Most of the time, you wouldn’t think twice about what’s down there, in the dark, so preoccupied are we with all there is to see up here, in broad daylight. But if I’ve learned anything from ocean dives and canyon slides (apart from the surprising number of uses you can get out of a wetsuit), it’s that nature gets more interesting the deeper you go.
My fascination with Earth’s deepest, darkest places might hark back to primary school days, when we’d be packed off on class excursions into caves. Lead by young, fact-spouting guides along narrow pathways, we’d spend hours in awe of great water-gouged chambers, elaborately decorated with suspended spires and see-through pools aglow with strategically placed lighting. Top it off with as many magnets as your souvenir allowance can buy, and you’ve got yourself one very satisfied class of ‘99.
Cave trips were a regular family affair for us, too. Exercise, education, kind-of fresh air, and exemption from rainy day contingency plans made cave touring a parent-approved activity. Considering adulthood brought on a sudden desire to have a turn at adventure caving – harness, hard hat, headlamp, jumpsuit caked in bat poo… the lot! – I’d say those early experiences of Australia’s show caves had something of a lasting effect.
Given the dangerous and unfamiliar nature of our subterranean worlds, there is gratitude to be directed at the governing bodies who do a tremendous job of preserving and managing cave systems so that they are safe and accessible to curious yet cautious folks like you and me. The Australian Speleological Federation has approximately 6500 karst systems indexed, which counts for only a fraction of what’s actually down there, unexplored, but is still an impressive lot! This does make the task of selecting Australia’s best caves slightly intimidating – so keep that figure of 6500 in mind if we don’t mention one of your favourites, or better still, pop it in the comments!
Tantanoola Caves, SA
Buried within a cliff face and spectacularly decorated with stalactites and cascading columns, Tantanoola Caves are dramatic in every way. Thanks to the unique dolomite bedrock, the sparkling peach and brown colours of the crystals are unlike those of any other known cave along the South Australian coast.
The caves have only been known since 1930 when they were accidentally discovered by two teenage boys searching for their lost ferret, which had scurried down the cave’s small opening after a rabbit. The first tourism phase swiftly followed, however, access via rope climbs and makeshift water slides made viewing the caves a sketchy undertaking.
It would take around 50 years for the caves to reach their current, substantially less adventurous, state. Wheelchair-friendly pathways, handrails and fixed lighting followed the handover to National Parks in 1980, additions that have made them some of the most accessible caves in the country.
Stay: These campsites and caravan parks in Millicent are within ten minutes of the incredible Tantanoola Caves. Close to the Victoria border, we reckon this area could mean the start of a bigger South Australian adventure.
Buchan Caves, Victoria
Buchan’s two main show caves, Fairy Cave and Royal Cave, are more than worthy of their titles. Formed by underground rivers eroding the 300 million-year-old limestone rock bed, these picturesque chambers leave visitors in awe of their elaborate stalactite and stalagmite formations and clusters of tiered calcite pools. While these are the most enchanting caves in the reserve, they’re just two of hundreds that exist within the 4km-long karst system.
Wandering the reserve’s forest trails is also quite the treat – picture waterfalls, streams, collapsed caves, and mossy gullies alive with the tinkle of lyrebirds and bellbirds.
Stay: Less than an hour from Buchan Caves is Lakes Entrance, where you’ll find a tonne of bush camping and caravan parks to base yourself while you fish, swim and enjoy the region’s natural wonders.
Margaret River Caves, WA
Who’d have thought WA’s most famous wine region is also a place rich with caves? There are hundreds of them between Busselton and Albany, with a few in particular that can be strung together to form a cave-inspired road trip.
Jewel Cave has an extraordinary ceiling crowded with great clusters of gossamer-fine stalactites, while at Lake Cave, a shimmering, crystal clear underground lake is the reward for those willing to tackle the 350 stairs in and out.
You can go at your own pace through the mighty Mammoth Cave, which plunges 30m deep and takes visitors on a 500m self-guided trek that goes in one end and out the other.
And for the more intrepid traveller, Moondyne Cave offers an adventure caving tour which highlights unusual submerged stalactites and the biggest stalagmite in the region.
Stay: If you came for the caves, you’ll stay for the world-class wine and idyllic beaches. Park yourself at one of Margaret River’s campgrounds so you’ve got plenty of time to do it all.
Mole Creek, Tasmania
With over 300 known caves and sinkholes, the Mole Creek reserve located an hour west of Launceston has everything from vast natural cathedrals to all-day guided adventure caving. Most people come to gaze in wonder at Marakoopa Cave, where two underground streams, a labyrinth of majestic columns, and one of the country’s most impressive glow worm displays make it a cave experience like no other.
King Solomon’s Cave is a dry compact cave where you’ll feel hemmed in by the narrow walls, however, its colourful sparkling crystals are some of the finest and most lavish you’ll see anywhere – hence the name. Mole Creek Reserve is a great stop on the way to Cradle Mountain – just make sure you leave enough time to explore some of the park’s lush forest trails and ferny glades.
Stay: Whether you’re coming in from Launceston, Devonport or basing yourself at Cradle Mountain, there’s countless parks and campgrounds all within an hour’s drive of Mole Creek Reserve.
Jenolan Caves, NSW
Older than dinosaurs by a whopping 100 million years, Jenolan is considered the granddaddy of caves the world over. During their much more recent history, the caves were referenced in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories as ‘dark places’, and later, used as hideouts by escaped convicts.
Of the 300 known entrances and 40 kilometres of honeycomb-like passages that make up the Jenolan karst system, there are 11 magnificent walk-through chambers branching off the subterranean portion of the Jenolan River, whose bright mineral-blue water is a spectacle in its own right.
Jenolan’s caves are some of the most-visited chambers in the country, featuring pristine water features, intricate pure white calcite clusters and ancient marine fossils speckled throughout. Guided adventure caving is also on the menu, but most of the system is still being mapped.
Stay: Jenolan’s quaint historical hotel has a ye olde atmosphere we can’t get enough of, however, if you prefer a day trip to Jenolan, check out our nearby NSW parks. It’s worth mentioning the access roads are steep and full of hairpin bends, so you’ll need to unhitch before heading down there.
Get out there
Australia has caves in the thousands, with each state offering up fierce competition for the top slot. We could barely whittle down a top five list, much less a favourite, so you’ll just have to check out as many as you can for yourself!
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