As a child, I had a fantasy dream about one day discovering a beautiful crystal cave that was large enough for me to sit in. The dream was quite specific: my cave needed to have a ceiling made of rock crystals!
I grew up an avid collector and reader of all things crystal. I even made a rock shop at the bottom of our garden to display the many crystals I’d collected from the creeks and beaches around our home.
Moving to South West Australia, it wasn’t long before I heard about the caves found in the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge and set off to visit them. Could Your Margaret River Region be as beautiful beneath as it was above the surface? Little did I know, my childhood dream was about to become a reality even better than I could have imagined!
(Image: Ngilgi Cave is a little girl’s dream come true. By Elements Margaret River)
Like many tourists before me, the first stop on my caves itinerary along the lovely winding country drive that is Caves Road was exquisite Ngilgi. Previously known as Yallingup Cave, Ngilgi is a Karst cave just northeast of Yallingup and holds a very special place in the history of the Margaret River region.
It is credited as starting the tourism industry in these parts after being accidently discovered by a chap named Edward Dawson in 1899 when he was searching for his stray horses. Before too long, more and more people were visiting – guided by Edward – and in 1903 Yallingup Cave was the first cave in Western Australia to have electric lights installed. The same year the government of the day obligingly built the Caves House Hotel where, to this day, visitors to Ngilgi Cave experience extraordinary hospitality and refreshments!
Not only does its beauty make this the perfect cave to being with, but here you can see all the formations traditional to the Margaret River region’s limestone caves: stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, shawls, straws, pillars, columns flowstone and cave crystal.
Thought to be about 500,000 years old, Ngilgi Cave (pronounced Nil Ghee) is comfortable to visit all year round at about 20°c. For the statisticians, the depth is 37 meters in the Show cave 45 meters in the Wild cave and all up Ngilgi is about 730 metres long.
Its name comes from an Aboriginal legend about Ngilgi (a good spirit of the ocean), and Wolgine (the bad spirit who once lived in the cave). Read the story here.
Today, people can even marry in the spectacular cave, and Ngilgi has been the site of two world cave sitting records. During Jazz by the Bay, the region’s annual jazz music festival which delivers ‘the sounds of jazz in perfect settings’, a duo perform at the lowest point of the cave and its superb acoustics are showcased.
Semi guided tours of the main show cave are conducted every 30 minutes throughout the day. Remember though – there’s no eating drinking or smoking in the caves and no tripods or selfie sticks (it’s a bit dark in there and you might poke someone!). If you’re an ultra keen spelaeologist, ask about the adventure tours!
(Image above: Is it a cave, or is this coconut ice?!)
However you apply it, the word ‘mammoth’ fits this cave perfectly. Firstly, the remains of mammoth sized pre-historic beasties are found here. Secondly, at 500 meters long the cave’s interior is truly mammoth on any scale and finally at the cave’s exit there’s a mammoth amount of stairs to ascend to ground level (170 in total: not a real problemo!)
As the TripAdvisor reviews say – ‘it sure is BIG.’ Located 21 kms south of the town of Margaret River, Mammoth Cave has some amazing stalactites and stalagmites and the walk you end on through the karri forest that loops back to the cave’s entrance is truly a perfect way to end the whole experience.
Children (and adults) will love the MP3 audio headsets that let you set your own pace for the tour, which you can expect to take around an hour. What fascinated us most was that this cave is a natural time capsule: it contains ancient fossil remains of long-extinct Australian megafauna.
Mammoth Cave was the site of one of Australia’s most important paleontological digs in the early 1900s. It has yielded fossils of Pleistocene fauna over 45,000 years old, including those of thylacines and the giant marsupial herbivore Zygomaturus.
You can view the fossil jawbones of creatures like Vombatus Hacketti (extinct wombat) and Sarcophilus Harrisii (Tasmanian Devil) and others in well-lit display cases along the sturdy boardwalks.
European settlers to the Margaret River region reportedly knew about Mammoth Cave from about 1850, however it wasn’t explored until 1895 when Tim Connelly charted its nether regions and went on to conduct tours by lamplight until 1904 when electric lighting was installed.
Finally, if you find the thought of those stairs back up daunting, you can simply turn around in Mammoth Cave (there’s loads of room!) and exit through the entrance to the cave.
(Image above: We think the exit of Mammoth Cave looks a little like the map of Australia!)
Lake Cave and Events Deck
My first introduction to Lake Cave was a very memorable Valentine’s Day dinner held on the suspended events deck in February 2015. It was a delightfully elegant affair with white linen tablecloths and live musicians (who, naturally, played live music!).
The sense of place I felt that night stayed with me a long time after we departed, reminiscing with the other guests on our coach ride home about the quality wines, menu and ambience created by the unique viewing platform with its circular glass portholes providing a unique window to the cave terrain below.
(Image: The glass viewing holes in the suspended platform are an excellent idea!)
Beneath the surface and inside the cave, it is the water that provides the magic. It’s simply such a peaceful and beautiful sight to behold: quivering reflections dance off the crystalline limestone walls and a wonderland labyrinth is laid out before you. When it opened to the public in 1901, the cave was called ‘Queen of the Earth’. It’s the deepest tourist cave in the South-West – 62 metres – and is remarkable also for a unique formation called the ‘Suspended Table’ where two columns support a sheet of flowstone between them which is suspended only centimetres above the stream. It’s both beautiful and incredibly strong: the suspended weight is thought to be more than 5 tonnes.
The visitor center here houses an impressive eco-interpretive center which comes with a ‘cave crawl’ a simulated tunnel the kids will love which helps them to get used to tight spaces often found caves. While it didn’t have the crystal ceiling of my childhood dreams, it sure was funky! The centre is also home to an operational laboratory which is used for speleological (cave) research. Next to it is the popular Lake Cave Café. Admission to the suspended viewing platform at Lake Cave is free and the views into the circular crater or doline through the karri trees are superb.
(Image: The sunken entrance to this cave is beautifully framed.)
It’s worth noting the incredible circular 300 stair walk down to the entrance of this cave: on this adventure, you get to combine beauty, photography and exercise all in one great experience!
As this was a trip to see the Margaret River caves, we thought we’d saved the best for last as people had said that Jewel Cave was special. However, having seen three lovely caves in two days, I walked in with more than a touch of an ‘Impress Me, Jewel!’ attitude.
Jewel Cave is flat out spectacular and amazing. At 42 metres deep and 1.9 kilometres long, not only is it the largest show cave in Western Australia but it contains one of the world’s largest straw stalactites. Statistics aside, it’s just jaw droppingly gorgeous. You need to easily allow over an hour to see it properly.
Likened often to a lofty natural cathedral, Jewel comes with heaps of features: see if you can spot the organ pipes, coral reef giant shawl, friendly ghost, Jedi and jewellery box! The lighting inside the cave is particularly remarkable: in 2011 it was completely redone with new generation LEDs using a mix of warm and cool toned lighting which sets off the natural subterranean treasures to perfection.
There are a few spots where it’s a bit of a squeeze, but never fear: your trusty tour guide (ours was Crusty) has got your back. Like all the caves, there are loads of steps in and out (250 here) but just take your time – you can always pause and get some refreshments afterwards at the Jewel Cave Café.
Jewel Cave is 8 km from the town of Augusta. Tours here run every hour, and there’s a 1km Karri trail that takes in spectacular views and provides a pleasant, easy way to pass the time while you’re waiting for the next tour.
One final tip for spelaeology fans: Get the Multi Cave Pass which gave us access to all four caves (we spent the money we saved by buying the pass having coffees at the various caves cafes after visiting each!). The cost is $67 for adults $29 for Children or $165 Family (2 x 2). To book, call +61 08 9757 7411 to book or email [email protected].