Jenolan Caves

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Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve
Jenolan Caves Imperial Cave 3.jpg
The Imperial Cave at Jenolan Caves
Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve is located in New South Wales
Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve
Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve
State New South Wales
Coordinates 33°49′14″S 150°1′17.2″E / 33.82056°S 150.021444°E / -33.82056; 150.021444Coordinates: 33°49′14″S 150°1′17.2″E / 33.82056°S 150.021444°E / -33.82056; 150.021444
Area 24.22 km2 (9.4 sq mi)
Established December 1997
Managing authorities New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service
Official site Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve

Jenolan Caves are caves in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia; 175 kilometres west of Sydney. They are the most visited of several similar groups in the limestone of the country, and the most ancient discovered open caves in the world.[1][2] They include numerous Silurian marine fossils[3] and the calcite formations, sometimes pure white, are noted for their beauty.[4] The cave network is very large, with over 40 km of multi-level passages, and the complex is still undergoing active exploration. The caves are a popular tourist destination, with several kilometres of the caves rendered accessible to paying visitors and well lit.[5]


The entrance to Nettle Cave, circa 1888.

By measuring the ratio of radioactive potassium and trapped argon gas, which was produced when the potassium decayed, scientists determined the age of the clay in the caves to be approximately 340 million years old, thereby making the cave complex the world's oldest known and dated open cave system.[6] The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in association with the University of Sydney and the Australian Museum lead the efforts in scientific research into the caves.

For thousands of years, the Jenolan area has been part of the culture of local indigenous peoples. The area holds significance to the Gundungurra people, who knew it as 'Binomil' or 'Bin-oo-mur'. A Dreamtime creation story of the Gundungurra people describes how the countryside came into being, and involves a struggle between two ancestral creator spirits - one a giant eel-like creature, Gurangatch, and the other, Mirrigan, a large native cat or quoll. In the early years of the 20th century, the Gundungurra people penetrated the caves as far as the subterranean water, carrying sick people to be bathed in this water, which they believed to have curative powers.[citation needed]

There are no known contemporaneous accounts of the discovery of the caves by Europeans - though Charles Whalan is attributed as the first to conduct visitors to the caves in the 1840s.[7] However, in Charles Whalan's obituary and other sources, credit for the caves' discovery is given to his brother James Whalan.[7][8] Though most accounts were written some decades after the initial discovery, and differ somewhat in the details, it is generally accepted that in 1838 (or possibly 1841), James Whalan was in pursuit of a bushranger named McEwen, who had stolen livestock, and was tracked to the area.[9] In this pursuit, James Whalan discovered the cave system and reported its existence to his brother Charles - who further explored the caves.[10][11][12]

Possibly the earliest surviving image of the Grand Arch of Jenolan Caves, known in 1861 as Fish River Caves

The caves, originally known as the Fish River Caves, came under the control of the New South Wales Government in 1866 - becoming only the second area in the world reserved for the purpose of conservation. The following year, Jeremiah Wilson was appointed as the first "Keeper of the Caves".[9] Wilson not only explored the already known Elder and Lucas Caves but later discovered the Imperial, Left Imperial (now known as Chifley), Jersey and Jubilee Caves.

The caves were open to tourism early, but there was little protection from visitors damaging formations until the collection of souvenirs was banned in 1872. In 1884 the name Jenolan Caves was adopted. The name "Jenolan" comes from the Gundungurra word, "Genowlan", the for a "high place shaped like a foot".

Remains of early electric lighting can still be seen

The road to the caves originally went via Tarana, which meant that travellers from the south had to take a long, roundabout route of about 90 miles from Katoomba to Oberon, and, from there, to Tarana. In the mid-1880s, hotel keepers in Katoomba wanted to improve business by constructing a road to the Caves from their town, but the steep, rough ground between the caves and town was a major obstacle, and several attempts failed. However, representations were made to the state premier by Peter Fitzpatrick of Burragorang, who was connected to some mining operations near Katoomba. In April, 1884, William Marshall Cooper, Surveyor of Public Parks for the State Government, was assigned the job, and worked out a horse-and-carriage track in a 10-day trek from Katoomba to the Caves. The route was, he remarked, 26.5 miles from the Western Hotel in Katoomba. "... Anyone accustomed to walking can do it comfortably in 12 hours... when the proposed horse track is completed, it will be a very enjoyable ride of five hours." It became known as the Six Foot Track.

By 1885, Parliament had approved ₤2,500 for the construction of Cooper's bridle track, with the work starting at the most difficult area, the Megalong Cleft, where a zig-zag had to be cut, partly in solid rock, to reduce the grade to 1:5.5.[13] The first recorded passage of the completed bridle track from Katoomba to Jenolan was by the governor, Lord Carrington, in September 1887. Lord Carrington also made the first official visit to the caves at the completion of his journey, accompanied by Wilson.

In 1898 the current Jenolan Caves House was built, replacing the earlier wooden accommodation house built by Jeremiah Wilson, which had been destroyed in a fire.

James Wiburd became "Keeper of the Caves" in 1903 and discovered five more caves within eighteen months: the River, Pool of Cerberus, Temple of Baal, Orient and Ribbon Caves. He remained Keeper until 1932, when he left following a dispute over the development of the Ribbon Cave for tourism.

Chifley Cave with coloured illumination

The Chifley Cave, originally known as the Left Imperial Cave but named for Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1952, was the first of the caves to be lit with electric light, as early as 1880. In 1968, the Orient Cave became the first in the world to be cleaned, due to contamination from a nearby coal boiler. This was entering the cave via a new tunnel blasted 400 feet through to the Orient cave in the 1950s to allow easier access (entering at Bat End). Steam cleaning was found to be damaging to the crystal formations, due to the rapid expansion and contraction caused by the heat from the steam, and these days water from the caves' own underground rivers is used if cave cleaning becomes necessary.

Since 2011, CSIRO (in association with Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) has been using a new hand-held mapping system to map some of the caves in three-dimensional detail.[14]


Climate data for Jenolan State Forest
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 23.2
Average low °C (°F) 9.7
Source: BOM[15]


Jenolan offers a range of tourist show caves

Located 3 hours drive from Sydney and Canberra, Jenolan Caves attracts over 250,000 visitors a year, making it one of the most popular tourist locations in rural New South Wales.[citation needed]

Since 2008, Jenolan Caves has won many tourism awards,[16] including 4 gold awards in the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards (2011 and 2013).[citation needed]

There is no public transport to Jenolan Caves. However, there are large carparks and a range of coach operators bring tourists from Sydney and Katoomba every day.

Ten of the area's "dark caves" are open for regular guided tours every day (1 to 2 hours per tour). These 'show' cave tour sizes vary. For example, the delicate Pool of Cerberus Cave can have only 8 on a tour, while the Lucas Cave (with its large chambers) can have up to 65 people per tour.

Tours also vary in difficulty, for example the Imperial Cave has the fewest stairs, while the River Cave is the most strenuous. However, the average tourist can tour any of these 'show' caves.[citation needed]

Challenge seekers can do adventure caving at Jenolan

A self-guided tour of the huge Nettle Cave/Devils Coach House is also available. The self-guided tour gives visitors a choice of many languages. One of the choices on the self-guided tour is an Aboriginal culture commentary.

Night tours run every night except Sundays, including the popular ghost tour, 'Legends, Mysteries & Ghosts'.

Several undeveloped caves are available for Adventure Caving (2 hours to all-day tours). These Adventure Caving tours include the Plughole Tour, which runs daily and includes basic abseiling. Other more challenging Adventure Caving tours are available.[citation needed]

The Cathedral Chamber, part of the "Lucas Cave" is famous for its acoustics. Underground concerts take place in this chamber. Concerts also take place in the Grand Arch, including the annual 'Carols in the Caves', which raises money for charity.

During NSW School Holidays, specially developed tours are available for children. Jenolan Caves has long been a popular destination for school excursions.

Historic hotel, Jenolan Caves House, offers a range of tourist accommodation.

When visiting Jenolan Caves, tourists can stay at the heritage-listed Jenolan Caves House, designed in 1897 by government architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, as a resort or retreat for the wealthy. To cater for the expectations of the well-to-do, Vernon included a ballroom and grand dining room (now Chisolm's Restaurant).

Chisolm's is open for dinner every day, serving modern Australian cuisine. Facilities include an hotel/motel complex, self-contained cottages, restaurant, bar and cafe.

The huge Jenolan Reserve is a National Park, located in the World Heritage Blue Mountains Area, where several signposted bush trails enable tourists to glimpse Australian birds and native wildlife, including kangaroos and platypus.[citation needed]


The Grand Column
The Minaret
Small shawls
Imperial Cave
Crayfish back at Nettle Cave

Large portions of this extensive cave system are accessible only to cavers, especially those areas along the underground river system; but, there are ten caves at Jenolan that have been developed for regular tourism.

  • Lucas Cave: Discovered in 1860 and the most popular among visitors. The Lucas Cave (named after local politician John Lucas who pushed to have the caves preserved in the 1860s) features a number of large chambers including the Cathedral, over 50 metres high, and the vast Exhibition Chamber which contains the Broken Column formation. Due to its size and acoustics, the Cathedral Chamber is also used for wedding ceremonies and recitals.
  • River Cave: Discovered in 1903, the River Cave is the most extensive show cave at Jenolan and includes some of its most famous features, including the Minaret, the Grand Column and the Queen's Canopy, as well as part of the River Styx. Until 1923 when a concrete bridge was built, a section of river in this cave was crossed by a small boat.
  • Chifley Cave: Discovered in 1880, the Chifley Cave was known as the Left Imperial Cave until 1952, when it was renamed in honour of the then recently deceased former Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who grew up in nearby Bathurst. The Chifley Cave was the first cave in the world to be lit by electric light, in 1880. Two of the cave's chambers are still decorated with historic coloured lights.
  • Imperial Cave: Discovered in 1879, this is the easiest cave to visit for tourists. The Imperial contains some of the best fossil deposits and several Tasmanian Devil bones. Note that whilst fossils may not be clearly evident to the casual visitor, in fact the bedrock in which the caves are formed is richly endowed with marine fossils.
  • Orient Cave: Discovered in 1903, the Orient Cave was not opened to public inspection until 1917, to allow for the installation of electric lighting and paths. This cave contains some of the grandest formations in the complex and was steam cleaned to preserve them in 1968. Until 1954, this cave, along with the Temple of Baal and Ribbon Caves, were only accessible through the River Cave. That year, the Binoomea Cut was constructed near Caves House to facilitate easier access to these caves. An LED-based lighting system was installed in this cave in 2009.[17]
  • Ribbon Cave: Discovered at the same time as the Orient Cave, it was originally part of that tour but is now visited separately. The Ribbon Cave is only 60 metres long but is richly decorated. This cave is known for particularly good examples of 'ribbon' helictites.
  • Pool of Cerberus Cave: Discovered in 1903, this cave is a lower arm of the River Cave. The major formations here are the Bath of Venus and part of the underground river system that forms the Pool of Cerberus itself. It also includes rare aragonite formations.
  • Jubilee Cave: Discovered in 1893, the Jubilee Cave is the longest show cave at Jenolan. It takes the longest amount of time to visit as it is fairly remote from the other caves. Of the caves shown at Jenolan to the public it is the least visited due to the length of the tour and the small tour groups that can be taken there.
  • Temple of Baal Cave: Discovered in 1904, the Temple of Baal Cave consists of only two large chambers, one of which is dominated by the huge 9-metre shawl formation called the Angel's Wing. The cave is also noted for a high incidence of the peculiar formations known as Helictites. The name derives from the biblical story of Baal, and the feature names in the cave largely relate to that story. Recent[when?] development work has upgraded the lighting and added an audio accompaniment to the cave experience.
  • Nettle Cave: The Nettle Cave lies between the Grand Arch and the Devils Coach House. The cave takes its name from the nettles which grow near its entrance (note that raised walkways protect visitors from their stings); an upper part of this cave can be seen from inside the Devil's Coach House. Originally shown as a guided tour, the cave was closed to the public in 1932. In December 2006, this cave was re-opened to the public as a self-guided audio tour, combined with the adjoining Devil's Coach House. The Nettle Cave hosts "Crayfish backs", stromatolites shaped by cyanobacteria, light and wind. They are estimated to be at least 20,000 years old.[18]
  • Arch: The road from Sydney passes through the Arch and six of the cave tours leave from assembly points within it. Adjacent to the Grand Arch is the Devil's Coach House, a vast open-ended chamber that forms part of the many nature walks in the area. High above both of these is Carlotta Arch, a free-standing arch that is all that remains of a higher cavern system long since eroded and collapsed. Along with these areas, there are several other caves in the area, some of which are available for special tours.
  • Elder Cave: Named from the Elder tree, visitors would climb down to enter the doline (sinkhole). Discovered in 1848, the Elder Cave was the first of the caves at Jenolan to be found and opened to tourists. It was later considered too difficult to develop adequately and tours eventually ceased; however in the late 1990s the Elder Cave was re-opened for adventure caving, and is sold as the Plughole Tour. It is not as decorated as the regular show caves, but features signatures left by early visitors and includes a short section of the Imperial Cave.
  • Aladdin Cave: The Aladdin Cave was first explored in the hope of developing a shorter path to the Jubilee Cave. It has similar decorations to the Jubilee Cave.
  • Jersey Cave: An extension of the Elder Cave. One of the features is a fossilised thylacine skeleton.
  • Arch Cave: This cave lies above Nettle Cave and part of it can be seen from the Devils Coach House. The entrance to this cave is at the base of Carlotta Arch (hence the name) and the stairs and locked gate can still be reached although the Arch Cave.


  1. ^ "Tests show Jenolan Caves among world's oldest". ABC News Online (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 25 July 2006. Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  2. ^ Colchester, D.M., Osborne, R.A.L., Pogson, R.E., Zwingmann, H., 2006, Carboniferous clay deposits from Jenolan Caves, New South Wales: implications for timing of speleogenesis and regional geology, Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 53(3), p377-405
  3. ^ Monroe, M. H. (11 May 2008). "Australian Silurian". Australia: The Land Where Time Began. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  4. ^ "Cave Formations (Speleothems)". Jenolan Caves. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  5. ^ "Jenolan Caves". Visit NSW. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  6. ^ "Jenolan Caves 340 million years old: study". CSIRO. 25 July 2006. 
  7. ^ a b "The Late Charles Whalan of Oberon - Reprints of Articles from the Bathurst Free Press and the Weekly Advocate (Sydney)". 1887. "attributes discovery of cave mouth to James Whalan in 1838, while in pursuit of the bushranger McEwan, but the exploration and opening up of the caves to visitors to his brother Charles Whalan (who lived nearby)" 
  8. ^ "Extract from submission to Lithgow Mercury by Jeremiah Wilson on 4 April 1899". 7 April 1899. "Clarification on the Discovery of Jenolan Caves by Jeremiah Wilson (first "official" guide) written 50 years after discovery" 
  9. ^ a b "The History of Jenolan Caves". 
  10. ^ "NEWS FROM THE INTERIOR.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 25 April 1853. p. 2. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  11. ^ "Police Office.". Bathurst Advocate (NSW : 1848 - 1849) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 13 May 1848. p. 3. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  12. ^ "THE FISH RIVER STALACTIVE CAVES.". Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1875) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia). 26 February 1857. p. 5. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  13. ^ "Track from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves" by W.M. Cooper, Surveyor of Public Parks, published in Sydney, Australia, 1885, copy at National Library of Australia (
  14. ^ "Jenolan Caves sheltering climate secrets". The Sydney Morning Herald. 16 December 2012. Retrieved 16 December 2012. 
  15. ^ BOMCanadian Climate Normals 1971–2000, accessed 7 July 2009
  16. ^ "Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust. Annual Report. 2008 - 2009". Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust. 2009. p. 3. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  17. ^ "Orient Cave re-opened after upgrade". (News Ltd). 20 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-20. 
  18. ^ Jenolan Caves Compulsive self-guided tour, accessed 28 December 2009

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