A couple of days at the Buchan Caves, East Gippsland.

Tuesday, Jan 01, 2013 at 19:05


With a few days off between Xmas and New Year, Queen Vik and I decided to take the Crown Prince on a mini camping break to get away from it all. Vik had her mind set on the Buchan caves, a place neither of us had been but had always wanted to visit. Due to the seating constraints of the Tuck-Truck, the Shopping trolley was to be the mode of conveyance which meant tents and back down to ground level for the sleeping arrangements...oh no! Anyway, fully loaded we hit the road Boxing day morning and headed east on the A1 through the green rolling hills of Gippsland, and the power house of Victoria with the open cut mines and power stations of the Latrobe Valley. It was a beaut sunny day and we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the peace of Victory Park at Traralgon before heading east again to Sale and Bairnsdale.

Leaving the A1 at Bairnsdale we wound our way north into the hills towards Bruthen on the start of the Great Alpine Road (B500). The road has seen vast improvements in the 25 years that I've been travelling it. Gone are often sharp drops at the edge of the narrow bitumen with the road surface now extended to incorporate a wide asphalt verge. Through rolling farmlands we soon arrived at Wiseleigh, a small outlying suburb of Bruthen ( if such a thing is possible) and then Bruthen itself. Here the A500 splits to the north and we continued east across the wide Tambo Bridge on the Bruthen – Nowa Nowa Road (C620). It is only a slight climb of 4 kilometres into the surrounding hills when the farmlands are replaced by the mighty White Stringybark and Silvertop Ash of the Colquhoun State Forest. Some twenty kilometres east of Bruthen, the C608 took us due north the remaining 30 kilometres to Buchan through forest and isolated pockets of farmland, our first glimpse of the community coming as we wound our way out of the hills above it.

Buchan is a town that supports the local rural and tourist industries. While small it is extremely neat and well kept supporting a pub (the Caves Hotel), a local store and the service station/cafe. There is also a modern police station. The turn into the caves reserve is only a couple of hundred metres past the store and taken just before the bridge over the Buchan River. The reserve itself is a revelation with acres of grassy green picnic, camping and day visit areas, as well as every amenity for the camper including powered sites, Eco cabins and lodge/cabin type accommodation. Naturally, being the holidays it was all heavily booked. We were fortunate enough to secure one of the last remaining camping sites on an area known as “Combi’s Flat”, normally a grassy area served for late comers. To my mind it was one of the best groups of camp sites in the park. The powered sites are pretty jam packed at this time of year. The only down side is that we are right by the road bridge meaning it's a little noisy during the day.

Right from the outset it appeared as if the reserve had been intended as a botanical reserve and the influence and developments in many of the great American National Parks is easy to see in the rugged architecture and infrastructure built in the 1930’s. The surrounding trees are predominantly exotic species including fine examples from all corners of the world. Huge Sequoia share space with mighty oak and elm, Himalayan Cyprus, and some of the largest plain trees I have ever seen. They simple dwarf the plain trees in the older established suburbs of Melbourne. The amenity of the area is due largely to the landscaping design of Hugh Linaker who was contracted to develop the reserve in the 1930’s.

The Caves Reserve History

At some 285ha the Buchan Caves Reserve is situated in the Buchan-Murrindal cave system, a large outcrop of cave and karst-forming limestones in south-eastern Victoria. The earliest known written reference to the caves is in a report of Gippsland written in 1840. The earliest known tourist reference to the caves was in a guide to the Gippsland Lakes in 1886, but the caves were undoubtedly a visitor curiosity long before then.

In 1906 Francis Herbert Arthur (Frank) Moon explored Moon's Cave and was appointed by the Government of Victoria to officially search for new caves. This led to exploration of Kitsons Cave in 1906 and the discovery and exploration of Fairy Cave in 1907. The same year Frederick Wilson was appointed Caves Supervisor, a position he held until 1921. Wilson had experience from managing the popular Jenolan Caves in New South Wales. By the time of the First World War the area was being promoted by the Victorian Railways and the caves were a very popular tourist attraction. Infrastructure works in the caves before the First World War included some lighting and barriers. After the First World War an electric lighting plant was installed, and tunnelling that facilitated a link for Fairy Cave and Royal Cave.

In 1929 Hugh Linaker prepared a landscape plan. Linaker was a landscaping consultant to mental hospitals, prisons and local governments. His plan showed predominantly exotic trees although natives were not entirely excluded. Work on Linaker’s plan proceeded piecemeal, but in 1938 the existing reserves, and a new camping reserve gazetted in 1930, were consolidated into the Buchan Caves National Park.

The entry to Buchan Caves Reserve lies on the south bank of the Buchan River, and is approached through a stone and timber pole archway that was erected in 1938. The entry drive runs parallel to the river, and is lined with London Planes and Poplar’s. At the confluence of Spring Creek and the Buchan River are examples of mature specimen trees, including Cottonwood, (Populus deltoides) and River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana). The drive swings west away from the river and into the Spring Creek Valley. Many of the buildings and facilities constructed along the drive in the 1930’s remain include a manager's residence, tennis courts (now parking area for DSE vehicles), the spring fed swimming pool bridges and camping facilities such as the Campers Kitchen, rotunda and Campers Lounge (Now the information centre).

The valley floor is planted with exotic and native trees to a plan prepared by Hugh Linaker in 1929. Structures from the 1930s period in the valley include the entrance arch, a rustic rotunda, campers kitchen, a campers lounge (now functioning as a visitor centre), and the entrances to Fairy and Royal Caves. Buchan Caves Reserve is aesthetically and scientifically significant for the spectacular caves and geological formations that comprise the underground features of the reserve. Some of this infrastructure was the work of Frederick Wilson, including the stairway entrance and wire netting in Fairy Cave. As an example of early cave infrastructure, these works are rare in Australia.

Discovery and development of the Caves

Frank Moon was contracted by the Victorian Government to locate caves of significance in the state. Caves were a popular tourist attraction at that time. While exploring the area he stopped to investigate a small hole and felt a cool breeze emanating from the hole. With a liberally applied charge of dynamite, Moon enlarged the hole and lowered himself down. Using only a candle for light, he found the amazing wonderland that was to become the fairy cave. Over the next two years, Moon created pathways and stairs within the cave system. In exploring the Fairy Cave, Moon crawled through a hole only some 40 cm wide to locate the initial cavern that would later become known as the Royal Cave (in honour of the royal family who were visiting Australia at that time). A significant tunnel was also hand chiselled to gain access to the western most chamber of the Royal Cave system rather than destroy some magnificent formations to link the Fairy and Royal Caves.

The present cave system was formed over the past million years or so and supported a major underground stream until at some time in the distant past, the water table dropped exposing the current system to air and allowing the amazing calcite growths to begin. This process was aided by the fact that the limestone making up the surrounding rock has a calcium concentration of 54% which is very high in geological terms. It is interesting to note that there is a secondary and equally expansive cave system below the Fairy/Royal systems. The majority of this system is still largely below the water table meaning it is inundated. It is water from this cave system that feeds the swimming pool further along the park.

The National Parks maintain the facility brilliantly and conduct cave tours on a regular basis. The guided tours of the Royal and Fairy caves take approximately 45 – 60 minutes each. Tickets are purchased at the visitor centre which is open from 9:30 am to 3:30 p.m. While there are car parks near the entrance to each cave but they are only a 10 minute walk from the campground. Despite being packed with calcite formations, both caves are distinctly different. The Royal Cave is entered by a long tunnel hand dug from the inside by Moon and his staff. Royal Cave is larger and more open than Fairy Cave having many large caverns but it is it’s calcite rimmed pools of crystal clear water that are most spectacular. Fairy Cave is simply that, a wonderland of calcite shapes where stalactites and stalagmites abound. This cave is a lot more confined than the Royal cave and a good portion of the walk is spent in a crouched or bent over position. Both are simply amazing and the various formations, sheets, lambs ears, tites and mites are tactfully lit to provide a fantastic visual experience.

Our mini break was spent exploring a few of the surrounding walks, swimming in the pool and looking around Buchan. The Bluffs reserve accessed via Lousadas Road (First on the left over the bridge heading north) has a great swimming hole beneath the sheer limestone cliffs. It’s got everything a kid wants, sandbar, giant boulder to jump from, rocks to skip and a lazy current to push you downstream on your air mattress all with grassy banks to relax and picnic on (or sleep in queen Viks case). The crown prince amused himself by significantly extending the rock wall out into the creek. Apart from a delicious prawn salad on our first night (ah the delights of Xmas day left-overs), we also tried the fare at the hotel enjoying a fat-chook parma and the reef and beef while overlooking the green hills from the pub’s veranda. All that and a quiet after dinner aperitif with fellow campers back at Chateau Combi.

We were very impressed with the Buchan Caves Reserve and the facilities we found there. It provided a very relaxing break and a chance to explore caves that are a rare treasure.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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