The Bristol Exploration Club, The Belfry, Wells Road, Priddy, Wells, Somerset.
Editor: Dave Turner

I must apologies for the lateness of this BB, working as I do for myself means that I am not always able to put the BEC first, and in the last couple of months I have had a continuous stream of rush jobs.

I don't feel I am giving the post of BB editor the attention which it deserves and so am intending not to stand for the post at the next AGM.  I think that the time has come for one of the younger members with more time and enthusiasm to take on this job.  I have kept the BEC membership records on one of my computers for many years and am quite prepared to continue doing that job and producing labels for the BB etc.  I can also then concentrate on helping to typeset books such as the Cuthbert's Report.

The Cuthbert's Report

To assist financing the Cuthbert's Report, a Building Society Account has been opened in the name of "Cuthbert McDonald".  If you have £5 to spare why not give it to J-Rat and secure your copy when it arrives?  This will also help finance its actual production.  J-Rat and his magic book will note down your particulars.  Full refunds will be available if the worst should happen, God forbid.  If you dilly-dally, it will cost £6 over the counter.  Cheques should be payable to "Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society" please, and not the BEC.

Trebor

Membership changes

New members

William Curruthers         Brewery Lane, Holcombe
Barbara Williams           London
Gary Trainer                  Hampstead, London
Peter Hopkins               Keynsham, Bristol
Craig Bale                    Brislington, Bristol
Maurice van Luipen        Hayes, Middsex
Charles Hay                  Croscombe, Wells, Somerset
Brian Gilbert                 Chinford, London
Bill Murkett                   Buckhurst Hill, Essex
Sarah Macdonald          address unknown
Christopher Proctor       Radstock, Bath
Nicholas Cline               Wells, Somerset
Mark Philpott                Wells, Somerset
Dr. Tony Boycott           Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol
Joanna Hills                  Billinghurst W.Sussex
Simon Mendes              Droitwich, Worcs
Dennis Bumford            Westcombe, Shepton Mallet
Terry Phillips                 Demead, Hants

Address changes

Roy and Joan Bennett   Newtonmore, Invernesshire
Ross White                  c/o Mike Palmer
Chrissie Bissett            Ottery St Mary, E. Devon
Richard Clarke              Axbridge, Somerset
Dr. Peter Glanvill           Chard, Somerset
Robert McNair               Oltley, Yorkshire
Rob Harper                   Wells, Somerset
Brian Prewer                 Priddy, Wells, Somerset

[Editors note: some of the changes may not be exactly correct ­ the note containing them was illegible!]


 

Flooding Incident In Eastwater Cavern

On the 16th April a party of eight B.E.C. and three W.C.C. members were undertaking various climbing, digging and surveying projects in the remote parts of West End Series, Eastwater Cavern.  Another Wessex team were digging in the upper passages of West End and two tourist parties were also in the cave. Those working in the bottom had enjoyed a relatively easy and dry trip, there being only a trickle of water at Lolley Pot and through the flood-prone crawl into Blackwall Tunnel, the writer even remarking to Kevin Gurner that Lolley Pot is much more entertaining when it is taking a stream.

On the surface, during the early afternoon, there occurred a brief, torrential downpour which seems to have been centred over the Priddy-North Hill area, only steady rain being noted at nearby Wells.  This fell onto hard, dry ground and the major Eastwater catchment took much of this excessive rainfall, causing the entrance to become impassable and temporarily trapping all parties in the cave.

In lower West End the B.E.C. team were commencing a survey of the deepest part - the Chamber of Horrors.  At about 4.30 p.m. a roaring mass of water erupted from the too-tight inlet passage leading in from Blackwall Tunnel and the floor of the chamber rapidly began to fill up - possibly helped by water from a theoretical streamway below the chamber floor.

Tom Chapman was hastily despatched to the Tunnel to check on conditions and use his own judgement on whether to try and get out and organise a possible rescue.  In the meantime the Wessex team was contacted by the writer and warned of conditions.  Being only four bolts away from new passage at the top of an eighty foot aven they were at first sceptical, and then reluctant to leave - they were already prepared for an overnight stay in the cave.  Graham Johnson, though, accompanied the writer to Blackwall Tunnel, and both realized by the tremendous draught and the roar of the stream that things could be serious.  Tom had not returned and it was assumed that he had got out, so all those remaining slithered down the Tunnel to the low crawl.  Here the previously dry passage was now occupied by a swirling mass of inflowing, brown water with a foot of froth on top - like a Guinness drinker's dream! After watching the four inch air-space drop half an inch in fifteen minutes it was decided to “go for it”, as on a previous occasion the crawl had been sumped up for over two years!

With considerable trepidation all passed the tube to be confronted by an almost solid column of water hurtling down Lolley Pot - proving to Kevin that it was indeed much more entertaining with a stream in it.

The ascent of the pot under these conditions was something of a frightening epic, especially when the flood water and Trevor Hughes both began hurling T.V. sized rocks down the pitch. From here everyone made their way out at their own speed, noting scores of small streams entering West End and Ifold's Series from unexpected places.  No further problems were encountered on the way out, apart from those of a normal trip in this strenuous cave, and upon reaching the entrance the water was down enough for an easy exit.

In the meantime the other Wessex party, Pete and Alison Moody, had only got out of the entrance because of three rescuers sitting in the stream to form a temporary human dam.

Tom Chapman had valiantly fought his way out to summon assistance and a goodly team of prospective divers and rescuers was standing by at Upper Pitts and the Belfry, with the possibility of Fire Brigade help not being ignored.  Our grateful thanks to all concerned.

The tourist parties in the cave had not realized that the flood had occurred, being in drier parts of the system at the time of the pulse.

All those involved agree that this was a very close call.

Anyone in Blackwall Tunnel squeeze or climbing Lolley Pot at the time of the initial flood pulse would have been very lucky to survive.  The easily blocked sink at the bottom of the Tunnel was fortunately operating fairly well thanks to the efforts of Wessex digging teams over the last year and the flood may even have helped to clear it.  Should it have become blocked and the whole stream backed up the consequences could have been disastrous.  The wet and extremely draughty conditions could have easily led to hypothermia if anyone had been forced to stay beyond the Tunnel and, as stated before, rescue from this remote and difficult area is nigh on impossible with an incapacitated person.

Those working here have learnt several more important lessons from this event and a rescue dump will shortly be installed beyond the Tunnel.  This should be used ONLY in emergency.

It is once again stressed that this is arguably the most difficult Mendip trip - one of those present on this occasion stating that, in comparison, "Daren Cilau is a piece of cake ... "  Add to this the ever present danger of flash floods and you have a bit of cave to treat with the utmost respect.  Also be warned of the dangers of the cave entrance flooding and the ever present possibility of movement in the Boulder Ruckle and Boulder Chamber the latter being actively "on the move" at the present time.

Have a nice trip.

(also reproduced in Descent)

Tony Jarratt


 

Council of Southern Caving Clubs

At the recent CSCC AGM Martin Grass was defeated in the election for Secretary.  With over 120 clubs the voting was 3 for Martin and 4 for Alan Butcher.  So Butch is now the new Secretary.

So Near but Yet So Far

Prew

During an enforced clear-out of my loft recently I found my old Belfry Bulletins dating back to the year I joined the Club (1955).  One particular journal stood out because of its bright yellow cover, a BB Digest dated 1959.  In it were many articles dating as far back as 1951 and one article in particular, by John Ifold, caught my attention.  His article, dated 1951, described the discovery of the Ifold Series in Eastwater and his thoughts on the future possibilities.

Now read on.

A New System in Eastwater Cavern

J.W. Ifold

If Harris's passage is followed up-stream, the canyon formation merges into a steeply inclined bedding plane, which is sectioned off by loose and dangerous boulder chokes. During Easter l95l, the author removed a small boulder choke and penetrated into further extensions. Whether these extensions are of the same bedding plane or not can only be settled by a survey.  At present the system appears to penetrate for about four hundred feet, and there are possibilities that it may be further extended. An interesting observation is the presence of two streams which seem to disappear in a North Westerly direction.  Another feature unusual to Eastwater is the presence of large eroded stalagmite sheeting. This is eroded not only on its upper surface, but at many points is completely hollowed out from beneath. Its markings include scalloping and several concentric circles, which are possibly the remains of completely eroded stalagmites. This discovery led to a discussion of the complete absence of stalagmitic formations in Eastwater as compared with the abundance in nearby Swildons.  An interesting point is the phreatic sponge-work, smaller than that in Ffynnon Ddu, but otherwise very similar.

One member of the party advanced the theory that at one time Eastwater had taken a very much larger proportion of the North Hill drainage than it now does, while near-by Swildons was left comparatively dry. This heavy flow might have caused very rapid and complete erosion, thus explaining the almost complete absence of formations in Eastwater, and these strangely eroded sheets.

The direction of the system leads to the belief that it is under the boulder maze, but it is possible that the two small streams at the end of the series may come from the 380 foot way.  This system may yield to further exploration.


 

BEC Parachuting Weekend

Would anyone interested in going on a weekend parachuting course please get in touch.  When we have a rough idea of numbers we'll start sorting out dates and a venue.  There's a list in the Belfry so just sign your life away and try a BEC first of falling off things while sober.

Gonzo

Club Trip Abroad 1989 Or 1990

So many people enjoyed the club trip to the Berger a few years ago that it is about time we did something similar.  One possibility that comes to mind is a trip to the P.S.M., or perhaps the Trou de Glaz area, maybe even the Berger again.  If anyone is interested in this idea then let me know, tell me which area you'd rather go to.  There's no reason why this should get in the way of the Austria project, it’s just a more caving holiday type of trip that can be arranged as well.  Also there's a distinct possibility that the Dachstein will be closed to foreign cavers in the near future.

While on the subject of Austria, I don't recollect having seen a report in the BB about the trip there last summer!

Gonzo

Article For Sale

Alan Thomas wishes to sell 6 berth Conway Trailer Tentin excellent condition including Calor stove with full cylinder of Calor Gas and Tilly Lamp.  Reason for selling - Too difficult for Alan on his own.  Price £400


West End Series - Eastwater Cavern


 

Diggers And Explorers - Cast In Order Of Appearance

Keith Gladman - BEC

Andy Lolley - BEC

Tim Large - BEC

Stuart Macmanus - BEC

Phil Romford - BEC

Tony Jarratt - BEC

John Watson - BEC

Jim Smart - BEC

Mark Lumley - CSS

Glyn Bolt - WCC

Darren Granfield - BEC

Graham Wilton-Jones – BEC

"Bucket" Tilbury - BEC

Jane Clarke - BEC

Andy Sparrow - BEC

Trevor Hughes - BEC

Rob Harper - BEC

Edric Hobbs - BEC

Matt Tuck - BEC

Brian Prewer - BEC

Hark Brown -BEC

Dave Turner - BEC

Paul Hodgson - BEC

Andrew George - BEC

Ian Caldwell - BEC

Barrie Wharton - BEC

Dave Newsom - US of A

Pete Hann - WCC

Julie Bolt - WCC

Pete Glanville BEC

Tony Boycott – UBSS

Neill Scallon - CSS

Angie Glanville - BEC

Martin Grass -BEC

Cnris Castle - BEC

Debbie Armstrong – BEC

Steve Lane  - BEC

Chris Birkhead - ICCC

Mark Bound - BEC

Peter Bolt - BEC

Howard Limbert - NCC

Decbie Limbert - NCC

Alan Box - NCC

"Noddy" - NCC

Mike Duck - BEC

Robin Gray – BEC

Nick Hill - SMCC

Mike ? - ex ACG

Jeremy Henley - BEC

Tim Swan

Pete Moody - WCC

Alison Moody - WCC

Rich Websell -WCC

Ian Mackenzie - Alberta SS

Alistair Neill & friends – PCG

Chris Larkin - S. African SS

Pete Watts - WCC

Paul Whybro - WCC

Geoff Newton - WCC

Mike Davies - NUCC

Andy Lovell - BEC

Dave Shand - BEC

Tim Gould - BEC

Lisa Taylor - BEC

"Nipper" Harrison

Steve Milner - BEC

Chris Batstone - BEC

Martin Buckley - WCC

Paul Sutton - WCC

John Dukes - BEC

Pete Rose - BEC

Pete "Snablet" Macnab - BEC

Tom Chapman - BEC

Andy Cave - BEC

Tim Robbins-SVCC

Rich York - BEC

Bob Lewis - SVCC

Dave ? - SVCC

Mike ? - SVCC

Doug Mills - WCC

Simon ? - WCC

Duncan Frew - WCC

 

 


 

Aggy at Easter, one foot deep and flooded

The sun was shining at 7.40 a.m. as I drove across Mendip to Crickhowell to breakfast at the corner cafe with Mac, Bishop, John Dukes and others.  At 8.59 a.m. I walked through the cafe door to cries of, "He’s a minute early," and the rain that had emptied on the campers that morning started again.

Breakfast took an hour, arrived lukewarm in slow relays as the cafe staff struggled inadequately and the air grew steadily more foul from partly digested beer and an unhealthy food eaten the night before.

At about 11.30 a.m. a motley crew of eight signed into the cave and, exhausted by the walk to the cave and wondering what I was doing there, I immediately took up the rear. Aggy really is the ultimate bore for great stretches between little climbs that require longer legs than I seem to have, and sections of stream passage with lively water.  Water - there seemed to be a lot more than I could remember. An hour or so in there were mutterings from the aficionados, "It sometimes sumps before the third boulder choke. Just as well we decided to go this way rather than through Southern Streamway first."

We entered a long canal of deep water which nobody could remember. "Perhaps there was a climb out of the water further back," suggested one. "No, it’s straight on down the streamway," asserted another, so we went on a few yards to where the passage widened and progress could only be made by swimming, the three non-swimmers in the party buoyed up by their wetsuits and encouraged by the rest of us.  The roof came down to a foot from the water.  We turned left, went on for just a few paces, and the roof met the water. Sumped.  Consternation.  Another party caught us up.  We chatted awhile but there was only one thing to do and that was to head back out, disappointed.

However, there was a problem which had delayed us about ten minutes.  Whilst swimming I had kicked off a wellington boot which promptly sank in eight feet of water.  A search had revealed nothing so a makeshift boot of four armbands had been wrapped around my right foot.  Finally, with jokes in very poor taste about spare boots being available from a late cave diver we set off to find that the air space of a foot was now a matter of inches and urgency and much encouragement was needed to get everyone through.  Even amongst the hard-nosed there were signs of singular relief.

Two hours later we were back at the entrance.  My makeshift boot had served its purpose and, for the record books, I became the first person to do one third of the Grand Circle on one foot, four Mars bars, a currant bun, six slices of toast, two cans of coke and a shot from a disposable syringe.

Jeremy Henley


 

Notes From The Librarian

Tony Jarratt

Two new trends have been started in the Library.  One of these is the hopeful collection of a selection of caving videos.  Anyone who has videos which they would care to donate or lend for copying should see the Librarian.  Likewise anyone with video copying facilities would be welcomed with open arms.  Mark has started the ball rolling.

The other new idea is the collection of copies of members personal caving logs.  Much useful information may be contained in these and if they are lost or destroyed it cannot be replaced. Should anyone care to let the club have a copy of their log they will receive their own photocopy free as a safeguard against loss.

Additions to the Library

* 3 mss Logbooks (Xerox copies) A. Jarratt - donated by J.Rat.
* Video - Hard Rock Cafe, Daren Cilau & extract from "Blue Peter"
* Irish Speleology Vol 4 No. 1 1987
* The Jewel Cave Adventure (American Caving)
* Beneath the Mountains (Expedition to N.Spain)
* The Mysterious World of Caves
* Caves and Caving in Britain (written by E.J. Mason a BEC member)
* Trapped! (the attempted rescue of Floyd Collins - gripping!)
* Cave Photography - A Practical Guide (Chris Howes new book)
* SRT (by D. Elliot - tells you how to place red bolts)
* Devenshire Sump Index 1985
* Devon Caves Vol 1 East Devon
* Devon Caves Vol 2 - Chudleigh & Kingsteinton
* Devon Caves Vol 3 - N. Torbay
* Local Caving - Caving in the Crickhowell area
* Speleo Sportive dans Ie Vercors (useful French guide)
* Caves of Derbyshire (1984 edition)

All the above were bought by the Club to enhance the new library.  They were chosen by the Librarian. Anyone wanting a specific book please inform Tony Jarratt.


 

Bats

Though not a novel idea, it is nice to see the dedication of two of our new members who now each proudly sport a Bertie tattooed on their chests.  Perhaps some of the lady members ....

Thanks

Thanks to all those who helped on the hut over the past week. We managed to do the following jobs:-

* Mowed lawn
* Cut down nettles
* Chucked out all rubbish including old lockers and heaters
* Disinfected and cleaned floors in Main, Shower Drying & both bunk rooms
* Cleared rubbish from Hut Warden's locker
* Cleaned walls of Drying Room
* Cleaned all woodwork ready for painting
* Cleaned bunks and repaired 2 bunks. Bolted bunks to wall
* Raised furniture so main can be hosed down
* Fixed temporary step outside Main Room Fire exit
* Painted bog walls and cleaned bogs
* Fitted First Aid box
* Fitted new signboard
* Inspected Roof
* Repaired second shower
* Replaced third shower
* Repaired Main Room water heater - installed new tap
* Rewired storage heater time clock
* Replaced hose
* Hung up 3 new mirrors
* Preparation for 1 new socket in large Bunk Room
* Rodded out drains
* Cleaned out gully
* Cleaned cookers
* Refilled Fire Extinguisher
* Cleaned all crockery
* Stocked up on cleaning materials
* 40w bulbs in Bunk rooms & hallway
* Lampshade in big bunk room
* Painted windows in Women’s Bunk Room
* Removed all gas bottles to store, re-piped all gas feeds to store
* Painted walls of Main Room
* Removed old cupboard & ordered new shelving

Wanted For The Belfry

Mugs
Cups
Tin-openers
Firewood
Digging tools
Coat Hooks
Timber
Shelving
Benches for shower room
Extractor Fan
Ashtrays
Bags of cement to stabilise car park
Tins of white emulsion paint
Tins of white undercoat and gloss
Carpet for Library (10ft. square)

Gonzo


 

BEC Pens

 

Pens are constructed of £2 x 1” Keruing (Malayan Hardwood) throughout with a “2 x 2” bucket rail complete with hoops of 5/16ths” steel rod.  Joints in key places are double bolted for extra strength.

Standard pens are 6’ x 3’ x 3’6” high, giving an 18sq.ft. floor area.  They can be tailor made to fit existing buildings in single or double rows of any length and with slatted or solid sides.  If the walls of the buildings are suitable they can be used, thus eliminating the need for wooden pen backs and sides at the ends of the row. This type of unit makes the most economical use of the building.

There are two bucket openings per pen, preventing the fouling of dry food.  Fronts are completely removable or can be hinged either way, allowing easy calf access.  Pens can be dismantled simple in seconds, without the use of spanners, for cleaning or convenience.

PRICE (EX WORKS)

e.g Based on a row of 20 standard pens with slatted sides: -

Complete Pen £33.64/pen

Without Backs £24.55/pen

Without Backs & End Sides £23.10/pen

Double Pen Front £19.91 each

Double Hayrack £19.91 each

2 Gallon Bucket £19.91 each


 

West Virginia. U.S.A April 1988

" Ere Wang" says Stumpy, ''Where's that atlas and that pin?"  'Wot do yer want that for?" replies Trebor.  "To find out where we’re going for our hols, of course." "Ah so" says Trebor.  STAB. "Ok, West Virginia it is" says Trebor triumphantly. 'Where's that?" questions Stumpy. Trebor leaves, exasperated.

*****************************************

So commenced the "Pesky Critture" caving expedition to Monroe, Greenbrier and Pocohontas counties, West Virginia, USA which by this time had accumulated that varmint, Stuart MacManus. A bit of research soon threw up a good number of caves and contacts, so after some letter writing and favourable replies, off we went.

Unusually for a BEC trip, our vague plan of campaign held together and we spent days mellowing (‘moseying’ in US slang) on down the Blue Ridge Mountains, 100 miles west of Washington, heading south west for West Virginia.  Mac thoroughly enjoyed the cold night air up in the Shenandoah National Park, particularly as the Bishop had neglected to include the feathers when he sold Mac his apology for a sleeping bag.  Just as well Bish was 3000 miles away.  Mac it seems doesn't like bogeyman that go bump, rattle or roar in the night so he wouldn’t relieve himself from his tent. Pat and Trebor were snug as a bug, giving extra credence to the well known local saying that '' Virginia is for lovers".

TIPS FOR TRIPPERS. Hire a car.  They are pretty cheap and smart but insurance can be about 10 dollars a day.  Speed limit slow at 50­55nph depending on the state.  Petrol very cheap at 85c a gal.

On our way down the Shenandoah Park, which straddles the Blue Ridge Mountains, we took sideways excursions down into the Shenandoah Valley to visit show caves, of which there are numerous good ones e.g. Luray Caverns.  The Massanutten show cave was probably the most memorable as it was a little private one with the owner, Mr Cobb, as guide - a grand old man on sticks shuffling through the cave at minimal miles per hour: very proud, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  We were his only visitors.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Visit show caves.  They are well done, plentiful, interesting and often spectacular.  You invariably find you are the only customers, especially in the week, thus receiving preferential attention.

We visited the Grand Caverns Show Cave at Grottoes, south of Harrisonburg (a regional centre) and as the only spectators received a fascinating trip with the guide who asked us to tell him how the thing was formed and what this and that were, especially wonderful disc-like projections coming out of walls and ceilings.  We heard that there was a proper cave just alongaways a bit so we obtained permission from the show cave manager, obtained an indemnity waiver form and fired on down this Fountain Cave.  Obviously once very spectacular but somebody had tried to make it into a show cave at same time in the past and it didn't work out.  Our first 'proper' caving trip in the US.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS.  In show caves, if you want to wander off beyond the lit bit, you are asked to sign an indemnity form absolving the management from any liability.  Some charge dollars, but we resisted paying on principle.

Off the Blue Ridge now and heading south west'ish towards Bath County, West Virginia on our way to the main caving area.  A lovely scenic county with apparently 100,000 trees to every human.  Lovely hidden valleys, babbling brooks, nooks and crannies and cave potential.  I should have been a poet.  A good days amble, camp, cave spot and musing was had before moving on via Lake Moomaw but not before Pat shimmied up a cliff to suss out a likely hole, only to utter the immortal words - "This rock looks a bit naff".  Two tons of it promptly fell off, narrowly missing our intrepid companion.

SPIRITS FOR TRAVELLERS Bath County has respectable caves and is certainly worth a closer look and extended stay.  Local base is either Warm or Hot Springs and there is camping available.  Americans are very well set up for the outdoor life so there are campsites liberally deposited.   Visit Sam Sneads restaurant in Hot Springs, superb and cheap.  No more carbide left in Hot Springs - we pinched it!

To our initial chagrin, carbide was impossible to obtain but after the 450th attempt we decided to have one last go in this little hardware store in Hot Springs we were passing after an early breakfast.

"Do you have any calcium carbide my good hardware vendor?" says Mac.  "Gee, I had sane here waysback.  Jus' hunker down there and I'll go out back and looksee!

Bless his heart, he cane tack with a dusty old tin of the stuff for the grand price of a rock.  On now to the Greenbrier River and our caving area, centred around Lewisburg and route 219 which runs north-south through the cave region, embracing Monroe, Greenbrier and Pocohontas counties.  Sojourned at Lost World show caves - the only one we've seen totally lit up.  25 rocks for a 'hardcore' trip for cavers which is outrageous but a spectacular show cave nonetheless.  We left rapidly after Trebor did unspeakable things to a toilet in the show cave cafe, but less said the better.  Lewisburg is a pleasant hick town and we contacted Bob Liebman of Bob & Bob (cave supplies) by phone in Sinks Grove, a village 15 miles south of Lewisburg.  He said come on down so down we went and he kindly let us stay in his brothers 'house'; typically timber, pleasant, semi derelict, outside dunny and no water but it was a roof over our heads and certainly better than the Belfry.

Bob was hosting the local Grotto (caving club) meeting that Friday evening in his house around the corner so we were invited along to meet the boys and have a tube or two.  They gave us some tips on where to go, people to see, things to do and invited us on their club trip down the local mega cave, Organ Hole, the following Sunday.

TIPPLES FOR TRAVELLERS.  Not much water about in huts etc, so take the opportunity of ablutting in cave entrances, puddles etc, also cafes.  Carbide not allowed on planes so use petzl zooms until you can get to Bob's where there's loadsa carbide.  But beware you cannot get flat Duracell-type petzl batteries in the USA, so take plenty.

Armed with all the info, off we went the next day caving.  Too many to relate individually and far too many to even hope to do in two weeks but we saw enough variety in styles, picturesgueness, severity, size and dampness to whet the appetite.  Over 3000 known caves in the state and vast potential for more.  We didn't even dent the surface.  The locals can't cope with what they've got, let alone systematically look for more.  Two or three trips stood out in the first week.

BRANTS CAVE.  Not much of a cave but a little SRT entrance pitch.   Accompanied by one of the Organ Hole show cave guides.  All well until the prusik out when our American friend had trouble with his apology-for-a-rig.

"Cut the rope, cut the rope - I'm dying!" came the anguished cry.

Trebor looks over the lip and says with remarkable restraint, hoi-polloi and nonchalance,

"'The BEC don't cut rope, dear boy" .. (and under his breath, "not even at 75p a metre")

Pat and Trebor untied the belay, lowered our guide all of two feet to the floor while Dan "I'm a warden" Dare McManus descended to sort the bloke out.  First MRO overseas rescue?

ORGAN CAVE.  Some forty miles of biggish stuff, not rivettingly interesting but has to be done and of course we only did a bit of it.  A small part is a rather poor show cave but it does contain old timber vats from the Civil War when they used to leach out saltpetre for gunpowder.  The main significance was that it was our first trip with the local caving group, a great bunch.  We did a 6 hour through trip which was pleasant enough, but mainly because of the company.  The jokes and banter began to flow.  I never knew Mac had such a dirty mind.

WARM RIVER CAVE.  We had heard that this one breathed fire and brimstone from the entrance with hot Spring water frothing deep below.  It had to be checked out by these fearless Belfryites, wearing good old wetsuits in the mad dogs and English tradition.  After some initial difficulty with route finding, we promptly found the froth - hot spring water at 86F running to meet a cooler inlet.  Luckily a cooler lake allowed some respite but we only just exited before heat exhaustion took over.  Now we know why all the roots were covered with condensation. Well worth a visit.  Needless to say you can get away with dry grotts or perhaps just wet suit bottom.

SCOTT HOLLOW. One of the recent finds, a short distance from Sinks Grove, discovered by a farmer clearing his land with a bulldozer for a lake/reservoir.  Entrance series similar to Mendip, but bigger, breaking out into really stupendous river passage, bigger than Darens Time Machine with the river Thames flowing down it.  We couldn't see roof, walls or floor.  Magnificent.

Mac to local: ''What's this chamber called George?"  Local: "'That's no chamber, it's a passage!”

Mac again: ''How does it end George?"  George: "Oh. We haven't got to the end yet.  It goes on for five miles like this and still going"

*****************************************

So endeth the first week. At the Grotto meeting we had met Gordon Mothes owner of the Friars Hole Cave Preserve, some 30 miles north and our aim for the second week.  He gladly let us stay on the Preserve in his log cabin caving hut - a lovely peaceful spot deep in the forest on the Pocohontas/Greenbrier County border, just off Route 219.  His 600 odd acre farm is slap bang over the Friars Hole Cave system, all 45 miles of it and one of the longest in the country. He has some 5 or 6 of its entrances on his land.

TIPS FOR DRIVERS. When passing through Ronceverte, just south of Lewisburg, beware funny junctions with strange signs which plead 'stop'.  If you don't then Officer Rudd will kick your ass.  The County Judge is not amused at 11.30 pm.  Also watch out for sneaky one-way systems which they slip in here and there when you're least expecting it.

The Friars Hole cabin is a classic - outside dunny, spring water nearby, a bunk area and a Belfresque log burning stove, plus a huge bull who conveniently stands between the hut and the dunny - a formidable sight at 3 in the morning when a bleary ex­caver wants the john.  Only a few minutes walk away are 4 or 5 of the Friars Hole Cave entrances, except the main Friars Hole entrance which is a few minutes drive back down Route 219.  Two dollars a night for the hut.   What more could a caver want?  Even an arm chair caver.

We then had three very pleasant days at the Preserve, exploring as much of the cave system as we could (probably only 10%?) via 4 of the entrances.  Mostly mega stuff, some dry, some wet and quite a bit (3 miles) of crawling if you want it, just to make Mendipites feel at home.  Also loadsa bats, SRT available, saltpetre vats - it's got the lot.  A traverse of the system, from Friars Hole to Canadian Hole is supposed to take 14 hours, for Americans that is.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Budget for white water rafting on the New and Greenbrier Rivers.  We were quoted 70 Bucks but in the proper season it may be less and different outfits will have different charges.  Shop around. Wait for a nice wet spell to add a bit of froth, spice, spills, stained underwear and excitement.

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A quick run tack to Washington, roughly along the way we had come (Pat had forgotten something at Luray) but utilising the Interstate highways a bit more.

We had a few hours to kill on that day plus a few the next morning to have a look round Washington; various monuments, Arlington Cemetery, Ronnie's house, Smithsonian etc.  Well worth it.  A good fast, clean metro.  Avoid taxis. Two feet is the best way to get around.

TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS. Common courtesy with landowners still applies.  They are very friendly and delighted that speleos come all the way from England to go down their holes.  So spend a bit of time chatting - they're usually very interesting, e.g. Mr Cobb at Massanuten.  All locals are very friendly too and only to willing to help and talk turkey.

Beware certain TV channels on Motel telly sets.  Big satellite dishes allow them to pick up hours of triple xxx fleshy coloured porn, all sweat and gore.  Certainly far too strong for Belfryites.

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A West Virginia file has been made up in the library, giving all sorts of useful and useless info such as show caves, addresses, local contacts, police cell dimensions, as maps places for plans, eateries, etc. Please leave it all intact in the file for others to use.

Trebor, Pat & Mac


 

The Lava Caves Of Lanzarote

Overcoming my puritanical instincts which dictated an Englishman should sit out an English winter, Angie and I took off for Lanzarote this January.   Lanzarote, the northernmost of the Canary Islands, lies roughly on the same latitude as the Bahamas and the Spanish Sahara and has a climate aptly described as eternal spring.  Apart from its climatic benefits the island also sports some extensive lava fields of varying vintage.  These are the consequence of volcanic eruptions in the recent geological past - so recent that the islands are still seismically active.  Although the last major eruption on Lanzarote was two hundred years ago the last eruption in the Canaries occurred within the last two decades. Lava fields often contain lava tubes i.e. caves.  Not long ago Caves and Caving contained an article on the lava tubes of Lanzarote and this helped to stimulate my interest.

The largest, and most recent lava field, can be found in the Timanfaya national park to the south-west of the island.  The problem about exploration here is that the park is out of bounds to the average tourist apart from guided coach tours through the dramatic landscape.  One of these tours is a must for any visitor to the island.  It is a bit like being in an above ground show cave if you can envisage such a thing! The tour starts at a discreetly and tastefully constructed restaurant overlooking the park - shades of Ailwee. Here the park guides demonstrate the proximity of hot rock by throwing furze into excavated pits, letting it burst into flame, and by tipping water into metal pipes let into the ground to create artificial geysers.  If this was not enough the restaurant grills its meat on a volcanic barbecue.

The coach drive, with appropriate good music, meanders through the genuinely lunar landscape - dunes of ash, frozen lava falls, panoramic views of craters, ash cones and collapsed lava tubes can all be seen.  At one point the coach goes through a collapsed tube on the walls of which can be seen lavatites.  The lava field extends to the sea on the west coast and this is accessible via rough tracks - probably worth looking at for new caves.

To the north of the island is the extinct Monte Corona and a lava field extending to the east coast. This field is much older and has become covered with vegetation, mostly succulents.  One of the world's longest lava tube complexes extends from the base of the volcano and can be entered at a number of points.  Beside the road to the coast is a huge collapse doline from which both the 'upstream' and 'downstream' sections of the tunnel can be entered.  They are spectacularly big and made me regret not having a torch with me.  I could walk into the downstream tunnel for 50 metres with daylight still penetrating.

Down the road a bit further and marked only by a car park is the show cave Cueva Los Verdes.  Here the doline has been planted cut with exotic plant life.  The ticket office is a cunningly concealed hole in the doline wall - easy to walk past until the hand shoots out!  An engineered descent through a boulder ruckle enters a large dry meandering tunnel with more discreet mood music (Brian Eno ambient style) and concealed lighting. There is a notable absence of the ferns one sees normally in limestone show caves.  The tunnel looking every inch like a vadose canyon debouches into a much larger hall containing a concert platform.  The cave can be seen to continue beyond a pile of boulders. The way back is along a high level passage with an absence of safety barriers which would make a HSE inspector blanch.  Joe feature here is an artificial pool which by reflecting the high roof above creates the optical illusion that one is peering down a deep pit.  Quite a few people were taken in by this despite the fact that they had just walked from that direction at a lower level.  One leaves the cave by a separate entrance in the doline past the biggest Swiss Cheese plants I have ever seen.

Right down near the coast is the Jameos del Agua - an entertainment complex in a cave.  One enters the Doline via a spiral staircase. A restaurant covers most of the middle level whilst ferns and cacti grow around the walls.  On the seaward side of the dance floor is a descending boulder slope to an illuminated sump pool which is tidal.  This is the start of the Atlantida tunnel extending 1.6 kilometres out under the sea to a depth of 64 metres.  On the other side the restaurant is another flight of steps down to a short tunnel almost completely filled by a deep blue tidal pool.  This pool contains thousands of tiny crabs (or squat lobsters) which are blind and white.  A path along one side of the pool leads to yet more steps up into another doline containing mere exotic plants and a swimming pool more appropriately coloured for a zoo's penguin enclosure.  The place was spotlessly clean - we were amused to see somebody vacuuming the stone steps of the doline.  If you visit Lanzarote try to get off the beaten track and take some walking boots, helmet and torch.  I am sure you will be rewarded.


 

Nam Khong, North West Thailand

For the twelfth time we waded across the Nam Khong.  Green-brown water snails slid lazily over the green-brown pebbles.  Brilliant emerald-winged damsel flies perched on floating leaves, all facing upstream like battle ready helicopters.  Squadrons of huge pond-skaters darted hither and thither, investigating our ripples, while bee-eaters and dragonflies swooped and buzzed above us, engaged in dog-fights with their prey.

It was actually a peaceful, idyllic scene; not at all war-like, but my mind kept straying back an hour or so, to when we started our journey down the river.  We had arrived at the Nam Khong bridge and police check point by public bus.  Most people on that crowded bus - Thais, hill-tribe villagers and the occasional Buddhist monk - were continuing to the border town of Mae Hong Son.  Two 'farangs' (foreigners), each with enormous packs, caused quite a lot of interest, and everybody tried to be helpful.

"On which side of the river is the path?"

"There is no path, but you could use one of these bamboo rafts."

The rafts were flat bundles of 15 to 20 foot lengths of bamboo, which are poled downstream and, maybe, hauled back up.  They are notorious for sinking, and anyway, at this time of year the the river is full of gravel shallows making navigation a drag literally.

"There is definitely a path, and it leads to a cave."

"No!  There is no cave down the river."

"Yes.  It is in the cliffs, at the head of the first tributary."

"You cannot go into any cave.  They are dark."

"We have lights.  It is O.K. Can we leave one pack here?  We will return in the morning."

"You cannot sleep in the jungle."

They were beginning to run short of deterrents!

"We have camping equipment and plenty of food."

"The mosquitoes are really bad.  You will catch malaria."

This last ditch attempt was actually quite serious, but ...

"We have pills and repellent and nets."

They eventually accepted that we were absolutely determined (and probably mad too) and my pack was deposited in a bamboo and palm shelter where it would be completely safe: the shelter also contained several members of the Police Special Force, together with their arsenal of M16 sub-machine guns, Smith and Weston .38 revolvers, and stacks of ammunition.  The surrounding hills are constantly combed for insurgents (Kuomintang and Shan United Army) and bandits.

We soon found the path, which was fairly well trodden as many of the local villagers wandered up and down the river in search of fish.  The river meanders gently, heading south in a deep valley below massive cliffs to the east.  It drains several hundred square kilometres of karst stretching right up to the Burmese border.  A number of the tributaries that join the river from the east emerge from caves in the cliffs.  Twelve river crossings, each one made to cut off a meander or avoid small cliffs and steep sections, and we had reached the first tributary down the river from the road bridge.

We followed up the stream on a vague path to the left.  The stream flowed very slowly, straight and level; mud-floored shallows under a canopy of exotic greens.  We disturbed bright orange forest birds, whose clear calls echoed amongst the trees, and a large black and white kingfisher shot away ahead of us. Chipmunks played in the branches that overhung the water.  It was quite obvious that few people ever came here.

Suddenly we carne upon deep pools of milky-blue, and in front of us the stream cascaded noisily among large, rounded boulders of limestone.  We clambered steeply up the rocks, finding ourselves at the base of a huge slope of fallen blocks.  Above the slope we could glimpse the tall, reddish cliffs that marked the edge of the limestone plateau.  There was no sign of a cave.

 

The stream was lost among the boulders, its resurgence being from dark hollows between the rocks lower down. For a while we could still hear it, churning and falling, somewhere deep within the bouldery mass, and then we were climbing on, far above it.  After half an hour steadily working our way up the slope we reached a more-or-less level section; the cliffs now towered directly above us and a yawning overhang filled our view ahead.  A short distance across the top of the slope and a great chasm opened below.  To our left the wall dropped vertically for seventy five metres to the glint and subdued rushing of the underground stream, bubbling along in the gloom.  Forty metres across to the right an easier slope led over boulders, earth and mud to a wide, sandy ledge almost at the threshold of daylight - an ideal site for a bivouac.

Tham Nam Lang (Cave of the River Lang) is Thailand's second longest cave, surveyed at nearly eight and a half kilometres. Although not of world class length, its volume is some two million cubic metres, which is certainly respectable, and its catchment is four hundred and twenty five square kilometres.  The main sink is three and a half kilometres to the east, and is impenetrable.

Having levelled and laid out our bivi site we kitted up and made our way down to the stream.  Here, close to the exit, the water has cut itself a canyon, in one part only four or five metres wide; not far above us the cave is thirty to forty metres wide, and this canyon is a quite unusual feature. For two hundred metres the passage is straight, creating a long, tall, cuboid chamber.  At the inner end the cave turns a sharp corner and the daylight can penetrate no further.  We each had three forms of lighting, and none of these were sufficient to pick out the roof except in a couple of places where it dropped to less than thirty metres. The air was full of a fine mist whose droplets reflected back our light, and millions of tiny white flies horned in on our headlights, making it worse.

The roof was a roost for large numbers of bats and swifts, and their incessant squeaking filled the cave with noise for at least the first kilometre.  They were only seen when they flew around us at head height, catching insects.

There is very little stal to be seen.  Around the entrance there is plenty in the roof but, if there is stal on the roof further in, it is too small or too dark to pick out.  Much of the rock surface is coated with a slimy, black substance, making it dangerously slippery.  It probably results from the breakdown of organic matter, both vegetable and animal; it is worst near the entrance, where bird droppings add to the problem.  Any stal is likely to be coated with black and obscured.  New stal growth, so rapid in the tropics, is always vulnerable to the incredible flooding that occurs every wet season.

In spite of this we did come across particular areas of massive stal banks and gours - just over one kilometre in, Mekhala's Palace is a fine set of large, white gours, rising tier upon tier to a level platform close to the roof.  Nearly four kilometres in, up a dry, flowstone oxbow, is a huge stalagmite, Khan Thai.

I took in my wine bag for flotation in the deep water sections, but these are only short in the initial reaches of the cave.  There are long sections of splashing in knee-deep water, or wading from waist to chest deep, while in several areas it is possible to avoid the stream altogether by traversing on slippery ledges or clambering over rocks at the sides. There are some long, gravel banks where the going is easy, which we found a great relief.

We both felt that the cave was somewhat monotonous; it is certainly not sporting.  Having got the flavour of the cave we turned back for our bivouac. The late afternoon sun shone straight into the entrance, lighting up the whole of that vast cavern.  Even so, the moist cave atmosphere had left a layer of damp on everything, and we settled in for a chilly night.  Much later, from out of the dark, the low, throaty growl of a big cat awakened Jane, and we hoped we had not ousted a tiger or a panther from its favourite -resting place.  Who said monotonous?

The end of the cave is actually some six and a half kilometres in, beyond a long section of deep water.  The stream emerges from narrow fissures and rocks, and no way on has yet been found. The main sink is a further half kilometre to the north-east, at the western end of the long Nam Lang polje. More than sixteen kilometres upstream from here the Nam Lang has already come through another cave, Tham Lot. Close by this cave is the settlement of Ban Tham ( Cave Village) and Cave Lodge, where we stayed for several days.

Throughout this north-western corner of Thailand live numerous hill-tribes; the Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Meo and Mhong are just a few.  They are essentially nomadic peoples, who neither know nor care of international boundaries.  They live by 'slash and burn' agriculture: as they move into a new area the existing vegetation, often virgin jungle or primary forest, is cut down and burned totally to make way for crops, such as rice or opium.  The land is steep, and the fields are frequently just an area of hillside, which is left un-terraced.  The soil is thin and poor in nutrients.  The goodness from the ashes of the first burn is soon used up, and the whole tribe must abandon their village and move on.

Ban Tham, like some of the neighbouring villages, seems to be unusual in this respect: the people have been persuaded by the Thai government, who have supplied water tanks and irrigation schemes, to settle down, and the village has become more or less permanent, even boasting a school and a shop.  Many of the women still wear their traditional costumes (each tribe has its own distinctive 'uniform', bright embroidery and dresses with wide double and triple borders of contrasting colours, woven hats decorated with beads and jewels, and necklaces, bangles and earrings of silver and turquoise) but a lot of the men wear western clothes - T-shirts and baseball hats.

A little below Ban Tham, perched on the craggy edge of the Nam Lang valley, Australian John Spies and his Thai wife, Diu, have built a lodge for travellers.  It overlooks the river, which meanders gently across a wide, flat valley floor.  The air is thick with the noise of cicadas and the sweet smell of ripe, jungle fruits. The horizon is limited and blurred by the blue haze of dozens of forest fires, and the heat and humidity drains away all energy.  We were glad of the wide, deep swimming hole in the river down below, when the brown skinned boys had gone fishing elsewhere and the water-buffalo had moved out.

Quarter of an hour's gentle amble down-river, past women washing clothes on the wet cobbles, and a solitary fisher collecting crustaceans in a wicker basket on her back, and over paths swept clear of leaf litter daily by Buddhist monks, brought us to a sharp bend in the river.  Ahead was an ancient wind gap but, beneath the limestone cliffs to the right, the waters ran calmly into the hillside.  This is Tham Lot, meaning 'through cave'.

The cave opening is about forty metres wide but only ten metres high.  We climbed a rickety bamboo ladder to reach a long, level platform of sand-filled gours.  These stretched away to one side of the river and, sixty metres in, rose to an area of large stalagmites overlooking the water.  The shelf ended and we dropped to an extensive gravel bank which disappeared into the darkness.  Before we finally lost the daylight of the entrance a steep slope led up to some big side galleries.

Climbing through the high, but relatively narrow archway we entered a chamber some one hundred metres long and more than tall enough to accommodate the imposing twenty metre stalagmite standing sentinel there.  Large, brown millipedes crawled over the old, flowstone floor in search of hapless beetles. Behind us various routes led up to balconies high above the stream, while ahead lay a rockfall blocking any possible exit to the hill above.

This side passage may have been an old stream route, long pre­dating the river's present course. Immediately across the river, a thigh-deep wade, more high level passages led off.  Two bamboo ladders took us up to roof level, fifteen metres above the river, onto a heavily stalagmited shelf.  The stal was quite good, though it is being damaged by frequent visitors (the only equipment required is a torch, which a local entrepreneur will happily supply - he even has a small number of tilley lamps, especially for tourists).  Although dry now, all the stal will probably be very much alive again in the wet season. The passages gradually become smaller, no more than five metres wide and deteriorating ultimately to squeezes and crawls, with some bad air in one branch.

Back in the main river passage we avoided the deeper water by walking on the long, gravel banks, and soon daylight appeared at the resurgence.  The passage, rectangular in section, varied in width from twenty to thirty metres, while the height gradually increased to twenty five metres. A big colony of bats clustered together in the centre of the roof, their little eyes glowing red in our torchlight, and a noise of screaming swifts intensified.  Large stalactites, green with mosses, festooned the ceiling near the exit.

Up on our left lay the last of the side passages, again, perhaps, a fragment of the old stream route. Two more bamboo ladders took us to an extensive shelf, layered deep with swift guano, and a single passage led narrowly through to a chamber. In the alcoves and around the edges of the chamber were the remains of long, wooden containers.  Each was dug out from a single piece of wood in the form of a cuboid box with handles at each end.  Some archaeologists believe them to be coffins - in section they are just about adequate for a body - but they are up to three metres in length.  Others have suggested that they are possibly water tanks. Certainly their age is measurable in millenia, and they represent an ancient and forgotten people who lived in or near the caves.

 

We returned to the river, past the little piles swept together by the guano collectors, and out into the fading sunlight.  The river wound itself placidly away through deep, verdant undergrowth, and trees and bushes of brilliant greens. Having swept through a thousand metres of cave the air was now moist and cool, creating a micro-climate around the cave exit. Laughing thrushes cackled amongst the leaves, and dark, secretive birds skulked along the river banks.

As dusk approached we sat and waited in the cave mouth, watching the swifts circling in the sky above. A large bat hawk swooped down from the trees, intent on supper.  The swifts began to return from their aerial hunting to their nocturnal roost in the cave. The air was soon thick with screaming, madly circling birds, for a quarter of a million of them spend every night clinging among the stalactities.  Some tore into the darkness, only to turn at some incredible speed and sweep just above the underground river, dipping in their beaks for a momentary drink.  After an hour the cacophony had died away, and the last, late swifts spiralled down from the heavens to find their appointed spot in the roof of the cave. We returned to the lodge through the cave, and along the dark paths, listening to the night orchestra of crickets and geckos.

East of Ban Tham about seven kilometres lies the village of Ban Mae Lana.  This is another fairly permanent settlement, for it stands on some raised ground in a large, level floored polje.  Like most poljes, the soil is rich and fertile, and the nutrients are renewed seasonally.  The floor is divided up as well ordered farmland. A river, the Nam Mae Lana, flows from the north and sinks towards the southern end of the polje.  The sink is impenetrable, for the annual floods wash down huge quantities of sediment, along with bits of trees, including whole trunks.

A ridge of limestone separates the Mae Lana polje from a deep, closed depression a little to the south. This doline is two kilometres long and one wide, and the Nam Mae Lana is seen again in the bottom.  In the dry season it is no more than a little stream, and is first seen at the bottom of a fifteen metre deep hole in the limestone. Further south, but still in the doline, the stream resurges from a rock-pile, flows for a few hundred metres through bamboo forest, and enters a cave in the west wall of the doline. This is Tham Nam Mae Lana, and was the highlight of our caving in Thailand.

A brief topographical study suggests that the Mae Lana stream should continue its southward course and resurge at the Nam Lang polje, only two kilometres further south.  In fact it heads west, meandering underground for seven kilometres to cover the five kilometres across to the Nam Khong valley. Twelve kilometres of passage are now known in Tham Nam Mae Lana, making this cave the longest in Thailand.  It was our intention to do a through trip, inflow to resurgence.  Only two people had done this before, two 'hard' Tasmanians who also helped to explore and survey the cave, in May '86.

John Spies discovered the cave in early 1986 and he probably knows more about it than anyone else.  He had lots of useful advice, of which we only rejected one item - that the cave was too dangerous an undertaking for only two people, neither of whom was familiar with the system.  He tried his best to put us off (in blissful ignorance of the B.E.C. motto), but when he realized that we were absolutely determined he was extremely helpful.

He suggested various, easily identifiable features as an aid to route finding, and we were able to study the original, full scale survey two metres of paper.  More importantly he drew from memory a detailed map of the walk out from the cave resurgence back to the nearest road.  Without this we could have faced several hours', or even days', walking on a compass bearing through teak forest, scrub and jungle, searching for a way up the cliffs and back onto the plateau.  Someone else at the lodge lent us their day pack to carry gear and food underground, and we packed it with boiled rice, noodles and veges, banana cake and buns, carbide and numerous batteries, all carefully triple wrapped in poly bags.  We were taking no chances.

From Ban Tham we travelled by Land Rover over the rough forest track to Ban Soppong, a colourful, lively village that acts as a meeting point for the various hill-tribes.  On the main road west, the so-called 'short', hilly route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, we used a combination of local buses and hitched rides, one with a learner driver and the other on the back of a lorry amongst rolling drums of leaking diesel.  This last would have been fine, had the driver not been Nicki Lauda's cousin, and had the road not been a playground for diggers, bulldozers, tree­fellers and rock smashers, all trying to improve the old Japanese war-time route to Burma.

It is really good to walk after these sorts of lifts, and we left the main road for a side track (actually in much better condition than the former) to Ban Mae Lana.  The track wound slowly downwards and the jungle thinned to offer extensive views of tower karst and big dolines.  A little bamboo and thatch village appeared, set against a magnificent backdrop of two enormous, perfectly proportioned towers.  The doline and polje of Mae Lana dropped away to our right, but we had to skirt the cliff edge of these for several kilometres before reaching the polje floor at Ban Mae Lana.

The rice fields were rock hard and dry, and the stream practically non-existent.  We would be visiting the cave in ideal conditions. There was not a cloud in the sky and the threat of impending monsoon, when it rained a few days earlier, had vanished.  Crossing the low ridge between the polje and the doline, we descended first through stone forest, then across a hot, dusty area of still smouldering, blackened tree stumps, and finally steeply among bamboo, whose dry, pale-brown leaves crackled under our feet.  The little stream brought a welcome coolness to the heavy, still air, and we paddled our way along it to where it was swallowed through the three metre square entrance to Tham Nam Mae Lana.

We entered the cave soon after midday, and everything was comfortably familiar.  Only a few days previously we had covered the first couple of kilometres of cave, and had explored and surveyed a further kilometre of side passage and large chambers.  For the first two and a half kilometres it is generally easy going, following the stream, often in passage fifteen to twenty metres high and wide. There is just one slightly awkward boulder pile three hundred metres in, involving a bit of boulder balancing and simple climbing.  Occasionally the passage roof soars (as side avens) to thirty metres and more, accommodating long fluted columns of stal.  These are probably pouring with water in the wet season, but the cave, like so many in this area, is inaccessible then.  There is very little stal down the main stream-way, except for a few massive flows and gours; the annual floods quickly destroy the delicate formations that are created so rapidly only months earlier.  Several hundred metres downstream the roof dips with a heavy inflow of calcite-rich water forming a portcullis between one and two metres above the floor.  Most of the stalactites are rounded and abraded by gravel laden waters of the wet-season stream, and are blackened with organic matter.  Small straws have grown several inches during the last few months, but their life is very short.

It did not take us long to cover the first two kilometres, to where a forty metre wide stretch of gours and deep, rimstone pools almost blocks the passage.  The stream has maintained a low, aqueous route beneath the gours, while there is a more straight­forward, dry route over the top and through a low, oxbow lake on the uppermost rim-pool.  Without their monsoonal streams many of the caves in these tropical regions would soon be blocked with stal; long fossil systems seem to be rare here for this reason.  Should the Mae Lana stream change its course, then the cave would rapidly be blocked at these gours.

The gour-top lake is fed by a tributary via sumps two kilometres to the south.  Quite clearly the flow does not vary greatly according to the seasons, as the whole of the passage is richly decorated with pristine, white stal.  There are numerous pools up to neck deep with floors of thick mud, and lots of blind, white fish and crays live here.

Continuing downstream from the gours we soon came across rapids, and the roof lowered again.  The passage became narrower and the stream suddenly tumbled down a three metre waterfall and disappeared along a narrowing rift.  Up to our right large passage could be seen, and we climbed to a shelf and across boulders into the edge of a chamber three hundred and fifty metres long, and varying between forty and seventy metres high and wide.  Although this sounds vast it did not seem so at the time as the floor is composed of huge mounds of boulders, and we skirted the base of these.

Now that we had entered this dry sump-bypass of huge, old, abandoned passages and chambers route finding became a problem.  With no handy stream to follow and the possibility of a myriad hidden ways behind house-sized boulders our progress slowed dramatically.  We left frequent cairns in case we had to find our way back, and our compasses were in continual use, checking the trend of whichever wall we had decided to follow. Looking for routes onwards across sixty or seventy metres of passage takes time.  We had eventually climbed a crumbling, fault-shattered slope until, close to the roof, an almost imperceptible draught revealed a loose, descending traverse to a recognisable landmark - the Red Crystal Stream.  This is the only feature named on the survey, and is a relatively insignificant ochreous orange stal flow along the floor at the edge of the passage, but we now knew exactly where we were, at approximately the half way point through the cave.

The floor became sandy and the boulders less frequent, and then a short stretch of scalloped bedrock led down to water, with the stream resurging from among boulders on the opposite side of the passage.  Only a couple of hundred metres further on we left the stream once more, for a second sump-bypass.  The stream itself continues for five hundred metres in large, meandering passage to a deep, green-blue sump pool, and enters the main passage again further on.  We climbed a sandy bank to the edge of a well decorated series of dry galleries.  The first section contained some good, white flows, stalactites and thin curtains, well worth seeing after the comparative paucity of stal in the stream cave, but we were more fascinated by the next chamber.  The level, mud­brown, stal floor was littered with cave pearls, ranging in size from marbles to golf balls.  Each sat, free to rotate, in its own little calcite cup.  Taking care not to tread on any, which was not easy considering their profusion, we made our way on compass bearings to the base of an enormous pile of heavily stalagmited boulders.  Heading up these, occasionally following the faint marks of the original explorers, we were fortunate to find one area of constant drip, where we could replenish our water supplies.  We were drinking quite a lot, and maintaining a two to three inch flame on the carbides, which needed frequent topping up.

Ahead of us the cave opened up yet again as we entered the side of another big chamber.  Stalagmites more than ten metres high would have dominated most chambers, but here they were almost lost, tucked away near the bottom of a three hundred metre long slope, which rose through extensive rockfall for over one hundred metres to the right.  Our way lay down to the left where we dropped quickly to a level mud floor. After another brief route finding delay we climbed down more boulders to the sound of flowing water, and found the stream once more, moving sluggishly through muddy hollows among rocks.

We had been caving steadily now for six and a half hours, and it would be dark outside, so there seemed little point in pressing on yet.  On the descent to the stream we carne upon a sandy shelf in a little alcove of black, scalloped rock - ideal for a bivouac.  Wrapped up in a polythene sheet, we slept comfortably for four hours or so.

We awoke soon after midnight, had "breakfast", and set off downstream.  Thus far we had not had to swim, but we understood that there were numerous deep pools in this lower section of the cave and short swims would be necessary.  To begin with the passage was quite wide and about fifty metres high, but it rapidly narrowed to a few metres and varied from around ten to forty metres in height. The swims were in the narrowest parts of the passage, where it was just too wide for traversing and not wide enough for ledges as well as water, but each swim was only a few metres long. Jane, whose total confidence in water never ceases to amaze me, went first through the clear pools, treading carefully and finding all sorts of underwater projections and boulders. This procedure eliminated most of the swims, although we were still often wading in neck deep water.

The cave was all easy going in the streamway, with no route finding problems, and after two and a half hours we could smell the fresh air.  Leaves and earth had dropped down through crevices in the bouldery roof, and a long, straight, pipe-like root drank water from the stream bed.  We had made it after only nine hour's caving.

It was still dark outside, so we waited in the exit chamber until the bats, in their dozens, carne flocking past us to their roosts deeper in the cave.  We emerged to a pale, grey light which brightened quickly to a pink dawn while we climbed through the cliffs of the Nam Khong valley.  The raucous cries of hornbills disturbed the morning air as they flapped their ungainly way among the tree-tops, and we stood awhile to watch the early sun pick out the limestone towers and ridges, stretching away into the misty blueness of Burma.

Graham Wilton-Jones
9.7.1987 Kuwait