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 by Tony Jarratt

A BEC/GSG member's view of this year's expedition to NE India. Refer to Belfry Bulletin 115 and GSG bulletin October 2003 for background information.

"U Ramhah died on the hill-side alone and unattended, as the wild animals die, and there was no one to regret his death. When the members of his clan heard of his death they came in a great company to perform rites and to cremate his body, but his body was so big that it could not be cremated, and so they decided to leave it till the flesh rotted, and to come again to gather his bones, but it was found that there was no urn large enough to contain them, so they piled them together on the hill-side until a large urn would be made. While the making of the urn was in progress there arose a great storm, and a wild hurricane blew from the north, which carried away the bleached bones of U Ramhah, and scattered them all over the south borders of the Khasi Hills, where they remain to this day in the form of lime-rocks, the many winding caves and crevices of which are the cavites in the marrowless bones of the giant." Rafy, 1920    (Pinched from Daniel Gebauer's magnificent South Asia Cave Registry, without his permission but with grateful thanks.)

February 6th saw the Mendip contingent - Tony Boycott (BEC,GSG) Jayne Stead (GSG) and the writer joining Simon Brooks (OCC,GSG) for the flight from Heathrow to Calcutta via Amman and Bombay. In Calcutta we met Joe Duxbury (GSS) and Jonathan Davies (GSG) before flying on to Guwahati where we were met by Gregory Diengdoh (MA). A Sumo ride to Shillong followed and here we found Peter Ludwig (LVHOO-Austria), Thomas Arbenz (SNT-Switzerland), Brian MacCoitir, Robin Sheen and Quentin Cooper (BC-Ireland), Damien Linder (SCJ-Switzerland) and the Meghalayan Adventurers; Brian Kharpran Daly (MA,GSG), Shelley Diengdoh, Dale and Ronnie Mawlong, Brandon Blein and others, plus their relatives and friends. Beer, Chinese/Indian food and more beer set the seal on the start of the expedition.

On the 9th several of us hired a Sumo jeep and headed for the village of Shnongrim in the Jaintia Hills of eastern Meghalaya - scene of past glories and with more to come in the next three weeks. Tents were set up on arrival as our purpose-built bamboo camp, like a Spanish hotel, had yet to be constructed.

Our caving started in earnest next day with the discovery of an extensive pothole system only some four minutes walk from camp! Krem Krang Wah (lower sloping ground cave) was a fine series of Yorkshire-style pitches and canyon passages with a miserable streamway at the bottom. Brian M. and Quentin undertook the rigging and did a grand job, their skills being honed to perfection by the end of the expedition. The adjacent Krem Krang Riat (upper sloping ground cave) was tied into the system and the impessive 80m deep Tiger Mouth Pot - part of Krem Krang Wah - also connected to eventually yield 2252.22 metres of sporting and attractive cave. Thomas and Peter, later in the week joined by Simon and anyone else that they could "press", recommenced work in Krem Synrang Labbit 1 and 2 (bat shelter cave) eventually surveying 4332.56 metres to give a combined system length of 5986.45 metres..

 

During the next few days more of the team arrived at camp including Imogen Furlong (SUSS), Andy Harp and Nicola Bayley (RFODCC), Mark Silo (OCC) and Danny Burke (BC).

On the 14th some of us had a "rest day" and were driven to the base of the ridge to visit an ancient, dry resurgence cave recently discovered near Lamyrsiang village by the locals and featured in the Meghalayan media. Krem Bam Khnei (rat eating cave) was surveyed for 738 metres to a massive and impenetrable boulder choke. Many of its beautiful flowstones and gours were covered in Hindi graffiti and rubbish was strewn everywhere as, due to its ease of access and lengthy, roomy galleries, it has become a subterranean religious shrine for immigrant coal miners working nearby. It must once have been a stunning system of deep and clear canals but now, alas, it is doomed. We were glad that the terminal choke was impassable but were very impressed by the speleological potential in this area. Despite the mess we were filmed and interviewed in this cave by a team from Doordarshan Kenora - the Indian government cable TV network - and so I had the dubious privilege of appearing in both British and Indian caving documentaries filmed just a few weeks apart.

With Krem Krang Wah finished we dropped the impressive 20m pot of Krem Bir (mud cave) in the hope of entering the continuation of the ongoing Krem Synrang Ngap (bee shelter cave - see BB 115 & GSG Bull. Oct. 2003). This latter, extremely promising cave never got visited this year due to other projects so has been left for the 2005 Grampian contingent. Krem Bir unfortunately dropped into an enormous, unstable boulder choke - part of which was pushed into a short section of ancient fossil tunnels ending in more awesome chokes which were left well alone. A strong, misty draught indicated big cave below but there was no safe way to reach it. This was a muddy, gloomy, uninspiring and quite frightening cave which we were glad to leave. One of its few redeeming features is a mini gypsum chandelier. The surveyed length was 332.4 metres

The 18th was spent in glorious sunshine on a reconnoitre of the ridge and catchment area above Krem Wah Shikar and the finding of Krem Mulieh 1-4 (soft, white rock which cures diarrhoea cave!). 1 and 2 were connected via a 40m pot but the promising passage below degenerated into a wet crawl which even the redoubtable Quentin was indisposed to push, even with his helmet off. In this cave I was climbing a large rock pinnacle to establish a good survey shot when the top 1.5m started to topple backwards. By a miracle I managed to regain balance and avoid falling for 4m, feverishly embracing half a ton of spiky limestone! This was a sharp reminder of the perils of virgin cave. The other Krem Muliehs also bottled out but at least we could now write them off. On the walk back from these a local showed us several caves in the Um Im (living or permanent water) area which were later to provide the main focus for the expedition. With no local names they became Krem Um Im 2-5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. The previously partly explored and locally named Krem Um Im became number 1. This latter cave was soon to be connected with the 9km long Krem Liat Prah which the main explorer and surveyor, Michael Laumanns, had written off as "finished". Absent from this years trip he was destined to soon receive many smug communications informing him that his "baby" had now grown into a teenager and was very likely to get bigger next year! Jonathan, Brian M. and Robin made the first connection with the Liat Prah streamway after surveying 200 metres of canals at the bottom of the vertical Um Im 1 system. After this refreshing swim they surveyed upstream Liat Prah along an inexplicably previously missed passage for 313 metres, again mainly swimming, to a boulder choke from below which the stream emerged. The nearby Laumann's Pot was descended down 27m and 43m pitches to provide an easier way in and lots more passage mapped.

Krem Um Im 2-5 is an interconnected system of attractive passages on several levels. It is adjacent to, and connects with in two places, a superb jungle-filled doline which became known as the "Lost World". A pleasant 30m pitch could be by-passed by descending the equally deep doline and entering a low and narrow streamway at the bottom. This was followed to where it became a wide, low bedding plane which eventually debouched into the side of walking sized canyon passage leading to Craggy Island. This large, oblong collapse chamber heralded the start of yet another horrific boulder choke where Quentin's talents once again came to the fore as he pioneered a complicated route through it for c.50m to an echoing area. The writer, scouting ahead for the survey, got to push the last bit to reach the head of a 20m pitch into what appeared to be huge, dry canyon passage. Having no tackle we left a 10m tape hanging down in the hope that this would be found from the newly discovered and adjacent Krem Um Im 6, the entrance of which was only a few metres away from 2-5 and also in the floor of the Lost World doline.

In this cave, once again, an enormous, frightening boulder ruckle had to be pushed and the good Dr. B. got the short straw on this one. He wormed his way downwards between boulders as big as the Hunters' until a lack of ladders to descend the gaps between them curtailed his exploration. These were eventually provided and the ruckle pushed to a depth of some 35m to where it opened up into solid cave at a stepped 30m pot. Quentin rigged this with one of the world's most frightening take-offs; the hanger being in the underside of a boulder weighing hundreds of tons and not only forming the ceiling of the 30m pot but also holding up all 35m of choke above!!! This was a classic hang which caused much ring-clenching on the prussik out.

Below the pot a large, active and beautifully decorated river passage bore off downstream to reach yet another boulder choke after 274m. Valiant attempts to pass this initially failed but by a stroke of luck we had a jar of fluorescein with us and some of this was chucked into the stream - mainly for the benefit of the video. Next day a party finishing off the survey were amazed to hear voices and then even more amazed as Mark and Jonathan emerged from the choke having pushed upstream from Krem Liat Prah. They had seen the green water and this inspired them to greater efforts - a marvellous and superbly timed stroke of luck. Um Im 6 (and by definition Um Im 2-5) were now part of the rapidly expanding Liat Prah system. Also on this trip, and at the suggestion of your dig-fixated scribe, an obscure hole at the base of the 30m pot was cleared by Quentin in the hope of passing the upstream sump in this cave. Sure enough open but decidedly squalid passage was entered and left for another day.

When that day came a couple of hundred metres of filthy and unpleasant phreatic tunnels were surveyed and the main way on desperately searched for. It just had to go. Our last chance was a tiny inlet canal with thick mud under the water and a definite "collector's item". With nothing left to survey we went for it and after 30m of misery the passage improved slightly in that we were no longer scared of disappearing forever into the quicksand of "Shit Creek". A good echo hinted at better things ahead and suddenly we gained a view of black space as we entered a 15m high bore passage at right angles. We had hit the jackpot again! A massive dry tunnel bored off upwards to the right. This was later mapped for several hundred metres and contained some stupendous formations. A huge side passage turned out to be an oxbow to the main drag and provided an airy balcony for the video team and some awe-inspiring views of the river passage below - this being reached by turning left at the initial entry point. This 15m high by 8m wide tunnel carried the main stream which was soon found to issue from an impenetrable choke on the RH side after 200m. Ahead the passage increased in size and gained height to form a gigantic, breakdown-floored square tunnel which we surveyed in a straight line for 390m to a point where the boulder floor met the ceiling. The heat and lack of draught indicated that a way on was unlikely but a wristwatch altitude measurement indicated that "The Grand Trunk Road" was not far from the surface. On the way back a small but interesting inlet, "Shnongrim Subway", was found which may well be explored further next year, our lesson on not ignoring the obscure passages being well and truly drummed home after this discovery! Krem Liat Prah had now entered the big league with some 14km of passage and looked quite likely to become India's second longest. This was confirmed after Brian, Jonathan, Shelley and team, who had meanwhile been dropping Krem Um Im 7 and 8 and connecting these to the main system, pushed the total surveyed length to 15118.01 metres. (There is some doubt as to the actual connection of these last two caves to the main system but if they are ignored the overall length is still 14828.90m). Michael's response to all this was;- "..... your discoveries make my nice speleogenetic model of the whole area totally OBSOLETE. Arrghhh ^'**uu!=)=!?=/!"S$%/()=!!!!!"

A selection of seemingly ancient bovine jawbones, limb bones and a horn, found in Um Im 6, have been given to Tony Audsley who will attempt to identify them.

With no sign in 6 of the tape left hanging in 2-5 a return was made to the latter cave with 20m of ladders for the pitch. The nature of the place precluded dragging full SRT kit through and the last section of choke almost precluded us as a highly dodgy "spiral staircase" of loose Henrys had to be negotiated to reach the pitch head. At the base of the pot the huge, dry canyon had metamorphosed into a grotty little stream passage well endowed with crabs, crayfish, assorted cave fish and bats aplenty. Having got there we were then obliged to survey "Shnongrim Sewer" so set off downstream in a healthy draught. After 200m of mud, bats and gradually deepening water most of the team mutinied when it reached chest height - or in Jayne's case eye level! With the alluring draught and echoing nature of the passage the writer just had to look a little further and after only c.50m of not unpleasant ducks he emerged into the side of a 6-8m diameter river passage. Once again a grotty lead had led us to the big stuff and we wondered how much had been missed over the years by people only exploring the "holiday sized" passages. To the left the water got deep and there may be a sump, judging by the ample mud deposits in this area. To the right it was wide open and well populated with bats, who almost certainly did not enter via the low streamway. The passage bore a distinct Jamaican feel and so was named Ratbat River as their patois would have it. Only a cursory glance was had before the writer retreated with Dr.B and team to the surface, well pleased at having found what we believe to be the continuation of upstream Liat Prah beyond the choke. Ratbat River is located below Shnongrim village and heading straight for the Krem Wah Shyngktat (prawn stream cave) system (alias Krem Synrang Moo/Pineapple Pot). A dye test should confirm if the downstream sump in Shyngktat is the main feeder of Ratbat River and thus Liat Prah. A connection to this fine system, plus a link through the downstream boulder choke into Krem Umtler, would make the complete "Megha-system" over 19km long.

Thinking to find an easier, safer and more direct way in we decided to revisit Krem Shrieh (monkey cave), located on the north side of the ridge but known to have a large bat population and an unpushed streamway heading in the right direction. The previous, obviously soft and wimpy "explorers" had chickened out when the undergound wildlife had become too much for them in a walking sized (just) streamway called "Half Bat Half Fish". Full of confidence Robin, Quentin and I descended this truly spectacular doline and 60m pot to the bat-infested depths where the very air consisted of bat piss and ammonia, plus the odd falling parasite and selection of guano. As we approached the unpushed streamway the airspace became less but the bats became more. With our upper bodies taking up most of the space scores of these black and somewhat loathsome little buggers were bouncing off us and the walls and dropping into the stream. Not content with decently drowning like nice, cuddly British bats these monsters then took off from the water or swam rapidly to the walls (or Quentin) to gain height for their next dodgem flight. Several actually took time off for a quick shag within inches of our heads before resuming their frightening antics. Meanwhile, below water level, huge blind fish smashed into our legs and lower bodies and almost certainly the crabs and associated fauna at floor level were also up to some dirty tricks! It then dawned on us that one of the last people here had been Martin "Lump" Groves - a man not renowned for his wimpishness so we hereby apologise for our preconceptions and would like to state that the original explorers did a magnificent job in actually surveying this horror story! Anyway, we pushed on into huge passage and were about to take off our face protection and heave a sigh of relief when Robin noticed the rope hanging down the entrance pitch - bugger. Needless to say this cave did not provide an easy route into the Liat Prah system but it is obviously part of something much bigger and needs further investigation next year. A possible, draughting dig may pay off and the undescended pot in the floor of the doline should be dropped. Apparently the locals are very impressed by cavers who visit this place as it is a well known venomous snake habitat!

An attempt to join the resurgence cave of Krem Umtler to the lower end of the system was also doomed to failure due to the immense size of the intervening boulder choke where fears of getting lost forever seriously gave us the frights. A better thought out attempt may be made next year as a connection would considerably extend and tidy up Liat Prah as stated earlier. It is potentially India's longest cave.

Not far away the superbly named Krem Bun (sorry Daniel) eventually yielded a pitch system of 209.15m to Thomas, Shelley, Imogen and team. This cave was not jokingly named but in honour of their local guide, the diminutive Bun Sukhlain. His mate's name was Never Full so it could have been worse.

Most of our exploration plans for this year never got done as the sudden growth of this system overshadowed all else. A whole new area was also opened up at Semmasi (0r Samassi, Sem Massi, Sammasi, etc.*) village where the superb river cave of Krem Tyngheng (wide open mouth cave) yielded 3752.41 metres and Krem K'dong Semmasi (Semmasi corner cave), 902.75 metres. With at least nine more known caves there is a lot more to do in this hardly touched area despite it being a bit too Christian and heavy on the TEMPERANCE!!! Apparently our colleagues were the first westerners most of the villagers had ever seen so the headman, Bikin Paslein, took lots of photos of them - a nice role change! Other caves were explored near Daistong and another new area to the south, beyond Tangnub village was briefly investigated. There are tales of large caves here so roll on February 2005!

Nicky, assisted by Andy and Jonathan, recorded much of the expedition on video in the unlikely event of surpassing her excellent production from last year. Many people took a comprehensive selection of photographs and images, some of which accompany this report - with thanks to their owners.

Long, hard days underground were balanced by the usual evening entertainment and every night the traditional bonfire was patronised by the cream of European and Meghalayan socialites. Quentin and Danny, our professional Irish musicians, did us proud with fiddle, mandolin and guitar sessions and most of the locals were also accomplished musicians, particularly on the guitar. One memorable night saw the real "Shnongrim Combo" in action with Carlyn (harmonica), Pa Heh (guitar, drum), Heipormi (guitar, vocals), Menda (guitar, vocals and hymns) and other passers-by playing traditional Jaintia festival tunes. Plenty of beer kept the troops happy and Carom and Cribbage were popular with the intellectuals. The re-employment of Myrkassim Swer and his Muslim cooking team was much appreciated as was the excellent job done by Bung and Addie in organizing the camp and driving us around. Addie's new found fame as a submarine jeep driver may last some time! The people of Nongkhlieh Elaka and Semmasi were once again superb. Special thanks must go to local guides Raplang, Pa Heh, Carlyn, Heipormi, Menda, Bikin and Bun - and others - who actually found the caves for us to go down.

The finale of the expedition was a party held at Donbockwell "Bok" Syiemlieh's farm, between Shillong and Guwahati, where a bamboo bar, bunkhouses and stage were laid on and a local rock band provided. The evening was much enlivened when the month-long unwashed Quentin, looking lika a poor man's Alice Cooper, joined them on stage to play some superb rap and blues on electric guitar, much to both their and our astonishment and delight. Our very grateful thanks must go to Bok and his staff, the Ladies of Shillong (Barrie, Dabbie, Maureen, Rose etc) and everyone else who helped make this trip yet another magnificent epic. Only 10 months to go...

Top Tips for Pushing Meghalayan Caves!!! Check everything accessible and don't worry about a lack of draught. Tight squeezes, ducks, grim boulder chokes and short digs are all worth a go and, as this expedition proved, often pay off big time. The presence of Heteropoda spiders may indicate routes to the surface above or nearby and plenty of "Snotgobblers" (web-building fly larvae) invariably are a good sign of lengthy, draughting passages - they are an excellent indicator of routes through boulder ruckles. Very few Meghalayan caves are "finished", or ever will be.

 (*I have adopted the spelling favoured by Carlyn Phyrngap and Daniel Gebauer and apparently appropriate for the place name "Cowshed" - many other spellings are used by locals, mapmakers and visitors.

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