“…and the hornbill stepped forward
saying: “Let me
fly to where Mother Sun
hides and I will,
with the power of my speech,
entreat her to come back.”
he flew into the
Lamet latang cave,
into it went he, braving the
dark, braving the dark.”
~ “The Golden Vine” – Khasi Folk Songs and Tales
as narrated by Bah Donbok and transcribed by Bah Desmond Kharmawphlang
The coal towns east of Shillong wear a look of use and abuse. Plumes of dust rise above the haphazardly car choked roads. Vehicles carry goods, cargo, people, machinery, and coal. The air is thick with talcum-like sand and a fine film colours everything into a morose homogeneity. Our little crew bounces sullenly along pot-holed roads. Broken asphalt and unforgiving boom towns give way to dirt tracks and sleepy villages. The road gets significantly worse. We’re grateful that the monsoons are over. Rains normally turn the tracks into a incomprehensible mush. This is our third attempt in over a year to reach our goal. And like before, our car gets stuck, again. Scratching and hacking at the dirt roads, we free our ride and alternate between scouting and moving gingerly along. Moments of sweet night air rushing through the car are interspersed with long periods of sweat and frustration in the thick dust to free our entrapped vehicle. Twelve hours later, we camp on a ridge next to a shed. The hill opposite flares bright orange with the ominous glow from the lights of the all-consuming cement factories. Stars peep while a forest trail leads silently downhill to our objective. A slightly inebriated band of men invite us to stay in their nearby village but we’re too tired to bother. A cave river awaits.
After a few hours of humid forest trail walking, our motley crew stares into the mouth of the cave. The yawning entrance is a few stories high and is wide enough to park a few trucks side by side. We climb down boulders and gather under the roof of the cave. Half light, half dark, boats are prepped and gear is readied. The stark contrast between fresh jungle air and the warm stillness of the earth’s womb is heightened. A paddle stroke propels us into the watery depths. Headlight beams flash across cavern walls and we’re ecstatic. Whoops of excitement from the crew echo into hollows millions of years old.
Natural dams or gours are plentiful and clear water cascades over beautifully formed rock. Unexposed to sunlight, no algae or moss grow on the gours making our shoes grip the wet rock unlike slippery river boulders. We carry our boats over the many gours as the water is low. Greg points out formations and explains how this cave in particular is his favourite. Very few caves on Earth have a boatable river flowing right through. Ghostly white cave fish dart away from the beams of light as we paddle past.
We paddle through massive caverns easily over 60 feet high in places. Many times our headlight beams cannot pierce the dark to the roof of the caverns. The silence and splash of our paddles is only broken by the frequent rush of flowing water over a gour. We switch off all our lights at one point and float silently in complete enveloping darkness that is as old as the land itself. Pitch black has a new meaning. Mineral deposit formations soar silently toward the roof of the cave as towering sentinels. We stop for a break on a large gravel beach in another colossal cavern. We’ve had countless snack breaks on countless river beaches, but none like this. None are kilometers underground.
The river gets too constricted to paddle and we have to portage. Boats are shouldered, we scramble over rocks, climb down drops and wind our way through the maze of passages, we’re happy that Greg is an experienced caver – and that he has a map that is accurate more or less! We find the river again and paddle silently along. Our initial enthusiasm is tested by the pressure of darkness closing in from all sides. The ceiling drops from that of a high cathedral to a small room and then to the height of a child. Our paddles hit the ceiling with every stroke. The river constricts to a walled in passage and the roar of rushing water confronts us. We carefuly move along the sides away from the main flow going off the drop and peer over. Its a twenty foot drop. The kayakers scrape to the lip, helmets knocking the low ceiling and launch while the packrafters scramble down the side. A headlight spirals down to the depths as an offering into the black waters as it comes off someone’s helmet. The excitement of the beautiful waterfall is crushed by the discovery that the entire river disappears underground further ahead.
It is a large dome shaped hall. Bats number in hundreds overhead and marinate us in guano as we sit and wait for Greg and Banjop to explore an alternate route. They need time as the passages are many and the going is tricky. The cave system is too large to feel claustrophobic but the sensation of being held in an underground womb is definite. After what seems like ages, flashing lights at the hole near the roof send the bats flying and we watch them pick their way back down toward us. We’d very much like to be out in the open again and we have no idea how much more we have to travel. Climbing with the boats towards the roof lead us down to a drop and then through more winding river passages.
Shouts of excitement at the beginning are now replaced by a silent resolve. More gours and waterfalls wait. Paddle, scout, portage, repeat. The water is too low for the packrafts while the kayaks painfully scrape to the lips and launch. Many gours are too low for either type of boat. At the beginning we did wish for higher water, but the odd narrow passages, low ceilings and sudden waterfalls make us thankful for the low flow. Bat guano make the rocks slippery and the stench is powerfully pungent. Our headlight batteries wane. A large cave spider scurries away as a weak headlight beam catches it in surprise.
We came to another massive cavern and i am excited to remember it from a photograph. The large square mouth of the cave lets in the sweet aroma of the jungle air wafting in and we can see the dark blue night sky tease through thick forest cover. Our senses of sight, sound and smell are hypersensitive by now and are overwhelmed with being out in the open again. We probably split a few lips from smiling so much. What a trip.
Attempt #01 – Joe Rea Dickins, Chris Griffiths, Zorba Z. Laloo, Teddy Diengdoh (Caver)
Attempt #02 – Joe & Dan Rea Dickins, Moe Kelleher, Banjop Iawphniaw, Gregory Warjri, Gregory Diengdoh (Caver)
Attempt #03 (third time lucky) – Joe & Dan Rea Dickins, Banjop Iawphniaw, Zorba Z. Laloo, Gregory Diengdoh (Caver)