On the recent Labor Day weekend, I took my husband on a trip to Kosciuszko National Park across state lines in New South Wales. When I’d planned it back in May, the park’s eco-cabin accommodation was booked out for months and had a two-night minimum. So I went for a three-day weekend during a U.S. holiday when Australians would be working and bingo! It was mine. The park’s northern area of Yarrangobilly Caves is only about 2.5 hours southwest of Canberra, and boasts more than 400 caves, some dating back several million years.
The greater Snowy Mountains region features skiing, hiking, camping, and a variety of wildlife – we saw wombats, kangaroos, foxes, a lot of birds, and even two brumbies! (No, not Aussie rugby players! Note: Brumbies are wild, feral horses in Australia descended from early settlers’ horses. A group of them is called a ‘mob’ or ‘band,’ rather than a ‘herd.’)
We decided to take our Nissan Murano, “Oscar.” As in, “the grouch.” Oscar is our older, less reliable car, but between our two Australian cars, only Oscar has four-wheel drive. And with a little snow in the forecast, plus rural and rugged terrain, Oscar was a good choice. And thankfully, even with the engine light glowing for almost a year, we had no car trouble on the trip.
With the closest gas and groceries about 50 miles away, we packed in all the fuel, food, and water we would need for a three day stay.
The trip got off to a rough start – we both worked late the night before and were late in packing, the dog we have been sitting for since May peed on the living room carpet right before we left, and a squeak in the car was driving me nuts for the first hour. At the first sight of snow my husband mentions that he forgot his scarf and gloves. And after an hour on the road, right before going out of cell range, we panicked that we’d pulled the chain from inside on the front door, which would have made it impossible for our dog sitter to get in unless it occurred to her to come in through the garage. (I say this to disabuse anyone of the notion that I somehow have the world by the ass.)
We did manage to straighten it all out and enjoy a nice brunch in Cooma on the way to the mountains, where (inexplicably?) the Yugoslav flag still flies proudly in a park marking Australia’s 1988 bicentennial.
Once we arrived at the cabin, we spent an hour or so unpacking and setting up house, and then went for a walk.
Even though we were only gone for 75 minutes, the walk was clearly beyond my fitness level. There was a steep, sustained descent of more than half a mile to a warm, natural thermal pool, followed by a trek along Yarrangobilly River.
The sky opened just in time to drench a steep muddy hillside which we had to climb, sometimes on all fours, for more than 20 minutes to make it back topside. Although I was gasping for air and had to stop frequently to rest/laugh at myself, it was worth it. I would honestly do it again!
The second day we cooked breakfast and headed out to tour Jillabenan and Jersey Caves. Our guide explained that the limestone in the Yarrangobilly area was formed by undersea coral about 440 million years ago, and was pushed up above ground by tectonic plate shifts around 400 million years ago.
There are about 405 caves in the area, a handful of which are publicly accessible today. Scientists estimate based on isotopic dating techniques that the two caves we visited date back three million years. Which means the speleogenesis, or cave development, has been going on for a very long time.
I’ve been to a few caves, and have seen my share of stalagmites, helictites, and straw stalactites, but these caves were especially impressive and the first I had seen down under.
There were a few things that made them different than other caves I’ve visited – the depth and length (in particular of the Jersey Cave, which it took nearly 90 minutes to tour), the different colors and shapes, and the layers of ash and resultant blackening from bushfires dating back more than 330,000 years! I even saw layers of half-million year old mud, still damp, between slabs of stone.
It truly blew my mind when our guide said that growth in the cave happens at about one centimeter per every 100 to 1000 years, depending on a variety of factors (oxygen, water, minerals, etc.). I mean, I am probably a complete science geek, but how cool is this?! To be standing somewhere and know that hundreds of thousands of years ago, it looked much as it does today.
When these caves were discovered around 1912, the first explorers usually stumbled upon them chasing a dog, who was chasing a wombat or similar small animal. Our guide reminded us that early adventurers and cave visitors would have worn period dress and used orangy candlelight, thus hampering their movement somewhat – especially for women in hoop skirts and big hats – and not allowing them to see and appreciate the full scope of the caves’ coloring and shape.
“Fossilized” in some of the material you can still see today an old Australian coin, and the wings and bones of dead bats.
We decided two caves was enough, but the tours were well-guided, not crowded, and very affordable. Back at the cabin, we cooked dinner and tried to make friends with laughing kookaburras and roos in the yard.
I will miss the chill, no-TV and no-Internet cottage. I did not even bring our portable WiFi hot spot – that great was my wish to disconnect.
On the way home we passed through the 1860s gold rush ghost town of Kiandra…
…admired the big Australian sky while keeping an eye on the road…
…and enjoyed the eucalyptus forests, which feel more like home with each passing month.