Disclaimer: This was not an SSAC sanctioned trip. The British Sub Aqua Club does not condone or teach cave diving and believes that it falls outside the bounds of recreational diving. They might be right.
A year spent in Melbourne, unpredictable weather and the ever-present threat of sea-sickness meant that most of my diving in 2010 was in the sinkholes and caves around Mount Gambier. On moving back to Sydney there was a lot of interest from members and friends of the club and an expedition to South Australia was swiftly organised. We ran into our old friends from Brisbane at Oztek and they jumped at the chance to join a combined trip (presumably before looking at a road atlas).
Al, Jonathan, Gary, Ross, Michelle and Chris would be tackling the CDAA Deep Cavern course under the tutelage of Terri Allen. Everyone in this group was an experienced wreck diver and were particularly interested in improving their line skills and learning about site access, but the course is open to less experienced divers and would be an excellent post Sports Diver/AOW introduction to twinsets and 40m depths. Terri flew up to Sydney a couple of weeks beforehand to cover the theory, pool session and gear critique; sadly failing to convince any of the students that the tiny torches purchased for the occasion were unlikely to be up to the task.
With a vague plan to rendezvous at Just a Bed Lodge on Friday evening we scattered across the country. Ross, Michelle, Al and I drove down from Sydney over two days. Gary and Jonathan flew into Melbourne and picked up a car for the 6 hour drive west. Half of team Brisbane flew directly to Mount Gambier and rented the least appropriate diving vehicle they could find, while G and Mark tackled the immense cross-country run from Brisbane with a Hilux full of cylinders. In retrospect, the flight to Melbourne seems to be the best option with cheaper flights and more sensible baggage allowance than flying all the way to SA.
Saturday morning started leisurely to allow Gary and Jonathan time to recover from their delayed flight and subsequent arrival in the small hours of the morning. The first day of the course was spent at Gouldens Hole, a 25m deep cenote commonly used as a training site due to its easy access, abundant tie-offs and punishing silt. The students practised laying line, communicating with torch beams and avoiding the silty bottom before returning to the entrance along their line in a simulated emergency with no vision and one member of the team out of gas.
The second day of the course was spent at One Tree. This site always seems to have very dark, very green water and is often crystal clear below the murkocline at 20m. The deepest point is around 45m; below the 40m depth limit imposed during training. The Deep Cavern course does not teach decompression and run-times on the 40m training dives are kept short. Luckily we had access to One Tree again later in the week to properly explore the old harvester festooned with cattle skulls and to search for the small swim-throughs.
Terri had planned ahead and arranged special mid-week access for Kilsby's for the out-of-staters, a 65m deep gin-clear sinkhole which has seen use as a naval sonar buoy test station and a police diver training site before the lease passed to the CDAA. The students showed off their improved line skills Michelle only got tangled once! and Gary and Jonathan demonstrated their new-found responsiveness to signalling by diving straight into an enclosed rift at 39.9m which Terri was in the process of pointing out as an example of places not to enter. Andy G and I splashed out on some helium and went in search of the small cave at 65m. My expert navigation landed us on the wrong side of a ridge where we had fun poking into some small crevasses until a rock the size of a suitcase landed on top of G as his bubbles disturbed the ceiling. We dug ourselves out and moved back towards the entry platform, clearly visible at the surface from 60m below and shivered through an extra 20 minutes at 5m as we waited for Andy I don't need a rebreather to finish his deco.
The successful completion of the course was celebrated in style with a spit-roast lamb prepared by Darren and Suzanne at the lodge. We parted ways for a few days during the week. Ross, Michelle, Al and Chris did some excellent diving in the limestone cathedral at Picanninnie Ponds and returned to explore the sites they had been too distracted by the course to enjoy earlier. Jonathan and Gary flew home to Sydney, pausing only briefly to tie-off to a 35m chemical toilet at the bottom of Little Blue.
Myself and several of the Brisbane crew were already cave certified, allowing us access to some interesting sites which are currently off-limits to the freshly qualified cavern divers. We did several dives exploring Pines; the largest of the cave-rated sites. I introduced G to Mud Hole a site which does exactly what it says on the tin and he reciprocated by showing me the unpleasantly tight and silty restriction in Fossil East. At a cave in the middle of the road outside Allendale we held a competition to decide who could cock up a secondary tie-off in the most spectacular way. The winning entry for worst line-work is still open to debate, but the trophy for this year's hardcore diver of the week award goes to Mark, who refused to let a little thing like a completely torn neck seal deter him from a chilly 45 minute dive in Pines.
On Friday morning Darren generously offered to drop us into Hells Hole. Suspicions were raised at the top of the 30m abseil when team Brisbane assured us that the visibility was excellent last year, but we could go first. We threw Michelle over the cliff and lowered five sets of gear down to her, the plan being for the second wave of divers to use the same kit in order to minimise rope-work. After half an hour exploring the murky, freezing water and trying to avoid the dead possum we surfaced to the news that Brisbane had decided not to bother. This was widely decried as poor form but they regained some points by hauling us out and firing up the barbeque.
The shortened day at Hells Hole left us with a free evening to dive Engelbrechts show cave in the middle of town. From a small entry pool the cave forks with the right passage twisting a short path to a dead-end and the left route surfacing in a large dry chamber with some small sumps on the far side. Andy, Mark and I spent half an hour exploring then swam out to discover Andy G taking tea with Steve Trewavas in the gift shop. We saw Steve again the following morning when he arrived to guide the newcomers for their first dive in The Shaft, an immense cave which drops to 80m+ below a manhole sized opening in the middle of a field of cows. Having spent many hours floating around in this site with the Sanctum crew I sat the dive out in favour of learning how to rig the tripod and pulley systems required to lift people in and out of the hole, but those who dived agreed that this was the perfect dive to end the trip on.
The drive home gave Ross and Michelle time to get acquainted with their hastily purchased new dive wagon, the car they arrived in having been consigned to the scrapheap after a minor incident earlier in the week. Al and I met up with them in Ballarat for a night spent in accomodation which brought back fond memories of The Van.
Thanks to Terri for running a fantastic course, Steve for giving up his saturday to show us the shaft, Darren and Suzanne for their hospitality and JABL and everyone who came along for a great week's diving. Same again in February?