Northern Tasmanian cavers help bring caving into the spotlight

Pulling back the dirt, Catherine Hemley squeezed through a narrow gap and into the unknown.

White cave coral features reached from floor to ceiling of the limestone cavern, speckled with moonmilk.

Working with a local farmer who wanted to know what lay beneath her property, Ms Hemley crawled into cave and stood up.

“Knowing you’re the first person setting foot somewhere is a pretty special feeling,” she said.

“There are not many places on the planet that have not been explored, caves are one of those areas that are still being discovered.

“It’s another way of enjoying the outdoors, you get into some amazing wild places. You get to see some things no one else ever gets to see … there’s something magic about that.”

It’s her passion for what lies beneath the surface that encouraged the Tasmanian caver to put her hand up to help organise the 17th International Congress of Speleology, July 23 to 29, held in Sydney this year.

Cavers from 45 countries have travelled to take part in the congress, which combines scientific research, competitions, networking as well as a chance to get muddy.

Close to half of the 10 co-organisers for the congress are from the Northern Caverneers, a Launceston-based caving club which explores mainly around the Mole Creek area.

Ms Hemley is the congress’ information officer as well as branching into coordinating volunteers.

“I’ve been passionate about caving for a lot of years and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Australia to be hosting an international congress.”

Northern Caverneer and congress co-organiser Cathie Plowman said the conference was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australia”.

Held every four years, the Sydney-based congress would be only the second time it had been held in the southern hemisphere, she said.

The Union Internationale de Spéléologie (UIS) is the international body for caving, which conducts its congress in a host country selected by the General Assembly of delegates from the UIS member nations.

Each congress hosts a UIS meeting, covering business with a second meeting considering bids for the next Congress.

“No one should underestimate what amount of work needs to be done for events,” Ms Plowman said.

Despite telling herself three years ago that she would do eight hours tops each week, 40 hour weeks were not uncommon.

She has been organising caving trips for about 150 cavers across different parts of the country, including Chillagoe in Northern Queensland, Jenolan in the Blue Mountains and Margaret River in Western Australia.

More than 420 people have registered for the congress from most continents.

Northern Hemisphere congresses, held in summer, could attract more than 1100 people, which meant more money to UIS which takes a portion of registration fees.

“To me, caving isn’t a thrill-seeking, danger sport, it’s a way of adventuring and exploring different parts of the world." - International Congress of Speleology co-organiser Catherine Hemley said.

The UIS promotes the development of interaction between academic and technical speleologists to develop and coordinate international speleology in all of its scientific, technical, cultural and economic aspects.

Another role she has is in merchandise, which has proved a boon for Launceston businesses.

“Launceston has provided 90 per cent of our caving merchandise, printing and stationery, Ms Plowman said.

It worked out to be about $10,000 all up for the city.

NORTHERN CAVERNEERS: Speleological congress co-organisers Cathie Plowman and David Butler. Picture: Tess Brunton

NORTHERN CAVERNEERS: Speleological congress co-organisers Cathie Plowman and David Butler. Picture: Tess Brunton

She also spent time crowdfunding for two $3000 scholarships for two people from South-East Asia to travel to the congress and learn techniques which could be shared back in their countries.

Her desire to bring the congress to Australia was strong after she and co-organiser David Butler visited the last congress in Brno, Czech Republic.

Mr Butler said, “We had such a good time, we thought we’ll help them in Australia”.

“Caving has been very good to us.”

Caving is more than claustrophobic squeezes. Depending on the cave system, there can be expansive caverns, larger than football fields. Picture: Tess Brunton

Caving is more than claustrophobic squeezes. Depending on the cave system, there can be expansive caverns, larger than football fields. Picture: Tess Brunton

The congress was unlikely to happen in Australia again because of the distance, season and bidding process.

“It’s all about exploration, whether you’re exploring passages or new bugs or forms or life. It’s a whole unknown world that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Mr Butler said.

However, that means cavers have to be careful about what they might bring into a pristine environment.

White Nose Fungus has yet to find its way into Australia, which can be deadly to bats dwelling in caves, some of which are critically endangered.

Mr Butler said the congress had been strict about hygiene and quarantine to prevent visitors from transmitting the devastating fungus.

New protocols had been implemented to ensure Australia’s caving environment, including its bat life, were not adversely affected.

The first glimpse of a murky sky after a day spent exploring Wee Jasper in New South Wales. Picture: Tess Brunton

The first glimpse of a murky sky after a day spent exploring Wee Jasper in New South Wales. Picture: Tess Brunton

Northern Caverneer and co-organiser Janice March joined the organising committee more than 18 months ago.

She started caving because of a love of climbing.

“But this was more than just rockclimbing, it was three-dimensional climbing in the dark.”

“You have to be fit and I’m small, so I can fit into all these tight, little places and go where other people couldn’t get to.”

David Butler squeezes into a cave at Mole Creek. Picture: Michal Ciszewsk

David Butler squeezes into a cave at Mole Creek. Picture: Michal Ciszewsk

Since developing a taste for the underground world, Mrs March has taken up surveying caves.

“Now that I know where all the caves are and I feel like I know my way around them … I’ll be able to go look at new caves if I found some.

“There’s always a chance you’re going to find something new, now that I know a bit about caving, I’ll be able to appreciate them and I’ll be able to document … I feel like I have something to give back since I’ve learnt a few things.”

During her time surveying near Cradle Mountain, another caving team discovered megafauna skeletal remains.

“You just don’t know what you’re going to find, a lot of these caves haven’t been gone into very much.”

The slow start of a stalactite. Picture: Tess Brunton

The slow start of a stalactite. Picture: Tess Brunton

Innovations and discoveries will be discussed at the congress, including using 3D digital scanners to map out caves instead of using clinometers to measure them.

Mrs March, who has been in charge on sponsorship, said she had learnt quite a lot from being involved beyond research topics.

She has been approaching businesses for sponsorship to help cover the approximate $150,000 budget.

She raised $20,000 for the conference, with an additional $14,000 in prizes.

The conference would hear from “professional cavers” and people who made a living from researching the depths of the earth, Mrs March said.

“It’s a good way to meet people from other countries.

“The caving world is this whole community of a diverse range of people who do care about each other and the caves,” Mrs March said.

Ms Hemley said, “To me, caving isn’t a thrill-seeking, danger sport, it’s a way of adventuring and exploring different parts of the world”.

“Anyone who has that curiosity and wants to see more of the world, should look at joining a caving club and learning how to cave safely and understand the environment they might want to visit. There are some amazing places and opportunities out there.”

Members of the public are advised not to cave without an experienced caver with knowledge of the cave, experience level required and appropriate cave permissions.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop