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Lake cave saga


On the 30th April 1983, I arrived at the Lake Cave kiosk and, as usual was made to feel very welcome by Brian, Liz, and Mark. During the evening, Brian asked me if I would have a look at the drainage system of Lake Cave as the lake had risen about 75 cm in the previous couple of weeks. Brian, Mark and I went down into the cave and, after having a look, I agreed that there was obviously a blockage somewhere. I suggested that we get something long to push up the 23 cm diameter concrete pipe that served as a drain to keep the lake at its natural level.

This pipe was laid on the floor of a tunnel, that had been built down-stream from the lake and just out of view from the tourists. The tunnel was man-made and shored up with timber. About 4 mtrs from the entrance, the tunnel had been blocked by a large roof fall and I felt that this may have crushed the concrete pipe, but we had to be sure before digging down to clear the suspected blockage.

Lying along the side of the chamber, and also hidden from the tourists, was a 10 mtrs length of 4 cm diameter black polythene pipe and I recall idly thinking that John Yates would have left it there in preparation for such an eventuality. Brian, Mark and I pushed the black pipe into the drainage pipe and it slid up fairly easily for the whole ten metres. It seemed that there was no blockage at that point after all.

We next decided to go into a chamber on the west side of the Lake Cave doline (crater) where the drainage stream re-appears before vanishing again on its underground journey to the ocean at Conto Spring. All cave features on the Leeuwin/Naturaliste limestone Ridge have a number, this chamber is numbered WI 32 (WI for Witchcliffe, the nearest ‘town’). For safety, WI 32 is usually entered by abseiling into, and then prusiking (or Jumaring) out of. Soon the three of us had rigged up the ropes and abseiled down into the chamber. The stream appeared to be flowing quite freely, although I must admit that I didn’t know how it would look with or without a blockage! I laid down in the water and crawled up-stream as far as I could, until a rock fall in front barred my progress, and there was still no sign of the drainage pipe outlet.

I decided to try and dig over the collapsed tunnel roof to see if the tunnel still continued, hopefully finding the problem further on. With Brian and Mark backing me up I dug up through the collapsed roof and entered a small chamber, caused by the displaced limestone from the rock fall. On my left I could see a wall of boards and I had wondered why they were there.

The boards were fairly rotten and, after carefully removing one, I saw, in the light of my headlamp, that there was an empty space behind where the board had been. There was just enough room to squeeze my head through the gap so, I took my helmet off, unclipped my headlamp and, using the headlamp as a hand torch, I stuck my head into the gap. I discovered that I was looking into a man-made shaft and I could see daylight filtering down through gaps between lengths of planking that covered the top of it. Later, up on the floor of the doline, I would find that a bench seat was placed over the top of these planks, probably as a bit of camouflage but a welcome resting place for those that were not used to deep tourist caves. The timber shorings up the sides of the shaft were very rotten and dangerous looking and I withdrew my head and hand very gently.

Choosing a spot on the far right hand side of the small chamber, where I hoped to relocate the continuation of the tunnel, I began digging down into the rubble from the collapsed roof. I guessed that I was about 1.5 mtrs above the roof of the tunnel if it was still intact, but I still dug very carefully, just in case the whole lot collapsed again and took me with it. I was hardly daring to breath, and I was using all the skills learned from the many ‘digs’ I’d done in caves whilst exploring. If I tell the truth, wild horses wouldn’t have dragged me to that dig for I recognised what a dangerous position I was in. Only the thought of having that beautiful lake chamber ruined by the rising waters had spurred me on.

For an hour or so I slowly removed lumps of limestone and scooped the small stones and sand out of the ever-deepening hole. But in the end it was so deep that the whole trunk of my body was tipped upside down into it as I struggled to reach down even further and clear a way through. I could only use one hand for dragging rubble out as I needed the other hand to push myself back out of the hole and, although I was alternating hands each time, my arms became very tired. I felt that I should be getting close to the tunnel roof and that, if I accidentally slid down into the tunnel head first, I could be hurt. I needed some strength in my arms to keep control, so that I’d be able to back out from what I knew would be a crumbling hole and lower myself back down feet first into the tunnel. It was time for a rest to rebuild that strength, I retreated back to the lake chamber where Brian and Mark were anxiously waiting. Soon we were back up in the kiosk and being spoilt by Liz as she made us each a meal and kept the welcome cups of tea flowing.

It was then decided that Brian would follow me into the small chamber and help remove the rubble that I passed back up to him as I continued on with the dig. Mark would stay in the lake chamber ready to go for help if anything went wrong. We collected all the electrical extension-leads that we could find so that Brian and I could take a lead lamp in with us for better lighting.

Shortly after we had put this new plan into operation and I was again head-first into the dig, there was a slight rumbling sound below me and I instinctively pushed my elbows out and forced my back against the side of the hole so that I wouldn’t fall head first downwards. When the dust had cleared, my headlamp light shone down into the continuation of the tunnel and I was surprised to see that the floor wasn’t all that far below my head. My unease was tempered slightly by our small triumph of at least finding the tunnel again. Excitedly I called the news back up to Brian who passed it back on to Mark. It was a bit of encouragement and a boost to our morale. Very slowly and very carefully I slid on down towards the tunnel, moving the remaining rubble to either side as I progressed. Finally I could force my head back and twist it around enough to take a look along the tunnel’s length. What I saw quickly brought my uneasy feelings back with a vengeance.

I found that the floor of the tunnel was about 1 mtr higher than it was back in the main chamber. It was still the same width of about 1 mtr but there was only about half a metre of height left between the floor and the roof in places. I realised that the tunnel had been driven through the loose limestone first, then the drainage pipe had been laid on the main floor and loose rubble had been put back into the tunnel, roughly a metre deep, to protect the pipe from future rock falls. I recall being very impressed with the workings and wondering to myself who had originally built the tunnel. Nevertheless, even though it was a small feat of engineering and had obviously been hard and dangerous work, time had caused a few changes since the tunnel had been constructed.

The depth of my dig down into the tunnel was my full body length. Even though Brian was in attendance about 2 mtrs above, I knew that if anything happened along that tunnel there would be little chance of anybody getting me out without many hours of expert and very dangerous work. And if there was a major roof fall both Brian and I were aware that he could be caught in it as well. The whole area was that unsafe! But Brian stuck to his post, Mark was ready to go for help, and I slid very gingerly head-first into the tunnel proper.

Immediately I could see that all of the supporting timbers were extremely rotten, and there was another spot, about 3 mtrs up ahead, where the roof had caved in. I began to regret my decision to help but Brian and Liz had been very good to me and I didn’t want to let them down. I forced myself to concentrate on the construction of the tunnel while I lay there on my stomach and gained some courage.

The roof was supported by vertical props spaced at about 1 mtr intervals along each wall. These supported horizontal cross-members, which in turn supported thick boards (planks) running in line with the tunnel and forming the roof. The boards had obviously been fitted to hold the loose rock, that was up above the tunnel, in place. Again I could only marvel at the courage and skill of the persons who had originally laboured on the project. Finally, with my own courage and racing heart having returned to normal, I crawled onwards.

I reached the next cave-in and used extreme caution as I began to clear a way through, removing the rubble rock by rock, stone by stone and hearing my heart thumping like mad as I lay there deep underground and probably cut off from any help. Although I knew that Brian and Mark would almost give up their own lives in an effort to try and save me if a disaster occurred, I also knew that if the roof collapsed above me at that point, there would definitely be no chance of getting me out from such a serious situation in such a dangerous place.

I realised what an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation I’d placed myself into. I remember thinking to myself as I dug away at that third roof collapse that Brian was right, I had led a wonderful and varied life and I had so many stories to relate. Who would know of the fantastic life I had lived if the roof caved in on me? I worked with even more caution and promised myself that, if I got out of that tunnel safely, I would make every effort to record some of the unique stories that I had to tell. But in the meanwhile there was a job to be done.

Soon I had cleared a space in the third roof fall that was just large enough to fit through and I squeezed on into the continuation of the tunnel. Once inside this next section I saw that there was another tunnel going off at right angle to the left. The roof of this side tunnel had collapsed and it was completely blocked by large boulders and rubble. I continued crawling on along the main tunnel, feeling more and more alone with each move. After about another 12 mtrs my way was blocked by a massive rock fall and I could see that there was no hope at all for further progress. With a feeling of disappointment at not having solved the problem I made my way back along the tunnel. It was just as well that Brian was stationed at the top of the second dig for, even though I stood to my full outstretched height, I could not get a purchase to pull myself safely out of the hole without causing the sides to fall in on me and Brian had to help haul me out.

After a clean up and supper we discussed the situation. It was agreed that, as the polythene pipe had slid down the drainage pipe so easily, there didn't seem to be any problems in the first 10 mtrs of the system. The area below my first and second digs was up above that part of the pipe so the blockage hadn’t been caused by that rock fall. The rock fall in the tunnel, scene of my third dig, was definitely not heavy enough to have caused the covering of protecting rubble to crush the pipe. That left the last and worst looking rock fall at the end of the tunnel as a suspect. I set off home to Collie promising to return the following weekend if things hadn’t improved. I recall that, as I drove home that night, I had wondered how long it had been since anyone else had been along the tunnel, and I promised myself that I would find out a bit more about it.

To read more go to: Dave James web site

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