Five Minutes With … Susan White

Every month, we like to get to know a member of our amazing Victorian Guiding community a little better. This month we caught up with Unit Leader, avid caver, and geologist Susan White.

Susan has been Guiding for over 70 years! Today, as Unit Leader at Darebin Lake Girl Guides and Coordinator of the Girl Guides Victoria Caving Team, Susan leads by example, inspiring girls, young women, and fellow volunteers to discover their own strengths and capabilities.

How did you first become involved with Girl Guides Victoria, and what inspired you to take on leadership roles within the organisation?

I first joined Guides as a Brownie at 1st Wonthaggi Brownie Pack as a 9 year old in May 1953. I continued on to 1st Wonthaggi Guides in 1955, gaining my first Class Badge in 1959.

As there were no Rangers in Wonthaggi, and I enjoyed Guides (rather than sport), especially the outdoors activities, I joined the 5th Victorian Lone Rangers (i.e. correspondence Guides).

When I came to Melbourne, I continued in Lones as I was always moving around when I was a student. In 1963 I started as a leader at 2nd Collingwood Guides and have been a Guide Leader ever since, mainly with 10+ age groups. I still am a Leader of Youth, now at Reservoir Lake Guides, as it is still such fun.

I have also been a Guiding partner/mentor, District & Assistant DL Leader/Commissioner, hold camping qualifications and am an Outdoor Assessor.

Victoria is home to the only Girl Guides Caving Team in Australia. What motivated the establishment of this team, and what role does it play in our overall Guiding program? 

When I was first at University of Melbourne, I joined the Mountaineering Cub (MUMC) with 3 other Rangers from 5th Lone Rangers and we all took part in lots of bushwalking and rock climbing. This was because we had all enjoyed camping and hiking with Guides and especially Rangers.

Then I met my husband and as he was a caver, I started caving in 1967 and have since been caving in all states and territories of Australia and overseas (China, Europe, East Timor, Brazil, The Bahamas and the USA). However, I am generally a ‘horizontal’ caver rather than a lot of vertical caving involving ladders and ropes and I do not do cave diving (you get wet!).

Guides did not seem to go caving, but in the early 1990s when I was on the State Outdoors Team and we were discussing things we could do to expand the range of outdoor activities for Guides I suggested caving. I started caving in 1967 after I met my husband, a caver.

Someone said we could ask the Scout Caving Team to provide caving, and that resulted in one of my explosions of wrath, as at the time I had much more caving experience through my membership of the Victorian Speleological Association (VSA) than anyone in that team, and I could not see why we could not run one ourselves.

I put together a group of women from the VSA plus some who were keen to try it from Guides and we have been operating (more or less) ever since.

We have survived the ‘Great Insurance Crisis’ of the 1990s and COVID and are still going.  We keep needing to build the Leader base however, as, although the basic skills overlap with a lot of Guide leader skills, there are some specific caving skills you need. Not that these are hard to learn at all.

The other thing is for Guides in Victoria, we have very suitable cave within walking distance of Britannia Park for an introductory caving trip. This is very lucky for us;  an off-site facility we can use for an activity that can be part of a camp program without having to organise transport; legs are best as then everyone is ‘limbered up’ when they arrive!

You’re the Coordinator of the Victorian Girl Guides Caving Team, and also happen to be an expert in Karst geomorphology! How does this expertise inform your role as the Coordinator of the Girl Guides Victoria Caving team? 

I originally trained at University as a secondary school teacher (BA Dip Ed in Geography, European & Asian History and English), and one of things I gained out of that was a deal desire to understand more earth science, especially geology.  In 1967 I started on this as a ‘hobby’; a year doing Year 12 Chemistry was followed by doing a BSc concentrating on mire earth sciences.

It took me 9 years and 2 children. I had to make decision at the end whether to continue my fascination with landscape development or switch to paleontology, and decided to concentrate on cave landscape development. I have therefore turned a “hobby” into a career path and went on to produce a MSc and a PhD on how caves form in the relatively young limestones of SW Victoria and SE SA.

As Coordinator of the Girl Guides Victoria Caving Team, I can explain how caves form clearly and easily and try and enthuse others to look at caves as more than just a sporting activity. You really cannot “easily just be a sporting caver” for long, as the excitement of exploration throws up so many questions that you quickly start reading and trying to find out more.

Cavers and Speleologists are really citizen scientists and lots of professionals who work in caves rely on their expertise. For the training of Leaders I am also able to show the wider aspects of speleology and how much fun it is!

Can you share a memorable experience or achievement from your time leading caving activities with Girl Guides Victoria, that highlights the impact of these adventures on participants?

There have been several memorable experiences with Guides caving: getting an ex State Commissioner through a rather tight squeeze in Britannia Creek Cave, delivering a GGV project working with vulnerable young women, and taking lots of enthusiastic Guides crawling around Britannia Creek Cave in particular.

At the last Jamboree in January 2023, 18 14+ Guides and some leaders took part in a caving expedition to the Budj Bim ( Mt Eccles) and Byaduk Caves, south of Hamilton. Two days of fun and getting dirty and it was not too hot or wet!!! Everyone had a great time.  The thing about introducing caving to Guides is that maybe they will take it up and become as addicted as I am!

What qualities or skills do you look for in potential Leaders of caving activities?

I am always looking for people who are keen to try something new and are keen to learn about the caves, the ethics of caving as well as the skills. Not everyone is automatically keen to try out, which I am aware of, but [I would love to hear from] people who are keen to try something new and are able to encourage Guides to take part.

What advice would you give to volunteers who might be keen to join the Caving Team, but hesitant due to lack of experience? 

The lack of experience should not be a big problem as we will train you up. We provide access to use of a caving helmet and light but you need suitable clothes (boiler suit), good boots with ankle support, gloves and knee pads.

We have a basic hand book that helps with the introduction stuff and I will be running a training at Brit Park later this year.  Also, if I have a trip coming up you can come as an ‘extra’ staff member and go underground with the party. Just contact me and I will let you know when one occurs!

Volunteering and work aside, what do you like do you in your spare time?

I am involved in a number of cave and geology related activities. I still do some consulting as a geologist. I am on the State committee of the Geological Society of Australia (Victoria Division) and I run a data base of Sites of Geological and Geomorphological Significance for GSA(V). This is because Victoria is the only state of Territory in Australia that this is not done by a state government agency.

I am also involved with VSA (documentation of cave and karst features), member of the Cave and Karst Advisory Group for Parks Victoria and do several ‘jobs’  in the Australian Speleological Federation (the Federation of the caving clubs) especially with regards to the Library and Archives, publications and conservation matters. I also read a lot.  But I do not do craft!

If you could take a group of Guides on a caving adventure anywhere in the world, where would you go, and what unique features or experiences would you highlight during the trip?

This is really hard as there are so many. Caves in the other states of Australia e.g. Bungonia, Tasmania, Western Australia, central and North Queensland, black water rafting in New Zealand floating out of a cave on a rubber tyre looking up at the glow worms on the ceiling, lots of the tourist caves in elsewhere in the world are fantastic to visit e.g. Ha Long Bay (Vietnam), Mammoth Cave in Kentucky (the longest cave in the world), tourist caves in Europe especially Slovenia with the train ride into Postojna Jama.

There are so many and it can be hard to tell, but if you are interested make sure you look for the tourist caves on your trip!


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