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Blue Mountains News

1860 Descent into the 'Blackest Midnight Darkness'

Source: Jenolan Caves
Posted: 20 Jan 2019
Even today, with technological aids such as mapping and digital survey equipment, caving is an inexact science. Cave exploration is still a case of wriggling down a hole and hoping to find something! In 1860 it was far more dangerous!

By 1860, at Jenolan Caves, the vast ‘Devils Coach House’ cave and ‘The Grand Arch’ had been discovered, but explorers suspected the existence of more caves.  According to an article in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 11 January 1860, “the opinion had often been expressed... that new caves surpassing any hitherto seen existed… but the towering precipices seemed inaccessible and to preclude the idea of human investigation”.

In January 1860, two locals, Nicholas Irwin and George Whiting, decided to measure the height of a “lofty pinnacle overhanging the creek”.  To do this dangerous job, they climbed to the top of ‘The Grand Arch’, a very precarious spot. Rocks and stones, loosened by their feet, crashed down into the creek below, and “one slip of the foot would probably have led to instant and frightful destruction...”

Whilst on top of ‘The Grand Arch’, they spotted a rock opening, almost obscured by what appeared to be ivy. Nicholas Irwin led the way, and on closer inspection they found that it was actually “an evergreen olive, springing out of an ancient twisted, gnarled tree”. The old tree was growing in a small open space, which led to another, smaller passageway. They were reluctant to explore the smaller passageway, as a profusion of stalactites blocked the way. But they could see that it led down into the interior of the mountain, where no daylight seemed to penetrate.

In the florid prose of the time, it was reported, “It is impossible to express the impression of awe, produced by the solemn twilight and stillness of that unbroken solitude, but having no candles we had to return by the perilous way by which we descended”.

Later that evening, and again the next day, they returned with a large party, which included Jeremiah Wilson and his younger brother Noble. Unable to resist the lure of the unknown, they entered the cave through the newly discovered opening which resembled a ‘Sole of the Boot’, by candlelight.

They reported, “After passing through the narrow crevice already mentioned, there commences a rapid and dangerous descent, which continued as far as our utmost researches reached. At the same time, the cave increases in height and width, so as to open out into a long series of spacious amphitheatres surpassing in extent all the other caves and exceeding the wildest imaginations of romance.”

It is thought that this first foray explored the area generally known today as ‘The Slide’, which descends from ‘The Cathedral Chamber’ to ‘The Exhibition Chamber’.

The writer described “transparent fringed draperies of the richest and most exquisite texture” and emitting when struck “musical organ-like tones”.  He was describing crystal shawls, located approximately half way down ‘The Slide’, near the cave known as ‘The Music Hall’. “Baths and fountains of the clearest water” appear in the same area.

After rain, a nearby stalactite glistens with fresh crystal, which he described as “marble sparkling like jewels or as white as driven snow”. These clues indicate that this very first discovery party did not descend ‘The Slide’, as later intrepid tourists did. Instead they probably descended via the narrower solution tube that replaced ‘The Slide’ after receiving a litany of complaints of “rough travelling”.

The article refers to “passageways of unexplored extent” and areas finishing in the “blackest midnight darkness”.  This is an apt description for someone with a fast melting candle, trying to ascertain what lay beyond, in the vastness of what is now known as ‘The Exhibition Chamber’.

This exploration was a tremendous achievement, considering that their candles only lasted for two hours. During that time, they were convinced of the splendour of what they had seen and the “unexplored fathomless extent of this new discovery”. Further underground expeditions would soon follow. 

The newly discovered cave became known as ‘The New Cave’. In 1866, Jenolan was declared a reserve, making it one of the earliest protected areas in the world.  The man responsible for this legislation was John Lucas. Therefore, in 1878, ‘The New Cave’ was rechristened ‘The Lucas Cave’ in his honour. The mighty cave was named for a mighty visionary.

Today, Jenolan Caves is Australia’s biggest and most spectacular cave system that is open to the public.  Over 350 caves have been discovered at Jenolan, but the Lucas Cave is probably the best known – for its massive size and huge formations.  Fortunately, the precarious ‘Sole of the Boot’ entrance was eventually superseded by a safer cave entrance, and you can enjoy a fascinating guided tour of the Lucas Cave on any day of the year.    

So, that is the story of how the mighty Lucas Cave was discovered by 2 men who just wanted to measure ‘The Pinnacle’, on top of ‘The Grand Arch’.  Sadly, ‘The Pinnacle’, in danger of falling onto the road below, was later partly demolished.  However, the Jenolan Caves gift shop has some fine 19th century sepia prints for purchase. One of them shows ‘The Pinnacle’, crowning ‘The Grand Arch’, as described in the 1860 article.

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