Western Australia’s South West offers some of the most varied travel experiences, and in 2010 was chosen by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s Top 10 Regions. It’s not hard to see why. With fine food and wine to world class surfing, from towering forests to rugged coastlines and whale watching, there is so much on offer it’s hard to choose what to do next.
Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park is in an area which stretches from Cape Naturaliste in the north, to Cape Leeuwin in the south, (along the Leeuwin – Naturaliste ridge), and is another karst area – a landscape resulting from soluble rocks dissolving over great periods of time. This process causes the landscape to become characterised by underground drainage systems with sinkholes, dolines, and caves. There are currently 300 known caves in the area.
Formed approx. one million years ago, four of these fragile karst systems are open to the public, allowing anyone, young or old, to go inside and become amazed by labyrinths intricately decorated with limestone crystal formations. Some are thoughtfully highlighted by strategically placed lighting, displaying a myriad of colours across their monochrome surfaces. Others are left to be seen as nature intended.
Each cave has its own special ‘something’ as well as a vast array of stunning stalactite, stalagmite, helicitite and shawl formations. In the order in which we saw them, here’s a few words about each one.
Mammoth Cave, named because of the size of the chamber you enter, offers visitors a self-guided tour complete with an educational narration courtesy of the provided audio device and headset.
This means you are free to explore the cave at your own pace along the boardwalks and platforms while listening to the informative commentary.
Over 10,000 fossils had at one time accumulated inside the cave and during excavating, many of these were found to be remains of Australian Megafauna (giant animals) that became extinct around 46,000 years ago. One fossil is still visible in the cave wall.
Mammoth Cave is a linear cave and the exit a short distance away from the entrance. We then chose the option of a longer walk back through a beautiful Marri Forest, listening to the birds and enjoying the forest before returning to the car and moving onto Lake Cave.
Lake Cave is a one hour guided tour. It is home to the amazing ‘suspended table’, an incredible crystal formation that hangs from the ceiling of the cave, suspended above the waters of a tranquil lake. It is thought to be the only decoration of its kind in the world and estimated to weigh several tonnes.
At one point visitors were allowed to stand on it, but that was many, many years ago before it was know how easily damaged these formations are. The fact that it remains, intact and still suspended, attests to the strength of the calcium carbonate crystal.
Lake Cave is the most active cave in the region, and the only cave on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge that has a permanent lake, though we were told the water level has dropped considerable in recent years. It is also one of the deepest, with entry via 300 steps down through a spectacular doline lined with magnificent ancient Karri trees.
Jewel Cave is the largest tourist cave in Western Australia and it is also one of the most recently found, lying undiscovered until 1957. This cave has three massive chambers and it felt as though we entered an underground wonderland, with staircases to several platforms from where you could simply stand and admire the view.
By far the prettiest cave (in my opinion) and one in which we could have stayed longer, if we’d had that choice. This cave only offers a fully guided tour and you are expected to leave the cave when instructed, vacating it in time for the next tour group. One hour was not long enough for me.
Jewel Cave is also home to one of the longest straw stalactites found in any tourist cave in the world. This straw measures 5.43 metres (17.9 feet).
(Pronounced Nilgi) Ngilgi Cave was discovered in 1899 and it was hard to imagine the cave being explored by candlelight all those years ago. I can only imaging how difficult it was for the women in the full length shirts and dresses descending into the cave via a rope ladder.
The fascinating association with a rich Aboriginal legend – describing the battle between a good spirit (Ngilgi) and an evil spirit (Wolgine) – gives the cave its name. If you like, you can read the story here.
Ngilgi Cave has two separate chambers and following a 15 minute introduction from a guide, you are then free to explore these chambers at your own leisure. It is believed that Dame Nellie Melba gave a concert in one of the chambers before she went on to become a world famous opera singer.
It was rather exhilarating walking the twisting pathways, and with 350 steps to retrace back to the surface, I felt the effects of the higher levels of carbon dioxide that we were warned about. Although Dean didn’t, he patiently waited while I sat and regained my composure.
The only crystal formation to be dated is 386,000 years old.
Dean and I really enjoyed visiting these caves and seeing what lies beneath the Margaret River Region. I have so many photos to review that it may take me some time to get through them all, but I’ll let you know when I’ve added a new gallery to the Photography page.