Wombeyan Caves was a favourite area of the Gundungurra people. Located 70km west of Mittagong, the area was first explored by Europeans in 1828 and subsequently attracted geologists, adventurers and tourists.
In 1864 the Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve was proclaimed and a caretaker, Charles Chalker, appointed. By the late 1880s the area was drawing over 400 visitors a year. They travelled by horse and carriage from Goulburn along a 50 mile track via Taralga, approaching the Caves from the west. A shorter, more direct route from Mittagong was only passable on horseback.
Residents of the Southern Highlands were not impressed that tourists were passing through their towns to Goulburn to visit the Caves. A vehicular road from the Highlands had not been built, however, due to the mountainous terrain and the need to cross the Wollondilly River.
A meeting held at Bowral in November 1888 called for a road from the Highlands. It was hoped this would find favour with the Minister for Mines who was to visit the Caves during the next month. He was to travel from Sydney to Goulburn by train and to the Caves by carriage via Taralga, then return to Bowral along the track via Bullio. This meant his return trip had to be on horseback and required a boat to cross the river. It was hoped that after the arduous trip he would approve the building of a road which, with a tunnel at Bullio, would cut 100 miles off the trip via Goulburn.
The route to the Caves from Goulburn via Taralga was upgraded to a tourist road in 1896 and two years later, in July 1898, work started on a road from Mittagong. Tenders were called in early 1899 for the construction of a 12-metre tunnel through the solid rock of Bullio Mountain. The road, tunnel and a five-foot river causeway at Goodman’s Ford were completed by October 1899.
The road from Mittagong was officially opened with great fanfare on January 29, 1900. To cater for the expected influx of visitors, the government built a weatherboard accommodation house at Wombeyan Caves during 1900. It cost £1000, could cater for about 20 guests and also housed the caretaker and his family.
In 1908 the Sydney Morning Herald published a lengthy article about Wombeyan Caves entitled “The Pearl of the Southern Tableland”. This served as a tourism promotion and was republished in many regional newspapers. Some extracts follow here: “The Tinted Cave and the Basin Cave lie a little further to the south of Figtree Cave, in the vicinity of a delightful bathing pool, a deliciously clear little stream which here bubbles merrily along on its way to join the Wollondilly.”
“But certainly the most delightful experience is an exploration of the Junction Cave. This is not yet opened to the public, but the guide, Mr Chalker, can sometimes be induced to take a party of the most active visitors through this magnificent cavern, but at their own risk. A visit to the Junction Cave is especially enjoyable, because the tourist is here enabled to see perhaps the finest limestone cavern in Australia in all its pristine splendour. There is a spice of danger, too, as it is necessary to climb down a nearly perpendicular wall for about 15ft, with the precarious aid of the hand-holds afforded by jutting rocks.”
“The visitor's enjoyment is not confined to the caverns themselves. To those interested, the guide can indicate the haunts of the lyre-bird and the platypus. For the sportsman, rock wallabies abound, while there are pheasant and duck further back towards Bowral.”
“Cyclists who make this trip, one of the most enjoyable in the State, should begin from Bowral, finishing at Goulburn, as far the best gradients are thus obtained. On the descent into the Wollondilly valley the grade is fairly severe, the turns are sharp, and the road is unfenced; still the surface is very good, and if the bicycle be kept well in hand there is no danger.” “Drivers of motor cars would probably find the hills on the Bowral side rather trying to the nerves, and the Wollondilly will always be a difficulty until it is bridged, as the water, even in dry weather, would be over the hubs of the wheels.” A regular stream of adventurers took up the challenge and descended upon the Caves.
- Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 2 of a 3-part series. To be continued.