by Rob Garrett, April 2001
A major feature of our time in Leye when we weren't exploring caves or supervising ropework was the "shows" we were frequently asked to put on. The idea behind these was that we would set up an abseil somewhere impressive and then people would film us and some combination of FlyCats and scientists abseiling. This footage would then be shown on the local news, or the provincial news, or the national news, or even the international news!
Our first show was at Mao Qi Dong where the only person filming was Mr. Mao a local FlyCat and cameraman for Leye TV (subsequently promoted to Guanxi TV with the assistance of this footage). Having an unfortunate habit of generally arriving late we got to the cave entrance to find that the FlyCats were well underway setting up the first abseil line. They had rigged a hanging rebelay of a 8 inch diameter tree that grew out of the side of the entrance which is 10m long and 5m wide. We set up a Y-hang from a 10 inch diametre tree a long way back from the edge and a 4 inch diametre stump 1m back from the edge. To engineer a freehang a deviation was fitted off a smaller (dead) tree much closer to the edge of the abyss. I settled onto the rope shortly after the number 1 FlyCat giving a thumbs up to the cameraman and the show began in earnest. The weight of the rope made descent difficult. The FlyCats had newer descenders and were using 10mm rope whereas we had worn descenders and 9mm rope. I was also carrying a tacklebag of supplies to be used on a subsequent exploration trip in the river 350m below. Thus I was able to descend much faster and after abseiling together for 5 minutes I found my harness was getting uncomfortable and so decided to go ahead. By the time I reached the knot-pass after 200m my descender was too hot to handle and I radioed up advising the others to carry water for cooling with them. The descent took a long time as I didn't want my descender to heat up any more than necessary and the overall effect of the huge daylit chamber (we normally abseil in the dark) was quite unique. When I got to the bottom I found myself wrestling a giant octopus as the rope stretch and ridiculously hot descender made an elegant get off from the rope out of the question.
The others followed with James going alongside the cameraman who filmed whilst descending. Finally Erin came down alone. Myself, James and the cameraman opted for an exit via Bai Dong while the other two prussiked out. The FlyCat, unused to rope bounce suffered from motion sickness. Other footage of us descending Bai Dong doline had also been taken, most memorably with me carrying a large tyre innertube (called Bob) through dense spiky foliage -- we needed it to float through various ducks we encountered in the streamway below.
Later one evening as we were sat down to dinner in the hotel the TV was switched on and we were surprised to see James silhouette frozen against the entrance over a news reader's shoulder. Then the shot changed and I was there giving the thumb's up to 200 million viewers. Finally Erin was seen prussiking like a spider on an invisible thread in a vast domed amphitheatre before appearing at the surface. The footage, interspersed with Bai Dong footage, had managed to find its way on to the main China national and international news stations somewhere between Prime minister Tony Blair and some insect researchers in South America. Many times from now on we would be channel hopping in our hotel room only to find ourselves.
Our next "show" was on the Buliu River. This had a truly impressive natural rock bridge and it had been decided that this would be perfect for an abseil to make it look even more attractive to tourists. After a 2 hour punt ride down grade 2 rapids to get there we finally saw the bridge. 150m metres high about half of which was rock and half air and less than 10m wide. The route to the top was an exercise in jungle navigation involving several craggy scrambles and making progress along the top of the bridge was also very difficult due to vegetation and the fact that it had several steep 5m steps along it. We used a radio to guide the rigging party to the centre of the bridge and the rope was rigged off a small bush with a thread backup. Once again a large party of locals, assembled dignitaries, scientists and hangers-on (e.g. sister's-in-law, nieces etc.) had gathered below to watch proceedings. A well-chosen deviation at the top gave a very good hang and with just one sapling deviation halfway down the rope hang free. The footage gained also included some of the jungle bashing from the trek up and the overall effect was another triumph for Mr. Mao. The "show" also served a scientific purpose as it allowed the natural bridge to be measured.
As our fame spread reporters came from further afield to interview us and take photographs and newspaper articles started to appear across China. Finally, CCTV1 and CCTV4 sent a joint team of cameraman and reporters for several weeks of filming and reporting. From the start we were opposed to their descending Dashiwei as Mr. Mao and other film crews pre-dating our arrival had already taken more than enough footage from down the doline and the views are very poor being mostly obscured by trees. We were concerned for their safety as they were not SRT competent and the doline has a habit of spontaneously throwing rocks down so it is not wise to spend any unnecessary time down there. More importantly, it is impossible to move around the bottom of the doline without causing damage to the trees and environment as it is steep floored with only a thin top soil and much scree. As a compromise, we lowered them half way down one wall of the doline to middle cave and they should have been happy with this. However, 3 days after we left the area they made their own way down contriving to take 5 times as long to reach the bottom as a competent caver should and not surprisingly had little to show for it. There seems to be a belief in China that important people can do what they want and it is necessary to assert that importance by doing what you want. CCTV is full of importance and it is to be hoped that the fragile ecosystem of Dashewei did not pay too high a price to assert that importance.
Before we left Leye, however, we did do everything we could to cooperate with CCTV and to give them good footage. For example, we accompanied a karst professor through East Cave to look knowledgeably at various formations (and shout at people when they wandered off the established path, destroying delicate floor formations). We also escorted a party to the just discovered Hong Meigui chamber (3rd biggest in the world). Unfortunately they spent so long negotiating the single hang of the 30m entrance pitch that by the time we'd traveled the 100m to the chamber there bright filming lights were on the verge of running out and the footage obtained was correspondingly disappointing. More disappointing for us, however, was that we didn't get to have a good look for the as yet unseen chamber roof and our hypothesized continuation of the War of the Roses fossil passage.
By the end we'd been on Chinese national and international TV every night several times for a week: abseiling, surveying, looking knowledgeably at formations, typing at computers (I was sending an email to my Mum at the time!), drawing up surveys and, of course, hanging around waiting for things to happen. We also have several contacts in the press across wide swathes of China. With 1.3 billion people living in China that is quite a potential audience (especially for any would-be sponsors!).