Low-down on a giant cover up

History is mined for all it is worth, as Lee Atkinson discovers on a tour of Wellington Caves.

SOMETIMES, it's what lies beneath that is most intriguing. Scratch the surface in Wellington, a peaceful farming town about a half-hour drive south-east of Dubbo in central-western NSW and you'll soon uncover a dastardly tale of deception, intrigue and paleontological larceny on an international scale; a mining mystery involving 300,000-year-old three-tonne wombats and an illegal trade in rare bones. The only thing lacking is proof.

The scene of the alleged crime is an old World War I-era phosphate mine on the grounds of Wellington Caves Reserve. Today, it's a veritable time tunnel that has been preserved and restored to show just what it would have been like to work in an underground mine almost 100 years ago, complete with original timber sets and nails, old train tracks and pick marks on the walls.

But before it was a mine, it was a cave, according to guide, Bruce Day, and home to vast colonies of bats that left behind tonnes of droppings, or guano, rich in phosphates. The New South Wales Phosphate Company began mining the cave, by hand, in secret, in 1914. By the time the mine was abandoned five years later, 6000 tonnes of phosphate had been removed for fertiliser. But according to Day, 6000 tonnes is a pretty poor yield and the phosphate was of poor quality. What they were really after, he reckons, were bones.

He leads me to a section in the eastern loop of the mine, known as the Bone Cave, explaining as we go that the mine, or cave as it initially was, burrows into a virtual hill of bones. But these weren't any old bones; they were megafauna bones - the skeletal remains of marsupial lions, diprotodon (think three-tonne wombat), giant kangaroos and huge seven-metre-long carnivorous goannas. The walls are embedded with thousands of bone fragments and fossils; lit by ultraviolet light, the ancient bones glow eerily in the darkness. It is, Day says, one of the world's most significant fossil sites.

When the first bones were found in a nearby cave in 1830, nothing like them had been seen before by white Australia. Major Thomas Mitchell, explorer and surveyor, sent samples of fossils and bones from the caves to the British Museum, where they aroused the interest of eminent scientists of the day, such as Charles Darwin. They also aroused the interest of bone diggers looking to make a quick buck from the illegal sale of the bones, according to Day, who thinks it's a possible reason why there are no known records of what really happened during the five years the mine was operational.

Once it was abandoned, it was left virtually untouched, apart from a few visiting palaeontologists now and then, ignored by the thousands of tourists who visited the richly decorated limestone caves just metres away.

Discovered 10 years before Jenolan Caves and opened to the public in the 1870s, Wellington's caves were already a popular tourist destination by the time the mine was established. The largest is Cathedral Cave, first described by the explorer Hamilton Hume in 1828, who wrote that "the inside of the cave is beautifully formed and some parts of it are supported by pillars 50 feet high and beautifully carved by nature".

Turns out, one of the pillars is thought to be the world's largest stalagmite. Called the "altar", the three-storey formation is a popular place to get married in front of, according to Day.

The other show cave, Gaden Cave, discovered in 1902, is much smaller - with plenty of steps - but prettier. A highlight is the great coral wall, a wall of bubbly limestone formations that looks like coral and a crystal pool where it feels as though you can peer to the centre of the earth.

Despite all the visitors, many of whom left traces of their explorations on the cave walls in the form of black carbon from their candles, oil from their hands and, in some cases, graffiti, no one in Wellington had any idea the phosphate mine was working for the first two years of its operation.

The real answer about exactly what was extracted from the mine will probably never be unearthed but, in the meantime, Day's tale of fossil intrigue makes for a fascinating tour.

The writer was guest of Tourism NSW.

Trip notes

Getting there

Wellington is 370 kilometres north-west of Sydney; 50 kilometres south-east of Dubbo. Qantas (qantas.com.au) and Rex (rex.com.au) both have daily flights between Sydney and Dubbo.

Touring there

Wellington Caves are open every day (except Christmas Day). Tours leave at regular intervals throughout the day and tickets range from $15 for a tour of Gaden Cave, $16.50 for a tour of either Cathedral Cave or the Phosphate Mine, to $43 for a two-cave and mine combination ticket. The Phosphate Mine is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.

More information

visitwellington.com.au, visitnsw.com

Three (other) things to do

1 Japanese gardens: wander through the Wellington-Osawano Japanese Garden, a $270,000 gift from Wellington's sister city, Osawano. Entry is free. The gardens are open every day; it's adjacent to the caves complex.

2 Lake Burrendong: when it's full this dam contains 3½ times the volume of water that Sydney Harbour holds and is a popular fishing and waterskiing spot. Even when not full, it's still a nice place for a picnic.

3 Wellington Gateway: love it or hate it, you can't miss this huge, fantastic and quite grotesque wind chime at the turn-off to the caves. It was made from the girders of the old Wellington Bridge, which collapsed in 1989.

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