Volume 33 Number 1 Article 7
Beneath the Gobi Desert
"So where do Dinosaurs go to lay their eggs?" "They go deep down in caves beneath what is now the Gobi Desert." "So what are the Western foreigners doing looking for caves beneath the Gobi Desert?" "Really they are looking for Dinosaurs eggs, but they want to keep it a secret." So our secret is out. All the nomadic Mongolians now know that we are in the Gobi Desert looking for Dinosaurs eggs.
The Gobi desert is so flat and so barren that you can see the curvature of the earth. So where are the caves? Are there any caves beneath the Gobi Desert? Do we have enough water for a brew? Yes there are caves beneath the Gobi Desert. No we did not have enough water for a brew, the drivers had used the last of the water to clean the van with.
As a former closed communist country you have to be invited to Mongolia. We were invited by Captain Dr. Archad, a military surgeon who Allan Richardson had met up with in Mongolia in 1994. Captain Archad had arranged for the Mongolian Police to issue a visa invitation to us.
Permits and Police
On arrival in Ulaan Bataar we had to register with the Central Police Station, and obtain internal travel permits. For our final visit to the South Gobi, additional permits had to be obtained from a southern regional police station in order to travel further south towards the Mongolian Chinese border. To enter the border region itself a final permission from a border army post was needed.
The potential agenda for the Gobi had been discussed with our military medical advisors including the Army Surgeon Chief and his daughter, Tunga, who was going to act as our cook and interpreter. This was conducted in Mongolian as a typical informal military briefing at ten in the morning over whisky and a large wall map. We were later introduced to our drivers and their families. Basically our briefing was: "You will travel south east and take lots of water and petrol, there are no roads. You will find a guide and the guide will know where the caves are."
Three Days Later
Three days later in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the Gobi desert we stopped and walked up a low flat valley to a limestone outcrop. There we were shown a vertical hole in the ground. The hole appeared about 10m deep so rigging around a big flat boulder, with a back up to another boulder, with another back up to another boulder I descended. At the bottom the pitch side-stepped into another pitch that was totally unexpected and totally out of the desert sunlight. The pitch was typically Yorkshire about 5m in diameter and fluted and the rope disappeared into darkness. However after about 6m I landed on a sand hill which I slid down and down and round a corner into, into, into... DARKNESS. BIG DARKNESS. Darkness turned out to be a big black passage similar to anything big and dry in Lancaster but beneath the Gobi. After 10 minutes in this I decided that this was silly and I could get lost so I returned to the surface to tease Margaret with curt comments like "We need a bigger light" and "I wonder what's holding up the desert?"
Knowing that we had found it, and knowing that it wouldn't go away we decided to seriously explore the cave the next day. Besides we needed to find some food. I set up the tents and made a brew and smugly pondered on the fact that we had found a large cave beneath the Gobi desert. The rest went off to hunt a goat. That night there was a celebration meal of goat and vodka. The women were not allowed to take part in this traditional Mongolian desert celebration but after a lot of objections from the eldest male present (me) she was allowed to join the all male meal on the carpet, but she had to stand.
Next day on one set of SRT gear we all eventually descended the cave to make a systematic exploration.
Horse Cave (Middle Gobi)
This hole had a 16m entrance pitch which very surprisingly lead into a big dry Easegill type of passage. To the left the cave trended uphill, with large boulders (often 3m cubed) which appeared to have dropped from the roof. Unfortunately the cave was choked after approximately 430m, with very dangerous loose boulders. There was a short sand filled passage at the end on the left which was diggable. There was also an Aven which was drafting. To the right the cave generally trended downhill, becoming noticeably narrower, less boulder filled and with a sand floor. A muddy sink hole was located near the end. There were some smaller passages the other side of this muddy sink hole. The mummified remains of a horse was found in the cave so we named it Horse Cave.
A second 22m deep hole was located just on the other side of the dry valley. Using English and Mongolian human belays Margaret Richardson descended and explored this hole. She found a mummified goat in the cave so it was imaginatively called Goat Cave.
Back to camp there was a shortage of water as the driver had decided to wash the van with the last of the water while we were exploring the caves. In the Gobi there is always a worrying shortage of water and fuel but the priorities of the vehicle always seemed to come ahead of the need for a brew of tea.
Heading further south we drove on through the "bad lands" with scenery increasingly barren. Eventually we ended up at a big valley cave on the Chinese Mongolian border. The cave was a ladder deep and consisted of two very large chambers. It was knee deep in bird guano. Having explored the cave and the surrounding area for other caves we decided to leave, apart from anything else the army had only given us two days in this border area.
Trying to get back to Ulaan Baator to catch our plane became an epic hunt for petrol and water and took us four days of hard driving. Feeling safe and secure back in Ulaan Bataar we settled down to tidy up the surveys and update the Psion Computer records. This false sense of security did not last long.
Margaret and Arvina went to the Sunday market. Unfortunately Margaret got mobbed and robbed by a very well organised and determined razor gang. Fortunately only her wallet, camera and coat went leaving three large parallel razor slashes in her Rohans.
In conclusion, we now know a little bit more about the caving in the Gobi Desert. So if there is one big fossil cave beneath the Gobi are there any more? The Gobi is big and its empty and the only way to find out is to go back and look.