I haven’t been to the Jenolan Caves since I was thirteen years old. As part of our Outback NSW Road trip, we thought it would be a great opportunity to see what’s new. All throughout our tour, I kept saying it’s all the same, nothing’s changed. That’s the funny thing about Geologic time, change is sloooooow.
The Burra Burra Aboriginal people have known about the magic of the Jenolan Caves for thousands of years. They call the area Binomea, or dark places. They walked great distances to bathe their sick in the mineral rich pools of nadyang (water) here. They drank the nadyang to cure their ailing bellies. The crystals found within the caves are thought to bring spiritual well-being for all who visit. However, the most curative properties lie in the natural beauty and serenity of the place.
The oldest of the caves in the Jenolan system are thought to be at least 340 million years old, making them one of the oldest known cave systems in the world. The system was forged by an underground river coursing through the limestone.
The first Europeans stumbled upon the caves around 1838. The escaped convict James McKeown had plagued settlers in the area for years as a bandit. He apparently had some success, for reports indicated the bushranger had “laid out quite a nice little farm”. He was finally tracked and captured in what was described as huge hole in the mountain-side. His captors, James and Charles Whalen, understandably became fascinated with the area. Charles Whalen and his sons continued the search for other caves. Between 1840 and 1860, not only did they discover several major caves within the system, but they became unofficial tour guides as well.
At the time, interest in Geology was flourishing and people were coming from all over to see the caves for themselves. Tourists and cavers alike treated themselves to souvenirs by breaking off formations to take home with them. Concern regarding damage to the caves came quickly, especially by European standards. Since 1872, The Jenolan Caves have been under the protection of conservation laws. The mantra “look don’t touch” is still applied in spades.
We joined the 230,000 visitors that come to the Jenolan Caves each year after a marvellous camping experience at the Boyd River Campground. We crawled down the treacherous mountain in our trusty Mighty Rattler in the pouring rain. The hairpin turns and slick pavement proved too much for our increasingly fragile nerves so we pulled into Car Park 2 instead of sliding the rest of the way down into the valley.
We’re really glad we did.
It felt great to get out and stretch our wobbly legs a bit. If we had driven through, we might have missed the remarkable view through the Carlotta Arch. Peering through the vast formation, we could see the misty fog blanketing the trees above the eerily blue-green lake. Completely mesmerized, we stood looking in awe. Only the increasing rain could wake us from our reverie. Eager to see what’s next after such a wonderful introduction, we walked down to wait for our tour.
There are eleven “show caves” available for tour today. Each cave offers something unique: from huge chambers, to delicate crystals, to glimpses of the creative force of the river. The degree of walking difficulty is measured by the number of steps to climb for each cave. The tours generally last from 60-90 minutes.
We chose the Imperial Diamond Tour. It’s touted as one of the best tours for giving you the most ‘bang for your buck’. Unfortunately, we began in unimpressive fashion. Our guide was a bit late. He was then faced with trying to juggle two groups beginning at the same time. (The other tour guide was conspicuously AWOL at the tour time, although he did eventually show.) Either way, the tour was engaging and informative once we got underway.
The caves themselves were stunning. We started by descending 66 steps to see the underground river working its magic. It’s hard to imagine that this river has been working the limestone for millions of years, but the resulting crystal formation of helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, and shawls is astonishing. We watched water drip from the end of one stalactite, realizing it would be at least another hundred years before another centimetre is added to the formation.
We went from the blasé ‘woolshed’, a rather bland milky white colour to the beautifully sparkling ‘bridal veil crystals’ at the end. Along the way, small stalagmites stretch away under a ledge looking remarkably like a miniature fortified city.
Only 164 kilometres from Sydney, it’s no wonder Jenolan Caves is such a popular destination. Apart from the caves, the reserve is part of the Blue Mountains Heritage Area so walking tracks abound. Look for wallabies, kangaroos, lyrebirds, and a number of other bird species.
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