Jenolan Caves

A Mighty Cave, Named for a Mighty Man of Vision

January 5, 2021

Even today, with technological aids such as mapping and digital survey equipment, caving is an inexact science. Cave exploration is still a case of wriggling down a hole and hoping to find something! In 1860 it was far more dangerous!

Back then, Jenolan Caves wasn’t even called ‘Jenolan Caves’.  It was most known as the ‘Fish River Caves’, as it was thought that the Fish River ran through them.  But they were also called the ‘Bindo Caves’, ‘Binda Caves’ or ‘McKeon’s Caves’.

At the ‘Fish River Caves’, the vast ‘Devils Coach House’ cave and ‘The Grand Arch’ had been discovered. But explorers suspected the existence of more caves in the area. According to an article in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 11 January 1860, “the opinion had often been expressed... that new caves surpassing any hitherto seen existed… but the towering precipices seemed inaccessible and to preclude the idea of human investigation”[i].

Discovery of the 'New Cave'

On January 4, 1860, two locals, Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting, decided to measure the height of a “lofty pinnacle overhanging the creek”.  To do this dangerous job, they climbed to the top of ‘The Grand Arch’, a very precarious spot. Rocks and stones, loosened by their feet, crashed down into the creek below, and one slip of the foot would probably have led to instant and frightful destruction...”[ii]

Whilst on top of ‘The Grand Arch’, they spotted a rock opening, almost obscured by what appeared to be ivy. Nicholas Irwin led the way, and on closer inspection they found that it was actually “an evergreen olive, springing out of an ancient twisted, gnarled tree”. The old tree was growing in a small open space, which led to another, smaller passageway. They were reluctant to explore the smaller passageway, as a profusion of stalactites blocked the way. But they could see that it led down into the interior of the mountain, where no daylight seemed to penetrate.

In the florid prose of the time, it was reported, “It is impossible to express the impression of awe, produced by the solemn twilight and stillness of that unbroken solitude, but having no candles we had to return by the perilous way by which we descended”.

The next day, they returned with a large party of 14 men: “C. Whalan, Jun., E. Whalan, Rev. W. T. Mayne, Rev. T. Skewes, J. Wilson, N. Wilson, C. and W. Armstrong, J. Harvey, J. Hughes, W. Stranger, G. Whiting, J. Falls, James Nolan, and E. Armstrong”[iii]. Unable to resist the lure of the unknown, they entered the cave through the newly discovered opening which resembled a ‘Sole of the Boot’, by candlelight.

They reported, “After passing through the narrow crevice already mentioned, there commences a rapid and dangerous descent, which continued as far as our utmost researches reached. At the same time, the cave increases in height and width, so as to open out into a long series of spacious amphitheatres surpassing in extent all the other caves and exceeding the wildest imaginations of romance.”

It is thought that this first foray explored the area generally known today as ‘The Slide’, which descends from ‘The Cathedral Chamber’ to ‘The Exhibition Chamber’.

The writer described “transparent fringed draperies of the richest and most exquisite texture”and emitting when struck “musical organ-like tones”.  He was describing crystal shawls, located approximately half-way down ‘The Slide’, near the cave known as ‘The Music Hall’. “Baths and fountains of the clearest water” appear in the same area.

After rain, a nearby stalactite glistens with fresh crystal, which he described as “marble sparkling like jewels or as white as driven snow”. These clues indicate that this very first discovery party did not descend ‘The Slide’, as later intrepid tourists did. Instead, they probably descended via the narrower solution tube that replaced ‘The Slide’ after receiving a litany of complaints of “rough travelling”.

The article refers to “passageways of unexplored extent” and areas finishing in the “blackest midnight darkness”.  This is an apt description for someone with a fast-melting candle, trying to ascertain what lay beyond, in the vastness of what is now known as ‘The Exhibition Chamber’.

This exploration was a tremendous achievement, considering that their candles only lasted for two hours. During that time, they were convinced of the splendour of what they had seen and the “unexplored fathomless extent of this new discovery”.

Unfortunately we have no information about George Whiting and Nicholas Irwin, who discovered the cave. So, if you have any info you would like to share, please contact us.

The Renaming of the Cave - John Lucas

The newly discovered cave was blandly called ‘The New Cave’.

Drawing of John LucasPolitician, John Lucas, first visited the Fish River Caves on July 3, 1861[iv], when he was NSW Member for Canterbury. He fell completely under their spell and made many subsequent visits. Lucas had extensive interests in mining and was director of at least 2 mining companies - the Bowenfels Coal Mining and Copper Smelting Company and the Hill End Gold Mining Company [v]. Later in his career, he actually became Minister for Mines.  So familiar with the industry, one of his greatest fears was that the caves would be mined or otherwise ruined. On his cave visits, he himself snapped off and took away the best samples he could find of literally hundreds of stalactites, large and small. But he didn’t do it to keep souvenirs. He used them to demonstrate their beauty to parliamentary colleagues and journalists and help them understand how important it was to protect the caves. 

John Lucas lobbied to get land set aside for parks and reserves in every country town in New South Wales. He was a pioneer in that respect. He was a heavy writer of pamphlets and a compulsive correspondent of The Empire and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. Over three years, Lucas convinced the Minister for Lands that the Fish River Caves needed protection. Eventually, the minister recommended that portion of the crown lands at the Fish River Caves be reserved from sale until they could be surveyed for public purposes, and that Jeremiah Wilson be the ‘Keeper of the Caves’. This was gazetted on 2/10/1866.[vi] Thus, Jenolan became Australia’s first ‘reserve’ and one of the earliest protected areas in the world.

Lucas kept pushing for protection for the caves, until in 1872, it was made illegal to damage the formations inside the caves.

On Sept 25, 1878, P.F. Adams, Surveyor General, wrote, “The New Cave I would suggest be called the Lucas Cave, in recognition of the interest taken by Mr J. Lucas, in bringing these caves under public notice.”[vii]  

Therefore, in 1878, ‘The New Cave’ was rechristened ‘The Lucas Cave’. The cave system’s biggest cave was named after a mighty man of vision – a truly big man, and proud of it, weighing in at 25½ stone or 162 kg.

Renaming the Cave System - Jenolan Caves

By the way, the ‘Fish River Caves’ were finally rechristened the ‘Jenolan Caves’, but not until 1884, when someone finally realised that the Fish River didn’t actually feed into the caves after all. 

Today, Jenolan Caves is Australia’s most spectacular caves system and the biggest cave system that is open to the public. Over 350 caves have been discovered at Jenolan, but the Lucas Cave is probably the best known – for its massive size and huge formations. Fortunately, the precarious ‘Sole of the Boot’ entrance was eventually superseded by a safer cave entrance, and you can enjoy a fascinating guided tour of the Lucas Cave on any day of the year, especially if you combine it with an overnight stay, High Tea, or dinner (or weekend lunch) in Chisolm’s Restaurant, which is upstairs in Jenolan Caves House hotel.

[vi] The Binoomea, issue 128, Nov 2006, page 3 (Extracted from “John Lucas” A paper prepared by Noel Rawlinson)

[vii] The Binoomea, issue 128, Nov 2006, page 3 (Extracted from “John Lucas” A paper prepared by Noel Rawlinson)

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

Please Contact Me