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Caving Down Under

by Wendy Short

Taking a deep breath, I crouched in silence.  My powerful light beam cut a white arc across the cave ceiling dripping with pure crystalline soda straws.  The air had a different smell underground here than the caves on the top side of the world.  I was totally fixated as the four of us paused to admire the beauty of Jewel Cave and set up camera equipment for a photo.  I smiled to myself, feeling lucky and blessed to participate in this experience.  I was caving with the Western Australia Speleological Group (WASG) President, Jay Anderson, her husband Ross Anderson, and a gentleman from the UK, Mike Wilson (BEC).  Only four trips a year are allowed in these caves in the Margaret River area of Western Australia (WA), no more than four people per trip.  Many local cavers from the Perth area had not ever visited these caves.  Since I was a "foreigner", I felt lucky and privileged indeed.

When I was planning my trip to Australia, I wanted to see what the caves were like Down Under, the differences and similarities, as compared to American caves.  I looked through the NSS members manual and found one person listed in the area I would be visiting, Rauleigh Webb.  After emailing my interest to him, he forwarded my letter to members of the caving group.  It wasn't long before I heard back from several members offering their assistance and support, Fran Head and Ian Colette being my initial contacts.  Fran was very helpful and accommodating in making arrangements and was willing to lend me all her gear.  That was very necessary since I did not have room to pack my own gear, and was only bringing my boots!

I was under the impression that Australia was a karst-poor continent.  But after spending two months traveling most of the country, I found caves and karst features almost everywhere I went.  The Southwestern comer of WA is well known for some of it's beautiful show caves, Jewel Cave, the largest show cave in WA, being one of them.

After kitting up in the parking lot of Jewel Cave in the early morning, we were ready to embark on our 4 hour trip into the "wild" section of Jewel Cave.  The rocks in this area are some of the oldest in the world.  At one time the cave was exposed sand dunes, worn away by wind and erosion.  Falling in behind the tour group, we walked through a heavy well-constructed vapour lock door.  The door was impressive, protecting the cave air and environment, or so I thought. Then I smelled the heavy perfume on the visitor in front of me.

As we came upon the first chamber we saw pair of pure white calcite straws of extraordinary length, one of which is the largest straw found in any show cave in the world at 5.5 meters in length.  It has grown 3.5 cm since the cave opened, Boxing Day 1959.  For the majority of tourists, the most memorable section is the jewel cask cavern.  The size of a small room, the walls and ceiling are profusely decorated with intertwining stalactites, straws and helictites.  It's so intricate and extensive that it is hard to find the tiniest space not covered.  The jewel casket is a sparkling cluster of cave crystals.

We followed the tour for a bit, then nicked off (headed off) down a crawlway away from the artificial lights.  The wild section of the cave is called the Flat Reef Extension.  Each room was full of soda straws, cave coral and helictites of varying length and thickness'.  I was just awed by the beauty, which rivals any cave in North America I had seen.  The cave was well mapped, and we followed a well-marked path of reflective arrows.  We were now on a private tour.  I felt Mike and I were being tested a bit as well; our skills, techniques and conservation attitudes.  Down Under is one place where you must "cave softly".

Jewel Cave is about 700 meters in length, with many beautiful large rooms. Every section was decorated except one crawl at the terminal end.  There was one place that had Tasmanian tiger bones covered in calcite, 25,000 years old. We spent the morning in Jewel, which is an easy, manageable, mostly walking cave.  Still, we got winded at times due to the high carbon dioxide levels we all felt.

The next cave we visited was Moondyne, located in the same park as Jewel.  We just happened to time the end of our lunch with the beginning of a wild cave tour, and my hosts convinced the guide to let us tag along. Moondyne is only about 300 meters long, basically just two large rooms. The main feature is walls and walls of stunning white cave coral.  I was not real impressed with the "wild cave" tour and glad we were not asked to pay for it.  It was just too easy.  Walking and constant stopping as the guide explained and showed points of interest proved somewhat anti-climatic.  The two hour trip could have been done in a leisurely 45 minutes.

We had time to explore another short cave, and met up with others from the caving group, including Fran Head and Ian Colette.  The cave was located a short walk through the bush.  About 10 of us entered Deepdyne through a broken entrance gate.  This used to be a tourist cave in the 1920's my hosts thought.  I wasn't too impressed now; the entire cave was only about 150 meters long and 20 meters high.  The formations were very old, dried and dead looking.  I could see in its prime it must have been stunning, as it had the same formations as the other caves I had just been in, with the addition of huge old rimstone dams.  It was apparent that the water levels in this entire area have been dropping.  I asked around .... does anyone know why?  Not really, only a stray theory or guess, none of which bode well for the future of these caves.

By the time we left this third cave it was getting late, a swim in the Indian Ocean was in order at Hamlin Bay before heading back to camp in the Leeuwin National Park.  WASG had a nice base camp and "hut", a semi-permanent set up there that slept several dozen people, and the campsite was quiet in a remote section of the bush.  Mike and I were on a very natural high and still in awe of what we had experienced, with promises of the best cave saved for the following day.  There was great camaraderie and kidding around the campfire that night.  It was similar to cavers getting together in America after a long day of caving, except some of the Aussie jokes went over my head.

The next morning Jay, Ross, Mike and I got an early start and headed back to the park where Jewel Cave is.  We were going to Easter Cave; highly restricted, vastly beautiful, and quite long and challenging.  After kitting up in the parking lot, we all headed off in different directions in the bush looking for the entrance. Jay and Ross had not been there in years and the path was no longer discernable.  I carried the belay rope.  The forest was thick with peppermint and eucalyptus trees.  We searched and searched.  Regrouped, spread out, and looked some more.  It was getting later and hotter.  I was getting really thirsty but I wanted to save my water for the long trip in the cave.  We were looking for a small depression in the ground.  Suddenly I saw a small rock in front of me, then a doline. I almost stumbled into the pit it came up so unexpectedly.  "I found it!" I yelled out.  I was glad to feel useful and like I contributed something.

There was no entrance gate at Easter, the entrance being a 10 meter drop through a hole in the ceiling of the cave.  A cable ladder and belay were rigged and we each descended one by one.  I climbed down carefully, not having been on a cable ladder in over ten years.  Rappelling sure seems easier.  Easter Cave is about 18 kilometres long.  My hosts had no map ..... something political.  Only a handful of people had been here.  We started on our six hour journey that covered about 3 kilometres of the cave.  We stuck tightly to the track, which was marked with reflective tape, very visible and easy to follow and stay on the designated path.  The cave looked virgin to me it was so pristine.  The lack of permits given to visit this cave really showed.  We slowly travelled through room after room of highly decorated passage.  This cave was more dynamic than the others I had seen. Some of the floor was damp and had calcite rafts still growing.  I was just in awe that so much could be so decorated.  The cave had a variety of crawls, squeezes, and walking passage. It was very dry.  Still, the formations were alive and stunning, catching our light beams wherever we shined them.

Our destination was a formation called "The Question", which Ross wanted to photograph.  I relaxed and listened to the echoing drip drip drip of a live formation as the shot was set up.  The trip out did not seem to take as long as going in as we did not stop for pictures on the way out.  Still, because you have to be so careful not to touch anything, it was pretty slow going. I did not mind, it gave me time to memorize all the beautiful things I was seeing.  And I believe that my presence left no impact on the cave that day.

I would like to thank Jay and Ross Anderson, and the WASG for making it possible for me to experience some of the finest caves in Western Australia.

Mike Wilson