A Pretty Underground Scene


“Now I understand why everyone writes on the roof” says Chloe, as we lie cramped in the tunnel, waiting, bleary-eyed and with the warmth slowly leaching away into the muddy floor.

The roof is barely an inch away from my face. I can’t see it, though: I’ve turned my headlamp off to conserve battery. I can hear the weird echoes off it whenever I speak. The passageway is roughly a meter and a half wide, and a half a meter high. Where I’m lying, the roof lowers to barely 30cm, just enough for my head. Strewn about my wedged body are carabiners, gloves, bags, salami, all neatly placed. It took me a couple of methodical minutes to remove my harness, rearranging my knees through the higher parts of the passage.

It turns out, I’m not claustrophobic at all.

A few meters away there’s more space; way more, as the first pitch trails off into the void. We wait for a faint glow, an echo, movement on the rope, anything at all to indicate the others have begun the last ascent out of the cave…

Bungonia

Bungonia National Park, formerly Bungonia State Conservation Area, is a small forest in a limestone belt south-west of Sydney, bordered by the slash of the huge Bungonia Gorge, some southern highland farms, and a cement quarry. It’s not known when the first Aboriginal or local farmer fell down a hole and discovered a cave, but the guidebook mentions guided caving as far back as the early 19th century! This place has a History…it’s the grimy production line of free-spirited NSW caving (opposed to the glittering, fenced-off and regulated museum of Jenolan Caves) where amateurs have been getting down and dirty in the dark for decades1.

I have a bit of family history there too. My uncles (on my mum’s side) and my dad have had a few adventures down there, including climbing up a torrent of water to escape a cave when a storm hit outside, crawling through sumps with breath frantically held, accidentally burning down a picnic shelter, and causing my mum to have a panic attack in Acoustic Pot (she is claustrophobic, since after that incident at least). I was taken down Grill Cave (the standard tourist cave complete with rusty staircases installed in the twenties) when I was young, but that was the extent of the generational baton-passing. When my uncle found out I was getting into climbing he gave me his old figure 8 and original-model Jumars.

But I’d found myself in Bungonia again, with a group of mad people trying to convince me to jump straight in and traverse between the two entrances of the B4-5 system (a trip of a couple of hours) straight after we’d arrived at midnight on friday.

B4-5

Group posing in the car park at night
Are we out of the cave yet? I can’t tell

The caves B4 Hogan’s Hole and B5 Fossil Cave turn out to be connected via a short passage. There’s a route that goes in one entrance and out the other, involving a bit of climbing and crawling. It’s not hard, although the climbing is slippery and a bit dodgy, the exposed Hairy Traverse would have been consequential without the large installed chain, and you can get a bit confused with all the passages in the King’s Cross chamber.

It’s a big crawly natural McDonald’s Playland really. On the first trip Minus brought face masks for a really dusty section called the Cement Mixer, although it turned out to be damp enough that it wasn’t much of a problem. The Corkscrew squeeze was also not that bad. I got the wedgie of my life coming feet first down the Hairy Traverse however, as Minus giggled “Rookie error! Never wear boxers caving!”

On the second trip, we also did B4-5 late at night as soon as we’d arrived. It seems to be becoming a tradition. We started down a passage leading to the extension, and got as far as the Dust Bag Aven before the passage ahead was flooded by a sump. Unfortunately one of the crawls beyond Kings Cross also had a big puddle in it, and hilarity and wet underwear ensued. I avoided the Corkscrew squeeze by climbing up to one of holes in the ceiling of the chamber before it. It felt pretty secure and was a really cool section of the cave.

Grill Cave

Minus crawling through a squeeze
It’s a boy!

Everyone in our party came out for a day of fun for the whole family. The pitch in Grill Cave is serviced by ancient rusty ladders. There’s also a pretty tight squeeze for the keen, which can be easily bypassed by the no-so-keen. Unfortunately because of its accessibility it’s also the most trashed – the Crystal Palace no longer looks anything like its namesake.

We got quite deep (to the “LOOSE BOULDERS” sign past the Safe From The Russians chamber) and encountered some foul air.

It’s a pity the limiting factor at Bungonia seems to be the ever-present foul air. I’d really like to get to one of the terminal sumps one day and I hope it doesn’t have to be with an oxygen mask.

Blowfly Cave

Minus abseiling into Blowfly Cave
Minus abseils into Blowfly

The first technical cave I did and it was a blast. After abseiling though the choked entrance, you descend down a slanting gash to the base, where it slopes down and around a corner to another chimney. When you abseil down this the fun begins, with a crawl through to the Kidney Squeeze and a tiny group of chambers. We had a lot of fun there, finding various squeeze challenges. Katie even managed to score some booty gear (a headlamp) that had fallen deep down a tiny slot.

Phil and Travis in a narrow section cave.
Phil and Travis attempt to turn around.

We went in without a map, and it blew my mind when, out of curiosity, I climbed up a chute and yarded through a squeeze, to find a new chamber and the awesome slanting slot that dropped away into the blackness. This squeeze, the Dragon’s Teeth, is about 10m wide, a foot high, slopes 40 degrees down, and leads to Middle Aven, the biggest chamber in the cave and where it joins up with B52 (?).

Me looking down into the Dragon's Teeth
Whoa, where did that come from?!

I managed to free climb both pitches out of the cave, using the ATC Guide in ascender mode as a self-belay. The moves were fun! Limestone is awesome. I also ended up top-belaying the others out using the Guide in traditional auto-lock mode2.

Argyle Hole

This was the finale: the longest, deepest and most technical cave we did. After the pleasant long entrance chamber the business starts off with The Flattener, a squeeze with a ceiling of 23cm at its lowest point. It wasn’t particularly hard, but pulling 150m of ropes through it was! After continuing along in a similar crawly and twisty fashion, we reached the main shaft. This drops in a series of pitches which are pretty big.

Just like canyoning, there’s weird tight technical abseils that really test your rope control. Bulti even got his hair caught!3 The cave continued down, twisting and winding, into some BIG and vertical chambers. The best looking stalactites I’d seen were displayed in the roof, far above. It also got increasing wet, with the continuous sound of drips and tinkles echoing around.

The deepest we got was the Junction, which is one 50m low-angle pitch (the Stairs) above the terminal sump. The guys hit really bad air and dizzily came straight back up. Me and Chloe skipped the lowest pitch and came straight back out. It took everyone a while to ascend, working out the bugs in their various ascending systems. I had the lengths pretty right, and did reasonably well with one jumar and the ATC autoblock for my chest, but it was really tiring. Chloe found out that having the foot ascender above the chest ascender on the rope leads to major rope-feeding issues if the bottom isn’t weighted.

We finally gasped out of the doline into the sparse Bungonia brush a bit after 9pm, after more than eight hours underground. Although I’d managed to keep most things pretty clean up until Argyle Hole, after that trip the mud and the blood was well and truly ground into everything.

Conclusion

I found I quite enjoyed the physical challenges of squeezing and clambering around the cave passages. The real squeezes force me into a weird mindset: anxious but also oddly peaceful.

But as we commit deeper into caves I start getting the fear. It’s like a sense that I’m a very long way from home. Time stops uneasily underground, the senses are deadened to black, grey and brown, dusty air and your muffled breathing. It’s a bit like purgatory, complete with the unnerving possibility of being trapped there for a very long time. It didn’t help that I used really cheap batteries with my relatively underpowered Petzl headlamp, leading to gradually fading light and less lumens than everyone else.

The thing that really stuck with me when you finally thrash out into the moonlight, was the smell. After nothing but dust for eight hours, the fresh air smells AMAZING. Eucalypt, hints of flowers, grass, damp soil…that smell made it worth it.

Footnotes

  1. And, unfortunately, pulling off stalactites, writing on the walls, and walking in extra silt on the floor. The natural beauty of the caves is best euphemised as “well-used”
  2. This conveniently allowed me to forget my complete lack of a practised ascending system until the next trip.
  3. “I’m not used to how far rap raks extend!” Maybe you need to tie your hair back and get one of those wimmin’s ponytail helmets eh Bon Jovi.
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