Jenolan Caves

2014 started rather unusually… I woke up well rested and headed for a run along Blackwattle Bay. Returning energized, I decided to call Gabe, a friend of dad’s from his college days. When I was in Sydney in 2012 I spent my last full day touring around Sydney with him & his wife Natasha from Magadan, riding the ferries & checking out the Oceanarium at Manly Beach, which is well worth a visit. You walk through a tunnel under a giant fish tank, where sharks and other local fish swim lazily around you.

I’d been a little worried about Gabe. I’d lost touch with them as they hadn’t been on Skype for months, and since Gabe’s getting on in years & not in the best of health I was a bit worried that he might be no longer with us. Luckily, a friend in Brisbane also happened to be his nephew (once again, it really is a small world), and he sent me Gabe’s phone number and assured me that Gabe is still topside.

Gabe answered the phone as if he’d been waiting for my call for ages. Expressing no surprise at all upon hearing my voice, he immediately asked when he could expect us. Upon finding out we had 4 days left in Sydney he asked us what we were doing tonight, and told us to take the train out to Minto, where he’d pick us up. We’d spend the night at their place and tomorrow we’d go to some cool caves that aren’t too far from them. Having no plans for the next few days we immediately said yes & made ready for the 1.5 hour long trip out to Minto.

We arrived in the far outskirts of Sydney after dark, and there was Gabe, the same chain smoking, sharp eyed old man I remembered. The interrogation began right away. Where have we been, what have we seen, are we hungry, how are our parents, when are they coming to Australia, having you been following the tennis, and do you know how screwed up the American government is?

As an aside, Aussies refer to tennis as “the tennis,” cricket as “the cricket,” and football (soccer) as “the footy.”

Natasha, a well preserved Russian woman with Texas big blond hair greeted us with all the effusive love and enthusiasm someone would shower on a long lost niece and nephew, peppering us with a million questions without ever waiting for the million answers. Beers appeared, and we met their son Anton, who’s Aussie jargon & accent ran so thick we had considerable trouble understanding him at first. Dinner was delicious and drinks & food seemed never-ending, and after a long evening of chain smoking and catching up we bedded down for the night.

I’d mentioned the night before that I’d missed porridge horribly during this trip, and so the following morning Natasha made us a giant vat of it, insisting we finish it all, and we set off to the Jenolan Caves. Now, I hadn’t looked them up so it only occurred to me an hour into the drive to ask exactly how much longer it was to get there. “Oh, not far,” answered Gabe, “maybe another hour and a half, maybe 2.” Oh. We drove through the New South Wales countryside, admiring the beautiful Blue Mountains, past farms & endless gum trees. After another hour we finally started dropping into a deep ravine. Cell phone signal was lost & the humidity became almost unbearable. We were finally near the caves.

Now, I usually google stuff before I visit, and I completely neglected to do so this time around, partially since Gabe’s accent is an interesting mix of Russian and Aussie, and not always completely comprehensible.  So, Jenolan Caves came to me as a complete surprise (other than, obviously, that they were indeed caves).

175 km west of Sydney, hidden in the Blue Mountains is a network of open caves, considered the oldest known in the world, that is over 40 kms long.  Found thousands of years ago by the local Aboriginal people, they were known as “Binoomea,” or Dark Places, created by a struggle between 2 ancient gods.  The waters deep below were considered to have curative powers.

The Wikipedia discounts it, but locals cling tight to the legend that the first white man in the caves was the ex-convict & outlaw James McKeown around 1838, who used it as a hideout.  However, the first to document their findings were brothers James and Charles Whalan.  After that cave explorers & curiosity seekers came in droves, until finally in 1872 the Australian government decided to tighten its protection over the site.  Amazingly, caves continue to be found to this day, and they really have no idea how extensive the cave system actually is.

It would literally takes days to take all the tours available, and to enjoy the hiking trails around the caves (of which there were many), so we got tickets for the Lucas Cave tour, the one recommended for people who were pressed for time.  People on a more leisurely schedule can actually get a room at the conveniently located small hotel located just beside the ticket office.

Almost a kilometer in length, with 910 stair steps, the tour of Lucas Cave is approximately 1.5 hours long.  Most of the stairs are just in the beginning, as you make your way through low & narrow passages, occasionally passing small pockets of pretty rock formations.  I was preparing myself to be rather unimpressed.  I’ve never been much for these kinds of things anyway.  Growing up in Upstate NY we’d visited Howe Caverns, & I remember it as being one of the most underwhelming experiences of my childhood.  And then we came into the highest chamber of of the cave, The Cathedral.  54 meters high, the rock formations imitate a belfry, a pulpit, and even a grand pipe organ.  No kidding.  Our guide explained to us that the space is considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world, and has hosted many great acts including the Vienna Boys Choir, and they even have an opera company, aptly called “The Underground Opera.”   He dimmed the lights, and a familiar melody faded on from hidden speakers as an impressive light show started illuminating various features of the cave one by one.  The intro to the S&M album, Metallica’s collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated perfectly that the space indeed has incredible acoustics, both for metal & classical music.  The Cathedral is in fact used also as a church, and is a popular wedding venue.  

We continued the tour with new found respect for the place, and were impressed over & over again by, well, everything.  I can’t really correctly describe the massive rockfalls, the crystals that carpet some of the rocks to make it look like freshly fallen snow, places where the water has run down for millenia just so to form what looks like the most delicate curtains blowing in the breeze.   At one point we came across a column, almost a foot thick, that had at one time connected the ceiling to the floor.  An earthquake in eons past had hit it so hard that it broke the bottom from the top & moved it a good foot to the left.

From time to time signs from the early explorers were obviously visible.  Remains of their campfires look as if they were put out perhaps a week ago, instead of the 1870s.  They used soot from their candles to sign their names and dates on the ceilings.  Unfortunately, where they broke rock formations for souvenirs are also readily visible in quite a few places.  Apparently the practice was only banned in 1872.  Ironically, most people, after having gone through so much effort to break off pieces to bring home found the rocks too heavy to bother with once they reached the surface & would just dump them up there.  I asked what the penalty would be now for such an offense & the guide jokingly asked me if he would have to search my bag before the tour was finished.

Exhausted, and a little bit chilled (the caves are a consistent 16C year round), we emerged into the sunlight ready for a nap, which luckily we got to take as Gabe drove us the 2.5 hours back to his place for another dinner before our planned return to town.

We’d made tentative plans to meet some friends for drinks later that night, so wanted to be back around 9pm, and were waiting for a sms. Anton came by as we finished dinner, and on finding us still at his parents house invited us out for a drink. No problems about getting you back to the train, the pub is just down the street from the station. So, along with his friend Luke we headed down to the tavern with all the good intentions of only having one singular drink each. Anton bought a round, and we headed outdoors to the pokey machines. Every pub has them here, to some degree. Anton tossed in $20, and proceeded to win $50. Luke won $200 in the next machine, and so the evening went. One round became 3, and they egged us on to play as well. I lost the $20 I tried, just as I expected. My luck has never been good on these things. Nick, though, won over $100. To prove that I really was no good, I stood leaning against the one Anton was playing, and sure enough, he began to lose quite spectacularly. The entire time, he and Luke peppered us with questions regarding living in the US of A, shaking their heads upon finding out exactly how low our minimum wage is, declaring astonishment that there’s surfing on Lake Michigan, and declared their enthusiasm at the prospect of visiting us on our home turf.

Somewhere in the middle, Anton’s girlfriend Jaime arrived, and Anton introduced us as his cousins from America. Sure, why not, may as well be! She turned out pretty cool though, and after she won $200 on the pokeys we switched to the pool tables, where we all discovered that our billiard playing skills have gone the same way as our sobriety, straight out the door. It was then decided that we would retreat for the night to their place, where they have their own pool table, a slab of beer, and whiskey as well.

And so we found ourselves at 4am in Anton’s garage, annoying their neighbors with loud music & laughter, playing with their 2 rottweiler mixes, Coco & Turbo. It was decided that neither Jaime nor Anton would go to work in the morning, and so after a hearty breakfast at Hungry Jack’s (their version of Burger King) and a trip to the mall so I could buy flip-flops to replace my long-suffering (seriously, 4 years, 12 countries, countless miles, best $14 on footwear I’ve ever spent) sandals, they deposited us back to the train station, with promises that next time we came through Sydney, hopefully in a few weeks, there was more fun to be had.

Slightly dazed, and still wearing the same clothes from 2 days before we headed back to Sydney for our last night. Dinner was with our friends Masha and Simon. They met at a party I organized way back in the day, and had gotten married a few years later. It was for their wedding that I went to Australia for the first time, and I like to drop in every few years to see how they are doing. 4 kids and what seems a lifetime later, when we meet up it feels like no time has passed at all.

After, we headed to Andrei’s house for a few final drinks with our gracious host. Have I mentioned he’s a cocktail maestro extraordinaire?  Good times had by all, goodbyes said all around, with promises to return, and invitations to visit us in the frozen northern hemisphere when it was not so frozen, and it was time for bed.

Brisbane tomorrow!

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