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Jenolan Caves

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Tuesday, 23 November 2010 00:00

Jenolan CavesJenolan caves are world famous show caves in New South Wales, Australia. It is a 'must see' experience and tourists come from all around the world to see the highly decorated passages and the incredible beauty of the underground world, so foreign to most folks. There are eleven spectacular show caves that feature mind-blowing formations of all shapes and sizes.

The caves feature some now famous decoration such as the Broken Column in Lucas Cave, the Indian Canopy in Orient Cave and the Minaret in the River Cave. The extent of the formations does not stop there; there is a wide variety of everything from stalactites, stalagmites, straws, shawls, columns and helictites to incredible underground rivers. The caves were recognized as special as early as 1866 when the 'Fish River Caves' came under the control of the government and the area was reserved for the purpose of conservation. Tourists started coming to the region almost immediately and by 1880 Chiefley Cave became the first cave in the world to be lit by electronic lights.

While the Jenolan caves are absolutely spectacular there is more here than just magnificent formations. The cave network extends for over 40 kilometers and it continues to be explored to this day. This is especially true for the underwater sections of the caves that are regularly pushed by cave divers. The diving however is far less glamorous than the topside caves. There isn't much space to gear up, most of the passages are small and tight and the water visibility gets dirty fast. On the upside compared to other caves around Australia access down to the water is relatively easy… you only have to tackle a thousand steps! As such, despite the walkways and handrails it is nice to get a hand from friendly dry cavers who are happy to sherpa the heavy diving equipment down to the water's edge. To be fair, sometimes it can be even more difficult as a number of wild caves do connect to the show cave system and this means a long haul to the water's edge away from the tourist paths.

While further exploration of the caves is very exciting, the fact that the Jenolan Caves are show caves with hundreds of visitors every day has a huge impact on access for divers. Mud can potentially be stirred up by diver activity and the reduced visibility in the pools and rivers could ruin the experience of tourists and visitors. As such getting permits to dive the Jenolan Caves is rare and quite special. Personally I think the divers are a bit of an attraction for the tourists but then I'm not the boss.

I was lucky to be invited by Michael Collins and the rest of the gang from the Sydney University Speleological Society (SUSS) to dive a couple of the caves. My first dive was in River Lethe and immediately I was hooked. The upstream section of the cave had not been passed for a number of years due to a tight restriction. Only one person had ever gone through the restriction and they didn't spend much time beyond it and only laid a few meters of line. It most certainly needed another look.

The first couple of dives I tried to get in through the small hole in the ground with a proper sidemount rig on but that was just not going to happen. In order to get a zero profile I had to improvise and jury-rig a no-mount harness. I threw some bits of bungee and hose retainers together and tried again. Finally, I could make it in, but only just. The hole is just big enough for me to fit through if I hold my breath and hold the tanks above my head as I go in. Beyond the no-mount restriction and at the end of the line, much to my delight, I found more going cave! I ended up laying a bit of line and soon found myself in a room that seemed to open up and looked quite promising. Before I had a chance to look for leads and the way on, the visibility was completely wiped out. This is definitely a passage that deserves another look as there is much more potential.

However, diving in Jenolan takes time and patience. It is more of a life's work and a labor of love. In these caves you gain distance in feet, not thousands of feet. I am just a ring in who had the opportunity to dive in this amazing and unique cave system. The real heroes are the blokes who've spent many years exploring and mapping the underwater caves in Jenolan: Keir Vaughan-Taylor, Merv Maher, David Apperley, Greg Ryan, Michael Collins and many more members of the SUSS caving club that I haven't had the good fortune to meet. I am very much looking forward to the next trip up there and joining in the fun.