Magazine

A caver's sojourn

Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly: Passion for caves.  

His friends having backed off in fear; the boy from Shillong, on a picnic at Cherrapunji, gazed unhappily at the beckoning cave. Just then two local youngsters turned up offering to guide. The trio walked the entire length of the cave and exited through a small shaft to the other side. The boy finished schooling, graduated from the local college and became an employee of the State Bank of Mysore (SBM) in Karnataka.

Aching to be home, he first secured a transfer to Kolkata and, then, a relieving order. Back in Shillong, he became CEO of a local bank facing difficulty. Today the Shillong Co-operative Urban Bank is in good shape and Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly, 63, enjoys extended tenure. It may seem SBM again, but then Shillong is home.

Looking for adventure

In the early 1990s, when Brian scouted for adventure, he remembered Meghalaya's caves. He became founder-secretary of the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA). Shortly after they began exploration, a team of foreigners came looking for caves. Since caves are sculpted on rock by water, tracking the worldwide distribution of suitable minerals helps locate cave-rich zones. Limestone is a fantastic cave-building medium. Deposits of soluble rock are called karst and, in rain-soaked Meghalaya, karst existed at the state's southern portion, in an east-west line. The British team included eminent cavers. The MAA tied up with them and joint expeditions to explore the caves of Meghalaya began in right earnest. The results amazed. Deep under Meghalaya were subterranean passages; rivers, ponds and vast chambers. Some 1200 caves have been reported, around 800 explored and roughly 360 kilometres of cave passages have been mapped, including India's longest cave: Krem Liat Prah-Um Im-Labit System estimated to be 31 kilometres. Meghalaya also has the country's deepest cave. In 2004, Brian was awarded the Tenzing Norgay National Award for Adventure in the land category. The exploration is continuing and the Indian Army and the Navy have links with MAA for expeditions.

Caving isn't one activity but a convergence of many; there is the adventure, the science, the mapping, the planning, the skills and, finally, the philosophy and literature it inspires. Brian has authored articles on the subject including a book on Meghalaya's caves published by the state government. One of his essays was included as chapter for study in the state's Class XII syllabus. He has a novel coming up and he writes poetry.

Anxious moments

There were anxious moments. Once, Brian was injured by falling rock in a vertical shaft. Some caves don't have horizontal entrances; they have a shaft plunging into them. Shafts can be deep; India's deepest at Krem Shrieh in Meghalaya is 97 metres (320 feet), several times longer than a single rope length and therefore requiring ‘pitches' as in rock climbing. Lowering yourself can be tricky because shafts typically have narrow mouth and wider bottom. A rope anchored at the top progressively stays off the side leaving the abseiling caver dangling on rope in a growing void. On another occasion, in a cave with multiple entrances, cavers entering through different passages met at a point. There, an experienced woman caver decided she wasn't feeling well and retraced her steps. Somewhere she got lost in the labyrinth of passage ways. Her absence was noticed only after everyone had exited. After several hours, she was located sitting crouched to preserve body heat. Her headlamp was broken; the consequence of a fall. “Hypothermia is a real danger in caves,” Brian said.

While the lay individual may presume that cavers go in leaving physical traces to identify the trail back, that isn't always the case. “I advise people to periodically look back and remember cave features for navigation because entry and exit points in subterranean chambers appear different when the direction changes,” Brian said. It is also important to never break team (there may be several independent teams exploring different parts of a cave, but each team should stick together) and systematically map the passage so that the data for navigation is available right there. A typical cave survey kit would have nyloflex tape measure, compass, clinometer (for measuring gradient), plastic-coated cave survey book, pencil and GPS. Back at camp, a day's survey data is processed with specialised software to generate a detailed map. This work has now been rendered easier by the Disto-X, a device that measures distance, direction and inclination at one stroke. It can be linked to the cartographer's PDA inside the cave itself, to make a detailed map. Interestingly, the cave explorer's credo is not to retreat but proceed with the faith that several entrances and exits exist. For Brian, it is like a spiritual quest. A vast underground chamber glistening with cave pearls (sand particles covered in calcium carbonate) is like an audience with God.

Besides his passion for caves, Brian makes one of the best homemade wines in Shillong. Interestingly, here too, he learned the ropes late, worked systematically at improving his craft and took the art to a superior level. That cave in Cherrapunji was long ago. But it seems to have shaped his attitude: a curiosity; a journey, a perfection.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 7:19:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/A-cavers-sojourn/article15973501.ece

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