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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Cave Diving in Tasmania

Peter Buzzacott shares his adventures, thrills and experienced tips on cave diving in the wilderness of Tasmania.

Cave diving is not for everyone but, for me, it is both exhilarating and challenging. I’ve been at it for years now and I’ve wanted to visit a couple of famous caves in Tasmania for ages, so I jumped at the chance when everything fell into place. Two caves in particular drew my attention: The Junee Resurgence because of its beautifully decorated chamber inside the mountain and Dwarrowdelf because of the high degree of difficulty. These trips always require a lot of resources and you need the right gear so I was especially pleased when Patagonia sponsored my trip, supplying the thermal protection I’d need hiking through forests, deep in the cave or on a summit in the central highlands.

I landed in Hobart and stayed with a couple of caving friends in their house overlooking the city. The view at night was spectacular. Soon we were hurtling through Tasmania towards the resurgence, to test out my equipment in the cold Tasmanian waters before attempting an Australian record cave dive in Dwarrowdelf. The water at the bottom of Dwarrowdelf disappears into the earth and many hours later it reappears kilometres away at the Junee Resurgence, a hole at the base of a cliff with a stream pouring out of it. We hiked through national park to reach the cave, got changed into dive gear, climbed over the wooden rails and entered the dark-zone, wading up-stream, sometimes chest deep and battling the rushing water. Finally we reached the end, put on our masks and down we went, into the flooded tunnel. Visibility was the length of my arm at most — basically we were diving alone, a few minutes apart. We had tanks underneath each arm instead of on our backs because the cave was really low in places. After 25-minutes we surfaced in a spectacular chamber, called For Your Eyes Only, probably because the only people who’ve ever seen this is place are cave divers. Thousands of delicate white “straws” hang from the ceiling (thin white tubes of calcium-minerals), pillars and stalagtites too. This is one of Australia’s best caves — amazing. Plus… my dive gear was perfect in these conditions. I was ready
A couple of days later we hiked through the dense rain forest to a hole in the ground called Dwarrowdelf. A rope was tied to a tree and disappeared down into the cave. We got dressed in “Trog Suits” which are lightweight and waterproof, put all the abseiling gear on and in I went. Inside the cave was about 4-degrees and we were planning a long day, alternating between resting while waiting for the ropes to clear or working really hard, so I’d chosen to wear two Capilene undergarments inside my trog suit, a short-sleeved top over a long-sleeved top. That way I could take one off when hot. I was wearing rubber gum-boots through the forest because the cave would be wet and my thick Patagonia merino hiking socks made them feel like sneakers.
Down I went, into the dark, abseiling on a 9mm rope, pitch after pitch. One in particular stood out — we had to squeeze through a short narrow passage and reach out over a huge drop to pull the rope over to clip onto it. Then, we would swing out over the biggest drop I have ever seen — 70m straight down, water falling all around and the void was big enough to fit an apartment block into. All-up we abseiled 200m down, then crawled on our stomachs through a low gallery high above a fast flowing stream, squeezed between rock walls in another section until finally we reached the end of the cave. Just one last hole to get through and the diving pool was on the other side. We were –250m underground by now, in a place fewer than ten people had ever been. If I could dive through the tunnel the water disappears into then 100m away we hoped I would surface in the next cave over. Joining the two caves would break the Australian record for the deepest cave system. I turned my helmet to the side and started squeezing through the hole but it was no good: my chest was too big to fit through. This was a bitter disappointment but, in the scheme of things, all outdoor adventurers face these sorts of set-backs now and then. A summit that can’t be reached, a river that can’t be crossed, a hole that’s too small for a 48” chest. Ho-hum, we emptied the dive tanks to prevent them exploding if they hit the wall on the way back up, and then up we went, hauling ourselves up the rope a foot at a time, my dive gear divided between the team, hanging underneath us as we climbed. It was gut-bustingly hard. The first 70m pitch took me 35 agonising minutes and I had stomach cramps by the time I swung back into the little passage. I don’t think I’ve ever been so shagged as when I crawled out of Dwarrowdelf many hours later.
It took me a few days to recover — my legs in particular had taken more punishment than normal, but within a week I was back to normal and keen to make my first Australian high altitude dive. First though, a hike to the top of the famous Ben Lomond. I parked the van in the northern car-park and followed the trail up and away into the mist. To start the going was easy; a nice trail, not too steep, but then the trail faded and a series of alpine makers led the way, posts held upright by a pile of rocks at the base. I was among the clouds by now and the wind was around ten knots, with an annoying drizzle complementing the low air temperature. I was glad I’d worn my Patagonia insulation R2 over a Capilene undershirt, with a sleeveless down vest over the top for extra warmth. You know, if you’re going to do this sort of stuff you might as well wear the right gear. Two and a half hours later we reached the top — visibility hadn’t exceeded 50m the whole time and we’d met other couples returning defeated on the way up. Conditions really were miserable and we were the only couple to summit that day (I was toasty warm though).
Next, up to Arthur Lake, altitude 1000m. High altitude diving is a bit of a specialty I’ve enjoyed in South Africa, Colorado and Bolivia, where I’m fairly sure I set the Australian record for the highest altitude scuba dive with the Bolivian Navy in 2010. But, where I live (in Western Australia) there are no high altitude lakes so it’s taken me all these years to make my first high altitude dive on Australian soil. The scenery couldn’t have been more beautiful as I geared up and swam away from the shore. Wearing only two little six-litre tanks I wasn’t planning a long dive which was just as well because the visibility underwater was a bit murky and there was fishing line everywhere which was a real entanglement hazard. Still, I found some freshwater crayfish, plenty of interesting weeds and generally had a good dive before climbing out for a hot chocolate.
So, the trip to Tassie was a great success and, thanks to Patagonia, I was toasty warm in the most challenging conditions; freezing water, long hours in a cold cave either resting or busting a gut climbing ropes, hiking with packs through forest and treking in the rain. Next, the Nullarbor: cave diving in the desert, searching for animals previously unknown to science. Life’s one big adventure.
Author’s note: There is no room in caves for untrained divers. The same goes for vertical caving. If you’re interested then join a club and learn what you need to learn. All required permits were obtained before accessing wilderness areas.
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