by Peter Nelson
Tasmania’s an island state off the south coast of Australia. We went down there because we wanted a place with four seasons. Like home. First off, we rented a small cottage down on skinny little Bruny Island. Stayed there a few weeks, picking apples.
It snowed in Hobart for the first time in 15 years. There’s often snow on top of Mt. Wellington, but this time it snowed down in the town.
One weekend, we were just hitching out of the city and got picked up by 3 spelunkers from the Southern Caving Society, and they drove us down to Hastings on the extreme southern end of Tasmania. They tossed a rope down this big hole in the ground and tied the other end to a tree. Torches in hand, we descended a steep slippery shaft into the underworld. I’ve done a bit of spelunking in New Mexico and Alaska, but nothing serious. This however was the real stuff — proper equipment and all. No initial feelings of claustrophobia, I was happy to notice, in spite of the damp and the gloom. This cave was limestone, but mostly clay-surfaced, so the dripping water kept it pretty slippery. All of us were incredibly muddy by the time we crawled out.
A totally alien environment. We quickly realized that we were utterly dependent on our equipment, especially our torches, for without light, we never would have found our way back through all the twisting and turnings of the hundreds of different shafts. Just to experience what that would be like, we all switched off our torches — and that is a blackness you’d never find on the surface. Even a moonless night in the country still has some light, but down there, there was nothing, literally nothing, not even the slightest glimmer.
Small rooms, great chambers, narrow hallways, tiny tunnels. One tunnel we had to wriggle though, worm-like. Its opening was about 2 ½ feet in diameter, so no problem at the start, but it very quickly shrank in size. Spelunkers, like rock climbers, need to be slender people. Anyone an inch wider than me couldn’t have made it through. Seriously. There wasn’t even room for your arms. You had to stretch them way out in front of you and try to compress your shoulders and basically “swim” through that shaft. Very slow going when you can’t grasp anything or push or pull at all. Probably that’s the closest I’ve ever come to belly dancing!
And that narrow bit turned out to be far too lengthy for my liking! Do you have any tendencies towards claustrophobia? Then stay out of wild caves. Keep to the big caverns, the ones with proper lighting and well-maintained paths. Halfway through, the middle of that tunnel got so tight around my ribs that I couldn’t take a deep breath. And trust me, you don’t want to think about the hundreds of thousands of tons of rock above you! And because it kept getting smaller and tighter around my body, I got the weirdest feeling that the tunnel was alive and deliberately squeezing me. Digesting me!
The cave formations weren’t spectacular in size, but the sense of unreality about them was just magnificent. Because it was a wild cave, and because we had so little light, everything was utterly silent, untouched. Shiny families of stalactites and stalagmites huddled together against the lonely blackness — truly from the fairy world, a place where only imaginary creatures could live.
It was of course far too dark down there for any photographs, but I took a shot of everyone when we got back out into the sunshine. I wanted to record the volume of mud clinging to us. Unfortunately, the roll of film broke there, and the shot was ruined. Would have been an amazing photo. All of us were exactly the same color, head to foot!