2 corrections, most recently by anonymous - Show corrections
THE NARRACOORTE CAVES.
(BY A CORRESPONDENT OF THE SOUTH AUSTRA-
LIAN REGISTER )
A few weeks ago it was my good fortune to find myself in the far off town of Naracoorte with a day to spare. A spare day in a country town is not always a luxury, even if the weather be fine, for our villages can boast of but few curiosities and of no antiquities. Naracoorte is, however, a notable excep- tion. It has the honour of possessing what we may deem the greatest natural wonder in the colony, and a geological puzzle which
is as attractive in its romantic beauty to the casual visitor as it is to the scien- tific inquirer for its unique phenomena. Not far - that is about seven or eight miles from tho town - is a series of caves, long known to the settlers of this remote region, but now famous throughout Australia. I determined to go and see these caves for myself, and to see them as thoroughly as I could. Under the guidance of my friend Mr Attiwill, and accompanied by a member of the press and another gentleman represent- ing the clerical profession, we set out. The road led us to the south east, along level country. The soil is sandy, and the rock when visible shows the white chalky aspect so well known as charac- teristic of the Australian tertiaries. Scrubby forests overspread the region, and give an air to the country that is far from romantic. Ascending a very low range on the left, we suddenly drew up at the mouth of what seemed from a little distance like a wombat hole on a large scale. This was the entrance to the caves, and a more unpromising, prosaic spot could nowhere be found. I could not help thinking of the grand façade which is the portal to the Peak cavern in Derbyshire; and by contrast of the hyaline, mystic halls of ice at the mouths of the glaciers of
I had previously noticed in journeying through the south east that frequently the road sounded very hollow. Dull reverbera- tions seemed to roll away underground as a lumbering wagon passed overhead. I had been struck with the fact that these unknown caves seemed to be on the low rises and not in the channels of tho creeks, a phenomenon which I find it difficult to explain. We were told that the cave we had reached was only one of several; that there were others in the im- mediate neighbourhood, one of which had only recently been discovered, and that each cavern, or rather each series of caverns, had its own peculiarities. We knew to some extent what to expect for we had with us the Rev Julian Woods' interest- ing account of the first of these caves as it existed in the year 1861, which I for my part had carefully read. Descending the sloping hole for about 25 feet, we found ourselves in a noble hall. Its form is a rude oblong. Its length is about 200ft, its breadth varying from 40ft to 50ft, and its height about 20ft. It is not dark, for a soft radiance of daylight streams in from the other end round a huge stalactitic pillar. The temperature was de- lightfully cool after enduring the heat overhead, and there was no closeness in the air. I looked, however, in vain for the many traces of beauty which Mr Woods describes. They are all going or gone. The floor is strewed with fragments of bottles and sardine tins. The smoke from tourists' fires has begrimed the walls. The graceful pillars formed by the meeting of stalactites with stalagmites have been knocked down for fun. The pendant decora- tions of the roof have been used as targets for after dinner sport with stones and sticks. One beautiful column, rising in some fan- tastic resemblance to a human figure, has been selected as the favourite place on which to place empty bottles "for a cockshy." Names have been carved, or scratched, or daubed on every part of the wall within reach. Brown, Jones and Robin- son have sought monumental immortality by defiling and defacing the lovely rock forms of the place. And some of these visitors, too lazy to cut their names, have written them m extravagant size with the smoking flame of their candle, a mode of disfigurement espe- cially to be seen in the inner chambers. As I wandered among these caves and saw every- where the marks of this insensate spirit of mischief and snobbishness, I wondered why either the Government or the Tourist Board had not appointed a guardian over the place. Surely these caverns are worth preserving. A small salary joined to his perquisites as show-
man would afford a good living to a suitable man, and his appointment would be a public boon. I learn, however, since my return that this is to be done. The Forest Board have taken the matter up, and though the mis- deeds of the past can never be undone what remains may be preserved and left to the tender care of nature to heal the scars.
At the end of this hall the roof his evi-
dently fallen in, and we had to climb over the heap of stones and gravel to enter the second chamber. This is not so large, but is much more beautiful than the last. The columns are more thickly clustered to- gether, and are draped with architectural tracery. The dim light strikes the pil- lars and makes weird shadows in the deeper recesses of the gloom. The floor is more rough and uneven, and sometimes even taxes the skill of the tourist in climbing. The variations of wild effects are countless, and the sensitive visitant begins to feel the charm of the spot as a place which imagina- tion might well tenant with fairies, gnomes, or ghouls, according to fancy. The floor in many places is occupied with a thick deposit of bones which represent millions of small animals. These remains are chiefly of cer- tain species of diminutive rodents, such as may be found on the hills around, but some of the species must have been much more numerous at some past age than they are now. I wondered how these bones got there. There is no stream through the caves to have carried them there in its flowings. The caves are, as I said, on the tops of the ranges, with very little evidence of water action. The animals evidently did not live where they had been buried, for their remains are agglomerated together in utter confusion. A specimen fragment of this bone deposit which I possess contains fragments of jaws, tibia, and femurs, massed together in such a way that it is impossible to disentangle them and to say which ought to be classed toge- gether to form one skeleton. Mr Woods has an ingenious theory about the rise of floods in the valley, which was formerly enclosed like a basin, sweeping these creatures into the caves through the openings in the surface, but I am afraid the theory will hardly account for all the facts of the case.
Another great chamber opens out of the second, and others again out of that, and as the visitor bids farewell to daylight, and by the dim help of candles proceeds down into the
silent depths, he feels that all his conceptions of geography and locality are brought into con- fusion. The wild charm of the place increases. The fantastic forms of rockwork become more rich, the clusters of stalactites more beautiful, while their graceful tassels flicker in the light. In one deep recess, where the richness of orna- mentation seemed to be at its beat, our guide drew forth a ribbon of magnesium, and bid- ding us go to the other end he flooded the place with mystic white light, which made the dark cavern like some hall of romance m the legends of the Arabian Nights. I know not now many of these chambers we climbed into, but in the first cave there are three large halls, and from the second and third numberless smaller ones open out on every side. When in the third chamber, I inquired of our guide where the "fossil man" used to be, and be showed us the place, which I viewed with some inte- rest. The story of that "fossil man" is a chapter of romance in the early history of this colony, and that story was brought under my notice many years ago, when I was quite innocent of any interest in these caves. Wandering about the streets of Sydney in the year 1862 I saw a placard at a shop door an- nouncing that a "fossil man" and other strange things were to be seen within. My curiosity was aroused, and I paid my shilling, expecting to have a laugh at myself for my gullibility. In an upstairs room I found a garrulous showman, two stuffed alligators from Rockhampton, and the afore- said "fossil man." This was a repulsive, shrivelled, leather like corpse, with limbs bent and head hanging forward. In parts it was like a mere dried mummy, but over many
parts was an incrustation of lime, which in places had permeated the tissues and turned them into stone. The voluble tongue of the showman told us a strange story about this "fossil man." It was the body of a black man, who, when wounded by a rifle bullet, betook himself for safety to the Mosquito Cave. There, diving into its extreme depth, he lay down in a low niche in the wall and died. The body never decayed, but dried up, and meanwhile a crust of stalagmite deposit was formed upon it by the droppings of the
roof. It had remained there for many years, when this showman cast covetous eyes upon it, and one day took it away. The thief was caught, and an interesting case occupied the keen wit of the lawyers of Ade- laide , for no legal ingenuity could bring this "concern" under any of the numerous classes under which felony is arranged. A "fossil man" was certainly not to be called "goods" or "chattels," or "stone," or " timber," or anything else. The showman got the benefit of the doubt. He got off, but he lost his trea- sure. The Court, with a charming regard for the equity of the case, however the law might read, ordered the nameless thing to be put back in its place This was done, and an iron grating was fastened with cement into the roof and floor of the niche to keep the dead man from returning a second time to the world. This cave is very dark, and this darkness served as a veil for the determined thief. He watched the masons at their work, and as soon as they had turned their backs and gone out, he tore away two bars while the cement was soft, drew out the coveted mummy, and retired. This much of the story
is well known, but he went on to say how he got a sack and carried his burden toward the border in it, how the thing was awkward to manage, not so much from its weight, but from its size and angularity; how he managed to dodge all suspicious looking persons and to divert inquiry concerning his burden; how he used to pack it under his bed when sleeping at an inn; how, even when across the border, he was too nervous about his treasure to divulge his secret; and how he did not start as a showman till the whole
colony of Victoria lay between him and South Australian lawyers. We saw in the cave the aforesaid iron grating, but our guide confidently assured us that the "fossil man" was put back in the wrong place, and showed us the true spot a few yards further in the cave. This made the enigma of this famous corpse the more puzzling, for there are no drippings where it lay, and the floor is dry, and with no marks of the action of water. The fact that in some cellars and caverns a body will never decay is well known to every traveller in Germany and Italy, and may be accounted for on the modern theory that all decay is
bacterial life, and not mere chemical disin- tegration. It there be anything about the atmosphere of a place which will not permit the germs of bacteria to exist and multiply a body of any animal brought by chance into it will simply dessicate. I saw the same phenomenon in the case of some dead bats in another cave. I could, however, find no satisfactory way of accounting for the incrustation of lime over the black man's
Everywhere in the many chambers of this cave the ravages of ruthless tourists are visible. Shattered needles of limestone lie on the floor instead of adorning the roof. The grotesque figures formed by the drippings from above are overthrown. It is only in some of the deeper and more difficult chambers that the magic beauty of the place can be seen. I noticed, however, that the restorative action of nature is very rapid. A snow white efflorescence in many places has covered over the ugly sooty initials of Smith and Jones. Tiny stalactites of the thickness of a cedar pencil, and some even 2in. or 3in. long, are forming in the centre of the broken roots of larger pendants, and a smooth coating like ice covers many of the damaged stumps. It only needs that the caves should be taken care of, and in a few years the scars will be healed. It may take a century or two to restore them to what they were but a much shorter time will suffice to remove the most patent evidences of mischief
After visiting this first cave, which is the only one which Mr Woods describes, we went to see three others in the neighbourhood. The descent into these is much more difficult. The first we came to had as a doorway a mere hole, down which we descended by the aid of a rope and a bough of a tree. Our gymnastic feats in the descent were not elegant, but as no accident occurred we were well satisfied. The per-
formance is especially interesting to watch if the performer happens to be somewhat cor- pulent, and the ascent for tourists who have filled their pockets with too many bulky specimens is likewise somewhat awkward. Into one of the caves the entrance is in the centre of the ceiling of a great dome, down which the inquisitive visitor must descend like a sailor or a monkey. We heard a curious story of a narrow escape on the part of one of our recent Governors. His friends had done him tho honour of providing an armchair, seated on which and dangling in state in mid air, His excellency was to be content with touching the floor of the cavern. The idea was good but, in utter ignorance of the capacity of glue to sustain such a weight, the ropes had been tied to the top rail of the circular back of the chair. Innocent and trusting the Governor was just about to be swung off, in which case he would have found the bottom somewhat too speedily, when a loyal onlooker called out to him to stop. The chair was then properly attached, and the viceregal party were saved from being actors in a most tragic comedy
Each of these caves has its own character and its own peculiar scenery. There are some nooks of surpassing beauty, where as yet no profane hand has disturbed the decorations of these Gothic chapels. The floor of two of the caves has been rich in deposits of guano formed by the bats. But the guano is of a poor sort, and the Govern- ment has made a dear bargain in giving licenses to cart away this manure. The caves have been injured, and a valuable opportunity for scientific examination lost for the sake of a few pounds in licence fees. We would urge that this mode of spoliation should be stopped were it not that the supply is nearly exhausted, when the caves will be once more left in peace. Ore of these caverns, the fourth that we entered, is very imposing. The roof is high and vaulted, long wide passages connected one chamber with another, deep crevasses intersect the floor, and the changing levels make climbing needful.
Millions of bats whirl through the darkness uttering their own plaintive cry. They come rushing invisible through the gloom, striking against the intruder and endangering his light. The vast domed roofs, the chasms, the dark deeps, the impenetrable recesses, the weird effect of our flickering candles, and the aspect of our party clambering over the rocks, and especially the unearthly whirring of the bats, reminded me of the scenery of Dante's "Inferno," and of Mr Ruskin a re- mark that Dante was evidently a very bad climber by the way in which he describes his
In the same vast cavern I found a better opportunity than elsewhere of examining the walls. A fine section of the fossiliferous strata is exposed to view. It is crowded with shells and corals and bryozoa. I noted innumerable specimens of what Woods calls Cellepora Gambierensis, some ap- patently in situ as though growing on their original reef in the ocean, and others broken and in fragments. The entire wall is an agglomerated mass of shells and casts of pecten, terebratula, murex, trochus, pyra- midella, &c., mingled with fragments or casts of various species of echinus. I was bewildered at the tempting task of examining those masses of fossils, and wished for days instead of hours in which to perform it. I saw numerous spines of cidaris, but I was especially curious to see if I could come upon any belemnites like those which Professor Tate has discovered so unexpectedly at Aldinga, but was not fortunate enough to find any. As I wandered through those caverns I had many thoughts concerning the possible origin of these caves, in none of which is there any stream of water, and which are all on the higher ridges of the country, which run north and south, but my observations were too hasty to enable me to formulate any conclusion, even as a "working hypothesis" for myself, to say nothing of the public.
Some idea may be gained of the extent, variety, and interest of this unique series of caverns when I say that we were hard at work for six hours, and then had to leave one cave unvisited. We did little more than walk through them, and scarcely ever went over the same ground twice. I had often heard of the famous caves of Narracoorte
before, but when I returned from this expe- dition I was abundantly satisfied that no de- scription of them had exaggerated their beauty, and that if any visitor is ever disap- pointed he must thank the senseless folly of those who save gone before him, banging stones at the delicate pendants from the ceil- ing, and printing their names with candle soot upon the snowy walls.
THE death is announced at Berlin of the
well-known chemist. Professor Sonnenschein. He had only reached the age of 62. He was,
if not the chief, one of the chief authorities in all matters of chemical analysis.
THE Grand Duke Nicholas, son of the Grand Duke Constantine, has been exiled to
Orenburg. He is accused of having forwarded to tho National Zeitung of Berlin a pamphlet on the construction of a Central Asiatic rail- way connecting the Ural with the Sir