A view of Borneo's Gunung Buda limestone massif, in Gunung Buda National Park. Fly Fishing 3,000 Feet Under The Earth
By: Ralph Cutter, as told to Chris Santella "I was part of an expedition that went to Borneo to explore Gunung Buda, a massive block of jungle-cloaked limestone that rises more than three thousand feet into a ceiling of clouds that drench the area in 300 inches of rain each year. Known by geologists as a karst formation, Buda has been assaulted by hundreds of thousands of years worth of rain that has carved deep fissures into its limestone flanks. From a caver's perspective Gunung Buda may hold the crown jewels of Borneo; and on the global level, Borneo's caves are on a scale unto themselves. As an example: two ranges south of Gunung Buda at Gunung Mulu there is the Sarawak Chamber, a staggering cavern three times larger than the Superdome where a 747 could fly laps between its stalactites. "This expedition was going to be the third try at cracking Buda's secrets. The first was a brief scouting foray by John Lane and George Prest. With a minimum of time and equipment they found tantalizing leads hidden behind the massive piles of rockfall at Buda's northern base. Lane and Prest returned two years later with a team of hard-core cavers and discovered an astounding three dozen world class caves almost immediately. Unfortunately the close quarters, miserable tropical conditions, and driven personalities of the team combined to cause the expedition to implode in less than a month. Despite the social fallout, valuable data was logged and the discoveries set the stage for our expedition. For this expedition, John scoured the world for cavers with specialties outside of the strictly subterranean realm. I joined the team as its paramedic, herpetologist and fish biologist. Ralph Cutter
Cutter prepares to descend into the recently discovered cave. “One day early in our expedition, one of the team, Chris Andrews (our cave cartographer) stumbled into camp caked with mud and guano. He described a cave that twisted and corkscrewed downward until it ran out of limestone and collided with the sandstone roots of Gunung Buda. Water flowing down the passage formed a lake, and in the lake something was moving. Though Chris felt it was a snake or maybe a big fish, the natives said it was probably a crocodile. Being the fish, snake, and crocodile guy, it was my job to catch it. We quickly bundled up a snake hook and a flyrod and clanging with climbing gear we left camp for Chris’ cave.” Ralph Cutter
Ipoi, a local guide, takes in the view from atop a formation the cavers called “the showerhead.” “Chris, Scott Bauman (a gastropod expert from Guam) and I navigated the twisting passage into the bowels of the mountain. Guided by flickering cap lamps we rapped from drop to drop, downclimbed on slimy limestone knobs, and belly crawled through greasy chutes, all the while descending deeper and deeper into the earth. Flickering in our lamps, dazzling white forests of stalactites were revealed; some as tiny as sewing needles and others as large as trees hang from the ceilings. Each had its own life-giving drop of water suspended from its tip. As the drips drop, a corresponding stalagmite grows from the floor. Where the mites meet, columns are created and the forest metaphor is complete. Helectites, bizarre twisted calcite formations, looked like the bones of something dead reaching out to us from the cave walls. Ralph Cutter
Chris Andrews (left) and Scott Bauman (right) in a tunnel they called “the snailshell.” “Differences in air pressure throughout the cave system created puffs and streams of wind. As the winds passes the decorations and chambers, a music is made. It sounds for all the world like Gollum, in some hall hidden far below, is playing the pan flute. We were the first humans to ever enter this realm and he is playing just for us, beckoning us ever deeper. Ralph Cutter
Chris Andrews goes down the “mouse hole.” “Thousands of feet beneath the summit of Buda the cave sumps at a lake. The water had receded a few feet to reveal a mouse-hole-shaped opening just at the waterline. Deep claw marks in the mud indicated that perhaps a crocodile really did live there. We swam across the cold black water and ducked into the mouse hole. We found ourselves inside a passage where the water was chin deep, and often the ceiling was so low we were forced to duck beneath the water to continue onward. The roof was covered with dripping muddy slime that told of frequent and recent flooding. A quarter of a mile inside the passage Chris stopped suddenly and hissed, -¿I hear moving water.’ Chris is a wonderful guy, one of my dearest friends and an extraordinarily talented caver but at his mellowest looks like Kevin Bacon on nitroglycerin. When he gets excited you get the distinct impression he might explode; right now his fuse was lit. Ralph Cutter
Bats roosted on the roof and walls of the cavern, their guano fertilzing the rich ecosystem below. “Fears of being eaten by subterranean crocs are replaced by the more immediate possibility of being trapped by rising water. More cavers die by drowning than any other cause. Knowing there were no air chambers behind us, we rapidly pushed forward hoping to find refuge. We abruptly broke out into a massive subway cave with a crystal clear river flowing through it. This was our sound of moving water. The cave was seething with life. Thick mounds of guano nourish centipedes, crabs, and thousands of mole crickets. Menacing huntsman spiders the size of Frisbees scuttled along the walls searching for bats to eat. Cave racer snakes slithered along the floor looking for baby bats or swiftlets fallen from the ceiling. The river was teeming with pale shrimp, crayfish, and some unknown type of isopod. Fish finned in the current and held in seams, just like they would in a trout stream. I rigged my fly rod with a 5-weight line and tied on a grasshopper pattern, figuring it would be close enough to a mole cricket. Ralph Cutter
Casting a mole cricket-imitating grasshopper pattern among the stalactites “Casting between the stalactites was tricky enough, but even more troublesome were the bats who wanted to eat the fly. With each cast, bats dropped from the ceiling and wheeled and twisted between the stalactites to catch the fly. We quickly became adept at catch-and-release bat fishing. On the first few drifts the fly passed right over the nose of a catfish patrolling the shallows. The fish did nothing until I gave the fly a little flick.. With one strong stroke of its tail the catfish torpedoed the fly and rolled on it like a cat on a mouse. The fish was tough; it ran up the creek and then doubled back downstream, where it dove under a large chunk of ceiling breakdown. We pounded down the shoreline after it, splashing water and throwing wicked shadows from our helmet flames. Our whoops and hollers echoed down the passage and flushed clouds of bats off the roof who swirl in squeaking confusion. It was utter chaos. Ralph Cutter
Cutter with a cave-dwelling catfish, likely a new species to science. “We caught a dozen or so of these powerful, long whiskered fish. Aside from the fact that they don’t have functional eyes, these catfish were remarkably unremarkable. Though the fish can’t see, they are acutely aware of any disturbance in the water and the slightest movement of the fly triggered an immediate and aggressive response. Many times two or more fish hit the fly simultaneously, and at other times fish completely beached themselves as they launched at the hopper pattern. “We saw smaller fish of a different species lurking in the deeper water, so I tied on a tiny bird’s nest nymph and fished it beneath a split shot. Jigging the fly in front of the small fish was reminiscent of fishing for blue gills as a kid. The small white fish darted forward to inhale then just as quickly exhaled the nymph. Over time, however, we caught two types of the deeper dwelling fish; a barb and a chub. Both fish had pale skin and opalescent pink eyes; both were likely new species. We preserved samples of all three fishes in formaldehyde and sent them on to a museum in Kuching for proper identification. Ralph Cutter
Another view of the jungle, taken from a cave opening high on the Gunung Buda massif. “I’m happy to report that the work from our expedition resulted in the creation of a large national park to protect and preserve the Gunung Buda mountains of Sarawak, Borneo.-¿ Ralph Cutter