The Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association (MAA) celebrated its twentieth Anniversary of caving under the project ‘Caving in the Abode of Clouds’ from 7 to 23 February 2012. It has been twenty long years and it felt as if it was just the other day when the MAA decided to delve into the dark realms of the underground; to explore and document the mystic and virgin caves where no man had set foot before. It was a venture into unknown and unchartered territory – groping in the dark is more like it. The tentative step led me to discover the wonderful world of caves – creating a passion that has helped me unravel and understand the hidden underground world of immense splendour.
The earlier expeditions were small, growing in size over the years; so much that I dreaded the thought that we would run out of caves. But the rich karst1 areas of Meghalaya have not let us down. The expeditions are still going strong as more and more caves are being discovered.
The twentieth international expedition comprised of cavers from the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Romania, Portugal, Iran, the US, a Commandant from the Indian Navy and members of the Association. The team split into two groups – one exploring in the areas of Mawsynram/Balat of East Khasi Hills and the other in the areas of Larket/Khahnar/Umkyrpong of Jaintia Hills. Over the years I had concentrated on my expeditions in the Jaintia Hills – these being more remote and more rewarding. This year was no exception.
Our base camp was located between the villages of Larket and Khahnar. The expedition broke into teams of three or four to continue the exploration of known caves of the previous year. As finding new caves was my responsibility I had to take the first two days off, visiting the headmen of the villages – to pay my respects and to elicit more information of caves in the area. The headmen and elders of the villages were very helpful. In fact the headman of Khahnar village offered to show me two new caves the next morning. We would have enough to explore during the expedition and more besides.
After a hearty breakfast we set off on our quest – a half an hour walk down the steep hillside to the valley floor further west. We walked along the edge of the valley along a dry stream bed till we came to a small opening amongst the rocks – Krem Synkrang. I took out the headlamp from my tackle bag and gingerly dropped down into the cave for a brief investigation.
Further north of Krem Synkrang lies Krem Khung beneath a cliff. The entrance passage was of stooping height with a dry mud floor. I stopped at a puddle of waist deep water and did not venture any further as I was reluctant to get my walking boots wet. I did not feel any draught which more often than not is an indication of a big cave system. Yet, my heart stirred as I sensed I was into a big one.
The next day I led Thomas, Peter and Fraser to Krem Synkrang. The cave which is developed along a joint controlled did not go much further than where I had been the previous day. It was getting narrower till it dropped into an uninviting aquatic crawl where we called it a day. The cave produced only 76 m. My excitement grew as we approached Krem Khung. We lost no time in starting to explore the cave. After the puddle of waist deep water there was another one and then the passage led into a large circular relic chamber of 20 m diameter, with calcite formations and a dry floor. There are four passages leading off from this chamber, three of which connect to other smaller entrances. Soon we realised that it was a master cave system which could accommodate several teams for its survey. Thus all members of the expedition team had their fair share in the exploration and mapping of the cave over the two weeks.
Krem Khung. (Nickola Bayley)
The cave is best described as per the edited version of Thomas Arbenz extracted from various descriptions noted by the surveys teams. The passage from the circular relic chamber led into another big chamber (diameter 50 m and 8 m in height) which has been named as ‘Paradise Chamber’. The main features of ‘Paradise Chamber’ are huge breakdown blocks calcited and decorated with countless stalactites and columns in various shades of black, white and ochre colour. The ceiling is covered with hundreds of stalactites, many of which are black. About half of them are coated with ‘golden’ sulphuric bacteria which give the formations an aspect of extreme beauty. After Paradise Chamber there is a 150 m long section, mostly small and meandering with segments splitting off and rejoining, and occasionally stooping or crawling. Then abruptly the character of the main passage changes to that of a major master cave, the dimensions generally being 15 to 25 m wide and 15 m high. Breakdown blocks as large as trucks build up in clusters along the passage with muddy and sandy flat-floored in sections in between. Pools of water occur here and there on either side of the passage as a partly dried-out streambed wanders from side to side. The main route overall is gently meandering, with some side passages branching off, and it trends north for a distance of about 400 m until the first boulder choke is reached after passing a wide sandy ‘beach’.
Side passages along this section include ‘Porcupine Way’, a 100 m long narrow passage trending west and a large wet inlet named ‘Wolverine Inlet’. The first boulder choke is large with an ascending boulder ramp ahead. It is about 100 m long and passed by following the stream down in the left hand side, through some squeezes and then climbing up into a high level chamber. After a steep clamber down over a ‘booming’ rocking boulder, the stream is reached again with neck-deep water. After a short swim the passage opens out into a beautiful arched tunnel with gours2.
The main route continues with wading water and stepping over gours, with some nice decorations in the roof. Passing another inlet ‘Rat Inlet’ the passage continues with a change in direction to the north east. The passage has an attractive arched roof about 3 m high and up to 12 m wide and beautiful lateral gours and shingle banks alternating with shallow pools. The Gallery continues down stream, opening out into the vast ‘Dark Star Chamber’, around 25 m wide and 25 m high, where the passage intersects a fault. Heading straight on, the stream meanders round to the left under another massive rubble slope, which forms the start of the ‘Second Boulder Choke’. The route first goes due east for 100 m with the stream following the right hand wall. The passage here is smaller as the stream flows along the bottom of a large boulder-filled continuation of the fault chamber. Eventually another large chamber is reached and the route abruptly turns north. Following the stream for a further 50 m through and around large boulders and pools, a small climb down is reached with a distinctive column, ‘The Brandy Gobler’. The main passage ascends a few metres through boulders and then pops out on to a large descending boulder slope – the vast rectangular ‘Lost in Space’ main passage.
‘Lost in Space’ is a magnificent trunk passage generally 10 m to 18 m wide and 12 m to 20 m high with huge boulders to navigate around and over with waist deep pools in between. After the first 80 m, a major inlet joins from high up on the west side christened ‘Old Father Time’. From here onwards the cave assumes a more complex series of passages, collectively referred to as ‘The Land Time Forgot’. Climbing up a gully to the left of an unexplored stream and then over a rock bridge reaches a shelf on the right hand wall, bypassing the initial section of Old Father Time where the floor has collapsed into the active passage below.
Flowstone in Krem Khung. (David Cook)
An initial dry section with selenite needles on the floor changes after around 250 m to a stream way, trending upwards throughout. This seasonal stream holds numerous gour pools in which many crayfish and smaller un-pigmented fish have been seen. An inlet on the left behind a large mud bank can be followed for 50 m, at which point a boulder slope is reached with a possible way on at the top, and a narrow passage on the left can be followed. Continuing along the main stream way for a further 75 m, another inlet up a steep gour slope continues eastwards, while the main stream turns abruptly north.
Back in the main stream, the passage starts to reach a very well decorated region of the cave. An initial section with flowstone3 on both sides opens on the left into a beautifully decorated chamber which immediately forks to a flowstone choked upward trending tube on the right and to an aven4 on the left, neither of which have been explored. Continuing in the main stream a large stal boss is reached which marks another junction. The apparent way on has not been explored.
Back on the stal boss junction the way on is to the right under a low arch and a duck which is a rather complex area with solution passage intersecting a number of joints. Crawling along the passage intersects two more beautifully decorated high level chambers, before eventually emerging into another at another chamber ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. The passage continues to the right for 200 m before it closes down while to the left the passage has been followed for 50 m and is still ongoing.
Back in ‘Lost in Space’, a large section of large boulders has to be negotiated, some of which are precariously balanced. The route trends gently downstream along the initial part, with a consistent passage direction to the north east for nearly one km until the next major branch, ‘Welcome Junction’, is reached. Before this, the first 600 m has intermittent pools of water in the floor and short sections of flowing water. A wet narrow lower passage route comes and goes on the northwest side, which is only partly explored at present and requires swimming. After this, a massive boulder bridge occurs named ‘The Khung Trap’. Abundant, extremely sharp edged boulders gave rise to the name ‘Razorblade Alley’ to be followed by ‘Boulder Bridge Highway’ with two more natural boulder bridges spanning the passage- way. On one of these boulders an explorer slipped and slashed his wrist to the tendons; he had to be rushed to the nearby hospital, 60 km away, to get his wrist repaired.
Near the third boulder bridge the water disappears on the right, south east side, but around 100 m further on a narrow rift side passage has been followed to the head of a pitch, presently un-descended and requiring tackle, but which will probably gain access to a wet lower series. Before ‘Welcome Junction’ is reached another awkward section of breakdown, ‘Life’s a Bitch’ has to be negotiated with some steep ups and downs over large boulder piles.
Onwards from Welcome Junction a left-hand branch goes west northwest and enters ‘Quatermass Series’, which has about 250 m of passage explored so far. This series initially comprises a five to ten metres wide mud-floored passage with some short climbs down and up again. After 50 m the passage divides again, with the left branch forming a short oxbow rejoining at a boulder-filled chamber, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. Several shafts in the floor, up to ten m deep exist here, with water-washed rift passages visible below which has not yet been explored. After the chamber the cave continues onwards to the west northwest, firstly with a boulder-strewn breakdown passage and then twin water-washed narrower corridors – one leading to a double aven 35 to 50 m high and the other longer passage leading to a single aven about 25 m high.
Krem Shalong. (Mark Tringham)
Back at Welcome Junction, the straight-on branch goes first generally east, then south and splits almost immediately into three. To the left a narrower series of joint controlled rifts eventually reaches a small stream, as yet unexplored. To the right a small pitch down leads to a lower level passage heading back under the straight-on route, also unexplored. Straight on, a climb up passes over a hole down to the lower level passage and then continues over boulders to another obstacle, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, comprised of a hole in the floor below a large rock column in the centre of the passage, with an awkward, loose, free climb up some unstable boulders on the far side. Beyond this climb, a traverse across a ledge leads to a section where a large undescended, fluted pitch can be seen through a window on the left with an impressive aven above of at least 30 m high housing a massive gravity-defying rock pendant part way up. As with the other avens seen in Quatermass Series, this shaft might well communicate with the surface to provide another entrance.
Ahead, over huge boulders, the passage leads into the roof of ‘Lake Chamber’, with a hole into black space, where a pitch about 12 m requires tackle to drop into the lake below. A significant flow of water can be heard in the distance and exploration of this massive stream passage awaits next year’s visit with proper tackle.
During the 16 day exploration period our team explored and extended two previously known and partially explored caves besides exploring nine new caves to yield a total of 6.8 km of new passage. In the East Khasi Hills five previously known and partially explored caves were extended and ten new caves explored to yield 6.1 km of new passage, thus giving a grand total of 12.9 km of new surveyed passage for the expedition.
The main achievements besides Krem Khung, from the 14 strong expedition team based in the Jaintia Hills were:
The main achievements from the 10 strong expedition team in the East Khasi Hills were:
To date (February 2012) the whereabouts of over 1,325 caves/cave sites are known in Meghalaya of which 825 have been explored/partially explored to yield in excess of 376.9 km of surveyed cave passage, with much more still waiting to be discovered. Much of the cave that has been explored in Meghalaya to date is impressive river cave mixed with huge relic passage and more recently magnificent clean washed shafts that create cave systems equal in size and beauty to any found elsewhere in the world, maintaining Meghalaya’s status on the world- caving map as a significant caving region.
Exploration of new caving areas in Meghalaya.