NPC Journal 4(1), Jan 1987, pp 59-60

Tales from a Long House, or Mulu by Petzl light

Sir Digby Spode

The Road to Mulu Pier

The Colonel's words drifted back to me, "Lovely place, the jungle ... full of butterflies." he had said. As I glanced at the turbid, brown river on which we journeyed I knew that not only the jungle, but also my stomach were full of lepidopterist's delights. Each time our long boat heeled over to starboard, gallons of water would slop into the hull through what had, until recently, been the gunwhale. The wood, which would have ensured our watertight integrity, had turned to dust as the boat was launched. Here we were, twelve souls and half a ton of stores, in a woodworm's paradise, being pushed by a 60 hp. outboard through the most crocodile-infested water in Sarawak. I wondered why the Colonel had a glint in his eye when he said "You'll enjoy it."

When the call came to abandon ship, I was more than a little pleased that there were no women and children to wait for. The boatman was jibbering wildly, falsetto. The irresistible force (the outboard) had met the immovable object (us) with the result that something (the boat) yielded. Water cascaded in, we cascaded out. Once the boat was empty and aground, salvage began. A repair was effected using twigs and mud. I would have been happier if we at least had some chewing gum to plug the holes. Our brief call on the banks of the River Tutoh was soon over and we continued our cruise. The good ship lollipop headed upstream again. The inevitable happened. "Crocodile cruises regret to announce the delay in their service to Long Tarawan. This is due to settling by the stern following the collapse of the rear bulkhead. Passengers may whistle 'Abide with me'."

Sitting on the riverbank I had time to ponder, "What am I doing here ? Who sent me ? Why me ? Where is the relief boat ? Will England win the ashes ? Just how small can a head be shrunk ?" At last the relief boat arrived. No ! Two relief boats ! On closer inspection, not relief boats, but two motorised pencils. By now it was dark. What the eye doesn't see.... We loaded up and started leg three, a Johnson on an HB carrying us nearer our goal. In the clear sky, stars shone. Lightning played over the horizon. The blackness of the sky blended with the blackness of the jungle which, in turn, blended with the blackness of the water. The roar of the motors the only reminder that we were speeding through the night and not just floating in space. Occasionally a blacker shape would pass quickly by; a floating log, a projecting rock, a lurking crocodile. The Colonel's words drifted back to me, "You never see the one that hits you."

Into the realm of darkness

The jungle suddenly parted and we emerged into the clearing. Limestone cliffs towered over us. Nearly there. We plunged back into the jungle and followed a trail which led us to the entrance. This was Deer Cave, a truly magnificent chasm yawning blackly from the bleached white limestone. Gingerly, we walked into the lair of a myriad bats; by some estimates 4.5 million. It was impossible to go on without stopping every few paces to look back in amazement. Over 400 metres in and we still had no need for artificial lighting as the daylight streamed into this vast void. Eventually the shadows underfoot became treacherous and one by one we lit our lamps. However, no sooner had we lit them up than we saw light from the northern entrance. Words are wasted trying to describe the effect. After what seemed an age we finally reached the far end and emerged into the Garden of Eden.

The return journey was made at a leisurely pace and the full beauty of the cave enjoyed. The vaulting roof 120 metres above; the wide meandering river flowing gently into its sump; the warm bat guano caressing ones knees; the stench of ammonia tickling the nostrils. Ah, Yes ! Deer Cave was a true eye-opener.

The ascent of unconquered ways

Once more into the longboat, dear friends, to fill up this column with our English prose. The native in the bows signalled that we were near. The engine note dropped to a steady hum and we turned towards a blank void in the river bank ... Cave of the Winds.

Gently we steered the boat in, for all the world like latter day lost souls being ferried into Hades by Charon. Darkness enveloped us as we carefully bumped our way on under a descending roof. Eventually the longboat was grounded and we stepped into the water. Onward we waded, ever upstream. Water levels were high and the roof lowered to a point where progress was only feasible for fish and their ilk. Swimming back to less deep water, I noticed a tunnel in the roof. It was a passage called 'One Way Street', unfortunately it was one the other way. Attempt after attempt to gain access resulted in resounding splashes as climbers and their human footholds peeled off the vicious overhang and plunged into the chill, murky waters. Wet and dishevelled, we trudged back further until we could climb up to 'Not Before Time'. We soon dried out and explored this passage. What bliss to gaily scramble over rocks and boulders. That is until I found myself twenty metres and several bold steps up on a knife edge of rock. Or rather, it would have been a knife edge had it not been capped by a metre thick layer of rotten boulders in a loose sand matrix. The whole area had the stability of the Middle East. A deep calm descended on me. With every move, more rubble would go crashing into the darkness below. Onwards I edged, on to a place from where a bold step on to a dubious foothold enabled me to touch solid rock. The debris was now above me, poised like a bucket of marbles balanced on a door. Down I climbed, between smooth walls mere inches apart. With a sigh of relief I emerged onto a relatively solid floor and the way out. Although I had failed to find the way on, I had certainly climbed where none had gone before. My advice - don't.

Sweet temptation

On my forays into Benerat Caverns I was accompanied by the world famous speleologist, raconteur and sky-diver Captain I.Jones of Cheshire. It was not long after we had entered that we approached a small climb known as Agony Pitch. At this point the passage becomes a tube leading to the climb. On a ledge, only a metre above the tube, sat a snake. Capt. I.Jones, undismayed, plunged on. I and the porters followed in various degrees of haste. Agony Pitch did not particularly live up to its name and we all descended in good order. A short climb up through a false floor soon had us on the right track to romp into the most pleasant of subterranean settings. This underground Eden was about to live up to that name, for, only a short way on, where the passage closed down to one metre wide by half a metre high, we met Mr. S. Hissing jnr. Young Mr. Sidney, as he is known, is a strapping serpent a whole metre long. With him was Mrs. Hissing. Both were soon joined by Hissing Snr., nearly one and a half metres. Capt. I.Jones was fearless. With total disregard for his own safety or underwear, he approached Hissing jnr. When only twenty metres away, he entered a silent dialogue. I know not what words passed, but eventually the Hissing family moved to one side and we passed. I questioned the intrepid Capt. Jones later and he confided to me that the most difficult problem he had had to face was that the villainous vipers had tried to tempt him with an apple. When I asked where this apple was he replied, "Outside".

Look back in Java

The Colonel's words drifted back to me.. "Lovely place the jungle ... full of butterflies".
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