Jenolan Caves

1960s Memories of Jenolan's Blue Lake

August 24, 2020


Jenolan caves are amongst nature’s most marvellous masterpieces.  However, Jenolan offers something else of great beauty, not made by nature - the Blue Lake platypus habitat.  The Blue Lake is actually a dam, built in 1908, as part of Jenolan’s hydroelectricity system, which provided lighting to the caves and Caves House hotel. Its builders had no idea that the tiny lake would become such a source of wonder – a stunning and popular feature. Water flows through the caves into the lake, picking up dissolved limestone on the way. In sunlight, the dissolved minerals turn the water of the lake a heavenly shade of blue.

To prevent the beautiful lake from filling up with fallen trees, silt, gravel and even large boulders, it gets drained and cleared out every so often.  Because February’s flood nearly filled the Blue Lake with gravel, we are currently dredging – a big job involving heavy machinery and big trucks. 

Tom Willoughby working in a cave at Jenolan, during the 1960s.Recently, a former staff member contacted us to share his 1960s memories of the Blue Lake.  Young Tom Willoughby and his bride Shirley came to Jenolan in 1960 for their honeymoon, then again for a holiday in 1963. Six years later they were still at Jenolan.  Tom became a versatile cave guide, who assisted on the project to steam clean the Orient Cave. He also drove the tractor, to clean out the Blue Lake. His reminiscences open a little door through which we can sneak back in time.

He said, “We did not have the luxury of an excavator or trucks to move the gravel. Just fire hoses and the tractor bucket. We usually took about 2 to 3 weeks to shift the gravel. Because it was done often (12-month intervals) we did not have large amounts of gravel to shift, so it was just flushed through the valve and down the river. Each time we had decent rain, the overflow from the dam just dissipated the gravel further downstream.”

Hopefully, by Spring 2020, the Blue Lake will be free of silt, and visitors will be able to enjoy it again. The tiny lake is a peaceful platypus habitat, where patient visitors can spot platypuses on almost any day of the year, mainly in the early mornings and late afternoons. Currently, with draining and dredging going on, the platypuses have made themselves scarce.  But they will be back.  Tom said that when they dredged the lake in the 60s, “The Platypi did not seem to worry about us. They just stayed in the little weir near the Limestone Bridge.”

These days, a wander around the Blue Lake is often rewarded by sightings of Eastern Water Dragons in summer, year-round platypus and sometimes turtles and native ducks.  But in bygone days, the Blue Lake was also full of American Rainbow Trout. In 1900, before introduced species were understood to be a problem, the NSW Fisheries Department released American rainbow trout into the Jenolan River, to promote fishing in the region.  In fact, if you walk along the Jenolan river, down to Jenolan’s hydroelectricity plant, you will find a second small lake, which was built in 1906, specifically for fishing.  Fishing is not allowed now, but on one side of its dam, you can still see the trout stairs (or fish ladder) which made it possible for mature trout to return to spawn. It’s all part of Jenolan’s quirky history.

The fish ladder at Jenolan CavesVisitors are very unlikely to spot a trout these days. However in the 60s, visitors got a thrill from seeing the trout, even though they were not native.  Tom said, “We had great fun after the lake had been flushed, recovering the trout from the rock pools down the Jenolan River.”

Black swans on the Blue Lake, Jenolan, approx 1930.Imagine the excitement of seeing beautiful black swans on the Blue Lake in the 1960s! Tom said, “We had many ducks who lived there. Also, three black swans lived on the lake, and they were penned by the guides last thing each night to protect them from the foxes.” 

Fortunately, due to the efforts of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, foxes are no longer a problem at Jenolan, which means that these days, all birds and animals roam wild. Visitors are most likely to spot lyrebirds and Crimson Rosellas.

In the 1960s, the wild ducks on the Blue Lake came in very useful for one tricky tour operator, who brought small groups of sightseers from Katoomba. Tour operators are always in a hurry. It was no different in the old days.  According to Tom, this tour operator refused to let queues slow him down.  So he would approach visitors who were waiting for their cave tour and shout “Who would like to feed the duckies?” While everyone looked around to see who was shouting, his group would quietly sneak to the front of the queue, go through the cave first, and the tour operator could get back to Katoomba early!

At Jenolan, our mission is to connect our visitors with the unique natural and cultural heritage of Jenolan Caves, and through that connection, inspire care and protection for all such special places. So, we are excited about our 2021 plans to install a boardwalk stretching all the way around the Blue Lake. Platypus dig long burrows into the banks around the lake, and unfortunately when visitors walk along the water’s edge, they can inadvertently crush the burrows.  The boardwalk will prevent that and will include observation platforms and even a small amphitheatre – perfect for weddings and functions.

Thank you, Tom, for sharing your memories of the old days at Jenolan. Tom and Shirley recently celebrated 60 years of marriage. It’s lovely that their first few years could be spent living and working at Jenolan Caves – something most people only dream about.

2 Comments (Reply)
craig stewart (Replying Below)
Thank you for these great positive stories.  There is so much good and interesting in this world, we need to hear more of it!
Carolyn Melbourne (Reply)
Thank you! We are happy you enjoyed our story. I wish that more of our former staff (and current staff) would give me their great stories to share. Everyone loves a true story, don't they!

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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