Cambridge Underground 1985 pp 16-20

I May not Have Seen the Mulu Caves, But at Least I Got the Mulu Foot
A Caving Expedition in Malaysia

by Gail Smith

For years I looked at Cambridge Underground with a sort of horrified envy. Why was it always filled with articles about "how I went caving in India/South America/West Indies/South Africa/North America/other exotic place" ? Why could other people travel the world, while I washed my test tubes in Tennis Court Road? Now, for the benefit of the current generation of impoverished students, I intend to continue the tradition. In October '84 I wangled myself onto an expedition in Taman Negara, Malaysia with the cave exploration group of the Malayan Nature Society, and I'm going to write about it.

The expedition was organised after a weekend recce to an outcrop called Batu Luas had found two good sized caves very easily [1]. Another outcrop in the same area was known to house an enormous and unmapped cavern. The plan was to explore and survey lots of limestone outcrops and caves in that particular area of the National Park, and to evaluate the flora and fauna of the separate hills. The ecology was going to be interesting since the limestone outcrops are well separated and could support different plants and animals. The ecosystems have evolved separately for an awful long time. The limestone is Permian, metamorphosed sometime in the meantime and the caves formed within the Tertiary. The outcrops separated at a later date.

The party contained a mixed bunch of cavers, a geologist, botanists, bat and frog experts, an archaeologist, two journalists and a photographer! The whole thing was amazingly well organised. As we staggered into camp for the first time, laden with ropes, eggs, kettles, camp lighting, parangs, cameras, flashguns, vegetables, SRT gear, carbide, flower presses, frog-pickling bags, graph paper, calculators, mosquito nets and surveying gear, we were presented with fresh cups of Chinese tea by Dennis Yong. Dennis had spent the previous two days setting up a superb camp with the help of a group of local guides, hired at great expense. There was a cook house, a gear storage house and a 'long house' to sleep in - all made with wooden poles cut from the trees and covered with huge plastic tarpaulins. A stream flowed gently by, a reassuring 2'6" below the camp ground level. An excellent spot.

We slept in the long house, (Sarawak long houses are the subject of numerous lewd jokes and innuendos) suspended on things like stretchers about 50cm off the ground. A 2'6" differential between us and the stream wasn't really enough, but the camp only really flooded once and we all stayed dry, even though soap, towels, boots and food bowls floated off downstream. Jim stayed awake for half the night so that he would not miss the excitement of the flood pulse hurtling through the camp. For the rest of the expedition the camp remained a squalid mudbath beneath which lurked sharp sticks and stones to attack unprotected feet. Flip-flops were not the ideal camp footwear, but were the only camp footwear that most of us had brought. It was fortunate that it was only a two week expedition, or the camp would have become really sordid, the tiger which was prowling around outside at night did not encourage us to travel very far for night-time squatting in the bushes.

Since there were only 12 hours of daylight and then pitch blackness, the keenies insisted on getting up before dawn each morning and clattering cooking pans until it became too unpleasant for sane people to hide under the bedclothes any longer. Then, in the confused daze of being not-quite-awake we had to organise breakfast, boil rice for lunch, (it usually hadn't fermented too horribly by lunchtime) collect surveying gear, organise the party, reorganise the party several times when people changed their minds about where they wanted to go, and set off into the forest. Just where we went was an interesting question. Jim had divided the exploration areas into A,B,C and D sections. He then conveniently failed to tell anyone else which area corresponded to which letter. As soon as we had deduced his system, he slyly changed it (still, of course without telling us). The end result was that everyone went where they felt like going, and occasionally met other parties who should have been somewhere completely different. In any case, in whichever direction you went in the morning you had to wade through a river within five minutes, and soak the socks you had spent all night trying to dry. Most of our routes went along a National Park trail for some way before we had to start hacking through the forest. This was a pleasant way to start the day, listening to the monkeys (I never saw one), wading the streams and pulling the leeches off. The leech bites bled into all the streams. Some streams, we were subsequently told, carry leptospirosis. H'm.

After a specified number of paces on the trail, and after wading a few streams the time came to find a limestone outcrop. The outcrops had been located on aerial photographs. They were completely invisible from the trail because of the forest. Indeed, they were sometimes completely invisible from the forest when only 10 metres away. The forest is very thick and the outcrops are very small. They are very easy to miss. The technique is to take a compass in the left hand, a parang (machete) in the right, and to try and hack in a straight line towards your theoretical outcrop. In the same way that caving would be very pleasant if caves were not dark, muddy and strenuous jungle hacking would be very pleasant were it not for the vegetation. The vegetation is aggressive. It has sharp bits, thorns, poisonous plants, impenetrable bits, impassable fallen trees, nasty surprises lurking in dark bits, and bits that hang down at head height ready to gouge out your eyes or cause concussion. Jungle hacking is also hot, humid, muddy and strenuous. If you are lucky, you hit the outcrop with your path. Fortunately bat roosts have a very distinctive scent, and it's sometimes possible to find outcrops by smell when you can't actually see very far.

Once at the outcrop, the idea was to find some caves or a path to the top for the botanists to follow. Usually we followed the foot of the outcrops around on the first pass and investigated any likely holes as we came across them. Most of the ground level caves consisted of one small chamber which was often a bat roost. The poor bats would become panic stricken as we entered and start to stream out of the entrance, while the cave racer (a snake) in residence took advantage of the situation and caught one or two of the bats. For someone brought up to believe that caves are pretty lifeless places it was the proliferation of animals undergound that was the most unusual thing about these caves. Larger caves at ground level often had elephant dung and footprints inside. I suspect that it would be unpleasant to wander round a corner shouting survey data to find yourself face to face with a cornered elephant. The large cavern we had come to survey was named Gua Gajah Menari (cave of the Dancing Elephants) on account of its size (a large single cavern 100 x 50 x 35m high) and elephant wallows. All the other caves we found were considerably less impressive:- eg. Gua Gajah Menngaru (Itchy Elephants - 200m long), Perigi (Well Cave - a complex cave on at least three levels, but confined to a 80 x 80 x 80m piece of outcrop), Akar Lurus (Straight Roots about the same size and complexity as Perigi), Steysen Keretapi (Shunting Yard - a cave looking like intersecting railway tunnels). The caves often went all the way through the outcrop and would have several entrances dotted about the hillside. Basically, the outcrops were too small to have big caves since most below-ground development was mudfilled. It soon became obvious that it was easier to climb the spiky limestone rock on the outside of the outcrop and look for another entrance lower down than to rig a pitch within a cave. When there was a change in personnel after a week of the expedition, the leaving group took away nearly all of our (unused) SRT gear. The limestone was, on occasion, horrifyingly easy to climb. It was possible to make an awful lot of height by hanging onto rock and vegetation before you realised just how dead you would be if you fell off.

After a week and a half of the expedition, I went up to the top of Batu Suboh (the outcrop where I had done most of my exploration) with a party containing two botanists and one journalist (Rusdi). After a long time in the shady forest it was amazing to be out in the sunlight. We could see for an enormous distance, identify the other karst towers sticking out of the forest, feel the breeze and watch the toucans floating over the canopy a long way vertically below us. Actually, it was only about 100m below us. 100m is a long way in daylight. Rusdi nearly fell off. As he wrote in the logbook :- "Today I nearly met my Maker (Allah)." He was quite shaken. Rusdi hadn't really appreciated what he had taken on when he came along, and kept asking for walking routes that didn't involve wading rivers, for his dinner to be cooked and his luggage to be carried for him. So, the days rolled by, and the damn survey data proliferated.

At about 4.30 we would set off back to camp. It often rained in the late afternoon, so camp was reached with us soaking wet and in darkness. Some kind soul had usually put the kettle on and the first thing to do was to down huge amounts of Chinese tea while Dennis pleaded with us to leave our caving grots in the gear store and away from the main camp. Ruth tried to collate her plant samples in daylight, so was ready at nightfall with the gentian violet to decorate our cuts while others rubbed on tiger balm. The camp smelt of camphor, carbide, and tea. Kiew was an excellent cook and was prevailed on to make the evening meal far more often than his turn. After dinner he would go into the forest to search for frogs by torchlight, along with Dennis who was sound recording. The rest of us discussed what would happen if they met the tiger. John, a professional land surveyor, insisted that all our survey data was copied into a "good book" each night. This was an excellent idea but a PAIN. He had once seen three weeks work disappear into a river, and didn't want the same to happen again. The other major problem we had with the survey data was that the calculator was powered by a photocell. Which meant that it was on stinky-drive at night. Not reliable. After a couple of hours with the bloody data, I had a cramped neck, back and arms and was ready for sleep. However, the camp entertainment continued.

Jim regularly dissected his feet, looking for bits of ingrowing toenail, and needed a light on the operation. Bets were laid about whether it would rain (it always did). We took it in turns to use the athlete foot powder, with only limited success. Eventually a few of us developed strange pits on the soles of the feet which we were assured was a more exotic fungal infection - the prized "Mulu Foot". Shah told us how he would tell his grandchildren about the expedition, and about his cave survey program on his micro (which he hadn't quite got working yet). Suja compared the day's exploits with events in Tarzan novels, of which he has intimate and extensive knowledge. We argued about whether we had been in area A, B, C, or D until Jim capitulated and posted a map with the different areas marked. Cigarettes and lovingly-preserved cans of beer changed hands at incredibly inflated prices. Eventually we drifted off to bed.

I found a nest of well-fed leeches in my sheet and woke the camp at 2 a.m. with the disgusting news. Yui snored very loudly. Various people scratched mosquito and horsefly bites all night. And the nightlife outside the camp was really noisy, stick insects, frogs and other bits of fauna all shouting loudly for a mate all night long. Mostly we were so knackered that we slept through it all.

Then, suddenly, it was the last day. We still hadn't found 'The Master Cave' of Taman Negara. Indeed the hard cavers were disappointed with our crop of baby caves. But Ruth had found at least one completely new plant species, a Boea, and Kiew probably had a new frog, in spite of half his collection being eaten by some animal one night.

We burnt as much of our rubbish as we could, including a lot of completely wrecked clothing and then put the rest of our luggage on our backs to walk out. This bit was really horrible, because we had to take out all the camping equipment as well as the stuff we had brought in - and this time without the help of the orang asli guides. It was an absolutely marvellous feeling to get back to the river and into the boat back downstream. Jim ceremonially threw the boots which had been giving him all his foot trouble into the water. Lims was laughing and shouting and we all joined in as we were soaked when the boat went down a rapid. The beer tasted really good that night.

Back in Cambridge, Phil Sargent was prevailed upon to get Andy Waddington's survey program working on the data, and eventually I sent an article and surveys back to Malaysia for publication (part of [2]) before the MNS Journal editor panicked too much about their non-appearance. Also I really must thank Jimmy (Tunku Nazim) for letting me come along, and everyone else in the MNS for being so nice to a jungle ouigee like me.

[1] Malayan Naturalist 38(2) November 1984 pp 25-28.
[2] Malayan Naturalist38(3) February 1985 pp 1-39

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