Wednesday 29 October

I have made up my mind to do the caving, possibly against my better judgement. We all take the boat upriver to Wind Cave, a large cavern with pillar-like stalagmites throughout, but especially in the central area where the floor rises up. A public walkway circles around, and it is here that the five of us, plus Alfonzo, a trainee guide, and our ranger guide leave the rest of the group.

(magnify) Connection from Wind Cave to Clear Water Cave

Togged up in our overalls it is at least as hot as yesterday. We watch as two others go off into the darkness with their guide, and then, having given them a few minutes to get well ahead of us, we descend from the concrete pathway into the darkness beyond. The lights disappear behind us as we half scramble, half slide down a muddy bank. We pass through a series of caverns and tunnels, and stop for a brief rest on a wide straight ledge below a wall curving around above us, curiously reminiscent of a platform on the London Underground.

(magnify) Intrepid cavers
(magnify) Helen on the ropes

There is much sliding and scrambling, and few places where we can walk rapidly. There are ropes to help us up or down particularly tricky sections, and we have three squeezes to negotiate. The second is down and diagonally across a deep fissure, but is much worse to contemplate than to actually do. I can’t see my feet though and rely on Rob below to guide me. He obliges by tugging enthusiastically on my foot towards the proper foothold. A little too enthusiastically, I feel, as my fingernails scrape down the rock.

We laugh a lot, but it’s also quite hard going and I’m more than ready for lunch when we make the stop. Opening our Tupperware containers we are greeted with a splendid aroma of stir-fried chicken and rice. Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered what it was.

We pause briefly to play tunes on the musical stalactites – the different sizes produce quiet haunting chimes of various pitches when struck gently, almost like a gamelan.

(magnify) First river crossing Rob wading along river edge Following the river bank

It is quite late by the time we have completed the third squeeze and made it to the river. The river is somewhat bigger than we had been prepared for, and something tells us that it is also perhaps a little bit fuller than our guide was expecting. Perhaps it was the way he almost disappeared from view half way across.

None of us are too keen on getting our boots full of water, so in spite of limestone that has in places eroded into what looks like a honeycomb of broken glass bottles, we switch to sandals and stow our boots safely in our rucksacks. We then gingerly step forward into the river. It is fairly deep, but the current is not too strong and the bottom is flat and smooth, and we reach the other side without incident. We then make our way downriver, sometimes scrambling along the waterline, sometimes crossing from one side to the other.

Each time we cross, the current seems to get stronger and the tug on my overalls more insistent. There are ropes to help us, and on the penultimate crossing, I am swept off my feet by the current and left clinging to the rope, which I can feel stretching. There is nothing I can do except inch my hands along the rope until I am into less violent water. I wonder if the camera in my rucksack is staying dry.

Exhausted, we arrive at the limit of a public walkway and glimpse daylight ahead – Clear Water Cave. We have made the connection! We ascend the steps. Outside it is raining, and the light filtered through the luxuriant jungle flora is hazy and green.

There’s a spot of engine trouble on the boat that takes us back to the park entrance, and at one point we wonder if the boatman is having a joke at our expense to pay us back for keeping him waiting so late, or alternatively whether we are going to arrive at all!

Back at the lodge, I discover that my rucksack has done a very creditable job of keeping things reasonably dry, despite a complete dunking, but my passport (which I had forgotten was in there) plus a few bank notes are very soggy. Dominique recommends loo paper between the pages.

The after dinner briefing is somewhat tortuous. There are endless questions and clarifications sought concerning the forthcoming jungle experience. Some of the group are evidently nervous about what exactly the climb to the pinnacles in particular will entail. And we are to leave most of our kit to be sent on ahead to Limbang, which allows plenty of scope for lively discussion.

More entertainment is provided later with a blow-pipe competition. Chris has marked a target out on a cardboard box, and we fire darts into it from the other side of the room. Martin seems to have mastered the knack of dual-loading – firing two darts in quick succession – but refuses to divulge the secret of his technique.