We followed our map instructions and 6 kms later we arrived at the carpark ready for the Royal Arch Cave guided tour. Peter and I sat and waited, soaking in the sights and sounds of the landscape.
When the guide arrived, he impressed with his manner of explaining how the tour would run, and the value of respecting the caves and the environment. Safety procedures were detailed clearly. I was delighted with the organisation of the tour – each of us were handed our own gear with battery to girdle our waistlines with a light at the end of a cord draped around our neck for easy access. Yes. Inside most of the cave was dark; pitch black when the lights were off.
Geared up, off we walked towards a commanding rocky limestone edifice. I could feel the warmth of the sunshine and the dryness of the air, see the movements of small birds in the trees and hear the sounds of larger birds higher up, all the while sensing the country was very very old.
We arrived at the rock and moved towards a narrow cleft through which we entered.
If I continued, would I be carried into the land of fairy stories? There are medieval legends of recesses in rocks through which people entered and either didn’t come out again or were transformed in some way. Mysteries often surround the history of caves. Would I come out again, be lost in some underground labyrinth, or be imprisoned by mythical mountain giants? Would I be changed forever by this experience? When I walked into the ‘mountain;, I stepped into and down with great curiousity as the guide locked the gate behind me. Clang.
Initially, daylight streamed weakly through a ‘skylight’ created by a rock fall.
Then we plunged deeper into the grand cave system. Chains edged the pathway to provide additional guidance as we walked. The result was that I did not fall off edges and into deeper caves. Periodically we ascended or descended strong railed steep metal stairs. We negotiated narrow passages and low overhangs (I am always grateful for being shorter than some), and crouched our way through some sections. In so doing, we twisted and turned our way through cavern after cavern, and were rewarded with different formations and rock structures.
Caves are usually brightened by strong lights when photographs are being taken for use in promotional material. The result is an unrealistic presentation in terms of colour; as we walked, in the gloom and using our pointer lights, most of the cave exists in shades of grey and black. This ‘loss’ of colour surprised some visitors.
We walked for some time admiring the internal structures of the cave spaces. Do you remember what the difference is between a stalactite and a stalagmite? The stalactite descends from the ceiling. It is a more or less conical shape created as mineral laden moisture runs down and leaves a deposit of the minerals at the tip before some water drips off the bottom end. The stalagmite ‘grows’ up from the ground as mineral laden water drops onto it. After hundreds and thousands of years, we can then see their forms. If stalactites – the ceiling formations – grow long enough to connect with stalagmites on the floor, they form a column. In the Royal Arch cave, the stalactites and stalagmites were seldom thin and spindly, rather they were clumpy, bulbous, gross rather than refined.
When we reached another area where the ‘ceiling’ had fallen in, seeing daylight again was reassuring. This is commonly referred to as ‘picnic cave’. Greening occurs on some wall where light enters and rain can fall.
Apparently years ago this was the site of a rescue of three local boys who slipped into the caves over locked gates carrying only one carbide light between them, ready for adventure. When the single light went out permanently they became lost in the maze of caves. Eventually they found the opening pictured above. Only one boy could eventually clamber up the fig tree roots and rocky walls and out of the steep irregular sides to go and get help – hours later. His feet were cut badly from the razor sharp rocks. The rescue was especially problematic because the upward air drafts from the cave meant the helicopter could only hover for 30 seconds at a time or risk engine overheating and failure. They then had to fly around for 5-10 minutes to cool down.
The textures of the limestone cave walls varied. I was surprised by the sharpness of ‘gouged’/deep ‘engraved’ markings on the rocks.
Within the cave tour, our guide allowed for personal adventure. There was a tube like pathway which some could choose to squeeze through on their stomachs to an area then swivel around in a tiny confined space before going down the tube feet first to come out in a new cave space. Peter dared to take this path while I walked the alternative open path. And he loved the experience despite almost getting stuck with his wide shoulders. We were both surprised how few children were prepared to take risks; sad that they are already denying themselves the opportunity to explore what was really a safe environment despite the hype the guide added.
You might recall, when I was walking through one of the Undara lava tube caves, I showed photos of the calcrete floor surface. There was a similar surface in one of the Royal Arch caves.
We saw a number of well camouflaged small cave spiders on the walls. The spider in the photo below had spun a web connected to the railings of part of the walk pathway. Apparently the main spider types are the Huntsmen and the St Andrews Cross varieties.
Decades have passed since I last visited a limestone cave. I had memories of spectacular white wet stalactites and stalagmites. However all those were located in southern Australia where usually moisture comes through for most months of the year. Way up north at the top of Queensland the weather and climate is quite different. The result are comparatively drier caves, and the speed at which water droplets fall is so much slower.
After two hours we emerged from the cave with its feeling of profound emptiness, and returned to the warm sunlit living landscape.