Discoveries in the Jaintia and West Khasi Hills
By : Tony Jarratt
BB 516 and 519. G.S.G. bulletins, fourth series, vol 1 nos. 4 and 5, vol 2 no. 2. Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association (soft bound history of MAA and overview of Meghalayan caving available from BEC and GSG libraries)
UK – Simon Brooks (OCC/GSG), Tony Jarratt (BEC/GSG), Mark Brown (SUSS), Tony Boycott (BEC/GSG/UBSS), Jayne Stead (GSG), Fraser Simpson (GSG), Graham Marshall (GSG), Dan Harries (GSG), Joanne Whistler (OUCC), Lesley Yuen (OCC). Eire – Brian MacCoitir, Robin Sheen, Quentin Cooper (all BC). Austria – Peter Ludwig (LVHOO). Germany – Georg Baumler (HHVL), Christian Fischer (AHKG), Rainer Hoss (HFGN), Christine and Herbert Jantschke (HFGOK), Thilo Muller (AHKG). Switzerland – Thomas Arbenz (SNT), Julien Oppliger (SCI), India – Brian Kharpran Daly (MA/GSG), Gregory Diengdoh, Shelley Diengdoh, Dale Mawlong, Teddy Mawlong. Ronnie Mawlong, Sheppard Najier and others (all MA), Raplang Shangpliang (Shnongrim guide turned caver!), Pradeep Gogoi and his film team ( Assam).
Adison “Adi” Thaba (camp manager/driver), Bung Diengdoh (driver/organizer), David Kimberly Marak (driver/organizer), Shamphang Lyngdoh (driver/cook/betel addict), Vinod Sunar, Alam “Munna” Khan (cook), Myrkassim Swer (head cook), Bhaikon Hazarika, Pulin Bara, Kamal Pradhan (cooking assistants), Mr. Sukhlain (Doloi or “king” of Nongkhlieh Elaka), Carlyn Phyrngap (were-tiger), Pa Heh Pajuh, Menda Syih, Shartis Dkhar, Heipormi Pajuh, Evermore Sukhlain, Moses A. Marak, Ramhouplien Tuolor, Boren G. Momin, Roilian Nampui, (village headmen, guides and local characters), Grewin R. Marak, Blaster Jana, Tobias Syiem, Mr. Roy (Meghalaya Police), Pambina A. Marak, Josbina N. Marak (cooking assistants).
The BEC/GSG contingent – Dr.B., your scribe, Fraser and Graham – flew from Heathrow to Kolkata (nee Calcutta) on the 3rd February to meet the holiday-making Jayne at the ever popular Fairlawn Hotel where our first Indian beers were gratefully quaffed. On the following day’s internal flight to Guwahati the soft southerners were upgraded to Club Class and the heathen Scots left in the back with the plebs. Obviously offended by this they mutinied in Assam and buggered off to the heavy snow and street gunfighting of Darjeeling for a relaxing few days. The Mendippers continued by taxi to Shillong to meet Brian K.D. and family and the first wave of our cosmopolitan colleagues. Beer once again featured strongly in the evening’s programme.
After a day in the city sorting equipment and shopping we all left for the Jaintia Hills on the 7th arriving at our superb bamboo camp in the late afternoon. Here we were welcomed by the locals and camp staff and settled in for a few more beers – around the campfire for a change.
With local guide-turned-caver Raplang some of us investigated several new sites on Khloo Rasong, the NW side of the Shnongrim ridge a couple of kilometres from camp, the primary aim being to gain access to the Krem Um Im 5 section of Krem Liat Prah. Of these Krem Urle 1 (cave in the mudslide area) was later to provide some painful caving in an essentially flat-out, boulder and cobble floored stream passage entered via 100m of well rigged and attractive pitches and becoming too narrow after 0.8kms. Only a considerable amount of squeezing and digging enabled us to get this far. Shelley’s fondest memory of the place was her unintentionally using a large freshwater crab as a handhold! Two sections of large, dry fossil tunnel failed to yield any easier overhead routes. The general direction of the cave was towards the ever growing Krem Liat Prah system but a dye trace was not detected due to the time scales involved and the logistics of getting observers to the predicted connection points at the right time. This was to prove a problem with several other attempted traces and future work should involve detectors which could be collected and checked when convenient. Also, even in the wettest place on Earth, there are times of low water flow and February is one of them. Several other caves in this area looked promising but soon became choked or too small.
Having failed to find an easy way into the extremely promising Ratbat River in the Krem Um Im 5 section of the Liat Prah system we bit the bullet and returned to the horrors of the crawls, boulder chokes and crab-infested streamway (Shnongrim Sewer) of this cave. The long duck at the end of the Sewer had luckily dropped by a metre and Tony, Jayne and I were soon in the unexplored Ratbat River itself. Downstream was surveyed for 40m to a deep canal, later surveyed for another 137m of swimming to a probable sump. Other members of the expedition were to make some hard won advances in the stunning resurgence cave of Krem Wah Shikar and they were also stopped by a sump. The computer generated surface map, the “Big Picture”, shows this to be heading towards Ratbat River and divers may be needed next year to attempt the connection and hopefully add Wah Shikar to Liat Prah to give a length of over 20kms.
Upstream Ratbat River produced some fine phreatic tunnels but after 300m and an awkward dig through boulders we were stopped by a classic Shnongrim Ridge boulder choke – huge and impassable. What we assume is the Krem Urle stream emerges from beneath but for us “cave finish”.
This year there was an almost complete absence of bats as opposed to the hundreds seen in 2004. Also absent were the “Lilliputian monkey-coloured people” who Carlyn assured us frequent the cave entrances in the Um Im area (or has there been a secret Wessex expedition?).
Other work in the Um Im area involved digging, pot-bashing, re-surveying and recce. The re-survey of Krem Um Im 7 added 226m to Liat Prah but other promising sites closed down. There is still a great deal to explore in this heavily forested area but each year gets easier as the jungle is cleared for cultivation.
With our first two big caves concluded work concentrated on the amazing Krem Synrang Ngap, left fallow last year due to the pressure of other discoveries. The traditional 100m of entrance pitches were again superbly rigged by Mark and team and parties then set off through the downstream crawls and ducks and a couple of kms of scrambling over huge calcite bosses to reach a major junction. Downstream a huge boulder choke soon loomed up and a possible way through was left for a thin men team next year. This may be beneath the oppressive Krem Bir. Just back upstream from this a massive inlet tunnel became the focus of attention for those not minding a cold 5m swim. With a rope and life jacket installed we were soon harvesting the metres beyond. Brian M, Gregory and I were continuing the survey on the 19th February when the impressive draught dropped as we entered a smaller section of passage ending in too tight rifts. On heading back Brian noticed a side passage with a severe looking squeeze through hefty formations from whence the gale emerged. Being the skinniest I got the job and was soon sprinting up 100m or so of very attractive potholed galleries with cave pearl-like sandstone pebbles in the floor that were identical to the local kids’ catapult pellets. This became “Thin Man’s Inlet” and another, larger passage back downstream “Fat Man’s Inlet”.
On the 23rd, after three days of “easy” surface recce, a return was made to enlarge the squeeze and survey on upstream. Quentin, Greg and I were the most anorexically designed for this operation and were soon clocking up the metres again until a chest deep pool, twin 30m avens and a complicated series of crawling passages temporarily held us up. Greg finally hit the jackpot after crawling down the “Gravel Grovel” into a magnificent stream passage stretching into the distance – the “Great Straight”. We were ecstatic but confused as we were now obviously heading downstream after having travelled upstream for several hundred metres!
Scooping 30m tape legs we marched enthusiastically onwards to intersect a fine phreatic bore tube containing impressive columns and curtains. This, in turn, broke into the side of an even larger passage which immediately sumped to the right but continued to the left as a large canyon with its higher level in the form of a wide fossil tunnel. We climbed up into this for ease of surveying and Greg, leading with the tape, scrambled up a steep mud slope into a black void above. Cries of astonishment from this normally quiet Meghalayan caver spurred us on to ditch the survey and join him in the huge, mud and sand dune floored chamber that continued to the left and ahead as 8m wide phreatic tunnels. The sound of a large stream emanated from the distance so, with time running out, we rushed off for a look at the large phreatic river passage crossing under the chamber from right to left and heading for regions unknown. We assumed that we had reached the stream from Krem Synrang Labbit and had actually left Krem Synrang Ngap to enter a completely different drainage system. In recognition of Greg’s discovery the huge void was named Meghalayan Adventurers’ Chamber. With a total of 455m surveyed we were more than happy to stagger back to the surface which we reached after a 9 1/2 hr trip – knackered but elated.
A couple of fruitless days were then spent trying to reach the new extensions via undescended potholes in the jungle-covered pinnacle karst above. This very difficult terrain was thoroughly scoured by Quentin and Greg and three short but sweet vertical caves discovered, unfortunately all closing down before breaking through into the “master cave” below. Peter and I spent one day on this project then diverted to Krem Synrang Labbit to put flourescein into the downstream river in the hope of proving the connection.
A large “shit or bust” team” entered Krem Synrang Ngap on the 27th February with Quentin, Greg and I being the thin men. Mark, Brian M, (less anorexically challenged), Shelley, Lesley and Jo headed for Fat Man’s Inlet in an attempt to bypass the squeeze. We followed the huge M.A.Chamber to a conclusion at a mud choke above a steep, slippery and hazardous mud “mountain” with large boulder chokes below from which issued both the main stream and a healthy inlet stream with clearer water. This was particularly noticeable as we were all convinced that the larger flow had a distinct green tinge to it from the dye inserted in Krem Synrang Labbit the previous day. A couple of ways on here need to be checked next year in the hope of passing the upstream chokes. Downstream yet another huge boulder choke curtailed our progress but again there are possible routes through it. Time had run out for further pushing as it was now past 10pm. The sound of voices heralded the arrival of the more rotund team whom we assumed had bypassed the squeeze. We were suitably chastised when it was revealed that their inlet had soon fizzled out and they had followed us through the tight bit after an hour of hammer and chisel work – fair play to ’em. For one of the gentlemen (who shall remain nameless but said “feck” a lot) disrobing to his shreddies was necessary and had the secondary benefit of reducing the girlies to hysterical laughter as he cursed his way through. They were suitably impressed with the extensions so we left them brewing up and admiring the place while we headed out to our beer supplies stashed in the cave entrance where we intended to bivouac until morning. With tongues hanging out we sweated up the 100m of rope only to find that the local kids had snaffled most of the ale – bastards. Luckily Greg had extra supplies and a couple of rum filled Coke bottles were unearthed from the depths of tackle bags to quench our alcoholic thirsts. A fire was lit outside and Greg cooked soup as the others gradually emerged from the depths to the night sounds of the jungle. Honorary thin man Brian M, relieved to have escaped from the jaws of the squeeze, produced a bottle of Courvoisier and the mini-party got into full swing before we retired for a few hours draughty kip.
Fraser, Brian K.D. and Graham woke us at 10am and helped sherpa the kit up to the road. We had been underground for 20 hours but had another 800m in the bag after a classic Meghalayan caving trip. A resurvey trip in another part of the cave later brought the total length of this sporting system up to 4.17kms with plenty more to be found. A physical connection upstream to Krem Synrang Labbit may not be easy but downstream is more promising with the sound of the river emanating from beyond the choke. The probable resurgence for both this and the original main stream is Krem Iawe, situated several kms to the WNW. Pushing trips will require underground camping to be viable unless other ways in from the jungle covered slopes of Khloo Krang south of the cave can be found. If Krem Krang Maw and/or Krem Krang Wah are the feeders to Krem Synrang Labbit then the whole system, if connections could be established, would be over 20km long. Time will tell.
My last trip of the expedition was to the awesome system of Krem Umthloo – my “baby” – in an attempt to smash up a hanging boulder preventing access to a 10m high inlet which could be seen beyond. This lay at the end of International Schweinehund Passage and not too far from the boulder choke entrance to the cave. Unfortunately my colleagues, Quentin and Raplang, were not in the right frame of mind which made for a frustrating outing. This was probably Raplang’s first proper caving trip and he had to be restrained from carving OUT, with accompanying arrows, every few metres. Quentin was pretty burnt out from three weeks of extreme caving and decided to sit it out just before the dig site was reached. Not having been able to scrounge any explosives I was armed with a hefty hammer and set to on the rock which was calcited into the ceiling of a low crawl. Suddenly the whole boulder dropped out with an earth shaking thud which roused Quentin from his lethargy. I was just able to shift it enough to squeeze past into the big stuff beyond and the others eventually followed. Sod’s Law then decreed that this fine passage soon ended at a calcited aven with an unpleasant crawl to one side which became too tight. It also became too toxic after Quentin inadvertently set fire to the tape with his lamp! Raplang was by now totally mind blown by the curious antics of the Ferengis and we, in turn, were equally mind blown by the noise of what could only be described as loud snoring emanating from a low duck at the base of the aven. The source of this weird and somewhat disturbing phenomenon will have to wait another year to be discovered but is doubtless related to siphoning water or an intermittent draught. It just begged the name of Snoring Duck Aven.
Lots of other trips and projects took place during the three weeks of field work. Mark pushed his own “hot tip”, Krem Wah Ser, to discover one of the finest caves on the Ridge with 3.26kms of superbly decorated passages entered via c.40m of pitches and with a resurgence exit. New girls Jo and Lesley were very impressed with the cave but took some time to get used to the monster spiders that seem to be even larger than normal in this area. An upstream sump in this cave possibly connects with the 1.8km long Krem Muid, itself being adjacent to the 13.5km+ of the Krem Umthloo system.
Robin’s dedicated recce. and exploration of totally obscure sites led to the discovery of Krem Brisang and it’s connection with Krem Wah Shikar, itself being greatly extended by Mark, Peter, Jo and Thomas after some inventive and entertaining aid climbing to pass dodgy boulder chokes. Tom, despite suffering bouts of illness, was keen to see his particular “baby” develop to its current length of 2.56km and also sorted out lots of survey and computer problems with typically calm Swiss efficiency. He also tidied up question marks in Krem Liat Prah and aided by Peter, taught Rainer to understand British caving eccentrics! This worked so well that Rainer became an honorary one. On Tom’s return to Switzerland he slaved away over his computer to produce two superb “Big Picture” area maps of the Ridge – one with added landscape detail. The map appended is updated from these.
Georg, Rainer, Thilo, Christian, Herbert and Christine spent a few days continuing with the long standing survey of one of India’s most stunning cave systems, Pielkhlieng – Sielkan Pouk, to bring it up to 10.3km with many more km left to explore in the future. This one is the “baby” of Georg who is convinced that it will be India’s (if not the Earth’s) longest and is already the best in the Multiverse. Photographs of this cracking system would seem to prove him correct! They also surveyed 580m in Saisi Dungkhur near Moolian village and reported the cave to be ongoing.
In the temperance zone of Semmasi Krem Tyngheng was extended from 3.75km to 5.32km by Simon, Greg, Tom, Julien, Tony B. and Jayne and many leads remain for next year in this labyrinthine system.
Mainly assisted by Graham, Fraser once again spent lots of time videoing the caves, coal mining operations and local colour. He also sub-contracted to Pradeep and his Assamese team who were making a documentary on Meghalayan caves and cave life. Dan, Christian and Julien also became briefly involved in this as they were engaged in intensive speleobiological research throughout their stay. Dan and Simon were also able to arrange a future collaboration with several eminent professors from the Dept. of Zoology at the North East Hill University, Shillong.
Brian K.D. spent much time being interviewed by the press and we were all captured on film or caught by the papperazzi (nasty) at some point. The reason for all the press interest was the growing confrontation between environmentalists, cavers and locals and the recently much more mechanised cement industry which has begun to encroach on India’s current longest cave, Krem Kot Sati / Umlawan, and other important karst / hydrological areas including the Shnongrim Ridge.
West Khasi Hills
On Sunday 20th February the West Khasi Hills team eventually left Shillong after a series of delays due to bureaucracy and arrived at the riverside village of Ranikor at 6pm. Next day, with a bodyguard of three armed policemen, they drove on to Maheshkola, encountering more delays at the Border Security Force post. A third day of delays due to tyre punctures and having to repair road bridges before using them finally saw them reach their destination – the Rong Dangi village school – where the local kids were perfectly happy to get a surprise holiday in return for accommodating the Ferengis. The caves of Panigundur and Mondil Kol were connected by Simon, Georg and Julien after a survey of 242m and another 339m added in the latter cave by Dr.B, Christian, Thilo, Herbert and Christine. The 23rd saw the team adding another 1.16km to the system. Videoing and biological studies were also undertaken here.
Rong Dangi Rongkol was extended by 680m next day and Morasora Kol by 431m. On the 25th the fine river sink of Gurmal Janggal Rongkol was descended via a series of short, free-climbable pitches and connected to the growing Mondil Kol master system.
Things took a turn for the worse the following day when a failed rock belay followed both Jayne and the rope and sling she was using to the floor 5m below, leaving the expedition doctor and a paucity of ladders at the top of the pitch! More tackle was fetched and the injured one recovered and carried piggy-back to the accommodation by the good doctor (who I gather was glad she was a featherweight). After her last broken leg epic all were relieved when a badly sprained ankle was diagnosed – though it unfortunately curtailed her caving for the rest of the expedition. Despite this accident another 470m was in the bag and more biological work was done by the scientists.
Morasora Kol was added to the system on the 27th and over 400m surveyed. Next day Morasora Bridge Pot joined in the fun with 248m of passage, an excuse to do a photographic through trip by Christine, Herbert and Thilo and a good reason to re-name the whole 5.8km system the Morasora River Cave.
To sum up: yet another enjoyable and successful expedition with great company, food, beer and superb sporting caving. Despite initially poor weather – gales, fog, wind, heavy rain and low temperatures – and a couple of earthquakes – everyone enjoyed themselves and contributed towards piecing together the fascinating undergound jigsaw puzzles of various bits of Meghalaya. Our thanks to Brian K.D. and the Meghalayan Adventurers, the Ladies of Shillong and all the helpers and locals who helped make it work so well. The overall surveyed length in all the areas visited this year was just over 19km. Not bad considering the nature of the new stuff under the Ridge and the travel logistics to reach other areas. We were unable this year to visit the “vulture cave halfway up a 1000m cliff” or the “cave with clouds in” due to insurgency problems but there’s always next year. Probably more important this year was the interaction with the locals, press, scientists and environmentalists – hopefully just in time to preserve some of the planet’s finest caving areas from destruction. Apart from the above major caves many smaller sites were explored and surveyed and scores of new entrances visited in both areas so there is no fear of these marvellous expeditions winding up in the foreseeable future!
As an aside, and an example of the Indian sense of humour, Dr. B. informs me that the painted advice “Use Dipper at Night”, often seen on the back of lorries, has been collared by the National Aids Control Organisation for their new condom – the “Dipper”. Likewise another popular slogan – “Horn Please”. They should sell like hot cakes!