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Meghalaya - International Expeditions From a First Timer's Perspective

by Henry Dawson

I'm sure you have all read through expedition reports and have been adequately informed about the various different caves found, their lengths, locations and general characteristics, so for this article I would like to give a bit more of a first hand, human perspective of an expedition.

This was my first expedition. I had most generously been invited by Tony Jarratt. I thought about it for about half a second and accepted, then drove home figuring out how I would explain to the missus and my boss that I wanted to vanish for a month to go down holes in the ground.

I managed to get time off work and my girlfriend was disturbingly eager for me to go away for so long so all I had to sort out was the monetary side of things. I had plenty of warning and advice on good airlines to use from J'rat so booked tickets to places I had never heard of and counted up what I had left. This was disappointingly little but I got by for most things by extending the overdraft (and being a true Yorkshireman). I came unstuck with my insurance and jabs. Prior to the trip I got an e-mail from the organiser giving details of some companies. Being inexperienced I got the BCA all singing all dancing insurance and in retrospect I could happily have got away with the German equivalent of the RAC (The ADAC) who do a travel medical insurance that covers you for accidents and medical repatriation in the event of an accident and does not exclude caving. To gain this cover you need to join the ADAC (22 Euro) and pay an additional charge (11.70 Euro) for the medical cover.  The ADAC Website has further information www.adac.de (most of it in German with some English).  If you take this option you will need an additional travel insurance to cover delays and loss of baggage etc.  A normal travel policy that is likely to cost between £50 to £60 will cover this. I would recommend this to anyone going to remote locations where your friends will pull you out of the cave, as there is no rescue team.

Starting to panic a bit about the costs involved I was informed of what the Ian Dear Memorial Fund was. Once more I thanked myself for joining the BEC and made an application. Those controlling the fund were flexible and extremely helpful when considering my application. All I needed to do to apply was write a letter explaining who I was, what I was doing and why I needed the money. I gave this to a member of the committee and the application was dealt with expeditiously. The fund was very generous and made a substantial difference for me. To the fund and those looking after it I am very grateful and would recommend that all young members of the BEC consider applying for this help when going on expeditions.

The time came and I picked up Tony who insisted on going to the Hunter's before we did anything. We later climbed on the plane and Tony promptly set about harassing the stewards to get a supply of gin and tonics going. Numerous hours later we landed in Kolkata (Calcutta) and walked over to the domestic terminal fighting off taxi drivers and hawkers.  Here we met a few of the others and sat down for a seemingly interminable time period in an airport where everything closed overnight.

The next flight to Guwahati was quick and then we were in a Sumo 4x4 and settled in for a 4-hour journey through some really pretty hills covered with jungle. Feeling shattered I was reluctant to drop off as there was so much to see. We got into Shillong and I was glad of Tony's company as he navigated the cab to Brian's house. A lovely little compound right in the middle of town.

The next day we went for a wander around the market. This maze of tiny stalls had everything we needed so we stocked up on digging gear and blankets and I set about trying to get some warm clothes to replace the coat I had left at Kolkata airport. Indian airways seemingly indiscriminately confiscate whisky (fluids) and batteries from hand baggage. Its worth going with just a book in your hands on internal flights. I found Tony and Neil in the Centrepoint's Bar. The two of them had been going at it since before lunch and were not interested in leaving for such distractions as an evening meal. Having chosen the strangely ubiquitous Chinese food for tea I returned to find Tony and Neil in quite a state chattering away to some rich locals who had paid for their tab. Must have been rich! It got late and Tony fell over and whacked his head. We got him and Neil back to Brian's and crashed out. A fairly disturbed night followed and I was woken at one point as J'rat tried to get into Neil's sleeping bag by mistake!

The next day we piled into an old bus (the Meghalaya expedition is very organised) and settled in for 5 hours of driving past piles of coal and chatting to Phillippa Glanvill to get out to a patch of large tents on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. I wandered into what I would come to call the 'Bamboo Belfry' feeling like a novice amongst experts and feeling not a little trepidation. I had been to such remote places plenty of times before but never had I been amongst such a collection of cavers, for a whole month. The ice soon broke as we complained about the tea made for us by the cook (his name was Swer). Base camp was quite a luxurious place with long-drop toilets, people cooking and washing for you, warm water for bathing and an infinite supply of beer. Apparently we got through about 1000, 1 litre bottles!

Next day and I was put with Mark Brown and a few others. A great chap who did a brilliant job of managing the expedition for the majority of the time we were there. It was Simon Brooks who started the expedition and headed it up each year but after several years of attendance Mark had taken over a lot of the management. Most of the Meghalayan caves around base camp drop down 90-100m of pitches and then get into enormous trunk passages. It is hard to wrap your head around the volumes of water that flow through some of the passages. Photos do not really do them justice, as I was to find out.

My first cave had a 9 pitch SRT section followed by some level passage then we were straight into surveying. This surprised me as I am used to the idea of there only being a minority that get to push caves whilst the majority 'entrance bash' and carry out support roles. Not in Meghalaya. There is such as wealth of passage and such easy access that everyone on the expedition got to survey a reasonable amount of virgin cave.

We left the cave and were pressed into playing hula-hoop with a big gang of cheering village kids. I was pretty happy to find that those on the expedition were of a similar level to me and not the mega-cavers I was expecting. I also had a great opportunity to learn new skills such as surveying and setting bolts. Apart from a few SWCC courses this opportunity is sadly unavailable in the UK.

On my return to camp I found out that Tony's injured head had become worse and one of our expedition's four doctors had carted him off to Shillong for a brain scan. Thankfully this showed that he did indeed have a brain and that there was no lasting damage.

The days progressed and I was surprised to find that I woke every day really happy to go caving. Although rather wet, Meghalayan caves are warm and usually spacious. A set of thermals and a lightweight oversuit will do any caver in this type of climate. A shorty was enough for most wet caves and a Petzl Duo or similar AA battery run light will do in even very remote areas. Make sure you get good batteries though as fakes and local brands tend to be dreadful.

Just as I was getting used to everything at base camp I found out I was being sent away with some Germans to a little village in the jungle called Sielkan. Rather concerned at leaving all the people I knew I put my kit together and set about introducing myself to these new people. Then disaster struck! The Meghalaya Adventurers' Association had been pursuing an action in the high court to get better control of the illegal mining on the ridge. Lafarge was trying to turn the mountain into cement and some small-scale coal miners had got caught in the crossfire. These turned up en-masse looking rather menacing and ordered us off the ridge. Having found several dead people allegedly due to a squabble between the miners we took them seriously. Tempted to face it out, our minds were made up when they started threatening the villagers. We pulled all our gear out of the caves and sat in base camp looked over by a load of coppers armed with machine guns. Meanwhile Simon did some clever negotiating with the miners and after a few days sitting out some pretty persistent rain we got the go ahead and set off for Sielkan.

Sielkan consisted of about twenty bamboo huts two hours walk from the nearest 'road.' The village's water supply was from a huge doline through which a river flowed. This cave required life jackets and Henry Rockcliff generously lent me a wetsuit. I have to say that whilst I thought the caves on the ridge were beautifully decorated, nothing had prepared me for this! The main passage was a huge 40m by 30m river passage 3km long with a bat colony part way through numbering about 1 million bats. The side passages were various but the main one, appropriately called Perfect Passage (again large) was both varied and intensely decorated. This wonderland of gypsum, sandstone, limestone and every type of formation you could think of all in a plethora of ways, shapes and forms left me gaping. We netted about 3km of newly surveyed passage and exchanged a few anxious glances when we found both bear and big cat footprints down there with us!

On later trips we used the Bamboo Maypole to access high-level passages. For this technique you asked the village chief for the largest piece of bamboo he could lay his hands on and dragged it underground. The bamboo had to be fresh and green as it lost strength quickly once cut. Underground you tied a ladder to it with slings and had two ropes to steady it if necessary, then propped it against the aven and climbed up the ladder. It was all rather wobbly but worked brilliantly and saved many hours of bolt climbing.

Caving in new areas seems mostly to involve going and seeing the village head-man and asking permission to go down their caves. Then local kids are recruited to find entrances for some small remuneration, these are logged with GPS and many notes taken due to the lack of satellites then quickly checked to see if they go, a machete was essential.

The next few weeks passed with some good progress and quite a few comments made about J'rat's remarkable fortune at finding connections (although he puts it down to 40 years of caving and several years of thought). I learnt how to do survey book and got started on bolt placements. I was really enjoying myself and all too soon the expedition ended. We returned to Shillong for more drinking and shopping, then to Calcutta from where we flew home.

I would have found it very difficult to do this expedition had it not been for the generous support of the Bristol Exploration Club. To them and those on the expedition I would like to extend my profound and sincere gratitude.

MEGHALAYA Amendment

Apologies to Jrat but the map below was left out of BB528.

Please cut this out and staple it, in a slapdash and crude manner into BB528.

Hutton Update: New Pit Opened…then closed again

Nicks Harding and Richards have opened up another pit on Hutton Hill. What at first seemed to be a rather uninspiring depression turned out to be a striking bedding feature. After a series of digging sessions including one with the antipodean Ray Deasy they have cleared this feature out.

But exposing the back wall and emptying out more material has revealed that the pit, one in a line of three, is in fact a dead end. Initial excitement, as is often the way, has now turned to disappointment. The pit is being closed down and their attentions are shifting to another collection of holes nearer to the entrance of Bleadon Cavern. 

Attempts are being made to open one of the two shafts in Upper Canada Cave. Both were blocked from above, which suggests upper passages somewhere between May Tree and UCC.