A Recce trip to Mount Etna

MOUNT ETNA NATIONAL PARK – 24 July – 4 August 2022
I was hoping for a few weeks in a better climate than what I’d left behind on the Central Coast.  Surely it would be warmer up around Rockhampton, right?  Wrong, once again I was unprepared for unseasonably cold weather. At least this time I was in a cabin with heating and a doonah!
I didn’t have a puffy jacket but I had my puffy vest and my lovely powder blue jumper (the only one I packed) was worn every day – I’m not sure it will ever be a powder blue again!

The team would be Rod S, Jim C, Marcia K, Brian R and me (of course), Cathi H-H and Peter D would be joining us the following weekend.

Jim and I arrived at Capricorn Cabins around the same time as Marcia, our cabin would be home for the next 12 days.

We settled in and then headed down to the Pub in The Caves township to meet up with Rod, Brian and a couple of locals.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered that the wife of Noel, our SME (subject matter expert), had come down with COVID and was isolating (later on he became positive so we didn’t see him until the final day we were there).  So, the five of us settled in for dinner and came up with a plan for the next day.

At the Pub, does this give you an idea of how cold it was?

Monday 25 July – Clive (Noel’s friend and fellow caver), met up with us at the Pony Club (where Rod and Brian were staying).  After sitting around getting to know each other, we wandered over to Mt Etna’s tourist track with the intention of walking to the top of the mountain (hill) and then wandering along to Bat Cleft.  The walk off track up to the top was challenging after a week or so with no exercise.

The view from the trig at the top of the mountain – there are lots of hillocks (volcanic plugs) in the distance.

Better shot of the volcanic plugs.

Back down on the bench (the roads that were used when the mine was operational) we made our way over to tourist track to Bat Cleft,

Qld National Parks (QPWS) have done a good job on the tourist track, lots of steps and walkways avoiding the treacherous tower karst.

This is the tower karst we were able to avoid, tower karst is a feature of the karst in tropical areas where monsoon-type rainfall during the wet season erodes the limestone.

We came to the Cleft not much to see of the 30m drop, there were quite a few ring bolts put in by QPWS (nice shiny steel ones) – and a few really old big ones from years ago.  I imagine that the QPWS tourists are put on safety lines (using the shiny new ring bolts) so the tourists can look down the drop and sit back and watch the bats as they leave the Cleft.

Back to the Pony Club for lunch and then we decided to go to Cammoo Caves (on Limestone Ridge).

The plaque on a piece of limestone (in the Cammoo Caves picnic area) beside a fig tree planted to celebrate the “reconciliation” between the cavers and the mining corporation.

So, from the Cammoo Caves parking lot (which used to be the bagging area for the bat guano when they were mining for it), we headed to Chandelier Cave, the gate to the cave was locked, but looked like others had found an “alternate” way to get in.  Even though we had a permit to enter, we thought we’d wait until we got the key before going in (Rod was picking up the keys on Wednesday afternoon). The land-owner in the early days seems to have only opened up Chandelier cave as a tourist attraction, so far, that cave is the only one we’ve seen with tourist infrastructure.

We were then off to find Flogged Horse Cave, Clive led the way, on a footpad and through a fence – Jim making his way through the fence trying to avoid green ants!  We hunted around for a couple of hours with no luck so eventually cut our losses and headed back to the car(s). We’d all had enough (of the scrub) by now so we called it a day after planning our next day’s exploration.

Tuesday 26 July – The plan for today was to head back up onto Limestone Ridge (the Cammoo Caves area) and visit four caves Ballroom, Lost Paradise Cave, Larynx Labrinth and Dragon Head. We met up with Clive, our local (SME) and followed the same track as yesterday. Serendipitously, on the way we found Flogged Horse (which we didn’t find yesterday) but didn’t go in it, we were on a mission (we’d return to Flogged Horse another day).

We bush bashed up to the ridge, the scrub was bad, a lot of fallen trees Coral Berry bushes and then we got into Lantana.

And then the scrub was horrendous, more Lantana than I’ve ever seen before and fallen trees.  “Is it good up there Jim” (Rod) “probably not” says Jim? he was up the front having taken over from Clive who’d been beaten into submission by the scrub.

And then we got into the tower karst, you really had to watch where you stepped and make sure you didn’t trip yourself up!

It took us a couple of hours to get up to the top of Limestone Ridge and we were all stuffed.

And then we had to go down the other side of the ridge. Either you were in horrible scrub or you were walking across the karst and worrying about tripping yourself up!

Eventually we found Ballroom Cave – Marcia making her way down the boulder field.

A volcanic intrusion into the cave (that dark brown section of rock).

The main chamber was quite big.  Marcia and Jim looking for some trapdoor spiders.

The caves are pretty close to the surface, so you see a lot of tree roots in the cave.

I love these phreatic formations, an indication that this was at some time a streamway passage.

Jim and Clive went into the next chamber (not really big), the rest of us didn’t want to do the crawl, we were still recovering from the bush bashing.

Marcia in a hole over on the other side of the main chamber.

We exited Ballroom and went looking for Lost Paradise (it was definitely “lost” we couldn’t find it).  We spent the next couple of hours bashing our way through lantana and getting bitten by Green Ants (Marcia had green ants in her pants at one stage being bitten multiple times).

Eventually we found Larynx Labyrinth and went down to check that out.

Very nice sporty cave, lots of passages (as you’d expect in a labyrinth). One passage had a gaping chasm in it, fortunately I could reverse back out of the passage – I didn’t like being so close to the edge of the chasm.

Some nice formation.

Once out of the Labyrinth, we decided that we’d best start back to the cars as there was no guarantee that we wouldn’t encounter horrific scrub again.  On the way back up to the top of the ridge, we found the entry to Dragon Head and also the entry for Lost Paradise, but we were short of time, so didn’t enter either cave. Surprisingly we were back on top of the ridge within 40 minutes of starting our way up, and then as we dropped over the other side of the ridge, we came upon the track, which was in great condition and we were back at the car(s) in half an hour, and no scrub. Yaaa! and now we know where the track is.

Wednesday 27 July – we were all stuffed from our adventure yesterday so decided on a bludge day.  We invited Brian and Rod up to our cabin for breakfast and then went down to reception and booked in for a run through the Tourist Cave.  The cave was exceptional and our Guide was excellent.

The entrance to Cathedral Cave.

Tectaria devexa – this fern grows in very thin pockets of soil on cave walls, in the daylight areas. Capricorn Caves  are the only known places that they have survived in Australia. Many of their ferns died when a fire swept through the area, but Capricorn Caves now have a breeding program and have introduced a system where the ferns are kept moist as they don’t like an arid climate.

Old tourist infrastructure.

This part of the cave has near perfect acoustics and is set up with church pews, and steps up to a “stage”, it’s a popular venue for weddings and underground opera, we sat and listened to some music it was very moving, particularly when the guide turned the lights out.

One of a couple of “daylight” holes and alternate entrances.

The tour through Cathedral Cave is a “must do” when you’re in the area.

After lunch we met up at the Showground to check out the tufa dams we’d been told about.   Walking up the creek, not sure what we’d find.

We came to some that were interesting, but not the best we’d ever seen.

We were all sort of “ho hum” about the dams, but Jim continued further upstream.

Then he called out – “wait till you see this!” The dams were much more pronounced now. Tufa dams are formed in the eflux streams (the stream that forms where the water seaps out of the cave).

A series of dams. Apparently there are much better ones on private property close by.

After we’d had enough of the tufa dams (and I’d had enough of being eaten by mosquitoes), we headed back to the Pony Club to calibrate our Distos which we would use when cave surveying.  Every time you go to a place to survey which is a considerable distance from where you usually survey, you need to recalibrate the Disto so that the compas readings are accurate.  We did a terrible job of calibrating (too much error), so gave it up as a failure for the afternoon.

We then drove into Rockhampton to pick up all the keys we needed for our wild caving, wandered around Kershaw Gardens and Park, then picked up groceries and had dinner.  By the time we got back to the Pony Club, it was dark and we gave the calibration another go, this time successfully.

Kershaw Park – we walked to the “waterfall”, this was the pool it was supposed to flow into, but the waterfall must have been turned off – a bit disappointing. Lovely Park though.

Thursday 28 July – as part of our successful application for a permit from QPWS, we offered to volunteer to do some tree planting in an area that they were trying to rehabilitate.  So, we met up with the guys who were co-ordinating the rehabilitation and spent the next 4 hours planting trees, diggings holes and watering them.  Very satisfying work – I was all for doing some weeding too but, apparently, they don’t bother with weeding they just nuke the weeds with Roundup.

Jim and me planting you can see Mt Etna in the distance, and the “benches” (areas with no vegetation) where they would drive up and down mining the limestone.

After lunch we all went back to Chandelier Cave now that we had a key for it.  Very interesting cave, lots of infrastructure, chicken wire, metal poles etc, sort of made us want to volunteer to take out all the infrastructure now that the cave is no longer a tourist cave.  Some of the decorations were lovely.

Just inside the gate, a ladder that cavers without the key or a permit can enter the cave, this should probably be removed.

Jim fooling around.

A passageway that looks as though it’s been modified so that the tourists didn’t have to go through too many squeezes.

A “dragon’s head”. This was much closer to looking like a dragon’s head than the one we saw when we eventually went into Dragon’s Head cave.

Looks like they closed up a passageway (cemented rocks into place).

Lots of chicken wire throughout the cave to protect various features from the tourists.

Lots of metal handrails which could probably now be removed.

The cave has quite a few decorations, but not as many as Cathedral Cave, it would be a fun “wild cave” and there look to be a few side passages worth exploring.

Friday 29 July – Today we were getting down to business – surveying Main Cave.  We drove up on to one of the benches of Mt Etna and then hunted around for the entry, which we soon found. We had a quick look around before starting and then went to work, very slowly as none of us had surveyed with each other before.

There were three tricky downclimbs in the cave, and one squeezy climb up.

Lots of pristine flow stone, coffee coloured.

One of the most interesting decorations was the “tree of life”, a coffee coloured flow stone which looks like the trunk of a tree, it was wet when we saw it which made it even more impressive. Jim going further into the passage to see where it went.

Really nice stal hanging from the ceiling – it was massive.

Area of cream flowstone – this did not appear to have been trodden on by muddy feet, which was good to see, a little further on in another passage though, on similar flow stone it was obvious that other’s had felt the need to explore, there were muddy spots on it. I went back a few days later and cleaned the mud off with water and a brush, we’ll mark on the map that both these areas are “clean zones” and shouldn’t be entered without changing into clean shoes.

A squeezy passage at the end of a big loop.

Rod at the entry to the cave starting the surveying.

A big drop off – Rod drawing and Marcia working the Disto.

Rod surveying one of the passages near the Tree of Life.

By 3pm we’d had enough, there was still a lot more to survey, but we figured another day should finish it off.

Saturday 30 July – A bludge day, and most of us had something to do other than caving.  In the afternoon though, Marcia, Jim and I went up to Chandelier cave again, Marcia took more photos and I practised my map drawing so that we would have two drawers rather than just the one.  Finally got my head around the drawing and am set for tomorrow.

Sunday 31 July –   Back to Main Cave, this time with me doing some of the drawing.

Back to Main Cave to see if we could get more surveying done.  This time we split into two teams, Rod/Jim and Marcia and me. Marcia would be using the disto and I’d be doing the drawing now that I have a bit more confidence. Me drawing in my section.

We sent Jim up a small climb to see if it “went anywhere”.

Me doing some more drawing.

Part of my section was a daylight hole up to another entry (E1-2 I think), this would be ok to enter if you abseiled in but I think it would be really, really hard to exit, lots of boulders to negotiate and some didn’t look that safe.

We worked up until lunch time and then met up with Rod and Jim for lunch, we actually did a quick trip out of the cave and back in again as we all wanted a quick wee break.  After lunch Marcia and I finished our section and then joined the guys to see what they were up to.

Marcia negotiating her way down one of the downclimbs after lunch (Rod & Jim giving her a hand).

We’re sending Jim down yet another hole of indeterminable depth, we set up a rope so he was safe (and could get out).

Jim looking up into another nice passageway.

By 2.30 we’d all had enough so made our way out and headed back to the cabin for a nice hot shower to get all the dust off ourselves (crawling through a squeeze a couple of times is dusty work!).

Monday 1 August – overnight Cathi H-H and Peter D had arrived from Newcastle, they’d done a direct drive up, stopping only once to sleep at Moree.  Cathi, Rod and Marcia had a rest day, Brian, Peter and I met up with Clive to go and check out Flogged Horse, Lost Paradise, Larynx Labyrinth and Dragons Head Caves – given they were all in the same area, didn’t sound like a big day but it ended up being a good 6 hours of caving and negotiating our way through scrub.

Flogged Horse was interesting, it was one of the caves in the Cammoo area that had been used to harvest guano. It was apparently named Flogged Horse because the horses used to drag the guano up from the bottom of the cave (in a metal cart with wheels on a wooden track).

Jim gingerly making his way down the old steps, most of which were missing!

There was still infrastructure there for us to see, it’s not gated, anyone can go into it if they can find it.  There’s an old dance floor (a cement square) in the main section of the cave. Jim’s standing on it.

This is a built-up stage area (and a light at the back) for the band, now in a sorry state.

Then up across the tower karst to Lost Paradise, all 3 of us went into the cave, with Peter soon turning back.  Jim & Clive went up this climb but it was too high for me and I couldn’t see how I’d get down easily, so I went back to the entrance to wait for them.

The entry/exit was a nasty little squeezy hole to get down (it was easier getting up through it than going down).  The hole was so tight that I had to take my helmet off to get out.

Jim took Peter down Larynx Labyrinth, I had a rest, by now it was getting hot, besides I’d already visited it with Marcia a few days before.

Dragons Head was another nasty little squeezy hole, I looked down it and had second thoughts but decided to go down anyway (a bit of FOMO setting in).  Predictably it was a really difficult exit to get back out, we had to set up a hand line for me (Peter was a meat anchor  – no other place to tie the rope).  Once I had the hand line it was a bit easier, still had to tread on Jim’s leg to get high enough.

Jim and Clive did a crawl into a nice little chamber on a lower level.

Clive and Jim in the chamber, quite impressive. Peter and I thought the Dragon’s head was up above Jim, but apparently not.

Peter headed back to the exit and the rest of us headed off searching for the Dragon’s Head (bit of a crawl and squeeze here).

The dragon’s head, not as impressive as the one we found a few days ago.

Some very nice formations in the passage where the dragon’s head is.

Clive making his way out up though the hole, if I ever go down this hole again, I’m setting up a hand-line for short people.

Once we were all out, we had to go cross country over the tower karst back to the track we were using and we were back at the car at by 4pm.

Tuesday 2 August – back to Main Cave for more surveying and maybe exploring one of the supposed entries – E1-5 – we’ve been told about it but having surveyed most of the cave we have no idea where it comes in.

The E1-5 entrance, the cave is tagged E1, and then each entrance that they find gets a number, so, apparently there are a total of five entrances. This one looks like a very tight squeeze, I’m surprised Jim fitted through it.

I planned to do some cave cleaning on some lovely flow stone which looked like someone with dirty boots had gone up it, so I took 2litres of water and a scrubbing brush and made a detour up to the formations and scrubbed the mud off.

Marcia, Peter and I then headed up to the Daylight Hole Chamber and sat there, silently waiting to hear voice contact from Jim, we’d been told that the entrance went into this area, but they weren’t sure exactly where.  Eventually we heard Jim’s voice and we went over to a slot where it seemed to be coming from.  There he was, the way over to us looked dodgy to me so I discouraged that.  Then he shone his light down to where Marcia was standing, and I went down there and looked up to him, looked dodgy without a rope, so discouraged that too.  Later on, when he re-entered the cave and looked up from where I was standing he said “yeah, I could have done that”, but we went the cautious route.

I had actually thought it was so tight that I called up to him and told him that if he slipped and landed in the slot it was so tight that “we’d have to leave him there and cement him in (lol)”, someone took this seriously and not facetiously as it was intended and thought I meant that we should cement the entrance hole – my sense of humour must be an acquired taste!

Anyway, Jim surveyed from where he was (in entry E1-5) out to the exit.  We all regrouped then at E1-5 to see what it looked like. Then headed back to camp for an easy afternoon. On the way in Marcia and I had found a Cane Toad so we determined to bring in some zip lock bags tomorrow.

We had a big get-together on Tuesday night with everyone coming up to our cabin for a BBQ, was great to just sit down and chat with everyone.

Wednesday 3 August – Today we’re going to finish off Main Cave – thank goodness I’m pretty much sick of Main Cave and the difficult climb up to get out of it (where I  have to use someone’s knee to get up high enough to do the climb).  So, back in we went along with rope and a harness/SRT gear for Jim who was going to take one for the team and go down a small hole which was on the far side of what we were now calling the Lunch Chamber.  The main thing for Marcia and me was to catch that Cane Toad, we had 2 zip lock bags to carry it out in.

We started off right at the very beginning of the cave to map a small passage.

Rod sent Jim up a small climb “does it go anywhere Jim?” – “nah, just down into the Lunch Chamber”. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this climb (and get down).

Back in the Lunch Chamber and Jim hunting around for the connection route into the big chamber at the beginning (which involved a nasty scramble to get into).

Peter and Rod looking for connection passages (none of these).

Rod going down a nasty squeeze, again, went no-where.

So, it looked like the hole with a drop at the end of it was the likely connection, but needed a rope to safely check it out. Peter and Rod rigged the pitch and Jim went down.  Rod went back to the big entry chamber and got the low-down on the passage way – it all sounded too committing for me so I was happy to stay in the Lunch Chamber and wait for Cathi and the Lovely Lydia to join us,

Cathi and Lydia joined us after lunch, Marcia and I took the girls off to “see the sights”.  Cathi took heaps of photos and at the Tree of Life we found a Cane Toad, not sure if it was THE Cane Toad that we’d found before, looked like the right size so we bagged it.  We then finished the cave tour, met up with Rod, Jim & Peter at the Lunch Chamber then headed out.  At the exit we met up with some QPWS rangers and they happily took the toad we’d caught to dispose of it.

Then it was off to Capricorn Caves where Lydia took us through some of the other caves that the public doesn’t usually go in.  Great day out and finally we’re finished with Main Cave.

Thursday 3 August – Marcia left us this morning to head back to the Blue Mountains. Everyone else met up on Mount Etna with Noel (now over his COVID), and did some weeding on some fossil heaps that were being stored and systematically sifted through looking for bones.  We found some but don’t get excited, they were microscopic!  After doing the weeding, we headed over to Resurrection Cave.  This was to be one of the highlights of our trip.

A little background on Resurrection, before the mining, there was no known entrance for this cave and it was only discovered when the mining company mined the limestone in front of it, and low and behold, there was a hole into an as then unknown cave.  Unfortunately, due to all the previous blasting around the cave, there was serious damage to it (as you’ll see in the photos).  Apart from that, due to the land being mined above, and despite large swathes of plastic being put down to stop mud flowing into the cave, there’s been serious damage to some of the formations from mud seeping down.

To add insult to injury in the cave, when it was originally fitted with a locked gate (because the formations are fragile and could easily be damaged) the key was “handed around” and copies had been taken, consequently, until the lock is replaced some individuals are taking large groups through the cave with little or no instructions on what to touch and not touch!

Rod opening the gate with the key we got from QPWS.

Bit of a scramble down from the entry, you needed to be very careful of the roof decorations.

More decorations off to the side of the climb down.

And more lovely decorations, this was definitely exceeding my expectations.

This is a stalactite that has fallen from the ceiling and imbedded itself in mud/earth.

And this is where it’s fallen from, this break in the stalactite probably occurred during the blasting to mine the limestone just outside of the cave.

A better angle of the broken stal.

And another broken stal, again from the blasting.

We then made our way along a low, muddy passage.  There was an outcrop of flowstone just beside where we did the crawl, and this was totally covered in mud, those that didn’t know any better had taken this “short cut” up over the flowstone to avoid the crawl.

Beyond the crawl (which was a bit hard to get up), was a narrow passage and on the wall were two separate areas of sparkling white flow stone, fortunately the muddy water from above hasn’t destroyed this, it was stunning.

The second sparkling white section of flow stone.

The passage led us to another small chamber with this white flow stone in it. It has to be 5 – 7m high.

More decoration.

And a beautiful section of rim pools or gour.

We reversed back through the muddy passage and made our way to a section where there were a number of passages to explore, Clive and Jim took off, the rest of us sat around and admired the formations.  It’s hard to imagine that this cave was unknown – makes you wonder what else is below Mount Etna, hidden from view, with maybe a small entry just waiting to be discovered.

It’s always fun to end on a high, and that certainly happened, after Resurrection, we headed back to our cabin and packed up.  We all met up for a last dinner at the Pub and then said our farewells.  We’d all like to return, there’s much “unfinished business” at Mount Etna, just a matter of squeezing it in somewhere … so many trips to do, so little time.

Big thanks to Rod for putting the trip on; Clive for humouring us and showing us around – and sharing his wicked sense of humour; Noel for sharing your knowledge; Jim for driving me up there and the rest of the group for your willingness to give pretty much anything a go.

Great trip Rod!






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