Go exploring in the NSW Central Tablelands
The road zigzags and twists, winding through ravines where gum trees plunge and wild mountains undulate like a rugged sea beneath sleeping stars. Snared in the headlights, the curious eyes of wallabies, wombats and possums gleam. In the protected realm of Kanangra-Boyd National Park, the mysticism of nature still prevails and the ancient soul of the Earth wanders.
Three hours west of Sydney, Jenolan Caves Road provides a dramatic entrance to Australia’s oldest tourist destination. Sited within the 68,000 hectare UNESCO World Heritage-listed wilderness of Kanangra-Boyd in the Central Tablelands of NSW, the caves are the gem of the region. Visited by over 230,000 tourists each year, the 2422-square-hectare Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve remains one of the most mysterious and famous locations within Australia.
Perhaps overshadowed by the caves, several unique attractions skirt the area. These include NSW’s only Japanese bathhouse, the spectacular Mayfield Garden at Oberon, the dramatic scenery of Kanangra Wall and about 40,000ha of state pine forest. Located within a 60km radius of the caves, each of these attractions has its own enchantment and is worth a day trip of its own.
The profound deep
Some say the dark crevices within the towering rock of the Grand Arch form the eyes and mouth of an eerie face that protects Jenolan Caves. True or not, it’s a fitting start to the Ghosts, Mysteries and Legends Tour.
A well of light by the guide’s office holds the dark, brooding bush at bay. Upbeat and tucked into a blue parka, Anne Musser isn’t afraid. A palaeontologist and cave guide here since 2008, she leads the charge with a flashlight, shepherding 20 tourists through a door within the rock.
The secluded walks of Jenolan are peaceful places where shy kangaroos scatter, water dragons bask and lyrebird calls fragment the air like magical lutes in a long-forgotten dreamtime.
“The first non-Indigenous person who made it down here was McKeown, a bushranger,” Musser relates, her tone impossibly cheery in the dark. Settlers pursued the ex-convict to the caves in the 1830s, discovering the site and heralding an era of public exploration.
Like the pre-electricity cave tours of the 1800s, this tour is conducted by lamplight and showcases old caves closed to the public. Of most fascination are the sloping tunnels tourists of the past wormed through to access the underworld. A dark hole plunges through the floor of the cave. “Before stairs there was no way down but a rope ladder,” Musser reveals.
Scrambling through black tunnels, we enter a chamber where a shallow subterranean river glimmers beneath the torchlight. Tinkling enchantingly, the river’s presence is magical. According to Musser, it’s frequented by eels, tiny river crustaceans and even platypus. The crustaceans “are adapted to live in the dark and have no eyes and no colour”, she says.
The light of her torch uncovers “stone waterfalls”, “shawls”, “cave pearls”, “crystal” and other geological treasures shaped over 340 million years. Time’s magnitude reigns here, exposed in the tissues, sinews and arteries of the subterranean world. Everything in these caves — from the fossils of wallabies to the historical stories and artefacts — conveys the powerful grip of the past.
Some of the past is felt in more mysterious ways. Jenolan is supposedly haunted. “Principle ghosts” are thought to be Jeremiah Wilson and James Wiburd (former caretakers of the caves). Caves House, Jenolan’s Victorian-era hotel, is allegedly haunted by Lucinda Wilson, Wiburd’s wife, and Ms Chisolm, a restaurant manager until 1965. Room 123 in the original old wing is the one to beware of, Musser teases, and relates an uncomfortable tale of a tourist tucked in for the night by a ghost.
The following day I’m discussing the supernatural side of Jenolan with Cory Camilleri, a cave guide and Jenolan’s ghost expert. “The stories are anecdotal, mostly from people on tours,” Camilleri says, revealing most cave guides at Jenolan have had some kind of experience with the ghosts. She believes any paranormal activity here is associated with a protective passion for the caves. “There’s something about Jenolan that draws people back year after year. It’s like an addiction.”
A mysterious ambience is perhaps one of the area’s most defining qualities. Rimmed by steep vertical rock cliffs up to 1250 metres, it’s sited in a valley possessed of an intense, mystical twilight. While over 300 caves have been discovered, the full extent of what lies underground is still unknown. “We still don’t know how deep it goes,” Camilleri reveals. “We’re only scratching the surface of science here.”
The following day, my guide Anne Musser leads me down a lane to a fossil of a sea lily. An ancient marine animal related to sea stars, the fossil dates back to when Jenolan was an offshore shoal and part of the ancient super-continent, Gondwana.
Above ground, the karst reserve is an ethereal place adorned by the surreal Blue Pool. “There are lots of things to do above ground as well,” Musser enthuses. Rambling along the Jenolan River, in the heights or through McKeowns Valley, the secluded walks of Jenolan are peaceful places where shy kangaroos scatter, water dragons bask and lyrebird calls fragment the air like magical lutes in a long-forgotten dreamtime.
The karst reserve is a cornucopia for wildlife, including gliders, quolls, owls, bats, birds, platypus and the endangered brush-tailed rock wallaby. “There was a wombat that popped out of the arch at 1pm the other day,” Musser says.
There’s a sense of a vast and mysterious human history, too. Some of this valuable indigenous past is revealed in the new Gundungurra cultural audio guide tour, available along the Healing Waters walk.
Through the audio tour I discover the indigenous Gundungurra people carried their sick considerable distances to bathe in the nadyung (healing pools) of Genowlan (high place shaped like a foot). They also drank the water for stomach disorders and prized the crystal for spear tips, spiritual healing and as sacred objects in men’s ceremonies.
Perhaps Tom Brown, spokesperson for the Gundungurra Tribal Council, best sums it up on the audio: “Today, Jenolan still affects people. The connection between people and Earth is natural.
The ancient outdoors
About 30km south of the caves, the Kanangra Walls precinct is one of few accessible points into the Kanangra-Boyd wilderness. Along the unsealed road an echidna waddles. A snake slides away.
Any doubts about the journey are erased once you arrive. Jutting dizzyingly over 600–900m-deep Kanangra Gorge, the sheer sandstone cliff of Kanangra Wall towers over a view rated one of the best in the country by Australian Traveller. In the distance, Mount Cloudmaker hovers mystically, waterfalls plummet and currawongs ring.
The solitude is staggering. There’s a sense of standing on the very edge of civilisation. Carved with spires, chasms and ravines and scored with wild rivers and creeks, the park’s highest altitude soars to 1334m and plummets down to 160m at Coxs River. Peering over the edge of the Wall is a humbling experience. My gut drops and my knees tremble.
One of the most rugged wilderness areas in NSW, the exposed rock escarpment of the Wall dates as far back as the Late Devonian Age some 400 million years ago.
Carved with spires, chasms and ravines and scored with wild rivers and creeks, the park’s highest altitude soars to 1334m and plummets down to 160m at Coxs River.
Although it’s popular with serious canyoners and bushwalkers, easy walks lace the area. After exploring the heath and 160-degree views of the Plateau Walk, I descend down the rock ravine of the Waterfall Walk. It’s like scrambling down the spine of an ancient dragon. At the bottom, Kalang Falls plunges into a pretty pool, offering respite before the climb back up.
The subject of battles against water, mining and forestry interests during the 1900s, “Kanangra-Boyd National Park has been pivotal in the history of conservation in Australia,” the Blue Mountains Conservation Society website reminds us. It’s frightening to think of what might have been.
The primeval forest
Bordering Kanangra-Boyd National Park, the majesty of Jenolan State Forest is scattered with walking trails. The almost 5000ha of radiata pine forest attracts an odd mix of gem fossickers, trailbike riders, hunters and mushroomers, with the 30- to 35-year interlude between plantation and harvest providing opportunity for the public to enjoy the forest.
In early autumn, the coloured tops of exotic wood mushrooms gleam like jewels among the blankets of dried pine needles. The dark aisles of forest rustle with the keen footsteps of mushroom hunters foraging for the orange-coloured Saffron Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus) and the Slippery Jack (Boletus portentosus). Considered delicacies in Europe, these thrive here from late February to April. Knowledge of which mushroom to pick and those to avoid is essential. While pretty, the bright-red fairytale-like Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is poisonous and best admired from afar.
Dark, yet enchanting, there is something primeval about walking in the woods.
Cradled in the small town of South Bowenfels just outside Lithgow, Sparadise Japanese Bathhouse remains a secret to many. Along Magpie Hollow Road, the drive winds through the peaceful laps of brown hills and a horizon of mountains so blue they’re mirage-like. A sign bearing a giant teapot appears like a talisman marking the way to the mysterious property hidden on a hillside near Lake Lyall.
We learn from Victoria Choo, the manager, that Sparadise is the retreat of Okuzawa Yasumasa, a famous ophthalmologist in Japan.
Rich with natural minerals, including calcium and iron, the thermal waters derive from a hot spring on the property.
After the prerequisite body-cleansing ritual, I glide into the deliciously warm embrace of the indoor bath. Rich with natural minerals including calcium and iron, the thermal waters derive from a hot spring on the property. The 28°C water, further heated to 38°, aids circulation, detoxification, stress, arthritis, rheumatism and gout.
Saturated with tea-tree, lemon myrtle and eucalyptus oil, the vapours in the herbal steam room are sharp and intense. “It’s very good for asthma, colds and flu,” Choo advises.
At 40°C, the outside bath feels like immersing yourself in a cauldron. I gaze lightheadedly upon Japanese cypress and a small hillside orchard that includes nashi, cherry and persimmon. After five minutes you start to cook and have to sit on the stones that surround the pool, languishing around the hotpot like those snow monkeys seen in the Japanese alps.
The reflexology footpath is designed as a zen walking meditation and massages the soles of the feet. “The stones symbolise the mountain and the vision of our lives going up to the top,” Choo says.
In the relaxation room, tranquil music plays so softly you might have imagined it. I’m taken to a hidden nook peering onto a Japanese garden for a pre-booked massage. Purification continues with the option of organic herbal teas. The delicate floral flavours of the peppermint and lavender tea are healing for the gut and balance my light meal of tofu and vegetables.
If the caves epitomise the wonders of the underground, the sunlit expanse of Mayfield Garden might be their heavenly counterpart. Located on 160 acres at Oberon, Jenolan’s closest town, and one of the biggest privately owned cool-climate gardens in the world, it opens on certain days each autumn and spring.
Smiles glow on the faces of those who flock along the paths. The word “grand” is an understatement here, the gigantic scope of the garden provoking an Alice-in-Wonderland-like sense of awe and mystery.
Passing by fountains, lakes and streams, the labyrinthine paths lead me into rose hedges, a walled kitchen garden, lawn parterre, topiary pillars and more. Stone bridges integrate the garden rooms and styles inspired by the great gardens of Europe. New developments that are evolving include a grotto, moss canyon and camellia walk, promising more to enthral visitors.
Perhaps the most striking section, the Water Garden, is a dedicated visitor garden open year-round. It comprises six acres of the property and winds upward among an obelisk, waterfalls, ponds, bridges and maples.
With elevations above 1000 metres, Oberon and its surrounds see the sparkle of snow most winters in a region where the mysticism and magic of nature is never far away.
- Getting there
Oberon, Jenolan and Kanangra-Boyd National Park lie just beyond the villages of the Blue Mountains and before the regional cities of Bathurst and Orange. See links below for specific information.
- Staying there
Enjoy Victorian-era comfort at Caves House or a bush setting at Jenolan Cabins. Sparadise Japanese Bathhouse offers Japanese-style accommodation.
- Dining there
Chisolms, named after its resident ghost, dishes up wholesome modern Australian food in Caves House Grand Dining Room. Secret Creek Cafe, Lithgow, is situated within a wildlife sanctuary.
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