Trip Report - Cave Exploration Fengshan China - April 2008

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by Jason Caldwell

In early 2007, through the Cave Divers Association of Australia, I met a Chinese Australian cave diver named Dave Deng. Dave and I did a few trips to Mount Gambier together and shared a few laughs along the way. Dave did all of his cave diving training in Australia with the intention of returning to China in the future and opening a cave diving business. Forward on six months.... The time came for Dave to depart for China and I shared a lovely traditional Chinese meal that David and his girlfriend prepared for half a dozen of his closest friends that he had met during his 10 years in Australia. David and I kept in touch over the next few months, and then one day he sent me an email telling me that he had found some caves to explore and secured some government funding to get some team members over for the exploration. Steve Trewavas is our logistics man, so I asked him to invite the best people he could find for this project. Joining us was Gideon Lew from Singapore and Andrew Cronan from Sydney. Gideon's reputation proceeded him as he had been involved in WKPP (Woodville Karst Plains Project) projects in the past and is a well respected and capable GUE Tech Instructor. Andrew is well respected for his underwater video skills and is GUE Tech and Cave rated. Over the next two months the team put together the resources that were needed for this trip to be successful. David had been able to organise twin manifolded 80 cu ft tanks and the team bought the rest. We were to meet Gideon and Andrew in China, with Steve and I leaving from Melbourne. We took lots of spares and photographic/video equipment that all added to our ever growing baggage weight. Steve and I left Melbourne airport for Guangzhou China some 120 kilos over the excess baggage limit! Fortunately Qantas were understanding and charged us minimally - that was our one get out of jail free card - well $200 between us. We touched down in Guangzhou international airport and caught another internal flight to Nanning in Southern China. We met up with Gideon in Nanning and met Julia a Chinese dry caving expert, who had dressed in traditional Chinese period dress to welcome us. A 170 kilometre an hour taxi ride in an old Toyota Corolla with our Chinese Michael Schumacher got us quickly to our hotel in Nanning. We arrived at 1am, so it was time to put our bags away and head out for coffee with Julia, Cobra and Dave Deng. The next morning we boarded a medium sized bus and our road journey to Fengshan began. We had traveled all day in the bus and most of the night, our destination hotel was the Hotel Fengshan. I have a whole new respect for Chinese drivers after seeing some of the chaos and crazy overtaking moves that were made on our journey but fortunately we arrived without incident. Phew!!! We were met in the morning by a the Town Mayor, the Minister of Tourism and a large contingent of television and magazine journalists.

Dive Day One

After traveling for two days to get to Fengshan, we were lucky to now have a very short journey to our first dive site in China. The site was made up of two sinkholes, one relatively clear and the other quite murky. The team split into two teams, Andrew and Dave to dive and video the clear sinkhole and I teamed up with a local Chinese GUE trained diver Justin Wong to dive the murky one. The objective was to see if the two sinkholes were linked in any way and if there was a reason that one was murky and the other clear. Andrew and Dave conducted some soil, silt and water samples, while Justin and I did our best to stay together and find a fissure of some type. It was concluded that the sinkholes were fed separately and no link was found between the two. No easily measurable flow was found to be present in either site. Discussions that evening led Steve away to look at another site in the side of a mountain. It was a fissure that had to be climbed with ropes to a small ledge and then there was a 50 metre drop inside the cave to another ledge and then another 20 metre drop to the water. It was concluded that it was not possible to dive this site as there was no safe access. On hearing this, the Major had the local people immediately construct an access ladder and two pontoons to support the dive team.

Dive Day Two

After two days, the local people had finished the access ladder and pontoons. Andrew and Gideon were joined by Dave Deng and a host of journalists to dive this amazingly difficult to get to site. We were very fortunate to be joined on this day by French dry caving expert Jean Botazzi. Steve and I provided surface support for this dive. The team entered the cave at around 10.30am and didn't get back out until 11.30pm. One dive was conducted and it was confirmed that the site was a single fissure going into the mountain interior for about 200 metres. I was amazed at how well mobile phones worked inside this mountain! I think the journalists, the cameramen and the divers were happy to see the outside of the cave once everyone was out safely. It would have to be the single most dangerous cave entry that I have ever witnessed.

Dive Day Three

We were taken a half hour drive to San Men Hei near Fengshan. San Men Hei roughly translates to Three Door Sea and is a series of magnificently coloured sinkholes (Chinese terms these as "windows"). There is about eight of these windows in total, the first three are joined together by large fissures in the rock face and can be got to by small flat bottomed pontoons. This is a tourist attraction and boat load after boat load of Chinese tourists were visiting the sites on the days we were there. Our objective was to find the underwater connection between window three and window four. The team and our ever growing contingent of journalists hired several of these pontoon boats to ferry ourselves and our equipment to window three. Steve and Gideon were team one and Andrew, Dave and myself were team two. Steve and Gideon were able to find the link immediately and laid cave line to mark the 60m of underwater passage. Andrew, Dave and I then followed and took mapping co-ordinates and tie off point data to provide back to Jean Botazzi who was doing the mapping as an ongoing project. A press conference was held later that evening and both government officials and locals were very excited with the days findings.

Dive Day Four

After the previous days success, we continued to focus on San Men Hei for the remainder of our trip with the exception of the odd reconnaissance trip to another potential site or two. The next objective was to find the underwater link from window four to window five. Visibility at San Men Hei was around four to five metres at best, the water had a distinct milkyness to it that we can only summise was caused by minerals and limestone present in the surroundings. We continued to work as groups of two or three, with Steve and I doing a circumnavigation of window four at depth. We were limited by our Nitrox 32 breathing gas to a maximum depth of 30 metres, so we simply tried to gain an understanding of what the underwater topology was like. Angles were steep, walls were soft, visibility was poor, it was very dark and our bubbles were causing percolation of the soft roof area resulting in a constant falling of cave particulate on us - rather like raining chalk. It was concluded that we would need to return to this site at a future time with Trimix to continue the exploration of San Men Hei window four.

From then till now

2010 San Men Hei has now become an international GUE project. Diving Tactics team members have been joined by Jarrod Jablonski, David Rhea, Casey McKinlay and Christophe LeMaillot to name a few, with the guys now finding the link between windows four and five. GUE teams used the RB80 rebreathers and trimix to enable extended bottom times and find the connection. GUE now have equipment and rebreathers stored permanently in Fengshan for the continuation of the San Men Hei mapping project.


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