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Meghalaya 2000

by Tony Jarratt

Tom Chapman and the writer were the BEC's representatives on this year's expedition (Brian Johnson and John Whitely being the Club's agents on a separate Devon/Yorkshire trip to the south of the country which I am sure they will write up for the BB!)  The rest of the team consisted of our leader, Simon Brooks (Orpheus & Grampian), Fraser Simpson, Dr. Kate Janossy, Roger Galloway, Pete Dowswell (Grampian), Mark Brown, Dr. Kirsten McCullough (Sheffield Uni.), Kevin Garwood (Canada) and Dr. Mandy Edgemont (S.W.C.C.)  The Meghalayan Adventurers contingent were Brian Karpran Daly (leader), Donbokwell Syiemlieh (organizer), Ronie Mawlong (token small boy), Bokstarland Franklin (organizer/guitarist), George Nongkhlaw, Spindro Dkhar, Betty Chhakchhuak, Neil Sootinck, Lindsay Diengdoh, Andy Tyler, Adora Thaba, Myrkasim Swer (chef), Larsing Suklain (guide, caver and bigamist) and a host of cooks, assistants, drivers, guides etc. Hospitality and entertainment were once again provided by the ever popular Ladies of Shillong.

This trip had two primary aims: - 1) Continuation of the work done by Wells Cathedral School C.C. (1999) in the Sutnga area, Jaintia Hills, east Meghalaya (recced. by us in 1998 and 1999).

2) Recce. in the Garo Hills, west Meghalaya, following on from work done by earlier expeditions.

Aim one was accomplished very successfully, despite a total lack of surveys or information from the Wells team but aim two had to be cancelled due to insurgency problems in the area.

The BEC contingent left Mendip on 9th Feb. after getting a lift to Heathrow with Tony Boycott (who we had exchanged this year for three young and attractive lady doctors - good swap eh?)  Here we met Simon, Kate, Kirsten, Mark and Fraser and flew on to Meghalaya via Amman ( Jordan) Calcutta and Guwahati ( Assam).  A luxury coach then took us on the four hour drive to the capital, Shillong, where we met Pete, Roger and the local lads at the Embassy Hotel.

11th Feb. was a shopping and equipment sorting day followed by party number one at Brian and Maureen’s house.

12th Feb. hangover number one was suffered on the coach to Cherrapunjee (Sohra) where we went for a day trip to a proposed holiday resort owned by Brian's friend Denis Rayen.  Its spectacular location near the village of Laitkynsew gave views of the towering escarpment cliffs of Meghalaya which were as impressive as looking at one wall of the Grand Canyon - greatly enhanced by the endless flat plains of Bangladesh below.  The nearby sandstone cave of Krem Wah Sang was explored and surveyed by Simon, Tom and Mark to a length of 106m and depth of 32m.  Meanwhile, above, the rest of us sat around a bonfire drinking and listening to Roger playing Irish and Scottish folk tunes on his tin whistle as dusk fell over the plains below - we'd arrived!

Next day we left by coach for the five hour journey to Sutnga taking with us Betty (of the unpronounceable surname!) and Kevin - a travelling Canadian who expressed an interest in caving and, more importantly, was a computer programmer (we had two lap-tops with us).  On arrival we established HQ at the village Inspection Bungalow, some 3/4 hours drive from the main limestone block of the Nongkhlieh ridge.

The 14th saw the whole team pushing leads left by the Wells students though the lack of information from them was to frustrate us throughout our time in this area.  Near the village of Lelad, on the north side of the ridge, the horrific boulder maze of Krem Sniang was surveyed for 90m length and 47m depth to the head of a probable 10m+ "pitch".  Any attempt to descend this would have meant dislodging keystones holding up the 47m of boulders above!  It was abandoned in disgust as the strong draught indicated a big cave below.  The name, " Pig Cave", relates to an aberrant porker rescued from the entrance pit before providing sustenance for a village feast.

The nearby Krem Umsohtung was also visited and a pitch descended and surveyed to the head of a second pitch.  We later discovered that this had already been done more lack of information.

Today's best find was Krem Mawshun where a split 20m pitch (left un-descended by Wells C.S.C.C.) led to an extensive horizontal system - see later.

The 51.5m deep Krem Kdong Moomair was bottomed in one pitch by Tom, Mandy, Kirsten and Fraser to a choke. The long snake skin at the top of the shaft caused the explorers, especially Fraser, some concern as to whether its previous occupant was awaiting them below!

On the following day, after a long drive in our Mahindra 4WD pick-up, we arrived at Litien village where a couple of local lads were found to guide us to Krem Wah Sarang ( Rusty Water Cave).  A dry entrance above a small resurgence led to a fine 200m long, 3m wide and 4m high stream passage to another entrance on the far side of a ridge, near the sink. Other small caves nearby were investigated but found to be choked or sumped.  As our pick-up had gone back to HQ we were forced to hitch a lift home in the diesel soaked back of a monstrous 4WD Shaktiman truck - driven by a lunatic who was obviously late for his tea.  This was the most exciting part of the day!

Continuing our recce of this area next day, we went in search of Kut Sutiang - a hill fort with stone-barricaded caves which was stormed by the British in 1862 to eradicate the last of the Jaintia "rebels".  With the hill in sight we made a courtesy stop in Shnongrim village and had tea with the headman. Unfortunately he had previously been approached by the Jaintia Adventurers Assn. - a breakaway group from the Meghalayan Adventurers - and they had requested that the area be reserved for them only. Having experienced India's first case of "caving politics" we beat a diplomatic retreat after bribing the headman with Polaroid photographs of his family.  This short sighted action by the Jaintia cavers will do little to further serious exploration as they have practically no equipment, no vertical experience, no survey kit and very little intention of actually doing any serious caving. They do have a great interest in seeing their names in the papers and encouraging sponsorship though!  This problem will be resolved by next year as we have "friends in high places"

On February 17th-18th survey teams worked in Krem Mawshun to map several hundred metres of impressive streamway and a maze of wet tubes and boulder chokes leading to a large flood resurgence entrance in jungle covered pinnacle karst.  This system's total length was 3.3km.

The 19th was a rest day and we were invited to the village church/school fete very like a typical English one with folk dancing, hoop-la, tea and cakes etc. but with the exciting addition of a couple of fighting bulls let loose in the crowd and no safety fences!! Fortunately no-one got gored and the local bull was champion of the day so the villagers were in fine form, especially after celebrating with the traditional rice beer.  That night another party and sing-song developed.

Scenery above Krem Wah Ryngo

Next morning, late, the whole hung over team travelled by bone shaking Shaktiman for two hours to the remote village of Umteh.  Here we were shown the dry flood resurgence of Krem ah Ryngo ( Charcoal Cave).  With a name like that it was just begging for passage names with a Beatles theme.  On this first trip about 1km of impressive, walking size and up to 10m wide tunnels were surveyed and at least eight main ways on left unexplored.

We returned the next day replete with camping gear and cooks and established ourselves in a deserted coal miner’s settlement consisting of several bamboo framed huts devoid of roofs or walls. While the cooks rebuilt the place we returned to "Ryngo" and split into two teams to survey a further km or so including a huge, well decorated and sparkling chamber, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, and an attractive Gothic-arched phreatic tunnel-Abbey Road.

That night the jungle resounded to the joyful sounds of yet another party - this time with a roaring camp fire.  The departed coal miners would have been impressed as their ghost town sprang back into life for a brief period.

The morning of the 22nd saw the team breakfasting off baked beans, rice and bananas to the accompaniment of monkeys howling in the forest.  Another km was surveyed in "Ryngo" and a short but impressive shaft to surface climbed by Tom.  This was the dry main sink entrance, situated on the south side of the Nongklieh ridge above the camp.  In a plantation here we met three local rice planters who gave us tea, betel nut and biris (Indian fags).  In return we gave them Wills cigarettes and demonstrated the joys of lighting lumps of carbide.  Luckily we had George, a Meghalayan caver with us, who spoke to them in Khasi as they admitted that they were ready to run off and hide on first seeing the strange white men appear from nowhere!  We returned to the camp through the cave and completed a long closed loop to Abbey Road en route.

That evening four of us and the two cooks opted to stay for another night while the others returned to Sutnga.  A huge bonfire and limited rum and fag supply kept us going as we fondly thought of the body-destroying Shaktiman ride our colleagues were suffering.

Corned beef hash, noodles, oranges and bananas set us up for the day and while George and the cooks decamped Tom, Roger and I mapped another 300m of fine passages, loops and a large chamber - The Magical Mystery Tour - which fortunately led back to known cave after a committing climb down in its floor.  A low and wet route upstream from Lucy in the Sky was left unsurveyed due to lack of time and we came out via the top entrance to walk on up the ridge to the dirt road above.  Here we met George and the cooks who had built a roadside fire and prepared tea and biscuits.  As night fell and the strains of Roger's whistle soothed the savage beasts in the surrounding jungle we saw the welcome sight of the pick-up's lights in the distance. Bung, our faithful off-road driver arrived bearing fags and beer and took us back to Sutnga - tired but happy!

Meanwhile big things were happening at the nearby Krem Shrieh ( Monkey Cave).

Mark had rigged the gobsmacking 97m deep entrance shaft to enter a huge stream passage with lots of fossil galleries leading off.  In the adjacent Krem Um Sngad Fraser, Larsing and team had found over a km of streamway, fossil passages and a large downstream sump.  This cave eventually yielded 2.4km.

On 25th four of us drove for, surprisingly, only one hour to our old stomping ground of Lumshnong village. Here a fruitless recce. was done to try and find the resurgence of India's longest cave - Krem KotsatilUmlawan.  A shaft reported by local caver Spindro Dkhar was also not found.  The lower altitude here resulted in tropical temperatures and clouds of multi-coloured butterflies which made up for our lack of discoveries.  The plateau above Krem MaTom (Mf. Tom's Cave) was also looked at and the top of the impressive 30m+ Yorkshire Pot aven (found last year) was located on the surface - shown to us by immigrant colliers.  After tea with the villagers in Thangskai, where we had to arrange guides for the next day, we returned to Sutnga to find that Krem Shrieh had now grown to 1.6km with no sign of an end.

Back to Thangskai the next day for a long recce. in the forest with local guide Moon Dkhar (who we decided got his name due to his arse hanging out of his trousers) about 1 1/2 hours walk from the main road.  The first, Krem Pui Pui (pic above) was found by following a dry river bed downstream to what the non-English speaking Moon seemed to indicate was a small hole

Simon going over the edge at Krem Pui Pui

As we stood, suffering from vertigo, on the edge of an awe inspiring shaft, 34m deep by some 40-50m in diameter we realised that our interpretation was not correct!  With only 10m of ladder and a short length of rope we left it for another day and went to look at the second cave, Krem Thloo Mawriah.  At a mere 13m deep by 25m diameter this was a baby but still too much for our feeble amount of equipment, despite valorous attempts to lasso the top of a tree growing up from the base of the shaft in an attempt to shin down it to the floor. The third cave, Krem Khlien Wah Shyrtong, was reached after a long trek through dense undergrowth.  A small entrance in a cliff led to a 10m+ pitch which Simon found to be capped with loose debris and again needing more tackle than we had with us.  These three pots were formed by breaching of the thick sandstone cover and being in a previously unvisited area held great promise for potentially large cave systems filling in the gap between the Lumshnong and Sutnga karsts.

With the arrival that night of the party-loving Ladies of Shillong, plus a few more Adventurers, the inevitable happened.  Gorged on beer, betel nut and Beatles songs a few hardy souls were suddenly surprised to find that it was daylight.  After staggering off to bed at 6am it was not long before we were up again and on the road to Lumshnong where Brian and I visited the extension in my dig in Krem Umkhang/Kharasniang.  This was to confirm Tony Boycott's report of last year that it was too tight to push further without more banging or awkward hammer and chisel work.  Four other party survivors managed a Krem Kotsati tourist trip.

On 28th Simon, Fraser and I were back at Krem Pui Pui with plenty of rope, SRT kit and a video camera. Simon abseiled first into this mini "Lost World" followed by Fraser, our cameraman.  I joined them to find that the only way on was a sink passage almost completely choked with trees, boulders and bamboo.  I managed to dig through some of this to reach a blind 4m aven and then down through the floor into a most unpleasant section of draughting, spider-infested crawls over rotting vegetation which would need a considerable amount of digging to progress further.  A similar result occurred at Krem Mawriah where the pitch was laddered to reach a boulder choked draughting hole in the floor of the main shaft which would be a suicidal dig.  We had no time left to descend the third cave and our hopes for the potential of this area now having been drastically reduced we headed back to Sutnga to find that the others had had more success, Krem Shrieh now being over 5km.

29th February -St. Alactite's Day.  To celebrate this rare event I joined the Krem Shrieh team on a survey trip.  As my last SRT trip had been a year previously in Synrang Pamiang I was a bit rusty on the changeovers on the 97m entrance pitch so had plenty of time to admire the view and ridiculous amount of exposure!

At the pitch bottom we first mapped 120m of low inlet passage containing a couple of small animal skulls.  Tom then noticed a complete and very dead racoon-like creature curled up in a nest of leaves and still with all it's fur intact.  How did it get here?

On downstream to survey a series of large oxbows and smaller inlets for another 1.5km leaving several huge upper levels unlooked at.  These were in the Orang Utan Series, the cave having a "monkey" theme.  The prusik out in the dark was even more of a "ring clencher" than the descent as tiny spots of light signified colleagues on the chamber floor and lower ropes.

The next day Kate, Fraser, Tom and Mark continued with the survey - three of them opting to stay in overnight to make the most of the time available.  Another 2km was added to bring the final total to 8.66km and the title of India's fourth longest cave, a just reward for the effort and enthusiasm put in by them.  There is still potential for a few hundred metres here by surveying various small inlets.

Brian, Simon, Kirsten and I, led by Larsing, had taken the easy option and returned to Litien village to continue the survey of the impressive Krem Iawe - a river cave partly explored and mapped by the Wells team.  Our only information was a good thumbnail sketch by Kate and a write up in Caves & Caving.  A search by Simon and co. the previous day had failed to reveal the cave and it had become a matter of honour to finish the job.

The redoubtable Larsing took us straight to it and, resisting the temptation to go off looking for another wife to add to his collection, accompanied us underground in dry grots.  We had read the poor description provided and wore life jackets and wet suits!

The deep entrance pot was entered halfway down by a crawl from the surface and a steep slope then followed to a short climb and huge river passage.  On the LH side, facing upstream, we surveyed over 200m of labyrinthine, dry, phreatic passages ignored by the Wells explorers.  Leaving Larsing and the fag supply on a bit of dry ground we then commenced surveying upstream in a waist deep canal.  As we progressed the canal passages multiplied to become a fantastic flooded maze with the chilly water held up by a series of bright orange rimstone dams.  A very large black bat insisted on sharing the same airspace as ourselves and at one point missed the tip of my nose by the thickness of an After Eight mint. With 188m in the bag the maze became even more complicated, time was running out and we were all cold so we left the place with scores of ways on in an underground reflection of the street-like grykes in the pinnacle karst on the surface above.  There will be a few more kms in this place yet and we haven't even looked downstream! The shivering Larsing was collected on the way out and in true form had a bonfire raging at the entrance within seconds.  It’s a wonder that there is any forest left in Meghalaya with the amount of fires visible at night from any high ground.  A surreal walk back across the flat paddy fields in the dark was followed by tea and shortbreads at the local chai shop and the usual Polaroid donation.

March 2nd was our last day in Sutnga and Fraser wanted some video footage of local coal miners. Adora accompanied us to one of the nearest workings to the LB. to act as translator - the miners being immigrant Nepalese. They were delighted to be filmed and much of the medieaval methods of mining such as hauling coal carts, filling baskets etc. was recorded.  We then crawled underground with them to film a collier hand picking a shallow coal seam.  In return they were given Polaroid snaps and lent our Petzl helmets - probably the first head protection they had ever worn!

Later that day we returned to Shillong via the hundreds of impressive, ancient monoliths at Nartiang village.

On 3rd March a day trip to Cherrapunjee (now once again officially the wettest place on Earth) was made to tidy up the survey of the Krem Lumshlan/Rong Umsoh/Soh Pang Bniat system. In three teams we mapped over 700m of ongoing passage in the two main arms of this complicated cave network. Some fine, superbly decorated streamway was found leading to yet another maze of low passages.  Mark had a nasty fall when a bamboo maypole we had persuaded him to slide down snapped under his weight.  We later realised that it had been used as a canopy support over an active limekiln and had subsequently been baked brittle!  Moral - always use green bamboo.

The weekend was booked for a coach ride, ferry trip and beach party to the Ranikor River, near the Bangladesh border.  With the Ladies of Shillong in charge and several crates of beer on board it promised to be a memorable occasion!  We took the scenic road via Mawsynram and eventually reached the river at dusk. This was just enough time to board the ferry for a short voyage to the nearest upriver sandbank where camp was established, huge bonfire built, chef put to work, chicken sledge hammered, food eaten and beer drunk.  The usual sing-song was dampened by heavy showers which necessitated crowded tents of revellers and the omnipresent, whistle playing Ronie.

We awoke to a fine, hot day and chicken curry for breakfast.  A Garo fisherman was hired to take some of us across the river to look at an impressive rock shelter, Lieng U Blei (Gods' Boat), the legend being that the gods were building a vessel but were interrupted by a cock crowing and left it unfinished, upside down -which is exactly what it looks like.

Gods' Boat

Two wooden canoes and their Garo oarsmen were then hired to take us 1 1/2 hours upriver to the first river junction.  It was here that we found out that the caves and limestone were actually at the second river junction, two days paddling upstream!  Making the best of it we spent the day festering, swimming, drinking and admiring a couple of working elephants which appeared from the side valley dragging huge tree trunks.  One also carried Mark and the dreaded Ronie as the mahout had offered them a lift. One of the boats had returned downriver and on to the Bangladesh border post to buy more beer at double the usual price as it was a Sunday.

On the way back to Shillong that night Fraser, Mark and I got dragged into a "shebeen" in Mawsynram to sample the delights of rice beer.  This is sold in a poly bag and looks like a fairground prize without the goldfish!  It was apparently good stuff as none of us went blind.

On 6th March the last caving trip was made to Cherrapunjee where Simon, Kirsten and Mark added 100m to the Umsoh system survey and the rest of us recced the hills above the cave. Some small but interesting sites were found for further investigation next year.

Once again a magnificent time was had and some world class cave explored and surveyed - 20.34 km in all which was well up to standard considering that there were fewer cavers than last year, much more travelling to the caves was done and there were several unprofitable but necessary recce days.  With the 3.8km (snigger, snigger) found by the Devon/Yorkshire team the Meghalayan total is now well over 150km.  Who said there are no significant caves in India?

Our undying thanks must go to the Meghalayan Adventurers - especially Brian and Maureen, the Boks, Rose, Swer, Neil and Betty, Barri and all the cooks, drivers, assistants, Ladies, chai shop owners and beer suppliers (in the words of Fraser "swally wallahs").

REFS:- Edmunds P. "Earthquakes, cobras and marsala tea" Caves & Caving no 85 (Autumn 1999) pp21-23.

Various expedition reports, articles in the BB and International Caver and MSS Logs (A. Jarratt)