Caving in Tasmania – in the deep end

KUBLA KHAN (MC1 & MC29) – April 16, 2018
This is the cave that all Australian cavers aspire to see.  It’s a daunting trip, taking anywhere between 9 to 12 hours to do the full through trip.  It’s highly restricted, with only 12 recreational permits approved for the cave each year (only 6 cavers allowed per permit).  David W-C had organised a management trip for us which meant that we would be doing work in the cave on behalf of Karst Care Management and National Parks. 

To say I was nervous is an understatement … whilst the cave map only shows the route as being just over a kilometre (as the crow flies) of passages that we would use, there would be multiple abseils (with redirects – more about that later), squeezes, climbs with exposure, traverses with exposure, a swim through freezing water, and then 2 prussics (with a rebelay) to get out.  When I say just over a k of passages, that’s only the ones that we would use, there are many other side passages that because of their fragile nature are no longer visited and there’s a massively long river passage with sumps that only cave divers use, so the cave system is very extensive.

As only 6 of us were able to do the trip (and we numbered 7 with David), Murray opted to not do the cave and would instead have a rest day.

We were starting early enough but would be exiting the cave well after sundown.  David was concerned about the time that our photographers would spend setting up their shots and he was estimating that we would be exiting the cave at 8pm, he kept us on a tight schedule in order to meet that deadline.  I wasn’t concerned about the length of the day, more that I would be slow on the prussic out and everyone behind me would be standing around getting colder and colder.  Turns out I had a bit more that I should have been worried about! As you will see, there are few photos that I took, I was more concerned about surviving for most of the trip.

First of all a bit of history – initially this was considered a “bounce” trip, meaning that people would enter what’s called the Lower Entrance, abseil down about 35 – 40m and then walk down a slope of mud/dirt (this now has a set of metal steps up/down to preserve the area).  At the bottom there’s a big hole that they dropped down into a stream-way, which they followed through and then turned around at some point and made their way back to the entry.  Then someone (I think his name might have been Chris), continued along to a spot just below where we had entered, almost to the end, he was sitting there smoking a pipe and noticed that the smoke was curling up beyond where he was sitting – ah he’s thinking, might be another entrance!  He and a friend came back a while later and the friend wandered along on the surface firing off a shotgun, and eventually voice contact was made, and they found the other entrance, now called the Upper Entrance.  It’s a mere 200m+ from the Lower Entrance  but slightly higher in elevation.  These early cavers must have been amazing, how they found their way through the serpentine route that we took takes your breath away.

So, our equipment, what I had to carry … abseil harness, carabineers and descender, ascender and chest harness, 2 sets of thermals, beanie, wetsuit, lunch and snacks, and water bottle (not that any of us were drinking much), first aid kit, dry bags, spare batteries, wetsuit booties (clean shoes) and pee bottle (no peeing in the cave!).  The photographers were carrying much more than that!

The day before, David had gone to the exit and rigged up the rope that we would use to get out.  Doing this the day before, meant that we did not have to spend 40 minutes that morning rigging the exit (thanks David!).  We left the cabin at 8am, there was a bit of minor confusion as to where we were meeting David so by the time we met him we were half an hour late (not a good start!).

Another rare good photo (when I don’t look like a little old lady – well not as much like one). The boot washing station before we enter the cave (Photo: Garry K Smith)

We left the cars and walked a few hundred metres along a track (that David along with some volunteers had gone in and cleaned up with a brush cutter the day before). Then there was a few hundred metres up a hill to get to the entrance.  We entered the cave at 9am on the dot.  We then dropped down a small passage to the gate, we’d picked up the key from Parks Tasmania on our arrival in Tassie.  I have to say the gates that they build are amazing, lovely stainless steel and definitely designed so no-one can enter without a key, note the steel tube that you have to put your hand up to get to the lock!

Straight away there is a pitch – known as Pitch 1, not too far but down a bit of a squeezy hole – you had to make sure your back pack didn’t get stuck.

After about 10m or so, there is a “re-direct”, this is where the rope is put through a spring-gate carabineer – directing you in a different way to that which the rope takes. This is used to avoid rope wear spots or formations that you wouldn’t want to tread on.

A note on redirects – you abseil to the carabineer, lock off, unclip the ‘bineer which is below you and re-clip it to the rope above you.  Easy enough but this was my first re-direct. Apparently, when Andrew and David heard that Cathi and I hadn’t practiced this before, they were a little taken aback.  Yes, we’d practiced prussiking but hadn’t practiced the re-directs.  I had a little trouble with unclipping the ‘bineer with my gloves on and the Pit Stop locking option isn’t great when using double 9mm rope (note to self – get a Rack and practice re-directs).

I’m down now and getting over the adrenaline rush as I watch Garry descend.

A small area where we regrouped for our next abseil – Pitch 2.

David going down the pitch.  I think there was another re-direct here, and this one was more difficult (for me) because it was on the left hand side.  If I’d trusted the Pit Stop locking mechanism more it would have been easier as I would have used both hands (note to self, with re-directs make sure I use the fingerless gloves as the ones with finger-tips are useless for dexterity).

Another Pitch this one with a re-direct on the left. I shortened the legs on the overalls, maybe I shortened them too much. Nice bit formation in the distance. (Photo: Garry K Smith)

So, we’re past the 2 abseils now and walking through the passage and our next challenge, Khyber Pass, just 100m since dropping into the cave.  We’re crossing flow stone with just a little crevasse to put our toes in, and not that many hand holds – and a big drop off to the side – Cathi’s making it look easier than I found it.

We took a small side tour into Opium Den, some nice helictite balls on the walls, they were lovely but we’d see much better examples in a few days time.

Melissa coming down the next challenge, David told us to think about child-birth and spread our thighs – Melissa hasn’t had any children so she had to use her imagination.  Spreading your thighs gave you extra friction to get down the drop.

A nice formation – I think this was in Watergate, another side passage that we visited.

Back on the main route, we’re now walking along The Ridgeway formations all over the place and a drop either side, not too far though.

It was after the ridgeway that we stopped for a while when David cleaned out a shoe washing station.  These are big black tubs that have been brought in and half filled with water.  There’s a brush beside the tub and each person has to scrub the mud off their shoes (we each scrubbed the shoes of the person ahead of us).  Over time, a thick layer of mud settles in the bottom and the clean water has to be drained off and the mud is then scooped into plastic bags and then carried to the underground river and released.  The clean water is then put back in the tub. Both Garry and Andrew carried bags of mud until the river.  There are lots and lots of these tubs that have been brought in and placed in spots where mud would discolour the formations.  Cleaning out some boot washing stations was one of the jobs that we had to do as part of our being allowed into the cave.

Shortly after the Ridgeway, we took a small side trip to the beginning of the Silk Shop.  This is an area with masses of shawls these ones striped orange, brown and white, the guys took amazing photos, these photos just don’t do the Silk Shop justice.

More shawls in the Silk Shop

This photo is me piggy-backing off Cathi’s 1200 lumens torch.  The guys had half a dozen flashes out which all fired at once lighting up the area but the flashes didn’t do me much good from where I was sitting.  On the far right you can see Cathi holding her torch on the shawls, this gives you an idea of how big they are.

After the Silk Shop we had lunch on The Lunch Rock and looked over at The Khan. This photo was taken by David W-C and from it you can see the enormity of this, it’s 18m high. The guys didn’t bring enough flashes to photograph this and my head torch couldn’t even light it up. From the photo, you can just imagine the size of the chamber that it’s in.

If you were doing an Xanadu “bounce” trip, where you walked in a distance and then turned around and walked out again, this is the point, at The Khan where you would turn around.

David must have thought that we were doing ok time wise because he then let us go into Xanadu and to the Outer Xanadu chamber. The guys then set out flashes to take some shots of the decoration. This is my photo piggy-backing off their flashes and David W-C posing for them (gives scale to the formations). The Xanadu Chamber is over 150m wide and probably 100m across, there is no way you can see to the other side, it’s just a black void.

After our trip to Outer Xanadu, we walked back around the back of The Khan to the Rift Bypass Pitch. Here you abseil down a hole, getting onto the pitch was iffy so we asked Andrew to stand in a safe spot and pass the rope over to us.  Another rate photo of me (thanks Garry).  (Photo:  Garry K Smith)

Here’s Andrew abseiling down.  (Note to self … next time you do a pitch like this and you’ve got a heavy back-pack, hang it off your harness, otherwise it pulls you backwards!)

The guys after pulling down the rope.

This was my next challenge, despite the tube tape to hold onto, way to high for my comfort zone, even with David guiding me!


Big stretch here even for Andrew.

So far everything had been “fine and dandy”, a few challenges, way out of my comfort zone but ok.  Then we got to Sallys Folly.  This is where you had to hold onto shawls, stals,  whatever you could grab onti, and sidle across a pool with no footholds – or none that I could find.  David covered the 3m with little or no effort.  I on the other hand stuffed around trying to find hand holds (where there were none) and non-existent places to put my feet.  It was all too much and I fell in.  The pool is now re-named Marilyns Folly.  It was over my head, and the bottom was thick mud, I came out soaked and very embarrassed.

It was somewhere around here that David filled up half a dozen goon bags with water to be taken along to an area that would be “cleaned” in the not too distant future.  They had to look hard to find a pool that I hadn’t muddied up after my fall.  David, Garry and Andrew then carried the filled goon bags through the passageway ahead of us.  When we got to the end of the passage, there were 17 goons of water which would be used for a cleaning project.  This was another one of the jobs we had to do as part of allowing us into the cave.

The pool was then followed by a climb (Garry gave me a boost up) followed by an exposed traverse around some stals.  Knowing how the exposure freaked me out, David suggested that I take a less exposed route which involved a squeeze.  I promptly got stuck in the squeeze, either my Croll or my camera or my over-endowed chest got in the way and it took me ages to get out of the hole.  Another embarrassment with David, Andrew and Garry laughing at me! (Note to self – must lose weight!)

Cathi had the sense to take off her helmet before doing the squeeze, it was hard to get your head through the hole, and being way smaller than me she slid through the hole without any effort.

All the backpacks waiting to go down the next hole.

We’re now going through The Forest, tight (but not too tight) and lots of formations to avoid hitting with your helmet.

Yet another squeeze to go up which will bring us out to the next pitch, Cairn Hall Pitch.

Cairn Hall Pitch.  This was down a flow stone to a re-belay, this time a nice long one and a good ledge to stand on, so no issues whatsoever getting across this one.  The pitch went all the way down to the River Alph. an underground river which was pretty cool. There was lots of sand, in fact it was a big sand bank beside the river, evidence of how high the water would go in a flood.  By now it’s 4pm, and we still had another 4 hours to go!

If you were doing a Pleasure Dome “bounce trip”, this is where you would turn around and walk back out to the Lower Entrance (which is where we’d be exiting).

After the pitch it was a bit of a walk down the stream-way but you only had to get your feet wet.  The beauty of the stream-way meant that there were no more boot washing stations.  After 100m or so, we came to one of the highlights of the trip, Pleasure Dome.  We climbed up to a rock, and changed into clean gear, wetsuits mostly, and changed our shoes.  We were going up to an area that was absolutely pristine, pale yellow/gold rimstone pools, in periods of high rain, these pools may be filled with water, flowing down to the river below.

The rimstone and pools above it.  The formation looks very fragile but is actually very hard, it’s only if you step on the edge of a pool that the formation may brake so we were careful where we stood.

While the guys were setting up their flashes, David and I walked across the rim stone pools to a small cavern where we found these lovely helicites hanging off the wall, very fragile.

Another shot of them.

The guys took much better shots than this, but I still think this one is pretty good.  Melissa had to carry two sets of overalls so that the guys could photograph her in a clean set, along with her little white shoes!

We spent a lot of time at the Pleasure Dome (the guys took a lot of photos), and then it was back to the “detrog rock” and into our shoes and overalls ready for our swim in the river – none of us were looking forward to the 20m swim.

Not many photos of us in the river, too dark and we were all trying to do the 20m swim as quickly as possible.

Finally we were able to get out of the water.

Cathi climbing out of the underground river.

Finally we were at the end of the passageways and the way forward was up.  There was a very slopey rock to climb up, thankfully David went first and put down the tape to help us get up and over the slippery part.  We then did a pack haul to get all the heavy packs up.  Once up we went through a metal grate, this was part of the locked gate to this entrance of the cave, how National Parks got the grate down into the cavern in the first place is beyond me, it was over 4 or 5m wide and 2m across.

From the grate it was “simply” a matter of putting on our prussiking gear and walking up the metal steps to the pitch that we had to prussic up.  David went first and then I followed him up.  The prussic wasn’t as bad as I had envisaged, I was slow, but wasn’t holding too many people up.  I got to the re-belay and easily crossed over to the new rope and from there it was simply a matter of scrambling up to the entrance.

David and I then walked down to the cars in the dark.  The others followed shortly after, Andrew being the one who had retrieved the ropes.  It was an amazing trip, 12 hours underground, but I have to say, I wasn’t exhausted, I could easily have walked another couple of hours if I had had to (although maybe not in the cave).  Thankfully though, the vehicles were only a 100m or so away!  Andrew (who retrieved the ropes) was the last person to exit the cave (at 8.45pm).

Would I do it again?  Falling in Sallys Folly wasn’t pleasant and I don’t think I could have avoided that, and it was a big day. I was fortunate with the group, none of them made me feel that I was slow or became impatient that I couldn’t reach some spots I had to climb.

So, probably not, although maybe if it was a trip where we weren’t stopping for photo shoots, I think that added another couple of hours onto the trip.  Fabulous trip David and thank you so much Garry for letting me come on the trip with you!

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4 Responses to Caving in Tasmania – in the deep end

  1. David says:

    Ah…you can never have enough of Kubla! Your unpleasant memories will fade and one day, you’ll find yourself saying at a campfire, “what a top trip!”.

    Congratulations, one of the best caves in Australia!

    • marilyn says:

      Yes, but by that time I’ll be old and decrepit :). It was a top trip! Maybe you should go with me next time (lol)

  2. Roy Cotton says:

    Thank you M for another wonderful tail of trials, tribulation and triumph. A real excellent blog.

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