My house concert host in Tawonga, Ian Arbuckle, is an adventure guide – that’s what he does for a living. The morning after my concert at his beautiful, rustic home, we had some time off to spend in the Australian mountains. I asked Ian what our options were, in terms of activities. He mentioned some pretty walks and hikes, but what he seemed most excited about was something he called a “covered stream” at the top of nearby Mount Buffalo. In addition to the fact that Ian has a strong Aussie accent and talks quite fast (even my Australian tour manager Gary had trouble understanding him at times), I just could not wrap my head around the idea of a “covered stream” and what we’d be doing there.
While socializing with some of the guests at my show, I met Jane, who had explored this covered stream with Ian and a few other people at midnight a few months back. She described crawling through holes like a worm and being underground in pitch darkness at midnight. She said it was pretty scary but she seemed to have had a good time, and I reasoned to myself that I’d be going in mid-day — it was bound to be much less scary than in the middle of the night.
The morning of our excursion, still not having a clear idea of exactly what we’d be doing, Gary and I asked Ian about the covered stream experience again. He explained that it’s a stream on the top of a mountain that’s been covered by boulders. Because of the low-hanging boulders, we’d need to wear helmets, just in case we forgot where we were and raised our heads too high. The impression that Gary and I got from talking to Ian was that we’d be walking around in a stream that had low boulders hanging overhead. Ian added that we might want to wear wetsuits to keep warm (this should have been my first clue that we wouldn’t just be wading knee-deep in a stream surrounded by boulders!).
Still having a hard time picturing what exactly we’d be doing, and seeing how excited Ian was to show us this place, I decided that I must experience this covered stream for myself. Anything this mysterious was bound to be a fantastic adventure! Plus – BONUS — we’d be looking for glow worms (anything animal-related is pretty easy to hook me in on!).
So it was decided – we were going to explore the covered stream. Ian packed our gear, and we all jumped into his little car to start our journey. Tour manager Gary very generously offered me the front passenger seat, and sat in the back with his long legs smashed up against his chest until I realized that, contrary to what he had told me, indeed he did NOT have enough room back there and yes I should move my seat up.
The ride was beautiful – Ian racing comfortably up the winding mountain road. It was clear he knew this drive like the back of his hand. It started out very balmy at the base of the mountain, but as we got higher and higher, the temperature dropped by several degrees and the skies turned cloudy. Rain had been forecasted for the afternoon, and we were trying to complete our excursion before getting too wet.
We stopped for coffee and a snack in the beautiful vacation-home town of Bright, and continued up the mountain. An hour later, we had arrived at the top – our destination. I was slightly surprised to see a parking lot, signage, and a bathroom up here. The impression I had gotten when talking to Ian was that we were going to a very remote place. There were a few people taking in the view of the valley below and the steep mountainside across the valley (it was stunning).
Relieved to see actual bathrooms, I seized my opportunity for a last-minute pit stop, as well as a private place to change into the wetsuit I’d borrowed from Ian. I’d only worn a wetsuit a couple of times in my life (while SCUBA diving), and it had been a few years since I’d dragged one over my body. It took me several minutes of tugging to get the thing on, and even after I’d fastened the Velcro by my neck, the crotch was still well below where it belonged. After yanking on the fabric of the wetsuit for five more minutes to no avail, I left the bathroom and had Ian help me pull the fabric up my legs a bit more. Not a perfect fit, but I’d get used to it. I promptly ordered a “no photos of Ali in the wetsuit” decree, which Gary obliged (of course), and Ian ignored (of course).
Ian showed us the grade A hang-gliding takeoff point where several top-level gliders had flown directly to their doom — it’s a very sheer and dangerous drop to take off from, and if you’re not skilled enough, or just unlucky, your ride ends very quickly and very badly.
As the three of us walked toward the trail leading to the covered stream, I asked Ian why there were big rubber pads on the rear end of my wetsuit. He gave a vague sort of answer about it being useful for caving, once the wetsuit wore out its usefulness for its original purpose (diving? surfing?). We followed a footpath down a fairly steep grade along the side of the mountain for about 15 minutes, when we spotted a bunch of boulders. We had arrived at the entry point to the covered stream.
After I changed out of my sneakers and into my wetsuit booties, we all grabbed our helmets out of Ian’s bag. I put mine on (it was a bit too loose for me – as you can see in the photos, it hung low, obstructing my view a bit on top). Then Ian reached into the bag and grabbed a headlamp – he placed it over the outside of my helmet and turned on the light. I felt like a miner (hopefully not a New Zealand miner – though the thought did enter my mind at the time).
Suited up and ready to go, our first job was to get to the covered stream. Basically, this involved jumping down a hole between two boulders into, what was, for all intents and purposes, an underground cave. Ian explained to us that technically, we weren’t in a cave, and that even if it started pouring rain while we were inside, it was impossible for the water level to rise enough to drown us while we were down there (which apparently happens in caves), as the water had a way to drain out via the stream. I hadn’t been worried about drowning in the first place, but Ian wanted to make sure we didn’t harbor any unnecessary concerns. To me, this place looked like a cave (pitch dark, with huge boulder walls), felt like a cave (dark and damp), and smelled like a cave (actually, it smelled very earthy and fantastic – because of the stream the air was damp and soothing on my throat).
We were in! I was really excited, and I couldn’t stop smiling with wonder. It was amazing how different the environment was inside the cave from just three feet up and outside (so much darker and damp). Ian gave us time to get acclimated to the dark, and to using our headlamps to see. He wore a headlamp and held a big flashlight, which he used to help us look around and see where we were going. As Ian made his way forward through the cave, I followed him, and Gary followed me. I felt safe being in the middle of the two guys, as it would be hard to get separated that way.
The ground was wet and the stream water was cool. Ian exclaimed how warm it was “like bathwater!” — but I think his frame of reference is SLIGHTLY different from mine (he was probably comparing the stream to his latest New Zealand white water rafting adventure, and I was comparing the stream to my last actual BATHWATER – very different). The stream was very weak at the entry point, and our feet got wet up to our ankles. We walked around through the stream and through some tight spaces surrounded by massive boulders on every side (including above us), using our hands to steady ourselves in the unsure, rocky footing. It was dark, damp, quiet, and beautiful.
Soon, our first challenge appeared. Ian said “follow me!” through a very small hole in the boulders. This must have been the worm-like crawling that Jane had mentioned the night before. I gleefully shmushed myself into the opening and crawled through the waist-high hole in the boulders on my hands and knees, feeling like quite the adventurer. I kept my head down, but I was glad that I was wearing that helmet just in case I forgot that a boulder was three inches above me. It was a tight squeeze, but I made it through. I wondered to myself if Gary could fit – he’s bigger than me and it was pretty confining. But he made it through just fine, and I was glad to see that he seemed to be in good spirits.
The next section of the cave seemed to be more submerged in water. Instead of walking through water, we began wading in waist-high water (I was very glad to be wearing the wetsuit!). It was a bit chilly, but I did my best to keep warm. I was still smiling and making excited exclamations every so often like “This is SO COOL!!!” (cuz it was). I remarked that it was like a Disneyland ride, but in real life! (It kinda reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride – dank and dark and watery and mysterious.) I commented that the caves seemed like the perfect place for a serial killer to hide his victims (“aah – my other job!” Ian joked).
Soon, Ian exclaimed “follow me!” again, followed by specific instructions. At this point, we were basically swimming through the cave in chest-high in water. Up ahead of us, there was a narrow passageway through two boulders, where the roof of the cave came down to meet the top of the water. We wouldn’t be able to get through without submerging our heads and swimming straight ahead for about 3 feet. I was a bit concerned that if I didn’t swim hard enough, I’d try to surface before the end of the low tunnel, but it wasn’t a long distance to swim, and Ian encouraged me to keep my eyes open underwater.
I took a deep breath and plunged down and forward, keeping my eyes open the whole time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see ANYTHING down there – it was all a blur, and I had to guess about when to come up. It was exhilarating (totally underwater in the chilly water in a cave surrounded by boulders!), and when I surfaced and exhaled I was hyperventilating a tad. As soon as I came up, I realized one reason I hadn’t been able to see underwater – my headlamp strap had loosened and the whole thing had fallen down around my eyes, blocking my vision. This was in addition to the helmet hanging a bit low in the first place. But no matter – I wiped the water out of my eyes and re-positioned all of my headgear — I’d made it!
That mini-underwater adventure had certainly gotten my adrenaline going. I waited for Gary to make his underwater maneuver (which he did successfully, without even losing a contact lens!), and it was time to move on. At this point, I was a bit chilly, but my blood was pumping with excitement. Once Gary had surfaced, he joked that our exploration seemed to be getting more difficult the further we went. Ian assured us that what we had just done was “probably” the trickiest part of the day. This coming from a man who calls 60-degree water “bathwater.” Ha — we should’ve known better!
We swam, then waded, through more twists and turns in the cave, until we arrived at our first intense rock-climbing challenge (okay, I’m sure it wasn’t intense OR challenging for Ian, but it was for me and Gary!). The move we had to execute required upper body strength (of which I have little), and confidence (of which I have none, when it comes to underground rock-climbing in a cave). I had to somehow get my body up and over several feet of sheer (wet) boulder, and I couldn’t for the life of me get enough leverage to get where I was supposed to end up. Ian (“follow me!”) had easily scrambled up the boulder ahead of me, and offered his hand to pull me up. Now Ian is all muscle, but the angle of the rock (and his precarious position on top of it) was preventing him from successfully pulling me over the top. My grip with his hand felt too slippery, and it didn’t feel like I’d be able to get myself over the rock without pulling him down over the side. Ian then re-positioned himself and put his foot where my hand was supposed to go and said “grab my foot!” Thankfully, Ian, being a professional, was able to maintain his position while I grabbed his foot and clumsily hoisted my body over the rock. At this point, I was getting tired – I was using all of the body strength I could muster in scaling these boulders (and I’m sure these were TINY for any professional climber, but to me, it was daunting). It seemed that Gary might have been right about this adventure getting harder as we moved forward.
Thankfully, Ian always had us stop and rest after each challenging section of the cave. Once over that last boulder, he had us sit down and check out our surroundings. The air was misty, and our warm bodies were creating steam in the cave. Ian turned off his flashlight and our headlamps and it was 100% pitch black. We looked for glow worms but none revealed themselves. Turning the lights back on, Ian told us to sit back and relax, and that he was going to scout out the next section.
Gary and I waited for a few minutes, admiring the scenery. After a few more minutes, I started getting chilly, and Gary jokingly wondered aloud if Ian had left us and was expecting us to find our way out of the caves by ourselves (good luck on that one!). I started wondering if Ian actually knew how to get out, but I suspected he did. He was probably searching for an easier way out than he usually took, seeing as he was leading two woefully unprepared souls. After about ten minutes (which felt like 30), Ian found his way back to us and beckoned us forward.
We had probably been underground for about a half hour at this point, and my muscles were pretty tired. I was using my arms to steady myself against rocks on either side of me, and to pull myself over boulders when I had to climb. There had been several points where I just couldn’t scale the boulders by myself, and Ian helped me move along, but it was taking its toll. I was using my legs a ton, and they were starting to shake (I had no idea that rock climbing was such a great workout, or that it required such strength and flexibility – no wonder Ian was in such excellent shape!). That extra padding on the backside of the wetsuit was really coming in handy when I had to slide down boulders using my hands, feet, and butt – now I knew what it was there for!
I think it was a combination of being both tired and cold, and at this point, a little concerned. I was doing my best to keep on my excited, happy face (cuz I was still thrilled about being there), but inside I was a little worried about slipping on the slick rocks (or falling from a failed attempt at climbing up the sides of the larger boulders) – I was only halfway through my Australian tour and I REALLY didn’t want to hurt myself – particularly my wrists or hands, which were feeling tired. It really did seem that this adventure was getting more and more tricky as we moved forward – and I was feeling less and less prepared to meet the increasing challenges the cave presented. I figured that the only way out was through –and that it had to get easier from now on, right?
Ian said that we were almost out – we just had to traverse a small waterfall, climb up the side of it, and then we’d be through. He made it sound so simple! And he was going to help us, of course.
Ian gave very clear instructions (which I repeated aloud to him, just to make SURE I had understood him properly). I figured that if he was going to the trouble of giving us detailed instructions, I’d better get it right! He was going to cross the waterfall first, and when he was ready, he was going to signal me with his hand to swim forward (the stream was too deep at this point to walk through). As I approached the waterfall, he’d reach out his hand, which I would grab, and he’d pull me safely to the other side. Gary and I hung back while Ian swam down a narrow passageway towards the deafening waterfall. Up until this point, the cave had been silent, except, of course for our voices. Now, the majestic sound of this tiny yet powerful waterfall filled our ears.
I watched Ian swim right through the waterfall, which looked pretty small and harmless, and then saw him on the other side. I wasn’t sure if he was ready for me yet. I thought I heard him say something, but the water was so loud. I started swimming towards him, and then I saw his hand signal beckoning me forward. As I approached the waterfall, the sound became deafening, and I realized that this little spray had quite a lot of force behind it. Ian yelled “swim to me and grab my hand,” so I took a big breath and lunged for his hand.
Instantly, the back of my head was pounded by a huge volume of water. I wasn’t facing the waterfall, but I knew that if I tried to breathe, all I’d do was swallow a whole lot of stream. I grabbed Ian’s hand, and he hoisted me up about a foot high. I kicked out my feet, trying to find a foothold on the boulder in front of me so I could steady myself and get out of the waterfall, but the rock was completely slick with nowhere to land whatsoever. How had Ian managed this feat, and where was I supposed to go? Why hadn’t Ian told me exactly where to place my feet (which he did for every tricky move), and what was I supposed to do now? Ian kept holding me up with one hand while the water pounded incessantly on the back of my head. I continued to hold my breath, flail, and kick my feet in every possible direction, searching blindly for someplace to land (my helmet was down on the bridge of my nose and my headlamp was around my eyes). After what seemed like an eternity of getting bashed in the head by some pretty aggressive H20, I defeatedly let go of Ian’s hand and swam back to my (calm) side of the waterfall.
If I had been secretly concerned before, now I was spooked. Gary, who had witnessed everything, swam up to me and said “Are you okay?” I shouted “NO!” (The waterfall was SO loud). “I need a minute.” At this point I was truly shaking – all I wanted to do was to make it out of this cave in one piece, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to do so. (I also didn’t want to look like a complete wimp in front of Ian, but it was getting a bit late to worry about that!) Re-composing myself, I prepared to face the waterfall again, as we were close to the end, and this would definitely be the fastest, if not the easiest, way out.
This time, I grabbed Ian’s hand, braced myself for the onslaught of water against my head, and fought my way through to the other side. Somehow, through a combination of Ian’s strength and my sheer will, I found a foothold on Ian’s side of the fall and stumbled through. I walked a few steps, then collapsed on a nearby boulder to wait for Gary to make his way through the waterfall (which he did on his first try).
Ian congratulated us on making it through the waterfall, and while we rested, he bounded ahead, climbing up the side of the upper range of the waterfall. “Follow me!” This was a piece of cake compared to what we’d just been through, and I enjoyed climbing the stairway-like configuration of rocks. As we reached the top of the waterfall, Gary and I were excited to see a beam of light shining through the top of the cave – daylight! We’d made it!!!
Little did I know, my scariest moment was yet to come.
Ian had made it to the top of a huge boulder right beneath the coveted beam of light. I was on a level of rocks below him, and Gary was further down. As I made my way across the rocks towards (but still below) Ian, I arrived at a rock ledge overlooking a fifteen-foot drop to the rushing stream below. My first mistake was to stare down into the hole formed by my ledge and the boulders on the other side. Though it was a beautiful sight to see that rushing water far below my feet, I was terrified at the thought of losing my footing and falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. The opening wasn’t very wide at the top (maybe three feet across – just a little bit farther than I’d be comfortable stepping), and it got progressively narrower the further down it went (though never closing at the bottom, and never being too small for me to potentially slip all the way through to end up in the stream below).
Ian told me to keep one foot where I was and toreach the other foot over the ledge and onto the boulder on the other side. Feeling both of my legs shaking beneath me (this time it was fear), I kept staring down into the hole. I reached out my right leg and pushed myself forward just enough to get my foot onto the other side, all the while facing the boulder I needed to ascend. Now I was straddling the hole, rushing stream beneath me, and the next place I needed to be was about three feet above where I was standing on these two boulders. How the hell was I supposed to get myself up to the next level?
I looked up at Ian, and he said, no, I needed to reverse my body position, so that I was facing away from the rocks (and out into space, where there was nothing to hang onto if I slipped). Once I was straddling the drop, facing out from the rocks, he could grab my arm and help me scramble my butt up and over the rock face (not glamorous, but at that point, whatever works!).
I got both feet back to the rock I’d started from, and tried to turn my body around, so I was facing away from the boulders. There was only a small space in which to maneuver my feet, and I moved very slowly — it was scary not having anything to hold onto. Once again, I looked down into the deep dark hole (mistake!), where I thought it was inevitable that my shaking legs would take me. I could picture myself slipping on the wet rocks, and not having anywhere to grab onto, bumping and sliding my way down the rabbit hole.
After a minute or so, I forced myself to stop thinking about falling and focus on following Ian’s instructions. I stepped my left foot out towards the other side of the hole. I couldn’t reach the other side, so I and stepped back. Shaking, I tried again, but the other side was just beyond a comfortable, non-risky reach of my leg, and I was scared.
Ian must’ve sensed my trepidation (either that, or he saw my legs shaking again – I felt as if my whole body was unsteady at that point). Ian shouted down to me that even if I fell down the hole, there were plenty of footholds to catch me, so I wouldn’t fall all the way down to the stream below. Rationally, a small fall like that would probably not be a big deal to a pro like Ian, but to me, all I could think about was the terror of feeling myself falling, not knowing where I’d land — not to mention the week’s worth of shows I’d have to cancel if I injured my body or my hands on the way down. My body was tired, and my legs were shaking, but there was only way out – across the divide and up the side of the boulder!
Determined to make it out unscathed, I reached out my left leg one more time, made myself stretch all the way to the other side, and landed safely on the rock. Now I was straddling the drop, facing away from the boulder. My next move was to somehow get my butt up and over the steep boulder behind me, all while not falling forward over the ledge or straight down the hole I was straddling. How in the hell was I going to do that?!? Not without Ian’s help! I was terrified for my feet to leave the ground and be supported only by Ian pulling me up, but I didn’t have a choice. Thank goodness, Ian was strong enough to hoist me up and over the side of the boulder until I could grip the rocks and pull myself into the beam of light.
We were almost out!! I couldn’t believe I had made it, and I joyfully climbed up the remaining rocks back into the daylight. We were now atop a whole lot of boulders and Ian had to direct us to climb down (“just like you’re climbing down a ladder!” – except, the footholds were WAY further apart than they are on my ladder at home – the disadvantage of having short legs for rock climbing made itself VERY apparent to me that day!).
FINALLY, we had climbed out of the covered stream, down the rocks, and back to the trail. Hallelujah! We were triumphant! Every muscle in my body was shaking, from both adrenaline and exhaustion. I was expecting my legs and arms to be very sore the next day (curiously, they weren’t), and to sleep very well that night!
Even though it was one of the scariest adventures I’d ever embarked upon, I’m so glad I did it, and thanks to Ian, I have the photos to prove it (yes, he navigated, pulled us up and over boulders, AND took pictures of us!). Also, thanks to Ian, I got out without so much as a scratch – other than a small rip in my tiger t-shirt. Thanks for the adventure, Ian!