Blackwater Rafting under the Nullabor

Absolute darkness. It was impossible to detect any difference whether my eyes were open or shut. Only the ragged breathing of my companions was evidence that I hadn't been plunged into the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber.

Then again, under any sensible definition, I had been. This vast cavern more than 30 metres below the earth's surface was sterile and silent. The water at our feet was still and no fish or frogs disturbed its surface. Before we had plunged into darkness we noted that no bat droppings marked the limestone walls.

"Sorry, that's as much disorientation as I can take," said John as he turned his helmet lamp back on. The scene the beam revealed was all the more remarkable when we thought about where we were.

Just half an hour earlier we had been bouncing across the dust of the Nullarbor Plain in blinding harsh sunlight. We hadn't seen any sign of surface water since we left Border Village that morning. A few scraggly bushes and trees provided the only shade in this part of Western Australia.

Tim, our guide from Osprey Wildlife Expeditions, unerringly followed a dirt track that, to my eye, was indiscernable from other bush tracks that crossed it. About 20 km north of Eucla we pulled up the edge of large sink hole that looked like a giant divot in the otherwise featureless desert.

The Nullarbor is a large sheet of limestone dropping sheer to the Southern Ocean. Limestone is very porous so any water that falls on it quickly drains away. This moisture accumulates in underground rivers and lakes.

Our destination was Weebubbie Cave. To reach the cavern entrance we climbed down some ricketty metal ladders then scrambled across the rock fall. Behind a large rock a vague path plunged down into the inky blackness.

It seems an essential aspect of adventure travel is the moment when you think "what am I doing here?" Under the helmet supporting one of six bobbing lights, this thought was running through my brain as I endeavoured to find a footing across the rough surface.

A few minutes later my trepidation disappeared as we arrived at a scene of real beauty and grandeur. I was standing at the edge of a crystal clear underground stream in a vault as smooth and intricately carved as any cathedral. Although the deeper water was a beautiful tourquoise, at the shoreline it was impossible to see where the air finished and the water began.

So clear was the water that the only way I could detect the surface was to lower my hand until my fingers were shocked by the sudden cold. Raising them to my lips, I discovered that the water was rich in lime and salts.

Only John had the foresight to bring a wetsuit, snorkel and goggles. He immediately went swimming and reported that the water clarity made snorkelling feel as if he was suspended in space.

While he continued his space walking and we explored the subterranean shores, Tim inflated a small rubber raft, assembled a paddle and then floated off to place candles in niches along the stream. Then the rest of us took turns to clamber into the raft and paddle several hundred metres through the chamber.

Beyond the first bend, the voices of those on the shore became distorted and took on the sonority of a Gregorian chant. Ahead, the candles highlighted patterns on the domed roof. Pointing my torch straight down, I was seized by vertigo as I felt the whole raft was hanging in space above the rocky floor far below.

There was no apparent water current and the candles burned without even a flicker of breeze. Down the far end the chamber ended where the rock wall dropped sheer below the waterline.

I thought with great admiration of cave divers prepared to push onwards into uncharted depths and darkness, oblivious of the great thickness of rock separated them from the desert above. Then I turned back to rejoin my companions.

That night, we were sitting around a campfire, listening to the waves of the Southern Ocean crashing against the shores of the Nullarbor. Above us, the stars blazed out of a moonless night with the intensity that only the desert affords.

On the following day we were looking from the clifftops over several giant Southern Right whales and their calves wintering at the head of the Great Australian Bight.

As a veteran of several whale watching cruises in Australia and Hawaii, I know how chancy this activity can be. Not so the Nullarbor where some 500 of the world's 2000 remaining Southern Right whales come near the coast during the winter months.

Here you may see up to 60 whales at once. The two days I was there, between 10 and 20 whales were always clearly visible, often only 20 metres beyond the cliff edge.

This caves and whales tour by Osprey Wildlife Expeditions is one of the most emotionally satisfying tours in the whole lexicon of eco-travel.

The only negative of the whole trip is trying to explain to puzzled friends how you are travelling out into the Nullarbor desert to go rafting and to watch whales.

Travel Facts

Osprey Wildlife Expeditions offers a nine day "Nullarbor Downunder Wildcaves" road and camping tour for $1250 ex Adelaide. Alternatively, the "Whales and Wildcaves" tour flies you across the Nullarbor by light plane to cover it all in three days - this costs from $995. The tours run from July through September. The Osprey brochure can be obtained by writing to PO Box 738, Stirling, SA 5132 or phone/fax (08) 388 2552.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd