In the south of the People’s Republic of China, on the border with Vietnam, lies the autonomous region of Guangxi. The region, considered one of the poorest provinces in the People’s Republic, is known for its rivers, steep karst formations and caves, countless of which are still waiting to be explored.
In 2016, initiated by Poh Chang Chew, an international team of cave divers teamed up to explore some of the unknown caves in this region. In the first year there were some hitbacks in the search for the caves, but also first “jewels” were discovered or explored, like for example the Red Army Cave, which was unfortunately preventively closed for divers afterwards by the authorities, because it supplies an entire region with drinking water. Over the next two years the core team including Poh, Max and Andrew progressed and in 2018, in the third edition of the UTD South China Karst Plain Project (SCKPP), the most promising sites were visited and selected in advance and the exact coordinates for the actual project were stored.
Then, in October 2018, an international team of 10 cave divers and 3 supporters meet in Nanning for the third edition of the SCKPP to work together for a week and explore the unknown.
The 2018 team is a colourful mix of divers: from 8 different countries, with experienced cave divers (since 1990), life experienced cave divers (who dared to first put their had underwater with over 50 years – years ago), youngsters and divers who can only imagine one day becoming cave divers.
The basic idea: it is known that there are caves in the vast area. Some promising places, where the local women wash their clothes that are supplied with clean water coming from a hole, are already known thanks to the preparatory work. Nobody knows, however, what lies behind: whether a line already exists or not, whether the caves are deep or long, etc.. This will now be explored and the results published so that the caves can be used by cave divers for practice, pleasure and training.
After the first day the common goals are defined, teams are formed and in a small “exploration course” with various mapping exercises for the less experienced participants or for refreshment for all others all are brought to a stand, the team is brought in a 50 seat bus, which is to be the second home for the week, out of the city to Wuming on the Chinese countryside. A 50-seater for a team of 13 may seem exaggerated at first glance – but it quickly becomes clear that the luggage compartment of the bus is hopelessly overloaded with the equipment and so in the course of the week an ever larger part of the seats will be filled with suitcases and dry suit bags and the regular seats will be olfactorily marked, i.e. hung with various underwear.
Hardly out of the big city, the first limestone cliffs are already visible from the bus window, hundreds of meters vertically towering, crossed by impressive green valleys and rivers, in addition small rice fields, which cover the banks. “As if we are in the middle of a picture of the Chinese restaurant in my neighbourhood”, Sergi describes the impressive scenery.
On the first day the “Wu Ming” cave, which was already dived in 2016, is on the plan at the special request of some participants. While a team is supposed to advance further, the new members of the team can check or complete the already collected data and gain their first mapping experience. The advance team is unfortunately not successful: in the two years since the first dive by the SCKPP team someone has taken over the leash and has penetrated further into the cave, so the divers can only dive an already moved leash.
Nevertheless, all the teams reappear enthusiastic about the cave and its peculiarities: Behind a massive bottleneck in the cave there is a magnificent room, decorated with stalagmites and stalactites, sinter falls and flags and everything glitters: quartz everywhere, in small, glittering tracks, but also thumb-sized crystals.
The support team was not idle in the meantime and the food prepared on site is already waiting under a tent roof – either served on a folding chair or directly into the water as desired. After having gained valuable experience during the dives, made minor mistakes, noticed and corrected them and collected more precise data, everyone feels well prepared for the exploration dives that will follow.
Next on the agenda is “Mama Pig” (a cave/washing place at the foot of the mountain “Mama Pig”), a cave of which nothing is known yet. During the preparation time the cave was partly dry and the preparation team was able to walk a few meters into it, remembering that it was easy to turn right. After the team bus has ventured between banana fields and low hanging power lines up to a small, murky fish pond, the journey continues on foot and on the muddy trail it shows who has packed good shoes, because the Chinese rubber boots in the big man size 40, which were purchased for emergencies, are completely unsuitable for American or European men’s feet.
So the first dive of the “Mama Pig” cave (this time hopefully the ‘right’ one) is on the agenda again. After the journey we continue on the loading area of the already known bottle transporter and another pickup and finally, after a short walk into the cave, two options open up, namely two pools separated by a rock wall. Since there are hardly two systems under the water surface, two advance teams are formed, team 3 should wait to see which team appears first – and measure the other (thus more promising) side. Surprisingly, however, neither team appears so soon and it becomes clear: they are actually two cave systems, probably only connected in the dry part! In the coming days both sides – the attentive reader already suspects it: “Mama Pig Left” and “Mama Pig Right” – will be measured and documented in detail.
The diving tanks, which are filled daily in a diving center four hours away by car, are also already on the way and are transported by a mixture of lawn mower, Aebi and pickup through the mud, in which the vehicle of course gets stuck several times and can only be freed again by complete unloading. Finally the diving day can be started with a little delay. Team 1 should push forward and lay a leash, which should then be measured by the following teams 2 and 3 in two dives. Team 2 has to abort the task and hand it over to team 3 (with UTD Z-system): a bottleneck after about 55 meters makes it impossible to get ahead with backmount. However, the team has discovered a turn-off, which it can connect and measure during another dive back to the mainline.
After all the divers have returned to the surface for the meeting, there is confusion: the cave, which according to the briefing and information from the vanguard would run to the right, clearly makes a strong bend to the left. After consulting photos and talking to local farmers, it is clear that this is not the originally planned “Mama Pig” cave. But since the mountain is definitely the same, a foot team is sent out to search: Besides some graves along the way, the search team finally finds the bricked up and broken cave entrance. Since this ‘second’ Mama-Pig cave turns out to be much bigger in the course of the week, the mistakenly dipped smaller cave is renamed into “Little Pig” without further ado.
The left Mama Pig cave passage turns out to be a very varied, shallow zigzag tunneling, junctions, dry spots with stalagmites, stalactites, curtains and various narrow spots in which one likes to get caught.
“My buddy is stuck with his hose in a narrow place and doesn’t come back or forward. I love UTD, teamwork, fast and efficient occurrence. Partner in the cave, emotions are shared after the dive over a beer. And above all safety: I for you and you for me. With one finger I loosen his hooked hose and he swims on, disappears in the dark on the other side.”Sergi Perez Garcia
The divers of Mama Pig on the right, on the other hand, tell of a huge, steeply sloping room with many clay pots, which after a smaller narrow on the other side again rises steeply. And by many clay pots they mean: many clay pots! With more exact measuring can be identified in the 11m x 3m big, completely with broken clay pots covered field beside 7 still intact pots and some boards (which were probably used as platform or shelf for the clay pots) also still another 125er Honda in many individual parts. By chance, the clay pots can be assigned even more precisely in the course of the week: in the oversized foyer of the team hotel there is a small exhibition of local, traditional objects. Among other things, a clay pot of the same construction was used to store salted vegetables according to the exhibition inscription.
Another low-lying cave entrance is to be explored by a Trimix team, but unfortunately this part of the project has to be cancelled or postponed because the poor visibility does not allow for purposeful diving: a possible first part of SCKPP 2019?
Besides great dives and challenging caves, this week was marked by exciting cultural experiences in a completely different world:
Already on the first day an overwhelming number of different film and photo gadgets (from iPhone zoom lens attachments over Steadycam-like hand holders to 360° cameras in various designs) showed up, so even the last participant definitely knew that he had landed in China!
There was never a dog and cat to eat (probably) – but the participants were definitely spoiled with the food: After one of the dives there was already a barbecued suckling pig waiting for the divers, in the evening there was regularly a hotpot with various known and unknown ingredients which were professionally tasted under Chinese guidance (not by all) and in most cases found to be good, or, if it was later than 9 p.m. and the restaurants had already closed, sometimes a whole hotel trolley load full of original Chinese delivery service. The eating with chopsticks became a habit and turned out to be very practical when standing in the middle of the jungle.
In the country it was to be expected, but even in the big city of Nanning (according to Chinese data a small town with only 6.37 million inhabitants that is not worthy of note), hardly any Chinese speaks English and even the most rudimentary task like getting food (no matter what!) or ordering a taxi becomes a huge challenge if you don’t have a translator with you. At least in the hotels the headlines were translated in English, which led partly to the fact that the guest, who was not able to speak Mandarin, only understood that he should remember the following: ….)
The hotel in Wuming actually wanted to charge for the originally bright white towels that some (Chinese) team members had used to clean the muddy diving equipment. Since this did not correspond to the Chinese service, which the organization team usually expected, it was already decided that this hotel would not be visited in the future. Of course you can see it that way.
The expedition showed all participants that as a team they can do intensive and complex work, with different backgrounds, missions and goals, coordinated and in a fraternal atmosphere. The same education, intensive training and standardization of protocols and configuration have made it possible for everyone to fit in as well with a complex expedition as this one, where the language was a difficulty but not the diver’s soul.
Team 2018: Andrew Georgitsis (USA), Lendar Chew (Singapore), Max Wang (Taiwan), Jason Park (South Korea), Sergi Perez Garcia (Spain), Adrian Sparta (Poland/Finland), Zbigniew Tomasz Prokop (Poland/Finland), Simone Nägele (Austria/Spain), Kace Wong (Singapore), Adam Lim (Singapore), Kiven Zhang (China), Jackie Yu (China) and Yang Li (China)