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Caving in Tasmania, Australia

by Phil (MadPhil) Rowsell

This article is aimed to give the reader a general understanding of the range of cave systems, their access and general differences in Tasmania compared to the UK.

Introduction

Tasmania is a small island at the base of Australia, directly south from Melbourne.  It is a similar size to Wales being 260km by 260km, with a population around ½ million.  It is very similar to a rural England with a climate to match (it does have the bonus that it generally gets a pretty good summer!!)  Tasmania is often likened to New Zealand and for this reason, it remains relatively un-trafficked, people preferring to head to New Zealand rather than explore the hidden treasures of Tasmania.  Almost all adventure sports can be pushed to the extreme here, caving is no exception boasting the best in Australia.

Over the last three years I have spent two six months slots in Tasmania, the first six months, doing a mixed bag of activities, before spending the last two months of the trip caving with the local Hobart club (Southern Tasmanian Caveneers STC). Most of this time was spend doing the usual tourist trips and getting to know the local members etc, but I did managed to spend a reasonable time helping re-surveying a system called Khazad Dum (KD).  This was enough to give me the desire to head back for another six months in December 2001 for a trip solely devoted to caving!!  This time, I capitalised on the friends and ground work I did last trip. I managed about four and a half months devoted to caving, doing some 50 trips (including three expeditions to Mt Anne) and spending over 350 hours underground.  For my efforts, I am now finally losing the "foreigner" tag and being regarded as a local by the club.  The appeal of the place is so great I am heading back again for another six months, in mid August!!

General Information

Tasmania has a wide variety of cave systems, ranging from large horizontal networks ( Exit Cave approximately 16km of surveyed passage) to deep vertical ones (several fight for the deepest cave in Australia around the 360m mark).  Many of the horizontal caves are active river systems with several vertical entrances, giving variety of through trips and exchanges with varying degrees of difficulty/exposure.  Dependant on the cave area, decorations can vary from non existent, to mind bogglingly stunning.  The tight access controls given to these highly decorated caves generally make it difficult for "foreigners" to visit.  With notice the local clubs can sometimes organize permits etc, however when compared to the UK, there are many other systems with good formations that have unrestricted access.

Most of the cave systems require SRT techniques, to either bottom the cave or access some of the complex horizontal systems below.  The caves can be compared to a large Yorkshire, with multiple pitch lengths generally of the 40-50m range, with pitches of 90-110 m fairly common.  The cave systems are generally damp to wet in nature, being slightly cooler than in the UK and enough to warrant a furry and TSA type over suit.  Some of the hardened locals however, just cave in thermals and home made Wombat type suits!

Major Differences

Rigging

Cave conservation in Tasmania is very strong.  Bolting is generally only undertaken when absolutely necessary and all natural possibilities have been exhausted.  There is a strong desire not to follow the path of the UK caves where pitch heads abound with countless spits and now 'P' hangers, many of which are redundant or unnecessary. As a result many of the less popular but sporting caves are rigged using natural anchors with occasional spits where a blank is drawn.  A good degree of natural rigging skill and equipment is required compared to the relatively easy "join the dots together of UK rigging".

The popular caves do have reasonably bolted pitches, but with the increasing visits to areas and more spits appearing, some of these are now being 'P' hangered to limit the number of bolts being placed.  The author has been involved with this programme and to date 3 caves have been 'P' hangered.  This programme will only involve some of the popular/classic tourist type caves.

Access

Unlike the UK where cave descriptions and guides etc are readily available, in Tasmania (and it seems Australia) a shroud of secrecy is kept on both the locations and cave details. This can be highly frustrating for people used to the free access of data and arrive at self-contained expeditions etc.  The local clubs are generally very hospitable and will guide or direct you to suitable caves/areas.  As you are accepted into the fold, the more the information flows!

Local know ledge of the area is in any case pretty essential as most of the areas are deep in bush or forest requiring ½ to I hour walk.  Some have taped marked "tracks" maintained by the cavers, and generally involve varying degrees of log gymnastics.  The less popular caves can be a straight bush bash. GPS has helped to locate these entrances (if you can obtain the coordinates!) but getting to the entrance can be as difficult and as exhausting as the caving trip itself!  On one trip, the author spent 3 hours bush bashing 600m to get from a dirt track to a cave known as Satan’s Lair!

The Prospect of Rescue

Unlike the UK, cave rescue is under the control of Police Search and Rescue Unit, which deals with all forms of rescue.  The police then call on the available caving clubs to provide the experience for the cave rescue.  Unfortunately the number of cavers in Tasmania is limited and those with the knowledge to perform a rescue in deep remote areas you are generally caving with and are obviously out of the equation!  Coupled with the remoteness of most of the caves, the only form of rescue (as with general remote expeditions) is self!


The author negotiating one of the many fallen logs!

Caving Areas of Tasmania

The Figure 1 shows a map of Tasmania and the position of the main karst areas.  Of these only three would be considered to be the main stay caving areas which are regularly visited.  These are Junee-Florentine, Ida Bay and Mole Creek.  The other areas are either small with limited number of caves or they are remote places often in wilderness areas and require expedition type trips to access them.  These remote areas do hold some large systems, and offer great exploration possibilities.


Key to Caving Areas

C

Cracroft

JF

Junee- Florentine

CP

Mt Crips

MA

Mt Anne

GP

Guns Plains

MC

Mole Creek

H

Hastings

MW

Mt Weld

IB

Ida Bay

PB

Precipitous Bluff

Figure 1 Map of Tasmania and the major Karst Areas

The Junee-Florentine Valley

Situated about 1.5 hours drive from Hobart, the Junee-Florentine Valley forms probably the best caving area in Tasmania, certainly for sport caving.  Most of the systems are still active, and care has to be exercised with regards to the weather (flooding).  This area is not renowned for its decorations, but there is the odd gem if you know where to look!

The Junee Florentine area is a large drainage system (12 by 13 km) involving several valley systems which resurge at the Junee Resurgence.  The area holds many separate complex systems which have all been dye traced to this single resurgence.  Links between the systems are continually being sought and the elusive "master drain" has still not yet been found!  The majority of the caves are vertical in nature with many pitches over 80m. Some of the systems do drop into river systems that provide through trips to a horizontal entrance but the majority are true SRT.  Most of the renowned trips (difficult and sporting trips) in Tasmania are in this area.  (Ice Tube 360m one of the deepest caves in Australia, Niggly Pot, 100m of pitches along difficult passage followed by a 186m free hang pitch, to a large blind horizontal system, Serendipity - regarded as one of the most sporting trips in the country).  There are many other caves etc of less arduous nature, several of which are regarded as "classic" tourist trips, Slaughterhouse-Growling Swallet, Dwarrowdelf-Khazad Dum exchange, but again most of these are vertical.

Ida Bay

This area is dominated by the Exit Cave system, with some 16km of surveyed passage. Its true length however is unknown due to the poor correlation of the survey data!  It is an active river system, with a number of vertical entrances providing the scope for a variety of through trips and exchanges, one of best being a Mini Martin 115m free hang entrance pitch in daylight.  Exit Cave is very well decorated in places, and is restricted by a permit system, but by good planning the local clubs can obtain a permit with relative ease.

The area also has a large number of straight vertical trips (bounce trips) generally to a depth of 180m to 200m with only limited horizontal passage in the cave.  Many of these however, provide good digging opportunities with potential connections to the exit system, a thing the locals rarely do "why dig when we can find virgin passage elsewhere!"  It is in this area the author dug through a flattener to find a major extension to a cave system which will hopefully be connected into the Exit System on the next visit.


The lime tree in Marakoova Cave. Mole Creek.

Mole Creek

Probably the most famous and well known of the Tasmanian caving areas being renown for its beautiful formations.  Many of the caves are horizontal systems, offering easier caving opportunities, but most are permit only caves.  While some are relatively easy to obtain through the local clubs, gems like Kubla Khan are subjected to such severe restrictions (somewhat ridiculous) that it is nearly impossible for "foreigners" to gain access, unless by sheer luck.  (After a year of trying I still haven't got a Kubla Khan trip!!).  The effort to obtain these permits however is worthwhile as their beauty and formations are stunning

Highlights of the last trip

One of the main aims of my trip however was to re-survey and push a remote complex system known as Anne-a-Kanada (presently 360m deep) with the aim of attaining the deepest cave in Australia record.  The system is situated in the south west wilderness on a (1000m) ridge system near Mt Anne.  As the area is in a National Park, no helicopter flights etc are permitted so all gear has to be hiked in.  This involves a 4 to 7 hour walk dependent on load.  Three 6-7 day expeditions as well as several gear carry trips were undertaken by myself and Jeff Butt.  Together we have re-surveyed most of the cave and new ground pushed, but the results of these expeditions will form a separate BB article.

Stal in Lynn's Cave.

Another project worthy of mention is the extension of Baader Meinhof in the Ida Bay area.  Here the author was shown a tight flattener with a cobble stream way running through. The passage was too tight to squeeze through but had a howling draught (and we mean howling!!) indicating a probable connection into the Exit System.  The locals thought the prospect of digging this too daunting or may be degrading!!  On seeing it my comment was "Man this would have been pushed long ago!" Several digging trips and the restrictions were removed and the author broke through into a large extension with the possibility of a connection to Exit.  Again the results and survey of this extension will feature as a separate BB article.

As well as these projects, I did many of the classic trips, found several new small caves and extensions in various others.  One goal I still haven't achieved is to do Niggly Pot and the 186m free hang (the black super giant) much to my annoyance third time lucky I guess!!

Conclusion

Tasmania is a great little undiscovered island, similar to a rural England some 20 years or so ago.  Most of the cave areas are predominantly vertical systems with large horizontal systems at a base level, some of which have horizontal entrances. The required skill level varies right across the board, from relatively easy to a very serious undertaking.  This is complicated by the fact that the majority of the caves are not bolted to any extent and that a good level of skill in natural rigging is required.  The decoration in the caves varies from non existent to mind blowing, dependent on the caving area, although access to the pretty areas is permitted and can be very difficult (if not impossible) to attain.

With the limited number of cavers and hence traffic, new passage can be found relatively easily especially those in the more remote areas.  The digging potential is huge but it is generally frowned upon from the cave conservation point of view.  If conducted, it has to be planned carefully with good homework and a clear aim to prevent bad feeling from the locals.  Banging would be tantamount to treason!

Overall, Tasmania is well worth a visit with some exciting caving so much so I am off in August for a 3rd six month session.  If you're heading out that way, contact myself or the local cave club (the Southern Tasmanian Caveneers STC) as they are a good bunch and will show you around. See ya there.

Formations in Lynn's Cave.