Oct 2 -6, 2020 Rod Smith

Scene 1-

It’s 4pm on Friday afternoon. Rod S., with minimal fuss, enters his transport and starts the engine. Shortly into the commute a digital sign is witnessed with the words:

Incident on M1 north of Wahroonga, expect delays

Rod S. – I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

The M2 is gridlocked, it would be nearly as quick to get out and walk. Rather than draw attention to himself, Rod S. becomes just another of the mindless masses attempting to escape the Greater Sydney Metropolis.

Five changes of the lights are required just to get onto Pennant Hills Rd. The crawl continues with only occasional, brief, reprieves, never long enough to give any real hope.

An hour later than scheduled Rod arrives and Jim’s domicile. Equipment is transferred to Jim’s transport and a plan is hatched in an attempt to avoid the crush of the masses heading north. Ducking and weaving through the back streets of Wahroonga, Hornsby, Asquith and Mt Colah, the intrepid travellers join the old Pacific Highway for a smooth run to Berowra. Now north of the incident Jim and Rod S. join the M1 with the hopes of a near- empty freeway, and plunge straight back into gridlock.

Their speed inevitably increases, but traffic remains heavy. Three hours after departure, Rod meets Jai for the first time at Kariong.

Jai – New to MSS and caving, the Kempsey trip is my first non tourist cave trip and I am super pumped The three travellers all settle in to Jim’s transport for the rest of the trip, which remains uneventful. Even the evening meal at Bulahdelah is uneventful, filling the stomach but leaving the taste buds neglected.

They arrive at the designated meeting point to find most of the others already asleep, so they settle in for the night in preparation for the challenges that await in the morning.

Scene 2-

After ignoring dawn’s light filtering through the curtained windows for what never feels like long enough (Ed: that’s because you arrived around midnight!), obligation to coordinate the attendees forces Rod S. to rise and face the morning. Rod S. emerges to find the camp already full of activity, so he starts with greetings and introductions.

At this stage only Oxana and Corey are still en route, but they still have plenty of time as the scheduled meeting time with the locals is not until midday.

One of the primary objectives for the weekend is to resurvey Moparabah Cave.1 Rod S. approaches Phil M. in regards to this

Rod S. – Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to lead the survey of Moparabah.

Phil M. agrees to this much too easily, thus no arm-twisting is required.

After a discussion with Phil L., Rod S. addresses the team.

Rod S. – At the Spotted Frog, the local cavers, we will meet

Thankfully Google Maps hadn’t been updated with the new name for the café formerly known as the Spotted Frog. So Rod S., Jim and Jai found Rod O. and Cathi outside Blueys. Although the name is decidedly less interesting, the burgers are a definite improvement on the previous night’s evening meal.

By midday most of the cavers have filtered in, including locals Phil L. and Thomas, but Phil M. and Simon were still at a coffee shop somewhere in town, and the burgers were yet to be consumed. The burgers arrive, are eaten, and still no sign of Phil M. and Simon.

Phil L. and Thomas need to take a small detour to retrieve some maps, so they head off with the plan to meet us again further down the road.

As soon as Phil M. and Simon arrive, the merry band all board their transportation and depart.

Scene 3-

John Taylor is found just short of the final destination, patiently waiting for everyone else to arrive. He joins the convoy as they approach the first gate and enter private property. Two more gates are passed as the group wind their way through an old match-stick plantation.

They stop next to a small escarpment covered in lantana, stinging nettles, stinging trees, and other native and introduced vegetation all designed specifically to inflict pain and misery on any foolhardy travellers attempting to enter their domain. With the right mixture of fools and hardy, the cavers skirt the bottom edge of the escarpment before finding a suitable entry point.

And there it is, Moparabah Cave. This is the main, lower entry. Various holes amongst the tumble of boulders all appear to lead further into the depths of the hillside, but most are too small to be enterable by humans. Of course, at least one is big enough.

The initial plan is for Phil L. to take a small group on a quick trip through the cave to familiarise themselves with the basics and then start surveying. It sounds like a good idea, until the small group becomes most of the cavers.

As the not-so-small group begin their not-so-quick trip through Moparabah, John leads Lachlan, Thomas, Andy and Rod S. onto the escarpment to locate the upper entrances plus another hole that Thomas had looked at previously. Quickly locating Thomas’ hole (think of better wording here), Thomas, Andy and Lachlan headed in to see if it would link into the main system. After pointing out that helmets required removal in order to fit through one squeeze, Rod S. opts to remain on the surface with John.

After a while, and with Lachlan, Andy and Thomas well into the cave, John and Rod S. decide to go looking for some of the upper entrances to Moparabah. Heading up the hill they quickly locate MP20 and MP2 plus some associated holes. Rod S. finds another hole, but John insists it’s not MP1, the very top hole. Continuing the search yields no results, so Rod S. has another look at the hole he had located. Sure enough, there is the MP1 tag. Apparently the small tree John remembered in the entrance is now two large trees (Ed: at this point I will respectfully comment while casting no aspersions whatsoever that the two trees are different species).

Heading back down the slope John and Rod S. encounter the other three coming up, having not found a connection between Thomas’ hole (Seriously, think of better wording) and the main cave. They then started showing Thomas, Lachlan and Andy the other locations when they found Phil L. had emerged from MP1 and is looking for some relief.

Slowly but surely the others began to emerge from MP1, the entrance not being conducive to a rapid departure. There is some talk amongst the emerging cavers regarding their experience.

Andriana - This may be the first time that I have been to a cave in Australia that truly deserves to be described as ‘beneath the fig tree’.

Jim - The cave is quite maze like and mainly consists of dry small passageways and a few larger chambers.

Jai - The main entrance required a crawling start so we were straight into it. Once inside it opened up a bit and the caving experience began. Crawling through a few tight squeezes, negotiating some narrow passages, crawling through the dirt and viewing some beautiful features while trying to dodge the few hundred (if not thousand) bats we had inadvertently tried to avoid! The cave had a bit of everything and seemed to go on forever. Can’t wait for the next one.

Rod O. - The character of the cave changes as you progress through it, ranging from squeezes, rifts, chambers and mazes. Side passages run off seemingly everywhere, sometimes joining back onto the main passage deeper into the cave. There are some nice areas of formation, tons of marine fossils along with some interesting bone breccia deposits. The oldest signature found so far is J.P 1/6/1910. The cave is also home to large colonies of Bent Wing and Horseshoe bats.

Jim - There is a quite a bit of vertical extent and some tight areas. We were expertly led by local KSS member Phil who obviously has a lot of experience in this cave. This is actually the largest cave in the Macleay River karst.

Trish - 2 hours underground, being bashed by bats, finding fossilised remains (hopefully not a previous caver) and finally a series of squeezes and turns to be birthed at the top of the cave. Great times. Can’t wait to do it again.

Jim - This cave has a significant population of Eastern Bent Wing Bats. Our attempts to avoid them had failed or maybe Phil was wrong about them being in a particular chamber. The passages were soon engulfed by these flying mammals, certainly like nothing I had experienced before. It just so happened that the girl in front of me was freaked out by these bats movements. She resorted to getting down on hands and knees, head down eyes partly closed to avoid their presence. This was quite an event as some of the bats were deflecting off my clothes and one was momentarily caught on my shirt. Others even had the bats go inside their helmet and clothes. With my open eyes this was all quite a unique experience from these Bat storms.

Meanwhile Andy, Lachlan and Thomas regale the emerging cavers with the exploits of the above ground group.

Thomas – We peeled off up the hill to relocate MP34. Without much difficulty we were successfully gathered around the entrance and preparing for entry, with the hopes that the extra eyes may locate further passage that could potentially connect with the main cave system, given its proximity amongst the other known entrances. A second question to this quest was to also assess the viability of mapping this system by the more experienced than myself. Whenever I’d sat down to try and translate memory to mud map it would just become a drawing in the shape of one big confusing twistie stood on its end.

Andy - John, Rod Smith, Tom, Lachlan and I climbed into MP34 and had to bypass a rather large spider. The cave turned out to be a bit of a squeeze, with some nice formation here and there. Unfortunately we couldn’t connect it up with main cave, which was our objective, so we hopped out and continued with the day.

Lachlan - It was one of those sort caves where everything wants to rip you, and there’s not enough space to avoid getting shredded. We barreled down to the bottom of the cave, leaving Rod and John on the surface to swap stories (and eventually get bored and wander off). Here there were a few enjoyably nasty leads that were all too tight or impenetrably filled with mud. There was also a rather fat brushtail possum. I tried rescuing it, but it declined to be rescued, and wandered off through a slot that was far too tight for me to fit through. Considering that not only was it fat, but it was also uninjured, I suspect that there’s another entrance to MP34 somewhere. Tom hopes that MP34 connects to Main Cave, and the possum makes me suspect he’s right. It’s also right over the top of the course of Main Cave according to the GPS. If the cave ever needs a name, Andy and I would like to suggest Possum’s Palace. There’s more of MP34 down a climb covered by a nice flowstone cascade. But by the time Andy and I got there, we were pretty filthy and didn’t want to grot up the formation. So need to go back with a clean tape and detrog…

Thomas - Andy and Lachlan began the bumpy descent before me. Once we had reached what we shall call the bottom of the cave for now, the pushing and poking of other branches began, though to little avail. What I found very interesting at one stage was the reflection of a red eye catching my own, scampering away up a slope to the left of Lachlan. Disappearing through a squeeze more suited to possums than people was a Brushtail.

By my rough guess we’d have had to been around 30 vertical metres below the entry, not to mention the twists, turns, slopes and squeezes between. A lot deeper in than I’d have ever expected to find a possum. Either its presence suggests a connection to an easier access through the tunnel where I last saw it enter or it’s just exceptional at navigating in the pitch dark. Or a third possibility I suppose could be that it was in fact too deep and was extremely lost and that we fumbled that cave rescue.

Andy - I poked my head into a couple of holes just near MP2. One barely went further than a couple of meters. But another was a bit more interesting. A climb through a rock pile, and down a slit took me about 10-15m into the cave. Once jammed in at the bottom of the slit I was too large to orient myself to see what was underneath, and if it went further, so I turned around. Perhaps someone else smaller than me can give it another look.

Having been underground for a few hours, most people feel like doing the return journey above ground, but Phil L. says he would prefer the subterranean route as it is quicker. Grasping their opportunity for a trip through the main cave, Lachlan, Andy and Thomas quickly follow Phil L.

Andy and Lachlan were excited by the opportunity.

Andy - Phil took us back through the cave and out the entrance. Man there were a lot of bats! It was quite an interesting cave.

Lachlan - Phil Lardner offered to take anyone who wanted back down though Main Cave, so Andy, Tom and I set off with him. It is a cracking bit of cave, and it’s going to be a big survey project. The volume of bats in it was kinda worrying though, I think a reasonable chunk of the cave is going to have to be nocturnal surveying.

The group return to their transportation where a discussion follows ensuring everyone knows where and when to meet the following day, and the scene fades out …

Scene 4-

Today a slightly smaller group arrives at the café formally known as The Spotted Frog in a much timelier manner, Dave and Marilyn both opting out due to not feeling well. However, John is again kept waiting as Phil L. decides to play tour guide during the drive out, stopping numerous times to point out various locations of interest to Rod S. and Rod O., and anyone else in earshot.

Arriving back at Moparabah the cavers are better organized into groups. Phil M. leads the first group to start surveying Moparabah from the main entrance. Lachlan takes the second group to the top entrance to begin surveying from there. The third group heads beyond Moparabah to look at some of the other caves in the area.

The third group, consisting of John, Phil L., Thomas, Rod S., Rod O., Cathi, Jim, Trish and Jai, make their way up the escarpment. Soon the group fragments with Phil L., Thomas and Jai checking out some squeezy holes and the rest passing Lachlan’s survey team setting up at MP1 before arriving at MP11??? This is a small cave with a couple of entrances through rockpile and into some lower chambers. The farthest extent of the cave is barely out of earshot from the surface.

The group of cavers then moved on to MP23??? which is more extensive then MP11??? A vertical climb leads to a sloping passage running into the main, decorated chamber. The chamber extends to the left and right with what looks like possible leads, although they probably require rock removal to actually get anywhere. Straight on there is a squeeze that leads further into the cave. Jim is the only member of the group to explore further into the cave, but, according to the map, he didn’t find his way to the furthest reaches.

The group return to the transportation where lunch is stowed in order to consume their midday repast, well after midday. Rod S., Rod O. and Cathi then decide to acquaint themselves with the Sebastapol area, ably guided by John.

Scene 5-

Sebastapol is a National Parks managed area and, as such, the cavers don’t have permission to go underground. They do, however, have permission to walk the surface, so that is the plan. One of the first they visit is the efflux, where soon a rotten animal smell permeates the air. It seems to be coming from the cave itself, maybe something has fallen in.

As they turn to leave John sees a snake and immediately moves away before realising the red-bellied black snake is obviously the source of the foul aroma. The cavers move quickly past, not because of any danger to their lives, just their olfactory organs.

Moving further up the hill they continue to look for other tagged features, while trying to avoid the worst of the lantana and other annoying vegetation. Rod S., the only one in shorts, sits out one particularly nasty section in an area that reminds Cathi and Rod O. of Bullita, only on a smaller scale.

The last feature visited is Daylight Cave. This is named because of the hole in the roof that provides daylight into the first chamber in the cave. The entrance is a scramble down a slope but it would be possible to also enter via the daylight hole as it is quite large, but would require SRT as it is also quite vertical. Being quite a large feature it leaves the visiting cavers wondering why no other similarly sized features have been found.

Scene 6-

With a different destination planned, a different meeting place is organized, so the café formally known as the Spotted Frog didn’t witness the arrival of a group of cavers transportation. Again a large, but not full, compliment of cavers meet for a visit to Yessabah. John had opted out for the day as it was the wrong direction for him travelling home. Oxana, Corey, Andy, Kirra and Andriana all decide to get an earlier start for the homeward trip, as they are all aiming to be in Canberra by evening. Before leaving they reflected on their weekend.

Andy - Kirra, Oxana, Andriana, Lachlan and I started to map the cave from MP1. It was a very slow process as we were still relatively new to mapping, and some of us were learning for the first time. The cave was a lot more complex than we had expected. It was interesting to be able to see so much more of the cave while mapping it, than if we had just passed through at speed.

Andriana - I had a lot of fun learning how to survey over the weekend, and only wish that we hadn’t gotten the bats so upset!

Yessabah is the site of an old quarry, which had removed some of the limestone. There’s still plenty left with a good number of predominantly small caves over the hillside. Some of the cavers head directly for the old quarry, whereas some decide to follow Phil L. round to the left and then up the side of the hill.

The group following Phil L. don’t move very fast, primarily so they can stop at any feature and have a good look, including entering the position on various GPS’. This allows a few more cavers to catch up, but still not the entire group.

And then, it happens. Simon didn’t see the sapling stinging tree with the single leaf. That single leaf smears across his left thigh as he walks past, and the pain is immediate. Numerous profanities issue forth from between gritted teeth. Not wanting to get stung himself, and in a strange sense of revenge, Rod S. uses his footwear to remove the stinging tree from any conceivable human path.

After investigating the immediate area, and not wanting to separate the group any further, the decision is made to return to the bottom of the hill. Thankfully, Simon, despite the pain, is able to walk down the hill unaided and soon the majority of cavers area sitting in a shady spot in front of the old quarry.

Looking up it is just possible to see the tiny dots of Rod O. and Cathi on the highest reaches of the quarry. Simon, with Phil M. and Lachlan who all travelled to Yessabah in Phil M.’s transport, depart in order to find some herbal remedies for Simon’s thigh. The rest, not wanting to all leave while two cavers would be unaware of what’s happening, discuss options. Dave and Marilyn, since they are staying in the Kempsey area for another day, offer to wait for Cathi and Rod O. to return. The others accept the offer and return to their transportation.

Rod O. - Cathi spent most of the morning, in her element, wandering around the old quarry.

When Cathi and Rod O. return they are given the story by Dave and Marilyn. In response to Simon’s experience with the stinging tree, Cathi replies.

Cathi - Rod got whacked by one too on our way down the hill (and there was much swearing), but as usual he brushes these things off.

Scene 7-

For Jim, Jai and Rod S. the return trip to Sydney involved a recommended stop at Riccardoes Tomatoes near Port Macquarie. A very popular spot with travelers due to the quality of tomato and strawberry they produce.

The rest of the journey is much like the trip to Kempsey, but in reverse. The fast flowing trip becomes a snail’s pace around Gosford and the mindless masses return from their long weekend travels.

Meanwhile Phil L. is taking Phil M., Simon, Lachlan, Marilyn and Dave to the coast to show them a sea cave. Phil M. summarised the experience.

Phil M. - We got to the beach on Monday afternoon and looked at a big sea cave but there was a bit too much wave action to swim into it.

Marilyn, on the other hand, goes into more detail.

Marilyn - After we’d finished our caving exploration on Monday (and most people had left to travel home), Phillip offered to take us (those of us who’d decided to stay an extra day) on another adventure. A SEA CAVE!

We drove down to Gap Beach, and started walking across the beach over to the rocks. “Just up here” says Phillip, it was a jungle of Lantana, Pandanus, and Lomandra - all of which were scratchy and spiky, and the Crocs I was wearing weren’t coping. Not to mention that it was very snaky and I didn’t wear my gaiters,- what was I thinking? Fortunately we stopped and Phillip said, “I’m sure there is a track on the hill”, and sure enough we stumbled onto it. And then another cove appeared - it was like Treasure Island! We dropped down into the cove and there was another lovely campsite, with plenty of fire wood. Then we headed over to the slot that we could see from above.

Sadly, although it was low tide, it wasn’t low enough to jump in and check out the slot. But Phillip took us up the rocks, and over to a natural bridge over the top of the slot which we used down to get back onto the rock platform, and there voila was this stunning cave – which had a back entry that we couldn’t see, but it apparently joined up with out slot. We all agreed that this was a place that we HAD to revisit, preferably with lower tide, plus snorkeling or diving gear! Great adventure, thanks Phillip.

And finish with the cliché, although apt, “Top Trip”