On our way out of Katherine, we stopped by the Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park. While we had seen plenty of caves and sinkholes down in South Australia, we hadn’t really heard of any in the Territory so we were curious to find out more.
Our tour guide, Ethan was very friendly and super knowledgeable about the caves, and we soaked up as much information as we could.
The main cave was accidentally discovered in the early 1900s by cattle drover Mr Smith, who was leading his cattle across the land when a few disappeared down a hole. In the 1940s, soldiers would enter the cave and use the stalactites as target practice, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the area became protected and named Sixteen Mile Cave Reserve. In 1979, the area was renamed the Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park and there are a total of 52 caves in the park.
The traditional owners of the land that the caves are located are the Jawoyn people, but there is no rock art or signs that they ever lived in the cave. Apparently, living in the cave was seen as a bit of a taboo for local indigenous folks – probably because the caves would’ve been pitch black at night, echoes may have been mistaken for evil spirits and if any animals had fallen in and died the cave wouldn’t have smelt very nice. The words Cutta Cutta mean place of many stars, probably named so because of the twinkling of the calcite crystals. It was believed that stars would hide in the cave by day and explode into the sky at night.
Cutta Cutta Caves are Australia’s first cave system to be lit by solar power, which we think is pretty cool. The cave are in a subtropical climate, and as the main cave only has one opening, there is no ventilation so the atmosphere inside is quite dry and warm. On our way to the main cave, we passed a large depression, and when it eventually collapses, will change the atmosphere within the cave completely because it will create another opening.
The caves are made of 570 million year old tindall limestone, which is only found in NT, but the actual caves are only 350 million years old. The main cave is 650m long and reaches the water table at the far end, but the tour only takes you in 250m because going any further in would be very dangerous. Our tour guide Ethan is an experienced caver and has been all the way to the far end. He told us that the passageway gets so narrow at some points that you have to crawl through on your stomach, there are sinkholes that are 80m deep, and the ammonia from the bat droppings further in is enough to make you pass out!
Each chamber of the cave has its own microclimate; it was cool at the entrance and got more humid as we got deeper in the cave. The spectacular cave contains the usual features – stalagmites, stalactites, columns where stalactites and stalagmites have joined up – but there were also flowstones that look like melted ice cream, pretty shoals, and super thin straws. These formations are formed with calcium carbonate and water combine and dry to become sparkly calcium crystals. In some places, tree roots have made their way into the ceiling of the cave by releasing a weak acid that dissolves the limestone.
There are about 300 bats that live within the cave, including ghost bats, aka false vampire bats, are one of Australia’s biggest bats and can have a wingspan of over a meter. They have big eyes and huge ears that point upwards from their face. When we first entered the cave, we saw a brush trail rock wallaby. There are a few other microspecies that live within the cave too – mostly insects, but also pythons, tree snakes and huntsman spiders, as well as the occasional visit from echidnas.
The Cutta Cutta Caves are open from the 1st of April every year – they close during the Wet Season because the cave floods (from the bottom!). Entry is $20 per person but if you have a group of more than 10 people, discounted entry can apply. The tours run daily at 9am, 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm. Allow an hour for the tour and also a bit of time to check out the information in and around the office.
Phone number: 08 8972 1940
We found our time at Cutta Cutta Caves really enjoyable. It’s a great way to learn more about limestone caves, how they were formed and used, and eventually protected so that everyone can enjoy them. We’d also like to thank Ethan for showing us around and answering all our questions.