| Howard M. Beck,
BENEATH THE CLOUD FORESTS
A History of Cave Exploration in Papua New Guinea
Speleo Projects, Format
17 x 25cm, hardbound
English, with numerous illustrations
352 Pages, 64 colour, with 31 maps
Nonfiction / History
CHF 64.; € 42.00; US$ 42.00; UK£
Order the book from Speleo
Also available in:
- Australia and New Zealand from Macstyle
- the United Kingdom from Cordee
- the U.S. from Speleobooks
Review by : Tony Waltham
Bulletin of the British Cave Research Association
New Guinea is one of the world's great karst
destinations, and this rather splendid book covers the whole story. Howard
Beck has done a great job of gathering and filtering a mountain of data
to produce a very readable account that creates a very fair picture of
the New Guinea caving scene. His text alternates between straight accounts
of exciting underground explorations, human stories of individual experiences
and almost poetic descriptions of the uniquely hostile environment of
the New Guinea forests. Perhaps over-poetic an a few places, but how else
does an author describe this alien terrain of aggressive insects, hostile
vegetation, horrendous rainfall, trackless forest and nightly frosts.
Your reviewer thoroughly enjoyed reading the entire book, and remains
in awe of the cavers who ventured into this awful place more than once.
The caving honours were divided between nations, but Howard Beck covers
them all. The Brit's expedition in 1975 was a classic of truly remarkable
exploration both above and below ground - such a shame that most of the
caves were horrible (except Seminum Tem, which remains a New Guinea big
one) and the surface conditions were mostly dreadful (and how sad that
Era Tem was so short at the end of that spectacular climb up the Hindenburg
Wall a few years later). The Australian cavers had dabbled in their backyard
island previously, but only got going in the late 70s, when they turned
up the dramatic river passages of Atea and then the long and deep maze
of Mamo - providing stories galore of sheer excitement and dramatic escapes.
Third on the scene were the French, and they hit the jackpot with their
bold explorations of the giant river caves beneath the Nakanai Mountains
on the offshore island of New Britain - Nare is perhaps the world's classic
pothole (though it took a team of Derbyshire fruitcakes to reach the sump),
and Muruk broke records with its long river-passage through-trip 1178m
deep. The huge underground rivers of New Britain represented a big step
forward in the standards and techniques of cave exploration (which has
still not been matched elsewhere).
Great caves, fantastic karst, and also great characters emerge from the
pages. Kevan Wilde, the wild man from Oz who achieved so much in the early
years. Tony White, that supremely competent Brit, whose name keeps appearing
and who found so much cave on his own. Julia James (half Brit, half Ozzie)
who achieved her lifetime target of pushing deep in New Guinea. Jean-Paul
Sounier, whose name perhaps stands out from a swathe of extremely hard
French cavers. And how can anyone not warm to an indigenous people whose
pidgin language term for a helicopter is "mixmaster bilong Jesus".
Perhaps the years have created a bias, with less detail on the 1975 Brits
than on the later French. But overall the book works, where Howard Beck
quietly paints pictures of local people and fine cavers, with welcome
splashes of anecdotes and personal recollections (though he omits that
classic comment from Julia James that she would have "no more women
on her expeditions").
Alongside its fine text, this book is superbly illustrated. Excellent
cartography in 31 maps (though some key names in the text are missing
from surveys, and many surveys are rather distant from their text pages).
And the photos are fabulous (with typical Speleo Projects high quality);
lots of photos of the local people and forests of New Guinea mainly by
the author, but then lots of underground photos provided by all the main
expeditions to cover all the great caves. The author has gathered his
And the end result is a great book. This should stand the test of time
as one of the classics of caving literature. The wealth of information
and the hundreds of photos make it a very good value. Every caver (and
many an adventurer or serious traveler) will want his own copy, and will
gain a lot of both enjoyment and inspiration through reading it.
Descent (174), Oct/Nov 2003
Pick up Howard Beck's book
that's the Howard Beck who wrote Gaping Gill. 150 years of exploration
and the sheer quality of it will impress you. The paper quality,
the print quality, the reproduction
This is a fine volume indeed,
as is to be expected from its publisher, Speleo Projects, let alone Howard
as an experienced researcher and author.No doubt you will flick through
the photographs, spotting the extensive colour spreads in eight groups,
and perhaps begin to read. That's it; if you have any interest in the
lure of the unknown and expedition caving at the extreme margins where
any error is a serious one, you're hooked.
Beneath the Cloud Forests is the history of exploration in the caves
of Papua New Guinea. In it, Howard has not attempted to cover every expedition
and its highlights and failures; rather, he concentrates on the shift
from deep cave exploration as being the preserve of the French, to the
quest to find the deepest cave in the world on the other side of the globe.
Here, then, are the landmark discoveries and human disappointments, told
as a history of pioneering accomplishments against the backdrop of dense
forests, roaring rivers and the mysteries of soaring mountains.
Older cavers will remember PNG names with awe from early reports in Descent,
such as Selminum Tem, Atea Kananda, and the boiling waters of the
Nare. More recent converts to our sportyou are set for a treat as
you learn for the first time what it was like to tackle some of the hardest
caves on the world. Do not expect a dry retellling of facts and figures;
rather, begin with Fernand Petzl's descent of the Gouffre Berger in France
and the subsequent drive to pass beyond 1,000m depth, and how this helped
fuel British motives to seek fortunes further afield.. It was part of
a diverse, burgeoning interest in hunting out the caves of PNG.
Even if you have heard of places such as the Nare's Apocalypes Now, and
recall how this monstrous rapid waited to lure cavers into its depths,
it is the detail of how it was found and the attempts to pass it that
will fascinate any caver. Grappling iron launcher to the fore
across the ceiling
and that was only the beginnings of unusual
approaches (and where else might you inspect a cave entrance using a helicopter?).
In Muruk, experience the effort it took to rig 2.1 km of rope to reach
the then terminal sump at -637m and dive it to stroll down wide
river passages. Muruk eventually connected with the Bérénice
system, which produces a through-trip and took it to 1,1,78m deep
the first system in the southern hemisphere to attain the goal that the
early explorers had dreamed of: the magic 1,000m did indeed exist in Papua
New Guinea. Along the way, Mamo Kananda was taken to 54.8 km.
Is the book perfect? No, but what is? Spotting a number of typographical
or layup errors, or incorrect words (such as sight
for site), is relatively easy, and some of the maps lack enough
detail to enable a good link with the text, but this does not detract
from offerring Howard congratulations on taking up the challenge to research
and write a superb tale of endeavour.
Buy this book now, for it is destined to be a classic and required reading
for any self-respecting caver; you might as well give in early, rather
than wait for Christmas.