Bunda Cliffs, Nullarbor Plain

By ALAN JACKSON Southern Tasmanian Caverneers | As an arrogant, self-righteous Tasmanian I’ve always been of the opinion that the North Island has nothing to offer me as a caver.

I kept a clean sheet for 15 years but am now sorry to report that I’ve blotted my copy book and set foot inside a mainland cave. Of course in truth I only went for the above-ground scenery. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Cave Exploration Group of South Australia (CEGSA) have a long association with cave exploration on the Nullarbor, mainly the traditional entrances on the plain itself but also the cliffs associated with the Great Australian Bight.

I understand the first serious cliff cave exploration started after CEGSA members hired a light plane in 1988 to fly along the cliffs and document cave entrances.

Since the late ‘90s a subset of CEGSA members, calling themselves the Banunga Cavers, have been taking it more seriously and, with improving tools and technology, they have become increasingly effective and efficient.

Armed with aerial footage of the cliff faces, Google satellite imagery, grappling hooks and an infectious passion for the area, the Banunga Cavers are systematically exploring and documenting the caves of the Bunda Cliffs section of ‘The Bight’.

I was fortunate enough to cross paths with this group in 2014 and convince them I should join their July 2015 expedition.

The Commute

Despite the CEGSA affiliation, the majority of the Banunga Cavers are Melbourne-based. So it started there with nine enthusiastic participants, three vehicles and nearly 2000km to base camp.

The first night was spent in Adelaide where we picked up our 10th member of the fellowship. Next stop was Ceduna and then base camp was finally reached on the afternoon of the third day. Yawn.

Radio banter and character assassinations of fellow team members helped pass the time.

The Caving

The next nine days were spent locating and exploring new potential entrances located by the forensics team since the previous expedition in 2013 and revisiting a few previously explored targets to finish exploration, complete surveys, etc.

We had perfect weather the whole time, with the showers turning into rain (and even snow – in Adelaide!) only after we packed up and headed for home.

There were three principal teams for the first few days – two caving while a third precisely located caves and assessed the cliff edges for safe access (minimal impact approach, gardening of loose rock, avoiding overhangs, etc.). As the expedition progressed the ‘gardening’ crew was absorbed into the two caving teams.

As with all caving expeditions we had mixed fortunes – big entrances that went nowhere, nasty entrances that yielded plenty of passage and every other combination and permutation in between.

While I can’t compare this year’s finds with previous expeditions the feeling I got from the regulars was that it was a very successful and rewarding expedition with a good number and range of caves explored and documented.

The scenery was spectacular, both above and below ground – delicious sunrises and sunsets, epic limestone cliffs for hundreds of kilometres, wide treeless vistas, sweeping ocean views, sphincter tightening waves smashing into the cliffs below entrances, southern right whales cruising by, outstanding gypsum and halite speleothems, piles of cockroach infested bat guano, a layer of fine powdery dust on everything … hmmmm, maybe it wasn’t all enjoyable.

While I still haven’t decided if Rod Short’s ‘unveiling ceremony’ dance goes on the enjoyable list or not, it was certainly spectacular.

Post-Expedition Business

Of course with all successful expeditions comes the sting in the tail – every metre explored is fun at the time but translates into more survey to draw up and data to file away.

The team is furiously drawing up maps, processing collections and uploading data into the OzKarst database for the 20-odd caves explored. A good caver’s work is never done, and, as is always the case, dates and targets for the next expedition are already being planned.

Chief expedition documenter, Steve Milner, is planning a comprehensive presentation of the area and expeditions at the 2017 UIS conference in Sydney, so keep an eye out for that one.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, obviously, to the Banunga Cavers for dragging me along and tolerating me; to the Australian Speleological Federation for providing a $200 grant for the purchase of some rigging equipment; and a huge thanks goes to Natural Resources Alinytjara Wilurara for their fantastic support, in particular the Ceduna team, for their engagement and participation.

Meet Alan Jackson

Based in Hobart, Tasmania, Alan Jackson got vaguely interested in caving in 1998 but it wasn't until late 1999 that he discovered something new underground and since then 'interested' has been replaced with 'obsessed'. Weekend trips to the Junee-Florentine karst area in southern Tasmania keep his appetite for virgin cave satisfied but he gets away on international expeditions (New Zealand, China, Vietnam) and mainland Australian trips (when desperate enough) when domestic politics allow (i.e. not nearly enough).

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