Sunday, 12 October 2014

Day 24 - Naracoorte Caves

Shadows of the past
A lovely relaxed morning became a mad rush when we realised we only had 30 minutes to be out of pyjamas, fed and to the starting point of our first cave tour of the day! Holidays tend to bring on such parochialisms. Time just seems to slip from one moment of not caring, to someone else’s deadline.

Assembling at Victoria Cave, our small group trebled in the last five minutes before we entered, so that five became fifteen and unfortunately, some felt the need to talk for most of the hour we toured the cave … in competition with the tour guide. 

However …

Victoria Cave wasn’t the first cave discovered at the Naracoorte Caves group but it was certainly the one cave which moved it from well known to World Heritage listing. The difference was the amazing collection of megafauna found deep in its bowels – large marsupials who in all likelihood fell down “pipes” (holes in the limestone strata which lead straight to chambers below) and died. Some may have died of fright, others of starvation but for thousands of years, their decomposing remains gathered in such numbers, that they created enough organic material to fill an Olympic swimming pool.

Once we had moved down into the main area of fossil remains, the cave became really interesting, with whole skeletons reconstructed and on display.

The parent rock around us was approximately 25 million year old, Gambia limestone. It was originally the shells of sea creatures, laid down in enormous quantities and eventually decomposing and forming solid rock. In the layers found in archaeological digs in this cave and the Blanche Cave, one hundred thousand years of history can be found in the layers of soil and rock – a history that shows thousands of years of dense forest; ice ages of cold, dry, windy weather; and of course the tens of thousands of years of seas laying down deposits.

Naracoorte holds the most complete continual historical record of the last half a million years of the Earth and that’s why it is classified as a world heritage site.

We returned to camp for an early lunch and showers and then took ourselves up to the park headquarters and the Wonambi Fossil Centre for a self-guided tour. Animatronics are used to make recreations of the megafauna which seem to come to life, set as they are among what are considered the landscape of their day. Kids would love it. There is even a tunnel for children to crawl through which attempts to give them the sense of what it is like for speleologists to explore caves. Sue crawled through it without a torch. She is my hero.

Our second cave for the day was the self-guided Wet Cave and it proved to be my favourite, possibly because we were the only ones in the cave. It is full of very large chambers, lit cleverly so that the vast majority of the graffiti isn’t seen. Some of it is historial, dating back to the 1880's. In Blanche Cave, there is graffiti written in beautiful handwriting by candle wax, the effort of private school girls bought here by their governesses. The information on display and the use of movement sensors to start and stop lighting according to your location, was most effective. The rock formations in this open cave are not as glossy but still spectacular, especially either deep into the cave or near the roof fall in which created its opening. At the very deepest point accessible by the public, water lies in a pool around attractive formations.

We took a breather in the Caves Café, enjoying a rather moist gluten-free orange cake in the process.

Bent Wing Bats - realtime
 in the Bat Cave
Our last cave for the day was preceded by a visit to the control room which manages the infrared cameras which operate in the Bat Cave, the opening of which we sat beside last night as thousands of bats emerged in search of insects. We were introduced to a stuffed version of the Bent Wing Bats that live there in tens of thousands and shown stock footage of events. The great  excitement was viewing realtime bats through the cameras helping scientists understand bat behaviour in this huge breeding colony.

Time and again, Desma, our erstwhile guide throughout the day, zoomed in on individual bats as they preened, settled and unsettled and peed on each other. To each their own.

From here, we went underground for the third time of the day for a guide tour of the Blanche Cave, the oldest and most walked through cave in the complex. Guided tours have been walking through this cave for more than 130 years. Discovered by European settlers in 1845, it is another open cave, which means that the calcite which creates the cave formations does so more quickly but not with the same glossy, wet appearance that is apparent in closed caves. It has an interesting history, used regularly for opera these days, but for rock concerts and choral singers often enough in the past. The Olympic Torch Relay even ran though Blanche Cave in the lead up to the 2000 Games! Candlelit New Year’s Eve parties were held most years during the 1860’s.

Mummified possum
A mummified possum is one of its most interesting remaining inhabitants but far from its controversial past occupants. From its earliest discovery by white men, it was well known that the mummified remains of a young aboriginal man could be found on a high shelf above the floor of the cave. It lay undisturbed but noted for nearly twenty years until an American showman, Thomas Craig, stole in in 1861, wrapping it in a canvas bag and walked most of the 90 kilometres to Mount Gambier with it slung over his shoulder.

His theft came to light when a maid in his Mount Gambier hotel looked in the bag under his bed and discovered the body, calling the police. The body was confiscated and eventually returned to the cave by the order of the Commissioner of Lands. He further ordered that the body be entombed behind iron bars so that it would be safe from grave robbers in the future. Craig, having sued the government of the time for compensation and receiving a farthing from an unsympathetic magistrate, hid in the cave during the reinstallation and stole it once again, displaying it in Melbourne and Sydney in the years that followed. He eventually sold in by auction in London in the late 1860’s but the corpse moved on, being reported in the USA as late as 1914.

We viewed the archaeological dig and it’s trench which can date material and soil back one hundred thousand years.

Through this last hour underground, it was just Sue and I and our guide Desma. It was a wonderful conclusion to a remarkable twenty four hours at Naracoorte Caves NP. Little wonder it is South Australia’s favourite national park.

The rain closed in during dusk but it was of little consequence. The antenna was up and the reception clear as the Doctor made house calls.

Adelaide tomorrow and some old friends.

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