The Land Be­fore Time

The limes tone caves of In­done­sia’s West Ti­mor are com­posed of mil­lions of tiny sea crea­tures that lived eons ago

Sport Diver - - Contents - TEXT AND PHO­TOS BY LIZ ROGERS

When ex­plor­ing un­known caves in the jun­gles of In­done­sia’s West Ti­mor, you need pa­tience — and a bit of luck.

It­feels more like a show-and-tell at grade school than gear­ing up for a cave dive. Fif­teen cu­ri­ous young­sters have gath­ered to watch me pre­pare to en­ter the West Ti­mor cave known as Goa Oe­hani. The trans­la­tor and guide passes me two side-mount tanks, fins, a mask, a hel­met with pri­mary light, and my huge cam­era rig. As I at­tach my cave-div­ing reel to my side-mount har­ness, the kids are watch­ing in­tently, ex­cept for one small boy who takes a run­ning jump to splash into the other end of the pool. With a quick wave good­bye to my spec­ta­tors, I duck un­der the sur­face and fol­low a trail of laun­dry de­ter­gent pack­ets and pieces of dis­carded cloth­ing down the rocky slope. The en­trance pool leads un­der a few boul­ders and down to a nar­row re­stric­tion at about 20 feet deep. With a shake to set­tle my side mounts, I squeeze through and into the pas­sage be­yond. My dive light scans across chalky-white walls fram­ing a deep-blue tun­nel dis­ap­pear­ing into the dis­tance. Af­ter days of stalk­ing the area and find­ing noth­ing but dead ends, Goa Oe­hani goes!

Ex­ploratory cave div­ing is an ab­sorb­ing hobby, and find­ing div­able wa­ter is the last step in a very long process. Sto­ries told by cave divers of rolling out mile af­ter mile of new tun­nel are only the tip of the ice­berg — un­der­pin­ning that suc­cess is of­ten years of plan­ning, ef­fort and usu­ally sev­eral failed at­tempts.

A few years ago, while study­ing a small map that de­picted the dis­tri­bu­tion of lime­stone across the globe — most of the world’s caves are formed in por­ous lime­stone — I no­ticed a bright spot in In­done­sia. That was in­trigu­ing; I was un­der the im­pres­sion that the is­lands of In­done­sia were mostly vol­canic and un­likely to host caves. In­done­sia is close to my home in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, and much eas­ier to get to than fly­ing half­way around the world to dive in Europe or the Amer­i­cas. By that point I had dived the com­mon — and some very un­com­mon — cave­div­ing spots in Aus­tralia. My lat­est lo­cal project, a cave called Elk River in Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralia, in­volved long muddy crawls and cold wa­ter. Trop­i­cal des­ti­na­tions with un­ex­plored un­der­wa­ter caves sounded very tempt­ing.

My on­line re­search led me to the lo­cal reef- div­ing out­fit, Dive Ku­pang Dive. Oc­ca­sion­ally, it took divers to an in­land swim­ming hole. The wa­ter was said to be crys­tal- clear, and the swim­ming hole con­tin­ued into a tun­nel un­der­neath the rock. The sin­gle photo on­line was dark but clear enough to see the cave struc­ture. It was time to plan a re­con­nais­sance trip to the is­land of Ti­mor, which lies at the east­ern end of In­done­sia’s Lesser Sunda Is­lands.

2013: Vir­gin Goa

The first trip to West Ti­mor in Septem­ber 2013 was hot, ex­haust­ing and 80 per­cent un­suc­cess­ful. Sup­ported by Dive Ku­pang Dive, we dived the swim­ming-hole cave on the first

day. Af­ter de­light­ing in wa­ter as clear as Tan­queray gin, an in­spec­tion of the air cham­ber at the end of the short un­der­wa­ter tun­nel didn’t look promis­ing for fur­ther tun­nels. We needed an­other en­trance, and the hunt was on.

We spent a week be­ing driven around on bumpy dirt roads through the dry, scrubby land­scape, in­spect­ing po­ten­tial caves that were tiny, com­pletely dry or more ru­mor than re­al­ity.

Over the course of the trip we checked close to 80 prospects, mak­ing ex­ploratory swims. We fi­nally re­turned to one pool that we iden­ti­fied at the start of the week as hav­ing some po­ten­tial — the lo­cal laun­dry spot near the vil­lage of Oe­hani. The wa­ter’s edge of Goa Oe­hani ( goa trans­lates to “cave” in In­done­sia’s Ba­hasa lan­guage) was lit­tered with sin­gle-use de­ter­gent pack­ets and dis­carded clothes. Sur­rounded by vil­lage kids, we made the last dive of the trip. Eight hours later, we emerged from the wa­ter, tri­umphant af­ter swim­ming down half a mile of huge blue pas­sage and cross­ing two large air cham­bers. The bait had been set, and I was com­pletely hooked on Ti­morese ex­plo­ration.

In 2014, I re­turned with a larger team, and again in 2015 and 2016. On these four ex­pe­di­tions, the ge­ol­ogy of Ti­mor has slowly given up its se­crets to us. The on­go­ing hard work to ex­plore the caves has been re­warded with huge tun­nels and del­i­cate cave for­ma­tions never seen by an­other per­son.

2014: Umbu’s Shaft

The lime­stone in Ti­mor is young and soft. Usu­ally, lime­stone is com­posed of mil­lions of tiny sea crea­tures from eons ago. Their skele­tons on the seabed have com­pressed into rock. In Ti­mor, they’re not very com­pressed. As we swam through tun­nels it was pos­si­ble to see brain corals, oys­ters and other shell­fish

for­ma­tions in the walls. The salt wa­ter from the Ti­mor Sea per­me­ates through the bedrock. Salt wa­ter is denser than fresh, so the sea­wa­ter sits un­der the fresh­wa­ter layer. Over mil­lions of years, the mix of these two lay­ers started a re­ac­tion that dis­solved the lime­stone and cre­ated caves.

The down­side of soft lime­stone is that large tun­nels of­ten lead to large rock piles that com­pletely block for­ward progress. Nowhere was this more ev­i­dent than in a cave dis­cov­ered by Umbu, our trans­la­tor. Umbu nor­mally works as a di­ve­mas­ter for Dive Ku­pang Dive, and his English is ex­cel­lent. Lack­ing for­mal cave-div­ing train­ing meant he was un­able to join us in the wa­ter, but his en­thu­si­asm was chan­neled into a fu­ri­ous hunt for good div­ing prospects for our team.

The en­trance to Umbu’s Shaft is a small bore­hole in a lo­cal fam­ily’s back­yard. Dis­cov­er­ing it on our sec­ond trip in the same area as Goa Oe­hani, our eight-mem­ber team im­me­di­ately con­sid­ered it an ex­cel­lent prospect. Un­like other large rock-pile- col­lapse en­trances we were able to walk down into, we needed rope lad­ders and climb­ing gear to ac­cess the main cham­ber. Cre­at­ing an im­pro­vised rope lad­der out of lo­cally avail­able ma­rine rope and lengths of elec­tri­cal con­duit took most of an evening, but we suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing some­thing that al­lowed us to ex­plore.

The small open­ing to the out­side world meant that the cham­ber be­low was like a sauna — an op­pres­sive 104 de­grees, with 100 per­cent hu­mid­ity and not a whis­per of air move­ment.

The main cham­ber of Umbu’s Shaft has two pools on op­po­site sides. We dived the large pool first, and it re­vealed hun­dreds of feet of tun­nel. The pas­sage started off large and grad­u­ally re­duced in size be­fore pinch­ing out.

2015: Push­ing the Bound­ary

When we re­turned the fol­low­ing year, we turned our at­ten­tion to the tiny pool of wa­ter on the other side of Umbu’s main cham­ber. The tide was at full flow, and sit­ting by the side of the pool re­vealed wa­ter move­ment through the rocks. This seemed promis­ing — the wa­ter must have been trav­el­ing through open space be­hind the fallen rocks to achieve that kind of flow.

We care­fully moved a large floor boul­der, which cre­ated a diver-size hole un­der­neath. We drew straws to see who would dive first. Tim Mus­cat geared up, with the rest of us watch­ing in the sti­fling heat. Wait­ing for a dive buddy to re­turn from the ini­tial ex­ploratory dive is al­ways nerve-rack­ing. There’s a chance they’ll be back im­me­di­ately, hav­ing found that the en­trance doesn’t lead any­where. But as time drags on, it be­comes more likely that they are push­ing out into new ter­ri­tory. A lit­tle while af­ter that I start to get ner­vous … un­til bub­bles echo up the wall and the beam from a dive light can be seen.

In this case, the small pool led Tim a short dis­tance, only about 30 feet long and 3 feet deep. His re­turn was de­layed be­cause he re­moved his tanks and in­ves­ti­gated the air cham­ber on the far side. He re­ported that the exit pool had large boul­ders block­ing the view but a short climb up through them re­vealed a huge air cham­ber — and two tempt­ing blue pools.

Ti­mor was liv­ing up to its rep­u­ta­tion for rock piles, but un­like so many oth­ers that com­pletely blocked our way, Umbu’s

Shaft gave us a path­way through. All of us — Steve Fordyce, Dave Bardi, Sandy Varin, Ryan Kaczkowski, Michelle Doolan, Craig How­ell and me — geared up for a two-minute dive through and into the sec­ond air cham­ber.

This sec­ond air cham­ber had no di­rect ac­cess to the sur­face and had a saunalike feel­ing sim­i­lar to the first. Sher­pa­like, we hauled our dive gear down the rope, across the main cham­ber, through the short dive and across the sec­ond air cham­ber, and drew straws again. Tim and Michelle were gone for nearly an hour, ex­plor­ing the big­gest pool yet. They re­turned tri­umphant with an empty reel. It seemed like we had fi­nally cracked into the mother lode of West Ti­mor’s cave div­ing.

We re­turned the fol­low­ing day to fol­low up on our suc­cess in the first pool, hop­ing for clear wa­ter in the sec­ond. It was fi­nally my turn to dive. I dropped down the rope, across the cham­ber, through the short dive and across the sec­ond cham­ber, with cam­era and hous­ing in tow, to the tanks and regs we had staged the day be­fore. I dropped into wa­ter that was still slightly milky from yes­ter­day’s ex­plo­ration.

We fol­lowed the line laid the day be­fore and tied a new reel into the end of it, with a big pas­sage beck­on­ing us on. The tun­nel was more than 60 feet across and still go­ing strong. But amaz­ing highs were fol­lowed by dev­as­tat­ing dis­ap­point­ment. A short dis­tance later, we swam up a huge boul­der pile and sur­faced in yet an­other air cham­ber. This third cham­ber fea­tured a steep wall of mas­sive rocks head­ing up from the wa­ter. It was dif­fi­cult to climb out, and there was lit­tle room to move around up on top. The tun­nel for­ward was blocked.

While await­ing our re­turn, Dave and Sandy checked the sec­ond pool of the sec­ond air cham­ber. They headed down the steep rock slope to­ward it, the first peo­ple ever to step there. As they moved, small rocks and rub­ble rolled down ahead of them and dropped into the wa­ter. It was enough to change the stun­ning blue pool to milky white and de­stroy the vis­i­bil­ity, along with any chance of find­ing an un­der­wa­ter tun­nel en­trance be­low.

With both ways tem­po­rar­ily blocked, we were out of time to wait for the wa­ter to clear up. On that last div­ing day in 2015, we clam­bered out of Umbu’s Shaft late at night, al­ready re­fin­ing the list of ob­jec­tives for the next trip.

2016: Into the Un­known

In 2016 we re­turned to West Ti­mor and Umbu’s Shaft. The pri­mary ob­jec­tive: ac­cess the pool at the bot­tom of the rub­ble slope, with­out dis­turb­ing the viz. That mis­sion was ac­com­plished, and the cave quickly gave up a reel’s worth of that fa­mil­iar big blue tun­nel along with the ec­static joy of ex­plo­ration. Once again I was able to take pho­tos of divers reel­ing out into the un­known as we swam into places no per­son had seen be­fore.

Ex­plor­ing the Ti­morese caves taught me a great deal about per­sis­tence and pa­tience. Check­ing prospect af­ter prospect with­out be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned re­warded me with the best dives of my life. Each year, we mapped the caves of West Ti­mor, spi­dery lines in­di­cat­ing the sub­ter­ranean maze, and un­rolled more knot­ted string into never-be­fore-seen tun­nels. While these caves were dif­fi­cult to find, chal­leng­ing to ac­cess and hard to pho­to­graph, the ef­fort truly paid off.

From left: The ocean also of­fers en­trance to caves in Ti­mor; Ryan Kaczkowski takes notes in Umbu’s Shaft.

From left: The au­thor; team mem­bers suit up in a prospec­tive cave en­trance; a tank is low­ered from the sur­face.

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