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Meghalava 2001 - Exploration in the Jaintia Hills and the Discovery of India's 3rd Longest Cave

by Tony Jarratt

PARTICIPANTS; Austria; Peter Ludwig, Switzerland; Yvo Wiedmann, Germany; Christian Fischer, Daniel Gebauer, Herbert and Christine Jantschke, Thomas Matthalm, Anja Renner, Harald Kirsamer, En~land; Julie Hesketh, Tony Jarratt, Mark Brown, Simon Brooks, Tom Chapman, Tony Boycott, Rob and Helen Harper, Stuart MacManus, Scotland; Alan Jeffreys, Roger Galloway, Fiona Ware, Dan Harries, Fraser Simpson, Wales; Rhys Williams, Paul Edmonds, Amanda Edgeworth, Meghalaya; Brian Kharpran Daly, Lindsay Diengdoh, Gregory Diengdoh, Neil Sootinck, Betsy Chhakchhuak, Allard Harris Diengdoh, Sanjay Choudhary, Tiewlin Kharsati, Sasha Nongsiej, Vivien Warjri, Gerard Khonglah, Larsing Sukhlain, Shelley Diengdoh.

STAFF, GUIDES, PARTYGOERS, ETC; Myrkasim Swer, Asif Khan, Almas Laloo, Amzad Khan, Ngait Bareh, Marlon Blien, Bung Diengdoh, Sunny Diengdoh, Bobby Moore Paswat, Dominic Sawdong, James Fancon, Karlin Pyrngap, Nonkin Dkhar, Dilbhadur Subedi, Kunga Darna, Churchill Sukhlain, Rud Sukhlain, Elias Bareh, Forestar Pajah, Pyntyngen Bamon, Wesley Rupon, Holding Bamon, T. Mannar, Jonah Dichan, Pyubha Suja, Mulda Rupon, Condrick Dkhar, Spindro Dkhar, Co!. Fairweather Mylliemngap, Maureen Diengdoh and the Khasi Ladies, the Gentlemen of Shillong, the villagers of Sutnga, Tong Seng, Shnongrim, Sakhain, Lakadong, etc. And last, but by no means least, Ronie Mawlong.

This year's expedition to Meghalaya, N.E. India was swelled by the unexpected addition of Rob Harper's Assam team - having decided to abort their exploration in this state due to insurgency problems.  They concentrated on the Cherrapunjee area in the Khasi Hills where about 5kms were explored. A separate article is being prepared by Rob.

The main team arrived in Shillong on the 2nd February and split into two groups.  Simon led a recce. party to Borsora in the Garo Hills where they were to survey some 6kms of impressive caves and later join the rest of us at Sutnga in the Jaintia Hills.

Here we had established ourselves at last year's base - the Inspection Bungalow about an hour's bone jarring drive from the main caving area on the Nongkhlieh Ridge.  On arrival we found that the Meghalayan Adventurers had done a fine job of preparation in making the place comfortable and secure with a huge meal bubbling away in the outside, tented kitchen - courtesy of Master Chef Swer and his assistants.  To wash it down there was a seemingly unlimited supply of bottled beer and rum. Its hell in the jungle ....

Daniel had failed to arrive which was very worrying as he was known to have been prospecting in the Gujarat area at the time of the horrific earthquake. Thankfully he turned up unharmed. He was apparently sitting on the bog when the 'quake struck and blamed it all on the curry!  A few tremors were felt in Sutnga during our stay, it being in the same 'quake fault zone though many hundreds of miles to the east.

On the 5th caving started in earnest with parties tidying up leads in Krem Wah Ryngo and Krem Kermit.  I joined an optimistic group who were hoping to resolve the access problem at Shnongrim village so that we could extend our explorations into this area which the Jaintia Adventurers were trying to keep for themselves - a misguided policy as they do little caving and no surveying or recording of data.  After lots of tea, biscuits, fags and betel nut with the headman and his cronies we had got nowhere so, leaving Brian to continue the discussion the rest of us walked back along the ridge recceing areas that we had permission for on the way.  This almost instantly paid off with the discovery of two new caves - Krem Risang ( Squirrel Cave) and Krem Shynrong Labbit ( Bat Skull Cave) - both named by us due to a lack of local names.  The first consisted of an impressive 25m shaft leading to a couple of routes through boulders into a scalloped streamway which soon ended on the brink of a 70m pitch - Black Bat Pot.  Over the next couple of weeks this cave was pushed, mainly by Mark, Yvo, Lindsay and Rhys, to a total length of 4.5km of varied, sporting streamway.  There are still a few leads to survey.  The second began as an extensive and well decorated, horizontal fossil system adjacent to the previously recorded Krem Labbit (Shnongrim).  A series of pitches in the floor were descended to reach a huge bore passage carrying the main stream and with lots of inlets, avens and side passages.  Most of the team worked in this stunning cave at one time or another to eventually bring its length up to 5.71km.  There are still climbs to be looked at here and there is a chance of a link with Krem Labbit (where Thomas, Anja and Harry persevered to establish a connection but didn't quite make it).  The cave is notable for the large amount of bat skulls, bones and ears (!) found on the floor.  It has a good sized blind fish population and at least one resident toad and was the highlight of the expedition until a small group of "old gits" went to look for a horizontal cave of their own.

When leaving Krem Risang one day we were accosted by an old chap, Churchill Sukhlain, who presented us with sweet potato and betel nut before proceeding to show us the easy scramble down which avoided 20m of the 25m entrance pitch!  Roger was best pleased as he could, in return, proffer one of his American fags with the classic phrase "Care for a Winston, Churchill?"  He also took a team over the ridge to the hidden Tong Seng village where they were shown a plethora of huge, undescended pots and told of many more.  The locals were very friendly and helpful and soon most of the expedition work was taking place in this attractive area.

On the 10th the 81m deep Krem Khlaw Lakhar (Lakhar Forest Cave) was bottomed by Tom, Mandy and Fraser, the incredibly strongly draughting Hairdryer Hole looked at (and left for next year) and a 20m+ deep pot, Krern Urn Thloo (1) also visited by Goon, Brian, Daniel and myself.

Our superbly efficient guide, Pyntyngen, had indicated that this was easily accessible but we found it to be an SRT job for which we were not equipped that day, being in a decidedly horizontal frame of mind.  It was left for the younger "tigers" and the old gits continued their walk through the forest for a couple of hundred metres to be shown an Eastwater type entrance almost totally choked with rotting bamboo.  This was an obvious flood sink and was also known as Krern Urn Thloo (2) (Water Hole Cave).  A short climb down led to a reasonably well decorated, spider infested series of chambers with a horrific looking vertical boulder ruckle in the floor.  With a chance of bagging 100m or so surveying commenced while the writer, being spare man, attempted to find the way on.  At a depth of c43m a solid walled phreatic passage was found which soon closed down but was at least horizontal and safe. This was surveyed and feeling reasonably pleased with ourselves we started out, pausing briefly to insert Allard, our token small boy, into a grotty little dry sink in the floor. This soon opened up and we followed him through into slightly bigger passage which now had to be mapped.  The whole cave was hot and draught free and held little promise until I suddenly found my feet in a metre of slowly flowing water with a howling draught disappearing through a low duck on the left. Things were now looking up and we continued downstream in walking sized wet, then dry phreatic galleries.  With time running out we were about to stop surveying when Allard pointed out the sound of falling water ahead.  On rounding a comer from our already impressive passage we were stunned to walk into a 6m diameter " Master Cave" bore tube crossing from left to right with a healthy stream cascading into another large passage straight ahead.  It was now very obvious that the old gits had hit the jackpot and found a nice horizontal system to fester in - by the end of the expedition totalling over 12.2kms with scores of leads for next year.  By the 22nd it had overtaken Krern Shrieh, found last year, as the third longest cave on the Indian Subcontinent.

The main upstream passage was later pushed for a couple of kms to a high aven with a possible high level passage part way up and climbable with aid.  Several kms of wet and dry passages lead off from this, generally in a northerly direction and towards the crest of the ridge, beyond which lies Krem Shynrong Labbit, Krem Labbit and Krem Risang.  Daniel informs me that the limestone goes right through the ridge so there may be potential here for connections and the longest cave in India.

Downstream was surveyed through lots of spectacular passage (which I never got a chance to see) and a side entrance found by Goon and team in a jungle filled doline.  They were found by us sitting on an obscure path in the pitch black early evening, completely lost.  We were on our way back from Krem Ticha (Tea Cave) located at the edge of the flood plain a long way below Tong Seng village and luckily guided by the redoubtable Larsing - caver, guide, ladies' man, Caroom champion, etc.  The cave behind their lower entrance was apparently of continental show cave grandeur and proportions and ended in a boulder choke where they thought they had heard voices.  Our resurgence cave had started as a magnificent tunnel but had deteriorated into flooded maze pas ages with boulder chokes above.  If we had climbed up instead of staying in horizontal mode we would probably have met them and connected the two caves.  This was to happen the following day.

Other caves later connected to the system via surface potholes were Krern Urn Thloo (1) - where Tom had halted his survey at a low, draughting duck unaware that one of our stations was a mere 1.5m away on the other side, Krem Lyngkshaid, Krem Moolale and Krem Myrlait.  The latter dropped some 50m straight into a small chamber previously reached by Tom and Rhys by digging out a crawl from the main system.  They had only found this because of the strong draught issuing from a tiny hole in the floor.  Once they had both squeezed into the chamber they realised that they were not alone - a small but wide awake snake was beginning to take an interest in them. Alas, that was the last interest it ever took as they could not afford to let it get into the crawl behind them.

By now Pyntyngen and his fellow guides had established a fine tradition of building a raging bamboo bonfire for our return from the depths.  Not content with that, and with an increasing amount of time on their hands, they also built bamboo clothes drying racks, a rain shelter for our kitbags and on one memorable occasion a complete shed with a banana leaf roof, indoor bonfire and signpost stating (in Jaintia) "Krem Myrlait - very deep cave".  We repaid them with fags, biscuits and beer.

The Krem Urn Thloo System was also remarkable for its wildlife, much to the joy of our speleobiologists Dan, Fiona and Christian.  Thousands of blind fish, crayfish, shrimps and freshwater crabs live in the streamways and pools.  One large crab got its own back on Roger when he foolishly picked it up.  If he hadn't been wearing thick gloves his tin whistle playing would have been severely curtailed!

Dan also became a speleoarchaeologist when he surveyed up an inlet deep in the system.  About 100m before the foot of a 30m aven he came across masses of broken pottery water vessels which he assumed had been swept in from the surface.  They have been left in Shillong for possible dating but may only be 50 or so years old. Even so, their presence indicates a habitation site on the ridge above which may be traceable.  There are many other unclimbed avens in the system awaiting exploration next year, either from below or by descending the virgin potholes from the surface.  At the bottom of one of these Dan also found the grotesque skull of a Hanuman monkey - a baboon like creature, sacred to Hindus and now absent from this area.

To sum it up - a superb system with a great variety of passage, spectacular caving, lots more potential and bonfires at every entrance!  We will return.

The other main triumph of this part of the expedition was continued exploration in the equally spectacular Krem Iawe - situated in the next spur to the north east and probably the lower section of a similarly sized system draining the Shnongrim area.  Partly explored last year it consists of a massive stream passage ending in a choke but with an amazing labyrinth of canal passages rising gently to another section of now fossil bore tube.  There are many fantastic formations including foot high mud stalagmites and bright orange gours.  Its current length is over 1.7km with plenty of leads.  The only problem is either finding it or, conversely, finding one's way back again over flat paddy fields in the dark.  A GPS is a very useful item in these circumstances but a Simon or Daniel are definitely not!

Other notable caves surveyed in the area were Krem Churchill - 302m, Krem Pakse -716m, Krem Ka Tham Thyrsin ( Crab Claw Cave) - 359m and Krem Labon - 687m.  Lots of other small caves and extensions of old ones were found and any amount of unvisited sites recorded from many informants from all of the villages visited - including Shnongrim where we were eventually allowed to cave and were personally guided by the headman himself.  He was obviously unhappy when he couldn't find any open caves for us but a better look next year should reveal this area to be equally productive.  One problem this year was the great amount of time spent travelling to the caves and so satellite camps near the entrances are planned for the future.  The very remote Lakadong area was visited and has great potential with several deep pots. A small, new ill here will make life easier but the presence of illicit "shebeens" may limit the amount of exploration done!

Other useful expedition work included photography (Yvo, Simon and Fraser) video (Fraser and Paul) collecting cave legends (Brian, Larsing and me) PR (everyone), international joke telling in an Austrian accent by a one-eyed caver wearing edelweiss braces (Peter) and mooning unintentionally for the camera (Herbert).  The conservation minded Ronie thoughtfully collected over 500 beer bottle tops (!) which we found very commendable - until we realised that the little sod got 1/2 a rupee each for them!

Great trip, caves, company, food, booze, Khasi Ladies, guides, weather (until the last day) and, despite a few minor illnesses, I believe that a good time was had by all. Yet again our thanks must go to the stalwarts of the Meghalayan Adventurers and all the local people who helped us in so many ways.

Surveys and photographs will hopefully appear in a future BB. A report covering the last few expeditions is intended to be produced this year and Simon's slides, together with Fraser's videos will be shown at this year's BCRA Conference in Buxton.  We are planning to provide the Meghalayans with a Sked rescue stretcher so a slide show may be arranged on Mendip to help with funding. Any donations will be gratefully received!