Jenolan Caves

The Jersey Cave – “Emulating the Sinuous Fashion Common to Corkscrews”

January 20, 2021

As today's visitors explore the Imperial and Imperial-Diamond Caves, they pause at a steep and mysterious staircase that ascends from the pathway and appears to vanish far above their heads.  A trick of the electric light makes it seem that these stairs lead to daylight above. But instead, they lead into a tomb-like labyrinth - the Jersey Cave.

Jeremiah Wilson, discoverer of the Jersey CaveAnnouncement of Jersey Cave discovery

Ancient Thylacine Bones

When the Jersey cave was uncovered for the first time on January 17, 1891, Jeremiah Wilson, equipped with only a candle, found two skeletons[i] of what he first took to be large dogs. Further examinations revealed them to be the remains of Thylacines, proving that Tasmanian Tigers once roamed the local area. When scientists worked out the age of the bones, it was revealed that one skeleton was around 5,000 years old, whilst the other was possibly tens of thousands of years older.

The older one still lies in the caves, where it died, whilst the younger – though still of great age - is now in the Australian Museum. As the cave was deep underground and completely sealed by rocks before Wilson broke into it, how these Thylacines got in is still a mystery.

Emulating the Sinuous Fashion Common to Corkscrews

bones found in Jersey cave

A lengthy article in the Sydney Morning Herald provided a full and dramatic description of the newly discovered cave, written in the very long-winded style of those times. The following lengthy quote has been included because the unnamed journalist was so earnest in describing his white-knuckle adventure and was at pains to convey his bravery to his readers – that you have to smile.

He wrote, “It was only in January last that Mr. Wilson and his assistants succeeded in forcing their way through a small hole and so into the cave. Through theaforesaid hole I now followed, not without infinite pains and trouble. Still I succeeded, for in cave work determination counts for a great deal… The squeeze through this narrow cut, however, by no means disposes of the difficulties in the way. In fact, it is only the beginning of them. The route leads steeply upward through a succession of narrow passages, and still narrower holes, only opening out now and then into a chamber large enough to stand up in. …To make any progress at all, one is obliged to emulate the serpent man in his contortionist ability, to twist oneself after the sinuous fashion common to corkscrews, or to wriggle in the manner of the many-footed caterpillar. This because the way is uneven and crooked, full of awkward corners and sudden twists. Sometimes it is necessary to go foot-first through a hole, or again one progresses on one's face, with arms outstretched far ahead, so that the body may occupy as little space as possible. In this style we went up for perhaps a hundred feet, and down for nearly an equal distance, until at last we came to the most difficult place of all, the entrance to the cave itself. Here there is a sudden rift in the rocks, just wide enough to squeeze through, and at the bottom of the steep decline a sheer drop of some 12ft.”[ii]

See, you can’t resist smiling at the florid journalistic style of 1891!

Earl Jersey visited Jenolan Caves in 1893

Earl of Jersey

The Crystal Fir Trees

A few paragraphs later, the same journalist mentions the mysterious crystal fir trees.  In Jenolan’s other caves, 'Cave Coral' resembles undersea coral beds. But in the Jersey cave, Cave Coral looks like small fir trees, up to half a metre or more in size.

The journalist wrote, “By some strange freak the stalagmites, instead of growing straight upwards from the floor, have taken to themselves the likeness of fir trees. There is a whole forest of them, tall and slender, of all sizes and ages. Their surface is covered with a delicate coral-like growth, which assumes exactly the shape of leaves and flowers. Every leaf and petal, every flower and stamen, is there; even the very branches of the trees are simulated closely. The trees group themselves; here there are four sturdy brothers keeping guard over a puny sister, whilst there we see a tiny infant tree, growing up as it were under the shade of a tall parent, or even clinging closely to its side for protection. All this in pure white limestone, and all done by the simple drip, drip, of the water which now and again falls from the tiny stalactites overhead.” This man (we assume it was a man) should have been a poet.

Countess of Jersey

Vice Regal Visit

The Jersey Cave was immediately named in honour of George Villiers, the Earl of Jersey, newly made Governor of NSW.  The Earl, along with his accomplished wife, the Countess of Jersey, visited Jenolan in January 1893. The brought the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos, Miss Hilda Wolfe Murray and 3 servants.

They arrived with great fanfare in 2 opulent “four-in-hand drags”[iii]. On their visit, as the Oberon Band “enlivened the proceedings with various selections”, they inspected the Devil's Coach House cave, which was lit by coloured lights and magnesium lamps.  When they descended to the Imperial River, the Countess, a noted authoress, was so amazed, that she later wrote a children's adventure story about it.

The party had dinner and stayed the night at Jenolan.  On January 13, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Vice Regal couple 'were delighted with the grandeur of the Caves'.[iv]

Superceded by Bigger Caves

The Jersey Cave today

When discovered, the Jersey was described as 'the latest treasure trove'.  But it wasn’t long before the Jersey cave, with its ancient bones and extremely narrow passageways, was almost forgotten. Its mysterious treasures were gradually surpassed by those of the River, Orient and Temple of Baal Caves. Guide books of the time give it no mention at all.

No ‘improvements’ were ever made to the Jersey Cave, apart from a large ship's ladder, for descending into its depths, and chicken wire, attached to hand-forged stanchions, to protect the extremely delicate formations from damage by visitors. (Graffiti of early visitors adorns the bare rock walls.) No lights were ever installed to vanquish the profound darkness of the enigmatic Jersey Cave. 

Currently, due to social distancing, we are not showing the Jersey cave. However, eventually when our ‘Off the Track’ tour returns, you may get an opportunity, with helmet with headlamp, to view the secrets of this ancient, contorted underworld.

The Sydney Morning Herald article claimed that the Earl and Countess of Jersey actually inspected the cave that was named after them. But we are doubtful. If you experience it, you will understand why.  The Jersey Cave is easily Jenolan’s weirdest underground experience – and one of its most memorable and rewarding.

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