There are basically two roads that head south in the Margaret River Region, the one much closer to the coast being Caves Rd. It is on this road that many of the interesting stopping points are situated including Cape Lodge. On our second morning we were planning to drive down Caves Road and eventually meet the Bussell Highway at Augusta and follow this until we ran out of continent at Cape Leuwin. We had got a taste for Western Australian Caves so our first stop was going to be Mammoth Cave, a little over half way to Augusta.
As mentioned previously, Ngligi Cave is considered to be the first tourist destination of 19th Century Western Australia. Like easily impressed children and myself, people are astounded by the dark mysteries of Caves and the amazing colours and shapes of the ‘decorations’ of caves, explaining why these caves are popular tourist attractions. If their importance needed more stressing than just the extraordinary underground art and light shows, there are other aspects of Karst Caves that raise questions that need to be considered when we visit sites like Mammoth Cave. The first is the ever-open question of “How long have First Australians lived on this continent?” The second associated question is “what is Megafauna and when did the species covered by that general term disappear from the Australian Landscape?” (Or did they disappear?) A third connected question is “what is the link between the arrival of humanity in the great south land and the disappearance of the megafauna?” Beautiful scenery and big questions…caves have got it all covered
There are over 350 caves below the surface of the limestone ridge that stretches 80Kms along the Margaret River Region Coastline. Only 6 caves are open to general visitors so that clearly indicates that this area is a speleologist’s endless delight. The first recorded discovery of a cave in the Margaret River region by European settlers was in 1848, the Old Kudardup Cave near Gracetown. How long this cave’s existence had been known to local First people is another question? It was partly resolved in 1982 when two aboriginal hand stencils were discovered in this cave. They are the first known examples of painted rock art in caves in this region. Evidence like this has given dates suggesting that human occupation began around 48000 years ago in the Margaret River region.
Clearing of the forests by settlers in the second half of the 19th century gave rise to the discovery of many more caves in the region. Mammoth Cave was opened as a tourist cave in 1905. A lot of work has been done on enhancing the visitors’ experience of the cave so that tourists merely have to turn up, pay their entry fee, open the large door to the cave entrance and escort themselves around the board walks and the staircases until they reach the exit. There is a logic to the cave as it was formed by the Mammoth stream that runs from the east but when it encountered the limestone barrier, its waters found weaknesses in the limestone. The rocky barrier slowly dissolves enabling the stream to flow down through the ridge. This small stream (plus the collapse of surrounding rocks) formed this cave.
Mammoth Cave is a spectacular cavern full of all the conceivable beauties of the dripping, flowing and seeping dissolved limestone. It is made even more beautiful by the tannin colours from the forest leaves above ground, merging with the flowing water to be absorbed into the limestone formations that cover all areas of the cave.
Some of these old, odd bones are now displayed for visitors to Mammoth Cave in a glass cabinet, half-way into the journey around the cave. Examples of bones from extinct species such as huge wombat, a marsupial lion and a giant echidna are shown. If you can’t imagine what a giant echidna would look like, check out the artist’s impression on the left.
Finishing the journey through Mammoth cave (see above) is not the end of the attractions. When you exit the cave, we got the choice of returning directly to the cave’s carpark or going for a couple of kilometres walk through the surrounding forest back to our van. It was a beautiful walk and as usual there were plenty of interesting information boards to give us a better understanding of what we were seeing.
In front of the cave’s office were presented two recreations of megafauna whose remains were found in Mammoth Cave. The creature on the left below has been called Zygomaturus trilobus, a plant-eating marsupial that roamed the forests and swamps in this area for millions of years. It disappeared around 45,000 years ago, around about the time of the arrival of humans in this south-east region of the country. Remains of 22 individuals were found in this cave. The animal on the right is called the Thylacoleo (the marsupial lion) and was the largest carnivorous Australian mammal ever known. The information board nearby told us that it was the same size as a leopard and may have used Mammoth cave as its lair.
From Mammoth Cave we continued our journey down Caves Rd to Jewel Cave, about 9kms from Augusta. The last section of this drive is through the amazing Karri forest of the region where the 60m tall timbers are a spectacular background to the drive
Margaret River.com explains the key facts about Jewel cave. “Jewel Cave is the biggest show cave in Western Australia, with three massive chambers of incredible beauty. This crystal-encrusted cave is the most recently opened of all the show caves in the Margaret River region.” However there is a back story around the discovery of this cave. This was not a cave known to the First Australians of the area; they most likely would have heard stories of mysterious sounds emanating from the bush in the area. These were caused by air currents blowing into and out of the only small entrance to the Karst cave, a solution pipe made by an old tree tap root. There were rumours of a large cave in the area in the 19th century but it wasn’t until January 1957 that 2 local cavers discovered the entrance . Cliff Spackman was the first human ever to set foot in this pristine cave. A full exploration of the cave occurred a year later when the cavers were organised for the complex job. Two of the first discoverers were contracted to develop the infrastructure for the new cave and by December 1959, the cave was ready to be viewed by the public.
The original entrance to jewel Cave was back near the car-park but since the glory days of the late 1950’s a new weather-proof, water-proof entrance and exit (left, above) became a necessity. We were pleased by the new entrance because our arrival at the cave was at the same time as the weather turning nasty. Unlike the two other caves we had visited, this cave provided guided tours every half-hour. Below left is a photo of the first view of the cave as visitors come through the main door into the cave.
As stated at the start of this section, the cave consists of three massive chambers and as can be seen in the images below, the boardwalks and staircases lead the visitors up to the ceilings and then down into the bottoms of these caverns. We are basically following the flow of the ancient waters that burrowed their way through the limestone.
We were told the cave was “crystal-encrusted’. Limestone caves are mainly known for their stalactites and their stalagmites; the only confusion is which goes up and which comes down. Risque cave-guides generally explain the difference using metaphors involving ‘tites’ and ‘mites’. There were plenty of these features in Jewel Cave but it was the abundance of other limestone growth features that was fascinating about this cave. Flowstone, the name being self-explanatory, had some great examples such as the ‘Frozen Waterfall’ and ‘the Organ-pipes’. But when you mention “crystal-encrusted”, you are now in the territory of the delicate helictites which are basically a small stalactite that has gone rogue, changed its axis and the tiny water droplets go sideways. In the advertising for the cave, they mention that they have one of the longest ‘Straw Stalactites’ in any tourist cave in the world measuring 580 centimetres. In the image on the left below, there is a part of the cave ceiling where many straw stalactites are clustered. To the left of centre is a very rare example of a variant of a stalactite with its own appropriate name, the Pendulite. It has developed from a straw stalactite whose end has been submerged in water for eons, forming a ‘dog-tooth’ spur on the end, giving the appearance of a drum-stick.
Towards the end of our tour of the Jewel Cave, the guide provided us with a multi-coloured light show on the ceilings and walls of the last chamber as can be seen above, right.
Like the mammoth Cave seen earlier in the day, the Jewel Cave was also the repository of animal bones. Unlike the ancient extinct creatures found in the Mammoth Cave, this creature was still living in Tasmania at the arrival of European settlers but was driven to extinction for the sake of imported cloven hoofed beasts from England. It was a Thylacene and the last one died in captivity in 1936. Thylacene fossils have been recovered from Jewel Cave and the image on the left below is a skeleton of one of the cave’s thylacines.
When we reached Margaret River at the end of the day, we were pleased to notice that the region had taken their extinct megafauna to heart. Outside the tourist Bureau in the main street was another version of the plant eating marsupial, Zygomaturus trilobus, a distant relative of the wombat.