Travelling Australia - Journal 2012
June 2012 - Naracoorte Caves
Naracoorte Caves are about 10 kilometres south of Naracoorte; they can be reached via Riddoch Highway from Naracoorte, turning left at the well signed turn-off then following the signs to the Information Centre (called the Wonambi Fossil Centre) which is the best place to start. The caves form a complex based on the Fossil Centre. One cave (Wet Cave) offers self-guided (i.e. unescorted) tours but access to Victoria and Alexandra Caves is only available on guided tours; in the off season the requirement to have more than one visitor on a guided tour can cause difficulty since tours with a single customer booked will be cancelled. Tickets are required to enter each cave, tickets can be bought at the Wonambi Centre and places booked on guided tours.

The Naracoorte Caves complex presents two aspects of the caves. On the one hand is the caves themselves and the array of stalactites, stalagmites, flow-stone and other limestone formations. For about a hundred years the caves have been an attraction because of these features. Far more recently the presence of substantial, and significant, fossils deposits has provided another focus. The caves are in the Naracoorte Caves National Park and activities common to national parks - camping, walking, looking at birds and animals - are provided for. There is also a café.

But the fossils have pride of place. The number and variety of species is so great that Naracoorte Caves was entered in the World Heritage List in 1994. This entry is in conjunction with the Riversleigh section of Lawn Hill National Park; the two sites form the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites, (Riversleigh/Naracoorte) World Heritage Area. The special regard for the fossil collection is confirmed by the presence outside the Wonambi Fossil Centre of a life-size (two-metre high) statue of a Diprotodon.
Diprotodon statue
Diprotodon statue outside the Wonambi Fossil Centre
Wonambi Fossil Centre
The Wonambi Fossil Centre has a walk-through display reconstructing the Australian bush at the time many fossils found in the caves were alive. Trees and cliffs hold reproductions of many of the animals, some with articulated neck and limbs. This display gives a feel for the scene but there is a lack of information on the animals concerned. The guided tours of Victoria Fossil Cave make up for this lack of information, at least as far as two species are concerned.

The Caves Cafe is near the Wonambi Centre, both served by the same car parking area. The cave available for self-guided tours (Wet Cave) is near the café.

Wet Cave
Wet Cave is entered down stairs and has been arranged for self-guided tours. Lighting in the cave is sensor controlled and lights come on and turn off automatically as visitors wander around. A variety of information boards explain aspects of the cave which lacks 'pretty' features; the dominant colour is grey. Stalactites and stalagmites are thick and lack delicate trimmings. Despite the name, the cave was not particularly wet although there were drops of water at the bottom of many stalactites.
West Cave Inside the Wet Cave. The dominant colours are shades of grey. There are stalactites and stalagmites but they lack the colours found in other caves.

Victoria Fossil Cave
Victoria Fossil Cave is available only for guided tours. It is at the far end of the cave complex and has its own car park and weather shelter, there are no toilets. Entry is via a sloping walkway to the security door then into the decorated part of the cave with an array of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and an assortment of other attractive formations. Moving around inside the cave is easy; the guide (known as a 'Site Interpreter') turns on lights as required and provides an informative commentary. Much of the floor is covered with concrete.
Victoria Cave limestone
Victoria Cave limestone decoration
For decades Victoria Cave was visited only for the decorations. But in 1969 cavers investigating a narrow opening found a large chamber holding very large fossil deposits which palaeontologists excavated in succeeding years. The fossils involved were not millions of years old encased in rock as for traditional dinosaur fossils. Naracoorte fossils are up to 500,000 year old and buried in clay and soil (dates quoted for deposits in the caves are not completely firm and range from 200,000 to 500,000 years, each with apparently valid justification).

The animals involved had been trapped when the ceiling of a cave collapsed leaving a hole in the ground surface above. Animals falling through the hole and been unable to escape and died in the cave; their skeletons were added to the growing pile on the floor of the cave. Sediment falling through the hole gradually covered the bones and a continual rain of bodies and sediment increased the height of the pile as it spread over the cave floor. Eventually, about 15,000 years ago, the pile of sediment and bones reached the hole in the roof and blocked the entrance so no more animals fell onto the pile.

The fossil layer was three to four metres thick when discovered. At least 93 animal species have been identified among thousands of specimens recovered; and that is from only a small fraction (estimated at 4%) of the total deposit. The cave system has not yet been fully explored but additional fossil deposits have been found and there are probably yet more to be found. The discovery of such large, high quality, fossil deposits led to the name of the cave being changed to Victoria Fossil Cave and for World Heritage Listing in 1994.

Provision was made for visitors to enter the Fossil Chamber so they could see the limestone decorations in one part of Victoria Cave then move on to the fossils. Access was provided via corridors cut through the rock and concrete floor laid; seating has been installed above a section of bones left by investigators for visitors to see. Reproduction skeletons of a marsupial lion and a leaf-eating kangaroo, both species now extinct but recovered in the fossil deposits, are arranged near the seats. The guide uses these skeletons as teaching aids to tell the group something about megafauna trapped in the cave and to describe bodies and lifestyle of marsupial lion and leaf-eating kangaroo.

The tour ends in the Fossil Chamber (23 metres below ground level) and the tour group walks up an inclined concrete path to the exit.

Tours to other caves and to see bats are also available. See the Naracoorte Caves website at for details.

The Naracoorte Caves fossils are different to most other publicly available fossil displays in Australia such as the Age of Fishes at Conowindra, Age of Dinosaurs at Winton or Kronosaurus Corner at Richmond (Qld) where fossil ages are measured in millions of years. Fossils at Naracoorte are far more recent and many of the bones found have been identified as belonging to species flourishing today. At least one of the species (Thylacine or Tasmanian Wolf) became extinct in living memory. But the more interesting fossils in the deposits come from animals known as the megafauna which thrived in Australia until about 40,000 years ago. The reasons for their extinction are still being researched and debated.

Thylacine model Thylacine statue at Wonambi Fossil Centre. The thylacine was one of the species caught in the pit and added to the fossil collection.

marsupial lion skeleton Reproduction of the skeleton of a marsupial lion.