They say that you should never go back, but there are some things, some places from your childhood that draw you back towards them irresistibly. At the moment The Man and I are showing one of our precious Grandies the sights of Sydney, introducing her to the joy of adventure and the wonders of the greater of the Aus. cities.
We headed out towards the mountains west of Sydney to show her something special, the area otherwise known as the Blue Mountains. They are a misty eucalypt blue at a distance from Sydney and are charming backdrop to any metropolis.
The Three Sisters are high on the escarpment at Katoomba, just over an hours drive away and this was a place I loved to visit while growing up in Sydney. It is a place of great memories and mystique. The place of my memories has now all but vanished in the face of commerce and tourism and while those three sisters still sit proud on the edge of the escarpment. They are testament to an ageless Aboriginal legend, but enjoying them as I once did has now passed into memory.
They have now become the precinct of the tourist, a mish mash of language and mire of conflicting custom and bad manners in general. We braved the first of the Giant Staircase after paying homage to the escarpment and then surrendered to the need to escape the crowds.
Another icon of the mountains which has also passed into legend is that of ‘The Edge’ theatre. It once screened a fascinating doco on the forests and escarpment. This too was so much part of the Katoomba experience that I remembered. Now sadly they no longer screen these wonderful extravaganza’s and the parking lot sits empty of appreciative hoards, instead they were running shows more suited to commerce and kids. It wasn’t working very well it seemed to me.
The Scenic Railway of my childhood is another victim of progress. It too has now also vanished and given way to a tourist flavoured attractions of gondola’s and thrill rides. Gone is the rickety train, which was once hauled delighted adults and kids up and down the escarpment to the tune of a thousand fun thrilled screams. Instead there is a brand new shiny toy train, much safer, much sleeker and fodder for the tourist cattle grids. You can no longer simply ride the train to trek along the edge of the bush escarpment but now must pay big bickies for three rides-in-one wether you want to or not. We took the ‘not’ option and headed to Jenolan caves carefully tucking our memories into the treasure chest of the past to enjoy in the once-upon-a-time.
I have many fond memories of my childhood visits to Jenolan Caves, which nestle down in a valley just 110klm from Sydney CBD. The caverns are described often as the most spectacular limestone caves systems in the world, and have to I agree.
There is simply none to compare that I have ever visited, or even heard of. They remain a place of mystery and have been so for some 45,000yrs of their known history. I am glad to still be able to say that they still are everything I remembered and more. These caverns are true wonders of the world which were built by the hand of nature, not that of man. They are simply breathtaking.
The limestone caverns are quite purely the Earths wonderful libraries. They document the passage of time without measure; time since the Dreamtime. There is no other Library on Earth that can compare and to not revisit them, or to neglect to introduce our Grandie to them would have been sacrilege.
After the first stumbling years in the colonization of Australia and when the whitefellas finally found, or were shown an ancient tribal pathway across The Great Dividing Range, it didn’t take long for them to find the vast underground cave system. We have all been discovering the extent of these caves ever since with the aid of technology. It is believed that the first whitefella to find the caves was James McKeown, an Irish national after which the McKeown Valley was named and an escaped convict. The valley leads out from the towering roof of the Devils Coachhouse and is reputed to be where he hung out until his was recaptured. Like much of our convict history, this is a story in part of legend as the authorities of the day didn’t like to note what is our peoples history.
McKeown was a escaped convict who lived under the auspices of the Gundungurra and Wiradjui tribal peoples, whose ‘Country’ enjoyed overlapping features in the caves system. James was found by a man, who it is believed was a local native tracker in the employ of a local landowner. Of course the historians being who they were neglected to mention the aboriginal part in this event and it was the landowner who was said to have dragged McKeown back into the settlement, eventually to face his nemesis.
Convicts allocated to free settlers were often treated little better than slaves, so it is no wonder that he took to the bush along with so many others. They were looking to be free of a inhumane and largely unjust system of justice, such as that which was the English penal system of the day.The convict escapee also often ‘stole’ the sheep or cattle of the settlers to survive, in much the same way the tribes people did and were duly punished for this affront. It didn’t matter that the settlers had driven off or hunted out the local wildlife which was the food supply of the ‘non-settler’ and the tribal people. Besides… cows and sheep are pretty dumb and an easy prey.
Like so many others, the convict escapee’s from the settlement of Sydney Town lived bushside with the tribes, often in small bands of men and often sharing their lives with tribal womenfolk. Not all of these convicts were ‘bush rangers’ as is commonly thought. Nor were all successful in bush survival with many simply walking back into the settlements to give themselves up when faced with starvation and deprivation. It was only the few who caused havoc on the tracks and roads connecting settlements who were accorded this distinction of being a ‘bushranger’. Many men simply lived out their lives in the bush as best as they could with their companions.
It was about 1836 that the caves were stumbled upon by the whitefella’s, near fifty years after the beginnings of colonization in Sydney Town and it took until 1866 for them to be declared a reserve. The caves had originally been explored using firelight, or ingenious indigenous torches and later with the use of burning magnesium wire. This was the only light that could illuminate fully the vast caverns before the advent of battery powered electricity. In 1867 a ‘Keeper of the Caves’ was finally appointed and the vast largely unexplored system became a place of public access, and an asset of the peoples. In 1880 the first Jenolan Caves House was built for adventurous guests and it’s current predecessor is still a testament to an age past, a little wilted and a little neglected but still a grand experience unspoilt as of yet by mass tourism.
The descent into the valley from where the caves can be accessed is in itself a feat even today and it is difficult for the tour bus to negotiate safely thank goodness! Imagine what it would have been like on horseback or on foot when you glance off the steep precipice of the roadside and edge around the hairpin bends on the narrow road really suited only for one short modern vehicle at a time in many blind turns.
Driving through the Grand Arch when you arrive, a deep breezy cavern that you need to negotiate to arrive at all, you will find the grand old hotel is simply a taste of what is a breathless age-old beauty. I could wax lyrical for an eon and not do the caves justice; I would instead encourage you to explore yourself by following the web links. These were mostly drawn from youtube and they are different experinces that others have had of the caves.
What I would prefer to do is to talk instead about a far older history, that in the long history of tribal Australia’s relationship with Binoomea, which is the ancient name meaning ‘dark places in the mountain’ for the caves which were also referred to as the Binda Caves for a time.
The tribal people had known of the cave system for some 45,000 years and had been using them for as long. Even they had an impact on the caves when they arrived in some eon from prehistory, as well as impacting on the fauna and mega-fauna. Fossil remains of the mega-fauna have been found in the caves as well as one known human skeleton, a native which it is believed fell to his death through a high ceiling hole. A much greater impact was the arrival of the Europeans on these ancient tribes, as well as impacting on the flora and the fauna of Australia.
The Europeans had a decimating effect with diseases on the tribal people, long before many of them even saw a whitefella. It is estimated that some 70% of the indigenous population, those local to settlement, were deeply affected by disease. This does not take into account the murders, which were to follow in the coming decades in the land grab of the colonial era. A great deal of tribal culture and valuable knowledge was unfortunately lost in these events.
However there is one rare story or legend from within Lore which has survived down through time and event, this is the creation story of the Gundungurra, and it tells of the formation of the vast caves system and its deep pools. This story tells of the battle of giant Dreamtime creatures in forming the features of the land. This also provides an easily read map to recount for anyone finding their way deep into the valley. The story is one which details the boundaries of traditional lands and major landmarks. Who needs a paper map when you have such a rich aural recount?
The limestone caves were a place of healing, of Lore and of settlement and camp. They garnered the name Jenolan from the native name for a nearby peak, which had gained popularity as a regional marker and they have been known by this name ever since.
In getting there you can brave the narrow tar road but hiking from Katoomba along the ‘6 foot track’ is a favourite of the fit brigade. Being some 45klm long, the swinging bridge near the free hikers camp-grounds half way along is a interesting bonus. The ‘6 foot track’, also known as Bridle track, was the original route thought viable after a hasty survey in a bid to link the escarpment experiences of the Three Sisters and the caves together. It was to be a road suited for horse traffic from nearby Katoomba though it is not a track I would care to tow a buggy along. Most 2 wheel drives will not make the steep and precipice hill climbs, not to mention the river crossings, though the track was reconstructed in 1984 as a dedicated bush walking track and a feat to be admired for those who dare it.
Our Grandies visit has now almost come to an end with one more shopping foray to play at, and we will be soon looking to point our noses north again. I hope you enjoyed the journey into Sydney with us and I look forward to dragging you along on my next adventure.
You can find out more about the ancient Australian Lore in the fictional tales woven through life in the Dreaming Series. A story of shaman, struggling for life in a modern world.
Happy reading everyone.