Picture some of the following scenarios:
- Hanging from a rope, far out of reach of the cave walls, knowing that it’s a 190 metre abseil before you touch down on the cave floor in the darkness below
- Sitting on a rock, turning your caving light out and admiring the stunning 3D Glowworm display on the cave walls and roof surrounding you.
- Staring at the gaping hole in the forest floor big enough to swallow a house thinking “I wonder what’s down in there?”
- Knowing that you are the first human to ever set eyes or stand in a chamber adorned with stunning cave formation.
- Not being able to hear yourself think as you tackle a climb next to a thundering underground waterfall.
- Clearing out some mud or rocks from a hole, trying to make it large enough to force your body through just to see what may be on the other side.
- Surveying a section of newly discovered cave wondering what information the data will show once it is plotted into cave Surveying Software.
If any of these scenarios appeal to you, then you should be a member of STC!
From a pleasant stroll along a meandering underground stream way, to the rope-work required in the most technically demanding vertical caves in Australia, Tasmania caves have it all. There are approximately 4,000 known caves in Tasmania, including the deepest caves in Australia. We have horizontal cave systems over 20 km long with vast underground chambers, and we have deep vertical systems approaching 400 metres deep with single free-hanging drops or “pitches” up to 190 metres deep. Some are muddy cesspits, and some are perfectly clean washed limestone caused from regular flooding of the cave. There are constantly “new” caves being discovered, explored and surveyed, and know caves extended in length & depth.
Many Tasmanian caves are “Swallets” meaning they are stream sinks where water disappears underground. Therefore, you can expect to get dripped, sprayed, showered, or maybe even have to grovel or swim in the water, but alternately, if a nice easy stroll admiring formation or looking at glowworm displays is more your thing, there is plenty of that to be found in Tasmanian caves too! As an added bonus, many of our caves are also hidden in spectacular karst rainforest, so even walking to and from the caves can be spectacular. Some caves can require considerable bushwalking along cavers tracks and require “expeditions” to explore, but the vast majority can be fully negotiated in a single day.
Many of Tasmania’s caves are vertical. In fact, nearly all of Australia’s vertical caves are located in Tasmania. The electron wire caving ladders that were used from the late 1940s to the early 1970s have been replaced by SRT (Single Rope Technique). Ladders are still used on occasion on small pitches for convenience and on beginner caving trips, but it’s fairly rare. Modern SRT Caving involves abseiling on nylon ropes (usually 9-10 mm diameter, but even down to 6mm) to descend into the caves, and using devices called “Jumars” that grip the rope when weighted to ascend back up the ropes.
There are many skills involved in SRT. Having the skills to know how to rig the ropes safely to avoid things like abrasion on the ropes, and also to keep ropes rigged away from waterfalls is essential. Due to the vertical nature of so many Tasmanian Caves, only cavers experienced in SRT are able to experience the thrill of reaching the bottom of the more demanding ones. STC hold regular SRT training days, as well as taking trips to the easier vertical caves where these SRT skills can be learnt. SRT Gear can also be hired through the club for those of you who would prefer to “Try Before You Buy”. Some caves are so technically and physically demanding, that there has only ever been one trip to the far reaches.
Unfortunately, all this SRT gear need to be carried into and through the cave system, and is usually packed into a rope-pack to protect it from mud and abrasion. Water affected equipment such as food, cameras, surveying equipment, first aid or emergency gear and extra clothing may need to be contained within waterproof inner bags. Rope-packs need to be small enough to fit through cave constrictions, yet large enough to hold the full gamut of caving paraphernalia: ropes, personal SRT gear, SRT rigging equipment, backup lighting, and safety gear.
Helmet mounted electric lights are the preferred lighting source. Illuminated by low voltage/ low wattage globes such as quartz-halogen or LED’s (light-emitting diodes), these lights are usually powered from a battery attached to your waist belt, or the back of your helmet There are a range of electric lights available, depending on your requirements and budget. Once again, lights can also be hired from the club, and in fact, the vast majority of members use club lights to save the outlay of purchasing your own. Totally separate backup lighting systems are also required if the main light fails. Carbide lights were used in the earlier days of caving before today’s modern efficient electric systems but are not used these days.
Due to our more southerly latitude, the caves of Tasmania are colder and wetter than elsewhere in Australia. Temperatures range from as low as 4ºC in some caves, but up to 9.5ºC in warmer caves. If you only ever plan to go to the warmer dry caves, then cotton overalls will do the task, but for the rest of us, protective water-resistant overalls, made of durable and sturdy tear resistant material like Nylon or PVC will be required. Cavers generally wear insulating thermal underwear, plus a layer of fibre-pile, or fleece under their overalls. The criteria for these garments is that they remain warm when they are wet, but not so bulky as to restrict movement.
Occasionally wetsuits are worn if the cave is going to require lots of full body immersion in water, or it’s not possible to rig the ropes away from a crashing waterfall, but they can get dangerously cold fast when standing around and not actively engaged in physical activity. Wetsuit socks worn inside ankle height rubber “dairy boots” or “Gumboots” are the most commonly used footwear. In addition to being more waterproof than leather walking boots (as even our “dry” caves usually have ankle or knee deep puddles), cavers tend to prefer wearing rubber boots because they cost a lot less than leather boots and last longer when used for caving purposes.
Even in the drier summer months, many Tasmanian caves can get flooded and trap unwary caving parties. This flooding may delay a caving party for just for a few hours, and possibly overnight or more. Proper risk management strategies are taught by STC to cope with situations like this, as well as regular “Cave Rescue” exercises with the participation of the Tasmanian Police Search & Rescue. Make no mistake about it, caving can be a very dangerous activity when proper safety and risk management strategies are not in place, and numerous lives have been lost in Tasmanian Caves in the past.
Of course, also at the forefront of peoples minds these days is the cave environment, and learning how to “Cave Softly”. How to explore and travel through a cave system with a minimum of damage to the cave environment is crucial, and many of the more delicate caves have gated entrances and / or require permits from various authorities and / or landowners to access.
In such a short summary it is impossible to outline all the requirements for Tasmanian caving. In the long run, experience is the best teacher. STC maintains an extensive library of books and periodicals detailing the many and varied aspects of caving. However, learning all about caving: what to wear, what to pack, what lights to use, how to “Cave Softly” and how to negotiate a deep cave cannot be accomplished merely by reading a book. STC offers training for new members wanting to gain SRT skills and for existing members wishing to hone up on their technique.
Practice is the only way to gain competence, confidence and stamina. For this reason we suggest that those new to caving gain these skills through established caving clubs, preferably local to the area you are going to be caving in. Even experienced cavers from interstate can get into trouble without knowledge of local caves. Through a club, you can gradually work your way safely up to the more serious vertical caves that include the many sporting classics in Tasmania which attract the annual summer pilgrimage of cavers from the mainland or overseas, as well as learn about the delicate cave environment and how to protect it.
As a very experienced visiting English Caver one said to me as we were deep in the bowels of the Florentine Valley one day “I can’t understand how Caving isn’t a national pastime in Tasmania, your caves are so good!” What more needs to be said?