Awesome underground: 6 amazing Aussie caves
From show caves for tour groups to a taste of white-knuckle, hard-hat adventure, we plunge underground to visit half a dozen of Australia’s most amazing cave locations.
To orient yourself as we cave-hop around the country, click here to open an interactive map of the sites featured in a new window.
“What happens when lemonade gets poured into a glass?”
“It makes bubbles,” the child replies eagerly.
“Yes. Because the gas comes out,” the guide explains.
Our short geology lesson about solutional caves explains how rainwater mixes with carbon dioxide, seeps down from above and dissolves the rocks because of gas in the carbonated water.
Dripping from the roof of the cave, it forms stalactites, while droplets landing on the floor grow into stalagmites.
Yarrangobilly Caves are off the Snowy Mountains Highway south of Tumut in New South Wales. Created from 440-million-year-old limestone, they were discovered in 1834 by a stockman.
Only six of the 300 caves are open to the public and, of those, two host regular tours.
Jersey Cave is filled with massed stalactites known as the organ pipes because of their church-like appearance, while Cleopatra’s Needle, a thin stalagmite, reaches almost to the ceiling.
Other features include “shawls,” where dripping water from the sloping roof has made what look like women’s garments.
The guide indicates a piece of wood attached to the ceiling by stalactite-forming activity and explains how in 1892, when Governor Jersey inspected the cave, gutters were made so water wouldn’t drip onto the hats of ladies in his entourage.
Yarrangobilly Caves, New South Wales; +61 (0) 2 6454 9597; www.environment.nsw.gov.au
For thousands of years Jenolan Caves were known as Binoomea, meaning "dark places," by Aboriginal people. European discoveries began only in 1838.
Sadly, visitors in the 1860s saw nothing wrong in breaking off souvenir pieces of formations that had been created over thousands of years.
In 1872 this became illegal thanks to local politician John Lucas, after whom one of the caves was named.
Today there’s greater awareness. As Jenolan Caves’ former general manager, Andrew Fletcher, explained when reopening the Temple of Baal cave in 2006 (it first opened to the public in 1907).
“The combination of LED track lighting and HID spotlighting ... produces only one-third of the heat of the old system,” he said. “Which is great news for the cave’s fragile environment.”
Synchronized music and sound effects have been added, creating an evocative display of that cave’s formations like the beautiful nine-meter-long Angel’s Wing shawl, one of the largest cave shawls in the world.
The Lucas, Orient, River and Ribbon Caves have all been similarly revamped, creating a stunning show cave experience for Jenolan’s 250,000 annual visitors.
But if old-fashioned torchlight seems more desirable, there’s always the Legends, Mysteries and Ghosts tour to send a chill up the spine.
Jenolan Caves, New South Wales; +61 (0) 2 6359 3911; jenolancaves.org.au
Situated north of Rockhampton in Queensland, Capricorn Caves have been a tourist attraction since their discovery by Norwegian John Olsen in 1882.
This system of aboveground caves inside a limestone ridge can be experienced in different ways.
There’s a tour of the Cathedral Cave, with an optional ending through the narrow Zig Zag Passage, where visitors emerge into daylight on a swinging bridge in the rain forest.
For an educational perspective, the Geotour examines significant marine fossils encrusted on the walls and the threatened fern tectaria devexa, for which the caves are one of only two known habitats in Australia.
Then there are The Underground Opera Company’s sellout shows, which bring culture to the bush, with arias and duets resonating through the caves.
But for something to get the adrenalin pumping, Wild Caving Adventures see participants squeezing their way through the wonderfully named Fat Man’s Misery, a 30-centimeter-diameter hole, or crawling like commandos before finally emerging on top of the ridge.
Capricorn Caves, Queensland; +61 (0) 7 4934 2883; www.capricorncaves.com.au
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Kelly Hill Caves
Kangaroo Island, just off the South Australian coast, sports wildlife, lighthouses, seascapes, food and wine. It is also home to Kelly Hill Caves.
This is one of the few dry limestone caves in Australia, created differently from normal solution caves, with direct rainfall being responsible for speleothem formation -- the technical term for stalactites and so on.
“Did you ever think you’d be standing inside a sand dune?” is how our show cave guide introduces the idea that the limestone was made from sand 1.5 million years ago.
There are all the usual formations, including good examples of shawls, but I’m most impressed by the small, intricately beautiful helictites with stony hooks on the end.
For visitors with more time, there’s an Adventure Caving Tour; participants don helmets and headlamps to crawl through an underground maze of smaller caverns along part of the original 1920s tourist section of the caves.
Kelly Hill Caves, Kangaroo Island; +61 (0) 8 8553 4464; www.environment.sa.gov.au
Just a glance at Naracoorte’s World Heritage listing is enough to grasp that the South-Australian cave system is one of unusual quality.
“The Pleistocene fossil vertebrate deposits of Victoria Fossil Cave at Naracoorte,” it says, “are considered to be ... Australia's largest and best preserved and one of the richest deposits in the world.”
Visitors taking the Victoria Fossil Cave tour pass through decorated halls before reaching the Fossil Chamber.
Here, a guide explains the accumulation of bones in the caves, excavation techniques and research.
There’s a chance to see complete skeletons of megafauna species like the marsupial lion and sthenurine kangaroo.
The Wonambi Fossil Centre contains fossil displays and a walk-through diorama with life-sized models of extinct animals that broaden our understanding of what life was like here 200,000 years ago.
Back then, there were 20 kangaroo species instead of the mere four that exist today.
Adventure caving tours allow participants to squeeze and crawl their way through caves with odd names like Stick-Tomato, Blackberry and Starburst, but Naracoorte also provides an adventure of a different kind.
At the Bat Observation Centre, visitors can watch the activities of a colony of Southern Bent-wing Bats in their maternity chambers via infrared technology.
In summer months, there’s a chance to watch the bats' spectacular exit flight en masse from Blanche Cave at dusk -- not to be missed.
Naracoorte, South Australia; +61 (0) 8 8762 2340; www.environment.sa.gov.au
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In 1899, Western Australia’s Margaret River area wasn’t like the landscape of wineries and chocolate factories we see today. Not by a stretch.
It was rough country and, while looking for wild horses, Edward Dawson discovered a hole leading into a massive cave.
Our guide explains the physical features of Ngilgi Cave and also how opera diva Dame Nellie Melba’s grand piano was lowered into it so she could perform in the Amphitheatre.
Got four spare hours? The Ultimate Ngilgi Adventure Tour leads the physically fit to the deepest, darkest depths of the cave.
Further south, 350 steps take us down into Lake Cave, where crystalline formations are illuminated from below.
A huge calcite column known as the Suspended Table is reflected in the beautiful underground lake, making this seem like wonderland at 62 meters down.
Nearby Jewel Cave has 700 meters of stairs and walkways through several caverns.
First entered in 1918, its whereabouts were temporarily lost with the unknown explorer who told tales of its majesty, before being rediscovered in 1957.
A large chamber of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and shawls has features with crazy names like turkey, broccoli and frozen waterfall.
For a few eerie moments the guide turns out the lights and we understand what darkness really is.
Margaret River, Western Australia; Ngilgi Cave +61 (0) 8 9756 6173; geographebay.com
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