Nicholas White


Victoria has some 1000 known caves1. The majority of these caves are in the Buchan-Murrindal Area of East Gippsland. These caves are in the Buchan Group Limestone of mid-Devonian age2.

Caves in the area have been known since first settlement in the 1840s. Full recognition of the values of the caves was not realised until the government received Mr A.E. Kitson's report3 in 1900 although Stirling had reported earlier on the limestone and caves4. This early interest resulted in Government reservation of seven areas containing caves including the main Buchan Caves Reserve. These were gazetted in 1900. Various caves were opened to the public in succeeding years. These include Fairy Cave (1907) and Royal Cave shortly afterwards.

The Wilson Cave Reserve is some 5km east of Buchan on the Buchan-Orbost Road. Wilson Cave is a readily accessible stream cave which only has water in it in times of extreme rainfall. The cave passes under the road. The cave has several top entrances which lead through rockfall to the main streamway which is 100 metres long. The cave exits at the foot of a bluff. There are a number of small side passages. The cave is easy to negotiate but provides a lot of challenge for introductory groups and is also very suitable for educational purposes. A number of caves exist in the Potholes Reserve. All but 7 acres of the 100 acres of Allotment 22A were privately owned and there was an Extractive Industries licence over it. The quarry never eventuated and in 1988 the Allotment 22A was purchased by the Government and added to an existing 18 acre reserve (Wyatts Reserve). There are about 60 caves within Allotment 22A. The 100 acres of this allotment contain a number of the most important recreational caves in the area including Honeycomb Cave, Oolite Cave, Razor Cave, Baby Berger and Baby Pierre which feature in the analysis below.

It was not until shortly after the Second World War that recreational caving and speleology seriously started. In 1957 the Victorian Cave Exploration Society was started and in 1958 the Sub Aqua Speleological Society was formed. These groups quickly discovered and studied many caves in the area. These Societies amalgamated in 1967 to form the Victorian Speleological Association (VSA). Some 700 caves have now been discovered and studied in the area to the present time1. Many of these are on private land and not in the gazetted reserves. New cave discoveries are only a few each year and these are mainly found through digging in likely places.

It is the purpose of this study to examine what data exists of recreational cave visitor numbers and the pressures placed on the resource as we know it. The data available is from visitor books put into selected caves in during 1979 by myself and similar data collected during a management planning exercise by the now Department of Conservation and Natural Resources from 1990 to the present.

The data will also be compared to figures of visitor numbers to the Royal and Fairy show caves in the main Buchan Reserve.


Caves are a limited resource in Southern Australia due mainly to the limited amount of cavernous limestone. They have come under increased visitor pressure as more people have the time, money and interest to explore them. Caves are fragile and subject to damage by such exploration. Such damage to caves occurs through the direct activities of cavers5. Damage ranges from deliberate breaking and sampling of speleothems and graffiti both of which are now rarer to muddying of speleothems and trampling of floors. Other less obvious effects of visiting are interference and damage to cave invertebrate populations and disturbance of bats. Visible deterioration effects from visitors activities may in the long-term affect the visitor experience and may lead to cavers visiting other caves which currently have very few visitors and are not as disturbed. Discussion on the effects of such damage has become an important issue in speleological circles in the past few years11. Concerns about these pressures has led management authorities in some states to introduce rationing or permit systems. This has been done in Western Australia6, South Australia7 and New South Wales, however, it is not the purpose of this paper to discuss implementation of such systems or whether they are an appropriate way of regulating visitors and consequent cave damage levels.

Cavers (speleologists) vary in experience from first time visitors to the very experienced. They range from people who enjoy caving for the recreation to speleologists who study the caves, their contents and how they were formed. Caving may be done by individuals or people associated with groups. Groups may range from speleological groups such as the Victorian Speleological Association (VSA), to other outdoor groups such as the scouts, to educational groups from schools or tertiary institutions. The Australian Speleological Federation Inc (ASF) is a federation of 39 clubs interested in caves. At any time the membership of these clubs is 600-800 individuals. The Victorian Speleological Association is the only full Victorian member of the ASF and it has about 80 members and 6 affiliated outdoor groups.

Two resource documents guide management of caves in Victoria. Firstly the 1986 report "Management of Caves and Karst"8 provided a guideline which put the values of caves into context and recommended that each cave be classified into management categories which included Show Caves, Adventure Caves, Sites of Special Natural and/or Cultural Value and Wild (& unclassified) Sites8,11. Secondly, stemming from the above report a strategy was developed embracing the management classification scheme and requiring the department to prepare management plans for caves under its jurisdiction9. The Department of Conservation and Environment has produced a management plan for the caves of the Buchan and Murrindal Area10.


Data used in this analysis was obtained from individuals who recorded their names, affiliation, destination and date of visit either in a register outside the cavers accommodation house 'Homeleigh' in Buchan or in visitor books placed near the entrances of selected caves in the area.

The 1979 data consisted of returns from visitor books from 6 caves. These were Wilson Cave in the Wilson Cave Reserve 5 km east of Buchan; Dickson's Cave located in the Dickson's Cave Reserve in the Murrindal Area; Anticline Cave located on river reserve in the Murrindal area; Canyons Cave located on private land in the Murrindal area; and Honeycomb Cave and Baby Berger located in Allotment 22A in the Murrindal area. The period included Easter and the Queens Birthday long weekend and was from 13 May to 17 June 1979.

Data from 1990 to 1993 was generated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources during their management planning exercise. It consists of data obtained from visitor books placed in Wilson Cave and Honeycomb Cave and the Cavers Intentions Register which is kept outside 'Homeleigh', a cooperatively run guest house for cavers at Buchan. An example of the registration form is given below (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Caver Trip Registration Form



NAME OF PERSON COMPLETING FORM:.......................................................

NAME OF GROUP: ..............................................................................................


CAVES INTENDED TO BE VISITED: .................................................................

NO. OF PERSONS: ............................





Show cave data was provided courtesy of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The data was abstracted from the original records where possible although with the Homeleigh Register data only the monthly summaries were used. The 1979 data was restricted and visitors were classified into Speleological and Other groups. The 1990 data was only obtainable in summary form from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The 1990-1993 data was abstracted from the original records although there were gaps such as December 1992 from the Homeleigh Register data and the two cave visitor books analysed also had gaps in the record. This made detailed comparisons of the two sources difficult to correlate except at a summary level.

The visitor statistics were tabulated using a spreadsheet (Excel) according to cave visited, month visited, number of parties and numbers of individuals together with any affiliation recorded. The table was then sorted on the cave visited and the spreadsheet was then used to perform visitor analyses for each cave and to give totals for all the data.

A simple categorisation of caving groups was chosen for further analysis and is shown below in Figure 2:

Figure 2. Caver Classification

Caver Classification Description
ManagementManagement cave visits
SpeleologicalOnly groups from VSA or other ASF member clubs
ScoutsAll groups from Scouting movement
OutdoorAll tertiary institution recreational clubs, church groups and other outdoor groups
EducationalSchool groups, tertiary institution groups such as those from geology and geography departments.
Not affiliatedGroups where no affiliation was recorded


Data from the Homeleigh Caver Intentions Register provided dates, names, group affiliation and caves visited. Data from this record was analysed for the period October 1991 to March 1993. The caver numbers and number of parties from the Homeleigh data are shown in tabular form in Figure 3 and the numbers and party numbers to individual caves are shown graphed in Figures 4 and 5. The month by month figures are shown in Figure 6. The 1990 data was only obtainable in summary form and was similar to that for 1991-93, however, there was evidence of more cavers in 1990 than in 1992 and data for comparable periods in 1990 and 1992 are shown comparatively in Figure 7.

1990-93 data from the Wilson Cave and Honeycomb Cave visitor books was used to show the number of parties and cavers visiting these caves in each of the recreational classes in Figures 8 and 9. The data for the two caves was pooled to compare proportions of cavers in each recreational class (Figure 10) and a comparison is given of comparing average party sizes for the two caves (Figure 11). Comparisons between the Cave visitor books and the Homeleigh Register are given in Figure 12 for the same time period (Oct 91 to May 92).

Visitor numbers for a short period of 1979 for 5 caves are shown in Figure 13, but the visitors could only be classified as Speleological or Outdoors.

Visitor numbers for the Show Caves for 1992 are given in tabular form by month in Figure 14. For overall comparison the visitor statistics for 1953 to 1992 are given as a graph in Figure 15.


Visitor information is difficult to collect. It often has serious limitations due to the way in which it is collected. Information may be obtained by various means such as questionnaires, interviews or as in the case of the data used here from voluntary registration of minimal information on an intentions register or by means of voluntary filling in of a visitors book at the site. In the case of the Cavers Intentions Register people filling in the sheets firstly, need to know of the Register and then secondly, to accept that such information may be valuable for management purposes and thirdly, that they stop on the way to one of the many dispersed cave areas and register their intent. Similarly with cave visitor books there are problems with finding the visitor books and then filling it in. The cave visitor books also suffered from the problem of legibility due to mud and water damage. The two sources of visitor data are not independent and in some instances the cave visitor book may or may not be filled despite registration in the Cavers Intentions Register. The Homeleigh Registration results showed a total of 3100 visitors over an 18 month record from Oct 91 to Mar 93 as shown in Figure 4. In this time there were 300 caving parties recorded giving an average of 10 per party. Some 40 caves were recorded as being visited (Figures 5 and 6) with the most frequented 3 caves recording 4l % of visitors and the 8 most frequented caves recording 68% of visitors. This will be discussed further below in terms of resource usage and management needs.

The 1990 data showed more visitors than 1992 at 3600 for the year and 50 caves visited and is shown in Figure 8. Comparison of the 1990 and 1992 (missing Dec 92 data) data(Figure 9) shows that there was a considerable drop from 1990 to 1992 from 3600 to 2004 or 56%. If one examines the figures for the Show Cave Visitor numbers (although they are for financial years) the numbers are 88000 to 68000. This drop in both the recreational caving and the show cave visiting is probably due to the general economic conditions. Virtually all of the recreational caver addresses are from the Melbourne metropolitan area and thus travel costs form a significant part of the caving expense. The 1979 figures are given in Figure 18 and in comparison with 1992 in Figure 18 and show that the numbers are at similar levels. It would appear that similar numbers of people are caving now as in 1979 and that recently there has been a decline from the higher levels of 1990 due to economic conditions.

Analyses of the Wilson Cave and Honeycomb Cave Visitor Book data show discrepancies with the Homeleigh Register (Figure 16). Speleological groups (99% VSA) tend to fill in the Cave Registers rather than the Homeleigh Register. Scouting and Outdoor groups fill in the Homeleigh Register but are not consistent in recording in the Cave Registers. The Educational groups at least for Wilson Cave are recorded in the cave but not the Homeleigh Register. Based on this then one can combine the figures from the two registers by making the assumption that if the records are duplicated then caver figures for Wilson Cave and for Honeycomb Cave of 583 and 361 respectively can be computed. For Wilson Cave a 53% higher figure and for Honeycomb Cave a 29% higher figure can be obtained by more careful comparison with the Homeleigh figures.

From these figures it can be concluded that cave visiting has been at similar levels over a 15 year period to the present time. Most of the caves which are heavily used now were the same caves that were used in the 1970s. From the more recent and detailed data, 8 caves in the latest period received 68% or 2000 visitors in l8 months. How should this be viewed? Figure 23 summarises the 40 caves recorded in the survey. It can be seen that Speleological groups visit a lot of caves not visited by others. The large scout and outdoor groups visit a restricted number of caves and concentrate on a few of them. Educational groups use Wilson Cave almost exclusively rather than other caves. Wilson Cave is a large easy, robust cave which is suitable for large numbers of people but is also challenging as an introductory or educational cave. Visible damage to the cave is slight and consists of some muddying of walls and formation. The floors although trampled rejuvenate themselves during flooding events. Bats still use the cave. The cave would appear then justify its Classification as an Adventure Cave. Honeycomb Cave is the next most visited cave. It is a long cave which is challenging for the novice caver. This cave is extensively damaged by both breakage of speleothems and muddying and trampling of flowstone on both floors and walls. The cave is classified as of Outstanding Natural Value, the question which must be asked is can the cave continue to receive the numbers of visitors it does? Management personnel currently monitor the cave and with the 'Friends of Buchan Caves' group has started restoration work such as cleaning of formations. This cleaning started 2 years ago and has had a marked visual effect and reportedly is staying that way although the floors will prove more of a problem to restore. The other well visited caves have some damage which will need monitoring if they are to remain popular with recreational cavers with Oolite and Razor Caves showing the most damage. Management now discourages visiting Dicksons Cave when there are bats present.

Managers of cave resources need to be sensitive to the changes which occur through use of the resource. In the case of Buchan they have instituted a monitoring program based on the Homeleigh Register and Visitor Books for selected caves. The returns from the Homeleigh Register seem to reflect the numbers of visitors using caves under their control and represent a very efficient way of monitoring usage. However, as with a lot of monitoring there is little time given to the analysis of the data generated. Monitoring of changes to the caves as a result of usage is a much more difficult task that quantitating the numbers using a resource. There are no well developed techniques for monitoring changes to the physical cave resources. Some managers have instituted photographic monitoring, there are a number of problems in calculating rates of change with photographs. There is clearly a need to try some of the techniques used in engineering and geomorphology to quantify damage to caves from usage. These might include compaction measurements of tracks or devices which measured mud build up on calcite. These techniques are not satisfactorily developed and perhaps visual assessment together with photography are the most appropriate at the present time. The Management Plan suggests physical monitoring but does not give methodologies.

Large party sizes are blamed for much of the damage to caves and it certainly leads to effects such as track widening. Figure 24 graphs the numbers of cavers to each cave against the number of parties. There was a highly significant correlation between number and size. Honeycomb Cave figures indicated larger parties than Wilson Cave. This seemed to contradict what was possible as there is no problem with large parties in Wilson Cave owing to its spaciousness whereas Honeycomb Cave needs a ladder to get and the passages are narrow and have squeezes. I questioned several of the leaders of the Scout groups who all said that they broke up into groups of 8 or less for their caving. This was reflected in the Cave Visitor Book which showed scout parties to Honeycomb Cave averaging 6 per party and 10 for Wilson Cave. The large groups of 20 and 40 listed in the Homeleigh Register do not reflect the individual cave party sizes.


In terms of methodology, voluntary filling in of a central register would appear to be a very labour efficient way of monitoring usage of a dispersed resource. It has worked well for Buchan managers in that it agrees reasonably with the cave visitor book data which is much more time consuming to collect and there are additional problems with the books or forms being damaged or removed. The data generated by registers needs to be audited in some way. This was not possible for this project. Ways in which this might be done could be by onsite monitoring on selected weekends or holidays. Both the Potholes (60 caves) and Wilson Cave could be done by such a method. This would give an indication of the differences between actual and registration methods of monitoring cave usage.

The data lent itself to tabular and graphical analysis rather to more sophisticated statistical techniques. Because of some of the problems with the visitor recording it was not considered appropriate to do more than simple averages such as party sizes.

The data showed that at either end of a 13 year period caving numbers were similar but were slightly higher in 1990 when the economy was better. The monitoring of a cave usage undertaken by management is very efficient in producing a measure of cave usage. The central register has certain efficiencies compared to the cave registers, however, either the cave registers or site monitoring for selected times would provide audit control.

The caves which are most used appear to be used because of the suitability for the desired purposes such as recreation caving or beginners caving. This recreational caving is having visible damage effects to caves. High usage is restricted to a small number of caves. At this stage managers have not restricted access to many caves except on biological grounds Involved permit or rationing systems do not appear necessary at Buchan. However, the monitoring of usage should be continued. If suitable methods were available and through the cooperation of VSA or the 'Friends of Buchan Caves' physical changes in the caves should be monitored.

Figure (3,4,5,6,7,8,9)

Figure (10,11,12,13,14,15)


1. Matthews, Peter G (1985) Australian Karst lndex l985, published Australian Speleological Federation Inc

2. Teichert, C and Talent, J A (1958) Geology of the Buchan Area Geological Survey of Victoria Memoir 21

3. Kitson, A.E. (1907) Records of the Geological Survey of Victoria Volume 2, Part 1

4. Stirling, J (1889) Preliminary Report on the Buchan Caves; Goldfields of Victoria. Report Mining Registrars F. Quarter ended 31st December 1889 pp 65-68

5. Spate, A P and Hamilton-Smith, E (1992) Do Cavers Have An Impact?. Australian Caver No 131 pp 13-18

6. Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, Cave Permit System. Department of Conservation and Land Management 1993

7. Clark, Brian (1991) SA NPWS. Cave Access Policy. Proceedings, Ninth ACKMA Conference, Australasian Cave and Karst Management Association

8. Davey, A G and White, S. (1986) Management of Victorian Caves and Karst. A report to the Caves Classification Committee Department of Conservation Forests and Lands

9. Draft Strategy for the Management of Caves and Karst in Victoria (1991). Department of Conservation and Environment

10. Boadle, Peter (1991) The Management of Karst and Cave Resources in the Buchan and Murrindal Area Department of Conservation and Environment

11. White, N J (1992) Cave Management in Victoria. Australian Caver No.131 pp 19-21.