Attitude at Altitude

One of the great joys of diving is sitting around with your buddies discussing what is the best dive all of you have ever done. The bragging begins and war stories abound that include the deepest, the biggest and of course how all have fought off the denizens of the deep to emerge unscathed to the raptures of fellow divers to have survived such a escapade themselves.

But for this adventure, I’d like to share with you the "spirit" of scuba, what makes it so much fun, and the comradeship of buddies.

Learning to dive in Australia, I have been spoiled. Without a doubt, diving "downunder" has meant that I have experienced some of the best diving in the world. But one of the diving trips that I enjoyed the most took place 160km (100m) from the nearest drop of sea water and at an altitude of 900m (2700ft).

Just after World War Two, the Australian Government undertook what was to be the largest engineering project in the Southern Hemisphere, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. Tunnels where to be drilled, dams created and valleys flooded. From this project, the original township of Jindabyne disappeared and for many years remained unknown to the diving fraternity. However, curiosity and challenge often beckons where fools and mere non-diving mortals fear to tread.

Up in the Snowy Mountains there are no luxury liveaboards with hostesses offering a platter of fruit as you emerge from the water, whilst the dive crew fill your tank. In fact the nearest dive shop is two hours away, so if anything is forgotten it’s a long way back to a shop. But if the thought of diving on a flooded township, exploring a ghost like homestead and searching for a bridge that was blown up decades ago conjure up images of adventure, then to dive Lake Jindabyne, Southern NSW Australia is a great weekend.

We set out to achieve several objectives – complete the PADI Altitude Specialty Course, explore the old township of Jindabyne, dive an intact homestead wreck and search for the bridge that was blown up.

Five hours south from Sydney the lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains and winds that chill the soul. Our first dive took place after a twenty five-minute boat ride to the end of the lake, at the Kalkite Homestead.

Originally a pastoral property, the land was acquired and flooded. The lake has a maximum depth of about 45m, but the homestead was left intact and now stands in 7 – 12 meters. The water temperature was 3 degrees Celsius and upon entering the water our hands and face went numb. Three layers of warm undergarments and a drysuit gave some comfort to the core.

We descended into the murky green waters, with visability of 5m; the front gate of the old homestead swung on its posts and dead trees with branches conjured up thoughts of arms reaching out to grab the unwary diver. Like a shipwreck, the homestead emerged, complete with verandah. The front door still worked and we glided from room to room where some of the windows open onto the verandah and like ghosts haunting a mansion, we slipped from the laundry to the kitchen and then up through ceiling rafters to look down on this unique dive. It was spooky to dive something that real and almost alive. But twenty minutes was the maximum our bodies could take in that frigid water.

The second dive was the old township of Jindabyne, built on a slight hill the dive started in 12m and dropped to 21m at which point light ceased to exist. Being closer to the dam wall, more silt in the water had drastically culled visibility and a torch became vital.

Most of the homes were lifted onto trucks and relocated to the new township about 2km away and what is left is covered in fine silt 1 – 2 cm thick. Finning along the contours we came across old bottle depots, the church steps and a 1930’s truck. Since the water is fresh and cold most things have survived well. Gliding down the town, the deeper we went the more our torches resembled the high beam lights of a car, cutting the water as the green softened above. Strong compass and orientation skills saved us long swims, as there were few features to navigate by, we also practiced some line and reel work in preparation for the next dive.

One of our aims was to try to find the original bridge, which to the best of our knowledge had not been dived. The bridge was given to the Australian Army as the lake was being flooded to practice their bridge blowing-up techniques. To find this wreck was an opportunity of a lifetime. After all, not many places say to the local army, "Do you mind blowing up a perfectly good bridge, we don’t need it any more."

The Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme was well documented in film and the bridge demolition included; however no reference to the actual location remains. Every old timer we asked inevitably pointed in the exact opposite direction to the last person. We lifted some Polaroid stills from the film hoping to use them as references, and armed with maps and a GPS we set out the next morning. Running a sounder we worked search patterns along promising areas of the shore, where roads seemed to abruptly end, using the GPS to plot run lines and co-ordinates.

After a couple of hours, we dropped anchor on a good sounding. The sounder indicated the depth at around 30m. Dropping in teams, our aim was to descend to the bottom and do circular sweeps. Allowing for altitude, cold water and the work rate we set the bottom time at 8 minutes with scheduled safety stops. It was like dropping into the black abyss, total sensory depravation. The only link was the anchor line, like an umbilical cord to the boat. Night diving can be dark, but this was blacker than black. Trying to adjust buoyancy, work lines and film the expedition in this darkness was making life tough. I knew I had arrived on the bottom when I sank to my knees in silt and the torches now cut the images like something from the Blair Witch Project. We tried to salvage ourselves but to no avail, by the time we sorted buoyancy and line the divers enemy – the clock – was ticking past six minutes, we had time for one sweep pattern.

I would like to say that we found it, but we did not. However, that just added to the fun of the trip. Having an objective that was different and using new skills were part of the thrill. The challenge was planning and executing – then knowing that the bridge is still there waiting to be discovered. The allure of that dive was like searching for a mythical treasure.

The weekend was about attitude, as much as it was about altitude, adapting skills to meet a new environment, working as a team towards a goal. So look around where you live, find a dive site that is totally different to what you are used to and get the training so that the next time you dive, it is an expedition with buddies, not just another dive.