Jenolan Caves

A Powerful Drive to Explore the Unknown

June 10, 2020

For thousands of years, local indigenous Gundungurra people knew about the massive caves in the place now called Jenolan. But the caves were hidden deep in a mountain valley, so rugged and remote, as to be almost inaccessible. The only reason graziers stumbled upon them in 1836, was because they had mounted a search for a cattle thief’s hideout, and had spotted smoke from his cooking fire.

Driven by a powerful need to explore the unknown, the curious started coming to Jenolan Caves soon after, but the caves were extremely difficult to get to. The Australian Town & Country Journal said, “Visitors had to descend 1,800 feet into the gorge in which the Caves are situated, by following a large spur of the Caves Hill.  On the left of this spur as you descend, is McEwan’s Creek and on the right runs Surveyors’ Creek.  The sides of this spur are very steep, the fall being 1 foot in 1. The precipitous nature…made the layout of a road very difficult.  Visitors hitherto have had to get all their provisions, etc. taken down by packhorses.”[i]

In 1878, the NSW Government started an ambitious project to build a road into the valley. The Australian Town & Country Journal said, “From the top of the Caves Hill to the Caves the road is formed, and known as Cambridges’ Zig-zag. Mr. H. Cambridge, road engineer, laid on a zig-zag on the spur between McEwan’s and Surveyor’s Creeks, on the hillside facing the later. This has since been made and has been named after the engineer.  This work is considered the grandest of its kind in the colonies, and has been well conceived… The work of construction has been carried out by Mr George Morrow, under the superintendence of Mr. E Cronin, Head Superintendent – Mr. Cambridge’s successor.”[ii] This steep, winding stretch of Edith Road is now known as the 2-Mile Road.

In Mt Victoria, Businessmen could see the potential of building a road from Mt Victoria to Jenolan. So they organised the clearing of a rough road in 1882. This was the original Jenolan Caves Road, and it brought horse-drawn vehicles to the top of a descent overlooking the caves. From there, visitors had a very steep walk down.[iii] This Daily Telegraph article from 2 Oct 1886, reveals that in spite of the bad state of the road, “a large number of visitors now went to this place (the caves), and it was thought that they should have a decent road to drive along.”[iv] The repair cost was estimated at £4000 (approx. $715,800[v]), but because unemployment was a problem, the NSW government decided to kill 2 birds with one stone, and repair the road using some unemployed from Sydney. However, this road still didn’t go right through to the caves. 

Any trip to Jenolan in 1886 was very difficult. First you had to write a letter to Mr Jeremiah Wilson, the ‘Keeper of the Caves’, to say you intended to visit. Then you caught a train to Tarana, a small village now, but an agricultural hub back in the 1800s.  On meeting Mr Wilson, you paid 35 shillings, and he took you 20 miles (5 hours) to his homestead by horse and cart. You stayed the night at his property, travelled 4 more hours (18 miles) the next day and arrived at Jenolan via Cambridge’s Zig-Zag road, “a masterpiece of pick and shovel work”[vi]. Even after all that effort, this route was still preferred to the rough Jenolan Caves Road.

Today, it is 54 km from Tarana to Jenolan, and 74 km from Katoomba to Jenolan.  But in 1887, ambitious businessmen in Katoomba planned and financed a bridle track from Katoomba to Jenolan[vii].  Known today as the Six Foot Track, it took a more direct 46 km route to Jenolan from Katoomba, than either of the roads.  To demonstrate how much quicker it was to get to the caves via this new track, the NSW Governor, Lord Carrington and his beautiful wife, Cecelia, undertook a journey on horseback to Jenolan via the track, on 6 Sept 1887.  On arrival, they were given a tour of the caves, and they dined and stayed the night, before returning to Sydney via a train from Tarana.[viii]  It was Jenolan’s first major VIP visit. Unfortunately, in spite of aristrocratic beginnings, the bridle track ran through terrain so rugged that it could not be improved enough to become anything more than a track.

Today, visitors drive down Jenolan Caves Road and over a stone bridge and into the Grand Arch.  But back then, there was no bridge.  People could bring horses and horse drawn vehicles down the Jenolan Caves Road, then get out, walk down the steep section, cross the creek and then scramble up an embankment and pile of boulders to come into the Grand Arch.  Lightweight horse-drawn vehicles could actually be carried through into the Grand Arch.[ix]

In 1896, work started to build a bridge and widen the entry into the Grand Arch. The new bridge was the only one in the colony built entirely of limestone.[x]

After that, there was no looking back.  By 1903, a motorcar service was established to take people back and forth between Blackheath and Jenolan.[xi] In 1904, Thomas Cook & Son, international travel agent, set up a motor car service all the way from Sydney to Jenolan. It was a 4 day, return trip costing 4 pounds and 5 shillings including meals, cave tours and accommodation.

Although most visitors arrived at Jenolan in large vehicles known as charabancs (the forerunners of coaches), wealthier overnight visitors began arriving in privately owned vehicles.  So, in 1912, a 7-bay garage was erected at Jenolan. Upstairs there were small bedrooms, a kitchen and a sitting room, just for the chauffeurs. From the 1920s, petrol could be purchased from a pump outside Caves House.[xii] The garage was located uphill behind Caves House, where the Mountain Lodge accommodation building stands today.

184 years ago, Jenolan Caves were almost inaccessible. But humans are driven by a powerful need to explore the unknown, to experience what no one else has, and take away lifelong memories.  Now, a trip from Sydney Airport to Jenolan in car or coach takes only 3 hours.  The smooth and scenic Jenolan Caves Road, which was sealed in 1964[xiii], is a wonderful experience for excited passengers. Numerous car clubs and motorcycle clubs include Jenolan on their touring itineraries.  Jenolan offers free parking for more than 400 cars, in 3 large carparks.

From modest beginnings, Australia’s largest and most spectacular cave system has also become Australia’s longest continually operating tourist attraction. Last year, more than 203,000 cave tour tickets were sold to people from all over the world, including tickets to nearly 13,000 school students and 134 separate tour operators.

One more thing, as Jenolan looks to the future - although there is no longer a petrol bowser at Jenolan, there is new, free Tesla charging station.

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2 Comments (Reply)
Suzanne Ballard Smith (Reply)
Loved the history and the excellent images, a fabulous record of a most exciting journey, which it still remains today. I am booked for a stay in early September 2020 Thank you, Suzanne
Carolyn Melbourne (Reply)
I'm glad you enjoyed it. When researching, personally I could hardly believe how tour operators were so quickly poised to start bringing people in motor cars all the way from Sydney so soon after cars came into use. I know that our road is far from perfect, but I always think of getting to Jenolan as an adventure in itself. I hope you have a great time when you visit in September!
Jenolan Caves Apps
4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911
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