In a field not that far South of the market town of Mount Gambier, in the rural end of South Australia, there is a hole. It was formed in 1938 when a horse stumbled while ploughing the field. Imagine the farmer, Mr Griffin’s, surprise when with the aid of a weight and line, he work out there was about 5m drop to some water and then went down a further 40m! Fast forward 30 years and the cave had become a well known dive site for the brave and adventurous. On 28th of May, 1973 tragedy struck a group of eight divers went for a dive, but only 4 returned. It took over 10 months to recover the bodies. Due to this incident and a spate of deaths at other cave and cavern sites in the area many of the landowners had closed their sites and the state government was threatening to close them all unless the sport got its act together.
The threat of closure resulted in the formation of the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA) in September 1973. Today if you want to dive the Shaft or any of the other CDAA regulated site you have to complete one or more of their stringent courses, and this is what Ben, Alex and Dorota set out to do. Under the expert tutorage of CDAA Instructor of Terri Allen and assisted by Geoff, the three spent a weekend in Sydney learning how the risks associated with cave diving can be mitigated by rigours attention to detail on: gear configuration, fining technique, line work and dive planning. By the end of the weekend they had tied themselves in knots in Anne n Al’s garden (Thanks for the BBQ lunch!) and in Frog Dive’s rather toasty swimming pool, as well as passing the theory test.
The following Friday the training trio and Al set off on the epic drive to Mt Gambier. First stop, the basic, but nice Byer Fountain Motel, in Holbrook, home of the submarine. It was half past nine on the Friday night, the honeymooners had retired to bed so it was left to Ben ‘n Al checked out the Holbrook Hotel, which was just about to shut up shop, so after a swift schooner it was a Melbourne Bitter long neck and back to the motel. The next morning, Alex and Dorota tried the cafe in town (thumbs down) while Al and Ben, got a few miles under the belt before a slap up brekkie at Hollywoods in Wangaratta. Fuel/lunch stops aside the next break was Safeway’s in Hamilton, on the other side of Victoria to stock up on food, before pressing on to Mt Gambier. We arrived at Just a Bed Lodge, run by Darren and Suzanne, in the early evening. Once any tanks which needed filling (or hyrdo testing) had been dropped off at Blue Lake Diving, conveniently located in the other half of the building, it was time to crack a beer and put ones feet up after the long drive.
Over the next three days the trainees were put through their paces by Terri and Geoff in a variety of Mt Gambier’s leading training sites such as Goulden’s Cavern and Blue Hole. The main attraction of these sites appears to be the low visibility and, in the latter, the abundance of rubbish which provides handy tie off points. The water temperature was consistently in the mid teens, making it often more attractive than being above water where the air temperature, if you include the wind chill, felt sub zero and the showers rattled trough giving busts of horizontal rain! Luckily we had heeded the advice to bring camping stoves to brewing up soup and hot drinks, and the hearty food and open fire of the Bellum Hotel was welcome treat at the end of the day. To some the stress test (finding your way out with no mask, possibly out of air and probably entangled in the line) was a major challenge, but for Alex it paled into insignificance compared to extracting himself from his rather well attached P-valve, not that it was enough to persuade him to take a leaf out of his wife’s book and start wearing nappies!
With the course out of the way we could kick back and relax. First site was back to One Tree for one more look at the harvester, the old car and, for me watching Jonathan (who had flown in on Tuesday evening) wriggle through a tiny swim through, just because he had side mounts. That evening we headed into the town and the Wednesday steak special at the popular Sorrentos’s cafe. Unfortunately Dorota’s ‘rare’ fillet stake came out so well done it was halfway to being a diamond, twice. By which time she was so hungry she just ate it...on the upside she got a free meal and we all got a free ice cream. On the nights we eat in at the lodge, the ‘kitchen’ consists of two microwaves, which with some imagination you can cook real food, but Al took the option of adding lashings of chilli sauce to make his nuked dinners palatable. On Thursday we headed south to Piccaninnie Ponds, situated on the coast near the Victoria boarder. You arrive at a shallow pond in wetland conservation area, hidden beneath the surface is a chasm which drops down in ‘the dogleg’ to over 60m, while in ‘the Cathedral’, you are surrounded by beautiful sculptured limestone. Afterwards Al ‘n Jonathan stay there for a night dive while the trio head to nearby Ewen’s ponds. The site is a series of three ponds the first of which is spring fed and there is a stream linking the ponds together. A lovely dive, but an oh so long walk back to the car if done with twin sets! Friday morning saw us divide and concur with Al ‘n Jonathan hanging out in One Tree (again!) while the trio revisited Little Blue to track down highlights such as the chemical toilet. In the afternoon we converged on The Sisters, a pair of caverns just down the road from Kilsbys. While largely rubbish free, they are also devoid of any bar a few yabbies. Dorota picked up a plastic bag to help keep it looking clean. Once on the surface was rather surprised to find it contained a stone and a knife. Convinced it must be a murder weapon, she detoured via Mt Gambier to hand it in to a rather confused policeman.
Saving the best to last, the weekend consisted of two cracking dive sites: The Shaft and Kilsby’s Hole. To dive the shaft, first one brave volunteer is lowered in, followed by everyone else’s gear and finally all the divers. Once kitted up, you descend into enormous chamber. At the bottom is a small pile of rubble – the remains of an entire house which at one point had been disposed of in the hole. Being winter time the sun was too low in the sky for us to be able to see the shaft of sun light which gives the site it’s name, but just viewing the torches of the other diver across the far side is an out of this world experience. That evening back at the lodge we had Darren’s world famous spit roast lamb. Just when you think it couldn’t get better it was time to dive Kilsby’s. It is another crystal clear site, but this time a wide, deep, light filled sinkhole with limestone boulders the size trucks, what a great end to a fabulous trip.
Alas all that remained was the epic drive home. This time we stopped at the about halfway point, in the small town of Seymour. The semi-delux static caravan was also semi-awful and Al certainly couldn’t wait to get out of there fast enough.