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Beneath the Cloud Forests

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A review by Chris Howes
Descent (174), Oct/Nov 2003
Pick up Howard Becks book – that’s the Howard Beck who wrote Gaping
Gill. 150 years of exploration – and the sheer quality of it will impress
you. The paper quality, the print quality, the reproduction… This is a fine
volume indeed, as is to be expected from its publisher, Speleo Projects, let
alone Howard as an experienced researcher and author. No doubt you will flick
through the photographs, spotting the extensive colour spreads in eight groups,
and perhaps begin to read. That’s it; if you have any interest in the lure of
the unknown and expedition caving at the extreme margins where any error is a
serious one, you’re hooked.
Beneath the Cloud Forests is the history of exploration in the caves of Papua New Guinea.
In it, Howard has not attempted to cover every expedition and its
highlights and failures; rather, he concentrates on the shift from deep cave
exploration as being the preserve of the French, to the quest to find the
deepest cave in the world on the other side of the globe. Here, then, are the
landmark discoveries and human disappointments, told as a history of pioneering
accomplishments against the backdrop of dense forests, roaring rivers and the
mysteries of soaring mountains.
Older cavers will remember PNG names with awe
from early reports in Descent, such as Selminum Tem, Atea Kananda, and
the boiling waters of the Nare. More recent converts to our sport–you are set
for a treat as you learn for the first time what it was like to tackle some of
the hardest caves on the world. Do not expect a dry retelling of facts and
figures; rather, begin with Fernand Petzl’s descent of the Gouffre Berger in
France and the subsequent drive to pass beyond 1,000m depth, and how this
helped fuel British motives to seek fortunes further afield.. It was part of a
diverse, burgeoning interest in hunting out the caves of PNG.

Even if you have heard of places such as the Nare’s
Apocalypes Now, and recall how this monstrous rapid waited to lure cavers into
its depths, it is the detail of how it was found and the attempts to pass it
that will fascinate any caver. Grappling iron launcher to the fore…bolting
across the ceiling…and that was only the beginnings of ‘unusual’ approaches
(and where else might you inspect a cave entrance using a helicopter?). In
Muruk, experience the effort it took to rig 2.1 km of rope to reach the then
terminal sump at -637m – and dive it to stroll down wide river passages. Muruk
eventually connected with the Bérénice system, which produces a through-trip
and took it to 1,1,78m deep – the first system in the southern hemisphere to
attain the goal that the early explorers had dreamed of: the magic 1,000m did
indeed exist in Papua New Guinea.
Along the way, Mamo Kananda was taken to 54.8 km.
Is the book perfect? No, but what is? Spotting a number of typographical or
layup errors, or ‘incorrect’ words (such as ‘sight‘ for ‘site’), is relatively
easy, and some of the maps lack enough detail to enable a good link with the
text, but this does not detract from offering Howard congratulations on taking
up the challenge to research and write a superb tale of endeavour.


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