The Naracoorte Caves are one of 19 World Heritage Sites in Australia, being South Australia’s only World Heritage site. It was officially recognised in 1994 and is one of the world’s most valuable fossil sites, providing insight into the South Australian landscape from 500,000 years ago. The caves are approximately 5km long, with only 6 caves open to public today.
The first cave was found in 1845 and contained lots of bats and guano. They used the guano as fuel and after the guano of the first cave ran out, they started to seek out other caves, stumbling across the next one in 1894. The town of Naracoorte was established in 1857.
Today, tours operate daily, provide important information and history about the fossils and cost between $15-20. Adventure caving is also available. The tours we didn’t do include the Bat Cave, Blanc Cave and Alexander Cave. It would have been nice to see the Alexander Cave, as it has the longest ‘straw’ formation at 3m long. These fascinating formations are caused by droplets of water that drip very slowly from the roof of the cave. The droplet forms and holds still for a minimum of 15 hours before it falls, leaving a microscopic ring of calcite crystal. Hundreds of years of accumulated crystal rings build a hollow straw.
Here are the three caves we did explore:
Wonambi Fossil Centre
This self-guided tour exhibits the world of the species whose fossils were discovered in the caves. Creatures include Tasmanian tigers, giant koalas (phascolarctos stirtoni) and giant short-faced leaf-eating kangaroos (procoptodon goliah), with a face only a mother could love.
The mechanical recreations move, snort and growl, and with the stormy background lighting and noise, the atmosphere was a little unsettling. Repressing all instincts to run out of the place, we learnt a bit about the fossilised animals of around half a million years ago.
The Wet Cave
Another self-guided option, the Wet Cave is a short walk from the Caves Café and provides an insight into limestone erosion and cave formation. The ceiling of the cave was covered with holes called avens, formed by acidic water that dissolved the limestone when the caves were full of water.
Victoria Fossil Caves
The beautiful Victoria Fossil Caves were discovered in 1969 by a young university student who was actually studying to be an engineer. He noticed a 30cm gap in the rock and followed the breeze to stumble upon the fossils. He promptly quit engineering and began to study palaeontology.
Palaeontologists have been studying the deposits over the last three decades and have found that 75% of the animals whose fossils were found still live today somewhere around Australia. The caves collect animals via pitfalls and solution pipes, and the animals either die on impact or are trapped to starve. Soil deposits cover and preserve their bodies, which are officially classified as fossils after 10,000 years. Carnivorous animals may have been attracted by the smell of rotting flesh and entered the cave. They may have been able to come in and out of the caves or became stuck and ended up living underground.
There have been 100 difference species found inside the cave, 20 of them classifyied as megafauna, which are animals that are heavier than 45kg. These include long-beaked echidnas (megalibgwilia ramsay), thylacoleo carnifex, diprotodon australis and short-faced kangaroos. Megafauna went extinct after the arrival of humans in the area, about 60,000 years ago.
The beautiful formations within the cave are formed around a limestone canvas that was formed 20 million years ago. Acidic rainwater dissolves the calcite within the limestone and this driped into the caves to create crystals in the form of stalactites, stalagmites and kooky helictites. Water takes about 2 weeks to leak into the caves but the crystal formations take hundreds, and even thousands of years to form.
The National Park surrounding the caves is a great place to stay for a picnic or to camp. Contact Parks SA or visit the website for information on camping near the Naracoorte Caves.