OUCC Proceedings 11 (1983)

Borneo 1983 - what really happened

OUCC Proceedings 11 Contents

OUCC Proceedings Index

OUCC Home Page

Richard Gregson

The Team

It was a wet Saturday afternoon in Oxford when the team met for the first time; Houghton was late, as he had overslept, suffering from some kind of viral meningitis. When he did arrive it was all he could do to sit on a chair and moan. Laverty's slides of the area in Borneo showed steep limestone hills and jungle covering everything. It looked impenetrable. Shewell said it didn't look very hot; rather rainy and cloudy. He said if he didn't get a decent tan his girlfriend would kill him. Laverty paused, and then showed some more slides of brown natives hacking down the jungle. Ankcorn said that the jungle didn't look very pleasant and the natives looked quite primitive and smelly. Laverty became silent, and Ankcorn realised that he was married to one of the natives. Things became less tense, however, when Gregson left to watch his girlfriend win some race or other. He was late back because he had fallen off his bike. The next time they would all meet would be in Borneo. The flight was awful. Houghton and Gregson, in an attempt to avoid jet-lag, took large quantities of sleeping tablets, the only effect of which was that they couldn't cope with knives and forks and so could only eat by falling face-first into the airline food. They spent three hours in Karachi, queuing to have their passports, tickets and baggage looked at before they were let into a room for half an hour which contained a broken drinks machine and a number of dead flies. Then another three hours queuing to get back on the plane just as dawn broke. In order to make the weight limit they had such heavy hand luggage that they nearly died of exhaustion, and Gregson almost killed a Pakistani porter by turning around too quickly. Houghton complained of the heat the whole time. After stopping in Singapore just long enough for Gregson to get so drunk that he was sick on the plane, they arrived in Bunuk, Mrs Laverty's village. Houghton retired to bed with the heat.

The next two weeks were spent exploring the hills: chopping up snakes, being stung by exotic new insects the size of kittens, eating strange new food and drinking Guinness. A man of 79 showed them a cave he had explored in his youth. It was so large that Laverty fell silent with awe. Gregson fell over, tearing open his arm, and Houghton came out in a rash. They hacked through the jungle to a village called Temurang where they were feted with rice and bottles of Guinness. Laverty was speechless with enjoyment, but Houghton asked if they could have less rice. A native boy showed them another cave so huge that Laverty was silent with astonishment. Gregson twisted his ankle and Houghton's health began to decline.

At this point Shewell and Ankcorn arrived, bringing the rest of the expedition equipment. There was far too much, especially since Houghton had fallen ill with a fever in addition to his rash. The other three medical officers had innumerable arguments about the diagnosis - Laverty, hearing words such as "malaria", "typhoid", "dengue fever" and "supre-tentorial decompensation", wisely chose to make no comment. They could not agree, and so Houghton was taken to hospital whilst Laverty visited some of his relatives and the others ate steaks in the Supersonic Restaurant. Houghton, though battling against illness, was keen to come on the trip into cave Baan. In they went, and immediately .got lost in the vastness. They decided to leave an object as an initial survey station, and survey the cave to grade 5b, discovering the way out as they went. The object they left turned out to be Houghton, who filled the role ideally, and the surveying began. In the confusion, Laverty was silent, but Gregson fell and dislocated his shoulder. Ankcorn complained of the smell of the guano endlessly, and Shewell said he wished that his girlfriend (or was it his fiancée?) could see the vastness of the cavern.

Later on, Gregson was taken back to the first survey station (Houghton) to lie down and they settled for the night. Ankcorn complained of the smell of Shewell, who said that it wasn't him but must be Laverty. Laverty, speechless with rage, indicated that the smell must be Gregson -eventually they decided that it was due to Houghton, who was asleep and so couldn't argue. During the night, they were crapped on by cave swifts and bitten by cave crickets, and it was a disgruntled Ankcorn who emerged into the jungle, followed by the rest of the party, two days later. He had never really been able to sleep in the cave (unlike Houghton, who rarely awoke) because of fear of the insects and the smell of their droppings.

Back in Bunuk they drew up the survey, which showed that the cave was about 11 km long with a chamber 400 m x 100 m. They woke up Houghton, whose rash was worse, and he agreed that it was a good survey just before he lapsed back into a coma. He was getting no better. The doctors thought that he might have malaria and increased his anti-malaria tablets; eventually it transpired that he was allergic to the tablets. He slowly began to improve.

Laverty and his charming wife eventually had to leave for England. He was speechless with regret at leaving. The others got on with the business of exploring the caves of Borneo. After a three-day boat journey of indescribable horror, they arrived in Miri, a town not quite bad enough to make getting back on the tramp steamer immediately worthwhile. On the boat, Ankcorn had spent his time looking for the source of the smell while Gregson dressed his gashed hand. It wasn't healing well, as Ankcorn had mistaken Guinness for the iodine when dressing it. Shewell wrote long letters to his fiancée and kicked the cockerel which crowed all day and night and yet never woke Houghton up....what could? They had come to see Niah Caves, and so marvellous were they, huge and airy, with poles for collecting bird's nests hanging from the roof, that the team wished that Laverty could have been there to comment on them. They flew back, mainly so that Houghton could enjoy the air conditioning - it was on occasions such as these that he did wake up and talk in raptures about snow.

In the last few days they surveyed a huge cave 6977 km long, which Ankcorn disliked because of its smell. Afterwards they found another, smaller cave in which Houghton could manage to sleep; but unfortunately Ankcorn smelled a rat, and stayed awake. In trying to catch the rat, Gregson smashed open his arm. Shewell was a problem to the very end. He fell in love with a local girl and the others had to dictate the letters to his fiancée. When the time came to go the others bundled him with difficulty into a bus for the airport.

On the journey home the team had to wait for fours hours at Karachi in order to get into a room with a dented spittoon and a lizard. There they said goodbye to Ankcorn, who went off for four days in Karachi town, in which he caught four kinds of chronic diarrhoea and typhoid. Despite severe temptation, however, that was all he caught. Back in Britain, hot baths removed most of the guano and sun tan, and revived Houghton, who by now was complaining of the cold.