Pass The Jaffas

Caving Expedition

six young men

TL to BR – Steve, Trevor, Gary, Paul, Stuart (me), Eric

Pass The Jaffas

Question: What do you get when you mix 2 station wagons and 6 young men with time to kill?

Answer: Well it usually equates to trouble but jump in and I’ll tell you about it!

Look at those faces above, charming, intelligent, sensible, brave, compassionate, thoughtful

One time as teenagers, we had a party of 21 cocky kids catch a bus to Merrylands train station, transfer to another train at Redfern, which took us to Cronulla, ride the ferry over to Bundenna, then finally walk the remaining 6.3klms to Deer Pool (Royal National Park). We were going on a camping trip. But that is another story!

Ever since I begun earning an income and had money to burn, I have enjoyed weekends away. In the beginning there were the usual suspects, Andrew, Dave, Phil, Eric, Steve, Tad, Gary, Paul, myself, Tommo and Brett. The ranks would swell from time to time, but generally it was a few core members from the group mentioned. Years later there would a lot of surfing trips with brother Neil and his mates as well so I was always getting out of Sydney for weekend trips.

Back in 1976, Eric came up with an adventure. He told us there was a place called Wombeyan Caves and we could go exploring but in actual fact, as we found out later, we ended up in a different cave system called Bungonia Caves.

So a date was set and off we went with sleeping bags, 2 torches, water, chocolate biscuits, and a packet of jaffas. Station wagon one had Eric for driver, passengers Paul and Tad. Wagon two was driven by Steve with Gary and I as annoying passengers. It was a long drive (180klms). Back in those days, single lane highway with bumper to bumper traffic heading out of Sydney meant it was slow going. We turned off the highway from Mittagong and followed a few long winding roads. After 5 hours of driving and consuming the whole packet of biscuits along the way, we arrived at a padlocked gate at the end of a bumpy, pot-holed riddled dirt road. I got out to investigate, luckily the padlock was not locked. I swung the gate open and the vehicles drove through but as I closed the gate, both station wagons continued down the road and I was confronted with taillights diminishing. The bastards kept driving until the taillights disappeared. I was swallowed by total darkness. As I walked along the dirt track I was instantly drawn towards the night sky because it was so vast, the milky way shone like thousands of diamonds in tiny clusters, it was so beautiful it consumed me. Then a noise off to the right snapped me back to earth. It’s amazing how many sounds you can hear when you are alone in the dark out in the middle of nowhere!

Another question: Which vehicle would you rather be in? Make a mental note of it before reading on…

I can tell you unequivocally that Steve would come to wish he was a passenger in Eric’s vehicle, rather than captain of his own.

I continued walking, occasionally I would feel rough terrain under my feet and long grasses brushing against my legs which was my cue to get back on the road. As I walked I started to focus on the noises. I could identify some, a cow, crickets, cicada, an owl, possibly a kangaroo. But some were downright scary, “this is Australia, we don’t have animals that sound like that”. I heard the deep guttural sound again and my mind associated it with wild beasts on the African plains. I remember becoming very uncomfortable with my own thoughts as I blindly walked down that dirt road until,…. finally I could see a red haze ahead. My 15 minute walk in solitude was filled with fear so I ripped into the drivers when I got back to the vehicles. We went through more gates before arriving at our destination but I didn’t open any of them, ‘once bitten, twice shy’ as they say. So the vehicles pulled into a large open grassed area, three sides had trees encroaching but straight ahead only large flat rocks filled the headlight beams. Engines of, lights out and back to darkness. This was remote. No toilet block, no tap, nothing. Steve and I walked away from the vehicles to urinate and suddenly we were stumbling on the rocks. I only walked about 10 steps because balance was difficult so I decided “this will do”. We sat around talking for a while but it was pretty late already so we dropped the back seats in the wagons and lay down like sardines to sleep. Gary on the left, Stephen in the middle and me on the right.

For some reason my stomach was pretty unsettled and I could feel a lot of gas banging around in there. I thought I should ease the pressure and let a little bit out. I tried a small quiet one but unfortunately a huge pungent smell followed. Steve got it first and he sent profanities my way, then he started to gag. In fact, it was so bad we all got out of the vehicle and left the doors open to let the smell out. It was chilly out so we clambered back in and I received my first strike… I am a naughty boy. Sorry to say but it happened again, only this time I took ownership, it was loud and proud. Steve was furious. We got out of the vehicle once more but this time Steve went over to the other vehicle and started pounding on the window “let me in, I can’t sleep over there… it’s putrid”. No way Jose, they wouldn’t let him in. We got back in but Steve mixes the sleeping quarters forcing Gary in the middle this time. Then it started. Gary sneezed. When Gary sneezed, it was violent and loud, the whole vehicle shook. Then he sneezed again, and again,… and again. After 5 sneezes I started to count in earnest… Gary sneezed 21 times in a row and during that onslaught I managed to clear more gas from my churning stomach. We didn’t want to open the windows because it was freezing outside but we had to, it was a lethal cocktail. After leaving me out on the road earlier… let’s just say ‘revenge is sweet’!

So there we were, 3 sardines with this thick, wet, heavy, putrid fog all around us. Steve was going insane at this point but I thought it was hilarious and uncontrollable laughter consumed me. I recall the windows remained ajar from this point on. Once the air settled back to a ‘normal’ state, I could feel sleep sneaking up on me. Then it was invasion of the snores. Gary has a frightful snore and he was using it with vengeance… eventually I got to sleep but I was frequently woken by the thunderous snore so by morning I did not feel rested.

I awoke to a bone jarring coldness so I got up and got out of the vehicle to stretch a bit. Looking around, I noticed the earth just disappeared beyond the rocks, the same rocks Steve and I were standing on just 6 hours earlier. So I clambered over to the edge of the rocks and looked down. “Holy shit, there’s a 300 foot cliff over here and it drops straight down” I called out!

Once everybody was up, we grabbed our 2 torches, some water, and a packet of jaffas then off we went… “let’s do some exploring”. As we enter the underworld we pass a few climbers who were coming out and I remember being bemused at all the serious gear they had. I noticed helmet with headlight, ropes, hooks, harness, quickdraws, bolts… you get the picture, professional climbing gear. Down into the belly of the beast we went with idle chatter and high spirits. I was trying to identify landmarks for our return route. A large round reddish-brown boulder – check, a long unusual shaped stalagmite – check. We keep going down with reckless abandonment, passing drop offs, wide caverns, claustrophobic passageways. Back then, there were no mobile phones, no solar torches or floodlights, just AAA battery torches or headlights. Nobody had a watch so time was lost and it got to a stage where it seemed like we had been going down for a very long time. We had just gone down an extremely steep, muddy section and we couldn’t really continue any further without ropes, I was feeling anxious. We gathered into a group at the bottom of the slide to discuss our options and I said “Pass The Jaffas“.

Standing huddled together muddy and wet we collectively decided to head for fresh air. It was time to make our way back to the surface and the only way up was to tackle the slide. Eric goes first. Half way up he lost his footing and tumbled back down. Paul tries but fails also. Panic starts to set in and everybody started throwing themselves at the slope. At that moment I felt time was slowing down, everything became a blur as every attempt came tumbling down. I blurted out, “we are stuck down here, how are we going to get out”? I began to feel proper anguish now! Finally, someone reached the top. One by one we were pulled up the mud slide. Jubilation! We finally got out of our muddy trap, it was like the SES had arrived!

As we start retracing our steps a torch goes out so we are down to one. We follow the man with the torch in to a big cathedral-like cavern. We are excited because we all remembered this place however smiles were quickly replaced with concern, here were 6 passageways out. Since we had no conviction of the right path we just went up the widest on. What seemed like an hour passed and I noticed a rock formation that we had passed earlier. “Hey, we passed those rocks about an hour ago. We are going in a circle”! I was frantic, “Man, we’re going to die down here” I cried hysterically. I don’t recall who but somebody took up the chorus and a ruckus ensued. Eventually calm prevailed and because we were potentially in serious danger with little water and only a packet of jaffas it was decided we would ration the provisions. It was time to pass the jaffas again… one each from now on.

We start to march single file again with everybody on edge and trying to focus on the way back out. We reach a fork on the path so we take the other route this time. Our line formation stays the same with torch man at the front. It was a struggle to see the uneven ground and there were a lot of falls or trips going on. What seemed like an eternity passed then confidence was restored. We all could identify certain landmarks so we knew we had found the main route to freedom. “What if his torch goes out too, then we are screwed” I was thinking silently. Stephen had the torch thus we dubbed him our ‘fearless leader’. I was right back down the line and Gary took up the rear. With all the bodies between us and the light beam right up the front we were plunged into murky darkness with occasional flickers of light. Shadows dominated. We came to this steep staircase hugging a wall on the right but to the left there appeared to be a vast void. We started marching up slowly, the steps were uneven and it was damp so potentially hazardous. A warning came down the line “watch out for the rock on the right, pass it on”. We were close enough to hear the warning as it came down the line but we all dutifully repeated the message. There were other warnings on that ascent but then came the biggy… Steve said “Watch out for the hole on the left”! Everybody passed the message on and it was my now turn “Hey Paul, watch out for the hole on the left”. Paul passed the same message to Gary. There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud thud. Seconds passed then came a hideous groan, a sound of agony.

“What the fuck, torch, torch”. The light made it’s way back down and we gathered at the dark place between the rocks. As the light tilted downwards we saw Gary lying on his back on a narrow ledge with blackness beyond. We all started yelling “Don’t move”, “Stay still Gary”, “Are you hurt”? We were frantic, if he was confused or concussed and tried to roll over, he would disappear into the void below. Gary started responding to our questions and he seemed to be okay, hopefully just winded by the impact. The trouble we were now confronted with, how the hell do we get him out. He had fallen about 3 metres and we had no ropes so the only way to reach him was to grab somebody by the feet and dangle them over. Gary slowly got his composure back and managed to stand up but we could tell he was all shook up. As he reached up we carefully lowered Paul and Eric whilst gripping their legs tightly. Paul and Eric secured an arm each and we grunted and heaved them back up and onto the stairs. We were 6 once more. Tad threw a rock into the darkness and we strained to hear the impact…. nothing! It was certain death if Gary had landed differently so we all agreed, it was a miracle!!

Finally we poured out of what potentially could have been our demise. The sun was blinding. We looked at each other, fully caked in dried up mud and pondered on our ordeal. A couple of ‘cavers’ pass and we asked the time “11:30am” came back. “What the”… it seemed like we were down there all day but only 4 hours had passed. “Hey, excuse me, do you know where we can get a wash”? One of the men turned and pointed “there is a pond over that hill”. Next adventure – to find a pond over a hill. 3 hills and an hour later, we find the pond… well maybe we found a different ‘pond’. There was a tiny strip of filthy looking water and as hot and bothered as we were, nobody ventured in for a wash. We trudged back to the vehicles for the journey home.

Steve kicked the engine over, the fuel gauge didn’t move, it was completely empty. Eric checked his map and it showed 2 listings before the tiny town of Bungonia. Judging by the map, Bungonia was at least 25klms away so we were hopeful one of the ‘other’ listings had a petrol station. We started our journey home more or less on idle with Steve barely touching the accelerator. The first 2 listings were just homesteads so we continued our cracking snails pace home. Another miracle, we made it to Bungonia on an oily rag… obviously a big reserve in the petrol tank.

So, that was our grand ‘caving’ experience. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone… not.

Bloody teenagers, the things they do!

P.S. The novelty of casting a vote has waned so I won’t bother with it anymore. From now on I will just write what comes to mind however I will take prompts. If somebody suggests an overseas trip, a game of sport, worst hotel stay, best baby story, etc… I will try to accommodate!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Stephen Currie for contributing with 2 powerful and beautifully written stories, both harrowing but in different ways. Now I know you all have stories to tell and I would really love to hear some. Please, don’t be shy… just getting started is the hardest part.

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