Volume 38 Number 2 Article 6
February 2000 - Meghalaya, NE India
Things had been going pretty slowly so far. The WSG Meghalaya Expedition had spent the last two weeks thrashing through the prickly jungle of the Jaintia Hills, steep wooded slopes guarded with "wait-a-while", a kind of botanical razor-ribbon, to explore some of Asia"s narrowest passage. It was not really our fault, the area contained plenty of karst but the limestone band was thin and riddled with lenses of hard clay. As a result of this geological bad luck most cave passages tended to pinch out into flat-out bedding planes or impenetrable collapses.
However, the local population was developing an interest in our explorations and the bush telegraph had started to receive exciting news of local flood resurgences that were worth surveying. These were, on the whole, much more like the streamway passages associated with caving in tropical areas. These seasonal resurgences must be truly awesome in the rainy season as Meghalaya is officially the wettest place on earth. The Jaintia Hills are amongst the first uplands to stand in the way of tropical monsoons that brew up over the Bay of Bengal and regularly wash away half of Bangladesh each year. We were led to Krem Amrabeang by the village headman - Mr Long - down a brilliantly engineered, paved path from the outskirts of Nongtalong, the village where we were based in the IB or Inspection Bungalow. Following us was our entourage of young lads, over-enthusiastic children and "helpers" whose self-styled role was to follow us wherever we went, above and below ground.
The stooping entrance to Krem Amrabeang belied an impressive entrance hall at least 20m high and 10m wide. After a few much needed 30m legs on the survey tape we hit the standard issue Meghalaya boulder choke. Pete Boyes, our quietly spoken and charismatic leader, indicated that a way on could be found over the top where black space was apparent. The locals must have been there before as there was a few rotting lengths of bamboo crafted into ladders. In the meantime while the rest of the team was working out how the overhanging section of semi-calcited choss could be scaled I was ferreting about underneath following a real belter of a draught. Above me the playground of local lads were cavorting in their new found role of village cave explorers, leaping from boulder to boulder, whooping aloud with total disregard for personal safety.
I had had about as much as a sane man could take. Faced with another eight-inch Hederopoda wolf spider I moved amoeba like through the teetering chopping blocks back to the relative safety of the chamber after finding a definite continuation: a perfect oval phreatic stream passage. Almost out of the boulders and within sight of the reception committee there was a sickening thud followed by a sharp, cracking, splintering sound. By now I thought my luck had run out and the Kerplunk balls would fall around me and pummel me into a nasty red stain. There was a pregnant silence, enough to take a sharp breath and all hell broke loose. A frenzy of movement and agitated shouting and then clearly Liz shouted, "Paul, get yourself out here NOW, "KIN NOW!!" I shot out convinced an enormous block was mercilessly careering towards my escape. A small huddle of people cleared to my left revealing the real drama. Brian had fallen about two metres onto his side when a calcified hold had broken loose in his hand. The distance fallen was short but the landing particularly unpleasant. A cube shaped boulder - pointy bit up - dug into his ribcage. He did not say a word and his breathing was shallow and rapid. I sensed that nauseous upwelling of panic after the initial adrenaline rush and then realised that as "medical officer" everyone was waiting for me to do the right thing.
First things first: ABC - Brian was a breathing and responsive casualty which covered the major problems. Next thing check for neck and back injuries, Brian helpfully wiggled his feet and said as loudly as he could, "I didn't fall on my back, I can feel my feet and the rest is window dressing." This, needless to say, cheered us up no end.
Badly winded and with a few broken ribs Brian made his own painful way out of the cave under his own effort. The pain of the broken ribs made caving out of the question for the rest of the expedition and he made a gradual but uncomfortable recovery. While Liz and I escorted Brian back to the IB the remaining three proceeded through the boulder route with a smaller band of followers. The cave continued as a phreatic tube developing into a high rifty streamway passage with occasional climbable cascades for a few hundred metres continuing as breakdown passage. Highly jubilant about the extension and the expanding survey notes our team became increasingly aware of the smell of woodsmoke. Quickly the air became more and more dense as choking acrid smoke was sucked through the cave. The fires causing the smoke had been lit by our helpful villagers in the entrance chamber by burning bamboo, branches and piles of tinder dry leaf litter. Quite why they lit six fires in a cave entrance when people were underground was unclear but I expect they were bored and wanted to be seen to be doing something "useful".
With visibility rapidly diminishing Pete gave the order to evacuate the cave. By this point visibility was less than a metre even using diving torches and carbide lights had ceased to burn. Literally feeling their way back down the passage and the cascades they managed with burning throats and stinging eyes to get to the boulder choke before the fires burned themselves out. This wasn't the last time our "friendly-locals" would try to kill us off.
Back at base the mood was mixed. We had a going lead with real potential but four of us had been injured either by falls or smoke inhalation. That night we were kept awake by a chorus of coughing and rasping, laboured breathing. The next morning we made an early start, kitted up and set off to survey the remaining passage. Before doing this we had a sincere and serious chat with Mr Long about the antics of the day before.
With a survey team of six and fewer villagers we quickly totted up another few hundred metres of loose breakdown passage ending in yet another loose chamber with a huge, unstable boulder ruckle in the centre. Unfortunately, while we were surveying even more lads had caught up with us, most were barefooted and had no lights of any description. Being young lads in a big gang and with no comprehension of what a quarter ton boulder can do to you, rocks were soon rolling down the chamber and splintering into fragments. After a few near misses and lots of pointless shouting and finger wagging the cork eventually came out of Pete's bottle and he ordered us to return to the surface. Had we not done this it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt yet again. Everywhere we went we were constantly shadowed by lightless teenagers relying on our carbide lights. We were also aware by now that if anyone of them were injured it would be "our" fault for "bringing" them with us.
Eventually we managed to get rid by sitting out of the way with our lights out until they got bored and followed Liz and Mr Long to the surface. This allowed us to push the only remaining lead - the stream continuation. Flat out in joint controlled rifts the stream was not inviting, very black with flood debris, mainly plastic rubbish, and obviously a storm drain. In the water dark pink and brown crayfish with turquoise eyes paddled towards our hands obviously hungry for prey during the dry season. After a dozen or so sharp bends the rifts opened out into walking passage in solid limestone but with the inevitable boulder choke concluding the passage. With shattered nerves we closed the survey book and gingerly retraced our steps, stopping only for a brief photography session.
The expedition surveyed over 4km of passage mostly around the pleasant village of Nongtalong which overlooks the vast river deltas of Bangladesh. Despite the best intentions of our local supporters we all managed to have good time caving, exploring the local jungle terrain, and were made to feel very welcome by our hosts. There is plenty more to go at in Meghalaya just remember to take a cool head and some kneepads!