My recommendation to a lot of people is actually to start caving with a commercial provider or outdoor recreation business. They will give you a gentle introduction to caving, organise everything for you, provide good gear, and give you a taste of what it’s all about, but most importantly they will be more attentive to your safety and your needs than a club can be, so you’ll probably enjoy the experience more knowing you are safe.
Don’t get me wrong – a club will focus on safety, but due to the differences in insurance and liability a commercial provider will usually (not always) take more time to do things like set up belays, handlines, etc. You can test yourself, doing squeezes and climbs, and see if it is something you enjoy. The commercial groups usually frequent Britannia Creek and Labertouche which are two granite caves near Melbourne. However if you pay a bit more you can go to Buchan or Wee Jasper. They are not cheap but their experience, good equipment, general caving knowledge, and often transport and lunch make it worthwhile.
While there is no affiliation or sponsorship, the author personally recommends David Chitty’s organisation ‘Adventure Guides Australia’. As he is not an official sponsor of Under-Victoria, I cannot supply his information, but he is easily located. He has been running outdoor adventures for years and will cater a trip to your needs. Its my personal opinion that Adventure Guides Australia is the best commercial operator in Victoria. However, there are other providers who I am sure are just as competent and if you read the below you can research it yourself.
If you want a one-off thrill weekend, go for an outdoor rec.
Most caving clubs do not want people who are caving to tick it off their list of extreme sports with sky diving and bungee jumping. Clubs only want people with a genuine interest in going underground, who are fit and able and enthusiastic, and will come back and eventually contribute to the club. When a club senses it is a one-off thrill seeker they are usually directed to a commercial outfit. Most if not all clubs run trips with or for beginners, and are not generally paid for their time, so you can understand the frustration of spending huge amounts of time for individuals who don’t ever cave again. In my experience its only around one in twenty beginners who come back and cave regularly for a significant period of time – and interestingly you can usually tell who will come back after only 30 minutes underground with them in their first cave – once you know what to look for you identify the keepers very very quickly.
SO… How do I choose which one to go with? Easy…..
There are many outdoor rec companies who will take you underground, but here are the questions you need to ask when choosing one:
Do you supply a caving/climbing helmet?
What gear do you recommend I wear? Can you loan me overalls?
Do you supply a good quality light of at least 150 lumens fitted to the helmet? Do you supply 2 other light sources per person?
Do you carry a comprehensive first aid kit?
Do you carry backup batteries?
If doing Labertouche Cave, have you done it before and do you know the route through it?
If doing Labertouche Cave, do you enter via the ladder entry downstream, and if so will you be on a belay in case you slip off. This is essential as caving ladders take some getting used to.
How long have you (the leader) been caving for?
Do you have a wilderness first aid qualification?
If it is Labertouche or Britannia Creek, do you provide transport?
Do you follow and have a working knowledge of the Adventure Activity Standards and the ASF Codes of Conduct?
As mentioned in a lot of this site, it comes back to the ASF Caving Standards, all available on their site.
If you are really keen to vet any commercial caving provider, then you need to look at the Victorian Adventure Activity Standards specific to recreational caving. These and an absolute gold mine of other information on outdoor recreation can be found at http://www.orc.org.au. The AAS Victorian Caving document details everything that a caving provider should be on top of to meet these standards, and any outdoor provider should be able to meet everything in the document. Further to that they should be very aware of these documents and be able to tell you off the top of their heads what the documents main points are. This is very important.
In my first trip into Labertouche the so-called leader got completely lost and we had to sit, cold and wet for 20 minutes while he tried to find the way. Not fun. To top it off we had been given hand-held dolphin torches, which is ludicrous – when caving you need both hands free, for climbing and crawling etc, and he was charging $180 for the experience. My advice is to ask the above questions and shop around. You’ll quickly pick up on which ones are dodgy inexperienced guides, and which are experienced cavers.
University Outdoor/Caving Clubs – A potential winner or a potential risk. Do your research.
A quick note which is relevant here is if you are a university student of one of the larger well-known uni’s then I can guarantee that your uni’s outdoors club goes caving at least once a year. Often more than once. However, be very careful with this – They are not ASF Insured, they have their own liability insurance, but some caves demand proof of insurance of some kind and prefer ASF as its what they know. Be aware of what your insurance covers you for if possible.
But more seriously, often the cave leaders on uni trips are simply individuals who have been on a few trips themselves and only kinda sorta maybe perhaps know the caves and which way to go. This is not only dangerous but means you will almost certainly miss the best bits of the cave (being that the good bits are often good because not many people have seen them). Honeycomb in Buchan is a good example of this. It is extremely complex but the really beautiful stuff (of which there is lots) is not on the main drag.
Before joining a club caving trip, I would ask about the leaders and how experienced they are. Also ask about the gear and make sure that the head lights are decent (if they are offering you incandescent lights, forget it! That means the lights are 15+ years old). Make sure the helmets are climbing/caving helmets in decent condition with adjustable chin straps, make sure they have proper harnesses if you are laddering or on rope, and that the belay person is experienced and sufficiently trained in belay techniques and equipment, as well as cave rescue.
The Uni Clubs generally have a bad reputation with some people in Buchan due to several alleged incidents over the past decade. Nothing has been proven or admitted, though so I won’t say any more on that. The uni clubs also always camp in the reserve instead of going to Homeleigh, but still use the intentions board at Homeleigh – that is for everyone.
Give it a shot!
Give it a shot! I can pretty much guarantee a day to remember, and it might just change your life! The caves that the commercial vendors go to (being Labertouche and Britannia Creek) are just the very tip of the iceberg. They are granite and as such have no decoration (apart from glow worms) but if you find yourself loving it, make it a priority to contact your local club asap and tee up a trip to a limestone caving area.