Unspecified

Bruce Elder explores the cave systems around Sydney.

The question was simple. Which of greater Sydney's three big cave systems - Jenolan, Abercrombie or Wombeyan - can claim the best cave and the best experience? It didn't take long, as I clambered up, down and around stalagmites and stalactites, to realise that the question might be simple but it was the wrong one to ask.

To give a variation on Gertrude Stein, for most people a cave is a cave is a cave is a cave. They all have stalagmites, stalactites, shawls, dripstones, flowstones, helictites, columns, dripping water and lots of very dark places and, because most of the discoveries were made in the 19th century, it seems mandatory for even a modest cave to have features to which explorers gave religious, mythical, regal or classical names - Lot's Wife, the Organ Pipes, the Temple of Baal, the Minaret, the Pool of Cerberus and so on.

In keeping with modern trends it should be noted that most of the guides this year tend to avoid these rather antiquated terms and simply allow the visitor to gaze at the limestone and water miracles, which are invariably artfully and intelligently lit.

ABERCROMBIE CAVES

I'll admit to a prejudice. I love Abercrombie Caves or, more accurately, Abercrombie cave. Why? Because of all the caves surrounding Sydney, Abercrombie - 289 kilometres west of the city and 72km south of Bathurst - is the most accessible. There is a sealed road all the way. The approach is across gently undulating countryside and only in the final 3km is there a steep-ish descent into the gorge.

Abercrombie has the best of all the self-guided tours with the walk from the information centre up a hill, into the river valley and through the Archway Cave, an easy 1.4km walk, which includes the 221-metre long cave and reputedly the largest limestone arch in the Southern Hemisphere. It is not only pleasant exercise but presents such delights as the Gold Digger's Stage, a large platform built by miners, which was used for dances and concert performances.

The stage was built of baltic pine that was probably from a packing case for mining equipment or ship's ballast. The ironbark beams came from around Hill End and were brought to the caves by bullock team. It was the main source of Saturday-night entertainment in the area until the 1940s.

There are also guided tours of the Bushrangers Cave. As early as 1830 a group of convicts known as the Ribbon Gang used the caves as shelter and to hide from troopers.

WOMBEYAN CAVES

The great appeal of Wombeyan Caves is that they are rarely crowded and the setting is idyllic. How many kangaroos do you want to share your picnic with?

On a perfect day it seems almost a crime to enter the caves because the air in the valley is so clear and fresh and the parklands in the valley floor seductively invite the spreading of a blanket or a social game of cricket, tennis or football while the mobs of kangaroos look on with mild amusement. An almost Edwardian sense of elegance and leisure pervades the valley. It is an idyllic destination for picnics and barbecues.

As your car descends into the Wombeyan Creek valley, those distinctive grey limestone rocks - characteristic of all cave areas in NSW - rise to meet you and the hillsides, densely covered with eucalypts and acacias, give way to grassy parklands.

On one level Wombeyan is a leisurely caves experience. Those wanting to explore a cave unaccompanied can make their way through Fig Tree Cave, where your movement from chamber to chamber automatically activates the lighting and recorded commentary.

Among the others, the Wollondilly Cave, with a rich variety of features, is popular and the masterpiece of the system is Kooringa - a smaller cave (200 metres of walking and 218 steps) with exquisite shawls and flows, straw stalactites and imposing stalagmites all contained in a single cavern.

However, with Wombeyan there is a catch. The road from Mittagong - at 66km the shortest route from Sydney - is a narrow dirt track, which winds down into the Wollondilly Valley and then up the other side. The scenery is beautiful. The road is slow and, at points, mind-numbingly precipitous. And just to test your resolve there are long, steep sections of the road, which have been peppered with falling rocks. The best route is via Goulburn and Taralga. Most of that road, apart from the final 20km, is sealed.

JENOLAN CAVES

In the glory days at the end of the 19th century, when a naughty weekend in the Blue Mountains was truly forbidden fruit, the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba used to advertise that "the Jenolan Caves can be visited - the trip taking three days".

Today, of course, the journey from western Sydney to the caves takes less than two hours and there are tourist buses that do the journey as a day trip. The distance from the city is 164km - 50km on sealed road from the Great Western Highway with the final descent into the valley being particularly spectacular.

Here you can inspect nine caves, which many consider to be the best in Australia. For the sheer diversity of activities - from the modern Temple of Baal, complete with mood lighting and evocative music, to Adventure Caving expeditions, where you can do much more than walk up and down stairs - Jenolan has more than the other cave systems. For those not interested in exploring the caves, the area still has the dramatic experience of driving through the Grand Arch, the largest open cave in Australia, which stretches 127 metres, is 24 metres high and 55 metres wide.

In the late afternoon or early morning, you are almost guaranteed to see a platypus in the Blue Lake below the Grand Arch.

THE VERDICT

If you want ease of access and a pleasant stroll through a cave, Abercrombie is perfect. If you want a superb picnic ground, excellent caves and mobs of kangaroos, try Wombeyan.

However, if you want to spend day after day exploring a variety of caves, the Jenolan system has the most caves and the greatest diversity of activities.

FAST FACTS

ABERCROMBIE CAVES

COST
Entrance to the Archway Cave costs $13 for adults, $8 for children and pensioners and $30 for families (two adults, three children). On weekends there are also guided tours of the Bushrangers Cave which cost $16 for adults, $10 for children and $39 for families. For information, see http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au or phone 6368 8603.

FACILITIES
The kiosk-information centre sells soft drinks and ice-creams. It is sensible to take either a picnic (the camping and picnic areas beside Grove Creek are delightful) or a barbecue lunch which can be cooked on either a wood-fired or electric barbecue.

WOMBEYAN CAVES

COST
Entrance to the Fig Tree Cave costs $13 for adults, $8 for children, $10.80 pensioners and $30 for families (two adults, three children). Guided tours cost $16 for adults, $10 for children, $13 for pensioners and $39 for families. For information, see http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au or phone 4843 5976.

FACILITIES
Idyllic destination for picnics and barbecues (coin-operated electric barbecues are available) with large flat grassy areas for family sports. The kiosk-information centre sells soft drinks, pies, sandwiches and ice-creams.

JENOLAN CAVES

COST
Standard guided tours to the major caves (Lucas, Chifley, Imperial) cost $23 for adults, $16 concession, $59 for families. There are more expensive and extensive cave tours (about $37 for adults), as well as a range of adventure tours from $60 to $187 and lasting up to a full day. For information, see http://www.jenolancaves.org.au or phone 1300 763 311.

FACILITIES
A cafe and restaurant, as well as a range of accommodation at Caves House. There is no open space for picnics but there are excellent walking tracks and the sublime Kanangra Walls are within easy driving distance.