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Overview – Caving in the Abode of the Clouds – 2008

By Simon Brooks  & Mark Brown

 

An International Team totalling 42 Cavers (comprising of 20 from the UK, 6 from Meghalaya, 4 from Ireland, 4 from Switzerland, 2 from Denmark, 2 from Canada, and 1 each from Austria, Iran, Sweden and Belgium) spent up to three and a half weeks (4th to 27th Feb 2008) in the Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya focusing on the caving areas of Shnongrim Ridge in the Nongkhlieh Elaka, the Litien Valley to the East and in the Semmasi Area to the North East of the Ridge.

During this time a total of 37 caves were explored, mapped and photographed to discover 13.978 kilometers of new cave passage.  Of the 37 caves mapped 17 of these were entirely new caves with the rest being extensions to systems that were partially explored in previous years.  Key achievements from this year’s exploration include:

  • The linking of the Liat Prah Cave System to Krem Labbit (Moolasgni) via a 3m sump free dive and the connection of two other potholes into the system and surveying of new side passages created a cave system of 30.957km in length.  This firmly established this system as the longest cave known to date in the Indian Sub-continent and more significantly made it the first Indian Subcontinent cave to exceed 30kms in length.
  • The extension of Krem Tyngheng in the Semasi area from 9.866km to 12.960km in length via some long swims to make it India’s 5th longest cave.
  • The surveying of two other caves in the Semasi area; Krem Labbit Kseh at 883m in length and Krem Bliat at 613m in length.  The former which is ongoing. 
  • The pushing of many side passages and climbs in a bid to link together cave systems on the ridge.  One aven of over 30m height was climbed in Krem Umthloo, which with other extensions and the proper linking to Krem Synrang Labit made this system 18.181km in length maintaining it as the third longest cave in the Indian Sub-Continent.
  • The extension of several existing caves in the area including: Umsngad River Sink that was extended from 1.25km to 2.15km in length and is still ongoing; Krem Kdong Thloo that was extended from 1.18km to 1.58kms.  In Krem Um Manong a bolt climb gained a high level passage taking the cave from 105m to 922m in length; Krem Synrang Ngap was extended from 4.51km to 4.92km in length; and Krem Mawshun from 3.33 to 3.624kms. 
  • The discovery and exploration of several new caves in the previously blank N.E. section of the Ridge near to the Liat Prah system including Krem Lumthymme that is 1.1km in length but unfortunately failed to connect into the Liat Prah system
  • The discovery and exploration of two new caves on the south flank of the ridge, that are likely to connect and form part of a larger system in what was previously a blank area on the Shnongrim Ridge map.  Both containing large sections of trunk passage and Krem Thapbalong Sim is currently 351.6m in length and ongoing and Krem Shyrong Shrieh is 1,390m in length and is also ongoing.
  • The discovery and exploration of new caves that have, once again, increased the total length of cave passage explored and surveyed on the Shnongrim Ridge from 139kms to 148.3 kms in total.  This being the greatest concentration of cave passage in one place within the Indian Sub-Continent.        
  • The completion of the surface mapping project of the main area of the ridge and Letein valley, which in combination with the cave mapping gives a clearer picture of the geomorphology and hydrology of the area.  This exercise alone has played a significant role in unlocking the secrets of the Ridge, contributing to the locating and exploring of additional significant cave systems as detailed above and giving a much better understanding of how the caves on the Ridge were formed.

In addition to the cave exploration, an International Conference entitled ‘Discover Meghalaya – The Caving Experience’ was held at the Pinewood Hotel in Shillong on the 22nd to the 23rd February.  The Government of Meghalaya Tourism Department and the MAA (Meghalaya Adventurers Association) hosted this with a significant input being made by the European team members.  The conference was attended by some members of the expedition, the MAA and over 60 delegates drawn from the Meghalaya Government and its various departments along with representatives from the coal and limestone extraction industry and Adventure Travel Agencies from across India and Bangladesh.  Regretfully the small independent mining industries could not be present.  The aims of the conference were to raise awareness of the great cave resource within Meghalaya; highlight the threats to the caves posed by the recent increases in the limestone and coal extraction industries (particularly the small independent mining operations) and try to identify ways of addressing this issue; and to develop strategies to promote the use of caves for tourism and local economic development.  The conference was a great success and was followed by a field trip into the Liat Prah System for 25 of the delegates that gave them the chance to experience the underground cave environment first hand. 

To date (March 2008) the whereabouts of over 1,150 caves are known in Meghalaya of which 669 have been explored to yield in excess of 324 kilometres of surveyed cave passage, with much more still waiting to be discovered.  Much of the cave that has been found to date is impressive river cave mixed with huge fossil passage that create cave systems equal in size and beauty to any found elsewhere in the world, putting Meghalaya firmly on the world-caving map as a significant caving region.

In the achievement of the above the Caving in the Abode of the Clouds Project is indebted to the help and support it has received from; the Meghalaya Adventurers Association, the Government of India Tourist Office (East and North East India) Kolkata; the Meghalaya State Tourism Department; Officials and Government Departments within Meghalaya; and, very importantly, the People of Meghalaya.

 

Simon Brooks (Caving in the Abode of the Clouds Project Expedition Coordinator) 
Mark Brown (Expedition Leader 2008)
3rd March 2008 

Meghalaya 2008 Hard Work Beneath the Ridge Produces a 30.9km+ System

By Tony Jarratt.

 

The Caving Team:- 

Austria - Peter Ludwig (LVHOO).  

Belgium - Jean-Pierre Bartholeyns (GIPS/SCBLS). 

Canada - Guillaume Pelletier (SQS), Joel Beauchamp.  

Denmark - Louise Korsgaard (DSS), Torben Redder (DSS).  

England - Simon Brooks (GSG/OCC), Mark Brown (GSG/SUSS), Imogen Furlong (SUSS), Richard Furlong, Peter Glanvill (BEC), Philippa Glanvill (WCC), Tony Jarratt (BEC/GSG), Alys Mendus (SUSS), Henry Rockliff (SUSS), Jayne Stead (GSG),Elizabeth Stead, Jeff Wade (SUSS), Terry Whittaker (NCC), Anne Vanderplank (BEC/WCC), Tony Boycott (BEC/UBSS/GSG).  

India - Brian Kharpran Daly (MAA/GSG), Ksan Kupar "Ronnie" Mawlong (MAA), Lindsay Diengdoh (MAA).  

Iran / Germany - Shary Gazy (DAV).  

Ireland - Robin Sheen (BC), Rowena Sheen (BC), Des McNally (UCDCPC), Sharon Hennessey (DITCC).  

Scotland - Ross Davidson (GSG), Fraser Simpson (GSG), Mark Tringham (GSG), Hugh Penney (GSG/GUPC), Kate Janossy (GSG).  

Sweden - Axel Rosen.  

Switzerland - Thomas Arbenz (SNT), Martine Joye Hapka (SCMN), Roman Hapka (SCMN), Rolf Siegenthaler (SGHB).

(An independent mini-expedition comprising Rob and Helen Harper (BEC), Stuart MacManus (BEC) and Keith Sanderson (WCC) were in the Garo Hills area of western Meghalaya from the 4th to the 18th February.   They had a very successful trip, which hopefully will be reported in the BB.) 

The Support Team:- 

Bung Diengdoh, Adison "Adi" Thaba (camp managers), Myrkassim Swer (chef), Munni Lyngdoh (Mrs.Swer), Vinod Sunar, Telford H. Dkhar (cooking team), Robin Gurung, Marius Lyngdoh, Alphon Massar, Albert Massar, Edmund Massar (drivers) and two others. 

Guides, Informants and Caving Friends:- 

Raplang Shangpliang (Shnongrim), Evermore Sukhlain (Shnongrim), Carlyn Phyrngap, Menda Syih, Pt Syih, Shor "Pa Heh" Pajuh, Kores Sukhlain (all Shnongrim), Na-U-Sukhlain (Dolloi - Nongkhlieh Elaka), Pherki, Abres (Khaidong), Dennis Rayen (Laitkynsew), Gregory Diengdoh (MAA - Shillong), Maureen Diengdoh, Shelley Diengdoh (MAA) and the Ladies of Shillong, Robin Laloo, family and friends, the people of Nongkhlieh Elaka and Semmasi. 

Journalists, Environmentalists and Tourism Promoters:- 

Sandeep Mathur, Christina Heyniger, Salim Merchant, Arup Ingty John, Amarjyoti Borah, Tarali Goswami, Sahir M. Latif, Vikram Mazumder, Manishanker Ghosh, Kyntiewbor War, Quiverland Langte, Kyrmen K. Ryja, Seniorsingh K. Ryja. 

As can be seen from the above list of participants, this year's Expedition fielded thirty-nine characters from Europe, India and the New World with a variety of caving skills from virtually none up to professional rigging standard.   Luckily Meghalaya has enough variety to cater for all tastes with vertical stuff aplenty and a few extensive horizontal systems accessible without SRT equipment.   Useful surface work includes mapping and reconnaissance; so all personnel have plenty to keep them occupied.   This report is compiled from the writer's logbook and the Expedition diary and the usual apologies are made for the boring bits.   It is more of a historical record than an exciting adventure story - especially this year as much time was spent tidying up the area, resurveying previous finds, training the novices, faffing about and failing to make the prophesied major connections!  A total of almost 14km of new cave was surveyed and, more to the point, a good time was had by all. 

The expedition results are here summarised by caves and not in chronological order as previously. 

Khasi Hills

Mark, Alys, Henry, Jeff and Dennis explored 56.15m of sandstone rift in Missing Waterfall Pot at the Eco Park near Mawsmai.   They stayed briefly at Dennis' resort at Laitkynsew and also visited the magnificent living root bridges. 

Jaintia  Hills 

Work began on the Ridge on the 5th February.   Cross Rift Pot, in Krem Synrang Ngap was rigged by Mark, Jeff and Alys and pushing commenced.   Next day, the writer and Anne joined Jeff but were stopped at a depth of 90m by two too-tight rifts so surveyed out.   At the downstream end of the cave Henry, Guilllaume and Rolf enlarged the squeeze and surveyed 277.8m of large passage to a draughting boulder choke.   The latter two and Jeff surveyed another 42.8m next day, but failed to connect the choke to Krem Tyrtong Ryngkoo and so de-rigged. 

Krem Iawe was another priority and on the 5th Robin, Des, Sharon, Ronnie, Joel, Axel and the writer attempted to find a way through the main river passage choke in vain.   Other possible leads were investigated and a couple of climbs noted.   This was also an introductory trip for the newcomers who were suitably impressed by this stunning river cave.   The 12th saw Henry bolting the two climbs, your scribe and Kate digging, Pete G. photographing and Terry generally assisting. No extensions of note were found.   Another one bites the dust! 

Back near the camp, Krem Wah Lukor 3 was rigged and the 50m Scurion Pitch connected to the Krem Um Thloo / Krem Synrang Labbit system.   Also on the 5th, Krem Labbit Moolasngi 3 was rigged and some digging at the start of the upstream canal by Guillaume and Henry lowered the water level some 10-12 cm, which later was to prove important when, on the 10th Robin, Anne and the writer reached the upstream sump to find a tiny airspace - only noticed when lights were extinguished and it failed to get dark!  In Video Passage, Krem Liat Prah, Henry and Guillaume, arriving at exactly the planned time, were just visible and after much joyous shouting and bawling Robin did a committing 3m+ free-dive to connect the caves and push India's longest up to, eventually 30.958 km.   The connecting Krem Rubong was photographed by a team on the 8th and another large team photographed Liat Prah on the 21st.

Krem Um Sutiang was laddered by Robin, Axel, Joel and Ronnie on the 6th but a too-tight squeeze with clean-washed passage beyond halted progress.   A possibility for the future? 

Also today [6th] Mark, Alys. Rowena, Jean-Pierre and Peter L. hunted for Krem Myrliat 1 & 2 in vain, but J-P. almost fell down a "new" one.   A 10m deep pot with a chamber and a squeeze, passed by the slim Rowena, led to a second pitch.   The original pots were found next day with the aid of Henry and your scribe and the "new" one turned out to be 2 after all.   Some S.R.T. training was done here by Alys, Rowena and Ronnie and the cave surveyed and squeeze enlarged.   A choke ended exploration without a connection to Um Thloo and it was de-rigged while 1 was rigged to Um Thloo by Henry, Mark and Guillaume.   The latter accompanied Rolf, Anne and the writer through the squalid connecting crawls into Krem Synrang Labbit to check the survey and vainly push the upstream boulder choke and nearby leads.   Another failed connection resulted. On the 17th, the squalid crawl was re-surveyed by Rolf, Shary, Axel and Jean-Pierre before the system was de-rigged. 

On the 7th the neglected Krem Syrnun received a revisit by Tom, Peter L, Des, Kate, Axel and Joel - some of whom surveyed.   Next day Des, Jayne and Liz and Kate, Axel and Joel surveyed in two teams and work continued on the 18th.   The total cave length went from 193 to 528.7m.

Also today Robin, Sharon and J-Pierre surveyed a 

-------< Tony's account ends here >------

[Note: J.Rat habitually wrote in longhand before typing the article into his computer.   The very last line above comes from this manuscript version and, strictly speaking, should refer to the following day (8th).   Everything else is as it was typed into his computer.  I have made one change to his punctuation.

What follows is taken from J.Rat's logbook and checked against Simon Brooks' diary of the expedition].

- - - - -

On the 8th, Harry, Jeff and Peter rigged to the bottom of Krem Um Manong and started a bolt climb to a high level passage.   Jeff and Rolf continued the climb on the 9th, reaching a 3m diameter phreatic tunnel.   This was surveyed on the 11th (approx 200m) and a side passage dug to reveal a pot.   Two days later, Terry, J.Rat and Jeff returned to the tunnel with the intention of pushing beyond the pot.   J.Rat's description of the passage is too good to leave out so:-

A superb, flat, mud-floored phreatic tunnel c. 3m in diameter meandering for a couple of hundred metres was followed amongst some fine formations and millions of glittering crystals.   One section of the floor sparkled so much that it was difficult to see properly and felt like having a bad migraine!

Unfortunately, the pot did not live up to expectations and was choked 22.5m down.    The phreatic approach tunnel was named Zig and Zag Passage.

On the 15th J.Rat, Imo, Louise and Joel, with the assistance of a barefoot local man, visited the impressive Krem Shrieh Doline.   Imo decided to have a “fun abseil” down the vertical doline wall and in doing so, came across a draughting phreatic passage 8m down, provisionally named ‘Upper Cliff Series’.   This was explored and surveyed as far as two pitches, which required rigging.   An inlet passage was followed up to a second entrance in the jungle.   The team believed that this was new cave, but there was the slight nagging doubt that it might be part of the nearby Krem Pohjingtep, which none of the team had explored.   On the 16th, J.Rat returned with Imo, Joel, Ronnie, Brian and Tom.   Tom and Brian inspected the jungle entrance and assured them it was not Krem Pohjingtep.   Tom and Brian then left to recce the Letein Valley, while the rest of the team entered the new cave.   Imo and J.Rat worked on rigging the fossil pitch, while Terry Louise, Joel and Torben worked on rigging the active lower pitch.   Meanwhile, Ronnie, acting as courier, shuttled back and forth between the two parties ferrying the one and only drill the team possessed to do the rigging.   Eventually, Imo was able to descend the fossil pitch to a huge breakdown passage and a further pitch lipped with boulders, one marked with a pink nail varnish survey station.   The connection to Krem Pohjingtep had been made.   The lower pitch also made a connection, this time to the roomy phreatic passage not far beyond Krem Shrieh main entrance.

On the 23rd, J.Rat, Kate, Henry Axel and Joel set out to resurvey Swiftlet Pot and to attack the calcite squeeze blocking the way on.   The party descended the impressive entrance shaft and several other pitches to a depth of 62m.   Once at the bottom, Henry and Axel attacked the calcite blocked passage, located near a large heap of swiftlet guano, as J.Rat's log reads:-

A good draught and incredible echo, plus the fact that the 18Km+ Umthloo / Synrang Labbit system lay below, made this a very promising site.

They worked at the calcite with lump hammers, chisels and crowbar until it was time to leave, when Henry and Axel used up the remaining battery power by peppering the blockage with holes.   The climb out was memorable, J.Rat writes:-

The entertaining climb out, with its ”interesting” rigging, was considerably spiced up by the arrival, at 5:30pm of the resident swift colony, who insisted on sharing the same limited space as ourselves!   Axel got caught in a tight section as the clicking birds tried to get through and he expressed the hope that they didn't have bird 'flu.

The next day, Axel, Ross and J.Rat put in another 4 hours work nibbling at the calcite but still could not get through, although all three could squeeze in up to their waists.   Finally, the 24th saw Axel, Ross, Anne and J.Rat back again, this time armed with the drill, three batteries, two 12mm drills and plugs and feathers (and a video camera).   After 3½ hours chiselling, Ross stripped down to t-shirt and trousers and passed the desperate squeeze and Axel struggled through behind him.   They entered a 4m-diameter aven (Stonemason's Aven), which was over 20m high, but there was no way on at the bottom.   They left the cave just as the nightly swiftlet inrush began.   J.Rat summarised his feelings:-

A bit of a disappointment, but at least we have ticked off a long outstanding question mark.   This was the last trip of the expedition for me and pretty much summed up the whole trip – lots of hard work and a good time had but for a limited result.

Notes on the Article.

At the time that he died, J.Rat had been working on several articles, the Home Close article, which appeared in the last BB, an autobiography, this article on the 2008 Meghalaya Expedition and some other fragments.   He was working on this Meghalaya article up to the 23rd August 2008, just over a week before he died.   Unfortunately, J.Rat's laptop was also not in good health and Tony did say to me that it was a question of which of them would go first.  Well, the laptop is still with us, but it did manage to corrupt the Meghalaya article really rather thoroughly: -

Computers frequently produce gibberish but backwards text is a new one on me.   How about gninnuts, gnihpargotohp and gniggid?J.Rat had multiple copies on floppy disk, but sadly, they were all corrupt to more or less the same extent.  However, it was fortunate that he had not emptied his computer's “waste basket/Recycle Bin” for a long time and that his computer hard disk was liberally scattered with the junk that Word leaves behind it every time there is a crash.   Although these files also tended to be corrupt, it was possible to piece the overlapping good bits together.   

So, the article comes with a heath warning, I think that the first part is complete, as J.Rat wrote it, down to the marker.   The second part has been created from his logbook (XIV), checked against Simon Brooks' expedition diary.   Simon also checked over the final version, for which many thanks. 

I have no idea what J.Rat would have included in the second part of the article had he been able to finish it.  I have chosen those episodes in which he played a part, because I think that it is fitting.   It does mean, however, that this second section is probably not as balanced account of the expedition as J.Rat would have produced.

Tony Audsley, 17 March 2009.