Sarawak Chamber – Photographing it with modern technology

Robbie | November 22nd, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Sarawak Chamber – Photographing it with modern technology

Ever since reading the quote below from the Mulu 80’ journal, had I pictured myself, one day trying to do what Jerry Wooldridge FRPS did so well all those years ago.

-         80 report “Tony was greatly disappointed because the passage was not quite the 70m by 70m he had been told to expect by Hans and Andy; his disappointment was however short-lived! Beyond, the passage grows bigger and bigger, to a point where no roof or walls can be seen. Surveying without being able to see any walls was something of a waste of time. 77 survey legs each of 30 metres, until sore feet and tiredness forced a retreat. It was Tony who began to suggest the team were in a gigantic chamber; until then it had been assumed to be a gently curving gigantic passage. A cairn marked the end of the survey and the hundredth 30-metre leg (back then only had a 30m tape). After walking on a compass bearing over the most monumental boulders for over half a kilometre, during which time acute agoraphobia affected at least one member of the party, the entrance slope was reached. It really was a gigantic chamber! A subsequent survey concluded the exact size and amazed even the explorers; maximum dimensions of over 700m by 400m make Sarawak Chamber by far the largest underground cavity in the world. The experience of clambering across it, seeing the predator-free swifts nesting on the floor, hearing the incredible echo and feeling the immensity in every direction can only be described as awe-inspiring.”

…Reading that, back in 2001, I was hooked!

Finally in February 2011 the Mulu Caves Project dedicated the first two weeks of the six week long expedition to the photography of Sarawak Chamber and laser scanning extraordinaire Kevin Dixon, who was planning to re-survey the entire Chamber using an MDL laser scanning instrument and thus create a 3D map/model of the void.

For four days, whilst Kevin, Meg and Andy wondered the vast boulder strewn quarry that is the floor of Sarawak Chamber, I took advantage of a ‘carrying’ trip for them and hurriedly hopped from boulder to boulder, in search of the ‘perfect’ viewpoint of the room to make the big picture.

I had visualised the space hundreds and hundreds of times leading up to that moment. I had drawn many sketches at home of how the end photograph was going to look. I had even spent a day round at Jerry and Julie Wooldridge’s house in Birmingham enjoying a lovely lunch and picking Jerry’s brain about his own experiences and memories of the cave and how he achieved such a great collection of images. I knew that I would probably not get a second chance at this and I didn’t want to let everyone down who so kindly helped me out.  However, nothing had really prepared me for what I saw when I climbed up into the chamber for the first time. Rolf, you think you and Martin have made a bright head torch (Scurion), forget it! I quote “The experience of clambering across it, seeing the predator-free swifts nesting on the floor, hearing the incredible echo and feeling the immensity in every direction can only be described as awe-inspiring.”

So once the scanning work was complete it seemed an obvious opportunity to take the new photograph of the world’s largest chamber.  During the build-up to the day, back home in the UK I had decided that a panoramic shot of the great chamber would capture the immensity better than previous attempts. A five shot panorama would hopefully capture most, if not all the main and most beautiful giant rock sculptured walls. For the main attempt, we used 115x very powerful PF300 Megaflash bulbs. They proved highly successful, with an alternative shot made using just the powerful LED Scurion caving lights. The image captured the scale of the lower half of the chamber.   I was kindly donated a Nodal Ninja 5 pano head off Red Door Ltd in Leeds and apart from the postage charges, Meggaflash kindly donated all the flashbulbs. Thanks to those guys!

I had positioned myself high up on a huge ridge of caravan-sized boulders about 450m across the chamber. Here I spent the next 7 hours alone with only my PMR radio that crackled to life every so often with yet another chapter from Peter Kay’s autobiography which Tim had taken into the chamber with him to occupy the ‘faff’ time I needed to perfect the picture. The first of the five pano’s was taken around midday and we had a lot of fog and clouds gathering around the entrance/exit passage down to Nasib Bagus stream way. ‘Yes’ this was annoying, but ‘no’ I wasn’t too displeased. As we were able to cut the clouds with Mark Wrights super beam from his new LED 1500 lumen Scurion, that I’m pretty sure melted the rock on the other side of the chamber.

However, as we moved around the 200-degree sweep of the chamber, constantly building up the pano, the cloud layers vanished and by 1830 hrs the chamber was crystal clear. We tried to make a second beam of LED light looking back into the picture from the right-hand side, but failed miserably as there were no clouds or mist. I contemplated asking Mark to light up a cigarette but we would be still there now trying to get the beam of light.

Accurately capturing two images that look identical in a cave of this scale proved very difficult. We had to make the right-hand quarter of the first portrait picture the same exposure and layout as the left-hand quarter of the second portrait picture, so that using the intelligent software back at base-camp on the laptops we could successfully stitch the pano together. Ask anyone in our team. This took a very long time. However, this was the A-team. I couldn’t have asked for a better team of helpers, and we got there on every seam without peoples patience being tested too much.

Prior to this attempt, I had only ever made three panoramic photographs, and only one was underground. The most challenging thing I found, apart from making identical parts of the pictures where the seams/joins were, was that, I had to visualise the end result whilst making the first portrait of a very boring part of the cave. I spent a long time on my rock sat inside the chamber wondering why?? …This will never work! I am wasting a lot of time!

The team effort was astounding. Looking back now I can’t believe how much time and kind support I had dedicated to this project and in particular to make such a picture. The team that was out in those two weeks; Tim Allen, Jane Allen, Mark Wright, Mark Brown, Mark Richardson, Andy Eavis, Kevin Dixon and Meg Stark …and then of course the local guides we employed; Veno Enar and his team or porters… the list goes on… Without all there support we wouldn’t have achieved the photographs and the laser scan, so I thank-you all.

-Robbie Shone

Sarawak Chamber - The largest cave chamber in the world

Now for an interpretation of the big day from one of the five assistants who was with me through-out but saw everything unfold from a slightly different perspective.

“The day of the big photo, we were up early and quickly packed as most of our kit was already in the chamber waiting for the day of the big shot. We divided the bulbs between everyone and Robbie, Mark B and I scrambled up to the very back of the chamber. The floor of the chamber is quite steeply sloping, you emerge out of the streamway at the bottom corner of it and to get to the furthest point is a long hard walk uphill all the way, over a steep ridge in the middle where the floor and roof pinch together slightly then under a huge domed roof to the back. We eventually made it to the back and after a quick rest and a look around; Mark B and I took up positions with flash bulbs just before the ridge and Robbie took the photo looking 600+m down the rubble slope towards Mark W, Tim and Jane at the bottom of the chamber.

Next, Robbie moved down to the ridge and set up station on a boulder he had sussed out the other day. We all spread out in the lower half of the chamber in the carefully planned positions Robbie had already decided on and after “a big think” by the photographer the first of 5 shots which would eventually make up the panorama was taken. We each had a Scurion 1300 with spare batteries, 30-40 PF300 Meggaflash bulbs, firer, reflectors, water, food and a radio with us. More than once, Robbie had me stand on a rock then directed me around the chamber over the radio looking for a better rock before eventually leading me back to exactly the same stance as before… very frustrating! Moving was slow and dangerous so everyone had to be very patient. It was particularly difficult when asked to stand on a very high, precarious rock with a big drop in front of you, hold a flash bulb, turn your light off, look up, close your eyes, hold a pose, fire the bulb then count to 20 before turning your light back on!! Wobbly doesn’t quite cover it! Obviously the inevitable happened though and as I stood on a boulder it rocked violently sending me falling backwards quite hard. I got a hand down but still fell onto the bag on my back and heard a crunch… whoops, I thought (I think I said something a bit worse than that out loud). I had used bubble wrap and some cardboard to pad the bulbs as best I could and had been putting the old bulbs around the outside to protect the good ones. I daren’t tell Robbie who was concentrating hard on his photos so at the first opportunity took every last bulb out of the bag for a look- I had only broken one! Thank god!!

After 8 hours of photographing and exhausting moving about, we had the 5 shots in the bag and beat a hasty retreat out of the chamber for the last time.

Taking the picture had been great, it had forced us to spend a long time in there with the best lights money can buy (or sponsors can lend) just looking around. We saw much more in those 8 hours than most people ever do in there, it was a great thing to have done.”

-Mark Richardson

Slightly off topic, but I came across this in the old British Caving Library Archives: An interview with Dave Gill about how he got the job as Park Manager at Mulu National Park, click here to listen.

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