Monday, May 11, 2009

Thank god we're here! Pt 1- Jenolan Caves River Cave Tour

Just a quick reminder before we begin - you can click on the photos for a better look......

Oh my god I am climbing the walls.  The stress is building. Migraine territory. There is only one solution. We just have to get out of town and Jenolan it is - the oldest show caves on earth.  Some chambers dated at 340 million years - that's before the time of the dinosaurs!!  Time is a tickin’ away on our Jenolan Pass and a physical challenge is overdue to start of our campaign to test our fitness. The exercise will (hopefully) blow the cobwebs away. 

We’ve been sluggish getting away, still foggy climbing out of sore heads and feeble constitutions, but just after 9am we’re on the road.  With the late start it’s all motorways for us and with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in the CD player it’s no time before we are admiring the beautiful autumn colour in the street and garden trees of the Mountain Villages along the Great Western Highway.  Among the first that attract attention are some beautifully coloured claret ash, and lovely red maples.  They come as a delightful surprise. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the lower mountains may still have colour.  

A business-like drive but we admire the lovely roadworks not too long completed providing better access to the Great Western Highway from Leura township. Nice piece of work. 

Heading through Blackheath in the higher altitude the trees are increasingly bare, though as we pass along we soon come to a warmer spot with abundant colour. 

We pass the historic precint at Hartley before we turn onto the road to Jenolan.  The weather is a bit drizzly, and I think we must be destined to head to this part of the world in this damp wintry weather, as it always seems to be like this when we come, but this is not a problem. I love the colder wet conditions and the beauty of Jenolan of course is that the attraction is underground so rain is simply not an issue. 

As we admire the view across the pasture clad hills a wedge tailed eagle circles overhead. Wedgies are always such a majestic sight.  Fantastic!  Yellow Rumped thornbills fly up from the verge and a short while later some fairy wrens.  It’s so gooood to be in the country and I’m feeling better already.  

At the boundary to the Jenolan reserve the road narrows. I’m very pleased to see the fireplaces at the rest stops along the road are still there.  Thank god there’s not much chance of those being replaced by electric bbqs!  I just hope they don’t remove them. 

We take what looks like the last place in the car park and get a cave guide book from the attendant.  It’s now a bit after 11:30.  The drive takes just long enough to get through Goodbye  Yellow Brick Road, Don't Shoot Me and a couple of Supertramp classics!  The atmosphere is a bit damp and the golden ash trees planted around Caves House are ablaze with colour.  Woodsmoke taints the air from a column of smoke wafting gently skyward from the Caves House Chimneys.  Magic.  I LOVE the mountains like this with the outdoors bracing and the indoors warm and cosy. 

We make our way to the board of tour times.  We’re after the River Cave which doesn’t leave 'til 1:15.  We head to the ticket office to make sure we have a place on the tours of our choice and notice the electronic sign announcing that the road closes across the middle of the day reopening at 1:15. Phew. I'd forgotten about that. Lucky we weren't here later!  At the ticket counter hubby announces we should do the Diamond Imperial as well as the River Cave.   The girl on the desk looks at us with concern.  Do we realise that we’d be straight from one tour to the other?  She can never get out of the River Cave on time so although there’s a ½ hr between the predicted times, it could be close and we should be sure that our guide is aware we have a following tour. 

Turns out that the information we were given when last here and being provided with our Jenolan Pass was somewhat misleading.  The girl had said we would get “50% off another tour” taken within the year.  Actually the Jenolan Pass gives you 50% off as many tours as you like for the next year AND it’s just fine with Jenolan if you hand your pass around to family and friends to use.  This makes the caves much much more affordable obviously, which they need to be as the tours range in price from $27 - $40 pp.  Anyway, $75 later we’re off to sus out lunch options. 

11:45 and we arrive at the restaurant.  They’re not open yet and it will be a bistro.  We’ve been happy with the food from the cafeteria in the past, so we don’t hesitate to head on in there to be sure we're in plenty of time for the tour.  They have a range options from the fry up with hot chips down one end, through to healthy wraps and Turkish bread sandwiches.  We opt for half a chicken wrap (delicious) and a toasted Turkish with brie, cranberry and turkey with avocado (also quite tasty).  The toasted Turkish comes accompanied with some corn chips and tangy salsa. Nice touch.  We polish that off quick smart and decide to supplement that with a piece of quiche (ho hum) and a slice of cake to share (ho hum again). 

We still have 45 mins to kill so we opt to take a walk around the Blue Lake and see what we can. You never know your luck, we might even spot the platypus, which our tour guide later tells us is not much bothered by people about and may be seen at any time of day.. and apparently they've had some babies..  

The Blue Lake is putting on a show today. I’ve not seen it so abundantly deserving of the name before.  The water is crystal clear. In the shallower parts of the lake you’d have no difficulty spotting the platypus if it’s about.  The walk itself is a bit ramshackle.  The path is even enough, but the bush surrounding the lake is not quite pristine enough to attract a lot of compliments from me.  A short way down the track a male superb fairy wren in eclipse plumage with his dark blue tail and a slight edge of black to his wing, is  all puffed out like a pom pom to keep warm. Aside from the touches that show he's male, he is otherwise decked out in the lovely soft browns .  He's not much fussed by our presence.  We stop and he hops around near us on the path before flitting off into the nearby bushes.  Magic!  The soft piping of the white browed scrub wrens as they forage is a constant serenade everywhere we go. The white browed scrub wrens are also not fussed by the people about and are easily observed.

Finally we come to the dam wall and hubby spots a couple of white browed scrub wrens hanging on to the edge of the verticle dam wall so we snap a photo of them .  Around the walk are interesting interpretive boards explaining what the machinery is that is around the lake.  It’s all part of the electricity plant which supplies Jenolan.  Quite interesting industrial heritage, the electrical plant is designed by an American and a big improvement on similar plant of it’s type at the time it was installed.

 There’s quite a few stairs along the track, especially as you head back on the return leg on the side of the lake nearest the road.  It would probably be easier to walk it in the reverse direction.  I’m not so sure this walk was a good plan given that we have about 1800 steps to get through on the tours. Oh well, we will think of it as a warm up.  The weather is closing in as we head back so we don’t linger on platypus watch, instead finding ourselves a seat up in the Grand Arch to await our tour guide. 

At the appointed time our guide, Michael, arrives and runs us through the rules.  No touching anything inside the caves – chemical reactions dull the crystal and it cannot be cleaned.  No food at all as it risks attracting bush rats which get lost and die and/or chew the electric cables. Neither of which is good. Lastly no smoking.  A reminder and an opportunity for people to take a last toilet break.  While we wait Michael spends a few minutes pointing out the course of the river that at one time ran through the rock of the Grand Arch overhead.  The winds and twists and meandering of the watercourse is clear to see.  Over the millions of years since the limestone was formed the rivers have worked their way deep underground where they continue to wear away at the rock.  

We commence the climb up a rather intimidating staircase to the entrance to the caves.  I think this was probably the most demanding individual section of the tour as it is the longest staircase without a break.  We get to a lookout over the blue lake and as the group rests, Michael explains about why the lake is blue.  Everyone having caught their breath we head on in.  

To get down to the river we have to climb up over then down down down to the lowest part of the caves then climb back up, up and down a few times before reaching the exit.  Looking down into the cave over the edge of the railing we can see water.  That’s a heck of a staircase we’ll be travelling to get down there!

My apologies for the poor quality of the photo, but I thought this gives the best idea of the typical terrain of this particular tour.

The first famous feature we come to is the minaret.

I must have seen many pictures of this over the years and I identify it tentatively before Michael tells us the name.  The caves are beautifully ornamented with crystal both active (wet and therefore continuing to develop) and dry which sparkles in a modest way as they catch the light.   Although there are many stairs, the stair sections are done in bursts and there are regular stops for information when you can rest the muscles. 

There are a range of ages and sizes of people on the tour and everyone seems to be coping OK and enjoying the tour.

We arrive at the pool of reflections, which my amateur photography skills and equipment struggle to do justice to. Once again we discuss the optical illusion that makes the river look so shallow. It's actually very deep. 20 metres I think Michael said. It looks like you could just step over the rail and paddle up to your knees or chest.

The reflecting pool draws a comparison in my mind with the reflection pool at Carey's Caves at Wee Jasper NSW. This pool of reflections is beautiful, but I have say the reflecting pool at Carey's Caves may be smaller but it can give this one in the River Cave a run for its money. Carey's Caves are very well worth a visit and they have some fantastic limestone rocks above ground unlike anything I've ever seen. Extraordinary.

 We move on and pass a long narrow shawl that is glowing with a radiant luminescence in the light. It seems to be hanging in mid air at a most unusual angle drawing exclamations from the party. When it is pointed out you can see a thin wire suspended from the ceiling along which the shawl has grown. The wire was a relic of some work or activity in the caves some time past. It is revealed that the crystal grows quicker on the wire than in other circumstances. Fascinating - and beautiful.

Finally we come to the base of a huge crystal feature many stories tall.  A giant flow of cascading crystal like a multistoried cake dizzled with icing. Spectacular! Someone asks about bats in the caves.  Yes, apparently you do occassionally see small bats.

Each time we move ahead, we go ahead of Michael with instructions to go as far as the light will let us.  Michael brings up the rear, no doubt making sure noone has been left behind.  This has the added benefit of the whole group being assembled as the lights to the final assembly point are switched on.  As if to cue, we enter our next chamber and the lights disturb a cute little bat, who flies around accompanied by much excited exclamation from the crowd, before finding itself a dark corner in which to roost. There are so many individual features to see, I can't remember all the names. When the impact of the overall glamour of the chamber subsides Michael points out the lions mouth, which is a depression in the ceiling fringed on one side by crystal that with a little imagination resemble large teeth.  
Our next leg takes us up a ladder which passes close by a huge drapery of crystal.  Just next to the ladder under neath the a huge drapery is a small set of stalactites that closely resemble the Three Sisters - until you look around the back and there is a fourth tucked away.. so maybe the four brothers? 
After a briefing of the safe technique for climbing we set off.  Hubby and I are among the first after a pair of young north American men, who appear to be a couple.  Ah young love, I remember it well - the odd sneaky cuddle in the shadows when you think noone is looking. They are very discrete and I am sorry that the world is such that they feel they must restrict any evidence whatever of their relationship to the shadows.  

As I climb the ladder and pass up by the drapery I turn a little for a look.  Wow. 

An orderly procession of folk carefully climb after me and I observe as one bloke turns to photograph the feature just behind his back.   Hmm, I wish I'd done that and not been so concerned at holding everybody else up. Oh well. Caves are a bit like that. You snap away, but honestly, do you ever really look at the piccies later?  I guess for this trip I have to say yes. Yay blogging! 

In among the crystal decorations, there are stalagmites and stalagtites and columns. And of course shawls which are my personal favourite. I particularly like this little cluster of beautiful creamy white shawls.  It may not be huge, but it is beautifully elegant. 

The next little while is devoted to progressively climbing the enormous crystal cascade stopping along the way to admire and have features pointed out. We learn about the explorers  and the history of the caves. It is all most interesting and enjoyable.

Stairs, stairs and more stairs, but aside from paying enough attention for safety's sake we hardly notice as there is so much to see and as you round the bends you are looking out for what beauty will next present itself. 

Along the way we come to our second ladder which is steeper than the first, and taller and which we have to go down. We look over the rail to where it ends. Hmm. I'm glad we'll be going down backwards on that !!! Another safety briefing and we cautiously set off allowing plenty of space between each person and being counted down the final few steps by Michael. We are still on a staircase and we have been warned that we will need to turn around before moving away from the immediate vicinity of the ladder. I take my time and am very careful and like the rest of the group, I make it down without mishap. On we go, down some more stairs.

The next really major feature is a huge striped shawl backlit for beautiful effect... many oohs and ahs from the crowd.
More stairs... later, in the shadows before the rest of the party arrive and Michael does the "reveal" with the lights we spy a very large double minaret, is it named for Queen Esther? I can't be sure, but it is enormous and looks like a double cone of soft serve icecream with one side slipping a little. The lights come on... Wow....

We head back and having done a loop the final stages of the tour retrace our steps back past the pool of reflections, and our first ladder, in the reverse. So although there are two ladders, you actually have three one ladder climb and two ladder descents.  
As we near the end of the tour we pass a very large group coming through who stand aside to let us pass.  There are some comments that we are coming back up from the River Cave tour and there is a palpable air of hushed awe from the crowd.  We feel like the crowed regards us as survivors of an ordeal.  Where are the emergency services with thermal wraps and stretchers? With an air of bravado we cheerfully advise the crowd that it is a piece of cake!
As we near the exit we feel the colder fresh air.  What a great couple of hours.  We are slightly longer than the scheduled two hours, but only by 5 minutes or so.  We've got stacks of time for a break before the Imperial Diamond Tour.  We use this time to acquire a bottle of water from the shop.  So far our legs are coping just fine. No shakes yet, but I wonder how we'll go after another 400 or more stairs......

No comments: