I am always pretty fascinated with the intricate design and structure of the caves. Particularly the natural ones awe me the utmost! It feels like their walls and lanes had assembled in some sort of secret arrangement to give the shape of an unheard tunnel which was probably dug up at the earliest hour of the time itself!
At Kolkata, we were not that much lucky to peep inside a cave very often. I though, had managed to visit a few of them in Uttarakhand and Andaman which surely had blown away my curve of imagination! They all are extremely beautiful, rare and of course, spiritual! They were hidden in the vast mountain ranges or the forests for billions and millions of years, probably to give us the glimpse of our ancient times and whereabouts. The natural deposition of the limestone for thousands of years, though, do create the perfect backdrop of the modern abstract art as well! The imagination leads to conjure up the past acts which make these places even more surreal!
For this very reason, from the time we have first landed at Sydney, we had hoped to visit the world famous Limestone Caves of Jenolan, situated amidst the vastly spread range of Blue Mountains that acts as a bluish green wall of the city at its west.
What is Jenolan famous for ?
Its total area is 30.82 km square. These caves were discovered in the greater Mountain range beyond Sydney on 1838 by European Explorer, James Whalan, soon after the discovery of the land of Australia itself (in 1770 by James Cook) by the Western world.
There are approximately 300 entrances and is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site as the most ancient discovered open caves in the world. The caves include numerous Silurian marine fossils and the calcite formations. Their pure white pigmentation leads to praise from scientists, archaeologists and explorers all over the world.
The Jenolan River flows underground through various sections of these caves. Its water is very pure and distinct and can be drank without any filtration. It has more than 40 kilometres (25 mi) of multi-level passages with currently showcasing eleven led illuminated caves of different levels of strength and complexity. The complex is still being explored in search of unknown routes and colonies that are yet to be discovered. The caves are currently known as a major tourist attraction, with eleven of its illuminated show caves open to paying visitors.
As per the geological findings of the area, the clay of these caves is noted to date back to 340 million years. It was long known to the indigenous Gundungura and Wiradjuri people of this area as Binda, Binomil or Binomur and various similar kind of names mainly meaning ‘dark places’ or ‘fish river caves’.
According to the folklore of the Gundungura people, this whole area of the mountain and caves came into being based on a struggle within two Creator spirits of Gurangatch, a huge eel like animal and Mirrigan, a large native cat or quoll. These aboriginal people even penetrated the caves as far as the subterranean fresh and pure underground river which is still prevalent, carrying sick people to be bathed in its water, which they believed to have curative powers.
The Europeans probably discovered these caves by an incidental accident where James Whalan was in search of an ex convict and livestock thief, McKeown in this area. It was further explored by his brother Charles Whalan afterwards.
Through these various explorations, ultimately the ‘Elder dark cave’ was first discovered in 1848.
In 1860, the Lucas cave, largest of the current show caves, was discovered by Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting.
In 1866, the caves came under direct Government Control. The caves were then known as Fish River or Binda, based on its aboriginal origin. In 1867, Jeremiah Wilson joined here as the Keeper of the caves. In 1884, the name of the caves was changed to ‘Jenolan’ which means, High Mountains
Despite government control, the caves initially enjoyed very little protection from the human incorporated damages. In the early years, visitors were encouraged to break or degenerate the natural formations to carry out as souvenirs from the caves. Even there are numerous signatures which are still prevalent. The damages were so immense in these eminent caves of the ‘Elder’ and the ‘Lucas’ that today it is prohibited to even touch anywhere. In 1872, John Lucas, the local member of the Parliament, banned touching and damaging the caves. For this great contribution, the largest of the caves was named after him as Lucas. From 1880, Jenolan became a premium tourist attraction. Jeremiah Wilson, an extraordinary cavern himself, had explored to the end of the Elder Cave. In 1879 he had descended a shaft and rock pile to discover another enormous cave known as ‘Imperial’. This was soon followed by the discovery of the ‘Left Imperial’ cave which was later renamed as ‘Chifley Cave’ after the Prime Minister, J.B. Chifley.
Apart from all the developmental and the protection jobs, an accommodation house was also constructed for the eminent visitors that even included the Royal family from London in 1927. In 1887, permanent electric lighting was installed. But the coloured ones were more popular than mild ones at that time.
In 1891, Wilson further discovered Jersey Cave, followed by Jubilee Cave in 1893.
The present day ‘Caves House’ was constructed in 1898 after a severe fire explosion partially destroyed the original guests’ buildings.
By the turn of the century, Jenolan was a well established and thriving tourist destination. However, some of the greatest discoveries were yet to come.
In 1903, James Carvosso Wiburd was appointed Superintendent of Caves, initiating one of the most sustained and successful periods of exploration. Wilson had concentrated his efforts in the northern limestone. Wiburd, along with Jack Edwards and Robert Bailey, pushed ever deeper into the caves, south of the Grand Arch.
The river, pool, Temple of Baal, Orient and Ribbon Caves were discovered in the first decade of twentieth century. All exploration was done by candlelight. The discoveries made by Wiburd truly elevated Jenolan to the status of a world class cave system, with the opening of the River (1904), Temple of Baal (1909) and Orient (1917) as show caves.
The history of Jenolan and the exploration of the caves is, of course, yet far from complete. For example, the guides like Ron Newbould and John Culley had kept on discovering some other divisions of the cave like Barralong in 1963. In 1975, Bruce Welch discovered Spider Cave.
How many caves are there in Jenolan?
According to the guides there, we are still not in the position to confirm the exact number of caves at Jenolan. But the potential for further exploration is yet terribly enormous.
Today, Jenolan is the most popular tourist destination in country NSW, with over 230,000 visitors annually, enjoying the wonders of the eleven show caves, and an ever increasing number entering into the world of adventure caving.
Over 160 years since the first Europeans stumbled upon the vast openings of the Grand Arch and the Devil’s Coach House cave, the magic of Jenolan is still leaving its mark on visitors. Jenolan is as timeless as it is unforgettable.
To find out the true essence of Jenolan, we took the tourist bus from Parramatta on a clear Autumn morning and reached our first stop, ‘Three Sisters Lookout’ at Echo point, Katoomba. According to the aboriginal mythology, these three mountain stone heads are three indigenous women who wished to marry men from a different tribe. Since it was prohibited, the two groups fought ferociously with each other. The girls were turned into stones so that they could save themselves from the brutality of the war. The headperson who turned them into stones, succumbed to the war injury himself and thus the sisters’ souls were locked in those stones forever. The Three Sisters point is still hence assumed to be very sacred by the aboriginals and people pray here for these wretched confined souls.
From there, we took an extremely picturesque but difficult route amidst the narrow lanes and curves of the Blue Mountains to reach our main destination of the day, Jenolan Caves. There, after lunch at the local guest house and restaurant premises, we met our guide at the entrance of the Lucas caves. There are 910 steps during the whole trip some of which are really pretty steep and critical particularly near the entrance. Once you reach inside the cave, the journey becomes less stressful and interesting.
The cave is 860 kms long and its highest chamber – ‘the Cathedral’ is 54 metres high. This place is really grand and is often used as a wedding destination or function and acoustic sessions.
The most important look outs within the cave are the unique limestone formations shaped like the broken column, whale or a polar bear etc. These white structures and crystallized rock formations are definitely spectacular.
But the view of the underground river is the most exciting part of the trip. The deep clear blue hue of the internal lake just left us awestruck. Our realization of our own selves became eternal by just living at the present at that moment and beyond the scope of time’s arena. Perhaps I could view a very dark moment of the ancient world, where the nature was busy in its unique creation! Otherwise, why would I lost myself momentarily and even forget to click my camera to catch some more unreal gorgeous glimpse!
The journey ended with a tour of the Blue Mountains Botanical garden where the coniferous trees had already started to change their leaves’ colour from green to bright red or yellow! Probably, it is a sign of the eternity regarding its solo journey to infinity!
More from the author: A Sea Life Expedition in Sydney