Graham's Cave Adventure
This page describes, with photos and press clippings, my first and last experience of do-it-yourself cave exploration in which I fell about 12 metres (40 feet) down a cave and miraculously avoided serious injury and death.
The coast between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste, in the south-west of Western Australia, contains hundreds of caves. Some of the bigger caves are commercial attractions; the rest are just undeveloped holes in the ground. Most of these other caves can be explored by anyone brave enough or silly enough to try, and this is what I did one weekend in 1988.
I went with a group of eight friends, and our leader was an ex-SAS adventure freak who had already explored many of the caves in the area. His enthusiasm was infectious, and his lounge-room demonstration of abseiling techniques left the impression that abseiling and cave exploring was something that almost anyone could do.
Terry's Cave is located about a kilometre's trek through the bush west of the main road, where it passes Mammoth Cave, near Margaret River. The above-right photo shows a member of our intrepid group beginning the descent into the cave's shaftlike entrance.
Mid-way down its height of approx 15 metres, the shaft widens on one side to form a roomy cavern. From the small floor, the cavern slopes steeply downwards and joins the meandering cave system, as the diagram further down illustrates.
Entry into the cave was by abseiling into the entrance shaft, and exit was up the same route by way of a narrow wire ladder. The left photo shows a close-up view of the exit and ladder from beneath.
After abseiling into the cave and exploring its depths, it was time to return to the surface and enjoy some lunch. This involved climbing up a very narrow, wobbly wire ladder that bent and swung wildly when weight was put on it. Back in the comfort of our leader's lounge room it didn't look too bad, but here at the bottom of the cave, with its full height in view, it looked terrifying! My pulse and sweating increased.
The ladies in the group went up first, followed by one of the men. Helmets and safety ropes were not used on this trip, a detail that received criticism after my fall. Our leader was physically very capable and confident, and probably didn't realise there might be any need for such safety devices. The rest of us were too inexperienced in this sort of activity to know any better. In hindsight, failing to use helmets and a safety rope for climbing this ladder was very unwise, and that's putting it politely!
My turn came to climb the ladder. I was terrified, but keen to get it over and done with before my nervousness became too great. With my heart racing, and sweating profusely from the fear, I mechanically focussed on just the next rung up, and tried to ignore my increasing height above the cave bottom. So far I'd tried to overlook my fear of heights, but now I was very conscious of it.
Near the top of the ladder, a problem arose. With hands wet and slippery from the fear-induced sweating, and my weak arms exhausted from the unaccustomed effort, I simply lost my grip on the ladder and fell backwards.
The distance I fell was about 12 metres, possibly a bit more - if you look down from the 4th floor of an average building you'll get a rough idea of how far this is. The newspapers reported 15 and 20 metres, which sounds more impressive, but 12 metres was quite enough for me.
As I fell, various parts of me struck the sides of the cave, leaving many cuts and bruises. I also caused much alarm to the group leader, who thought I was going to land on him. Eventually I hit the limestone floor of the cave where it began sloping, bounced a little, then slid down the slope and came to rest lying on my back amidst gravel and loose stones. The diagram on the right shows the approximate route of my downward journey.
My Experience While Falling
Once my mind grasped the horrifying idea that I was falling off the top of the ladder, I prayed a very brief but sincere prayer: "Help!". I am a Christian and had already been praying for safety, and felt the presence of God in a real way. Now I was falling, the feeling of God's presence grew stronger. Thoughts of what was going to happen flashed rapidly into my mind - falling such a distance onto rock, I expected to be killed, or at least injured so badly I'd end up in a wheelchair. Yet I just felt a sense of peace that defied logic.
My body was tossed around and hit the cave walls, causing painful injuries that required some stitches, but I didn't feel any of this at the time. As far as I was concerned, I was floating rapidly but smoothly downwards, my arms being supported by somebody. I didn't see anything other than the cave around me, but I felt that there were two angels - one on each side - carrying me as I fell to earth. I wasn't dreaming; in fact I remained conscious the whole time. My friends below did some shouting while I descended towards them, which I heard and was later able to correctly describe.
I hit the ground after a couple of seconds, though it felt much longer to me. The impact was very painful, but not as painful as you might imagine. At first I couldn't breath, which was distressing, but then I managed to get air into my lungs, and my thoughts turned anxiously to the rest of my body. Was I paralysed? I tried moving my hands and feet, and was overwhelmed with relief when I could still move them all. Not only was I not dead, but I wasn't paralysed either, and I don't think I've ever been so grateful for this. Grateful, and very thankful to God for responding to my call for help.
Someone in the group went to raise help, and soon I was examined by a doctor who abseiled down into the cave: a home visit above and beyond the call of duty. The photo at left shows this doctor (standing, with torch), one of my friends (sitting), and myself (laying down).
Unable to climb out of the cave, I had to be winched out on a stretcher. This involved a team from the department of Conservation and Land Management, the State Emergency Service, and the St John Ambulance. Their efforts, dedication, and selflessness were very impressive, and I remember feeling bad about causing so many people to give up their Saturday afternoon to rescue me, when they could have been at home relaxing.
About three and a half hours after falling, I arrived by ambulance at Margaret River Hospital where I was checked further, stitched up, and eventually got to eat something. The motherly advice to "wear clean underpants, in case you have an accident" suddenly made a lot of sense - the hospital staff stripped me to just my underpants, and I was glad they were clean!
Recovery and Fame
I left hospital the next day and was driven home. The physical results of my fall were cuts and lacerations, bruising, and most of my ribs broken; all of which were temporary and fixable with rest. The only lasting damage was some nerve pinching and spinal compression which still requires the occasional chiropractic visit, but that's trivial compared to the damage that could have occurred after falling 12 metres onto rock.
Some consolation of recovering was in the few weeks I had off work. I also enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame when reports of my adventure appeared in both the state's daily newspaper and the local weekly paper (see clippings at right and below).
My adventure taught me a couple of things, one being the foolishness of undertaking a risky activity like cave exploration without the proper safety equipment or training. The other thing, and the main point in sharing this story, is that God answers the prayers of those who fear him. I knew this before my little accident, but was even more convinced of it afterwards.
Some of God's promises that sprang to mind at the time were:
"The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them"
(Psalm 37:4), and
"'Because he loves me', says the Lord, 'I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him.'"
What it boils down to is that I, a Christian, called out to God for help as soon as I began the long drop down the cave. Instead of being killed or very seriously injured, the logical outcome of such a fall, I experienced peace, the presence of God and a couple of angels, and escaped with very minor injuries. My prayer for safety was answered, mercifully, in accordance with God's written promises, and for that I'm eternally grateful to him.