HISTORY OF CAVES: BEGINNING IDEAS
This is a very brief summary of some of the ideas in my impromptu presentation at the conference or arising out of the study on which I will be engaged as Thomas Ramsay Scholar at the Museum of Victoria for the next 18 months. Comments are more than welcome.
My central interest is how the general social view of caves has altered over the years, and the implications of this on research, resource management, tourism and recreation.
The Aboriginal perception of caves is, of course, not clear to us, but I will be analysing the evidence from archaeology, cave art, oral history (or mythology as some would have it) and other aspects of cave use. What is commonly called cave art, of course, is usually not!
The shortage of limestone near Sydney meant that for the first 30 years of white settlement, explorers and surveyors, commencing with Eugene Barrallier in 1802, assiduously reported any limestone, but generally ignored caves; obviously, survival came before curiosity. However, Mitchells 1830s collection of the Wellington bones and Sir Richard Owen's remarkable ability to interpret their meanings made caves something of importance for the first time. It is perhaps significant that all this happened at about the same time as the establishment of the Philosophical (later Royal) Society. But, the downside was that within this tradition, caves tended to be seen as a neutral receptacle; it was the contents that were important; in spite of all the scientists, and to be fair, even Mitchell himself, might do to put things in proper perspective and context, the notion that caves matter primarily for their contents lingers to this day.
Even at this time, a few artists, most notably Conrad Martens, began to see something of the aesthetic qualities of caves, but this grew slowly. It probably came to maturity only with development of photography, firstly at the hands of the great 19th century camera-men and then with a new energy in recent colour photography. There is probably some sort of linkage between the tourist perception of caves as things of beauty and wonder and the extent to which they have been sensitised by images. Part of the beauty and wonder perception led, of course, to the take-away caves of early visitors. Howitt described how his aboriginal guides took stalactites to show their friends, and the remarkable John Lucas, who made a monumental pioneering contribution to nature conservation in New South Wales, took four hundred examples on his first visit to the cave now named after him to show the people of Sydney.
Tenison-Woods pursued the Mitchell tradition at Naracoorte, and interpreted his observations with theoretical insights far ahead of his time. It is only now that we can properly appreciate the immense leaps in scientific thought which he made - in the case of caves, with a great deal of validity, even though he did get some other things wrong. He laid a foundation for more recent cave science, even though it often went unrecognised, and more firmly established the view that caves contain materials of great importance.
But then came Jenolan and the cave as a thing of beauty which could be marketed to the people. Jenolan became Australia's premier tourist destination, and played a key role in establishing the idea that Australian tourism consisted of radial trips out from the city and back again. This shaped the kind of services and infrastructure which grew up and generally persists to the present day. Jenolan also served as a stimulus to other states; prospectors and surveyors were engaged to search for 'another Jenolan'. It is a bit thought-provoking today to note that at the turn of the century, tourism was seen as the industry of the future which would drag Australia out of the recession and re-build our economic fortunes!
Then came a long sleep. The tourist areas carried on in a business-as-usual manner, nothing very new has happened; and few new discoveries were made. There was a bit of a revival in South Australia with the discovery of Kelly Hill and Tantanoola, and from the various get-rich-quick companies discovering bat guano, exploiting the guano in one case and the visitors in the other! But in the 1930s the notion of caves as places of adventure started to emerge. Watson, Wolf and then Thomson commenced their cave exploration of the Nullarbor while bushwalkers in NSW visited Colong, Tuglow, Wee Jasper and doubtless other sites.
The war ended that phase, but gave a peculiar kick-start to post-war caving. Carey's use of the Mt Etna caves to train commandos provided the inspiration for Australia's first caving group- the Tasmanian Caverneering Club in 1946. Others gradually followed, seeing the caves as an opportunity for adventure - others went climbing, sailing, diving or whatever, all as part of the so-called new Elizabethan age. Caves became the new gymnasia. But something very strange happened to cavers. As Wilfred Noyce points out, only cavers among the new adventurers persisted in being serious about their interest — they mapped caves, wrote reports about them, studied them and even numbered them! In Australia, we are now fortunate that this seriousness developed among the cavers, strongly aided and abetted by such people as Joe Jennings.
Another new thing is that caves became barriers to progress - some people went back to the days of seeing the limestone and its economic value as the key issue, and cavers became involved in conservation. Mt. Etna is a prime example — the longest running conservation battle in Australia! The current phase of managing karst as a land resource system, of which caves are but a part, has grown up since the early 1980s, driven by modern ideas of resource management, a greater awareness of the inter-relatedness of almost everything, and the concept of biodiversity.
Now the key thing is that all these various ideas of what caves are and where they fit into our universe persist side by side with each other. I could describe lots of examples of the strange things which result, but one will do — cavers and managers both continue to devote greatly exaggerated attention to the issue of avoiding damage to stalactites and stalagmites — certainly things of beauty — but the most widely distributed and numerous of cave features, and of little or no significance other than their beauty. Much important or rare features are often totally ignored or even destroyed, while other aspects of beauty are also ignored. Passage profiles, often of very real beauty, are usually damaged or obscured by track marking, railing or lighting which does them no justice.