Saturday March 23, 2013
Story and pictures by ANDREW SIA
Adventure caving can be addictive, especially when it’s done with a group of volunteers who are passionate about exploring dark rocky passages and discovering the wondrous world therein.
Caving did not seem like a Michelin star dish. Despite being a lover of nature and the outdoors, I found the idea of clambering, even crawling, through narrow, wet, rocky passages in pitch black conditions not particularly appetising.
Especially not with the possible garnishing of creepy crawlies topped up with the fragrance of guano or bat dropping ...
Yet, for over three days in March, in the arduous line of duty, I found myself indulging in this “cuisine” when I attended a Basic Caving Course (BCC) organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) at the Kota Gelanggi caves near Jerantut, Pahang.
The list of things to bring along for the trip included a helmet, knee and elbow pads plus a waterproof headlamp, hand-held torchlight and “dry pack”. On top of this, we were asked to prepare “protective clothing” to cover our arms and legs completely; a pair of overalls (as that used in heavy-duty industries like oil rigs or steel smelting) was recommended.
This was all rather intimidating; it seemed as if we were about to enter a combat zone!
One Friday, after a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, we arrived at the Felda Tekam Plantation Resort near Jerantut, and soon embarked on our first classroom session. Yes, this was a serious caving course which included lessons on geology, ecology and, of course, safety (see Critical conservation).
The next day, we started our adventure with Gua Penyu, one of the “easy caves”, among the many at Kota Gelanggi. This was an easy walk but Rajiv R., the caver leading us, made it more memorable by asking us all to switch off our lights and get a “feel” of total darkness ...
Next was an abseiling session down a 30m cliff. The cavers had to carefully check the gear of each and every participant and patiently repeat the instructions 21 times!
It was initially unnerving stepping off the ledge so high up, but soon, I felt a real adrenaline rush playing a Mission Impossible stuntman sliding down the rope – even if it was 10 times slower!
After a quick lunch of muesli bars and bread, we tackled Gua Balai, a slightly tougher cave. As we climbed to higher sections, we had to do some bits of rock climbing and, since we had to help each other, this was also where we began to bond as a group.
Having “passed” these initial tests, we were ready for Gua Tongkat, a cave with some seriously narrow rock passages. I found myself having to wriggle along like a worm to get through, and as rocks threatened to graze at every turn, it became clear why we had been asked to wear “protective clothing”, helmets and gloves.
That night, there was a session of group games, a fun quiz and a special “beauty pageant”, the proceedings of which we were all sworn to “secrecy”. More ominously, the cavers got their special wish – it rained the whole night through – and they gleefully told us that caving would be “extra fun” tomorrow.
On the third day, we were to undergo our “final exam” – crawling on our bellies through a muddy, watery passage. After climbing and clambering through a whole host of obstacles, we arrived at a chamber with a tiny hole at one end.
Not only did I have to get down and dirty on the mud, but the rocky passage was so narrow that I had to take off my helmet and headlight, and somehow, while barely keeping my nostrils above water, inch my way forward.
The reward was not only an exhilarating sense of overcoming a Fear Factor, but a series of magnificent caverns with an abundance of rock formations dripping with water. This was a sign that this was a “living cave”, one where water was still actively sculpting its sublime rocky artworks. In fact, the cavers showed us infant stalactites where tiny rock crystals were being formed amidst drops of water.
I had visited gorgeous caves, such as Lebanon’s Jeita Grotto before, but it was as a tourist walking through well-lit concrete pathways. Who would have thought that such a wonderful complex of caves lay just beyond a tiny hole? There was a sense of being a latter-day Indiana Jones discovering some Lost Ark.
“Surprisingly, my favourite part of the course was crawling through the hole with muddy water,” related visual designer Angeline Siok, 27, echoing a common sentiment.
Tang Weng Kong, 61, a retired technical manager, commented, “Being an elderly man, I was initially worried about squeezing through the narrow caves. However, with the help of our dedicated caving trainers, I managed to complete all the challenges. We could also see that all the participants were ever ready to help each other.”
Graphic designer Liza Manshoor, in her 30s, shared: “For me, the most difficult part was mental. Since there were 31 of us in total, there was a lot of waiting before going through each obstacle. I became anxious looking at the person in front of me, wondering if I could do it.
“And being in a cave, the anxiety doubled because you just can’t leave even if you want to. But once it was my turn, I just had to do it, and it was all good.”
Photographer William Loke, 36, recounted, “I only joined in when my scuba diving trip was cancelled at the last minute. But now, I think I could be addicted to caving. I can’t wait for the next trip.”
All 21 participants “graduated” from the course and were awarded a certificate by Yee Yoke Chuan, the chief co-ordinator of the MNS Cave Group.
For this writer, what really made the experience unforgettable was the group camaraderie and the infectious enthusiasm of the cavers. This was the 19th consecutive year that MNS cavers (now in their third “generation”) have organised a Basic Caving Course. What is it that makes them volunteer their time and effort year in and year out for this non-profit activity?
Sue Lynn, a tax consultant in her 30s, explained: “I find caves beautiful and mysterious. I feel exhilarated wondering what will be discovered as I go deeper. It’s not the same as watching it on TV. You want to climb, crawl, get stuck in passages and roll in the mud. You emerge feeling good and wanting to share that experience with others.”
Su Hung, 37, an engineer, commented, “Our work in organising the course is well worth it if we can improve, even a little, how we treat caves and the environment.”
Rajiv, 35, another engineer, added, “And there’s the wonderful bunch of people we meet every year who eventually become our friends.”
For information on the next caving trip, check the “Malaysian Nature Society Cave Group” on Facebook.