As we descend deeper into the abyss, the three beams of lights from our head torches pierce through the pitch black and illuminate an amazing array of cave decorations. There’s the full gamut of speleothems, everything from stalagmites (they go up) to stalactites (they go down) and even some crazy, gravity-defying helictites – the swingers of the underworld, which mysteriously go every which way.
But it’s in a section of Castle Cave relatively devoid of decorations just ahead of us, that our guide and manager of Yarrangobilly Caves, George Bradford, points enthusiastically towards. We eventually catch up to George and the light from our combined torches reveals hundreds of mysterious tiny bones in the remnants of sediment deposits along the cave wall.
‘‘They’re from bats,’’ divulges George, before giving an indication of their age by adding, ‘‘this cave has been too cold for bats for thousands of years.’’ Testimony to the fact that there’s always something new to discover in a cave, even John, a long-time member of the Canberra Speleological Society, says it’s the first time he’s set eyes on these ancient bones.
And who knows what other subterranean secrets lie waiting to be discovered in nearby caves, for Castle Cave is just one of between 250 and 300 caves (there’s new ones being discovered all the time) that pock-mark this spectacular swathe of limestone in the northern slab of Kosciuszko.
Although Yarrangobilly boasts four spectacular show caves (where the cave formations are dramatically lit using electricity), Castle Cave is one of four adventure caves where you can explore with just a guide and your own trusty head torch.
‘‘It would have been tough navigating by bark torches or candles in the old days,’’ mulls George, prompting me to nervously check that my spare torch batteries are still in my pocket and haven’t rolled into some bottomless pit.
Just beyond the bat bones we stop at a delicate small bauble-like formation that hangs suspended from a false roof by a straw of calcium. John explains that it’s called a pendulite (it seems these speleos have got names for everything) or more precisely that ‘‘it’s a kind of stalactite which is or has been partly submerged in cave water for some time and now has a growth of crystal over that part which was submerged, to give the appearance of a drumstick’’.
There’s a not a breath of wind this deep in the cave so it’s impossible to tell if John’s precious pendulite really does swing like a pendulum. Although the thought does cross my mind to gently blow in its direction, given it may have taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop into its current form, I can’t bring myself to, for fear it may break off. I snap a photo instead and move on.
After a couple of hours exploring the magic of Castle Cave, we clamber out of its relative warmth and into the crisp Snowy air, and with snow clouds gathering on the horizon, George challenges, ‘‘perfect weather for a dip in the pool’’.
Normally the prospect of jumping into a pool of water in mid-winter in the Snowies wouldn’t be very enticing. However, Yarrangobilly’s natural pool is fed by a thermal spring and is a toasty 27 degrees all year round, so it’ s a dare I gleefully accept.
The water also has a greenish tinge to it – partly because it’s mildly mineralised (containing dissolved magnesium, sodium and calcium) and also because there’s algae growing on its concreted bottom – apparently a sign that the water quality is good.
In fact, according to ecologists, the water is so healthy that pobblebonk frogs are often seen here. I don’t know about you, but I reckon they probably just like the warm water. Let’s face it, for a frog, a dip here would be like a tropical holiday. I don’t see a pobblebonk, or any other tailless amphibians for that matter, but linger in the warm water hoping it’ll start snowing (I’ve always wanted to swim in a thermal pool and be snowed on), but as hard as it tries, it doesn’t.
Eventually, I gather my towel and trudge the 700m back up a very steep hill. At the top is a cold shower which in summer after the sweaty climb up would be a necessity. But it’s barely above freezing point and I give it a wide berth as sheets of sleet chase me back towards the visitor centre.
It’s 6pm and with it now as dark above the ground as under, all the day trippers have hit the icy highway home. But not me, for I’m bunking down for the night in historic Caves House. Built in 1901 during Yarrangobilly’s halcyon days, after decades of neglect in recent times, two of its single story wings have recently re-opened.
The lack of television, a radio or mobile phone reception adds to the old worlde charm, harking back to a time in the early 1900s when Caves House was the most popular resort in NSW, and to a time according to old guest books, ‘‘of good music, singing and poetry recitals’.
I decide to steer clear of any rhyming couplets and after a hot shower (just to make sure I don’t become a pobblebonk attractant) pull up a pew in front of the fireplace. John soon joins me and as we indulge in a couple of glasses of local red, talk inevitably turns to epic cave stories of rescues and buried treasure (well the Kiandra gold fields aren’t that far from here . . .).
Just before I turn in, John decides to let it slip about the resident ghost – the spirit of Gertie Day, a larger than life landlady who ran Caves House in the 1950s. ‘‘Apparently she wanders around in the dead of the night,’’ says John who has bunkered down here many times over the past forty years, ‘‘but never encountered her”.
Outside it’s quiet, oh so quiet – it feels like we’ve got virtually the whole of northern Kosciuszko to ourselves – and to the sound of nothing, absolutely nothing, I drift off to sleep.
The sounds of silence don’t last all night. At 2am I’m abruptly awoken. It’s a startling scratching sound on the floor. Fearing Gertie may be about to pay me a visit, I pull the doona up a little higher and pretend I didn’t hear anything.
It doesn’t work. The scratching continues. Not wanting to be pounced upon by a 60-year-old phantom, I crawl out of bed, and torch in hand wander outside. Crunching delicately through the frosty grass, I peer nervously under the house.
Phew! It’s not Gertie after all; instead of an apparition my torch highlights a mature-looking wombat, nonchalantly going about its nightly feeding foray.
Content, but cold, I creep back to bed.
In the morning, John tells me that the stocky burrowing marsupial with the midnight munchies was probably Harley.
‘‘He was orphaned about 15 years ago as a baby and bottle fed by staff,’’ explains John who confesses it’s a bit of tradition not to warn unsuspecting firsttimers here of Harley’s nocturnal habits.
Today we’re exploring Yarrangobilly’s show caves and after breakfast, I grab my back pack and tie up my walking boots which Harley thankfully left alone (warning: apparently apart from a penchant for scratching floorboards at 2am, Harley also likes to chew on boots) and make a beeline for Jersey Cave.
Once past the locked steel gate, George flicks the lights on and reveals the yawning cavern ahead . It’s like entering the mouth of a monstrous prehistoric creature, complete with giant ice picks for teeth. Apart this uber-impressive display of stalagmites and stalactites, there’s a spectacular spread of tombstone shawls and a remarkable 4m column that almost touches the cave’s ceiling and aptly named Cleopatra’s needle.
However, unlike any other cave I’ve ever seen, this cave is two-tone. All the usual creamy-coloured formations are coated with a black treacle which George explains is carbon – the results of bushfires of centuries gone by.
Next we delve into Jillabenan, which, with at estimated age of 2 million years is regarded as one of the most beautiful caves in Australia. The decorations here are so dense it’s almost suffocating. You have to duck and weave your head so as not to be poked in the eye by an over-zealous helictite.
Cave tourism peaked around Australia mid last century, but the revamp of Caves House provides an opportunity for a new generation to discover the charm and wonder of our subterranean world, at least in this secret corner of the Snowies.
Yarrangobilly Caves: Located within the northern section of Kosciuszko National Park, 6.5 km off the Snowy Mountain Highway and 77km from Tumut and 109km from Cooma . If you live in Belconnen or Gungahlin, it’s slightly quicker to go via Tumut. For south-siders the road Cooma is the best route. Call (02) 6454 9597 for more information.
Caves House: Self-contained heritage accommodation from $180 per night ($250 in high season) per wing (each wing sleeps seven to nine people). Minimum two nights. For more information: (02) 6947 7025.
Tim’s Tip: At about 30 minutes drive from Mt Selwyn, Caves House is a great base for a winter snow holiday. The best thing is that if the snow cover isn’t good, or if bad weather is forecast, instead of heading to the ski slopes, you can always stay put and explore one of the caves, where it’s a constant 10 degrees all year round and there’s no wind chill (it will of course be dark, so don’t forget a torch).
Cave tours: Self-guided and guided tours of four show caves. From $13 per adult. Discounts for concessions and families. For more information, call (02) 6454 9597. The Adventure Tour of Castle Cave is popular with guests of Caves House as it usually requires a minimum of eight people.
Watch out for: The sooty owl that’s taken up roost in the entrance to the North Glory Hole Cave.
Did you know? A platypus has been sighted in the thermal pool.
I’d love to see: A photo of someone taking a dip in the thermal pool during a snowfall.