November 2021: Mt Owen Hike, Bulmer Cavers Camp

Talking to cavers at the AGM a few weeks ago we joined up with them for a trip up on to Mount Owen. Where Bulmer Cavern is still being explored. This system was found 30 years ago and is over 750m deep. It has nearly 80kms of surveyed passage. Each year there is a multi week expedition to keep exploring it and pushing deeper into the mountain. And our trip this weekend would be based out of the cavers camp on the mountain.

Having never been up there before we would not be caving, We wanted to look around and hike up to the peak of the mountain. And we did not want to slow down the cavers. This was not an exploring trip. They wanted to go from the top of the mountain all the way through the cave and out the bottom in one day.

Surprisingly the trip was running on time. We all met up at the carpark and were packed and hiking by 10:30am. We started out on an actual track and then it was following rivers and scrambling up cliffs.

After just a few minutes our boots were soaking wet and this how they would stay for the rest of the trip. Following the river meant crossing over it a lot and in some sections just walking up through the middle. Thigh deep was the worst that it got. You could avoid some of the water by stepping from rock to rock but that was soon decided against due to how slippery they were.

The distance from the carpark to the camp was 9.5km and took around 4 hour to complete the journey. The carpark was at 300m elevation and the camp was at 1200m. The first half of the walk didn’t seem like we were going up at all. Just following a side creek until it disappeared underground and then then we were scrambling over giant blocks and boulders. Finally the trees opened up and we had a view of the bluffs in front of us. They were all around and our route was straight ahead and up them. The map showed that they were only 400m high. So not to bad.

This was the perfect spot for lunch and the last place we could find any water before we arrived at the camp. It was only a quick break before the long climb.

Even though this is a track up to a cavers camp the way is quite easy to follow. And there are even ropes in place in case you need it. It doesn’t take long to climb up to the first break in the cliffs and there is no rock climbing involved which is sad. Just lots of pulling on roots and squeezing between fallen rocks.

Once half way up you realise how overhung the cliffs are and that you would not want to climb straight up them. There are lots of ledges like this along the route that let you walk easily along to the next roped section or tree roots to head up.

One of the more difficult parts had multiple ropes and a ladder put in for us. There are lovely handholds all the way up which is how the ropes were put up there in the first place. But with our boots being wet and the rocks slippery. It is safer for everyone to go up via the ladder and get your pack pulled up afterwards if you need it.

It didn’t take that long for us to finally make it to the top and back into the trees. Because we climbed nearly straight up we just got it over and done with pretty fast. And from here to the lake it was a nice and gentle walk.

I was a bit worried when in the distance i saw the mountain still way above us. But i was told that just ahead was our campsite and after a night of rest we would be heading up there.

The highest of these peaks is another 350 meters above us. And the summit which is about 4kms away is another 650m higher.

Where the people are standing is the helicopter pad for the summer expeditions. Gear and sometimes people is flown up from the carpark to here. A multi week caving trip needs a lot of supplies to keep everyone fed and safe. Food, gas bottles, cookers, shelters are needed for the base camp and there are also 3 underground camps that need to be restocked. Then with all the vertical pitches in the cave kilometers of rope are brought in to replace the old and broken ones.

The lake is also the only water source for the camp. So it needs to be protected by not washing or tipping out dirty water into it. The bathrooms for any trip up here is set up on the other side of the hill to the camping area. That way any run off from the rain will go into a different valley and not affect the water quality.

To the left of the lake there is a giant boulder that is the perfect shelter. Over the years different gear has been brought into here to turn it into a camp and kitchen. During the longer trips is a giant tarp system that can be built to make a large undercover area and keep all the weather out. But for our trip this area provided enough shelter for all of us from the rain. And they even have a small fire for the cold nights.

Stored at base camp as well as the camps underground are the left over long life food from previous trips. And seeing each year they restock the barrels we used some of what was here to make our packs lighter for the trip in. Everything that we ate was recorded and updated on the spreadsheet so that the other cavers would know what is still in stock.

Two of the cavers as soon as we arrived at camp got into their caving gear and went for a trip to the fridge. A 20 minute walk and then 30 minute trip into the cave. Underground the temperature stays the same all year round. So down there it was about 2 degrees and it keeps all the perishable food perfectly.

The food that they brought back had been underground since the last trip nearly a year ago and it was still in perfect condition. They loaded their packs up with protein bars, chocolate, multiple packs of feta cheese, parmesan cheese and wraps. All of these were well past their best before dates and they tasted fine with no one getting sick over the few days we were up there.

Just out from the rock shelter benches and a table have been made over the years. And within the storage barrels there are foam mats for us to lay over the rocks. With the views all around and being able to watch the sun light up the cliffs both in the morning and the colours as it sets of an evening. This is a magical place to camp in.

That night we all went to bed quite early. Knowing that the next day was going to be a tough one. Part of the group were heading underground and the rest of us were planning to hike up the mountain.

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