A TOUR OF TASMANIA VIA ITS MAGICAL CAVES
After an absence of many years, my partner Rob and I returned to Tasmania, where we both grew up. While we were staying on the North West Coast we went to see Gunns Plains caves. My first visit was in 1958; the climax of a painfully slow Sunday drive in my father’s utility. Located approximately 20 km inland from the coastal town of Ulverstone, the fertile plains were originally cleared by local Aborigines, to assist in hunting. Co-incidently, the caves themselves were discovered by a shooting party in 1906, after a possum vanished down a hole like Alice’s White Rabbit.
As we purchased our tickets a small boy gave me a smug smile and said; ‘Well I know the difference between stalagmites and stalactites and I know how to spell them, too’. I told him I didn’t, and with great glee he explained; ‘ There’s a ‘g’ in stalagmites because they grow up from the ground and there’s a ‘c’ in stalactites because they hold tight to the ceiling.’ We intended visiting a number of caves during our stay, and I told him his information would be very helpful.
I have since heard another way of remembering. If the mites go up my ‘tites’ come down.
The limestone caves at Gunns Plains are slightly off the normal tourist route, but those who make the effort will be rewarded by superb formations, viewed at extremely close quarters. Highlights include the world’s largest ribbon stalactite and a dramatic flowstone known as the Golden Fleece. There is also a giant, multi-tiered ‘wedding cake’, its silver frosting created by a build-up of calcite crystals. The lower tiers of the ‘cake’ form what have been dubbed the organ pipes. Shamefully, every visitor was once allowed to ‘play’ the pipes with a stick, producing a vaguely melodic sound. I confessed to having done so myself, and the child I had met at the ticket office was delighted when our guide pointed out the damage I helped cause! It was something of a relief when attention shifted to the underground stream running through the caves; home to eels, platypus and freshwater lobsters.
Several days later we drove through the small town of Deloraine to visit Mole Creek Caves, which have long since gained the fame John West felt they deserved when he wrote The History of Tasmania, published in 1852; ‘About 15 miles from Deloraine, in the Western Mountains, are situated the great caves, which, in extent and beauty, perhaps equal subterranean wonders of more celebrity…’
Deloraine sits astride the trout filled Meander River, and was named for Sir William Deloraine, a romantic figure from the ballad Lady of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. However, some locals prefer the suggestion that the name is a contraction of ‘great deal of rain’.
The ‘great caves’ John West spoke of are King Solomon’s and Marakoopa. We chose to visit the latter, for its stunning display of glow-worms; the largest in a public access cave anywhere in Australia. The glow-worms live in such a vast chamber that when the lights are turned out all sense of being underground vanishes. It is like standing in the outback looking at a star filled night sky. The experience is unforgettable, and quite moving.
Marakoopa has two underground streams, hence the glowworms, which need moisture to survive. As a wet cave, it also features magical rim pools. One of the most outstanding features is a combination of pools and limestone formations which create a fantasy landscape. A stooped ‘human figure’ gives a sense of scale. The King Solomon cave system is also very beautiful, featuring richly coloured formations. It was named for the quality and quantity of its reflective calcite crystals, which are said to sparkle like the diamonds of the fabled mine.
Dairy cows dot the surrounding hills at Mole Creek, which are honeycombed with caves; including one with an underground lake of around seven hectares. A rabbit burrowing too deeply here could find itself in very deep water.
Continuing south, we detoured to a very different cave at Chauncy Vale, 4km east of Bagdad. The community was named by explorer Hugh Germaine, who carried a copy of The Bible and Arabian Nights wherever he went. His exotic legacy includes names such as Jericho, Dromedary, Lake Tiberias, and the Jordan River.
Secluded Chauncy Vale was the home of well known Tasmanian children’s writer, Nan Chauncy (1900-1970), who wrote They Found a Cave (1948).
The adventure story was inspired by a sandstone cave on her land in which a bushranger once hid from his pursuers. After Chauncy’s death the 380 hectare property became a wildlife sanctuary. Birdlife is prolific, and wallabies casually hopped across our path through the unspoiled bush . Twenty minutes later we clambered up a series of rocky outcrops and were able to shelter in the cave during a sudden downpour. I was delighted to find fragrant, wild boronia flowering in crevices nearby. Even the most sophisticated, world weary children love secret places and discovering this cave will delight them, especially if they have read the book .
We were now quite close to Hobart, from where we made a 104km drive south to Hastings Caves. Timber workers were sworn to secrecy when they stumbled upon the underground chambers in 1917. They were trespassing, and had to ‘rediscover’ the caves legitimately a few months later. The main public access cave is called Newdegate. There is a real sense of history here, as along the path to the cave entrance are the fossil like stumps of the giant trees felled almost a century ago. They are covered in luminous green moss, and the deep notches cut to insert spars are still clearly visible.
Hastings Caves formed in dolomite rock some 40 million years ago. In response to a question about the age of the formations, our guide told us that some are about two million years old. More graphically, she showed us an almost imperceptible smudge on the floor and explained that it was a twelve year old stalagmite. The chambers here are generally larger than those at Gunns plains and Mole Creek. Two of the most amazing features are the aptly named Titania’s Palace and a lofty, vaulted chamber known as the cathedral.
Tickets for Hastings Caves include access to a thermal springs nature walk. Where spring water enters the main creek a dabble of the fingers proves that hot and cold water flow side by side. Kids will be intrigued by hot and cold taps installed on a nearby railing. The spring waters have been channeled into a swimming pool where the temperature is a constant and comfortable 28º celsius. In chilly weather swimmers can dry off by an open fire in a massive stone fireplace.
Finally, our subterranean tour took us to Remarkable Cave, located on remote Tasman Peninsula. 150 wooden steps lead to a tunnel shaped sea-cave, which is also a spectacular blowhole. It is an awesome place. The savagery of nature is a poignant reminder of the human suffering endured by prisoners at the harsh penal colony of Port Arthur, just 7 km north. Remarkable Cave made an appropriate finale to our journey from the north to the south of the State; the outline of rock at the cave mouth forms the unmistakable, heart-shaped silhouette of Tasmania.
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