The underground community hit hard by coronavirus

By Madeleine Riddell

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand (Courtesy of the Legendary BlackWater Rafting co.)

I can recall my first experience with caving. I was black water rafting at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves in New Zealand.  I would consider that experience one of the best things I have done in my life. I was keen to come back home and continue caving, hopefully as a hobby, because walking through caves was like seeing a new and surreal world.

The sound of dripping water could be heard reverberating throughout the tunnels, the echoing noise was otherworldly, and the closest thing it could be compared to would be the atmosphere of an empty opera theatre. The sound was also what helped those of us traversing the cave know when we were coming up to an underwater river. The dripping noise would increase, the echoing would stop, and slowly the faint roaring of a small waterfall would signal that the river was only a few steps away.

The cave itself looked incredible, the walls curved and dipped like something out of a surrealist art piece, and the stalactites lining the ceiling only added to this illusion. The unique shapes hanging down from the top of the cave almost looked as if they were liquid, slowly dripping onto the floor below. Upon first inspection the walls of the caves looked to be striped with colours of browns, oranges, yellows, whites but when taking a closer look, it was easy to see that each stripe was a different type of rock. The walls were made to look as though they had been painted on, with the changes in colours and stripes.  Australian caves are widely considered unique in their own rights, for how old some cave systems are to the difference in the environment. However, for the first time in history the caves of Australia have been closed to the public for almost a year.

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand (Courtesy of the Legendary BlackWater Rafting co.)

I spoke with Garry Smith, President of the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Speleological society, about why the Caving industry in Australia has been so hard hit this year. He spoke with a cheerful tone on the phone, happily going along with my poor attempts to properly pronounce the word ‘Speleological’.

“During a normal year we would have at least one trip per month, or sometimes two of three trips per month, and on those trips we would have anywhere from ten to fifteen or maybe twenty people on the trips,” he said, cheerfully chatting about the purposes of Speleological societies.

Mr Smith has proudly mentioned how long he has been caving, talking about how he’s been involved in the hobby “Since the age of seven”. His passion for the activity was obvious during our conversation on the phone.

He spoke happily about his experiences caving, and how he described the activity to people who have never been caving before.

“Caving you have the opportunity of finding something that no one else has ever seen and exploring brand new wondrous things underground. People think that joining a caving club you do everything underground but it’s the journey,” he said. “The mate-ship, the friends you go along and do these activities with, and sharing this experience with them.”

It isn’t just the social aspect that sounds appealing either. Mr. Smith began to tell a story describing the nature of caves as being like another world.

“There are always the new things you see around the corner; brand new stalactites and stalagmites never been seen by anyone, there’s always the little critters you see in the caves. The occasional bats in some caves and other caves might have full colonies.” He continued, describing the environment inside a cave, “But you see the odd critter in the cave and think ‘geez that’s wonderful’ blind spiders or crickets. They’re blind and they have long feelers so they work their way around cave by feel.”

 “So, we’re seeing all these different types of little critters in the caves besides the beauty of pools of water and stalactites stalagmites and it’s just wonderful,” he said.

 Yet, when speaking about the impacts the caving societies have faced this year his tone became more serious.

The Jenolan Caves (Image source:

“This year has been devastating for our group and all other cavers particularly in New South Wales,” He said, “We’ve had on the east coast some of the worst droughts in living memory, particularly starting from 2018 up to January of this year there were horrendous droughts where the areas were drying.”

The struggles were only just beginning there, Mr Smith explained.

“Then by December this year there were bushfires burning significantly across the country and affecting not only people’s lives, their housing and everything else but they also affect the caves,” he said.

Mr Smith continued, “As a result, a big bushfire went through Jenolan for instance and burnt a number of buildings down there, the cottages. One of those was the cottage that cavers use and that has been used for many, many years. So that’s totally effected our visiting to Jenolan.”

 This issue isn’t just affecting the Jenolan caves, he explained. The Wombeyan caves have also been listed as having fires, numerous cave sites in Victoria have been hit by fires too, and even caving systems in national parks that are exclusive access to caving groups were locked off.

“The list goes on.” Mr Smith said.

“We thought ‘alright we’re starting to get back on our feet’, then by the end of January we started having the floods.” He continued, listing off all of the things that have stopped the society running normally this year, “On top of Jenolan having burnt out all of the bush area the floods came through and washed a huge amount of rock and debris right through the middle of Jenolan. It destroyed the guides’ office, and a lot of the infrastructure.”

The Jenolan caves are some of the most well-known cave systems in Australia, and are widely considered the oldest open cave system in the world. The cave systems have strong ties to local Indigenous cultures and practises, and are listed as a heritage site.

Since the creation of Australian Federation, the Jenolan caves have had an interesting history that has attracted tourists far and wide. They were previously named the Fish River caves, and were described by expedition leaders as “fairy spots”.

The Wombeyan caves are more well known for their conservation efforts. The caves are located in the Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve. Several species of wallabies, birds, possums, and even wombats are known to be found around the cave areas.

The two caves have been closed to the public previously, during the second world war as well as previous bushfires. However, Mr Smith says the previous closures haven’t “been an issue at all in the past” compared to this year.

“I can’t say that any time in my lifetime I’ve seen three issues like this come through right from the droughts… through to the bushfires destroying areas, and now to COVID. It’s unprecedented,” he said.

Kooringa Cave, Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve (Image Source: National Parks, NSW)

The issues surrounding the closures caused by the Coronavirus pandemic differ to the other hardships faced this year, Mr Smith explained.

“They were starting to have a clean-up of that and we thought ‘When they get on top of that, we can have the caves open again’, but then the coronavirus hit and we were locked out again. It was a decision, we believe, made at a ministerial level,” he said.

Mr Smith turned the focus of the discussion to ministerial decisions. He mentioned the choices made by the NSW Minister for Environment and Energy’s decision to stop the approval of caving permits in the state. His words were delivered in a tone that conveyed just how passionate he was about caving.

“It seems a bit of an anomaly because the virus hasn’t stopped caving in other states around NSW. We are hoping the minister has a rethink of issuing permits and allows us to get back into caves because the work we do is really helping scientists and other people know more about our past and our future,” he said.

The impact of caving societies is not just for recreational activities. Conservation efforts are frequently highlighted as an area that Speleological societies assist with the most.

 “We’ve taken part in lots of research projects where we’ve taken scientists into the caves, and found fossil deposits for them to study. We’ve taken part in bat surveys, water tracing, and general exploration of caves where we would find new passages and survey them. Add them to the maps and general knowledge of the cave systems,” Mr Smith explained enthusiastically.

Just like any hobby, the opportunity is open to people once the caving community get back on their feet, Mr Smith explained: “If people are interested in seeing caves that aren’t open to the public it would be a good thing if they joined a caving club because of the safety aspect and knowing what to do underground and using the techniques of using the ladders. Going with experienced people they will get to see a lot more and they will do it safely.”