The Wombeyan Caves are located about 70km west of Mittagong in the Wollondilly River catchment, on the Wingecarribee Shire’s western boundary.
Formed by the constant dripping of limestone-impregnated water over many thousands of years, the caverns are a natural wonder with their stalagmites and stalactites, tinted stones and tapestries, frozen cascades and waterfalls, and walls of marble.
The area has attracted geologists, adventurers and tourists ever since the caves were first explored by Europeans early in the nineteenth century.
Before their arrival, Wombeyan Caves and the Wollondilly River catchment were favourite areas of the Gundungurra people. The name Wombeyan is said to be from their language meaning ‘caves in the hills’ or 'grassy flats between two mountains'.
Surveyor-General John Oxley is generally credited with being the first European to see the caves when leading a party looking for grazing land in 1828. The party travelled westward from present-day Mittagong and discovered the caves by chance while looking for their straying horses. The first of them to enter the caves is said to be a clergyman called Denning.
After Oxley’s party, the area was visited intermittently but access was limited due to difficult terrain and rugged bush, whether approached from Goulburn or Mittagong.
The uniqueness of the caves was recognised in 1864 when the Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve was proclaimed. A karst is a region of limestone or dolomite characterised by underground caverns, drainage systems, sinkholes and gorges. Wombeyan is claimed to be the first reserve in Australia set aside specifically for the preservation of caves.
The first caretaker at Wombeyan Caves, Charles Chalker, was appointed in 1864. A residence was provided for him, located about three miles west of the Caves. Within a short time he had discovered three unexplored caverns, namely Wollondilly Cave, Kooringa Cave and Mulwaree Cave. Visitor numbers gradually increased and for their benefit the caverns were illuminated using candlelight and magnesium.
The name was originally spelt as Whombeyan. In 1865 the Illustrated Sydney News described the area as an amphitheatre surrounded by a range of hills, the entrance to the Caves “formed by some mighty natural convulsion, which had lifted the whole face of the mountain. Visitors entered by a gothic-like door of giant dimensions, being no less than 200 feet in height”.
“From the entrance chamber another aperture branches off, the passage of which is most dangerous. A single slip would be fatal, as a pool of water of unknown depth lies beneath. After toiling along, the ‘Glass Chamber’ is reached, and amply repays the danger. The walls, formed of marble, interspersed with large patches of mica, reflect back the torch light with a thousand more lights, brilliant as diamonds.”
The Goulburn Herald also provided descriptions of visits to Whombeyan Caves. One such, published in February 1870, included the following:
“These caves lie in an easterly direction from here, distant about fifty miles. The road is by no means good” and “a vehicle (buggy) cannot travel nearer to them than Chalker's place”.
“Charles Chalker is keeper of the caves, and receives from government the sum of £25 a year for his services. When within a couple of miles of the Caves there is a steep descent, where some parties dismount and prefer walking down, considering it the easiest and safest, while the more daring prefer riding their horse.”
Another account in December 1871, informed readers that: “These caves have just been visited by a party of young men of Goulburn who left town last week for the purpose of eating their Christmas dinner in ‘marble halls’. And truly they were not disappointed, for not only had they the pleasure of doing so, but of also spreading their blankets on marble floors. The party found Mr Chalker exceedingly kind and obliging.”
“Very much sport was afforded to the party by wallaby shooting. Those animals are here exceedingly plentiful, the place being actually alive with them.”
The Goulburn paper advised in February 1879 that the government had set aside £600 for the maintenance of caves at Whombeyan and for improvements to access. Visitor numbers soared.
- Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 1 of a 3-part series. To be continued.