay descended the pitch and completed the high-level route before abseiling onto the plank walk at the start of the Fast Lane. At the bottom of the initial pitch the two bags which were attached to the rope pulled me off the ledge when I moved them out of the way which resulted in me dropping heavily onto my right foot and leaving me with a swollen ankle.

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The top of the passageway to Disappointment Chamber

There was a lot of discussion about Dave Clucas’s survey work which resulted in a resurvey through the cave all the way to the end of Fast Lane. This was time consuming and didn’t show any real problems with the original survey but when someone gets a bee in their bonnet it becomes difficult to get it to escape.

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Surveying discussion in Lagangs near Dreampool entrance

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A typical area above the Lagangs plank walk

Once we had proved that Disappointment connected to the high-level traverse, this was surveyed and many of the passages which led off. In this area was a large boulder heap which either went over or under the main tourist walkway. We had a handshake connection with another team in the same area, one of the passages being named Around the Houses. There was one area called Coral Series where a pitch was climbed but I just got the feeling that this whole area was too close to the cliff to provide any connection routes to Easter Cave.


Beyond the tourist parts we followed the main passageway until we were able to descend to a lower level heading towards the Paku entrance. At times this level carries a stream but in the main the route was dry. We did come across the odd pool of water complete with fish but nothing that inhibited travel. The passageway changed from one having a relative smooth floor and roof into more mud and boulder hopping and an eventual boulder ruckle which didn’t look very enticing. As I waited outside the window into the ruckle, I heard voices behind me and on investigation saw those explorers who had entered the boulder ruckle. They had gone around in a loop and after several other members had done the same thing and not found a way on, we christened the site David’s Loop and returned to base.  
 

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The lower section of Lagangs

 The entrance to David’s Loop

Within Lagangs other areas near the Dreampool entrance were explored and added to the survey with names like Gert Lush, Crab Aven and Tubeways but nothing could be found that would take us towards Easter cave.


Our initial return to Easter Cave needed the help of the locals. The track markers left three years ago had now disappeared, thus there was a need to establish a new route. Also, the park had started to dismantle some of the plank walks close to the river because they were becoming a liability. The boat deposited us at the bottom of the 420 various height steps up to Moon Milk Cave. The traverse of this cave brought us to where the continuation would have been a plank walk down to Racer Cave but this had been removed. We followed the route that had been the plank walk for 200 metre then set off for a thirty minute track bashing session heading for the cave entrance. A quick look around the cave before returning to base, marking the track for future visits.


Several visits to Easter Cave looking at places like Road to Lagangs where several smaller passages were looked at but not surveyed. Another group looked at the Canyons near to the Southern entrance but nothing led to Lagangs. Surveys need to be updated to give a better understanding of the relationship between Lagangs, Easter and other smaller caves in the area. As far as I am aware no further visits took place during the next two weeks. At the end of this period we made a final visit to collect the ropes and very little more.

 Exploring Tubeways

Formations in Eureka chamber

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Probably the distraction was the finding of a large chamber above Cave of the Winds. Andy Farrant had spotted a notch and gravel in Clay Hall in 2014 and carried out some further investigation which led to a large chamber he named Eureka. Several days were spent looking in all the corners of the chamber to find any leads to take us to Clearwater. The chamber was surveyed to gain a relationship with Racer Cave. A small sump was located and after a lot of work a tight descent to a lower passage and an inconclusive connection to Racer Cave when muddied water flowed from Racer to Eureka.

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Andy Farrant showing the route to Eureka Chamber

We carried out a Disto X survey from the survey reference point outside Cave of the Winds, along the plank walk and up to the top of the steps that take the tourist into Clearwater. A large boulder had a permanent bolt fixed so any resurveying of the tape and compass data has a fixed point from which to start.

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 Surveying along the plank walk situated just above the Melinau river

One of the photographic trips for our man Carsten from National Geographic was to take photographs at the entrance to Deer Cave as the bat were leaving as dusk fell. But Carsten wanted to be amongst the bats at the top of the entrance arch. A rope had been placed above the entrance and Mad Phil Rowsell ascended this rope and bolted another rope into the top of the arch. As the bats started to leave for their evening feed Carsten ascended the rope with a huge bag of photographic equipment and sat there for over an hour taking photographs, what dedication. The report was published in National Geographia in March 2019

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Carsten on his way to the bat cave at Deer Cave

 
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 Jimmy the boat skipper, Veno logistics and Paris our  1992 guide

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Carsten Peter from National Geographic photographing the team

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The Green men of Mulu      Photo Carsten Peter

The trips completed for another year, the gear all cleaned and counted and logged by Mr Brown and then returned to the store it was time to say goodbye. At the airport the morning flight from Miri was absent. This meant that our planned tour of the Miri area was off, we returned to Park HQ rather than wait in the heat of the airport. Luckily the afternoon flight arrived and within a short time we were being collected from Miri Airport and dropped off at our accommodation in town, soon afterwards having a meal and some beer in a nearby restaurant.


The next day’s flight to Kuala Lumpur was at 6:00 a.m. which meant our journey started at 5:00 a.m. At KL airport we made arrangements for accommodation in KL and with some luck we were able to book our main baggage onto the flight we would be taking the next day. A taxi took us to town but we had to wait to book into the hotel, so we departed for a breakfast before returning and booking in.


In town we took the monorail to the main station, interchange, and then caught a train to visit Batu Caves. Travel is very cheap and clean.

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Batu Cave scene

Though the caves are in karst they have been developed into a Disney type religious shrine. Worth a visit for the awe factor. Look up Batu Caves KL for more information.


Back to town and a visit to the KL Tower. This is quite expensive but worth a visit if only to stand on the glass platform fastened to the side of the tower. The price of a beer to celebrate the visit is a no no. Before returning to the hotel, we stopped off at an Irish bar for a drink or two and a breakfast as an evening meal.

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The glass floor of the  Kuala Lumpur tower sky deck.

300 meters above ground level

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The Irish Bar still served breakfast in the evening

Les Williams & Frank Tully

The taxi for KL airport was on time at six o’clock but the hotel didn’t serve breakfast until seven which was annoying when we found that our flight was already delayed by 3 hours. For me, the knock-on effect was the cheap train journey, already paid for, from London to home wasn’t required. After landing at Heathrow and going through customs, the underground journey arrived just in time to spend sixty pounds in a machine and catch the last train out of St Pancras. Engineering work on the line meant this was the slow train and I arrived home after 2 o’clock the next morning. After a few hours sleep Ruth and I were off to the Lake District for a May Day weekend holiday.

2017 Team Members

The 2017 expedition was a large multi-objective expedition comprising a total of 29 cavers committed to a variety of different projects. The overall expedition was led by Andy Eavis, with cavers generally split into teams/objectives shown below.

Connection Team.
Andy Farrant, Les Williams, Dave Gough, Dave Cooke, Ben Kent, Tony Radmall, Frank Tully, Rambli Ahmad.

Creedence Team.
Mark Brown, Frank Pearson, Will Yu-Pearson, Nickey Bayley, Rich Hudson, David Rose, Hugh St. Lawrence.

Hidden Valley Team.
Dave Nixon, Colin Boothroyd, Rob Eavis, Rob Middleton, John Pemberton, Luke Cafferty, Catherine Henry (née Hulse), Jeff Wade, Steve Jack.


Sarawak Chamber.
Andy Eavis, Phil Rowsell, Ben Kent, Etienne Degrave, Veno Enar.

 
Photography

Although there has been a huge technological change in photographic cameras since the end of the twentieth century, one problem which still has effects on instruments is humidity. This can be as high as 95% in the tropical environment of Gunung Mulu National Park.


When I first visited Mulu, in the 1990’s, I was using Canon 35mm film cameras and suffered scratches on the slide film which was probably caused by the film sticking to itself whilst in the camera. The scratches were probably created when the film was rewound into the cassette. The problem did not show after returning to the UK and using negative film as opposed to slide film.


In 2014 I took out Sony video cameras and a Pentax pocket camera. Both operated well but the external LED light for the video camera had a habit of damaging the circuit board within the battery case, resulting in a knackered battery although the cells were perfectly OK on later investigation. The Pentax pocket camera was mainly used for surface photography having limited flash capabilities for taking photographs underground. It's one good point was that the flash did not reflect off the moisture in the air surrounding the image. Regrettably, this camera was soaked on the way out of Good Luck Cave and although it would read the memory card and display the images, it no longer took photographs. None of the images on the memory card were lost.


On returning from Mulu I bought a replacement pocket camera, a waterproof Nikon Coolpix. Taking it on its first underground trip when I visited Bounce Below with my grandson, I soon realised the short coming with the flash which bounced off any condensation and made some pictures virtually useless.


In 2017 I took the Sony video camera but again suffered battery problems with the external LED so this was very little used. As well as the Nikon Coolpix I took an older Nikon E995 which had the advantage of connecting external flashguns giving acceptable results for a camera with a small CCD. I did use the Nikon Coolpix for taking some video, especially when our man from The National Geographic magazine visited the bats exodus from Deer Cave.

Medical

Inoculations

Personal injections can vary depending on a doctor’s recommendations and travel health requirements. For the 1992 I had already received the standard injections whilst at school and had supplemented these with Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B. One requirement was to have a Rabies injection. In 2014 I had a Typhoid injection and Japanese Encephalitis. In 2017 all injections were up to date so I didn’t pursue any enquiries to see if there was anything else that I might get at huge costs but did not require.

Personal medication

Malaria is a common problem in certain areas of the world and tablets can be recommended at a cost even if not required. In 2014 the costs were incurred but a local doctor in Mulu informs you that Malaria isn’t a problem, and you don’t need the tablets.

 

Team medication

Personal medication was complemented by medicines not available from the chemist, and these included drugs available by injection. In 2017 there was a doctor in the team, mostly distant in the Hidden Valley, but prior to travelling we were given a short course on medical matter and shown how to inject an orange.

Some of the team members did have first aid training and would take the Darren Drum of first aid equipment with them on any of the trips in which they participated.

Other medication worth taking are headache pills, Deep Heat or Voltarol for sprains, Antiseptic cream and athlete’s foot cream for 'Mulu foot' and Insect repellent spray.

Insurance

Even in this relaxed age when retirement allows one to fulfil the bucket list, insurance for the more adventurous hobbies is fraught with difficulty. In 2014 Carl Clarke arranged insurance for several members of the team with a company called Dog Tag.


In 2017 when I tried to insure with Dog Tag I was informed they did not provide insurance for the over 65’s, yet I was in that category in 2014. I contacted the leader, Andy Eavis, and he told me to insure through ADT. My search on the internet found a German motoring organisation, was I on the right track? Further enquiries and I had a name to ask for with the result that during 2017 I was a member of a German motoring organisation and I had insurance.

Information


BCA have looked into expedition insurance and now have travel insurance available for specialist caving activities.

 

BCA Caving Cover - Specialist Caving and Activities Based Travel Cover

Mulu Caves - Mulu Cave Project

All photographs (except the Mulu Karst map) taken by David Gough, unless otherwise credited.

David Gough 2021