AUSTRALIA'S SMALLEST PRIVATE TOURIST CAVE
Whilst many caves are located on private property, very few have been developed as tourist show caves. There are many good reason but probably lack of interest ranks high, as few farmers have or would be prepared to undertake a full feasibility study. Shades of Death Cave at Murrindal, Victoria (which is only l5kms from the famous Buchan Caves) has been developed over many years as a show cave and is listed Category 1.1 Public Access Show Cave under the classification system.
History of Commercial Development
During the late 1950s and early 60s, it was not unusual for cave club members to have favorite caves. Some members of the Victorian Cave Exploration Society fell in love with Shades of Death. They decided to develop the cave as a show cave in conjunction with Murrindal and Lilly Pilly caves which were being shown by the group on a loose Licence Agreement granted by the Lands Department, which through name changes (too numerous to relate but possibly worthy of a lengthy paper at some future conference) has evolved to the current Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The land owner gave a lease to the group headed by Jack McMahon, Graham Shaw and Geoff Rebbechi. The current entrance area was excavated and blasted to connect with the main cave. Three steel stairways and some concrete paths were installed and the cave was opened for business. Many early visitors paid two bob to watch concrete being poured and to offer advice which was always appreciated, of course! In 1969 the cave closed as the lease was not renewed by the land owner.
In 1981 the group now headed by Graham and Geoff was advised that the licence to operate Murrindal caves would be terminated at the end of the 1982 season. At this time Dennis Rebbechi convinced his wife Carol that she did not really need new carpets and drapes and proceeded to negotiate the purchase of 5 acres of hillside which included the area above Shades of Death.
Between 1982 and 1984, concrete pathways were formed, low level fencing erected for safety, and an innovative press button lighting system designed by Warren Kennedy installed.
The property had been purchased in Carol Rebbechi's maiden name for secrecy and she then leased a small area around the entrance to a partnership consisting of Carol, Dennis and Geoff Rebbechi, Graham Shaw and Warren Kennedy. Further development of the cave continued and today the tour length is more than double that of the 1960s.
After Warren Kennedy died in 1991 it was decided to convert the Partnership to a Company and Carol has granted this company a new lease for 99 years.
When open, tours are run between 11am and 4pm on demand to avoid waiting. As a result tour groups are always of a manageable and satisfactory size.
At the bottom of the first staircase, the guide explains the origin of the name. The explanation has been known to vary dependent on the mood of the guide, the size of the group. and the nature of the people within the group. Ernie Henham, a local farmer discovered the entrance in 1900 just about dawn on a cold frosty morning. He saw a mist rising from the ground and thought it to be a ghost. Tentatively approaching, he found it to be warm moist air from the cave. Dropping stones in the hole he realised that if he had fallen in he would have been killed, thus he thought of death. In those days ghosts were mostly called Phantoms or Shades as we all leave our shade behind when we die.
The tour is then conducted to the bottom of the second staircase to the Helectite Garden (named by the illustrious Kent Henderson). The various formations found within the caves are described at this point. From here to the balcony where the visitors view "The Vault" (Kent again) before descending to the third level to view magnificent flow stone and the "Termite Turrets" (Kent again). The group is led down into "The Hall of the Mountain Kings" (You guessed it, Kent strikes again). The tour is led across the recently constructed "Warren Kennedy Bridge" and shown the pathway to the future planned extensions. Formation in this area is truly magnificent and it is often quite difficult to start the group moving again.
If there are children in the group, the guide tells some stories at Monster Corner (not named after Kent) before allowing the members of the tour to return to the surface at their own pace. Tour duration normally varies from half to three quarters of an hour.
The cave is illuminated by a Generator capable of providing 25 amps per phase powered by a Ford 3 cylinder diesel motor. The power is distributed through 3 interconnected switchboards for forward and back lighting control The switchboards have 110 volt controlled switches activating 240 volt circuitry. A back up emergency system enables the whole of the cave to be converted to single phase operation which runs track lighting and sufficient feature lights for safety from a Honda 5kva petrol motor. All lights are positioned to minimise heat radiation to surrounding surfaces.
Shades of Death Philosophy
Guides have no set patter but rather adapt to their own preference or the particular preference, if obvious of the tour group i.e. technical, photographic, educational; entertainment etc. We believe it is important that children understand karst and cave formation. Under these circumstances our pricing structure encourages families and a single child entry fee is only $1.50. In addition, we distribute to all children a photocopy booklet prepared by the school teachers in our company to explain all aspects. This enables the guides to minimise technical explanations which often create non-interest attitude towards caves from the children. Generally we have found that if you can maintain the children's interest during the tour the booklet is welcomed and probably read later.
We also believe that our visitors require some entertainment during the tour and we have found that self guide tours are unsuccessful. Invariably the visitors spend minimum time below the surface and equivalent time questioning and talking with the above ground operator.
The tourist area being relatively small, lighting effects have become a feature of the cave. The lighting switching sequence has been designed to maximise impressions particularly after total darkness. Some colored lights are used to maximise the visual experience.
Visitor numbers are disappointingly low achieving a peak after the opening year in 1989/1990 and then showing a dramatic decline:
The origin of visitors was accurately assessed in 1987/1988 and subsequent checks indicate the results to be relatively constant.
Further dissection shows that most interstate visitors come from NSW/ACT and the Melbourne tourists come predominantly from the Eastern and South Eastern suburbs. Almost all Country Victorian visitors originate from East of Melbourne with 60% coming from South Gippsland.
Generally visitor comment have been most favorable which contributes greatly to the enthusiasm of the Company members.23/4/89 Margaret Thurlow - Coburg Keep Batting
26/9/89 R. Wright - Cranbourne Thank you for not commercialsing as others.
7/11/89 Ursula Veheele - Flair West Germany It was interesting for me to get people alone who discover their own cave
30/12/89 Andrew Slegher Glenroy Make a great disco
7/7/90 Lai Teih Kne Should display more souvenirs
5/11/90 Wendy, Daryl, Angelina & Grant To many stairs
28/12/90 Brian & Sally Milkins Churchill, Personal touch is great
30/12/90 L Seamons Springwood NSW Better than
1/1/91 Allison Hansen I loved it when the bat came
21/4/92 Greg & Meaghan We loved the bats
17/1/93 John Oost Gosford Top bucks night not enough beer
10/4/93 Suzanne Redmond Moe Vic Bloody Bats !!!
20/4/93 Tyrell family Box Hill, Let's get some funds and see some more
24/4/95 Glenda Smith Canberra, Well explained Good Guides
and so on.
Full car park!
The look on a child's face when a bat swoops past.
The satisfaction that 99.9% of all visitors are happy, want to know more, and like to stay after the tour to talk with the guide, the ticket seller, other visitors or any one who happens to be available.
Comments in the visitor book.
Empty car park!
That the cave cannot be open 365 days a year.
That the further development is so slow.
The current shareholders and operators are determined that "Shades of Death" will continue to operate whenever possible and have tried to encourage other interested parties to become part of the unique operation. Last year we announced an opportunity for such people to become shareholders. We deliberately pitched this offer to have a financial penalty to ensure that new members brought in fresh funds for further development and also to ensure that new members did not simply be passive shareholders. Considerable interest was shown but unfortunately the interested people either had no money or simply wanted to be able to say "I own a cave".
Whilst our enthusiasm is great there is no truth in the saying "Age shall not weary them". We see the future of the cave to be totally dependent on new members becoming actively envolved. The current directors have ensured the continuity of opportunity by arranging the 99 year lease which allows the cave to be operated regardless of the land ownership and yet allows the land owner to be an active member of the Company.
It is possible that the number of days that the cave opens could reduce even further. Recently the only way our obligations to the public could be met was to allow outside operators to open the cave during part of the school holidays. Whilst this 'ad hoc' approach was actually very successful, it emphasises the problem the cave faces.
Running a tourist cave such as "Shades of Death" is a richly rewarding experience fraught with worries that it may not be able to continue as a tourist show cave.