Vertical Caving around Pacitan, Java, Indonesia
3rd - 24th July, 1999
Participants: Heather Jefferies, Wayne Tyson (SRGWA), Gail Taylor, Neil Taylor (Cavers Leeuwin), Carol Layton, Phil Maynard (SUSS), Jim Campbell (CSS), Jeremy Wilkinson (Halton Cavers Club, UK) and Fx Oktaf Laudensius and Fx Esensiator (Jack) Kojek of Indonesia.
Aaah! Caving in a tropical paradise. By the third day in Java, the thought of going underground was an attractive one but lacking some urgency. The group seemed to be more interested in the very friendly people, the delicious spicy food and the unusual sweet smelling aromas that you find in a tropical 3rd world country. A major distraction to going underground was our proximity to beaches nestled amongst coconut palms and limestone bluffs.
Jeremy is failing to lift a standard load of guava with his audience laughing at his attempts. The baskets were unbelievably heavy. From the left of the picture is one of our drivers, then Oktaf and the farmer who owns the baskets. Photo by Carol Layton
The town where we stayed, Pacitan, is on the edge of the south coast of East Java, 30km from the large city of Yogyakarta in an area called Gunung Sewu. The limestone covers an area of over 1000 square kilometres and rises to a height of around 500 metres. The name ‘Gunung Sewu’ translates as ‘thousand hills’ which accurately describes the cone karst with its gently rounded hills sticking out of alluvial plains where silt has been deposited due to intensive farming.
Wayne and Heather had organised previous expeditions to this part of East Java in 1984, ‘86, ‘90 and ‘92. More than 180 caves had been surveyed with Leweng Jaran being a wonderful find for Wayne in 1984, currently the longest cave in Indonesia. (Leweng = entrance shaft.) With a survey length of over 18km and a depth of 158m this system has a booming river passage and waterfalls and some nicely decorated passages. One aim was to look at leads off the main streamway in L. Jaran but the main objective was an exciting prospect called the L. Ombo system, ‘the next big thing’. Then, if there was time, to look at the hundreds of unexplored caves in Gunung Sewu.
L. Ombo has a huge 118m shaft entrance that broadens out like a bell all the way into a much larger chamber. Indonesian cavers first descended it in 1981. In1982, a French expedition surveyed the cave to 1.8km but due to running out of time they had to stop with huge river passage leading off into the distance. Their objective was Kalimantan so Wayne and his group happily accepted the task of continuing the French group’s survey to 6km in 1992. They’d run out of time too with screaming river passage still leading off into the distance so here we are, ready in 1999 to continue the work. Someone has to do it.
The team flew to Yogyakarta to be met by our host, Dr. Robby Ko. Robby is a dermatologist/entrepreneur speleologist who has many hats, one being chairman of the Indonesian caving group, FINSPAC. He organised two pretend 4wd vehicles with drivers for us and introduced us to two fit and madly keen Indonesian cavers, Oktaf and Jack who would also be our interpreters. Oktaf and Jack are both young university students with pretty good English as well as enthusiastic cavers. It soon became apparent what excellent company they would be and more than equal to any task underground.
The first task was to obtain permission to go caving from the local authorities, which ended up being surprisingly easy. There was one momentary hitch when the Bupati (governor) wanted to limit access into L. Jaran as there had been a party of Indonesian cavers who had recently got caught in the cave during a flood. He wanted to see our caving qualifications. Just when the ASF card may have been of some use! Problem is that Wayne and I share the same problem of family membership and we both haven’t been issued with a card, only our spouses. Wayne produced his SRGWA card, which simply puzzled the Buparti. The Buparti had a folder of pictures of the cave, which he showed Wayne, explaining that they had been taken by an international caving expedition. Heather immediately recognised Wayne in some of the photos and the Buparti realised that this was the man who had found the cave in the first place. That sorted it all out.
The first trip underground was a warm up trip into L. Jaran to push two leads. It was meant to be a gentle introduction to the cave but ended up being a surveying trip in unbelievable mud in a small crawl that ended up only adding 200m to the length. It was Jack’s job to hold the end of the tape and he didn’t look at all happy crouched over in deep mud. Phil and I were just plain cursing our heads off with the sweat running off us. It is very warm in these caves (about 23° C) and the extreme humidity doesn’t help for reading the clinometer. At least the large stream in the main section of the cave was great to cool off in and the masses of cave pearls in a particularly well-decorated section were stunning.
An exciting discovery in L. Jalan was several metres worth of passage covered in masses of cave pearls. Photo by Carol Layton
Day 4 began with the main aim of the trip, which was to continue exploration in the L. Ombo system. At the end of the previous trip, a second entrance had been found (L. Kepon) that was closer to unexplored river passage, a tight serpentine rift that drops down to the river passage with about 4 pitches, the biggest being 30m. Jeremy, Phil, Oktaf and I set off to rig the cave after being farewelled by a crowd of villagers, mainly women and children, something we became accustomed to when going underground. They told Oktaf that they were very impressed that a woman was caving.
The rift turned out to be physically demanding due to its tightness (less than my shoulder width) with many sharp bits to get caught on. At least there was a short wet roof sniff near the entrance to cool off in and get the carbide light going. Following that was a knee crunching crawl and finally into the rift. I would have called this section ‘speleosports’ since it definitely favoured small people. On the way in to the first pitch there was suddenly a huge kathump! Since the rift would be certain death in a flood pulse, I immediately thought of climbing up the rift but it was perfect weather when
we went in as well as being the dry season. The sound was an explosion caused by a leaking carbide container that Oktaf had recklessly got too close to with his lamp still lit. The result was a flash burn with Oktaf’s facial hair burnt off except for the stubs of his eyelashes that looked like what nylon does when it is sealed with a lighter. We decided that the best option was to exit the cave and get Doctor Heather to look at the damage. Just as well as Oktaf had damaged the conjunctiva in his eyes and the pain would be like snow blindness, i.e. extremely painful a day or two. When we asked Oktaf if he were in pain he would only say that he felt pain in his heart because it was stopping the team from continuing down the cave. A return visit was planned for another day.
When permission was being sorted out with the Buparti, it had been noticed on the required paperwork that Neil’s occupation as a Karst Manager at Margaret River in Western Australia could be useful. The Buparti asked Neil to do a free management plan for a tourist cave called Gua Gong. (Gua = cave entrance). So Neil, Phil and Gail examined the cave, a single large chamber with impressive formation. There were about 1000 people who walked through the cave in the three hours it took to survey and they definitely got in the way, an unusual hazard to surveying. A report was duly handed in to the Buparti which had recommendations like; stop people eating, smoking and damaging formation by walking on it and breaking bits off, turn the lights off to prevent plant growth on the formations (lampenflora) and not permit banging on formation to get the musical sounds. We wondered if this activity had something to do with the name of the cave.
While people were rigging in L. Kepon, Jim had looked for possibilities on the surface, especially an entrance into the L. Ombo system that would remove the need for the punishment in the L. Kepon rift. The beauty of looking for likely holes in a 3rd world country is that you just get Jack or Oktaf to ask the villagers and then be shown the way to caves. One interesting prospect was a cave being used by the locals as a water source, called G. Suling.
At this stage of the trip, several days of rigging had been undertaken in L. Kepon. It shouldn’t have taken so long but each trip had problems with underestimating the amount of gear being needed for rigging all the small pitches. The cave was developing a reputation for shredding overalls and packs. At least one of the anchor tapes on a pitch was being cut due to the sharp edges of the rock. Some of the people in the group were suffering from stomach bugs and hearing the stories from those returning from the cave, decided that they did not want to experience the delights of the terror rift.
From the look of serious concentration on Carol’s face, it appears that abseiling and negotiating a bamboo ladder is quite a challenge. Photo by Phil Maynard.
G. Suling ended up being a brilliant find as a cave and as evidence of Javanese ingenuity. The solid and very sturdy piece of bamboo constructed into a ladder for the 17m entrance pitch was astonishing. The Javanese had cut openings roughly every 60cm and banged short lengths of wood in for rungs. Neat concrete steps and a pipe led us to a small concrete dam in the stream. Water was being pumped to the surface with a generator at the top. A short crawl beside the dam took us into a stream passage lined with flowstone with a river of beautiful creamy gour pools to make the walking easy. This is what we came to Java for. Further along a 32m waterfall pitch was rigged and the way on continued down through big chambers to what looked like another pitch bigger than the one just rigged. Unfortunately, we had run out of rope. Hang on, Java is meant to be mainly horizontal, not vertical.
However, the rift in L. Kepon beckoned. On Day 8, Carol, Phil, Jeremy and Oktaf ventured down the torturous rift in L. Kepon to push into the unknown parts of the L. Ombo system. About half a kilometre upstream the main river was Mossie Chamber, the furthest extent of what had been surveyed on the last trip. Unfortunately we could not find a way through the rock pile where a huge amount of rock had collapsed onto the river. On the way back, we explored a smaller stream feeding the main river with beautiful creamy gour pools all the way (~600m), exactly like G. Suling.
On the way back to Pacitan, as we were going through the usual bumps and grinds in the pretend 4WD along the rocky chunks of limestone rocks that make up the tracks, there was suddenly a horrible grinding noise and we a noticeable drop in the rear left of the vehicle. A very sudden stop and the driver went off into the fields to collect his wheel. Amazingly, the rear axle had sheered from metal fatigue and we were relieved that it hadn’t happened at speed. So there we were, out in the conical karst about one hour from Pacitan with our stomachs grumbling for food and the poor driver trying to examine his wheel as night set in. Oktaf hitched a ride on a passing motorcycle and managed to ring the hotel where we were staying so that the other car could come and pick us up. While we waited we enjoyed the glorious view of the stars amongst the silhouette of coconut palms. The driver stayed with his vehicle and we marvelled at how he was going to fix the car in such a remote place.
It was G. Suling’s turn next. Each of the three trips into the cave was halted due to running out of rope and tape for rigging. The group had brought over a small amount of gear to Java as the caving was expected to be mainly horizontal river passage, not pitch after pitch. The fourth waterfall pitch was looking very interesting with a big chamber spreading out in front of us and the water pelting down a couple of ledges to depths we couldn’t ascertain with our lights. It felt big.
The next day, a very excited group headed down into G. Suling to see what was down this large fourth pitch. This time we took in 100m of brand new rope but we had no tape for rigging as it was being used in L. Kepon. L. Kepon needed to be derigged as soon as possible. Phil decided to put a bolt in at the top so that the tape that was being used for a natural anchor could be saved for lower down. Predictably for a 3rd world country, the head of the hammer flew off at the first stroke but thankfully not down the pitch. The hammers they sell in Pacitan are of shocking quality. Wayne had advised that bolting hammers should be left at home to save weight. Mistake. The handle was whittled with a knife to make it a more secure hold for the head. Took a while but a bolt was put into the rock. The rope descended 3m to a ledge with a bolt put in by Jim. After that ledge, the rope snaked down gour pools and dropped below another ledge. No natural anchors could be found and only unsuitable flowstone for a bolt. So it was decided that because I was the lightest of the group, it was my task to be the first to find out what was at the bottom of this pitch. With unsuppressed glee I took off down the rope.
With awe and some trepidation I looked and looked in the spray for a rebelay point. All the surfaces were smooth from the water, so over the ledge I went to look further down. I found a beautiful hook out of the spray of the waterfall on the cliff edge. After that it was a free hang for about 33m, all up the pitch measured 62m. The pitch felt a lot bigger than it ended up being because the chamber continued up into an aven. Down the bottom, the stream passage continued. However, the well decorated stream passage ended shortly after the big pitch at a sump. We had dropped down to 188m to the water table. This cave was the most enjoyable to explore and survey for the trip for me.
After all the prussiking in L. Kepon and now in G. Suling, this caving trip had become quite a technical vertical one. In contrast Wayne remembered past trips where the British cavers in the group got a bit bored with all the kilometres of horizontal river passage.
Day 12 was the day when Heather, Phil, Jim and Jack recklessly volunteered to descend the murderous rift to derig L. Kepon. The cave had eaten various pieces of rigging, including two tapes that needed discarding. 180m of wet, heavy rope was removed. Before they dismantled the pitches they decided to see the main river passage. Oktaf and Jack had already shown us their inability to swim at the local hot springs (that incidentally are a hot 45°C). This became a problem in the main Ombo River. As they were wading through nose deep water, there was a sudden splashing and then Jack disappeared underwater. Phil hauled him up by the collar of his overalls. His swimming technique was akin to that of a brick. In the struggle with the river, Jack had managed to get both of his boots lost, stuck in the mud at the bottom of the stream passage but fortunately the others were able to retrieve them. The Javanese don’t seem interested in swimming even though they have their share of nice beaches.
Many other caves were explored on the trip but most went no further than the entrance chamber. Many of the caves had a bell shaped chamber at the base of an entrance shaft, the biggest being about 60m in length. By the end of the trip, the aim to look at leads off the main streamway in L. Jaran and explore the L. Ombo system (via L. Kerpon) had been accomplished. L. Suling had been the best find of the new caves.
An unexpected end to the trip was the request by Oktaf and Jack to sell our caving hardware for their university caving club. Apparently, buying caving gear by mail order isn’t viable and their only opportunity for getting their hands on equipment is when visiting cavers sell their gear to them. Their club of thirty were sharing two sets of caving gear that they had bought from a previous group. We sold $2000 worth of equipment, harnesses, descending and ascending equipment and helmets. The equipment, if in excellent condition was offered at a price for what it would cost us to replace it in Australia.
(by Carol Layton)----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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