The Hitch-Hikers Guide to Caving

“Lots of water and lots of limestone”

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Veteran Meghalaya Caver Fraser Simpson from Scotland contemplates while chewing “kwai” in Kharkana village, Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya.

Fraser roughly sums up why this particular region is riddled with caves. “Lots of water and lots of limestone”. The water channels it’s way underground over millennia and forms what is some of the most complex and largely uncharted cave systems in the world. With organised teams of cavers from around the globe and with the support of the local Meghalaya Adventurers Association, going underground to explore new cave systems has been going on for over 2 decades. No small feat.

Caving team with locals at a tea stall.

Some of the Expedition Caving team at a tea stall.

The banner at the base-camp reads “The International Cave Expedition, 2014” and not without cause. This year’s 26 member team typically spans skill sets and interests as varied as nationalities and real-world professions. There even was a nice guy from Transylvania, he’s a Geologist though. Accurate details of the exploration, crew list, interests in Meghalaya caving trips etc are available with the MAA.

For others like me not yet accustomed to the finer points of caving and being part of caving teams, here are my two-cents:

1. Never Assume
Rivers are always wet, caves are sometimes wet. So a river dry bag should be fine for camera and lenses? Wrong.
I have some rope skills, so that should see me through? Wrong.
The list goes on…

Day 1 paired me with a seasoned team and we went underground. It was hot, steamy and clouds of mist hung in the air like in a bathroom after a hot bath. My camera was dripping wet. Flash guns lit up moisture in the air rather than cave walls. Luckily one of the crew had loaned me his waterproof drum or else the dry bag i had would have been shredded in the ridiculously sharp rocks. Not owning a full “Single Rope Technique” kit, i assumed having rappel devices would be enough  for descents in a cave to which another of the crew asked, “How’re you going to get back up?” Laughter broke out when another chimed in and said “He can haul you back up, he needs the exercise”.

Michel, Barbara & Urs from Switzerland survey a cave with Annie from the UK

Michel, Barbara & Urs from Switzerland survey a cave with Annie from the UK

2. Prepare your mind
Going underground is alien.
You enter a world that defines new meaning in the words “Silence” and “Darkness”. Even Time seems to hang in limbo, or rather, slows down to the pace of Geology as opposed to History (Tens of thousands of years versus Hundreds of years). When the team would go forward, i sometimes sat on a rock and switched off my lights. The dark and silence enveloping me was complete. There were crawl passages not high enough for a medium sized dog to stand up in and we crawled through, our bellies scraping rock, our helmets banging the low ceiling and a boulder choke all along the right while our lights lit up the way ahead.

The opposing entrances to the Krem Lapad cave. In monsoon, water flows out of the cave on the left, overground and then into the cave on the right.

The opposing entrances to the Krem Lapad cave.
In monsoon, water flows out of the cave on the left, overground and then into the cave on the right.

3. Hang back and watch
Keep quiet and watch seasoned people function.
Most of the cavers on this team were experienced, completely at home in the subterranean labyrinths. Exploring new passages and mapping out chambers seemed second nature to them while they made light conversation to keep morale high. With a good team, it even seemed completely normal to be wandering around the dark in an environ that only creatures with hyper-sensitive senses call home. And like all good teams, taking a step back and watching them function teaches the observer a thing or two about a thing or two.

Team unloads "Marissa" at Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya.

Team unloads “Marissa” at Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya.

4. Ask
What do you wear in a cave?

This rock is in the way, should i kick it out?
How do you empty your knee high rubber boots aka Wellies of water without taking them off?
Keeping in mind the guidelines of never assuming anything and that going underground is alien, one quickly realises that one actually has no real clue of simple things of like what to even wear in a cave. I was generously loaned an oversuit (imagine mechanic’s overalls / astronaut jumpsuit) and a neoprene wetsuit by the MAA. Proper caving rips gear up like no other activity i’ve seen. I’m a firm convert for super durable Wellingtons or Gumboots like we call them in India, except if you slosh around with a liter of water in each boot like a noob, not figuring out how to empty them without taking them off.
Safety is always paramount. And even more so since you’re in a location that is deep deep down.
Do not move, kick, dislodge stuff without the explicit say so of more experienced team mates. Like all outdoor pursuits, the hazards are very real and no trip wants to perform a needless and avoidable rescue mission. Ask your team/guide. Assuming something is safe when it’s not has a high price tag.

Left to Right - Tudor the Geologist, Thomas the Caver, Manuel the Bat expert

Left to Right – Tudor the Geologist, Thomas the Caver, Manuel the Bat expert

5. Support
Caving is a group activity.
As in most outdoor pursuits that cut across nationalities and race, caving coalesces into fraternities that are warm and welcome when you get into them. Respect for team members and offering support when necessary is essential to being an asset rather than a liability to the team. As in any endeavour, there are rules for etiquette, conservation and safety. When our shuttle truck endearingly called “Marissa” was driven by a not-so-competent driver, it nearly went off the submerged road and into the water during a river crossing. Quick instructions from the senior members and everyone pitching in saved Marissa from a needless bath. Panicky yahoo people do no one any good and make a situation worse than it should be.

Expedition Office/Dining Hall/Planning Room/Field Lab

Expedition Office/Dining Hall/Planning Room/Field Lab

6. Reward
Massive chambers that entire houses could fit in, stalactites and stalagmites, calcite formations, sparkly mineral deposits that reflect lights, entering places that are probably older than anything else above ground, and an overwhelming sense of discovery and accomplishment are some of the rewards that wait. Among many other things, this caving team was diligently surveying and mapping out new chambers and passages and therein lay one of the many rewards for them as experienced cavers. For people interested in the sciences, caves offer a natural habitat for a host of creatures not found elsewhere. On this trip, one of the foremost experts on bats in the world discovered a species found only in 5 other locations on the planet. Photographers are in an environment that challenge convention and offer extremely interesting subjects. Carved and sculpted by the chemistry of water on rock, hidden from satellites, there is a very real sense of discovery in the fast shrinking world of global communication. The rewards are as varied as the human interests that follow. And there is always the adage, “No two caves are alike”. Personally, i was grateful for the fact that caves shut out the din and clamour of the outside world and force you to stop, and think.

Starting to survey at the mouth of a cave

Starting a survey at the mouth of a cave using laser distance meters and PDAs

More photographs from the trip:

2014 Expedition Team (Some not present)

2014 Expedition Team
(Some members not present)

Base camp

Base camp

Serious work going on

Serious work going on. Brian Kharpran Daly – Meghalayan cave pioneer in the foreground

The real Batman at work

The real Batman at work

Nope, not the same

Nope, not the same

Shabu is excited over Roger's photos while Dan, the serious Biologist  disapproves such frivolity

Shabu is excited over Roger’s photos while Dan, a serious Biologist, disapproves such frivolity

Simon the Expedition Leader

Simon the Expedition Leader shares a tale

The going gets rough in rural Meghalaya as many visitors are aware. And true enough, getting there is as fun/painful as actually doing the thing. Marissa the expedition truck is pictured above and various other modes of transport that were commandeered to get to different caves are below.

Good old fashioned tramping through the forest

Good old fashioned tramping through the forest

The ubiquitous Meghalayan "Sumo" passenger vehicle

The ubiquitous Meghalayan “Sumo” passenger vehicle

Local wooden boats

Local wooden boats. Note the sulphur stains on the rocks from coal mine runoff

Although beautiful to look at, the unnatural blue of the water is because of coal mine runoff. The Lukha river is essentially a "dead" river. Nothing can live in it.

Although beautiful to look at, the unnatural blue of the water is because of coal mine runoff.
The Lukha river is essentially a “dead” river. Sadly, nothing lives in it.

Packrafts were used for the first time on this expedition. Apart from being colourful in a cave, they were also used to ferry gear when a team had to follow the river in search of more caves as well as provide a river toy for crew and local villager R&R. It must be mentioned that close to 3 years of river use and abuse in Meghalaya have never seen a punctured boat. But, many cave rocks and formations are sharp to the point of ridiculousness that make serrated river rescue knives look like something you butter bread with. The current score is Meghalaya Rivers = 0 boats, Meghalaya Caves = 2 boats.
Packrafts are easy to fix up like new though. So no harm done.

Krem Labit cave. Packrafter - Thomas Arbenz

Krem Labit cave. Packrafter – Thomas Arbenz

Low Ceiling

Low Ceiling at Krem Lapad cave. Packrafter – Zorba Z. Laloo

Meghalaya Caving (14)

Thomas in a packraft. Peter in a “keyhole” cave.

Meghalaya Caving (23)

Me attempting to look like a caver

Meghalaya Caving (7)

Urs and a spider

Meghalaya Caving (9) Meghalaya Caving (10)

Conservation is needed now more than ever.
Much of Meghalaya’s natural beauty is being stripped and sold, and too little by too few is being done.
One of the massive problems that plague the caves, forests and river are …

COAL MINING

C O A L     M I N I N G

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2 comments

  1. richa

    thanks, very beautifully summed up.

  2. Great memories…I can’t wait to come back!

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