Beneath the towering karri forests around Western Australia’s Margaret River region lie more than 150 caves. Stalactites, stalagmites, shawls, pools and other wonderful formations create a wonderland in the dark.
I’m not afraid of the dark, but I am a trifle claustrophobic. Not all cave experiences are for me, but these huge cave complexes – although far underground – have such soaring chambers that it’s easy to forget exactly where you are. And they are so breathtaking there’s barely time for anything but wonder and appreciation.
The caves that lie along the spine of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge are part of complex, fragile landscapes – called karst systems – formed by the rapid drainage of water underground. And it is these underground landscapes I’ve come to see.
Caves Road leads to the first of my stops, Mammoth Cave, about 20 minutes drive from Margaret River township. Mammoth Cave is one of three “show caves” operated by the Augusta Margaret River Tourism Association. All are easily accessible – as long as you don’t mind stairs – and each is different in its own way. All are open to the public every day, except Christmas Day.
Mammoth Cave is the most easily accessible of the three (it is even wheelchair-friendly). The self-guided tour uses an MP3 player and a headset, so you can wander along the cave’s boardwalks at your own pace, listening to the information about what you’re seeing, including fossil remains of extinct megafauna. Those include zygomaturus trilobus, one of the largest marsupials ever to roam the earth (specimens of 22 of them have been found here).
When you emerge from the darkness about an hour later, you will walk back to the entrance and car park along a bush trail through beautiful karri trees.
Just five minutes drive away is Lake Cave. No surprises about how it got its name, this is the only cave in the system that has a permanent lake inside it. This is also the deepest of the caves, and you enter through a massive hole in the earth’s surface.
But first, spend some time above ground at Caveworks, an interpretive centre which explains the formation and history of these and other caves. Then walk out onto the new suspended deck which juts out over the doline (hole). It’s a superb setting, surrounded by karri trees and with three “portholes” in the floor looking down into the crater-like doling.
After taking the stairs down to the base of the doline, you then enter the limestone cave, with its still lake reflecting everything around it. If you’re lucky enough to be alone or with just a few people, it is almost as if you’re the first to discover this amazing place.
The third of the caves is Jewel Cave, but time conspired against me getting to that one too – although I’m assured it has its own distinct “personality” and features.
If you are into caving, then this is the place to come; the Moondyne Cave, which is part of the Jewel Cave precinct, offers the chance for visitors to take a three-hour torchlight caving tour (the kind where you get down and dirty, wearing protective gear and helmets). Tours operate on weekends from June to December.
On a previous trip to the region, a couple of years ago, I also visited the Ngilgi Cave, which were discovered in 1899 by Edward Dawson, who became the first guide there when they were opened to the public. Ngilgi Cave is at Yallingup and a wonderful place to stay there is Caves House, which was built in 1905 to cater for the tourists who flocked to caves when they were discovered.