Jenolan Caves, Govett's Leap & Shipley Plateau

Day 16 ::: Sunday 20th September, 2000

We woke at 7am to the sound of tyres on gravel - people were arriving for a day of work at the caves. I moved Winnie from her overnight space to the proper car park which was just further up the road beyond the hotel (but which was not obvious to us in last night's darkness). After a couple of extra hours' sleep, we awoke for real and headed back to the ticket office, but not before I had a chance to speak to the ticket attendant in the car park.

I needed to ask about petrol - we had got there OK, but I knew that there wasn't enough petrol to get back the way we came, so I hoped that there was some petrol nearby (or if not, that I could barter some from the people working on site!). The man told me that, thankfully, there was a petrol station in Oberon which was maybe 20km away, half of it along a dirt track. A few years ago there was petrol on site but geological surveys had suggested that it could be harming the caves, and therefore had to be shut down. I was very thankful to hear that we weren't stranded, and also thankful for the generous car park attendant's early-bird discount (he didn't charge us for the parking on account of us being there before him!).

The Jenolan Caves were first discovered in 1838, with new channels being discovered over the years since. There are still chambers that remain undiscovered (estimated to be around 300 in total), although the nine that have been mapped and are open to the public are certainly enough to be getting on with. We opted to try the Chiffley and Orient caves (the tours lasted 1hr and 1.5hrs respectively) for no other reason than the timing was right (it's good to get out of one and be able to go into another tour without too much of a wait in between).

Each cave has its own features - we saw things such as the 'bacon shop', the 'actors on the stage', the pilgrims, and all sorts of other features where the structures resembled something identifiable. We saw a 'jungle' where there were loads of animals (well, so we were told - I could identify a giraffe!), a dragon's head and Snoopy.

Geology time ...

A quick geology lesson (just like the one we had at the caves!), or perhaps you want to skip this mumbo jumbo ...

The caves are formed from underground water channels, but the water is long gone now. New channels are formed, some of them breaking through to interconnect. There are a number of different structures visible inside the caves:

  • Stalagtites - hang from the roof of the cave, formed from continual dripping water which has passed through the limestone
  • Stalagmites - the opposite of stalagtites, a build-up of lime-heavy water which has dripped on to the cave floor
  • Columns - where stalagtites and stalagmites have met forming a continuous column from roof to floor
  • Shawls/bacon - looks like a piece of bacon due to its different layers of colour, also formed from thousands of years of dripping lime-heavy water
  • Flow stone - can't remember how it's formed, but resembles snow, glitters a lot
  • Helictites - the jury's out on how these are formed, as sometimes they go sideways, sometimes upwards, it's all a bit haywire. Looks like those curly French fries!

Me, off for another clamber

OK, that's the science bit over with. The caves are incredible, and definitely worth a visit but there's more to see outside the caves as well. There's the Devil's Coach House, Carlotta's Walk and Carlotta's arch which offer a good stroll all round the site in glorious sunshine (well, by natural light at least).

Exploration over for the day, we headed off for Oberon and the opportunity of filling up a very thirsty Winnie. Immediately upon leaving the site (using a different route from the road we traveled in on), we climbed and climbed around the hills. Only now could I see just how steep the drops were beyond the crash barriers. Scary. Soon the good road surface ended and turned into dirt track, but this dirt track is probably nothing compared to some of the dusty old excuses for roads in the real outback. Despite the bumps in the road, Manda managed to sleep through this whole section of the drive, waking only when we arrived in Oberon.

Oberon and beyond

Along the route from Oberon I noticed a lot of road kill, and it's interesting to make the comparison with the UK. Perhaps a hedgehog or two, maybe a fox or rabbit, sometimes a pheasant - that's what I'm used to seeing. On this route, though, I counted three kangaroos (and I understand why the vans all have roo bars here - they evidently get used a lot), two wombats and ... a cat. Yes, finally I had seen a cat in Australia. And it was dead. Yet on the same journey I'd seen three dead kangaroos on the side of the road. I was definitely in a foreign land!

After Oberon and several road kill later (seen, not caused), we found ourselves back on the Great Western Highway again and picking off the tourist drive hotspots. These included Mt York with its views across Hartley valley and Govetts Leap. The latter is host to Bridal Veil Falls, although it seemed little more than a trickle when we visited. However, the height of the waterfall remained just as high as it ever is. This was another one of those occasions where we felt we were alone but for the sounds of the parakeets and kookaburras. The view was as stunning as any we'd seen yet, but hey, the day wasn't over yet ...

We drove on to Shipley Plateau where we could park up and admire the view, but by taking a trek slightly further beyond we could watch the sun set with few distractions. There were a couple of other people there, sinking a few tinnies - I can think of worse locations. We watched the sun set, I clambered about as far as I could (there are plenty of barriers here, but it's healthy to get off the beaten track once in a while isn't it?), but once we ran out of film we had to head back to ... well, wherever. We hadn't worked that bit out yet.

We found an Italian restaurant in Blackheath. Probably the only one, given the one-horse town that it was. The food was OK, filled a hole. After a brief stop in a bottle shop in Blackheath for a bottle of Asti, we settled for a space in Govetts Leap car park for our overnight stay. We were the only people there, it was pitch black and yet it felt safe in Winnie.