Welcome to the Jungle - Cave Explorers in Papua New Guinea

In December of 2015, an Irish-led team of 14 cave explorers went on an expedition to Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands province to map the caves and underground rivers of a truly remarkable place: Mount Bosavi – a completely unexplored (and thankfully extinct) ­volcano. A future UNESCO World Heritage site, Mount Bosavi is one of the last remaining wild places on earth. However, the cavers didn’t go alone. Though cargo was limited, they brought along as many Luci lights as they could carry.

Why? Two reasons:

  • To help them explore the cave systems
  • More importantly, to give out to the local Kosua, who live a week’s trek away from the nearest town and have zero access to electricity.

The following is team leader Stephen Read’s account of the expedition.

Mount Bosavi lies in the heart of the pristine Great Papuan Plateau rainforest of the Kikori River Basin. At about 4 km wide and 1 km deep, it’s home to a great number of species previously unknown to science until fairly recently. 

It took 18 months to prepare for the trip. As most of our route was inaccessible by road, we often travelled by small charter planes. The final leg to Fogomai-iu village had us landing onto a grass airstrip.

Fogomai-iu village is located on the eastern slopes of the volcano. Because of their remote location, the Kosua who call Fogomai-iu home have lived in complete isolation from the outside world for almost all of their existence. While it’s impossible to generalize an entire community, we found them to be overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming and proud of their history with a deep knowledge and respect for their surrounding environment.

The tribal landowners welcomed us onto their lands with a “sing sing,” a genuine gesture of friendship and promised hospitality often performed as a peacekeeping ritual between neighboring tribes. Kitted out in ceremonial dress made from feathers, animal hides and forest grasses, the men painted their bodies, sang and danced to the rhythm of Kundu drums.

While the aim of our expedition was primarily exploratory, our other key goal was to help our hosts as best as we could. The lush equatorial climate provides ample food, but the same can’t be said of electricity, medical or educational supplies. The terrain is remote and hostile – the nearest town is a week’s trek away, necessarily on foot – and the Kosua receive virtually no outside support from the government or NGO’s.

Due to weight restrictions, we were really limited in what we could carry into the jungle, but the small, lightweight Luci lights made a huge difference to local families. Our own served us well, illuminating camps at nights, evening data compilation, the occasional medical problem, dinner preparations and even a ‘sing sing’ or two…

heading in

We split into small teams and hiked for hours through dense rainforest to get to the cave sites. The caves were all spectacular, some of which were big enough to fly an airplane through, some with underground lakes, most a habitat for birds and giant fruit bats (called flying foxes), and all of course featuring stalagmites, stalactites and other spectacular cave formations.

Over Christmas and the new year, we pushed as far as we could, high into the dense uninhabited forest on the Darai Plateau. We surveyed a total of over 8 kilometer’s worth of unexplored passages, 36 caves and over 20 undocumented cave systems, and we’re still barely scratching the surface. Happily, we managed to avoid any significant sicknesses or injuries. We can’t wait to go back!

 

Header image credit: Jack Healy

All other images: Axel Hack