Skull Rock: the Inside Story
This story is the report written in 1972 for the Victorian National Parks Authority after visiting the island and entering the cave. The cave has been recently (2017) re entered by a film crew with climbers and museum staff to film an episode for Australia Coast.
Skull Rock or Cleft Island is a granite monolith 113.4m in height(Ports and Harbours,1959),situated in the Anser Group of islands west of Wilsons Promontory. The main feature of this island is a huge stage-like cave on the western side which gives the rock the appearance of a hollow shell. The floor of the cave is 30m above sea level and there is no easy access. It is quite certain that prior to 1972, no person had entered the cave, and to my knowledge only one person had managed to climb to the top of the rock. The surrounding cliffs form a solid barrier 30m to 60m in height and are quite insurmountable to all but experienced rock climbers.
For all these reasons, it seemed quite likely that the vegetation and fauna of the island would show little of the effects of man that have so changed the other islands of Bass Strait. With this in mind, Digby planned a visit to the island with a party of rock-climbers to survey the vegetation and fauna of the cave. The island is a part of the Wilson‘s Promontory National Park and we were grateful to receive permission from the National Parks Authority to attempt the climb. Brian Greer, then an Assistant Ranger of the Park, and resident at Tidal River, had his own boat and knew the waters around Wilsons Promontory quite well, we were grateful for his assistance and also that of Marjorie, his wife. She is also a doctor and the knowledge that she would be around when we made our attempt was quite comforting.
After many false starts during which the weather blew up and made the landing impossible, we were eventually able to gain a tenuous foothold on the rock on the 10th of November,1972. After several hours of difficult climbing, we were standing above the cliffs looking down on Brian’s tiny boat 113m below us. Having gained so much it was still a matter of an hour’s hard work to descend to the cave on the other side of the rock. This involved a 30m. abseil followed by a pendulum swing of about 10m. across the blank rock face. These techniques enabled us to swing sideways into the cave. We could carry very little in the way of sampling gear, and we could not stay long, so our biological observations are necessarily scanty. Once inside, the full extent of the huge amphitheatre became apparent. The single cavity has no subsidiary channels and the symmetry of the domed roof is nearly perfect. The cave mouth is about 130m. across and 60m high. The cavern goes back into the rock for about 50m. Its sheer size and the restless sea surging against its base 30m. below made us feel very insignificant.
The plants visible from sea level on the lower lip of the cave proved to only grow on the outward side of a frontal dune stretching across the mouth of the cave. Behind the dune the cave floor drops 7m. and is composed of bare sandy grave1. Toward the rear of the cave is a small flat area of dry green algae, on the lowest portion of the floor. This area is a drainage focal point for any windblown spray and rain, as two small drainage channels running down from the dune testify. On either side of this mossy area and against the back wall of the cave are two semi-conical hills, 7m. in height and 10m. in radius. These apparently consist of solid salt and their surface layers are strewn with the remains of many birds. So firmly are these embedded in the salt that any attempt at removal inevitably resulted in their destruction, but remains found elsewhere in the cave are probably similar to those “lost” to the salt. The salt mounds have probably been caused by windblown sea spray, the water evaporating to leave the salt. The biological contents contained within the mounds could be ascertained by means of a sample trench dug into the side. This could lead to information regarding the avian fauna of Bass Strait in past times.
The granitic soil near the mounds is also highly saline, (as I discovered by its effect on a scratched hand) and this is presumably the reason for the lack of plant growth deep within the cave. The salt marsh plant, Arthrocnemum arbusculum was found to be the sole species in the vegetation zone nearest the salt mounds. This plant, noted for its high salt tolerance, has not before been found on the islands in this area although it has been recorded from Big Green Island in the Furnaux Group. (Norman, 1966). Along the top and inside edge of the frontal dune are clumps of tussock grass Poa poiformis, and Pigface, Disphyma australe, but closer to the salt mounds these both become stunted and more scattered. The Poa is dominant over much of the dune surface, generally in clumps of over waist height, and the pigface is dominant on the outer edge of the dune where the gravel borders onto bare granite. Other species of plants distributed unevenly throughout the vegetated area of the cave are: Bulbine bulbosa, Pelargonium australe, and Sonchus oleraceus. Several specimens of the fern Asplenium obtusatum grow in rock crevices. During our visit a pair of Cape Barren Geese (Cereopsis novae-hollandia were on top of the rock and a pair of Pacific Gulls(Larus pacificus) landed within the cave, but no other live birds were seen. At least three nesting sites of the Cape Barren Goose occur amongst the Poa as evidenced by quantities of droppings and feathers. Burrows, apparently of mutton bird size, riddle the frontal dune and a profusion of bird bones litter the floor of the cave. Some bones were brought out and have been identified as belonging to the following species: Silver Gull (Larus novae-hollandiae), Dominican Gull (Larus dominicanus), Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris), Fluttering Shearwater (Puffinus gavial), and of Prions (Pachyptila spp.)
The burrows in the dune are likely to be those of the Short-tailed Shearwater but we did not pull any birds out to check. The nearest recorded breeding colonies of the Fluttering Shearwater are in New Zealand, and it is an annual migrant to Bass Strait (Serventy et al, 1971; Simpson, 1972). The presence of a Dominican Gull skull was of interest, for this species is only a comparative new-comer to Australia and only one breeding attempt within Bass Strait is known to date. The species is common in New Zealand and presumably has begun to colonize Australia from there (Simpson, 1972).
No evidence indicating the existence of any mammals was found either within the cave or on the outside surface of the rock. It appears likely that the island is too small to support a viable colony of mammals.
Against one wall we found five or six nodular lumps that looked and felt like iron ore but seemed out of place on a granite island. They proved to be lumps of heavily oxidised and roughly cast iron. The only plausible explanation for their presence in this inaccessible cave is that they were the remnants of a ball fired from a cannon, but by whom must remain a mystery. From the degree of corrosion, they had obviously been there for a long time, but no accurate guess at their actual age can yet be made.
The contents of the cave then, do not form the hoped for reference point for the changes in vegetation types else-where in Bass Strait. Plant growth is extremely restricted and the small mammal fauna characteristic of the other islands of Bass Strait is apparently absent. However this brief survey suggests that the cave warrants further investigation as regards the contents of the salt mounds and shearwater burrows.
This survey would have been impossible were it not for the permission of the National Parks Authority to visit the island and make a reference collection. Brian and Marjorie Greer also made our task far less of a burden with their valued advice and assistance. My climbing partners, Keith McKenry and John Ryder in the earlier, abortive attempts and David Watson in the final successful attempt must also be thanked for tolerating my obsession. The invaluable assistance of Paul Cullen who did the plant identification and Ken Simpson who identified the bird bones and read this manuscript are also gratefully acknowledged.
Norman, 1966. Vic. Nat. 83/ 294-299.
Ports and Harbours 1959. Sailing Directions, Victoria including Bass Strait. Dept. of Public works, Melb.6th.ed.
Serventy,D.L., Serventy, V., and Warham, J. 1971. The Handbook of Australian Seabirds.Reed, Sydney.
Simpson, K. 1972. Birds in Bass Strait. Reed, Sydney.
The following accounts were written at the time by my climbing companions for publication in the “Monash Bushwalker”, as we were all members of the bushwalking club at Monash University at the time. I hope that they were both written for entertainment, not accuracy.
Gnats on a mammoth’s toe: A tale of Skull Rock (part 2).
Written by Keith McKenry Oct 1972.
Published in Monash Bushwalker 1973.
This is an account of folly.
It was all very elaborate really. We had food and water for three days, and emergency rations for ten, all wrapped up with our spare clothes and cameras in plastic bags sealed with rubber bands and placed into waterproof plastic drums snaffled off the canoeists, which in turn were bound up in sturdy hessian bags tied up with binder twine. Our climbing ropes were old club ones, retired for safety reasons, and in this we were quite fortunate for Digby had found it necessary to retire two quite suitable ropes the previous week. The Zoology Department had given us the use of a rubber dinghy and three walkie-talkies, and had hired the trawler for us, making it possible to journey out to Skull Rock from Port Franklin, a seven hour journey around the tip of Wilson’s Promontory. This gave us ample opportunity for sea-sickness, rather than accessing the rock from Tidal River which would have been half an hour in a motor boat. Everything was very well planned ahead.
Skull Rock, otherwise known as Cleft Island, with it’s Myer Music Bowl like cave yawning out majestically had become something of an obsession with Digby, and like all good obsessions had dragged innocent bystanders into its wake. For John Ryder and I had agreed to join him in his quest to reach the caves hallowed “never before trodden by human hands” floor.
As we rounded the last of the islands in the Anser Group, I looked up through a green bilious haze, and with some effort managed to focus my eyes and caught a back view of an immense grey sun-bleached Ayers rock monolith rising vertically out of the water, and burst out laughing. Five million seals on the rock outcrop alongside us slithered into the ocean guffawing their Alf Garnet encrusted heads off, and Digby puffed on his pipe looking pensive. John giggled to himself into his moustache, punch drunk by the sight ahead of us, and the trawler chugged on.
Once alongside the rock, things took on a new dimension. As we chugged around the perimeter, crack after magnificent crack thrust vertically out of the water and climbed up until it disappeared with the curvature of the skull, some 100 metres above. It was all too much for a frustrated climber to take until as we rounded the north side, the huge open cave hove into view. We all fell silent, and even the chugging of the motor seemed respectful. High up above us, like an immense sculptured canopy, the cavern roof leant lazily out over the ocean, an undefiled Olympus, proud, cold and magnificent. We would be rapists in short pants were suitably intimidated.
There was a sea cave below the Olympus and in it a barnacle encrusted incline seemed to offer itself as a suitable landing site and launching point for a direct assault from below. A landing was duly executed and all the expeditions’ supplies were landed whilst walkie-talkie contact was maintained with the mother ship. During this manoeuvre the rubber dinghy was holed on the barnacles, much to the delight of an itinerant seal which frolicked about enjoying the confusion. Fifty metres above us the floor of the cave waited, inviolate.
Climbing gear was duly prepared, with a piton being rammed between two barnacles for a belay. A seven metre slab proved harder than expected and a bolt was chiselled in to circumvent it. Still no joy, for the top of the slab still defied all efforts and the artificial crack above looked harder with each successive inspection. A quick walkie-talkie call to home base and the trawler chugged in to retrieve us. We left all the non-climbing gear behind, for time was short and Digby was of the opinion we could abseil down later to get it, and then prussick back up to the cave. Indefatigable optimism had Digby.
Half an hour later we landed again, this time on a rock platform about 100m west of the sea cave. Digby’s new plan called for us to climb to the top of the rock, then abseil down into the cave. John and I looked up and saw a superb 100metre layback crack heading off diagonally to the right. “He couldn’t be going up there, “I said to John. “No, no he couldn’t”, said John to me. “He’ll traverse around there to the left and look for a way into that chimney we could see from the boat”. Digby climbed out of the dinghy and casually declared, “we’ll climb that layback crack to the right”. At that point I used the half a brain in my head to realise that the rope wouldn’t reach to the top and so Digby would have to belay half way up, and I would have to lead through, and me with my football injury still giving me trouble and all. Not bloody likely, I thought. After much impassioned persuasion, however, Digby was persuaded that his layback crack “wasn’t on” and John and I breathed many sighs of relief.
The chimney around the corner became our target, but reaching it posed quite a problem. Digby found that he couldn’t traverse around the corner at the point where the slope was least, and his only chance seemed to lie in an undercut fold lower down. The fold was about three metres long and too wide for fist jams but too narrow for both feet and hands, but apart from the fold the rock was smooth and vertical. When Digby declared that there were no handhold inside the fold, John and I thought that was the end of it, but Digby thrust his knees and elbows into the cleft and with both feet hanging out into space proceeded to do a knee and elbow traverse. I looked at John and John looked at me, then we both looked at Digby disappearing around the corner with blood streaming from his knees and elbows as the granite cut into his skin. “He’s keen”. “Yes, he’s keen”. When Digby called “on belay”. I looked at John, and John looked at me. “I’ve got a crook leg”, I said for openers. “I haven’t been climbing all year, and besides you’re the bloody climbing leader”, said he. This comradely discourse was terminated by Digby, who yelled out saying he’d pull me across if necessary. Keen bastard, I thought. I decided to relieve myself of all unnecessary burdens, and went over to the edge of the rock and lowered my pants accordingly.
I was roping up when a call came across on the walkie-talkie. The trawler captain had business on Glennie Island, ten kilometres away, and was calling to say he had to go, but he’d probably be back in about three hours to see how we were getting on. I called to Digby, “The trawler wants to leave, what do you think?” Came the reply, “That’s bad luck, are you tied on yet?” “What if we don’t get up, or if we get stranded on the top?” “Then we spend a cold night.” Bloody mad obsessed bastard, I thought. John got the captain to wait another half hour, and I prepared to climb. The first three metres consisted of a wide vertical crack and in no mood for a swim I wedged myself in tightly, only to find after about two metres, my left knee was well and truly stuck. For five minutes I struggled to free myself, to the deafening accompaniment of five million stinking fornicating seals on the rock across the way. Then, to cap it all off it started raining. That was enough for me. I yelled to Digby that I couldn’t get up, I was stuck, my crook leg was giving me merry hell, it was raining, it would be dark in two hours, it was mid-winter and we were in no position to sit out a night without shelter, the trawler was about to abandon us, the seals were getting on my nerves and I was going down. Digby relied that things weren’t as bad as all that, but agreed to come down and try again in the morning.
Digby abseiled down, looping the climbing rope through the tape runner direct, to save a karabiner, and then had to abandon the rope when it refused to pull through. A hour later we had retrieved the gear from the sea cave and were chugging thoughtfully out to Glennie. We planned to drop anchor and spend the night off Glennie, to return in the morning with just the climbing gear and attempt to get up and down in a day. Unfortunately, during the night a strong wind blew up and the trawler was forced to up anchor and head for waterloo Bay, on the other side of the Prom, next morning the sea was too choppy for us to return to the rock, so a lethargic return was made to Port Franklin where we unloaded for return to Melbourne. Thus ended our first attempt to violate Skull Rock.
Skull Rock – Violated (part 3)
By Dave Watson Oct 1972
Published Monash Bushwalker 1973
Unexpectedly, Sunday morning was quite clear and calm. An odd occurrence for Wilson’s Promontory, where in the recent past, several climbing teams had stood on the windswept beach complaining of the capricious weather. Digby and I joined our predecessors as we gazed speculatively at the mountains behind us, the rippling waves, and far off on the horizon the faint loom of a mist enshrouded rock. At last we had received word from Brian Greer, whose boat was being used to ferry us about, that the weather was suitable.
Go! You must be joking? I’m not ready. Here I am lying on the warm, white sand, being gently touched by the hot sun, watching all these near naked girls wandering around the shore and being wracked by one of the most dreadful maladies known to modern man, euphoric beach lassitude. Suddenly I’m being asked to be borne across the ocean by a flimsy cockleshell of a boat, smash myself against the rocks of my goal, possibly get ripped apart by ravenous barnacles and then, if I’m fortunate and manage to drag myself up a hard very severe climb, take the risk of being blown off the top of this bare rock by a freak gust of wind or of dying of thirst, hunger and freezing temperatures when it is discovered that there is indeed no way of getting off this lump of desolate rock. You must be mad! Indeed, I soon find out that he really is.
I hurriedly re-orient my slumbering mental processes and soon find myself holding a boat head on to the surf, in company with Digby, my insane companion, and Marjorie, Brian’s wife. Brian re-joins us, starts the outboard, and we head directly towards Cleft Island, otherwise forbiddingly known as Skull Rock. Tidal River sinks gradually into the waves as we near the island, the boat thudding into each successive wave crest, and I become more confident as I realise I am immune to seasickness.
I dwell on past attempts to conquer the sheer cliffs that rise vertically out of the sea and soar far above us into the blue skies. The last party at least had the benefit of a large trawler to support them, as well as a larger climbing team complete with extra provisions in case of an enforced stay on the island. They were repeatedly swamped by heavy surf despite it being a perfectly calm day. They and their gear were soaked and torn on sharp barnacles and I had received the impression that I would be lucky to escape drowning. Even after they started climbing they had immense difficulties. There was much dissension about the easiest route to follow, the one being chosen reportedly a grade seventeen or eighteen according to some members of the party. Eventually nightfall and worsening weather had forced them to retreat.
I resigned myself to an early grave as the boat neared the steep walls, and fervently hoped that Digby, the instigator of these plots to scale Skull Rock, was not feeling his usual “do or die” attitude. Seals were merrily barking out our funeral dirge as we blew up the inflatable raft and checked our gear. Digby paddled across to a sloping ledge and scrambled quickly ashore before he got swamped by a wave. I was pulled over by a rope and stepped easily onto dry rock from the rubber raft. Strange, I should be floundering helplessly in the surf, but here I am, dry as a bone. Truly amazing! I must be dreaming.
Digby gazes up at an impressive line high above us. I look up also. My God! He must be joking! I quickly suggest we climb up the rope dangling in front of us which was left after a previous party abseiled off. We fasten the loose end and easily make a hand over hand traverse around and up to a large ledge. In less than five minutes we have bypassed a pitch that took hours of strenuous effort. I truly must be dreaming. It just isn’t possible to be so lucky. My future looks brighter and I begin to enjoy the pleasant sunshine. I amble seven metres to the left along a wide 15 centimetre ledge balancing against the warm granite rock. Around a sharp corner to another ledge and Digby follows. We shoulder the extra rope and small pack and I squirm up a sloping cave then swing myself out into a deep chimney. I consider any protection to be superfluous so do not trouble myself with it, pausing now and then to dwell on the seals twisting beneath the surface of the sea far below. Hand and foot holds abound and I decide that I have never enjoyed myself more. A blind man could have done this climb with no trouble at all. Where is all the difficulty that I have been told about? They must have been mad! Or complete fools.
The top is reached in a pleasant dreamlike trance, and Digby follows me up. A gentle slope brings the summit within reach and Brian and Marjorie are tiny specks on a sun-dappled plain a hundred metres below. The climb – superb, the scenery – outstanding, the weather – perfect. Everything is perfect, unbelievably perfect! We gather specimens of plant life and any evidence of animal life before dropping down to the entrance to the cave. A bolt is placed in a steep gully and I abseil 25 metres to a flat ledge, swing around a corner and down to the cave floor amidst a clump of boulders. Digby once again joins me and we rush about collecting samples, not only flora and fauna but also geological, including solid lumps of rock salt and even a couple of rusty old cannonballs.
Regretfully we must leave this overpowering cave, this huge immensity of open space bounded high above us and on each side by smooth water streaked granite. The exit itself is worthy of this gigantic natural maw and we abseiled 30 metres out of the natural lip and down through another sea-cave to drop straight into the waiting boat, spinning slowly about, watching the seals at play deep below the surface of the sparkling clear water.