The Australian Outback is home to some of the most amazing cave systems and the longest in existence. One team of researchers was trapped below it for 27 hours due to an avalanche.
Andrew Wight was an expert cave diver and led a team of 15 to explore the Pannikin Plains, which is the only one in the world that honeycombs the Nullarbor Plain.
The vast desert above the surface of the Great Australian Bight is home to a great many subterranean caves and passages, which are partially filled with water.
Wight invited an experienced dive team to join the party, with the intent of selling some of the stunning footage.
However, on the final day of their three-month journey, torrential rain fell across the area, and wind whipped through the valley. The entrance of the cave was then flooded and collapsed. This allowed the crew to film an extraordinary tale of survival.
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James Cameron, a Hollywood director (pictured left), was drawn to a documentary about Andrew Wight (pictured right) exploring remote caves of the Australian Outback. This led them both to work together on several films.
At the border of WA and SA, the Nullarbor plain sits on top of the Great Australian Bight. It is home to the most extensive limestone rock in the world. There are many caves.
Wight was joined by his international team of cave divers and scientists. The world record for longest underwater cave diving at 3.5km had been set from Adelaide in 1988.
They were determined to explore the furthest reaches of the Pannikin Plains caves in an adventure that would test the limits of human endurance.
They were the first to explore the natural wonders of the earth. The group also conducted a number of scientific studies together with University of Sydney.
Julia James, who was then an internationally renowned expert on cave minerals, atmospheres and water at that time, led the research efforts of the university.
She stated that scientists and cave-explorers were always close friends on Nullarbor Plain, formed at the beginning of exploration of the cave-filled air.
“Now, we are going one step further, because although our scientists can go into air-filled caves to collect specimens and samples, they cannot swim underwater,” Dr James stated.
“These important samples are not yet available anywhere in the world and will provide very useful information regarding how these caves formed,” she stated.
“I consider this expedition one of the Everests in cave diving.”
Pannikin Plains cave’s entrance is just a hole in the Desert (pictured), but underneath lies a vast cave system that contains caverns and lakes.
Cave diving is a niche sport that can be dangerous. It’s similar to scaling the highest peak in the world.
Even more, cave divers who venture into unexplored territory are constantly forced to reconsider their routes as new opportunities present themselves.
Their lives depend on their oxygen tanks, regulators and other equipment – if their gear malfunctions hundreds of metres from the safety of fresh air, catastrophe is assured.
Over decades of painful trial and error, the rules for cave diving were slowly developed. This includes the rule of threes for oxygen tanks.
One-third of the gas is used to enter, one-third to exit, and one-third to keep in reserve for emergency situations.
The water is clear and transparent, but a touch of dirt on the surface can cause silt to build up in the passages. This could blind divers.
You can find a variety of cave diving spots in Australia. The Nullarbor Plain’s pouring limestone is one of the best (pictured).
In the same way, three torchlights should always be carried so that the darkness can be seen.
Decompression sickness is another danger that divers face. This happens when they breathe underwater at higher pressures and ascent too fast, creating gas bubbles inside their bodies.
Wight, his team and other professionals were well aware of the potential risks. They had spent many months planning and preparing for every eventuality. Mother Nature however had one last surprise.
Once they arrived on Pannikin Plains the team set up their camp for three days and then carefully dropped their five-tonne gear from the cave mouth to the ‘Lake Room.
Wight was the leader of the dive group, Ron Allum was also a member, as well as ‘push divers” Chris Brown, Phil Prust, Phil Rogers and Paul Arbon. The camera crew followed them along.
After traveling more than 100 kilometres underwater, they arrived at Concorde Landing. A huge underground air chamber measuring four floors high was the location where they established their final base camp.
Here, the “push divers”, or pushers, would explore ancient passageways that were not yet explored. They’d be able to glide through tranquil landscapes like no other human has before.
Wight stated that the equipment he has could carry him up to six kilometers into the passage.
He said, “If there are further caves or air-filled chambers who knows? That is the true excitement of cave diving. You don’t know what lies beyond the next step.”
It’s not mountaineering, where you are able to see the top of the mountains and determine what gear you need. Every dive is a challenge.
Cave divers who are experts in cave diving carry additional oxygen tanks and can roll out guides to guide them back up the passageways.
“You need to be able to calculate, use different equipment to enhance the adventure and adrenaline that we feel when out exploring.
After three weeks of their expedition, the group met at the surface to discuss the plan. They decided that one more dive would be made into Pannikin Plains.
They reached the cave’s end, but were blocked by boulders. The crew returned to the “Lake Room” to unload their gear and pack it up for the return trip home.
Above the cave, a huge storm that had never before been seen was building and began to dump rain on the desert. It lasted for 45 minutes.
It was estimated that the deluge drained 300 million litres down the cave entrance, soaking and loosening rock to the point where it collapsed in an explosion of rubble.
After Wight and his crew were trapped in a huge storm that blew the cave down, Pannikin Plains Cave is now closed (pictured).
They had reached the cave mouth half way up and were trying to escape but had to race back down to save their lives. The only exit was blocked by a loud rumble.
Vicky Bonwick was the team’s furthest forward and Wight remained on the edge between the water and cave’s shifting roof.
Wight persuaded Bonwick after five hours that they needed to leave and run the risk of being swept away by a rock or crushed by it, rather than staying and risking the roof falling further.
The two managed to squeeze their way back through cracks to reach the surface. Wight called the cavalry to assist them and then led a 27-hour recue mission.
The Ron Allum two-way radio, which can transmit through solid rock, enabled them to establish contact and coordinate their escape.
They were determined to take on the dangerous rockfalls in order to reach safety, even though they had been rationed their water.
The group was gradually led one by one up the hill, traversing many kilometres through boulders and unstable terrain to reach the top.
All 15 were miraculously uninjured.
Wes Skiles was the cameraman that captured footage of the cave. He then turned the footage into the documentary “Nullarbor dreaming”.
James Cameron, Hollywood’s royalty and star of Titanic was attracted to the film and they began a friendship.
Wight went on to be a movie producer who worked on 45 movies, mostly documentaries about ocean exploration. He also co-wrote the film Sanctum (2011) which loosely was inspired by the Pannikin Plains expedition.
Cameron was the executive producer and helped make this film reach $100 million worldwide.
Allum was to become the technical director for Cameron’s successful “Deepsea Challenger” expedition.
A network of spectacular caves has been carved into limestone over the millennia, beneath the Nullarbor Plain (pictured).