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A Day In The Life Of An Expedition


Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was playing at full volume somewhere inside my head as I struggled up the steep earth track through the undergrowth in the 90 degree plus temperature with the humidity hovering somewhere around the 99.999% level.  I find thinking of a tune helps to give a rhythm to walking when things start to get a bit grim.  But you have to get the right tune, I once made the mistake of mentally playing Bat Out Hell and got to the top of a hill with my heart threatening to burst its way out between my ribs.

I stopped and glared up the track at Snablet and Helen who seemed to be moving with metronomic case and barely a trace of perspiration.  Looking back down the track I could just make out the hairy mushroom which was the top of Tony Boycott's head.  He looked almost as bad as I felt.  It was mid-October 1994 and as the advance party of the BEC we had been in Sulawesi for nearly three weeks prospecting for caves so we should have been acclimatised yet here I was doing my amazing-melting-man impersonation.

The first ten days had been spent in an almost cave-free environment in the granite scenery of the Mamasa river valley following rumours of caves and underground rivers.  We had been suckered in by one small cave in a limestone outcrop at the top of a hill in Masawa on the first day.  Thereafter we had a great time trekking through the Indonesian jungles and staying with locals who were all mystified by our purpose but with gentle courtesy and much amusement were prepared to humour us. For anyone who is interested in piles of granite boulders I can thoroughly recommend the area.

After that we headed off to Rantepao in the Saadang river valley passing through spectacular karst scenery en route.  Here in only four days we investigated numerous caves as well as introducing Cossack dancing and Pogo-ing at the local disco.

As we had to liaise with the second party back in the capital ( Ujung Pandang), we decided to bead slowly back looking at some of the caves we had seen on the way up.  First we had to send some requests back to Mac and JRat in Britain.  Two hours of diligent searching by our driver located a fax machine at a large hotel where they agreed to let us fax home.  Two hours of diligent dialling got no response.  However the receptionist at the hotel remembered that there were some caves near his village and wrote us a letter of introduction to the Kepala Desa (roughly translated as headman).

Once we had overridden our driver’s objection and lurched up the track to this village, Pasang, we were made welcome in the K-D's house - a I5m square bamboo structure precariously balanced on stilts which swayed alarmingly at the slightest movement.  A large crowd assembled in the room oblivious to the ominous creaking of overstrained bamboo and Subhang, the local English teacher, was pressed into service as translator' and guide.   Plans were laid for an early start to try and look at three caves in one day.

We woke early.  The men all had to go to pre-dawn prayers at the mosque so the women all had to be up an hour or so earlier to cook the little sweets and coffee which start the day.  By the time water had been poured, wood chopped and an the local scandals thoroughly aired by the women behind the bamboo screen next to our bed we were wide awake.  In our innocence we gobbled down coffee and fried coconut doughnuts and got into "go mode".  Not so. We had to wait for our guide and our driver kept whittering on about how difficult it was and that we would haw to sleep in the hills.  Helen got so annoyed with him that she had to go outside to cool down.  She stalked up and down on the verandah.  If she had been a cat she would have been swishing her tail menacingly.  Eventually Subhang arrived and once again we were galvanised into activity.  Only to be called back in for breakfast.

Thus it was we were walking down from Pasang apparently vertically to the village of Labale at 9:00 am.  At Labale we collapsed in puddles of perspiration and drank pints of boiled water while Subbang found the man who knew the exact location of the cave. This elderly gentleman pressed chunks of palm sugar on us and then disappeared only to re-appear with his caving kit including a large metal helmet.  The cave, Lo’ko' Labale, when finally located was too extensive to do more than a cursory run around.  When we located the heads of two major pitches we realised that we would have to return to the area.  The epic nature of this exploration was somewhat diluted when we were joined by practically the entire adult population of Pasang who came in for a saunter around and then an impromptu picnic back at the entrance.

We were totally knackered and we had two others to inspect that day plus a waterfall.

These other two turned out to be at the village of Limbuang another two hours walk away and about 300m higher - just what you want at 2:00 pm when you are only a few miles south of the equator!  Somehow we got there all feeling ill to a greater or lesser degree.  Our speleo-enthusiasm revived somewhat after hot sweet coffee.

The first cave, Lo'Ko' Tapaann, would have been a pleasant ramble around a well-decorated little stream cave but for the large party that insisted on accompanying us complete with a gun for shooting bats.  It adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the low wet crawl when there is a loaded gun only a few centimetres behind.

Somewhere between the back entrance to Lokko Tapaann and the front entrance to the next cave, Gua Posolloa, Tony Boycott finally grasped what expedition caving is all about. Sitting on a convenient boulder he gasped, “You go in.  I'll wait at the entrance.  As long as one of us gets there we will have succeeded."  He did not actually say he was going outside and might be some time but the emotion was there.  All he lacked was snow!

Fortified by such selfless sacrifice the remainder of the party headed on in.  Tony had not missed much.  Big dry sandy-floored passages filled with bats, small children & graffiti were all rapidly inspected with varying degrees of interest.  We already knew that we had to spend some time in the area to get the other caves surveyed so it was a quick scamper round, then out.

Back at the village of Limbuang we settled down at the headman's house, washed and demolished an excellent meal under the impression that we were to spend the night there.  Somewhere along the line something had been lost in the translation.  Our guide waited until darkness was just about to fall before leaping to his feet to drag us back to Pasang in the, (relative) cool of the evening.  Even better the village headman knew a shortcut.  Thus it was that a weary and footsore party were to be found stumbling down an overgrown track through the jungle.  In and out of small steep slippery stream gullies in almost pitch blackness.  Someone - I suspect Boycott but he will probably deny it an - suggested that we should avoid putting on or Pertzl zooms too early to preserve our night vision as long as possible.

After what felt like a fortnight but which turned out to be only an hour we were back on the main track. From here it was only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.  I tried to think of a slow tune -the best I could come up with was "Tubular Bells".  From tired little soldiers, each cocooned in a pool of light and lost in their own thoughts, plodded down a never-ending hill towards the light of the village way below in the valley.  As always seems to be the case these never got any closer until suddenly they were only a few yards away.

Everyone was stunned to see us back.  The KepaIa Desa had to keep squeezing Helen’s thigh and remarking that she was a strong woman!  However there was more caver-reviving coffee followed by a cool wash and another excellent meal.  Then the finale.  The villagers all crammed into the room to watch Snablet getting into his bivi-bag. Much amusement and comment along the lines of bringing his own cave with him.  When we returned the following week for a few days this became such a popular turn that we could probably have financed the entire expedition by selling tickets.

Overall the trip was Sulawesi was reasonably succcssful with 63 cave sites explored and over 6kms surveyed.  But if you want the full a.p. then buy the report.  Available soon from all good caving shops in Wells

Rob  Harper – 6/10/95