Jenolan Caves

The Orient Cave – Nature’s Bridal Dress

July 16, 2021

1909 Orient Cave images of the Empress Grotto and the Indian Chamber

James Wiburd

On July 30, 1904, 3 cave explorers, James Wiburd, Jack Edwards and Robert Bailey, stumbled upon “the most important and most beautiful discovery yet found at Jenolan…The cave, which is very extensive in size, is simply superb, and is beyond a doubt the finest discovery ever made in the nature of caves”[i].

Although this type of description usually accompanied all announcements of new discoveries at Jenolan, this time it was hugely understated!

The Lithgow Mercury said, “It contains huge stalagmites fully 35ft. high and about 4ft. in diameter at the base, tapering off to a needle point.  The walls, which are completely covered, are ‘draped’ with exquisitely delicate formation and the greater portion of the floor is pure white which had to be crossed by the party in bare feet, so as not to destroy it. In the centre of the floor is a great pool of water surrounded with snow-white crystal formation.”[ii]

Jack Edwards

That year, the Mines Department Annual Report said, “In the course of exploration the guides exhibited a perseverance and a courage in overcoming perilous obstacles which is highly to their credit.”[iii]  These days, many speculate that Wiburd, Edwards and Bailey actually found the cave years before, but, for reasons of their own, kept quiet about it - perhaps to keep it safe.

Robert BaileyBut in 1903, Wiburd became the manager. it could also be speculated that once Wiburd became manager, he only announced the discovery after he knew he could control access to the new cave, for its own protection. 

Naming the Cave

Back then, when people imagined the faraway lands of the ‘Orientals’ (anywhere from the Middle East to the Far East) they conjured up images of exotic places of legendary beauty, mystery, colour and enchantment.  That certainly described the newly discovered cave, so it was christened the ‘Orient’. Its huge chambers were so heavily draped with calcite crystal that the cave explorers called its 3 main chambers the Persian Chamber, the Egyptian Chamber and the Indian Chamber – after the most magical places they could imagine. 

In spite of the overwhelming beauty of the Orient Cave, several more years went by before it was opened to the public. Pathways and fencing needed to be built, to protect the precious formations from visitors.

The Official Grand Opening

1916 to 1918 were years of massive growth at Jenolan.  In 1916, electric lighting was installed in Caves House, Jenolan’s hotel, and work also began on a massive accommodation extension. 

The following year, Jenolan’s ground-breaking hydro-electric power station was expanded, to power the lights in the caves and to prepare to light the new Caves House extension. All this expansion was necessary because transportation had completely changed also. Travel by horse and carriage was a thing of the past, and visitors were coming to Jenolan in motorcars.

Then, in December 1917, the Orient Cave finally opened to the public, with great fanfare.  Many dignitaries attending the grand opening, including the Colonial Secretary, George Fuller. His daughter, Miss Gwen Fuller, in her speech, expressed the wish, “that the un-veiling of the Orient Cave’s unparalleled wealth of splendour will be the means of inducing many thousands of lovers of Nature's handiwork to visit this romantically situated tourist resort.[iv]

The Long Awaited Short Cut

But the Orient Cave was still hard for tourists to explore, as it was deep within the limestone mountain. Once inside the mountain, it took up to an hour just to reach the Orient Cave. To reach it, visitors had to go halfway through the Lucas cave, down into the River Cave, across the Pool of Reflections in a flat-bottomed punt, walk further down into what we now call ‘the Mud Tunnels’ and then up many stairs into the Orient Cave.  Although ultimately extremely satisfying, it was an exhaustive struggle all the way from the Lucas Cave entrance, involving nearly 1,500 stair steps. This made it only for the physically fit and definitely not for the faint-hearted, which was very disappointing for many. (See this letter to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, from 1927.)

Therefore, after the opening of the Orient Cave, it wasn’t long before cave surveyor and pioneer of cave development, Oliver Trickett, started proposing an easier way to bring visitors in – through a tunnel at the opposite end. 

However, the idea was quite controversial. Cave experts warned that a manmade entrance would increase the airflow through the caves, drying them out, ruining the crystal formations, for which the fabulous caves were famous. So the plan was put off for 36 years.

In December 1953, plans for a 400-foot tunnel were finally announced. (Read more about it here.) It included airlocks to prevent draughts from drying the caverns.

The tunnel was completed in 1954. It was named the Binoomea Cut, and it cut the time to reach the Orient Cave down to less than 5 minutes.

The story does not end here.  The fame of the Orient Cave became such that it is now considered one of the most beautiful caves in the world, but it would not be so without the next part of this story.

Steam Cleaning the Orient

These days, the caves are periodically washed with chemical-free water, to remove all traces of pollution and people. But in the past, it was not so.  Early in 1961, the Orient’s rich crystal formations were becoming noticeably dirty. The entrance to the Binoomea Cut was directly opposite the hotel’s coal-fired boilers.  Ash from the furnace was used to make paths through the cave. So unfortunately, as well as the dust, lint, crumbs, mud and hair that visitors inadvertently brought into the cave, coal ash and air-borne soot also came in.

A range of cave cleaning methods were trialled. Finally, a specially modified steam boiler unit was obtained, along with bespoke electrical equipment. (Find out more about it here.) The Orient Cave was closed to the public in March 1968. The programme of steam-cleaning continued for 4 and a half years.  It was a colossal task.

the Crystal Basin, Lower India, in the Orient Cave

Finally in 1972, the glorious Orient Cave was reopened to the public.

The Indian Chamber in the Orient CaveThe Orient Cave Today

Next time you visit Jenolan, the Orient Cave is the tour you should always leave for last. It is eye-popping.

As you see its astonishing formations, try to imagine water, working ever so slowly, over 340 million years, in profound darkness, to create what we see in this cave today. 

Imagine how Wiburd, Edwards and Bailey felt when they discovered it, and were the first to ever set foot in the Orient Cave.

Persian Chamber in the orient cave

In 1938, a little girl visiting the caves, wrote this poem, and its words are true today:

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