YARRANGOBILLY – JUNE 2016
When the Yarrangobilly trip went on the MSS calendar, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. MSS had (figuratively) put its hand up to guide pre-conference caving trips at Yarrangobilly (“Yagby”) for the ISS Conference in 2017 (which will be held in Sydney). Beth thought it was a good idea to re-familiarise herself with the Yagby Caves.
Beth teed up David S (knows Yagby like the back of his hand) to go along. Anne B (a non caver) and I went along for the ride. We met up with members of Canberra Speleos (CSS) (the local experts) at Caves House. The intention was to do a recce and run through some of the caves to make sure that the caves on offer were feasible for international cavers. The weather forecast wasn’t good, rain, drizzle and possibly snow.
We arrived at Yarrangobilly around 4pm, and booked into the 1917 Caves House. Caves house is an add-on to the original 1901 building, it hasn’t seen many renovations over the years and is heritage listed so was an ideal place for NPWS to get grants for restoration and they’ve done an amazing job of restoring and renovating the 1917 part of the building, all the rooms are really swish, but they’ve retained the look and feel of the original building (in fact photos of some of the rooms show that the renovation is almost an exact replica). Beth and I had adjoining rooms and our bathroom had a bath which well and truly got a work-out each evening when we arrived back at Caves House tired and sore – my bruises have bruises on them!
DAY 1: The first day was a get-to-know-you day when we met the CSS people and did a range of tourist caves, Castle Cave Y31, Harrie Wood Cave Y26, North Glory and South Glory. Whilst the decorations were lovely, they don’t have the impact of those in the sporty caves, because you’ve basically just walked along a track and up a few steps to see them.
A few interesting things though. In Harrie Wood Cave, we were told about a section of the cave that had been enclosed with chicken wire (what they used to do in the old days to protect the formations. The “tourists” back then (we’re talking the early 1900s here), didn’t like the fact that they were dripped on by water seeping down landing on the chicken wire and then dripping on them. So, the rangers (at that time), built a bit of a trough above the wire. Now, where to put the water? They put a kerosene can under the trough to collect the water. That kerosene can (shown here and the chicken wire) is still there, now calcified over and is part of the cave, it’s probably cemented to the floor of the cave by the formations.
We came to another section in Harrie Wood where there must have been a small hole in the rock and with all the rain we’d had it was slowly percolating underground and must have set up a bit of pressure, because through this small hole in the rock was a spout of water (shown here in the photo. It was gone a couple of days later, but was something to see.
We ended the tour with a “self guided walk” through North Glory, this involved walking up a lot of steps at the end to a section of rock that years ago they’d blasted and chopped a hole through the rock to make a one way trip, you had to walk up a lot of stairs, very very steep and we figure that they miscalculated where the hole would come out because the steps are way too steep for anyone to have purposely made them that way.
DAY 2: Tricketts Cave – Y13 – We had a lot of bush bashing to get to this cave (well, it was probably only a k but all the cavers thought it was a lot of walking), and we could see the opening from a hundred or so metres, a huge big hole in the side of the cliff. Getting there was another matter, sidling across a steep slope and then climbing up a rock-face, looked harder than it was, but if you fell, you’d be in the Yarrangobilly River. The opening is just above the River, and unlike all the other caves we did during the week, it had a very big opening. You have to walk back about 50m then crawl through a small passage and the cave opens up, quite a large chamber which originally was a river stream bed. There isn’t all that much formation in the cave, the interesting part was the bedrock that didn’t have decoration on it. We then retraced our steps to Coppermine Cave.
Coppermine Cave – Y12 – You know you’re at the start of Coppermine because there is a stream coming out of the rocks, which we had to crawl over to get into the opening. We walked upstream, I’d hoped to keep my gum boots dry but sadly right at the end of the passage I stood in a pool that was too deep and water poured into them! The cave has been badly vandalised (here were lots of signatures in the cave, people putting their names on walls), this is probably due to the fact that the cave isn’t gated until a long way in (it would be hard to gate because the passage is very wide, gates are usually put in where there’s a bit of a squeeze to get through and therefore the gate only needs to be small). There isn’t much decoration in the beginning of the cave, where the stream is but we saw platypus burrows and claw marks where they’d climbed up on the banks.
Eventually we came to a climb up of about 3m, there aren’t many foot holds (in fact none), and the walls are too far apart for most people but John B managed to climb up (some good moves there) and set up a caving ladder, he also set up a belay for those who weren’t that good with a caving ladder (me). Once up this section, we’d arrived at the “clean zone”. Those wanting to go into the clean zone had to change shoes here.
You can then walk through to see the real decorations in the cave, a lot of these were white and some showed evidence of people who had worn their muddy boots in.
It was a very short section, just a couple of white formations very pretty but almost not worth taking the clean shoes for and now I had wet volleys and wet gum-boots, these were hard to dry out when we got back to Caves House!
DAY 3: Restoration Cave – Y50 – For this cave the group of 14 split into two and one group did one cave while the other group did the other cave, and then swapped over. Anne accompanied us for this cave, her first “wild cave” and she did really, really well although I’m sure she was way out of her comfort zone. Restoration Cave used to have very restricted access, but these days NPWS allow 8 groups through a year although some sections of the cave are still no-go areas. Lots of climb downs (some tricky) and because of the mud, lots of them were quite challenging for a beginner. I wore my joggers into the cave and they didn’t have good tread (the Volleys and gum-boots were still wet and who wants to put on wet shoes!). We rigged up a handline for a couple of the climb downs but you almost didn’t need them if you sat down and slid down because the mud was so sticky that your overalls slowed you down. Eventually we came to a chain and we used that to get down the 3m or so to the bottom. The chain was where the old gate used to be, and the gate was taken out about 10 years ago when a very competent caver almost killed himself getting his helmet stuck in the gate and he was hanging, luckily someone came back they managed to get him down and revive him (he was unconscious). The gate was taken out after that. After the climb down you walk to a T intersection and then go to the right and then come back and walk down to the left. When you walked around to the left, there were amazing straw formations, some of them 3m in length, they are the size of a drinking straw and it’s truly amazing that they are still there. We then retraced our steps, the climb ups weren’t as bad as going down them, the only really challenging part was the section with the 3m climb up (at the site of the old gate). I could grab hold of the chain but there was no way I could get a foot up so I went back a bit and sort of chimney-ed up and then over the top of some rocks to grab the chain, I was very relieved to finally get a good hold of it. After that the exit was pretty straight forward, just more rock scrambling back to the entry gate.
East Deep Creek Cave – Y5 – This was probably my favourite cave. You climb down through a boulder field, sometimes it was difficult to see the route as people had gone different ways with their muddy boots and overalls. The challenging part of going down was getting past the locked gate, you had to belly through a squeeze and then belly across the gate which had been unlocked – head first, and being careful not to fall down the gaping chasm where you passed the gate. Once through, there were more boulder fields and then you arrive at a pool of water, crystal clear and a blue tinge to it because of the limestone (apparently there was more water in the pool than had been seen for quite some time). We crawled past this (on our bellies) and continued on to a climb up, where we then stopped and took off our overalls, then we walked up to
another ledge and then changed into “clean” shoes, stepping up onto pure white formation, we then walked around a large flow stone and there are this absolute white formations, it was like being in an ice cave. There was water pouring down all the formations (due to the wet weather), and pools of water everywhere, absolutely magic. We then retraced our steps, sliding on our bellies beside the pool again. The most challenging part of the day was closing the gate, Dave had been stressing about it all day, you have to pull the metal gate up and then keep the tension on it whilst you get the padlock and key in place! We were soon back on the surface and met up with the other group for the walk back to the vehicles.
Jillabenan Cave – Y22 – After dinner we drove up to Jillabenan Cave. This is a tourist cave which was discovered about 100 years ago. When first discovered there was a small opening that had to be crawled through to get into the cave, but when they entered the cave they thought it was so good that they wanted to open it to the public so they cut a bloody great opening, so big that it now has a huge metal door (which is locked), that you use to enter. When they made the cave into a tourist cave, they cut huge channels through the cave so that the tourists didn’t have to walk stooped over, some of these channels are waist deep (see the footpath created through formations, this would have had to be crawled through when the cave was first discovered). This is the only cave that is wheelchair accessible and NPWS have put in a section of “rail” above the channel because they didn’t want to make the channel wider. Almost as soon as you enter the cave there’s a profusion of formations, whereas in the sport caves that we visited today, there was lots of rock scrambling to get to the formations. Here in Jillabenan you saw formations right from the get-go. In one spot (shown to the right), there used to be a lovely pool with formations all around and rim pools, but, they wanted the tourists to be able to see and there was some formation in the way, so they cut all that away and made it level with the pool. This meant that the water now didn’t collect in the pool, so that part of the cave dried out and is no longer growing and active. This was 100 years ago, and there is a small spot where water constantly drips, it has been dripping in the one spot for 100 years, and there is the start of a stalagmite, after 100 years it is 3mm high, that’s how long it takes for the formations to grow. We had a NPWS guide with us, Regina, who had accompanied us in the caves we’ve done this week and on this occasion gave us a huge amount of information both on how the tourist cave was set up and also how the formations evolved, fascinating stuff.
DAY 4: Eagle’s Nest Through Trip – Y1, Y2 & Y3 – Eagle’s Nest is what’s called a “sporty” cave, that means that there’s a lot of rock climbing, scrambling over rocks, an abseil down a “non-pitch”, and stepping across gaping chasms. It was a little daunting, we were under ground for 4.5 hours. Whilst East Deep Creek Cave was in my opinion the most beautiful of the caves, Eagle’s Nest was the most challenging for me. The entry was a little squeezy, but that was nothing. Down, down, down we went, seemed like hundreds of metres but I was assured it was only 150m, but all over and under boulders, you felt like you were in the bowels of the earth. David and Beth looked after me and made sure that when we came to a gaping chasm that I could get across safely. Eventually we came to the “non pitch”, this is a section where there is a 6m drop, some really good climbers can free climb it, but Beth (a good climber), took a look at it and said she wasn’t doing that today, the rock looked very slick. David set up a rope for those of us who needed to abseil the pitch and we went down. My bloody pack got stuck which was a pain but I managed to extricate one arm and could then get past the squeeze and chock stone. After about an hour we came to a locked gate at Hughies Dig, this is a section that has been dug out so that Eagle’s Nest can be done as a though route. Dave went through first to unlock the gate and then we all had to belly crawl using your elbows and arms along 15m of tunnel (this is the part of caving that I really hate), there’s not enough room to turn around, not even to turn your head around or lift your head to see forward. I don’t have a good caving pack and so I hook it around my foot and drag it behind me, next thing I buy is a good caving pack! I’ve never been so pleased to get out of a crawl. We were now in canyon-like sections of the cave where you could wander along standing upright, it was a luxury not to have to bend over or climb up and over rocks. We then came to sections that were originally crystal beds (that is before humans found the caves), but over the years, people have trampled the crystals (couldn’t be avoided), but there are some sections where the crystal pools remain. We stopped at the Red Crystal Room for lunch, this is an area of really red formations. By now the roof of the cave system was way, way above us, maybe 50m in places but before long we came to a section of pendants, this is bedrock (or what’s called primary formation) that has been worn away by the stream bed and all that remains are these dragon teeth hanging from the ceiling, very impressive, particularly because these pendants hung down to head/shoulder height so you could walk amongst them. We stopped at a couple of sections where the CSS members replaced the track markers (wire/string that is set in place to make sure that you don’t walk over to fragile sections), it was interesting watching them sort out where they wanted cavers to walk. After what seemed like an eternity we came to the exit route, and we climbed up and up and up, there were squeezes and chasms to cross over. The whole cave was very wet, everywhere you went there was mud and water, so climbing up the exit route was treacherous, there was one final committing climb (you know, where I’m hanging on and hoping that I can get my foot somewhere secure or if that’s not possible where I can wedge my knee into a slot). And then, there it was, daylight the cave gods had let us out! From there it was about a 2k walk back to the cars!
Not everyone gets to do a through trip through Eagle’s Nest, so I feel privileged that these very experienced cavers were happy to take me along on this trip, a big thanks to David and Beth (and the cave gods who let me get out that day – was touch and go for a while!).
Most of the group went out to another cave that night, but Beth and I decided that we’d had enough for one day and stayed back at Caves House.
This was a wonderful trip, I saw some truly amazing things and feel so fortunate that I was allowed to tag along. The CSS people (there were about a dozen of them) were so welcoming and friendly, made you want to join up with them in the future on some of their trips. Because John B & his wife Marge were in the same section of Caves House that we were in, we really got to know them well, they are extremely experienced and very generous with their knowledge. Also caught up with Dirk who I’d caved with on the Nullarbor, small world eh?