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Exploring the caverns of Mount Gambier

written by Marc van der Poel

Mt Gambier, South Australia Steadily our pool of Deep Cavern divers is growing, so it’s time to cross to the Nullarbor and head for the Australian capital of cave diving.  When I asked: Who wants to come with me to Mt Gambier and learn to lay line in the caves, I nearly got trampled! The response was tremendous, I even got requests from people not qualified (yet).  Next trip guys, there will be more!

First in and best dressed were Tech divers Drew Petterson, Ryan Limpus & Joshua Phillips.  All have completed the Deep cavern course here in WA, as well as TDI Advanced Nitrox & Decompression Procedures. I have a good friend, who is a CDAA cave Instructor in Melbourne, Rubens Monaco, who organised the course logistics and accommodation.

We left on the 1st of Feb on the red-eye from Perth to Melbourne with a baggage allowance of 23 kg – enough you would think…. We all thought we were well within the allowance.  Ryan had a little shock when his bag turned out to be a mere 37 kg.  He had packed a weight belt and the kitchen sink (No, just kidding about the weight belt).  When we arrived in Melbourne all our bags came around the corner on the carousel, except Ryan’s. His bag was too heavy and had not been loaded! Shock horror, what next, he needed his bag or he was going to be doing a week of snorkeling in Mt Gambier.Ryan, a happy man to get his bag delivered

Good news, the airline messed up and were flying his bag out that evening and were going to deliver the bag to Kongorong. That was where we were heading! Rubens organised the accommodation – a converted church!  It is owned by a cave diver who converted it to accommodate cave divers.  It has everything you need; enough beds, a pot belly stove for the cooler evenings, kitchen, 2 bathrooms, washing machine and a BBQ.  Oh, and even a drying room for the drysuits at the end of the day!  We arrived in Kongorong at about 6pm, had dinner and chilled out for a bit, then an early night – we were in our third time zone for the day.

An early rise the next day with the anticipation of Ryan’s kitchen sink that was due to be delivered.  Some breakfast and a start on the theory.  The guys were doing the Side-mount course first so that we could all do the cave course in S-M configuration.  To Ryan’s relief, his bag was delivered late that morning (the thought of snorkeling for a week didn’t appeal that much!).  After a morning of theory and gear setup we headed out to Ewan’s ponds for the first SM dive.

Wow!  It is like swimming in gin, the water is crystal clear!  We thought this was fun, little did we know that the dives the next day were going to be even better! Piccaninnie Ponds, it was like descending into heaven.  How bizarre to see someone suspended in what looks like mid air.  After a great day diving we headed back to the church for an afternoon of cave theory, a cold beer and a BBQ.   A great start to the week.

Land drills - Lost line procedure... Drew 'helping' RyanDay 2. Land drills to start off with – laying line in the church garden and car park – it sure looked strange to passers by. Then some drills for a lost line and an entanglement exercise. It’s funny to see how ‘buddies’ turn on each other when land drills are done in blindfold.

The first three dives of the cave course weren’t in the same clear water.  The objective of these dives is to accomplish  skills with line, buoyancy and stress tests, to then progress into a full overhead environment.  These dives are reserved for the murkiness of Gouldens Hole, a favorite CDAA training site.Entrance of Gouldens Sinkhole - Mt Gambier

Drew, Ryan and Josh didn’t have much trouble with the tests and progressed comfortably to dive four after another evening of theory.

The early starts meant that we didn’t have to deal with too much of the heat.  I must say I was dreading the heat before we left because it was hovering around 40 degrees here in Perth.  Imagine putting a drysuit on in those temperatures to brave the water which averaged 17 degrees!  I was relieved because the weather held out, we even had some cooling rain during the day and it was cold enough at night to fire up the pot belly!

Day 3 & 4. Allendale: a cave set in the middle of the road. You literally have to gear up,  climb the barrier to cross the road and then walk down a drop in the ground. Here you can see the fence around the cave entrance with the road on both sides. Now the fun started proper overhead environment and back to the beautiful clear water. Dark, but crystal clear in the beam of your torch.

The afternoon dive was again an improvement – this time The Pines. A lovely dive, with easy access down a set of steps. Y ou have to be careful on entering the water not to silt it out, but once you descend it opens up to a huge chamber dropping down to about 24 meters from where a tight passage starts. We managed to get four dives in here and I could still go back for more.  A fantastic dive site!

Entrance Allendale Cave - Mt Gambier

The last day held the best dive I think, Engelbrecht East. This is a big hole in the middle of town with two caves – East and West. We did the East channel and to get there you need to walk down quite a few steps just to get to the cave entrance, then another 100 meters to the waters edge. This is quite a hike with all your equipment, but well worth the whole schlep!  The waters edge was a little murky and you wonder where you are heading when you first enter and don’t know the caves direction.  Soon into the dive, at the secondary tie-off point, the water clears and the chalky walls turn your light turquoise. The water here is cold but crispy clear!! We follow the main channel, then a sharp left and the viz just gets better. The tunnel then starts ascending until you reach an air-chamber. The caves have this deafening silence, ALL sound is absorbed and all you hear is yourself breathing. After a short look around we go back to the main turn and head deeper into the main tunnel.  It is quite easy to see why this  is addictive. There is something quite serene about this tunnels and the clean chalky white walls. You wonder what might be around the next corner.  Unfortunately the rule of thirds was reached, time to head back.  We were all a little quiet after this dive, it does leave you with an impression, a pleasantly humbling experience.

That was it for the week, we were now certified cave divers! Happy to have passed the course, and I must say I felt a little sad to leave.

Josh & Ryan surfacing after a dive in Allendale CaveWe planned it so that we had the last night in Melbourne before heading back to Perth.

For all of us, it is clear, we need to organise the next trip and dive the sites we didn’t manage to do this time. There are many on our wish list for next time.  Piccaninnie Ponds is a must see, but Kilsby’s Sinkhole and The Shaft are on my list for next time.

To get to ‘the Mount’ is an easy day’s travel.  The accommodation at the ‘Church’  is cheap, cheerful and more than adequate, actually it is fantastic, I really loved it – what’s more, it is conveniently located as most dive sites are about a 25 minute drive, some a little further.

If you are interested in joining us on our next trip to Mt Gambier you will need a minimum of deep cavern / sinkhole certification.  We will be diving cavern and cave sites.  For those interested in doing the next level and completing the cave course, there will be the opportunity to do this as well.

If cave diving is not your cup of tea, but you are into ‘rust’ we are running a TDI Advanced Wreck course in May as we are expanding our overhead environment  programs.

For any information, or questions about the cavern, cave or advanced wreck courses and trips please feel free to contact us. Marc & Drew about to dive Pines Cave - Mt Gambier

Overhead environment courses

–   Cavern / Sinkhole course: 4 till 7 of March and  3 – 5 of April

–   Advanced Wreck course 16th till 20 May

–   Cave course & dive trip: 5  till 8 on June

–   Nullarbor Plain Cave dive trip: June (precise dates TBA)

Photographs supplied by Marc van der Poel & Mick Tait.

Entrance of Pines Cave - Mt Gambier Photograph by Mick Taite

Some comments from the guys on the trip:

Drew Petterson:

Cold water, long days and lots of limestone… that’s the best way to sum up my experience of our trip to Mount Gambier. I loved it! To say the course met my expectations is an understatement. Everything from the instructor, the accommodation, right down to the air fills is a truly unique experience. The true highlight was our dive in Picaninnie Ponds. The clearest water ever, so clear it’s almost like the water isn’t there! It gives the feeling l are you are hovering in nothing! Definitely worth the big trek the whole way to the Mount just to dive Pic’s.

I’ll be going back ASAP!!!Once at caves entrance another 120 meters to the waters edge. Engelbrecht Cave - Mt Gambier

Ryan Limpus:

I had a great trip, learned lots and had a great time. The accommodation was unique , I have never slept in a church. The diving is spectacular with some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Favorite dive… I think Piccaninnie Ponds and Engelbrecht cave.

Thanks Marc for organising a an amazing trip!

Josh Phillips:

It was an awesome trip!!! The highlights were Piccaninnie Ponds and Engelbrecht East Cave were the two most amazing sites. Definitely recommend to anyone thinking about it. Everything from the accommodation to the diving and the company!The hole in the middle of town takes you down to Engelbrecht Cave - Mt Gambier


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