Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In the Fastness of the Earth - a trip to Jenolan Caves

 I wrote the following account in 2011 as a non-fiction creative writing piece for a unit on Creative Non Fiction that I took for University.

If your question is "Is this story true?", I give you the answer of writer David Sedaris: It is true enough. I was there.

For those whose interest is piqued in the real world exploration of the reaches of the Mammoth Cave at Jenolan, let me direct you to this gripping account from 2017 in Australian Geographic.

The Devil's Coach-house at night. Photo by the author, 2021. Pleiades in background.

"My eyes were open, but I saw nothing. Profound blackness was before my eyes. Blackness like a thing, fitting to my shape and standing a hair above my skin.


My breathing had been ragged from exertion, but settled now I had rested a little. Even my heartbeat seemed too loud for that space. I deliberately slowed by breathing, stretching all my senses. Past my tinnitus, I strained to hear my comrades, but heard nothing.




I took off my pack and the long coil of climbing rope and lowered them carefully beside me, resolved to avoid the use of my headlamp. I adjusted my position on the bus-sized, irregular boulder I was perched on and tried to ignore the mud caked on my overalls. The earthy smell of wet limestone was in my nostrils. I loved that smell. The perfume of the Earth, powerfully evocative of caving experiences stretching back to childhood. I ignored small discomforts. My socks were wet.


I felt a strange exhilaration. The Apollo 8 astronauts, when they careened behind the Moon for the first time, were then the loneliest souls in human history, further removed than any human had ever been from their fellows.



I could have been as remote, at that moment. I was the only living creature in the Universe. The world could end, and I wouldn’t know. I imagined I could sit there for a million years. That the rock would invade my bones. That returning friends or curious descendants would pass my place of rest. unheeding of a vaguely anthropoid stalagmite.


Surrounding me in every direction was a million tons of limestone. I was in the heart of the earth, within a domed chamber as large as a city railway station, rarely seen by any living being. I experimentally made sounds, coyly at first, then loudly. Clapping, hooting, singing; seeing if I could evolve a seventh-sense of echolocation. The sound was curiously, but not uniformly deadened around me. I felt the space around me.


My friends and I had descended from the crisp air and dappled sunlight at Jenolan Caves, and into another world. It had taken us two hours to get this far. The others decided to take a detour and investigate a passage, looking for a further chamber we had located on our large and mud-smeared map. I had nominated to stay behind at the junction a while and… be. Yes, just be. Just, exist for a little while. As an exercise. As a meditation. I had come to this place, Jenolan Caves, at every stage of my life since small childhood. I belonged to it. I had a powerful sense of place, and a felt strange peace that, unlike other places, this had been here millions of years before humans had words to describe it, and would be here millions of years after even the memory of man had faded from the Earth.


Soon enough, my friend’s caving lamps and voices had trailed off to nothingness. I examined the phenomenon of sensory deprivation. The neurons of my retina, firing randomly and unaccustomed to the lack of stimulus, occasionally threw blobs of phantom colour or light into my brain, like an old analogue radio tuned to a vacant station, crackling to a distant thunderstorm. I recalled something I had heard once, that in such circumstances the eye could detect single photons from cosmic rays, arriving from space, piercing the rock and penetrating my skull. Buried there in this secret place under the earth, was I seeing distant supernovae?


This musing drew me outward. I was not nowhere; I was in a very particular place. Sitting still, I pressed my senses to their extremities. I imagined I was expanding my consciousness, locating the mote of my existence within successively larger spheres.


First, was the chamber I was in, with its high, domed roof and sloping floor, punctuated by the giant boulder upon which I sat. Next was the cleft high in the wall above me and to my left through which I and my friends had arrived, which snaked upward through many other chambers, climbs and passages to the surface, far above.


Some of those passages were tight, smooth walled and snake-like; phreatic tubes, following the weak faults in the rock in a three-dimensional and drunken meander. To navigate those, you take your helmet off and nudge it ahead of you as you worm your way along, narrow enough in places to require you to decide in advance whether to put your arms ahead or keep them to your side. 

I smiled as I recalled a recent trip where a tall friend, long of limb, failed to negotiate a double hairpin in a descending tube. Stuck, he had to back up with the rest of us cursing behind him. 

On the way in, we passed a place called “Skull and Crossbones”, one intriguing name among many on our map. As we traversed a large corridor, like some Goblin’s lair from Tolkien, my friend motioned his lamp to the wall. There, in soot was the unmistakeable outline of a skull with crossed femurs below it. I smiled a question. My friend said, “Here, below the skull & crossbones, see these initials? ‘J.W’: Jeremiah Wilson, the first guide. He found this.” There were the initials, in a distinctly Victorian, if wavery, copperplate. “This is what he was warning about.” Below the sign, the floor dropped away like the yawning entrance to some chthonic well. Its black magnetism drew me to the edge; disturbed me. My friend picked up an orange sized rock and gave it to me. I understood. I threw it into the mouth of the abyss. 

Clack!... Clack! ClackClack!... A pause… ClackClackClack!

And on it went, the tumble of the rock over invisible ledge and down long freefall, diminishing in volume but going on far too long. My eyes widened. Many seconds later, the sound died away. I asked “Has anyone been to the bottom?”

“I don’t know. If they tried, they’ll find a hundred years’ worth of fist sized rocks thrown down from up here.” 

We laughed, a little nervously, as we backed away from the maw.


We moved on. The landscape was ever varied. The marvels! Some chambers like cathedrals, like railway tunnels, like Egyptian tombs where your light bounces off jewels and pillars, exquisite crystals and underground rivers. And then there was the highest goal to any caver, to see something no one has ever seen beforeVirgin cave. A new place.


The greybeard of our group, Keir, had told us such a story the previous night as we sat in the deep lounges ringing the fireplace at Caves House. We were like Victorian gentlemen explorers about to plumb the mysteries of Africa. I don’t recall waistcoats and watch-chains, but they would not have been out of place. His story was about a real, and yet mythical place, not far from us, yet tantalisingly out of reach.

“You’ve heard, of course about the Woolly Rhinoceros, yes?”, Keir said.

We gave blank looks, and Keir’s eyes glittered, seeming suddenly very, Welsh. He reminded me strongly of Terry Jones from Monty Python and had an endearing, intellectually curious, restless quality. He cupped his second Baileys and leaned in as he warmed to his story:

“Tomorrow, we shall go past the known and public caves, through the Devil’s Coach house, up the McKeown valley. By and by we shall arrive at the Mammoth Cave, which we will descend into with ropes. Now, we know that all the caves up and down the valley were formed by the same underground watercourse, and so that all the caves are connected with one other. The original guides and a century of spelunking, have made all kinds of connections between them; going in one, coming out another. Other connections have been hinted at by putting fluorescent dye in the water high up the valley and seeing it come out, all the way down here at the bottom, into Blue Lake. But gentlemen, the one great discovery that awaits us all is the passage that links the Mammoth cave, high in the valley and the largest of the non-public caves, back to the show caves here around the Grand Arch. This mythical connection, appropriately carries the name of a mythical animal.” Keir’s voice dropped, as though his next words had mystic power. Thus, the ‘Woolly Rhinoceros’. We’ve been looking for it for a century.” We instinctively understood Kier enclosed all cave explorers dating back to the Empire in his collective “we”. It sunk in. We were a part of that we.

And well Keir knew this. He looked at each of us, grinning. This had been his avocation for 30 years.

“Well, where is it?” I blurted.

Keir sat back and adopted the look of a sage, pleased an acolyte had asked the perceptive question.

“Well might you ask,” he said slowly. 

“There are… theories. The extremity of Mammoth closest to the show caves is a long smooth passage that descends and narrows, ending in a sump, a disappointing pool of muddy water about as big as a bathtub. It’s called Slug Lake. We wondered if it continued in much the same way, underwater. Or perhaps it’s like an S-bend, and if you went into the water, you’d come up quickly into dry passage and keep going. We had to know!”

“Now, back on the surface, this correlates to an area along the McKeown valley we call the playing fields. You’ll see it tomorrow, it’s a big flat area. We laid out a grid and did what’s called a gravimetric survey of that area. It’s high-tech gadgetry that detects really microscopic variations in gravity that measure cavities, potential caves, beneath the earth. It’s so sensitive, we have to calibrate it for the position of the moon for it to work.”

Keir was becoming excited.

“Gentlemen, the readings were off the scale. There is something very big, very hollow down there, underneath the playing fields. Something vast and unseen. It doesn’t correspond to any cave section we know of, and Slug Lake is the closest entry point. Our suspicion was that the passage continues under the water and emerges… somewhere else.”

“What was done?” we asked.

“Divers went down and reported the tube continued to descend and narrow. There was a bit of a squeeze that had to be excavated with trowels, and that kicked up a heap of mud that took days to clear. But they went back, and it opened up, all underwater mind you, and much clearer now. They found themselves swimming along the roof of a chamber that descended into the darkness beyond their torches and out of sight. Further along, they surfaced into a chamber with sheer walls and more leads going away and upward.”

Keir shook his head. “Very hard going. Dangerous to get there and dangerous to pursue. One out of three people who habitually do cave diving, die in pursuit of that avocation”.


Within my reverie, deep within the earth, I mapped this out in my imagination. How might Slug Lake, (some meters away to my south), and its mysterious further passages link to the other caves like pearls on a string to arrive back at the Grand Arch, near the Blue Lake at Caves House? I imagined myself finding the Woolly Rhinoceros, stumbling out of a hole in a disused passage of a show cave, like Arne Saknassum out of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, and startling a tour group in my grimy overalls and miner’s lamp. The fantasy pleased me.


And beyond the sensory deprivation. I felt I could sense something else; the slow pulse of the earth. I felt an almost palpable sense of the deep time that had carved this secret chamber from the mother rock. I felt an unfamiliar, yet thrilling dissonance of emotion; a sense of insignificance, but accompanied by a sense of the miraculous. I was the rarest thing in the Universe; a mote of consciousness. And there I was, buried in the fastness of the earth, like a undiscovered gem."

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