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Cave Pearls of Meghalaya

Thomas ARBENZ (ed)

Abode of the Clouds Project, Matzendorf, Switzerland. 2016. 344pp, 208 colour photographs, 102 tables, maps and surveys. Hardback, 220mm × 304mm, with DVD. £35

ISBN 978-3-033-04761-7

MEGHALAYA, an area in north-east India, is now so well known as a caving destination that it seems remarkable that the first significant expeditions only occurred in the early 1990s. Now, only twenty years or so later, the list of caves explored and the kilometres of passage surveyed are both remarkable and have led to the production of a three-volume series of books, Cave Pearls of Meghalaya. The first volume was published in 2012 (see Descent 233) and now Volume 2 is at last available.

To write ‘at last’ is a disservice to the editor, Thomas Arbenz. His was the task to draw all the material together, to encourage the contributing authors, to gather funding from sales of the first book and sponsors from around the world, and to research and collate solidly for three years before this latest tome could appear in print. Such dedication brings its rewards, not least in the form of – again – a near immaculate publication.

Just as Volume 1 was geographically selective, Cave Pearls Vol. 2 concerns only explorations that took place on the northern portion of the Shnongrim Ridge and within the Liat Prah Cave System (the country’s longest). Perfectly logically, therefore, the bulk of the book documents the caves, from major sites to smaller, shorter caves – that means coverage of a long list of krems (caves), though readers will also find Knee Wrecker Pot 1 and 2 (named for the damage caused to the first explorers while prusiking up narrow pitches) and a Dragon Hole (no local name was known and it breathed out moist air).

Cleanly presented, detailed surveys abound, as do relief maps with overlain passages, cave descriptions and some excellent photography. This is not only a book to use as a reference, it is a volume to take delight in as you turn the pages (no doubt noting the continued influence of Mark ‘Gonzo’ Lumley in its layout).

Five chapters cover the expeditions from 2005 to 2009, with others given over to landscapes, the Jaintia people and their festivals, geology, how the surveys were produced (another tale of dedication) and cave fish. This last is an important topic, one ripe for further research as so little is known – species await identification, distributions are yet to be documented and many difficulties are caused by the need to sort through conflicting data. Such a collation is doubly important, therefore, and is backed up with a more detailed paper on the accompanying DVD (which also carries full surveys, no longer limited to the shape and size of the page).

Once again Cave Pearls also reveals the love affair that the late Tony ‘J-Rat’ Jarratt enjoyed with Meghalaya, so numerous are the mentions of his influence on the region (he also adorns the cover). Tony died all too young in 2008, a legend in the caving world who is honoured in a touching (and inspiring) mid-volume tribute. The tail end of the book is filled with hard fact: coordinates for minor caves, acknowledgements, references, glossary, translations and indexes to both general topics and people.

Cave Pearls Vol. 2 is about a third larger than Vol. 1, this forcing a higher price tag at £35 than its predecessor (which is still on sale for £26; as a measure of its standing, it received a special mention in the Tratman Awards for the best speleo literature of the year). With combined coverage of the expeditions from 2005 to 2012 now in place, we must await the third volume to read of those in 2000 to 2004 and the rest of the discoveries made on the Shnongrim Ridge – so do support the venture with a purchase as you will not fail to be impressed with the superb quality and it will also aid publication of the rest of the story.

Chris Howes

First published in Descent (251), August 2016