Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another day, another drip

by Kim Cobb
We’re back! Well, that is, we’re back from a week at Camp 5, the rustic outpost about 20km from Mulu Park headquarters. After a 45min boat ride upriver, we hiked the last 8km carrying a week’s worth of food and scientific equipment, and 2-3 day’s worth of clothing. Camp 5 provides a roof, some gas burners, freshwater (even cold showers!), and mosquito nets, so provisioning is relatively easy. My undergraduate research assistant, Eleanor Middlemas, and I had just stepped off the last of 5 planes on our 70-hr trip from Atlanta to Mulu that very morning, eager to get going. Sang, a new graduate student at U. Michigan, had met us at the Miri airport, fresh from a 3-day battle in Hong Kong for a Malaysian visa.
We arrived at Camp 5 very worse for the wear, in the midst of a true Mulu-style downpour, happy for the jungle oasis. The rest of our group, comprised of graduate students Stacy Carolin and Jessica Moerman and undergraduate Danja Mewes, had been caving with long-time collaborators and guide-extraordinaires Jenny Malang and Syria Lejau that day. They arrived mud-coated and exhausted, but full of stories from Whiterock Cave, our primary target for the Camp 5 research. The next day, we hit the trail at 7:30am after some wonderful Nescafe 3-in-1, and reached the Whiterock entrance after 2 hours of hiking and 4 stream-crossings. Once inside we went to work collecting dripwaters from the stalagmites we had cored on the 2010 expedition. Jessica, Syria, and I pushed farther into the cave, finding an incredible chamber full of HUGE stalagmites (some no thinner than my arm but more than 20’ tall). The British cavers who first explored Whiterock had given us their maps for this expedition (map? who needs maps anyhow?!?) had named this chamber the “Nightwatchmen” for the carbonate sentinels watching over us. There were many broken stalagmites strewn across the floor, most of them too large for us to pack out. We took some hand samples for dating, mostly out of curiosity. My lab’s work on climate reconstruction is focused on the very recent geologic past – the farthest back in time we go is 140,000 years. While heading back through the sticky mud that coats the cave floor, the sole of my shoe came unglued!! and I had to use my shoelaces to try to lash it on as I limped back to the rest of the group. Jenny did some emergency duct-taping upon our arrival, which worked great. We rounded up the rest of the crew and headed out. I’m not going to lie, it was a miserable trip back – over 2.5 hours of limping through the jungle (most of us had developed some pretty good blisters by now) to arrive at Camp 5 after dark. Syria’s birthday dinner was a welcome distraction from our aching bodies.
The next morning we tackled Cobweb Cave – a comparatively easy hike in but a dismal cave to navigate, full of huge break-down boulders the size of a house, and full of disorienting twists and turns. A few years ago some nestors (locals who poach cave swift nests to sell for the equivalent of ~$2-3 each – a small fortune around here) had gotten lost in Cobweb for 3 days. When they found them they had already laid down in the graves that they had dug for themselves. Yikes. Luckily we had not one but two expert cave guides with us, but it is even more important to stick together while doing our research activities in a cave like Cobweb. After a relatively easy day at Cobweb (we do not explore past a certain point, because we need ropes to traverse a huge 50-ft hole in the floor), we arrived back at Camp 5 to see that my brother Niko had arrived. When he hadn’t arrived at Mulu with us, we had assumed that he wasn’t able to make it after all. We all took a swim and gave our bodies a rest, in preparation for a long day at Whiterock the following day.
Our last caving day was a full one indeed. Niko took some great footage of the scientific operations (see the video!), so we’re excited to get back and become YouTube sensations.  ;)   We celebrated Stacy’s birthday back at Camp 5 with a blow-out dinner complete with pineapple curry, green mango sauce, chicken curry, and a Dutch pineapple dessert. It was a jungle-sourced extravaganza that none of us will ever forget. 
We slept in yesterday, before hiking out of Camp 5 back to Park Headquarters. Two porters carried about 150 lbs of rocks out – I have no idea how – and we left all of our extra food, including about 100 Cliff bars, so our packs were light, if our hearts were heavy. Leaving a place like Camp 5 isn’t easy, even if you are heading towards hot showers and cold beers in the near future, and loved ones in the not-too-distant future. Back at Headquarters, I am grateful for a safe trip to the remote caves at Camp 5, and for the extremely hard work that everyone did towards accomplishing the lab’s scientific goals. We sure have our work cut out for us over the next years! Jessica, Stacy, and Danja will be staying at Mulu for another 10 days, while Eleanor, Sang, and I will be jetting back to States to complete our busy semesters. Class?!? What’s that?