Published: September 2006
Raging Danger
Following the torrent underground, a team discovers breathtaking waterfalls and theater-size chambers.
By Neil Shea
National Geographic Staff

White water is fearsome enough on the surface. Pour a river into light-swallowing limestone tunnels and it becomes terrifying.

Deep beneath the rain forests of New Britain, an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, churning rapids jet through enormous passages, some of the largest, most remote river caves on the planet. To reach them, explorers must first descend into massive dolines—sinkholes where soluble rock, weakened by runoff from an estimated 18 feet of rainfall a year, has collapsed. From the air they appear like impact craters, as if a volley of meteorites had long ago pummeled the forest.

"It's frightening when you see one—it's just a mass of white water at the bottom of a dangerous hole," says David Gill, a British caver.

An electrical engineer by trade, Gill taught himself to cave in the wet, cold potholes and the abandoned lead mines of Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Twenty-two years ago, he led a team to a doline called Nare in New Britain's Nakanai Mountains, where he first beheld the crushing beauty of river caves.

In January, Gill returned to the Nakanai, with 11 adventurers from the U.K., France, and the United States, on a two-month expedition to plumb one of the island's largest dolines, a half-mile-wide bowl called Ora.

The team's goal: To push deep into the cave at the bottom of Ora, map its enormous chambers, and follow the river boring through it—to the very end if possible.

"It's very, very remote," says Gill. "The terrain is so difficult. You can't hike in a straight line, and it's totally unexplored. Even the local people don't go up there. There's nothing there for them."

From Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, the men traveled by plane and boat to Matong, a shore camp for loggers on New Britain. Then lumber trucks hauled them toanother camp, where the roads disappeared. A helicopter dropped them at a small settlement inhabited by a hundred members of the Kolpeople and two families of missionaries from the U.S. and Australia.

At first, villagers suspected the outsiders were gold hunters. A few even pulled team members aside to show off the yellow lumps they'd found. "We'd just say, 'Oh yeah, fool's gold,'" says Dave Nixon, 38. "It's hard to explain that gold deposits don't occur in limestone."

The community soon warmed, and most villagers agreed to work as porters hauling supplies to base camp, a three-hour trek to a ridge overlooking the Ora Doline. Then the rain began, weeks of it, transforming the forest into a gleaming, mud-slick obstacle course.

At the bottom of the doline, the explorers followed the river into one side of the cave, then the other, hugging the narrow riverbanks underground, the water rumbling like a freight train. Often the banks disappeared, forcing the men to cross the river using ropes—a dangerous traverse where one caver would swim across, water boiling over him, to fix a line for the others.

Jean-Paul Sounier volunteered for most of the swimming. Sounier, 55, has been caving for 40 years and made five previous pilgrimages to caves below the Nakanai.

"You can't afford an accident," he says. "It's not like home where if you have an injury, a rescue team will be quick to get you out." On New Britain, there was no rescue team.

Ora's upstream cave eventually opened into a massive cathedral, where a vaulted ceiling soared more than a hundred feet above a deep, turquoise lake. The downstream cave dead-ended after a third of a mile in a rock-filled sump where the river drained back into the earth.

In a connecting cave called Phantom Pot, the explorers crawled through a tight, sinuous passage lined with skin-ripping rock. Each journey into Phantom required a four-hour ordeal in the cheese grater—two hours each way. Then, back at the surface, the men slogged uphill to camp, sometimes in rain, sometimes in darkness, achorus of frogs and insects whirring in the trees.

"We're quite masochistic," says Dave Nixon, laughing. "But it's character-building stuff."

In the end, the team discovered nearly eight miles of river caves. Gill hopes the expedition's work will help persuade the Papua New Guinea government to create a conservation area protecting the Nakanai Mountains. The Malaysian government did something similar on Borneo—with instrumental guidance from Gill—at Gunung Buda, another region of giant caves, which was declared a national park in 2001.

"The thrill of exploring where nobody has ever been before, of being the first light to ever shine in the darkness . . . it's awe-inspiring," Gill says. "The world of caves remains relatively untouched. It is the ultimate adventure."