Last year the team began the project of scanning škocjanske jame with the ultimate aim of reaching Martel Chamber, one of the largest cave chambers in Europe. Unfortunately the underground river has to run at no more than 3 cubic meters per second to be considered safe to cross and, after the snow melt, the levels rose to 13 cubic meters. After almost a year we returned.
The Hanke Canal is a vast canyon with the river running through. Ropes were rigged at both crossing points and as traverses along the walls to ensure that if the river begun to rise the team would be able to exit safely.
The passage is is, in places, 140m high and beautiful Gours and flow stone adorned the passage.
The scanning team at last have the chance to map this great chamber.
Gazing back from the sump the four cavers in shot give some perspective to the impressive cavern.
At the end of the chamber the sump denies the scanning team access to the final couple of hundred meters of passage before once again the river sinks through the limestone.
The final leg of our journey would take us to the Gebihe cave system in Ziyun Getu He National Park in the province of Guizhou.
Here we would spend a number of days re-scanning the worlds largest cave chamber by volume, the immense Miao Room.
Our first problem, and when I say ‘our’ I do of course mean Phil’s as he was the only Chinese speaker among us, was to deal with was the fact that the local government did not want us there.
We could not stay in Getu itself as the local government decided it was unsafe and so would have an hours drive to and from the cave, adding time to an already tight schedule. We would also be required to have a chaperone at the entrance and photography and travel in the area would be limited.
Our next problem was we would need to source boats to get us through the entrance passage and in to the chamber. Again, Phil came through and managed to find a stock in an apparently disused adventure centre. We managed to cobble together a way of inflating them and borrowed a compressor from the local police.
All went surprisingly smoothly and we were soon paddling our way across the massive entrance and in to the Miao Room.
(Phil and Joe paddle across the impressive entrance lake)
The void was so huge that my Scurrion barely touched it. Boulders the size of houses littered the passage and route finding was difficult to say the least as you would often climb across a boulder just to find a cliff like drop the other side.
Roo, JJ and Pete began scanning their way in. Mike and Joe began marking the lower route and Phil and I would mark the higher, whilst Carsten would scout for photo locations. Our plan was to spend the first day finding efficient ways through the chamber and so saving time for the scanning team.
It took Phil and I about an hour and a half to cross the chamber by the easier high-level route. The other team would need three times this to pick their way through the lower. Phil was planning an attempt later in the week at bolt climbing up to Brexit passage and so we spent some time looking around the area trying to pick the best approach. During this time, we had spotted cairns heading up toward the far wall and were pretty sure it would lead to Minority chamber, a passage Tim Allen and Mark Richardson had previously discovered on the last scanning expedition.
Phil and I headed up to poke our heads in and spent the next hour picking our way through until the passage finally became a too tight inlet. I was gutted I hadn’t brought my camera in that day as the passage and formations were so vastly different from the rest of the chamber…..oh well next time ;)
We clambered back down just in time to meet up with Joe and Mike before heading back to re-check our flagging tape routes and re-group with the others. Fortunately for us our ‘Minder’ was pretty bored sat outside waiting for us and after reporting back that we seemed to know what we were doing we were given pretty much free rein the rest of our time there.
The next few days would be plagued with members coming down with stomach bugs and people fatigued and so the plans were juggled and I would only get the chance to photograph the one day…..but wow what a day!!!
Phil and Joe kindly offered to help me and I made use of the scanning team whenever they passed by. The chamber was far too large for the strobes to light and so we would burn through hundreds of pounds worth of flash bulbs trying to get a shot. The logistics were incredibly difficult. Getting the guys to places for lighting would sometimes take an hour and even with the walkie talkies communicating was challenging. Often the little boulder I wanted them to stand on would turn out to be an impossibly huge slab that couldn’t be climbed and trying to visualise how the passage would light was mostly guess work.
(Standing 148 feet tall, one of the largest stalagmites in the world)
(Far in the distance Roo stands on the slope toward Minority Chamber)
(Above phil the black void 80m from the floor, tantalisingly close, Brexit passage)
Unfortunately Phil ran out of rope on the attempt to Brexit passage and the route up toward it greatly deteriorated the closer he got. The French had also had problems with the stability of the rock on their attempt from the other side of the chamber so it still awaits……wide open for the taking!
I can’t thank Pete, Roo, Phil and Joe enough for all their help that day. It was a real privilege to get the chance to photograph there.
Our week was finished with a slightly unusual government dinner in a fancy restaurant. Delights like thousand year old eggs and Bee Lava awaited us as well as the copious amounts of Baijiu.
After a fabulous few weeks in a stunning country with fantastic people it was time to go……if only I could find a taxi!!!
The next leg of our journey would be to Leye County in the northwest of Guangxi Zhuang.
Myself, Carsten, Pete and Mike opted to add a few hours to our five-hour journey to visit the impressive Buliuhe natural bridge. We enjoyed a great couple of hours being punted up the river on a raft to see this impressive sight from every conceivable angle. Well worth the uncomfortable few hours spent to get there!
Our accommodation in Leye was brand new and something quite different to what we were used to in the quite village of Fengshan.
The hotel was very modern with air conditioning and wi-fi and…..themed accommodation! Phil was in a forest, Mike had a water feature running around his room, JJ a gambling table, Joe a cinema, Roo a rotating circular bed, I had a Gym, but by far the very best was Dr Peter Smart who, not only did he have a pole dancing stage, but managed to break it whilst trying it out on the very first night!!!!
The first scanning target was Hong Meigui, the 5thlargest cave chamber in the world. Extensive work has begun to make this a show cave and where we were expecting pitches are now concrete staircases! Unfortunately, as I understand it development has ceased and the great chamber is left with half-finished lighting and debris.
Undeterred the team begun rigging a traverse to look down in to the main chamber and I went through to take a look from the chamber itself. Unfortunately, the chamber itself was filled with mist, this would become a real problem for photography in this area. Over the next couple of days, we explored throughout the main parts of the cave, following the passage to the sump area’s and side passages, eventually culminating in a fabulous through trip to the other side of the valley to emerge in a vast Tiankeng.
The final objective would prove something of a surprise for the scanning team, and cause a real headache for the photography.
The Funnel Of Light (Yuan-guang Chamber) in Mao Qi Dong would prove to be huge, measuring in at over 6 million cubic meters. The chamber itself it linked with an adjacent Tiankeng where an impressive 250m of concrete steps await. I really didn’t fancy the impact that many steps would have on my knees carrying 20kg or camera kit and so decided on the 260m entrance pitch instead. Mike suggested making a hole in a drinking bottle lid to cool down the descender when you reach the knot pass 100m above the floor and so I popped a pierced bottle in the top of my bag and swung out on to the head of the pitch. The first 30m was pretty hard work having to lift the rope to get it to travel, but after this the abseil became smoother and I would enjoy the daylight shaft in all its glory. The re-belay seemed to take forever to arrive and as I reached it I grabbed for my bottle, but alas it had worked its way to the bottom of the bag! Although warm I wasn’t too worried about the descender though and was soon past the knot and making my way toward Pete and Joe who were already in the chamber awaiting me. I’m not sure if it is because the rope had been tied off the previous day, or if it was because it was new rope, but I had begun quite a spin on the final hundred meters and once at the bottom felt pretty motion sick for a good 5 minutes!
The fun wasn’t over yet though and although I was on the floor there was still a good 20m of stretch left which meant another knot pass whilst bouncing on tip toes on the loose rocks.
Finally free of the rope Pete and Joe came puffing up the 200m rock pile and finally I got a chance to look around at the chamber but…..I could now see no more than 30 feet in front of me, the whole place was filled with mist. The entrance above was just a faint glow in the ceiling. As we were there I begun trying to formulate a way to photograph the chamber but wasn’t hopeful. Eventually I decided to give a try to shooting Phil on half way up the pitch with Pete in the foreground and joe a few hundred meters behind on the ridge. The mist was really heavy and it became obvious it wasn’t going to clear that day and so we went for the shot, and again and again, trying to make it work until……Bang! One of the mega bulbs had blown up on Phil 100m in the air. His reflector and colour gel obliterated……I’m OK…..this far away voice echoed around the chamber and so I did what any self respecting photographer would do…..made him do it all over again!
Phil would get his own back though by making sure I didn’t leave the bar until I was very very wobbly that night….poor poor me.
The final caving adventure for the week before heading off to Getu would be the Luomei Lotus showcave which had some unusual speleothems and even more unusal lighting!
Of course it wouldn’t be China without our government banquet and this would be something quite special. Instead of the usual restaurant affair we were invited in to the home of our host for a stunning home cooked meal and the entire village turned out to help celebrate in our honour with traditional dress and dance
……although some of the team should definitely have held back on the rice wine before having a go at the dancing! ;)
Very proud to have a number of photographs featured in this months Descent Magazine, including this shot of Nicky Bayley climbing up toward the Marble Showers Series from the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu main stream way
Very proud to have been awarded 1st prize in the judged category for speleomovement for the shot of Peak main stream way & winner of the public vote Marble showers, OFD main stream in this years speleophotographia 2018 photography competition. Thank you again to everyone who has ever held a flashgun or shivered under a waterfall for ‘Just one more shot’ !!! #fun #caving #adventure #photography #Godox
With Mawangdong completed, Roo had been up long hours in to the night processing the gigabytes of data. JJ had taken a nasty tumble and was bruised quite badly. The rigging team was knackered from setting up the pitches in to the recently discovered Tiankeng, and having to machete their way through the thick jungle at the bottom to enter the cave, and so the team took a day off to relax and visit the Sanmenhai Skylight Cluster.
Possibly more of JJ than anyone would ever want to see! Where’s that eye bleach!
Roo overwhelmed by the beautiful scenery!
Carsten entertained us almost as much as the boat journey through the beautiful river caves with his drone. Without GPS and having had limited practice flying the new Mavic 2, he very nearly lost it a couple of times as he flew it through the open entrances and up in to clouds.
We had timed our break perfectly with my wedding anniversary and so the guys set about ensuring I wouldn’t spend much of the day sober. We spotted a fantastic looking bar from the boat as we paddled past. We all remarked that if it was in the West it would be absolutely rammed with custom and that we must try to find it later.
Completely chilled from our trip we headed out to find the drinking hole we had spotted earlier, though upon arrival there was a chair across the entrance and all looked closed. A lady approached and we pointed enthusiastically to the bar and kept repeating the only word we all knew Pijiu…Beer! After a few more hand signals she threw her hands in the air, removed the chair and went wandering off, only to arrive back 5 minutes later with a case of beers for us. We chatted and drank and eventually Carsten wandered in and found us. He doesn’t drink as a rule and so wandered off in to the bar to take photographs. Phil eventually made his way over and, as the only Chinese speaker, we asked him to find out what we owed……..only to discover we weren’t in a bar at all. The property was once possibly a hotel, but had ceased to be quite some time ago and now was a private residence! We had wandered in to some lady’s home, demanded beer of her and Carsten was now wandering around her bedroom taking photographs!!!
Giggling like teenagers we paid the woman for the beer, nodded and thanked her profusely and headed off to get ready for our first official Government dinner of the trip.
Although Phil had warned us of Chinese hospitality and the need to respond to the toasts, drinking large quantities of Baijiu, a rather strong spirit of 50’ish percent proof served to us from a dodgey looking plastic bottle. I have to say after the first six ½ pints knocked back I quite developed a taste for it…..until the next morning.
Again Carsten provided the best entertainment, as mentioned he doesn’t normally drink, so watching him knocking back these huge glasses of strong spirit and keep a smile on his face did quite tickle me.
The next morning came and after drinking copious amounts of water I felt ready for the next challenge. I loaded every piece of photo gear I had in to my two expedition bags and overloaded these with flash bulbs.
The drive to the village where we would start our walk up to the Nongle Tiankeng was short and we were soon exiting to begin our walk up the goat tracks.
Phil and Joe went stomping on whilst Pete and I took a more leisurely pace. The route was steep and I was carrying around 40kg of kit. Each step was just slightly an uncomfortable height to climb from boulder to boulder and I was soon struggling and wishing I had taken a ‘point and click’ instead of all this gear. After about 45min’s I gave in and dropped one of the bags, deciding I would go back for it. Another 20 minutes of slog and we arrived at a stunning open depression with jungle around 70m below. I dumped my bag and turned to go back for the other to find Mike stomping along with both his kit bag and the one I had dropped…..I could have hugged him and I’m pretty sure I bought him a drink or two that night.
The guys had rigged a 70m free hang and a set of 5 shorter pitches to speed things up on the exit. JJ and Pete had headed over to the shorter pitches and, eager to see the cave, I elected to take the two bags down the 70. Joe advised that I should use a breaking Krab and to check the rope for damage from flying squirrels as they sometimes gnawed on in situ ropes!!!……What!!!!
I do rope access for a living and so am pretty used to exposure and technical rope manoeuvres, but as I reached the hanging re-belay I quickly discovered I didn’t have the strength to stand up my bodyweight and the 40kg hanging from me to disconnect my short cowstail. After a bit of grunting I eventually managed to connect the bags to the loop, pass the re-belay and re-connect them to me. It was good advice for the breaking krab, but even so with the extra weight on me it was quite a ride!
The newly named Hong-Kong Haiteng cave had been discovered by French and Chinese cavers. We would later be credited with the discovery and called climbers by the BBC, news agencies and their thorough research.
The cave itself was split very distinctly in to a left and right chamber and on the first day we would concentrate on the larger left-hand chamber. It would be my first go at really big cave shots and after setting up the foreground we would go on to burn up nearly £200 worth of flash bulbs on this shot alone. It may have been costly, but I was well chuffed. I was learning new techniques with every click of the button and would get to walk away with one of the first photographs taken of this magnificent chamber.
I absolutely exhausted myself on the exit out and learned after this to not be such a bull headed arse and spread out kit between us.
I visited the cave twice more to help Carsten with shots the one day and to shoot the Right hand passage the next, but the legs never quite recovered from that first days beasting.
The Left hand chamber was quite different from the right and had beautiful cave pearls and pools.
Again these large chamber shots can’t be done without a huge amount of help and I can’t thank the guys (Roo, JJ, Joe, Mike and Phil) enough for their time and all the running around they did for me.