I hadn’t even realised it, but I was in desperate need of a break. Dan avoiding me at all costs for the last couple of weeks should have given away that my mood was fiery.
I am pretty sure Dan would say something else, but I choose to go with fiery.
I am so grateful for my friend Kathy and her husband who turned up, with only a few days notice, to housesit for us and look after our two dogs.
It wasn’t until we were nearly at Jenolan Caves, an hour from home, that I started to feel the tension ease off my shoulders and my mood lift.
Ironic considering the road leading to the caves is, umm, narrow I guess you would call it. Some may describe it as being no bigger than a goat track.
There are no photos. I am a bad, bad passenger and when I am on the side of the road where the edge falls away into the valley below, I cannot concentrate on anything else but the road ahead. And be a good co-pilot.
Dan, though, is not appreciative of my “helpful” comments about how to drive. Strange don’t you think?
But even as small and winding as the road is now, we both remember it being much worse.
On past visits, we both seem to recall there being no side guide rail. As flimsy as that guide rail may be, it does provide a sense of security, false or otherwise, that you cannot accidentally slip over the edge.
You see the last part of the road is not wide enough for two vehicles. Any oncoming traffic needs to move as close as it can against the cliff wall, making enough space for the other car to squeeze by. And when you are in the car that is squeezing past, that guide rail is a godsend.
Before the road closure when exiting Jenolan Caves between 11.45 and 1.15 pm (I will explain this later) you had the genuine possibility of encountering one the many tourist buses heading into the caves as you were trying to leave.
Blue Mountains Series
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Therefore, it was truly a miracle that after that drive I was feeling relaxed and ready to enjoy my time at the caves.
Certainly, by the time I was sitting in the lounge area with a glass of wine in hand I was a new person.
I was relieved, but not as much as Dan seemed to be. He wasn’t “walking on eggshells” for a change, so I took that as a positive sign.
This was my fourth time visiting Jenolan Caves. My first trip was on a bus trip with my mother and Oma (grandmother) at the age of 11. I was hooked. The place was like a magical fairyland. I was a huge fan of the movie “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. And for me, the caves were reminiscent of that.
My Oma was visiting from Holland for a month. I remember being enthralled by the caves. My mother not so much. My grandmother apparently wasn’t considering the tantrum she had before the tour and her refusal to enter the cave. I believe she spent the next hour and a half in a “mood” on the bench outside.
But I loved it. I was so intrigued by the caves.
And the Caves House. I loved old buildings at that age (still do) and had a vivid imagination that could spin wild tales in my mind given the right atmosphere and location. It was and still is, a building from another time.
Once settled into our room, we promptly fell asleep. FOR THREE HOURS!! Three hours! I don’t even know how we got that tired. Or why.
I guess not taking a real break over Christmas is not a good idea, no matter how organised you want to be going into the New Year.
This is one of the disadvantages of running your own business. You need to know when to stop. Even though I love what I do, I need to learn to stop.
And stop we did. For three hours. It was marvellous. We felt great!
The Blue Lake (and lizards, lots of lizards!)
Recharged from our afternoon nap, we headed out for a walk along the Blue Lake and part of the River Walk.
Dan moaned a bit, a walker he is not, but he is a good sport.
The Blue Lake is located at the entrance to the Jenolan Caves sitting to the left of the road as you approach the Grand Arch.
It is a man-made lake, part of the hydro-electricity power station that provided electricity to the caves. The Chifley Cave was the “First cave in the world to have electric lighting” – source
We didn’t venture too far. The whole river walk would take over an hour or two, and I was just grateful to have gone for a walk at all. Or in our case a meander.
You don’t have far to appreciate the beauty of the area. The exquisite blue colour of the lake is from the refraction of light through the limestone sediment. It is a stunning colour. We walked along the well-maintained track past the weir, cascading water until we got to a waterhole and other guests.
It was getting late, and we decided to slowly make our way back to the Grand Arch.
We encountered lizards along the way back. A lot of lizards Whether we weren’t paying attention at first, or the lizards weren’t there; I’m not sure. At first, I was terrified when Dan said “Stop! Slowly look to your right”. Bloody hell I thought it was a snake!
Eventually, we got used to seeing them. They were all sizes and in abundance. And not scared of visitors. I can’t say the same for the visitors though!
There were a lot of paths closed off due to fallen trees and rock falls.
It is a sharp reminder that although man has made his mark, that nature is still in charge and not so willing to relent to modernisation.
Dan being a good sport
And another one!
The face in the mountain
As we got closer to the Grand Arch, I was trying to find a good vantage point to take a photo.
When I got back to the path, Dan said, “Do you see the face?” Face? What face?
And then there it was. Now I can’t unsee the face.
What the hell does it mean?
When we mentioned it to a guide the next day, he asked what sort of medication we were on. Obviously, I know he was joking, but still not sure whether he has seen the face or not. Surely, he must have. How can you not?
Can you see it?
There is a warning on the NSW National Parks & Wildlife website that the weather in this area can be unpredictable.
I can attest to that!!!
Just as we got back from our walk and making our way from the Grand Arch to the Caves House, a wild gust of wind came flying into the valley (like an invisible Giant’s hand sweeping across the trees). We stood watching as it rolled into the valley, where it picked up boards and chairs and scattered them like toys.
It seemed the perfect time to enjoy a drink in the bar, which we had to choose by torchlight because the electricity went out.
I love storms, and I was so disappointed when the lights came on. I was thoroughly enjoying my glass of wine while watching the rain descend outside. Oh well.
As we were driving from the caves towards Lithgow the next day we saw a lot of fallen trees along the side of the road, some already chopped up and then came across a crew working on yet another one.
It was a massive storm. We were lucky that we didn’t get worse than some wild wind and a power outage.
Choosing from the Drinks Menu by Torchlight
The History of the Caves
What is it about these caves that makes them so mystical?
They are ancient. They are in fact 340 million years old!
You can feel the stories. Mystical, eerie, mysterious yet strangely enticing.
Yes, definitely mysterious. I guess 340 million years is enough time to create some mystery.
In the beginning
Originally known as Binoomea, an Aboriginal name for “dark places”, the Jenolan Caves are significant to the Gundugurra people.
It was a place they brought their sick, to bathe in the waters of the underground river whose waters were believed to have healing powers.
Then Europeans came
The first European to see Jenolan Caves was James McKeon, who was supposedly using the caves as his hideout. Or so legend states.
The first “official” European in the area was recorded as James Whalan in 1838 who went on to discover the Elder Cave with his brother Charles in 1848.
Further caves were discovered by Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting before the area came under Government control in 1886 with Jeremiah Wilson being appointed the “Keeper” of the Binda.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for those men to discover and explore these caves with nothing more than candlelight.
When the lights are turned off in the cave and you are plunged into a darkness that is black beyond belief, and disorientating, you can partially begin to understand the bravery they had.
The caves paid a high price in the early years of tourism when visitors could take a “piece” of the cave as a souvenir, literally snapping bits of stalactite off. Even today you can still see that damage.
Thankfully in 1872, it became illegal to damage the caves, thanks to the local member of Parliament, John Lucas.
I know it’s enticing, even on our tour after being sternly warned not to touch anything, a person was caught touching the formations.
Time has somewhat stood still here. If you can ignore the vending machines that have been plonked around the place! And the temporary kiosk and undercover area.
The Caves House and Accommodation
The Caves House you see today was built in 1898 after the original dwelling was destroyed by fire.
I’m going to be frank. Accommodation at Jenolan Caves is crap. There is no other way to say it. For what you pay it is poor value.
Old, run down, knocked around and in need of some real TLC.
But I would stay again.
Why? Am I crazy?
Probably. But to get the full Jenolan Caves experience, I believe you need to sleep there. Wake up there. Listen to the sounds of the mountains at night. To wake in the morning to bird calls.
The Caves House is a step back in time. A time of indulgence and prosperity. A resort at odds with its raw, wild, natural surroundings. A place filled with intrigue and stories.
Types of Accommodation
I have previously stayed, with my family, in the Gate House hostel. Not cheap for a hostel, $70 for the room, and I was not a fan. But then I am not a fan of hostels anyway. The hostel provides bedding, has three floors each with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
The Gate House is located directly behind the main Caves House and used to be the female staff dorm back in 1927.
This time we stayed in the Mountain Lodge because the room had a kitchenette and the food situation is very limited. We were going to self-cater but changed our minds and ate in the restaurant instead.
We had looked at the price on the website four days before our stay when we first decided we were going but didn’t book until the day before. The price had dropped $50.
Thank goodness because I would have been annoyed paying the full price for the standard of the room.
On the upside, the bed was very comfortable, and I had a great night’s sleep.
We have learnt not to sweat the small stuff. We knew the ratings were poor, but we really wanted to stay the night.
The Caves House
The Caves House is tired. It is in need of a spruce up. And more. At the time we were there, workmen were on site with parts of the main building fenced off. I am not sure what work they are carrying out, but I sincerely hope the grand old dame is getting some work done.
Next time we will stay in the Caves House in a classic room with ensuite bathroom. Traditional Rooms with a shared bathroom are also available. None of the rooms has TV, wifi or a mini fridge.
Our expectations are not high, and I am sure we will have a fantastic time just like we did this time.
There are a few more accommodation options like cabins (a bit of a drive away) and cottages close by, more for groups than individuals.
Food and Drinks
Reading the poor reviews, we weren’t going to eat in the restaurant. It’s the ONLY option for dinner, so we brought an esky with food to have in our room, but in the end, the room was dismal, and we felt like relaxing, so we booked in at the last minute.
It was OK. Nothing to rave about, but we had a good time out together, so that was what really counted for us. And the food was nice enough. I just would have liked it to be better for the price.
I don’t like being negative, but I wanted to be honest.
For me the caves experience is not about the food or the rooms, it’s about the beauty that this historic guesthouse is surrounded by. An old guesthouse nestled between soaring mountains and on a rainy day like the one we had, layered in mist.
Our morning there was exquisitely beautiful. Not everyone’s favourite weather, but it’s ours.
Dan being the good sport he is, with a little bit of grumbling, went with me at 7.30 am in the slight drizzle to find the Devil’s Coach House.
We did find it, but for two very unfit people, who had already climbed down A LOT of stairs, the way down seemed too far. Or should I say, what goes down must come up, and I was too scared of the up part. We stopped at the lookout looking down at the entrance.
I had made it down once before when I was 17. Maybe after I achieve my goal of walking the Camino next year, I’ll come back and try it again.
The Devil’s Coach House & Carlotta’s Arch
The Devil’s Coach House is HUGE. It is worth seeing it if you can. I was a little disappointed we didn’t make it all the way down but grateful for turning back when we did and saved some energy for our cave tour.
As it was the walk took us up the mountain, affording us glorious views of the caves house and misty mountains, past Carlotta’s Arch giving us a view of the Blue Lake far below, and down the other side to the top of the Devil’s Coach House. The round trip took us an hour.
Everyone else must have decided to sleep in and miss the rainy weather because we didn’t see another soul, except for the gorgeous little swamp wallabies that kept surprising us.
It was a magical morning and the perfect way to start the day before heading back to our room for breakfast (we weren’t pushing our luck with the restaurant for breakfast) and before heading down for the 10 am tour of the Imperial Diamond Caves.
Lookdown to the Devil’s Coach House
There are eight main caves you can tour with combination tours and extended tours available, as well as, adventure tours.
We chose the Imperial and Diamond Caves Tour. I had been on the Imperial Cave Tour before, but a long, long time ago and I found it equally fascinating as the last time.
Plus, our guide Barry, was fantastic, delivering information in a humorous and interesting way.
The Imperial & Diamond Caves
Planning your trip
Jenolan Caves are limestone caves found in the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve, west of the Blue Mountains.
It gets busy here. Packed! Especially in the afternoon.
We didn’t find it busy at all in the morning. It was heaven.
I would suggest coming early in the morning before 9 am ready for the cave tours, some beginning at 9.30 am.
With the afternoon sessions starting from 12.30 pm up until 3 pm and the tourist coaches arriving around 12 pm I would avoid the afternoon at all costs.
There are also some caves that only open for morning tours.
If you do decide to stay the night, there is a Legends, Mysteries & Ghosts Tour that runs from 8 pm for 2 hours.
You can also choose to go on an Adventure Tour if tight spaces don’t bother you. For me, I’ll stick to the conventional cave tours. I might embarrass myself on that one.
Find the Cave Tour information here.
I would recommend you book your tour online. Somewhere I read that it’s cheaper to do this, but it’s not. But the tours can book out, particularly in the afternoon when all the coaches arrive. Better to be safe than sorry and drive all that way to miss out.
For more information take a look around the Jenolan Caves on their website. You can book your accommodation and cave tours here.
Even better, add a day at the Jenolan Caves to a day in the Blue Mountains and make a weekend of it.
Travel along the Great Western Highway (the one that runs through the Blue Mountains) out of the mountains until you come to Hartley and you will see the signs for the caves on your left.
It’s easy. Follow the signs; it’s well signposted.
Between 11.45 am and 1.15 pm the road is closed for those leaving the Jenolan Caves and heading back towards Katoomba. This is to allow the tourist coaches coming from the Blue Mountains to enter Jenolan Caves (and not encounter cars!)
You can leave the caves as we did via the road to Oberon at any time.
I am happy to report that by the time we left Jenolan Caves heading to Mudgee, I was a new person. Much to everyone’s relief. So much so I sang my way there to our road trip music, much to Dan’s horror, but I don’t think he wanted to kill my buzz! That man is a saint.
I will be back Jenolan Caves. Whenever my mojo is waining I choose this place to take some time out.
I have been lucky enough to experience part of the extensive karst system in Slovenia, at Skocjan Caves. That was impressive to say the least. But different.
I have been in other caves in Australia too, but nothing really sticks in my mind as mind-blowing.
Jenolan Caves will always be my favourite. Not just for its extensive cave systems, but for all that it represents.
A place shrouded in history and mystery. A mystical place nestled in a remote part of the Australian bush, ancient, eerie and from another time.
And always magical.