The Capricorn Caves are one of North Queensland’s great natural wonders. Situated near the Bruce Highway 30km north of Rockhampton, the Caves are part of the Mount Etna National Park. I’ve driven past the town of The Caves visible from the Highway many times before finally dropping by last year. Caves are awesome places to get a measure of an area’s geology and this one has nice gardens too while waiting for a tour into the cave.
My first surprise as we start the tour is that instead of going down we are going up. These caves are high in the mountains. Aboriginal people have long known of the Capricorn caves, part of the Darumbal people’s traditional homeland. They were rediscovered by settler John Olsen in 1881 and almost immediately opened to the public. In 1988, after four generations of Olsen family ownership, Rodney Olsen sold the freehold property to Ken and Ann Augusteyn. Today, they are the only privately owned show caves on freehold land in Australia.
While wild caving tours are on the menu for the adventurous, the park has also reached out to the wider market with easy walking caves via wooden steps and even wheelchair accessible caves. The Archer Brothers settled in Rockhampton area in the 1850s and named Mount Etna after the volcano in Sicily. From 1914 to 1939, the caves were mined for guano, a natural fertiliser, and from 1925 for limestone. During World War II, commandos trained here. The national park was established in 1975 to protect the caves.
During the Devonian period about 390 million years ago eastern Queensland was covered by a warm shallow sea. Erupting lava gradually built up islands that provided a base for corals, sponges, and shellfish to grow. Their calcareous skeletons accumulated on the sea floors to form the sedimentary Mount Etna limestone. As the limestone emerged from the sea to become land, it was exposed to acidic rain and underground water flowing through cracks. These waters dissolved the calcite in limestone to form the caves. When the water became saturated with the dissolved calcite it redeposited the calcite as cave decorations.
The area has been alternately shaped by, and then starved of, water. Limestone from ancient coral reefs formed rocky karst.
Five bat species roost in Capricorn Caves at different times of the year, mainly in warm wet weather. Little bent-wing bats (Miniopterus australis) visit in their thousands, and Australia’s largest carnivorous bat, the vulnerable ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) is a rare vistor.
Marine fossils of original corals can still be seen in Capricorn Caves. Crinoids (sea lilies) were abundant and stromatoporoids, sponge-like filtering organisms with hard skeletons, built up large mounds of limestone.
The rare fern Tectaria devexa, seen in cave entrances, was threatened with extinction in 2006 after decades of drought. They are spread across southern Asia but Capricorn Caves with its 40 specimens was the only known locality in Australia until April 2001 when an additional smaller population was located at another cave. A threatened species recovery program has helped stabilise the fragile species.
The most popular tour is the Cathedral Cave Tour with its wheelchair access and the natural acoustics of the Cathedral Chamber. It’s a popular venue for weddings, Carols at Christmas and orchestral performances.
The tour meanders through ten chambers ranging from smaller caves decorated with stalactites, cave coral and shawls to the huge domed Cathedral Cavern. In my tour they turned off all the lights in the Cavern while playing a recorded cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which sounded amazing in almost total darkness while candles flickered on the walls.
Because there was only three of us on this session we got a bit of the more adventurous tour. The exit is via the “Commando Crawl” and then a swing rope. Thankfully we we skipped the bit where you squeeze through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a tight fit cave not for the overweight – or claustrophobic.