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Eerie descent into a skindiver's paradise

Piccaninny Ponds   (above), a series of

small lakes almost on the coastline of South Australia.

John Harding   (left) with the little

bird that swam down to meet the under water swimmers.

Valerie at the limestone entrance to the   subterranean cave, which, she says, has been penetrated by only a handful of swimmers.

Tanya Binning and   John standing on the edges of the first pond. Page 8

John, Valerie, and   Tanya (right) among the reeds that fringe the deep chasm of Piccaninny Ponds.

By VALERIE HEIGHES -

Spearfishing experts Valerie Heighes and her husband, Ron Taylor,   shark-killer John Harding, and surfboard rider Tanya Binning travelled 850 miles from Mortdale, N.S.W., to explore the Piccaninny Ponds.

The ponds are a series of small lakes, connected underground, almost on the coast of South Australia, about 20 miles from Mt. Gambier and to the east of Port

MacDonnell.

They are part of the subterranean water system of South Australia's south-east district, which includes the Blue Lake and other lakes in the craters of Mt. Gambier.

The main pond, often called Piccaninny Lake - only 20 feet wide by 200 feet long - is surrounded by long reeds. It has been explored by skindivers, who have not yet touched the bottom.

Valerie Heighes says that, because of the clear water, nowhere are conditions

so good for the skindiver armed with an underwater camera. She describes the eerie   descent into a skindiver's paradise.      

LIKE a flock of

awkward birds, we flew slowly downwards

between the ever-narrow-

ing chasm walls. The vertical, black opening, with its fringe of undu- lating green algae, beckoned us deeper.

I hung for a moment in the watery sunlight. Tanya hovered 100 feet above, an exquisite silhouette in this clear, turquoise world.

Tanya did not explore the cave with us. We had taught her skindiving only the week before, so she stayed on the surface. The Ponds are only for the experienced diver.

To get to the chasm we had swum through a pond about 50 feet deep to a fringe of reeds, separated them, then started to de- scend.

I waved at Tanya, then plunged hesitantly through the soft green fringe. Black- ness enveloped me. I lay there staring into an inky

void.

A stream of silver bubbles

wobbled upward from my husband's Scuba tank. John

Harding brushed past me, his rubber-clad body touch- ing my leg like some squashy cave-dwelling monster.

He startled me from my trance and overcame my

reluctance to move.

I could almost hear my husband, Ron, thinking to himself, "Come on, Valerie, we didn't travel 850 miles so you could waste time and air dithering around in the one spot."

My eyes were becoming accustomed to the gloom. I could dimly see Ron franti- cally signalling me to swim slowly down toward the very bowels of the earth. It was fantastic. We were in a huge

cavern.

Silent place

Tortured limestone jutted from the floor and lower

walls. Our air bubbles, trap- ped against the arched ceil- ing, lay like brilliant blue mercury, winking down in an ever-widening puddle of air.

There they would remain trapped, unable to escape, over the years to come for perhaps even our children's

children to see.

It was fantastic, but true. This still, silent place prob- ably had not changed in thousands of years and would

remain the same for thou- sands of years to come.

I gently felt a battered

stone pinnacle, and stirred up a great swirl of powdered

sediment.

Ron motioned me to stop disturbing the water and began to take photographs.

The camera flash illumi- nated the subterranean cav-

ern for a second, throwing it into a twisted composition of grey and black shadows.

Only curiosity kept me there. My body said, "Get out, you fool, this is no place

for humans."

Ron had disappeared, his path marked by a trail of silver bubbles. John seemed content to just float, feet up, neatly carving his initials into a limestone outcrop.

I can't imagine who he expected to admire his effort.

I followed Ron's bubbles

down. The huge cave con-   densed into a sort of sooty tunnel that seemed to have swallowed him.

Just as I was about to panic he came into view, which was just as well. This deep dark place was no place in which to panic.

Ron signalled that the air would be getting low. With a mingling of relief and reluctance, I started for the entrance. How far away it looked, that tiny jewel of light in this grey-black world.

John seemed loath to leave the "masterpiece" he had not quite finished. You would

have thought that it was go- ing to be hung in the Louvre. A little physical per-   suasion got him moving. The glimmering topaz jewel color changed rapidly into more familiar-looking cave

entrance.

We pushed through the slushy algae fringe into the open water. I was free. Sue's light danced on the swaying

reeds.

A funny bird swam down to greet us. Perhaps he could not believe his eyes, seeing three strange creatures emerging from the depths.

Anyhow, I bet he wished he had not been so curious because John reached out and grabbed him. This,

course, called for more photographs.

John's new friend could hold his breath longer, and dive better, than all of us

together.

He was a friendly little fellow and remained a con- stant companion for the rest

of the swim.

Tanya and I lay face down looking into that fabulous

chasm of the Piccaninie.

Ron and John were half way down, looking up. It is one

of the most beautiful sights

in Australia.

Only a handful of divers

have swum between its ver- tical walls and feasted the Continued on page  

PICCANINNY

PONDS

South 1 ustrulings amazing . . .

. John, Valerie, and Tanya looking down the chasm. Tanya stayed

near the surface.

Pic

tures are by Ron Taylor.

Continuing . . .

PICCANINNY

PONDS

John Harding helps Tanya, who had   learnt skindiving only the week before.

eyes on its crystal-clear depths.

You can see 100 feet

straight down, then the chasm narrows rapidly, veer- ing off to the right, and seems to go on forever.

(One Scuba diver decided to see how deep the Picca- ninnies were, but 220 feet down, in the ever-narrowing space, his regulator became clogged by stirred-up sedi- ment. He had to claw his

way out, struggling for air. All that I can say is, "This is not for me, thank you." I'd rather swim through a dozen angry shark packs.)

Then we moved through a curtain of reeds from the main pond into a shallower one. A scared tortoise darted into the reeds. I was swim-

ming face up, my air supply

down to its last.

We struggled into the sur- rounding swamp, and through knee-deep mud squelched our way back to the tent we had pitched in a paddock.

I skirted a narrow pool, where, earlier in the day, John had made a slight mis-

take.

When we started out to

explore the cave, John had been unable to wait and had plunged off through the swamp leaving us far behind.

Coming to this pool, he

had not hesitated. It looked shallow, but John had heard that this was because of the

great clarity of the water.

In he went, thinking it the first pool through which we had to swim. It was almost

deep enough for swimming

-about five feet -but three feet was soft ooze.

So there was John, trying to swim in a churned-up mud bath.

My husband was rather alarmed at first, but Tanya and I couldn't help laughing, and Ron soon joined in.

But John was not the only

one to entertain us with un-  

orthodox swimming. Earlier   in the day we had visited the   Ewen Ponds, over which was   suspended a narrow, single-   plank jetty.  

Full of enthusiasm for the  

fresh, unspoiled surround-   ings, Tanya stood on the   jetty, eyes closed, arms out-   stretched, and took a big,   deep breath.  

Then, looking happy and   pleased, she slowly toppled   in. When the splash died   down, a surprised, fully   dressed Tanya was bobbing around in 20 feet of icy

water.

The deep breathing had caused it. The excess oxygen in her system had produced a slight dizziness, throwing

her off balance.

Run to waste

We fished her out, lit a big fire, and stood around holding bits of clothing. In no time everything was dry,

even if it did smell a bit swampy.

Not a great deal is known

about the subterranean

waterways, of which the Piccaninny Ponds are a small part. They break the earth's crust just a few yards from the open sea. It is be- lieved that two million gal- lons of water flow into the ocean daily, yet the land it flows under is dry and bar-

ren.

Some say the water comes all the way from the Snowy Mountains, others from the Murray. Up to a mile out at sea fishermen can put a

bucket over the side and

still bring up fresh water.

It seems a great pity that in a land where water is so

scarce and precious these millions of gallons run to waste every day.

Perhaps in the future this liquid wealth will be tapped

and diverted to benefit man- kind.

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