Once you’ve honed your caving skills in somewhere easy like Buchan, and then perhaps done some interstate trips to Tassie and NSW, it will become time for you to step up to the most challenging but also the most rewarding type of caving: Expedition Caving.
The sharp end of caving, the hardest, with the biggest rewards.
This would be loosely defined as any caving trip that involves very remote locations, usually involving un-explored caves, huge logistical challenges, massive amounts of gear, and in general very thorough planning.
The VSA does one regular expedition a year, to the Nullabor. In previous years, VSA went to Pungalina which is in the Northern Territory, and Mt. Owen in New Zealand, but this has ceased. A major expedition involving VSA members goes to Bullita in the Northern Territory every year, and this area contains Australia’s longest cave, with more cave found every single year.
The Nullabor is one of the world’s largest limestone planes. So, the VSA do a 3 to 4 week trip, towing the components of an ultra-light plane in a trailer. Once they get there the plane is assembled, and it is used to fly at low altitude and mark any cave entrances that are visible from above. The plane flies in a sequential pattern so that nothing is missed. Then a ground crew goes and looks at every tagged feature one by one.
The caving is hit and miss. They have found big extensive and significant caves, but these are the minority. There are a lot of little blowholes, and surface features that are not accessible for whatever reason. Plus, there are a lot of a certain weed that punctures tyres instantly, so mending punctures is a necessity! The trip is laid back, and it is the older cavers who generally go each year, and it’s as much a social event as a caving expedition. The Nullabor is MASSIVE and mostly unexplored, and even after more than a dozen expeditions they’ve only seen something like 5% of the area.
The other previous VSA expedition is up to Pungalina in the Northern Territory. This area presents yet another unique challenge – 100% humidity and temperatures in the caves of 35 degrees or more, with no breeze to help cool you down. There are no caving suits or overalls in this place. The cavers are in shorts and tee shirts, and the trips into the caves, which are like ovens, are often cut short when team members (or the whole team!) get heat stroke. Again, some caves they find are little things, but they have had some amazing finds too. Good decoration has been found, although the caves are generally not deep.
On the other end of the scale you have expeditions like a recent one to Papua New Guinea, that one certain VSA member attended. This was in dense remote forest, using locals for information and assistance. Huge amounts of walking to get to camp spots, and all sorts of dodgy busses, trains, helicopters, and whatever is available to get as close to the caves as possible. There are bugs, snakes, rain, mud, mosquitoes, hot humid steamy weather, and every chance that nothing major will be found.
But when you get lucky, you really get lucky! This particular trip found significant virgin cave which was apparently spectacular. If you are fit, and a good caver, and the idea of highly planned and the challenge of logistics, then expedition caving may be for you.
Logistics – Often harder than the actual caving!
The main trouble for most people is getting the time – these trips usually take at least a month if you include travel. These trips normally take a year or so to organise, and to be on one you really need a personal reference from someone already involved, or someone that can tell the trip organisers that you are competent.
A big factor on these trips is you cannot call on cave rescue if there is a problem. Expedition Caving means that if there is an accident, it Is the people in your group that have to get you out. So planning is also needed on how to deal with incidents. In a deep European cave several years ago, which was miles from anywhere, a caver broke his leg, and was brought to the surface by only the dozen or so people on the trip.
The great thing about caves is that there are lots of them around the world. And the statistic (don’t quote me on this, it’s what I heard) is that only 10% of the world’s caves have been explored. It is the last frontier where a human can stand in a spot knowing they are the first to ever see what lays ahead.
If you cave long enough you will naturally make contacts, and you will know when you are ready for expedition caving.
As you do more caving you will meet others, including interstate cavers, and you will gradually make contacts and networks. This is how you gain access to these expeditions, by hard work and time spent underground.
Expedition caving is as hardcore as it gets, especially if the caves are deep. It’s not for everyone. But perhaps it could be for you….?