Since the dawn of time humans have been attracted to caves as places of safety and shelter. They are also seen as gateways to the unknown, shrouded in mystery, evoking curiosity and wonder in people of all ages and cultures.
In travelling across our wide brown land, we often overlook the natural wonders that lie beneath — an estimated 6500 subterranean marvels, ranging from developed ‘show’ caves to ‘wild’ caves requiring a hard hat and headlight.
Underground caves form by a variety of processes, mainly weathering, erosion and tectonic forces. Those most commonly found in Australia occur in ‘karst’ landscapes produced by the action of water on soluble rocks, such as limestone or dolomite. The world's largest limestone karst lies beneath Australia's Nullarbor Plain.
When rain absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere it produces a weak acid. As it penetrates rock through cracks and crevices, the run-off gradually erodes cavities that grow into larger chambers. After passing through limestone, the acidic water absorbs calcium carbonate, which later precipitates as calcite crystals. Over millennia, these crystals aggregate to form structures known as speleothems, coloured by other minerals such as iron oxide.
How a cave is decorated depends on whether the water drips, seeps, flows or sits in pools. Dripping produces ‘straws’ and stalactites that hang from the cave roof, and stalagmites that grow upwards from the floor. Columns result when a stalactite and its corresponding stalagmite meet. ‘Shawls’ accumulate in thin sheets or curtains as water trickles down an angled rock face. ‘Flowstone’ forms when water flows across cave floors, depositing layers of calcite that resemble frozen waterfalls.
There are many underground cave systems beneath the Australian continent, all of them outstandingly beautiful and fascinating in their myriad decorations. Here are five of the most popular ones.
Jenolan Caves, NSW
The Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve was inscribed by UNESCO in 2000 as part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. For thousands of years before that, the Jenolan Valley was already significant in the culture of the Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people, who knew it by various names meaning ‘dark place’ and ‘holes in the hill’.
The first European to encounter the caves was runaway convict-turned-bushranger James McKeown who used them as hideouts in the late-1830s. Around 1866, the caves came under the control of the NSW Government, becoming only the second area in the world to be reserved for conservation. In 1898, Jenolan Caves House was built to accommodate the growing number of tourists who made the arduous journey into the Jenolan Valley.
The caves attract more than 250,000 visitors each year, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in NSW. They include some of the most beautiful natural decorations in the world. Nowadays, 11 show caves have been developed for easy access on tours that vary in size and difficulty, in daytime or at night (both augmented by sophisticated lighting).
The main attractions are as varied and unique as their evocative names — Cathedral, Minaret, Queen’s Canopy, Bath of Venus and Angel’s Wing. While not as ornately decorated, some caves justly claim notoriety for different reasons, such Imperial and Jersey that contain ancient fossils and thylacine skeletons, and Nettle with stromatolites estimated to be at least 20,000 years old.
Buchan Caves, VIC
Nestled in a picturesque valley in East Gippsland, the Buchan Caves Reserve is home to two of the finest caves in Australia, Royal and Fairy. They are among more than 350 caves whose antiquity is attested by the bones of extinct animals and evidence of Aboriginal occupation dating back more than 17,000 years.
The caves’ existence was not known at the time the land was set aside in 1887 for stock camping and recreational use. Exploration 20 years later led to the discovery of Fairy and Royal Caves, which were opened in 1913 and remain the only two available to visitors on a regular basis. The Federal Cave is opened for specialised tours during Christmas and Easter school holidays.
The Reserve in its present-day form is the product of tireless efforts by Frederick Wilson, who was ‘Keeper of the Caves’ at Jenolan before coming to Buchan in 1907. While supervisor at Buchan, he discovered and mapped Royal Cave and contributed significantly to the development and planting of the Reserve, which has since become a wildlife refuge for a great variety of animals and birds.
Royal Cave is truly regal with its spectacular calcite-rimmed pools, while Fairy Cave is aptly named for the delicacy of its elaborate stalactites and stalagmites. Other attractions include a camping area with a swimming pool fed by an underground stream, a visitor centre with informative displays, and several bushwalking trails into the surrounding countryside.
The site is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and, in 2010, was transferred to the traditional custodians, the Gunaikurnai Aboriginal people, to be managed jointly with Parks Victoria.
Marakoopa Cave, TAS
The Mole Creek Karst National Park is renowned for its world-class karst landscape — featuring rocky spires, plunging gorges, springs and large underground streams — and is part of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area. Marakoopa is one of 300 known caves and sinkholes within the national park and takes its name from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘handsome’.
Two underground streams have created large caverns with reflective pools, shawls and flowstones. They carry insects and plant material that support a food chain for cave-dwelling animals that have adapted to life in a lightless environment. Marakoopa also offers the best glow-worm display of any show cave in Australia.
The cave’s lower chamber contains a dazzling display of crystals and overhanging stalactites, while the aptly named ‘Great Cathedral’ is a magnificent cavern and ‘The Gardens’ features beautifully coloured formations of great delicacy.
Jewel Cave, WA
The million-year-old Leeuwin-Naturaliste Limestone Ridge, stretching from Yangillup to Augusta in southwest Western Australia, is riddled with more than 150 caves, almost all of which are noted for their stunning formations and captivating beauty. They offer a wide variety of caving experiences, from guided tours through Mammoth, Lake and Ngilgi Caves to adventure caving at Calgardup and Giants Cave, each showcasing sparkling unique elements.
Within this panoply of geological wonders, Jewel Cave is Western Australia’s largest show cave, awe-inspiring in its sheer magnitude and the dazzling intricacy of its decorations. First entered in 1918, its whereabouts were temporarily lost within the region’s karri forests before being rediscovered in 1957. Only 40 per cent of the cave has been developed for tours that provide a spectacular journey through three massive chambers, accessed by 700m of stairs and almost 2km of walkways.
The cave contains many dazzling features, with names such as Frozen Waterfall, Organ Pipes and Jewel Casket, a glittering crystal formation that gives the cave its name. Other structures include a huge flowstone, towering shawls, ‘coral’ formations, a 20-tonne stalagmite, and stalactites suspended like cobwebs. The Jewel Cave Preservation Centre houses retail and cafe facilities, and a visually inspiring educational display.
Capricorn Caves, QLD
Scattered through rugged hills north of Rockhampton, the Capricorn Caves buck the norm by being ‘above ground’. The limestone rock originated as coral growing in shallow waters around volcanic islands. As the ocean receded, the islands were exposed as a ridge of continental mountains, then hollowed out by erosion into a labyrinth of 66 caves high above the water table. They were discovered by Norwegian migrant John Olsen in 1882 and have become one of Queensland’s longest-running tourist attractions.
The Cathedral is the most impressive cave in the complex. Its 30m-high roof, pulpit-like rock formation and amazing natural acoustics make it a popular venue for weddings, religious ceremonies and twice-yearly sell-out performances by the Underground Opera Company. Another cavern features a spectacular light show created by the overhead sun beaming through a hole in the roof on the summer solstice in December.
Adventurous visitors can get their adrenaline fix climbing rock walls, abseiling and ‘wild caving’ that involves squeezing through ‘Fat Man’s Misery’ (a 30cm-diameter hole) and crawling commando-like through an underground complex with hard hat and helmet light.
The visitor centre hosts educational programs in biology, geology and environmental studies, and the ‘Geo-Tour of Discovery’ displays marine fossils and an interesting collection of plants and animals found within and outside the caves. Since obtaining advanced accreditation in 1997, the privately-owned enterprise has received many ecotourism awards.
Australia is an ancient land, a fact evidenced by its many subterranean caves that have taken countless millennia in formation and decoration. While we love our Sunburnt Country for its vast, often inhospitable deserts, its caves challenge our perception of the continent as a tough brown land.
Delicate, exquisitely beautiful and serenely intimate, caves remind us that there is another, quite different ‘Land Down Under’.