On 28th January 1997 I set off from Heathrow at the beginning of a trip around the world. As a Croydon C.C. member, I was keen to cave in as many countries as possible during the course of my eleven-month-long tour.
I didn't start off my exciting adventures alone. Fellow C.C.C. member Simon Laikie flew out with me to brave the world of backpacking in Africa for the first two and a half months. In that time, we travelled several thousand miles from Cape Town up through South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia to Tanzania.
The first caving trip came barely a week into the trip, so we were off to a good start! Simon and I had left the beautiful city of Cape Town behind and headed inland. The scenery was dramatic, not least because of its sheer scale, and we passed through a seemingly-endless region of arable land reminiscent of the American Mid-West. Our destination was Oudtshoorn, the centre of the ostrich-farming industry. This town lies high up on a plateau in the semi-desert region of the Little Karai. To reach it the road winds for a long way up through the mountains from the coastal plain. Cacti and aloe vera plants grew abundantly and the heat (in early February, being at the height of their summer) was oppressive - we'd been skiing with the Club in the cold of Scotland only a few weeks before!
Despite the 44°C (111°F) temperatures, for some reason a few of us decided it would be a good idea to go on a 50 km cycle ride the next day. The ride started at the top of the Swartberg Pass (at 5250 ft/1600 m altitude) and began with a hair-raising thrash down a very rough gravel track - precipitous 500 foot drops to one side making you concentrate rather a lot on keeping control of your bike! After 20 km, four us in the group peeled off to visit some caves.
Cango Caves are commercially-run showcaves that, though well-decorated, have seen better days. They offered a 90 minute "Adventure Tour" with the usual blurb to put the fear of God into the punters. It seemed like a laugh anyway, so we paid our money and in we went. The first part of the tour was a walking tour of what were pretty impressive chambers, dramatically lit and with a good commentary from the guide. Then the "adventure" began with a distinctly dodgy climb up a rusty iron ladder into a rift (several people had second-thoughts on seeing it and decided to wait for our return!) Apart from good stalactites etc., there were large numbers of once-decent helictites on the roof. Sadly, though, the floodlighting had encouraged algae to colonise them, so now they were distinctly green. There was a fair amount of hands-and-knees crawling and a brief flat-out crawl to thrutch through, with a drop through The Letterbox, a squeeze into The Coffin, a small lake to wade across and a bit of climbing, too. All rather more adventurous than I'd expected and certainly entertaining. Altogether it was a fairly realistic taster of proper caving. However, it was quite a shock to emerge again into blistering heat - not exactly like coming out of OFD at the same time of year! Then it was time to continue the cycle back to the hostel - stopping on the way to visit an ostrich farm. We were invited to ride the ostriches around a paddock, but seeing the panic-stricken face of the poor chap who was giving the demonstration, we all chickened out!
The second caving trip came in Zimbabwe after a month away from home. From outside the huge, brand-new headquarters of Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party (a monument to blatant corruption - party subscriptions alone never paid for that amazing building!!), I took the 1¾-hour bus ride from the capital, Harare, northwards to Chinhoyi Caves. My Z$50 (£2.90) foreigners' price entrance fee gave me unguided access to two caves. The path from the office dropped down through a stooping entrance which rapidly opened out into a large chamber with two skylights high above. The far end of the chamber emerged into the side of a very wide pothole with a broad lake at the bottom.
The water in the pool was quite the most incredible blue colour I have ever seen - almost luminous. A kind of aquamarine, I suppose, but more vivid. Despite its amazing colour, the water was very clear and I could see maybe fifty feet down. It was actually difficult to tell where the water began at the edge of the pool, it was so clear! I was told later by a chap who'd dived in the caves that the lake drops down to a depth of around 315 feet. He'd dived through long, well-decorated passages down to 130 ft (40 m) and described it as a magical experience.
Having taken lots of photos, I went to a viewpoint in the jungle at the top of the pot. Avoiding the huge swarm of bees (African Killers??!), I then dropped down into the aptly-named Dark Cave. I was very glad I had my Petzl Duo headtorch because it was, indeed, pitch dark (no showcave lighting here!). Ferreting around, I came across an arch overlooking the lake from maybe 60 feet above. Seen from here within the cave the colour of the water was even more beautiful. After slipping and coating myself in black mud I made my way back to the road and hitched a lift back to Chinhoyi town for a refreshing bottle of Zimbabwe-brewed Carling Black Label ("America's Lusty, Lively Beer"!!!)
Zambia provided no caving opportunities in the short time spent there. However, in Tanzania, Simon and I made a special detour to the coastal town of Tanga in order to visit the largest caves in East Africa, Amboni Caves. These caves lie several miles outside Tanga and we had to take a battered old Land Rover most of the way, followed by a couple of miles' walk to reach the them.
Amboni village was very basic - only mud huts, two water standpipes and little else bar a very limited electricity supply to the one or two tiny shops and the school. Several people could be seen individually breaking up large rocks into gravel. This they did by hitting the rocks with a stick with a small metal weight on the end. The sorrowful expressions on their faces told of how unsurprisingly dejected they were about their menial lot in life. As we walked through the little village we gathered a train of small children who happily chattered away as they followed we two mzungus (Europeans) to the caves. Very welcome drinks were available from the small office - the ginger beer (known as tangawizi) was delicious and even better than that available back home. We bought a guidebook, donned our Petzls and made our way in. Amboni caves are particularly noted for their bat populations and we kept getting spooked as yet another cloud of them would sweep past us in the confined passages! They were quite big bats, too, with a wingspan nearly a foot across. A couple of times I actually had them crash into my hair, shrieking away as they did so!
The caves are believed to be the home of a snake-god, for whom various offerings had been left in the outer chambers. Fortunately he didn't put in an appearance whilst we were there! The caves themselves were very old, dry and fossilized and clearly weren't actively being formed. The total length of passages in the area is claimed to be over 200km, though the guide at the entrance told us that the main cave we were entering was little more than 1km in length. Nevertheless, there were plenty of other little caves to explore before we made our way back to Tanga. Passing through the village again, the people sitting astride the piles of stones were still chipping away with a monotonous "tick, tick, tick" sound. The piles of rocks still to be attacked looked no smaller than they had done two hours before.
Leaving Simon behind in Africa, I flew on to Thailand for the next leg of my tour. After a brief foray to Hong Kong (only a few weeks before the hand-over) I traveled to the south-west coast of Thailand in order to visit the caves at Rai Leh, near the town of Krabi. The whole area is made of limestone and there are many huge pinnacles towering dramatically out of the sea. In fact, this is where the James Bond movie "The Man With The Golden Gun" was filmed (as the local day-trip industry constantly reminds you!!). The Rai Leh peninsular projects out into a bay filled with such tall islands and has long been known as a climbing mecca. Annoyingly, local information was pretty scarce as to where to find all the caves, but I had a good hunt around through the bush and managed to see half a dozen.
The first I visited was Inner Princess Cave. This had a nice gour and red flowstone area with huge curtains a mere 50 yards from the entrance, up a short climb on the left. Further in along the main passage was a series of vast fossil chambers maybe 100ft (30m) high and 160ft (50m) across. I was accompanied by a couple of lads who weren't too keen on scrambling about, so I didn't explore further, but obviously the cave went on much further.
Later I explored Outer Princess Cave, which lies at the eastern end of the South Beach. This cave is said to be inhabited by a goddess-spirit to whom offerings are made - as you enter the large entrance (~40ft high) you are confronted by a large number of huge wooden phalluses!! At least two dozen were there when I visited, all remarkably detailed and several adorned with scores of marbles set into the shafts for an impressive studded effect! Some of these phalluses were as long as ten or twelve feet! All had bright ribbons tied around them and had been left there by (I believe) fishermen hoping for bountiful catches. I climbed up carefully behind the shrine and scrambled up into an upper chamber. This contained what I believe is the largest column I've ever seen, almost fifteen feet thick and upwards of forty feet tall. There were no obvious passages leading off the chamber, so I climbed back down with my American companion (who had spent all her time crying out, "This is so cool!" over and over again!)
At the other end of the beach we climbed up a steep slope and came across a huge cave that, oddly enough, didn't seem to be mentioned on any of the rudimentary maps in the resort or in the guidebooks. Yet it was even larger than Inner Princess Cave and seemed to go on and on. We explored the immense passages (up to 80ft/25m high/wide) for several hundred meters into the cave, having several 20 foot climbs to negotiate (the climbs near the entrances had been roped, presumably by locals wanting access to the birds' nests). There were many side passages begging to be explored and no sign of the main passage ending when we decided to turn back in order to photograph the beautiful sunset from the main entrance. Altogether a very exciting half-hour exploration of the cave, which had plenty of scope for a "proper" trip in the future. We briefly visited some much smaller, rifty passages beside the path leading back to the bar! These were quite interesting in themselves - one even had a foot-long gecko with big eyes and a green and brown spotted skin (made for a good photo!)
During my brief time in Malaysia I could only manage a limited sort-of caving trip! About 15km outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur, lies Batu Cave. This is a huge cavern used as a Hindu shrine. During their biggest annual festival, 800,000 pilgrims have been known to visit the cave at the same time (there are inevitably several deaths in the crush). To reach the cave itself you must first climb up a 300-foot-high flight of steps. There are hundreds of monkeys screeching all about you as you make your way towards the imposing stone elephants who guard to entrance to the cave. Once you've got your breath back at the top, you drop down again into the concrete-floored main chamber. This is some 120 feet high, 200 yards long and 50 yards wide. At the far end, up another flight of concrete steps (though mercifully short!), is an open-roofed shaft around 120 feet in diameter and similar in height. Within this area lies the main Hindu shrine. At no point do you enjoy the luxury of leaving sight of daylight, so it's hardly a major caving experience, but there were plenty of massive stalactites there to be admired to make up for it!!!
With no opportunity to cave in Singapore, I needed to work hard to improve my caving quota. Yet Indonesia presented me with but one chance to get underground - to visit another religious site. Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) is to be found an hour's walk from the Balinese cultural centre of Ubud. "Cave" is a bit of a misnomer, as the site was actually hewn out of the rock in the 11th Century to make a temple. You enter through the cavernous mouth of a demon and go in ~20ft to a T-shaped chamber. I had only my Mini Maglite to guide me (my Petzl Duo having been stolen by a young English Chelsea fan in Malaysia several weeks before) but when switched off, I was still completely unable to see daylight. That made it close enough to a caving trip for me, so I could tick Indonesia off the list!
When I reached Sydney on 25th July, fellow Croydon (and ex-Plymouth Poly) members Rebecca Terry, Phil Elsdon and Keith Jackson, together with Simon Laikie, were there to meet me. Bec had wrangled a freebie trip to a scientific conference at Sydney University to present a paper. We all thought it would be a good excuse to get together on the other side of the world and enjoy the phenomenally high quality and variety of Australian brewing fare (splutter, splutter!). Despite all Aussie brews being conclusively proved to be bland fizzy pop, we still had a very good time. The caving expedition for the ten days or so we were together consisted of a visit to Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains, a couple of hours' drive inland from Sydney. These caves were largely open for you to explore yourselves for free. If you wished, you could be led down some of the smaller passages, but we couldn't be bothered to pay for the privilege. They were certainly big (the main road even runs through one of them!) and the major cave had a stream running down the middle of the floor, between the huge boulders. During the spring floods, according to photographs, this stream turns into a fair old flood. The main chamber of this cave was around 100 ft high. A small caving museum had been established nearby to the cave, though it had a pretty limited range of exhibits.
I had had grand plans to do some proper caving in New Zealand, but unfortunately circumstances conspired against me.
I took the bus from Auckland to Waitomo, which is where you can bounce down the local caves wearing a lorry tyre inner tube (if the mood so takes you!). I had planned to stay a couple of nights at the local caving club's hut, but had been unable to get hold of the warden - and anyway, the off-license in the tiny village had closed, so I could hardly stay there after that discovery!! I did visit the Waitomo Museum of Caves, though, which was actually extremely well laid out and informative. There was a very, very well produced 27-minute AV show following a group of cavers on an exploration trip. It was like virtual reality caving (all that was missing was a water jet and a mud cannon to fire at the audience every few minutes). I was most impressed. I even got to go underground courtesy of a half-hour walk that took in two or three caves - my replacement Petzl proved its worth again! The caves were all very active (the only proper active caves I came across anywhere) with raging torrents crashing through them. Looking through a directory of Kiwi Caves, it appears that there is a considerable number of sites to visit throughout the country.
Two weeks later, whilst in Dunedin, at the southern end of the South Island - about as far from Blighty as you can physically get - I surfed the Internet for the first time in my life. Within five minutes I had the distinctly dubious honour of having Messrs. Fry and Wray staring back at me from the computer screen, having searched for "New Zealand, caves" and been offered Croydon C.C. expedition photos in return!!
My plan had been to go back to Waitomo on the return leg of my trip around the country in late September. Even if I couldn't have sweet-talked myself onto a local club's trip I would have paid my money to go on a black-water rafting trip. Alas, though, my intended bus got rerouted away from Waitomo and so I failed to do either, with too little time available to backtrack from Auckland before it was time to fly on to pastures new….
The final country to be visited during my travels was the magical Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. I met up with Simon Laikie in Kathmandu and together we went off on a three-week trek in the Annapurna region. On the way up to the Annapurna Basecamp, we passed a massive snowfall at the base of a high waterfall. The stream running through the snowfall had carved out a long tunnel (100 yds or more in length). So, it was rucksack off and headtorch on and so off to explore within the ice cave and get photographic evidence of my having been "caving" in Nepal, too!
In the end I visited thirteen countries in just under eleven months. I had a fantastic time and was also fairly successful in managing to cave in most countries along the way. I had hoped to make it over to Borneo to explore the caves in Mulu National Park, but lack of time and money put the kybosh on that, and anyway, I reckon it would be better to do with a decent group as a dedicated trip from the UK. One for the future, perhaps….