It’s a scenic drive from Sydney, through the Blue Mountains and Katoomba. Past the village of Hartley, we turn off and drive past the exotic Blue Lake and arrive at the enormous natural bridge called the Grand arch which is the dramatic entrance to the spectacular Jenolan Caves. The Jenolan caves, 175 km from Sydney, is a World Heritage Site, formed millions of years ago and discovered in the last two hundred years. Jenolan was known to the local aboriginals as Binoomea or ‘the dark place’. The story goes that the first European to find these caves was a convict on the run who used these caves as a hide-out! This is Australia’s most outstanding cave system with a maze of ancient caves, underground rivers and amazing limestone formations! The caves are surrounded by almost two thousand hectares of Wilderness reserve with walking tracks and excellent views.

We stay at the Jenolan Caves house, a Tudor-style building built in 1896 with high gables and stonework and restored to its Victorian grandeur. This is traditional, with an old-world charm. There are no TV sets here, just a faded Victorian glory, heavy drapes and antique furniture.

There are various tours to choose from. There are the eleven ’show caves’ which are open to the general public and are electrically lit. They are classified by the time needed to see them as well as the level of fitness required .There are also the adventure or wild caves for the more adventurous with a lot of energy to burn! This requires people to wear boiler suits and miners helmets provided with lights and involves a fair amount of crawling and slithering. We also hear that there are special ‘theme’ tour like ghost tours and murder mystery tours! The best way to see the caves is to buy a guided tour of three or four caves. It’s hard to decide on which caves to see as all of them are said to be stunners. We take an option that includes the Lucas cave, said to be the best general cave. It has been the scene of many weddings and concerts (because of its amazing acoustics!). This was named after John Lucas, an early Australian politician and leader who championed conservation. Biting back my claustrophobic fears, I embark on this new adventure! It’s a magical world of the most awe-inspiring creations of nature. We are fascinated by the columns and the highest cathedral in the Lucas cave, where the concerts take place and then head towards the Imperial cave. This is reputed to be the most magnificent of all the caves. This follows an ancient river path and has the famous ‘shawls’ or bands of different fascinating colours formed by the dripping limestone over millions of years that resemble fluttering cloth. A slim and tall stalactite is called ‘Lots wife” inspired by the Biblical story.

There is a sink hole in the floor and we see a preserved skeleton of a Tasmanian devil which was found while digging the ground here. We see marine fossils in the roofs and walls and we are told that this area was a shallow sea whose inhabitants perished and metamorphosed into limestone! There is the ’crystal cities’ on a ledge which are appropriately named- they really look like ancient fortifications! We learn about the helectites, old twisted formations which look like loops or strings and remind us of abstract doodling. Its dark, hardly any sunlight comes in, yet we see signs of life around us- tree roots and microscopic life forms! There is a 66 step spiral staircase leading to the underground river. Its freezing cold, damp, and eerie- a totally surreal experience!

We visit the Chifley cave with its coloured crystal and learn that it was the first cave in the world to be lit electrically! There is the Madonna cave where we see an interesting stalagmite resembling the Madonna and child. The Margarita cave is named after the person who lit the cave using electricity as far back as 1880! We see a chamber called Katie’s Bower and our guide entertains us with a story about how a young girl called Katie was lowered on one end of a rope to discover this cave! The guide is passionate about caves and the history of the place and makes our caving experience something to cherish.

After tramping around in twisting tunnels and climbing old cast iron ladders, for almost three hours in the bowels of the earth, we are ravenously hungry. Lunch is a buffet in the Caves house restaurant with an exquisitely laid table of goodies and Georgian tableware. Post-lunch is a guided walk in the wilderness surrounding the caves. We spot kookaburras, rosellas (red parrots) and the elusive cockatoos! We reach Carlotta’s arch, and get a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains, the mirror-like lake and the surrounding vistas. It’s been a great journey from below the ground to the peak. Nature does create the most sublime art!

Published in The Hindu Metro Plus, 2009