Australians are fond of an anti-hero. Ned Kelly, one of Australia’s most notable folk heroes, is known to have been a horse-thief and cop-killer. Any virtues he might have had have long since been forgotten. Perhaps it is not so surprising, with this in mind, to find out that Australia’s finest cave system, that of Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales, was discovered by a bushranger (a bushranger is a highwayman or bandit).
In 1838 smalltime bushranger and local pest James McKeown made his way up the rugged Jenolan River valley with a few head of stolen cattle and various other misappropriated items. His route would lead him through the awe-inspiring Grand Arch and Devil’s Coach House caverns.
The little flat spot in the valley where he established his hideout – roughly 2.5 kilometres upstream of Jenolan Caves – still bears his name (McKeown’s Valley).
He was pursued and captured by local farmer, James Whalen, who in later years led the first exploratory surveys of the cave system together with his brother Charles.
Australia was a fledgeling colony at the time. Even so the significance of Jenolan Caves did not escape the authorities’ notice. In 1866 the cave system was placed under government control. A keeper of the caves was appointed.
Vandalism was prohibited in the caves from 1872 onwards.
Exploration of Jenolan Caves began in earnest in the late 19th Century. Tourists started arriving soon after.
By 1888 there already 2,000 tourists a year visiting the caves – an inordinately high number considering the long, arduous journey required to reach the site, and the rudimentary facilities the tourists had to put up with once they were there.
Jenolan Caves House
Jenolan Caves House was built in 1898 to cater to swelling tourist numbers. It was designed by government architect, Walter Vernon Liberty – whose works include the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and Central Railway Station (Sydney) – and replaced a smaller timber hotel that burnt down.
Caves House is surprisingly affordable. If you can manage it then a night or two in this large, rambling, Edwardian hotel is bound to add to your experience at the caves.
The show caves
Jenolan Caves are some of the oldest known caves in the world, dating back at least 340 million years. There are 40 kilometres of tunnels over multiple levels.
Tourist activities are restricted to just 11 show caves (and a handful of adventure caves) out of the 300+ caves that have been uncovered so far.
As with many prominent geologic formations in the Australian landscape, Jenolan Caves has an Aboriginal Dreamtime story of its own.
Way back at the beginning of time there was an epic battle between Gurangatch (a gargantuan half-fish, half-reptile creature) and Mirragan (a colossal quoll or native tiger-cat). During the battle the gorges that form the Cox and Wollondilly Rivers were carved out of the land. Jenolan Caves was created when Gurangatch began burrowing underground to avoid the attack of Mirragan.
The Orient Cave, the rooms of which have names such the Persian Chamber, the Egyptian Chamber, and High and Low India (all part of the exotic Orient) has some of the finest formations of all the caves at Jenolan.
The Persian Chamber, with its ten metre tall Pillar of Hercules stalagmite, is considered one of the finest show caves in the world.
The richness and overall excessiveness of cave decoration in the Orient Cave puts me in mind, not of Asia, but of the opulent Hall of Mirrors, or the rococo Queen’s Bedchamber, in the Palace of Versailles.
The Imperial Diamond cave tour is two caves rolled into one (the Imperial and the Diamond). The Imperial Cave was first explored in 1879. It follows an ancient river bed and contains many fossilised animal bones, including the remains of a Tasmanian Devil (which is thought to have disappeared from mainland Australia around 1,000 – 3,000 years ago).
The Diamond Cave features many delicate formations including the Alabaster Column, and the Gem of the West. Unusual cave formations found in this section of Jenolan Caves include cave coral, the jewel-like Dogtooth Spar crystals, and shelf-stone (also known as lily pads) which forms around the edge of cave pools.
The Devil’s Coach House
There is a palpable sense of age beyond reckoning in the Devil’s Coach House. Walking through this vast cavern is a magical experience, it’s a surefire way to encounter the sublime.
The cavern’s name was acquired after an early visitor, one who happened to be camping inside the cavern at the time (and possibly had drunk more than his fair share of rum), saw the Devil himself ride past in horse and carriage.
The highlight of the self-guided Nettle Cave is undoubtedly the presence of cray-back stromatolites (the strange lobster-shaped mounds seen in the photo below).
Stromatolites are a primitive life form made up of layered colonies of cyanobacteria. They were one of the first forms of life on Earth (they’ve been around for at least 3.5 billion years), and in their day they completely dominated the seas.
But they were big polluters. They stripped carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere and pumped out a waste gas – oxygen – that began to fill the skies. Roll forward a couple billion years and stromatolite numbers are dwindling as they are outcompeted by sportier, oxygen-breathing life forms.
The stromatolites in Nettle Cave are thought to be 20,000 years old.
Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies
These endangered marsupials have been living in an enclosure in Jenolan River valley till fox numbers could be controlled in the region. They’ve recently been released into the wild and now can be seen throughout the cave system.
There are a myriad of bush trails to explore at Jenolan Caves – you can even hike the famous Six Foot Track back to Katoomba if you feel up to it. One of the shorter, easier walks traces the perimeter of Blue Lake – an artificial water body formed when Australia’s first hydroelectricity plant was implemented downstream of the Grand Arch (to provide lighting to the caves).
Keep an eye out as you walk around the lake as you may spot the resident platypus.
Jenolan Caves is a three hour drive from Sydney. There are no public transport options, but there are several private coach companies that run tours to the caves.