Sunday, October 7, 2012

Jenolan Caves

In early August, we took another weekend trip from Canberra, north this time to the Blue Mountains, which are about 45 minutes west of Sydney. On the way we stopped in the (very) small town of Jenolan. This pictures captures approximately 45% of it.

Now the reason Jenolan exists, and that it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the elaborate caves that snake through the area. About a dozen have been identified and fully explored, all formed by an underground river that still flows and is probably forming new caves now. We started off our time there with a self-guided tour through the Nettle Cave. We are good tourists and were very interested while we listened to the tour guide on our personal receivers.

The Nettle Cave is an open-air cave, something we had never heard of. This means it's technically above ground and is kind of a hollowed out dome. It's made of limestone and is over 450 million years old. It's also the home of the Sooty Owl. While we didn't see any, which is fine, they sound kind of terrifying, we learned quite a bit about them. They are about a half-meter tall, and are highly territorial, so much so that roosts are passed down from generation to generation. Some of the roosts they have been able to carbon date to an age of about 16,000 years! What makes them truly scary though is that their hoot sounds remarkably similar to a falling bomb, and when echoing around the caves, probably contributed to Nettle Cave's other name, the Devil's Carriage. The man who named it swore that one night he heard the devil and his horses riding through the cave, but people nowadays assume he was pretty drunk and just heard the owls.

This is the Grand Arch, and it makes Jenolan Caves the only caves in the world to have a major road running through the middle of it. The caves were discovered in the 1800's, and were used by explorers as a camping spot, dance hall, and theatre. It's still used for music performances today.

Just because we love things like this, here's the inside of the bathrooms. Pretty much a flimsy wall and a chemical toilet pushed up to the side of the rock. We found this hilarious.

As we said, there are about a dozen caves that you can tour. We opted for one of the easier hikes, Laurel being pregnant and all, and selected the Imperial Cave. Our tour guide was an older man who had retired to the area, because he "loves the caves, and doesn't need a gym membership with all the stairs." We liked him. To demonstrate how serious caves were, he flipped off the lights, plunging us into pitch black darkness, "Sensory deprivation sets in almost immediately. Eventually you lie down, curl up, and wait for help to come." At the front of the cave was a first aid kit and a defibrilator . . . just in case.

Electricity was installed in the early 1900's. Most of the wiring and fixtures installed then, are still used today. Before that point, explorers used candles and magnesium wire for light. That's some hardcore exploring!

All stalactites and stalagmites are crystal formations; mixtures of rock, in this case limestone, and water that changes the chemical composition. The formations that sparkle are finished. Water is no longer running down them, and they will remain their current size forever. They sparkle because they are dry. The waxy looking ones are still active and growing.

The Imperial Cave was discovered completely by accident when a man by the name of Ridley fell down a hole into the cave. On the way down he bounced on some early electrical wiring that had been strung for other caves, which slowed his fall. While he survived, he spent several months in the hospital recovering. With a typical Aussie sense of humor, the hole he fell through was christened "Ridley's Shortcut."

This unique, tiny stalagmite formation is nicknamed "The City." This might have been Greg's favorite part. He wants to go back and put some lego men amongst the formations.

Before the tour, they warned us all to walk with a crouch since the ceilings were very low and you could very easily bang your head. This was not a concern for Laurel.

Here is the underground river. The water was crystal clear. Since it's so dark, and regular tours now come through, nothing lives in the caves anymore except for a species of micro-bat. However, bones found amongst the caves show that Tasmanian Devils, among other creatures, used to live and thrive here many millions of years ago.

After a great day of cave exploring we finished our drive north and stayed in the town of Leura, nestled in the Blue Mountains. We went out for a well-earned fancy dinner. Stay tuned for our adventures in the mountains and some great pictures of the Three Sisters (no, not the Jacksons).

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