Jenolan Caves

How a Shortcut Became an Endurance Challenge

March 12, 2021

Nowadays it is easy to drive to Jenolan Caves – just a three-hour drive from Sydney Airport along the Great Western Highway. Westwards from Medlow Bath, the beautiful scenery makes it all worthwhile.  But in Jenolan’s early days as a tourist destination, getting to Jenolan was challenging.

Need for a Direct Route

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 Caves via Cambridge’s steep Zig-Zag road. Believe it or not, this route was still preferred to the rough Jenolan Caves Road, which didn’t actually reach Jenolan Caves at all. 

There is a telling article in the Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser in July 1884 which starts as follows “As the question of a new and shorter route to the Fish River Caves [Jenolan’s old name] is one of considerable interest and importance to dwellers in and about Sydney, and as the rivalry between the various competing routes is already waxing keen…”.   This shows that lots of Sydney people wanted to go to the caves, but they really needed a shortcut.[i]

On March 24 1884, on the orders of the NSW Premier, Alexander Stuart, a party set out from Katoomba, to blaze a trail to Jenolan Caves. The party consisted of Mr W.M. Cooper, Surveyor of Public Parks, Mr Mayes of the Department of Mines, Mr Freeman of the Department of Lands, three other men and Peter Fitzpatrick, their guide. Over 11 days, they marked a trail along 42 km.

As a result, the NSW government granted £2,500 for construction of a bridle track. This meant that people could walk to Jenolan in around 9 hours and under 7 hours on horseback. [ii]

Trying Out the Shortcut

The journalist, known only as Irlswith, writer of the abovementioned article, decided to try out the newly surveyed trail, even before a proper track was made, because he wanted to be the first man to do it alone, without a guide.  Following the survey blazes, he started out at from the Explorer Tree at Katoomba in the morning. He decided to not weigh himself by carrying any food – a decision he regretted later in the day.

With a light heart he headed down into a deep valley, with “rippling creek”, “gentle cascades” and “shimmering waterfall”. Down he continued, passed “gigantic cliffs”, “crystal pools” and “sandy flats”. After crossing the creek, he came to “open undulating country”. A fence line led him to Cox’s river, with “foamy cascades, turbulent rapids and deep abysmal pools enclosed in white limestone basins”.  He waded across eagerly.

Trying to ignore his increasing hunger, he trudged up and down hills until he encountered “a tall, black bearded man, the tattered picturesqueness of whose attire was heightened by a red scarf round his neck and the stockwhip in his hand, two little touches which gave him an adventurer-brigand-like air…” Irlswith asked this character if he had any food to share, but as luck would have it, the answer was no. However, “refreshed by the scenery”, Irlswith toiled on.

The track turned uphill and after a few more miles, his overwhelming fatigue began to be reflected in his writing, “With regard to this portion of the road, it is chiefly-remarkable for its hideous monotony. It was, in fact, nothing else but an endless succession of windings through an almost lifeless (save here and there for an occasional wallaby or parrot), colourless sea of blue-gum and scrub. The open skylight as each turn was rounded, deluding one with the idea that open country was at hand, but before the next was reached, mirage-like it appeared as far off as ever.” 

Then, as darkness began to fall, only two miles short of the caves, he came across an Irishman and his dog, camping beside a fire.  The Irishman shared his meagre (but tough) food with Irlswith, then lay down on the ground beneath the stars and slept fitfully. Then, “as early as possible the next morning I betook myself to the Resthouse, where the luxury of a bath and a meal soon dispelled the sorrows of the past.” 

The ‘Resthouse’ was Jenolan’s original small accommodation building which the ‘Keeper of the Caves’, Jeremiah Wilson had constructed in 1880.

Jenolan's First VIP Visit

 Lord and Lady CarringtonAnnouncement of Lord and Lady Carrington's visit to JenolanJump forward 3 years, to 1887. The track was completed and to demonstrate how much quicker it was to get to the caves, the NSW Governor, Lord Carrington, 1st Marquess of Lincolnshire, and his beautiful wife, Cecelia (or Lily), undertook a journey on horseback to Jenolan via the track.  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 such aristrocratic beginnings, the bridle track ran through terrain so rugged that it could not be improved enough to become anything more than a track.

Even so, it remained popular for horse riding and walking for many years.  The walk actually goes from the Explorer Tree in Katoomba, down into the Megalong Valley where a swing bridge takes you across the Cox’s River.

Crossing the Cox's River

Before the swing bridge was built, crossing the river could be treacherous. Here is a descriptive account in the Nepean Times, Nov 1901, of crossing the Cox’s River with horses. “The roaring of the water told the party that there was a rise in the stream as a result of the previous day's storm. On arrival at the crossing-place the guide reckoned on a swim for the ponies. He plunged in, quickly followed by the crowd, the two youngsters being in the load. The water lifted the horses, but, being urged on, got across safely. The only excitement caused was by one of the horses, fairly weighed down by a ' full ton,' wanting to lie down in the stream. The rider brought his spurs into use, not thinking of the depth of the water. He reached the bank, but the water had reached to his knees.”[iii]

crossing the Cox's River on a wireIn later years, walkers could cross the river by balancing precariously on a wire. In 1931, a female walker wrote of her river crossing, “Next morning dawned fresh and fair, and we breakfasted early, bade our trapper-friends, adieu, forded Cox River on a wire some six feet above the ground, and, grasping another wire some five feet above that, and continued our way up Pyramid Range.”[iv]

How the Track Got its Name

In 1937, Major Clews, of the Royal Australian Army Survey Corps, named the bridle track the Six Foot Track, referring to the original tender specification for a width of six feet[v] – wide enough for horses to pass each other.

The Six Foot lost popularity some time in the 1930s. Some sections of it became roads and fire trails. Other sections were claimed by farmers or reclaimed by bushland.[vi]  Many years went by.

The Six Foot Track Marathon

Then, in 1984, to mark the Six Foot Track’s centenary, and to raise money for the Rural Fire Service & Six Foot Track Heritage Trust, an ultramarathon was founded. That year there were only 7 runners, and the winner reached Jenolan Caves in 5 hours and 26 minutes.[vii]

The following year, through representations by author, Jim Smith, and avid bushwalker, Wilf Hilder[viii], the Orange Lands Office remarked the track, making it possible for walkers to enjoy it once again.  Although, for a range of reasons, the remarked track sometimes deviates from the original, much of the route is through beautiful World Heritage listed national park.

The Six Foot Track marathon is now held every year in March. It is described as ‘the toughest marathon in Australia.”[ix] It attracts more than 850 runners each year, and the finish line is right outside Jenolan Caves House.

The marathon reawakened interest in walking the Six Foot Track. In 1992, a swing bridge replaced the wire over the Cox’s River, making the journey a bit easier. Many keen bushwalkers use the Six Foot Track now.

on the 6 foot track overlooking the Jenolan ValleyIf we can skip way back again to 1884, journalist, Irlswith, concluded his colourful article with, “To those, however, to whom severe physical exercise is a force of real pleasure and mental invigoration the saving of time and expense, the delight of passing through a variety of striking scenic effects, and the after sweetness of food well-earned and rest well-deserved, will more than compensate for the toils and struggles of a long and, during a certain part of it, very wearisome walk.”

And that is a great conclusion, because that is exactly how the Six Foot Track remains today and the very reason why people love the challenge of it. 

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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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