This is Caroline Pemberton’s 2nd Explorer Challenge (if you missed her first one, check this adventure out). She’s the driving force behind Miss Adventure and oh my does she know how to make the most of the great outdoors! Click here to join her movement on facebook // all photos courtesy of Max Pemberton.
Travel: 1 hour beyond the Blue Mountains.
Duration: One Afternoon. 2-3hours
Cost: $90 per person including gear and guide
Equipment: Helmet/Headlamp (Provided if you don’t have one) Clothes & Shoes that can get dirty
As adventurers, we are well versed with our worldly playground. We climb mountains and paddle the seas. We hike across the plains and bike through the forests. We even canyon through spectacular river recesses. Short of flying into space, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve explored it all. Even those places we haven’t been we can still discover for free on Google Earth. Yet there are places no one has been, where no satellite can see, untouched by the weather and beyond the furthest reaches of the sun. The question is does that excite you or does it scare you?
It’s Day Two of our microadventure weekend and I’ve decided to head even deeper into the mountains and try caving, where the promise of adventure lies directly beneath my feet.
Caving or spelunking as some people call it, ranges in extremity, depending on which cave system you visit. From highly technical exploration forging into virgin territory, all the way back to the perfect pint sized microadventure where for a few hours you can be guided on a fun, safe but slightly claustrophobic version of underground yoga.
Just up the road from the spectacular canyon systems we explored yesterday, lies Jenolan Caves. An intricate labyrinth of tunnels, caverns and crevices. The caves here are some of the worlds most accessible limestone systems with an abundance of underground rivers, natural archways and stalactite and stalagmite formations. Formed over millions of years, the caves are like a living fossil, documenting the eons but still changing, growing, forming and crumbling today.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock, made up mainly of calcium carbonate or dolomite compacted under pressure. What makes it exciting for us adventure types, is that it’s soluble in water. When rain falls it picks up atmospheric carbon dioxide and becomes slightly acidic. As it seeps into the bedrock it naturally flows into weak points where it decays the stone and turns it into a maze of twisted tunnels waiting to be explored.
Again, I strap on the mandatory adventure attire; a helmet, harness and a headlamp. And again, I wonder about the aesthetics of my outings, the tough blue overalls I’ve just been issued leave little to be desired. I’m reassured that functionality wins over fashion every time.
To begin our underground exploration we abseil ten meters into a sinkhole which at first glance looks pretty non-descript. As we rope up, our guide reminds us, like canyoning, once we enter, there is no turning back and the only way is through. Claustrophobics beware; this will be your ultimate challenge.
We descend quickly, excited to get moving. The entrance to the cave is a small nook at a low point at the edge of the sinkhole. Stooping through into the dark I expect to be in a small passageway but as my eyes and headlamp adjust, I’m surprised to find myself able to stand. Looking up, I’ve entered a massive underground basilica, the curved walls reaching twenty meters to the rock ceiling above which throws dull echoes back at us, as we shuffle inside. It’s surprising just much open space lies hidden just below the surface. The cave has an enveloping calm, quiet and still feeling. Fine dust rises and falls to our footsteps.
Our guide points out a set of tree roots that have pushed their way through the soil and entered the cavern from above only to find themselves in the abyss of the lofty cave. Undeterred, they’ve grown over two storeys through the air, all the way to the ground we now stand on, leaving an incredible mane of fragile ropes.
As we push deeper into the cave, the roof starts to lower and we need to weave and duck. We find signatures that date back to the first explorers in the early 1900s and marvel at how well preserved they are. I wonder if those first explorers shared the same awe and trepidation as we do today.
As we progress into the belly of the cave, our guide suggests we stop and turn off our headlamps. We oblige and a blackness like no other engulfs us, immediately our orientation and sense of direction is lost. We stay in the dark for a few minutes, our eyes desperately trying to adjust, but remain unseeing, deep in the earth. With no light penetrating it’s easy to see how you could get lost should your light go out. We all say a silent prayer for long life batteries and continue on.
The path through the cave seems to breathe, sometimes passageways are tight and at other points they expand into glorious caverns, like the Cathedral room, where stalactites and stalagmites join to form massive crystal structures. We take a minute to marvel at the glittering formations. These are works of nature’s art that have taken the patience of millions of years to build. Without the light of our headlamps they would never illuminate and their full glory would forever remain a secret.
Toward the end, we reach the passage that gives this cave its name, ‘The Plughole’. Descending on a slight angle, it’s a section that is best approached on your belly. With just enough room you must wiggle your way, commando style, through an S-bend. Only one person can fit at a time and we take turns accepting this solo challenge. I can’t help but let my mind wander to the thought that there are millions of tonnes of earth lying above me. It feels like it could collapse down at any minute so I remind myself that this particular passage has laid unchanged for centuries and it’s unlikely to move now. Still it urges me on and I quickly push through the dirt, grateful now for my tough overalls.
One of the rewards of the Plughole is its finish as it joins one of Jenolan’s show caves. We emerge through a tiny fissure at the top of sandstone staircase to the applause of a busload of tourists.
Upon descent one gentleman asks me what it’s looks like in there? ‘like a giant game of jenga that collapsed millions of years ago and got covered in a coat of dust and glistening crystal’. I say. He points out that I look like I need a shower. ‘Yes, I suppose I do’ I reply with a broad smile.