The Abode of the Clouds Expedition

Meghalaya, India. Feb/March 1998

Lets get the boring bits over. Here are the facts and figures of this years expedition. Forty five caves were entered of which ten were extensions from previous years. That gives thirty five new ones, not all being of a significant length. In addition about ten new sites with un-entered entrances were logged for future investigation. The greatest extension to a known cave was 4.5 km and the longest new cave found was 2.5 km and still going in big stream passage. In total over 26 km of passage was logged this year, leaving some un-surveyed. Survey data was transposed onto lap tops with Toporobot, a German program.

There were eight people from Britain who met up with five Germans and a Swiss. There were about six Indian cavers (from the Meghalaya Adventurers Association - MAA) together with drivers, organisers, cooks and assistants. The co-leaders were Simon Brooks and Daniel Gerbauer. The Indian organisers were Brian Kharpran Daly and Donbok Syiemlieh. These two set up the camps, organised the transport and food and hired the help.

We were in the field for 21 days with a total trip time of four and half weeks. This included travel, stay over in Calcutta and Shillong both in and out. February and March are toward the end of the winter dry period but toward the end we were getting some early rain storms. Temperatures were averaging in the mid 20soC and going higher except for Shillong which is situated up in the hills.

Brief background

The first significant visit to the area was in 1992 by four British cavers including Simon Brooks. It was known that Daniel Gebauer had been there and in 1994 a joint expedition was set up, followed by others in 1995, 1996, 1997 and now 1998.The previous expeditions had recorded a total of 69 km of cave passage. Collaboration with the MAA started in 1995.

The state of Meghalaya, capital Shillong, is about 300 kms east/west and 100 kms north south rising to a maximum height of 2000m. The caves are found in the lower southerly zones where the escarpment (900m high) drops down gradually to the flood plains of Bangladesh at the head of the Bay of Bengal. There is not expected to be any deep caves (but there are surface height differences of 300m) but length has greater potential. Now the longest cave in the Indian sub-continent, Krem Kotsati-Umlawan, is 21.2km having been extended a further 2 km this time. This cave provides some classic river cave through trips already.


We flew into Calcutta (via an eight hour diversion to Bangkok due to fog over Calcutta) and stayed two nights in the heat, noise and smells of crowded street life. Then a domestic flight to Guhati in Assam. Here elections were underway and police and soldiers were everywhere. A bus ride to Shillong were we met up with the Germans and the MAA people. Two days later the first group, me included, after being interviewed by the local TV news, drove in the hired bus to Nongjri. This is virtually due south of Shillong and right on the border with Bangladesh. A day later the others went by jeeps to Lumshnong. There was a mix of Brits, Germans and MAA in each group.


Our accommodation was a marquee erected on the unbuilt concrete floor of a three storey roadside house cum shop. One large cave, Krem Lymput, was known and had been partially explored the previous year. It was hoped that locals would lead us to others. For three days three parties went into the cave and mapped. Most of the passages were large walking size and virtually no water at this time of year. The lower passages did take water and it was obvious they flooded to the roof and seeped through a boulder floor. The cave had special significance and had been penetrated by locals as we found scraped marks everywhere we went. One evening on the way out one party met a group of well dressed people, one a woman and two priest types. They were intending to stay overnight and offer prayers.

Jenny Brooks, 'Where do you come from?'
Priest, 'Bangladesh. Where do you come from?'
Jenny replied, 'England.'
George Baumler, 'Germany.'
Priest, ' Ah, so you are brother and sister.'

A few days later contact had been made with the local head of the tribe and guides arranged to take us to cave entrances. Over the remaining days we investigated ten holes; but none of these delivered any length of passage or future potential. One was interesting as it provided the last resting place for three men. The story is that occasionally bandits from Bangladesh raid the Indian villages, although trade does go on their activities were deemed to be excessive. So the locals killed them. This happened only four years ago: clothes remained on the skeletons. We hurriedly surveyed past them. Is there a survey symbol for organic matter?

Here's an example of communication difficulties, not as you may presume with the Germans (whose English was embarrassingly good as our German was virtually nil) but with the Indians in their understanding of caving jargon. Marked on the survey from the previous expedition in Krem Lymput was a dotted line noted 'bypass' looping round the main passage. Each group tried to find this 'bypass' but to no avail. It was attributed to Raphael, a video camera man converted to caving last year. Eventually, much later in the expedition we were in another cave and Raphael said,

' There is a small bypass here but we can't go through it.'
'What do you mean?.
Raphael,' The passage goes in one direction and another goes in another direction.'
' So there are two passages going off in different directions.'
Raphael, 'Yes.'
'We call that a Y junction.'
Raphael, 'It's not a bypass?'

Perhaps the bypass had really been a Y junction.

After nine days we felt that we had exhausted all the possibilities. The most significant work had been in Krem Lymput were we added 3.8 km to the existing 2.8 and found another exit into the jungle.


To fill in time before the other group had left for Lumshnong they had done some more work in a district about three hours drive from Shillong and extended one cave and surveyed three others.
Although Lumshnong is only 100 km from Nongjri along the southern edge of the escarpment we had to go back North to Shillong and then out South East- a very long days journey over the dirt tracks and roads full of slow overloaded coal lorries. It does not do to count the number of overturned vehicles, squashed front ends and demolished road side shacks!

Our accommodation was in the old, now very dilapidated Inspection Bungalow dating from the days of the British Raj. A marquee had been erected on the concrete forecourt to take the group from Nongjri. The inside toilets did not function and the electricity wiring was not connected. Water was obtained from the a pipe directly from a resurgence. Power was a constant problem for the computers. Ten days before the end of the field work we had no power as even the hired generators had soon failed. This only slightly hampered exploration as we had a general idea of passage trends. Also there was so much to do in separate systems that we did not need to seek connections. All cooking was done over wood fires so we did not go wanting hot delicious genuine Indian food.

The resident group had made some worthwhile finds, the biggest being another exit/entrance to a cave ( Krem Malo) with a 50m entrance pitch. The new found entrance was just up the road from the bungalow and afforded a walking way in. This allowed another 2.3 km to be added to the existing 1.8km and also provided the scene of the major incident in its later exploration. Three parties went in, two surveying and one doing some video shooting. It is a complex system with passages on different levels but still following an active stream passage. All parties had entered by the new lower entrance. A person in one of the surveying parties decided to go out early, about four o'clock, and she left to go downstream to the lower entrance about half a kilometre away. It was her first time in the cave although a highly experienced Caver. At about seven thirty all groups were getting back to the camp bungalow: two groups had been in other caves.

When the final party of the three from Krem Malo returned they then realised a person was missing. A search and rescue plan was initiated and this took about three quarters of an hour to plan. This was properly organised with a laid down set of activities and responsibilities. A jeep was taken to the lower entrance to form a base. Runners would go between the bungalow and the jeep to keep the reserve team informed. This reserve team was made up of people who had done relatively hard trips that day. One team was sent to search the surrounding area to the lower cave entrance which had a deep river in it just in case she had got out and lost her way in the scrub jungle. It was dark by 6.30 p.m. Two teams went into the cave to search, each having an area to work in. They were given a maximum time of one and a half hours and then must report back to the entrance. The first search found nothing. Time now about 10'o'clock. This had taken in the lower sections within the boundary where she had left the party and should have gone downstream. As the cave was still being explored not all passages had not been surveyed, and some not entered. There was not an up to date map of the known system as we had problems with the power to the computers; the data had not been entered. So we where really working quite blind.

The two teams entered again, one this time heading up to the top reaches of the cave towards the pitch entrance. By chance one member of the team said that a new passage was discovered; they had better check it. It was well into this passage that she was found, upstream of the position she had originally left to go out. When negotiating a pit in the floor she had slipped and twisted a leg and bruised her back and was in some discomfort. She decided to stay put. A space blanket was used and the last of the carbide, on a low flame, was placed on her lap for warmth. She was found at 10.40pm. With assistance she was taken out and eventually reached the bungalow at 11.45 p.m. From leaving the party to go out and eventual exit was over six hours. No one knows how the way was lost, although the cave is a complex system. She must have passed very close to the video party as they were in the upstream series. We can all get lost! The search and rescue was done to the book and produced the right results in a methodical manner. The 'victim' also behaved correctly when the fall occurred. Two days rest and strapping to the leg aided full recovery.

This event did bring home to everyone the total reliance we had on each other for self help. There was no way that any Indian authority could have undertaken a rescue; there are no rescue services. The police have one or two officers in the village with no training or experience in this type of occurrence.

The locals in the remote villages, mainly existing by mining the coal and producing some foods for the small towns, were very helpful in taking us to cave entrances. On the way we would often be invited in for tea and bettle nut. This was a mild intoxicant wrapped in a peppermint leaf scraped with a dash of lime. You popped the lot into you mouth and chewed vigorously, spitting out the surplus juice. Years of eating this gave you red teeth: it was most commonly eaten by women. As to the cave entrances we plotted many for future exploration and the Lumshnong area is now extending its boundaries to the north west where we know are shafts and caves hidden ( but known to the locals) in the jungle clad hill ridges.

On going to caves or returning we used local transport if the bus or jeep was not available. This transport was the TATA trucks ferrying the coal. They nearly always stopped if flagged down, anyway if they did not stop they went so slow due to excessive loads that we could scramble into the cabs to the delight of the driver. This was far more dangerous, but exciting, than caving as the roads are littered with overturned lorries or squashed in a head to head. Brakes are not that reliable. They veered from side to side and were on the opposite side of the road when negotiating the frequent blind hair pin bends. Right of way depended on the loudest horns.

A most interesting area is to the south in the Lukha Valley. Here a large river is fed off the hills and by resurgences from the valley Sides. A reconnaissance party went to see, returned after two days to get more people to go back as some big entrances were found. A steep long walk down into the valley after a vehicle ride then along the river to a village made for a sweaty trip to a base in the communal hut. A waterfall resurgence led into a large river passage, up to 10 metres wide and 30 metres high. As progress was made upstream the water got deeper. Gour pools got more frequent but up to 3 metres high. Distances between gours were greater than 30 metres making for floating survey stations. The water got deeper so people had to swim. Here a problem arose. Flotation jackets were used as aids but at the beginning of a deep section a voice from one of the Sikhs shouted to the others in front, ' Can you teach me how to swim?'

The leader suddenly realised that some of the local cavers were literally out of their depth. Prior to this we had noticed with pleasure but some concern the attitude of the locals in caves. There had no fears, they did not need lights, they took chances on climbs. They could be said to be naive, but their enthusiasm was inexhaustible as they were always joking and passing comments. After this episode in the deep river cave we decided to be circumspect in the trips on which the locals were included. Also some problems were experience by the Europeans. Although the water was not too cold the long swims, relatively slow progress and stops to record survey data allowed the body to cool rapidly. Next time wetsuit tops will be worn to reduce heat loss. This cave is up to 2.5 km, still going with a known possible shaft entrance in the jungle about 3 km away in a straight line, this not necessarily being the beginning of the system. Large side passages have not been entered.

Another significant cave is Synrang Pamiang. This was extended from 1.6 km to 6.2 km and one passage is still going at 3 metres wide and 20 metres high. This furthest end is five hours of hard caving from the entrance. The possibility of an underground camp will have to be considered as its potential 'end' could be another 3kms. Also some side passages need to be investigated. On the last but one night of the expedition six people went in at 11.00 p.m. and came out at 9.00 the following morning. By using two teams leapfrogging each other they surveyed 2km of passage, the longest trip by time and length for the expedition.

Now to talk about food! We had cooks preparing our meals. The cooks also had assistants to serve and help prepare. Breakfast and supper were provided. Normally breakfast was eaten at 9am after a morning brew of tea and biscuits. On arriving back at camp, usually from six to eight o'clock in the evening tea and nibbles were set out. The nibbles could be substantial, being meat balls, cheese balls, samosas with a dip or sliced fried aubergines. These nibbles were nearly enough for the main meal. After nibbles the alcohol was served; bottled beer and a bottle of Indian brandy. In India the tradition is to drink before the supper. Supper was served around 11 o'clock. Soup was always first. Then a variety of dishes were put on the table for self service. Sometimes for a treat we had a pudding, such as apple and custard. We always knew when chicken was on the menu as the live chickens in the basket were there no more. Cooking was done over a wood fire and started mid afternoon. Each day brought something different. The variety was excellent, the taste exotic, the quality of cooking far better than any anglicised Indian restaurant. Perhaps it was all the better for us not having to prepare and cook before and after caving. Romance also blossomed as one of the cooks got engaged to one of the ladies who worked as domestics for the expedition.

The Brits and Germans got on very well and their were no disagreements between anyone, except for one small spat over the recording of survey data. This was due to the Brits using one system and the Germans strictly following the requirements of the survey software . When transferring data into the program a protocol should be carefully followed; this did not always happen underground. When coupled with dirty notebooks, untidy diagrams and obscure notes transfer became difficult, especially when the notebook recorder was not to hand when putting into the computer. One morning an angry German came into the breakfast room, slung the notebook onto the ground, swore heartily and stomped off. He made his point! The British notebook author had to make his peace. In comparison, the German's did produce excellent survey diagrams and very neat and clear data, whilst we Brits seem to be generally mucky and untidy. Am I stereotyping? The Indians were genuinely far too hospitable and looked after us too well.

The expedition was very successful. We achieved all the objectives and logged more passages than the previous year and also found far more leads. The first free sump dive in India was undertaken into another chamber which then had another sump considered too long to free dive. One or two small accidents occurred; the fall in Krem Malo; a badly cut hand which required medical attention and strapping; an infected knee; a strained back; one or two people with the runs for a short time; a black eye gained whilst free diving a sump which did not go and emergency action had to be taken into an air space not quite big enough to take a human head.

For a more full report on previous years expeditions see International Caver No 22.

Ian Chandler