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by Tony Jarratt



Once again February saw an invasion of the Indian hill state of Meghalaya (the Abode of the Clouds) by a bunch of scruffy Europeans (and Michael) intent on discovering many kilometres of huge cave passage and having a great time.  By the end of the month we had over 25km surveyed and at least one Mahindra pick-up jeep full of empty beer bottles - the mission had been accomplished in style!  On the down side Jayne had a broken leg, Dr. B was bankrupt and Brian's only caving day resulted in a badly bruised back from falling rocks, though a bit higher up and it would have also been his last caving day .... A great deal of hard work had been done in both the Garo and Jaintia Hills and many leads had been opened up for next year. Herewith the details of the Shnongrim team's exploits. Tony Boycott wrote an article on the Garo Hills part of the expedition but left it on a boat in the Red Sea!


The Shnongrim Camp, Nongkhlieh Ilaka, Jaintia Hills

This year 15 Europeans and a host of locals were based at Ratapkhung, on the top of the Shnongrim ridge and near the village of that name.  Accommodation was provided by local character, entrepreneur, folk musician and part time were-Tiger Carlyn Phyrngap and his stepfather Pa Heh Shor Pajuh - another great character and decimator of the area's wildlife.  Their farmhands and the Meghalaya Adventurers' team from Shillong had built a superb 'camp' consisting of thatched bamboo bedrooms, dining room, food store, kitchen, bogs and shower units just off the road and with glorious views of the Letein valley below.  Being slap in the middle of this extensive caving area we were able to walk to many sites and saved lots of uncomfortable hours of driving from the Sutnga LB. as was done last year.  Shaktiman lorry loads of wood provided both fuel for cooking and evening bonfires where Haywards 10,000 (8% ABV) was copiously imbibed to replace lost body fluids evaporated underground and in patches of spiky jungle (where our previously nonchalant evening strolls became more wary after we were informed that a potentially man-eating tiger had just been shot nearby!).

Work commenced with the rigging of Krem Ryman, top entrance to the 12km Umthloo system, and the bottoming of Krem Myrliat 3 at 17m - a promising lead from last year which failed to deliver.  The Ryman rigging also added c.100m to the system as a separate entrance was found to connect and was tied into the main survey.  Half of the Garo team had corne over for the first few days and spent these completing the survey of Krem Iawe and connecting with the newly discovered Krem Iawe Barit to give a total length of 3.398kms.  Krem Korlooheng, adjacent to Ryman, had half a jar of flourescein tipped into it but due to low water levels this was not detected in the main Umthloo system.  We also missed the side passage in Ryman which Raman, a minister of an ancient Jaintia king, used as a shortcut to Jaintiapur, now in Bangladesh.  Like our friend Carlyn, he was able to turn into a tiger at will and would not have been nice to meet in a squeeze!  Other projects started were the resurvey of Krem Labbit (bat) by our German colleagues and recce in the adjacent Krang (sloping land) area, mainly by Robin and leading to some great discoveries.

On Feb. 9th Annie, Andreas, Peter and Shelley rigged Krem Krang Moo 0 (cave of the rock or monolith in the sloping ground) to a calcite choke at 57m depth and l34.55m length. Robin and I, meanwhile, pushed a 30m deep draughting boulder choke in the nearby Krem Krang Moo 1 to the head of the 5m deep Beast Pot - named after a survey leg of 6.66 metres.  Returning with a ladder we had to extend the name to cover the 45m deep black void just beyond!  Next day Peter and Andreas dropped this into 80m of ongoing, crab-infested streamway which was pushed another 200m on the 11th. 300m more was added next day while the Mendip/Clare trio clocked up 250m of well decorated inlet and a 100m oxbow.  Meanwhile Michael and team were surveying many hundreds of metres in the enormous Krem Liat Prah - his baby - and incidentally finding an apparent modernist sculpture newly deposited right in the centre of the gigantic main drag. This was actually a heap of expensive drill steels and steel sleeving lost by an Indian Geological Survey borehole prospecting team last year!  This cave was eventually to finish at a length of 8.296kms.  A girlies team of Annie, Nicky and Fiona attempted to join Krem Urn Im to this system by pushing an obviously short connecting duck.  This was not to happen as the passage went BELOW the huge cave above into new river passage ongoing up and downstream!  It was left for a wet suited team to survey next year and a link to Liat Prah would obviously be very acceptable if getting more and more unikely.  It was left at 1.267kms. Roger, Dan and Fiona were pushing another pot - Krem Krang 1, nicknamed " Raining Out Cave" for its condensation and draught.  The 60m pothole of Krem Shrieh (monkey) was also receiving the attention of Derek, Rhys, Shelley and Nicky.

We pressed on in Krang Moo 1 on the 13th but soon reached a deep canal.  To avoid this I doffed my slippery wellies and pioneered the "hairy socks technique" to free climb up a calcite wall into a large, high level series with a long muddy inlet and eventual route back to the stream after several hundred metres.  Here we were prevented from rushing along a 20m high river passage by a large, fallen boulder needing a ladder to descend but we expected big finds next day. Robin, Nigel, Dan and Fiona had that day rigged down to a fine streamway in nearby Krem Synrang (shelter) Krang but were stopped upstream by a large fallen boulder needing a maypole to ascend.....  We had missed each other by half an hour or so but now had a connected system later surveyed to 2.668kms and ending in a sump.  This major success proved both the accuracy of the GPS entrance positions and the survey teams and was cause for celebration - as if we needed it! Apart from the ongoing Liat Prah project other caves being explored were Norman's Pot, Kseh Upring and Kneewrecker Hole plus surface recce and tourist, tidying up and video trips in the stunning Umthloo system. In the latter Annie and I, accompanied by the aptly named Bat, eventually pushed a three year old promising lead into c.lOOm of squalid and aquatic misery, thankfully left unsurveyed as your scribe had no lead in any of his three pencils - no change there then! Roger also earned the "free diver of the year award" for rescuing a sunken tackle bag in the same cave.

The next exciting find came following a recce in the previously out of bounds area around Shnongrim village.  Raplang Shangpliang (ace guide), Kai Shail Patwat and Heipormi Pajuh showed us various sites including the impressive pothole/cave of Krem Synrang Ngap (bee shelter).  Here the diminutive but hardy Raplang chopped down a tree, chucked it down an exposed 5m climb and scambled down to the pothole floor.  Next day the timid westerners rigged the drop with a ladder to find no way on but then surveyed the cave entrance above to emerge at a second entrance via a huge chamber with two deep pots in the floor.  One of these was later rigged for a total of 76m into a wet crawl developing into a fine river passage containing a possibly 100m high aven.  It was left ongoing at a length of 1.977kms.  In the same area the equally magnificent Krem Synrang Labbit (bat shelter cave) was surveyed to a length of 1.654kms and was also left wide open.  It is possible that this is the upstream feeder to Ngap, itself a contender for connecting with the superb river cave/resurgence of Krem Wah Shikar (Shikar stream cave) 1.323kms in length.  This would give a combined system of at least 6kms and probably very much more, especially if the Krang Moo system can be tied in. An extremely promising 30m+ pothole, Krem Bir (no, not beer cave - mud cave) nearby may also be part of this hypothetical system and blows out condensation which turns the otherwise dry soil around the entrance to mud.  This area will be the initial focus of next year's trip.


On a supposed "easy day" a large team took advantage of an invitation by Mulda Rupon, head man of Shnongrim, to visit the historic cave of Krem Kut S utiang (hill fort cave of the Sutiang people).  This is a site respected by the local people as the last stand of the "rebel" Jaintia King, U Kiang Nongbah, who in 1862 took advantage of a reduction in strength of the Sylhet Light Infantry Regiment to mount an arson attack against the local British run town of Jowai along with 600 tribesmen.  This was in protest against oppressive taxation by the Bengal Government and the general annexation by the British of the hereditary tribal lands.  Unfortunately for them the Regiment managed to scrape up 6,000 troops armed with muskets, cannon and war elephants and on the 27th December 1862 stormed the Kut Sutiang defences, capturing the King and hanging him in Jowai market place three days later.  An unconfirmed local story is that the British took the King's head back for display in England.  Strangely enough (!) it had taken us three years of patient negotiation and failed attempts to see this cave and even on this visit there was some doubt as to how many would be allowed in.  Perhaps realising that the mixed bag of English, Scots, Welsh, German, Indian, Austrian, Irish and Swiss present had all had a go at each other over the centuries, Mulda was not too concerned about the spirits of his ancestors being too upset and gave us the run of the place.

A lengthy downhill walk from the village saw us hacking through thick and steep jungle to reach the entrance, situated on top of a limestone outlier in the valley bottom. A very pleasant 109m section of fossil tunnel was surveyed, photographed, sketched and videoed to death while the locals sat biri-smoking and bemused on a large stalagmite boss. This was reputed to be the old King's seat, but they didn't worry too much about using it for an ashtray!  The only evidence left in the cave of these troubled times was broken pottery and possible hearth sites.  Carlyn, of course, knew of the hidden real cave - blocked off with a stone slab and only disclosed to a select few.  He may well be right as this murderous patch of the jungle covered pinnacle karst could conceal anything.  The trek back out to the paddy fields put paid to the "easy day" theory!


Back at Krem Labbit, Shnongrim, Michael and Thomas were convinced that they had connected with the underlying Krem Shynrong Labbit via a 50m pitch but were prevented from physically doing the trip due to the horrifically unstable nature of the pitch head. The total length of this system is theoretically 6.1kms.

In Umthloo several hundred metres of inlets and side passages brought the total up to l3.413kms with a very good lead (needing a small amount of bang) for next year. Here a calcited hanging rock at stream level prevents access to ongoing, 10m high inlet passage.  Krem Wiar-bru, a 200m long pothole was rigged down to a sumped area at Umthloo river level.  Krem Korlooheng, not far away, also sumps at this level.  One or two rebreather-owning divers are needed for next year to connect these to the main system and add another 0.5+kms.  With plenty of possibilities for further links to known caves located in all directions there is every chance that this could be a contender for India's longest - it has to beat the 21km Kotsati/Umlawan system only a few kms to the south at Lumshnong.  There are also many more potholes above the system awaiting our attention.

Other caves surveyed were the impressive Krem Labbit near Daistong, across the Letein valley.  This huge but short (451 m) system is one of the few visited here there are at least 13 more to be looked at!  The 44m long Krem Phlangmet (grass body cave) was not a record breaker but notable for the stunning examples of phototropic stalactites in its very majestic entrance, possibly the first recorded in India.  They grow in the direction of sunlight due to moss and algae growth on this side.  Krem Shrieh Khaidong reached 1.048kms, Krem Kseh Upring made 577m, Norman's Pot - 244m, Kneewrecker Hole - 810m, Krem Langshreh - 172m and Krem Ynram Blang - 80m.  Many other sites were recorded but not explored.


Sign at Krem Mawsmai Show Cave, Cherapuniee

Apart from exploration and surveying several people took some high quality photographs of most of the caves visited and Fraser continued with his ongoing video footage, assisted by Nicky who also took a video camera.  Fraser also filmed an active coal mine near Sutnga, both underground and on the surface.  The immigrant Nepalese colliers were friendly and helpful and their hospitality has ensured that this almost mediaeval industry has been recorded for posterity. Dan and Fiona worked hard on their continuing speleobiological research throughout the area while the writer made every effort to note down some of the extensive cave folklore of the Jaintia (or Pnar as they prefer to be called) people.  This has rightly become an established part of recce and everyone made an effort to collect folk tales with the aid of our guides and translators.  Carlyn was a rich fund of information and went to great lengths to ensure that our understanding and spelling of Pnar words was correct, the Khasi spellings sometimes used being subtly different. To compliment this Thomas did some fine pencil sketches of local thatched houses, barns etc. and Annie delineated the scenery. Andreas seemed to be permanently glued to his laptop, inputting survey data and Peter L. laboured heroically with the generator and assorted battery chargers as well as keeping an eye out (snigger) for faults in the electric supply.  This was a great team with everyone contributing to the cause in their own way.

Needless to say it was not all work and our evenings were spent eating the excellent food cooked by Addy and his team and assisting Ba Bung to reduce the mountainous alcohol supply. The "Shnongrim Combo" were in action most nights with guitars, mandolin, tin whistles, ksing (a local drum donated by Pa Heh) vocals and a selection of weird percussion instruments brought from Shillong by Gareth. Daytime sightseeing was limited but the spectacular monoliths and stone cremation vaults above the camp were regularly visited and photographed.  To conclude - a great time was had and the results were very satisfying.  All Meghalaya visits are great value and this was one of the better ones!


U.K: Simon Brooks (O.C.G./G.S.G.), Annie Audsley (B.E.C./S.U.S.), Nicola Bayley (R.F.D.C.C.), Tony Boycott (B.E.C./G.S.G./D.B.S.S.), Jayne Stead (G.S.G.), Peter Dowswell (G.S.G.), Roger Galloway (G.S.G.), Dan Harries (G.S.G.), Fiona Ware (G.S.G.), Tony Jarratt (B.E.C./G.S.G.), Derek Pettiglio (G.S.G.), Nigel Robertson (G.S.G.), Fraser Simpson (G.S.G.), Rhys Williams (S.W.C.c.). Ireland: Robin Sheen (RC.C.C.). Germany: Georg Baumler (H.H.L.), Daniel Gebauer (H.A.G.), Andre Abele, Herbert Jantschke, Michael Laumanns (S.C.R), Thomas Matthalm (K.H.F.M.), Katrin Zipfel. Austria: Peter Ludwig (L.V.H.O.O.). Switzerland: Andreas Neumann (O.G.H.). India: Brian Kharpran Daly (M.A.A./G.S.G.), Neil Sootinck, Lindsay Diengdoh, Shelley Diengdoh, Ronnie Mawlong, Batkupar 'Bat' Lyngdoh, Dale Mawlong, Gareth William Lyngwa, Toki Franklyn Dkhar, Denis Rayen (all M.A.A.).

Organisers, drivers, cooks, guides and other invaluable help

Bung Diengdoh, Adison 'Addy' Thaba, Shamphang War, Carlyn Phymgap, Pa Heh Shor Pajuh, Mulda Rupon, Raplang Shangpliang and a host of others from Shillong, Nongkhlieh Ilaka and the Garo, Borsora and Laitkynsew areas - without whom these expeditions would not be so successful.  Maureen Diengdoh and the Ladies of Shillong once again deserve our highest praise for their endless patience, good humour and hospitality.