Jenolan Caves

1917 - Unparalleled Wealth of Splendour

July 13, 2020

The Orient Cave at Jenolan Caves

At Jenolan, in 1905, a new cave was discovered, deep in the furthest reaches of the Lucas Cave.  Back then, when people imagined the far away lands of the ‘Orientals’ (anywhere from the Middle East to the Far East) they conjured up images of exotic places of legendary beauty, mystery, colour and enchantment.  That certainly described the newly discovered cave, so it was called the ‘Orient’. Its huge chambers were so heavily draped with calcite crystal decoration that the cave explorers called its 3 main chambers the Persian Chamber, the Egyptian Chamber and the Indian Chamber – after the most magical places they could imagine.  Following the discovery, one journalist wrote that the Orient cave “possesses the purest and best snow-white formations of the whole series” of caves at Jenolan.  Jenolan’s caretaker, James Wiburd, said “it seems almost sacrilege to intrude upon their domain of purity”.

NSW Superintendent of Caves, Oliver Tricket, wrote that the chambers: "are so surpassingly beautiful, they are decorated from end to end. There are 'shawls' 8 feet in diameter, massive fluted columns 30 feet high, clear pools with crystal floors 15 feet in diameter, and 'shawls' with translucent white bands alternating with very dark bands. The variety of tints exhibited by the formations is not equalled in any other cave at Jenolan. For beauty, variety, and grandeur it is difficult to imagine anything to surpass the caverns.”[i]

In spite of the breath-taking beauty of the Orient Cave, several more years went by before it was opened to the public.

1916 to 1918 were years of massive growth at Jenolan.  In 1916, electric lighting was installed in Caves House, Jenolan’s hotel, and work also began on a massive accommodation extension. 

The following year, Jenolan’s ground-breaking hydro-electric power station was expanded, to power the lights in the caves and to prepare to light the new Caves House extension. 

Then, in December 1917, the Orient Cave finally opened to the public, with great fanfare.  Many dignitaries attending the grand opening, including the Colonial Secretary, George Fuller. His daughter, Miss Gwen Fuller, in her speech, expressed the wish, “that the un-veiling of the Orient Cave’s unparalleled wealth of splendour will be the means of inducing many thousands of lovers of Nature's handiwork to visit this romantically situated tourist resort.[ii]

Then by 1918, Caves House had been transformed with the addition of an ambitious 4 story extension.  The Sydney Morning Herald provided some fascinating details.[iii] The grand staircase was built and a lift installed. For gentlemen, a smoking room was added, and the billiard room was doubled in size. There were 2 floors of guestrooms (a few even had toilets) bringing the total number of guestrooms to 100. The dining room was moved upstairs to a considerably larger space, where it could be “second to none outside Sydney”, and its kitchen featured the latest “ice plant and cold storage”[iv].  (We take refrigeration for granted, but the first self-contained fridges were not sold in Australia until 1918, and only the very wealthy could afford them.)

All this expansion was necessary because transportation had completely changed. Travel by horse and carriage was a thing of the past, and visitors were coming to Jenolan in motorcars, by the thousands, for example, in 1914 Jenolan welcomed 10,467 visitors.

In 1918, your grandparents (or great grandparents) may have booked a Jenolan holiday or honeymoon through the Government Tourist Bureau in Sydney. A first-class train carriage would have transported them in comfort to Mt Victoria, where they would have spent the night. The next morning, they would have sped off to Jenolan by motorcar, in “maximum of comfort and convenience”[v], for 2 nights in “the commodious New Caves House[vi] They would have inspected 3 caves, including the spectacular, newly opened Orient Cave.  The round trip, all expenses included, would have set them back only £4, 10 shillings! What a magical time they would have had!

The story does not end here.  In the 1920s yet another immense extension was added to Caves House, creating even more guestrooms and a Grand Dining Room, now the magnificent Chisolm’s Restaurant.  As for the Orient Cave, it’s fame became such that it is now considered one of the most beautiful caves in the world, but it would not be so without the next part of this story.

These days, behind the scenes at Jenolan, the caves are frequently water-washed, to remove all traces of pollution and people. But in the past, it was not so.  Early in 1961, the cave formations were becoming noticeably dirty. This was especially apparent in the Orient Cave.  To facilitate easier access to the Orient Cave in 1954, a long tunnel had been cut, and the entrance was directly opposite the hotel’s coal-fired boilers.  Ash from the furnace was used to make paths through the cave So unfortunately, as well as the dust, lint, crumbs, mud and hair that visitors inadvertently brought into the cave, coal ash and air-borne soot also came in.

From 1961 to 1968, a range of cave cleaning methods were trialled. A fuel operated steam unit was tried and rejected, as it produced more pollution than it removed.  They tried concentrated detergents and scrubbing brushes, which were quickly rejected.  Two steam cleaning systems were trialled – a Clayton portable steam generator and a Fradic steam cleaner – both unsatisfactory.  Finally, a specially modified steam boiler unit was obtained, along with bespoke electrical equipment. The new steam-cleaning process was trialled in one section of the Imperial Cave to make sure it was safe, before using it on the delicate formations of the Orient Cave. The test went well.

The Orient Cave was closed to the public in March 1968. All the steam-cleaning equipment was carried in and assembled. The steam cleaning created a heavy fog inside the cave.  So, two 1000 watt quartz-iodine lamps were brought in to penetrate the heavy fog. One climbing pole and special wire rope ladders were used to gain access to the awkward and precariously high sections of the Orient Cave.  The programme of steam-cleaning continued for 4 and a half years.  Most of this colossal task was accomplished by 2 cave guides, Ron Newbould, and John Culley. Also, during this time, extensive redevelopment took place. Netting to protect the crystal features, electric wiring for lighting, and clean concrete paths were all put in place.  Finally on September 30, 1972, the glorious Orient Cave was reopened to the public.

The Orient Cave is the only cave in Australia to be steam cleaned.  Jenolan’s guiding staff are very proud of the great achievement in this field of cave conservation.[vii]  A commitment to regular, environmentally friendly cleaning has kept the Orient Cave and Jenolan’s other spectacular caves, as stunning as they were when they were first discovered.


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