Wombeyan Caves

Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve

the bush around Wombeyan from Cameron Rocks outlook.
Charles Chalker was the caretaker of Wombeyan Caves from 1864-84. Public Domain.

Wombeyan Caves are located in a 345 hectare reserve in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. There is a great variety of wildlife, wildflowers and indigenous shrubs to see in the Wombeyan Sanctuary. Among the endangered species are wallaby, birds, possum, and wombat. There are more than 500 caves listed in the cadastre of the reserve. The ticket office, campground, and kiosk are located in the valley of Wombeyan River, which vanishes underground into the cave system at Victoria Arch. It reappears on the other side of the hill near the entrance to Fig Tree Cave and flows into Mares Forest Creek at the entrance to Junction Cave. There are five show caves which offer guided, self guided, and cave trekking tours. The caves are visited by 30,000 visitors per year [2000].

The reserve is located within the traditional land of the Gundungurra or Gandangara People. Some say the word Wombeyan means grassy valley between mountains in their language. Others state that Wombeyan means tunnel in the Ngunnawal language. The name is rather difficult for English speakers and so it has been spelt as Whambeyan, Wambian, Whombeyan, Wombeian, Wambiang and Wambeean.

The Wombeyan Caves, and the nearby Jenolan Caves, are mentioned in the Dreamtime myth of Gurrangatch. During a contest between Gurangatch and Mirragan the caves were formed. The rainbow serpent Gurangatch is part fish and part reptile. Mirragan is a tiger cat. The story was written down by Robert Hamilton Mathews (*1841–1918), an Australian surveyor and self-taught anthropologist who studied the Aboriginal cultures of Australia. See excerpt below.

The caves were not inhabited, Archaeologists have not found any sign of indigenous occupation. But flakes and cores from tool making between 14,000 and 6,000 years BP were found across the reserve.

The marble caves at Wombeyan were discovered in 1828 by a party which was in search of grazing land. Members of this party were the explorer and NSW Surveyor-General John Oxley and John Macarthur, a pioneer of the Australian wool industry. They started in Berrima and travelled from Mittagong to Wombeyan, about the same route the road takes nowadays. They camped on the fifth night in the valley near Victoria Arch. On the morning they found the Archway while looking for their straying horses, but the party did not enter any of the caves. The first man who entered the caves was a clergyman called Denning. He explored a section of the ShowcaveFig Tree Cave.

The first caretaker of the Wombeyan Caves was Charles Chalker (*1845–1924), who was appointed by the government. He discovered three of the show caves (ShowcaveWollondilly Cave, ShowcaveKooringa Cave and ShowcaveMulwaree Cave) and made major contributions to the development of the caves.

For more than half a century the caves were visited using candlelight and magnesium. In the year 1928 the first caves were illuminated electrically. In 1900 a small hotel was built to accommodate visitors. The idea was to draw tourists from the cities, who shunned camping and preferred to live comfortably. When the wodden building burned to the ground in 1935 it was not rebuilt.

Gurangatch then returned home along his burrow or tunnel to the Wollondilly where he had previously left off, and continued making a canal for himself. When he reached what is now the junction of the Guineacor river he turned to the left and made a few miles of the channel of that stream. Coming to a very rocky place which was hard to excavate, he changed his mind and turned back to the junction and resumed his former course. He had some difficulty in getting away from this spot and made a long, deep bend or loop in the Wollondilly which almost doubles back upon itself at that place. When Gurangatch got down to where Jock’s Creek now embouchures with the Wollondilly, he turned up Jock’s Creek excavating a watercourse for himself. Being a great magician he could make the water flow up hill as easily as downhill. On reaching the source of Jock’s Creek, he burrowed under the range, coming up in the inside of Wam’-bee-ang caves, which are called Whambeyan by the white people, being a corruption of the aboriginal name.

We must now return to Mirragañ. When he came back to Murraural waterhole and saw how Gurangatch had escaped, he followed on down the river after him, going on and on till he overtook him at Wambeeang. Mirragañ did not care to go into any of the subterranean passages, therefore he went up on top of the rocks and dug a hole as deep as he could go and then prodded a long pole down as far as it would reach, for the purpose of frightening Gurangatch out of his retreat, much in the way we poke a kangaroo rat or other creature out of a hollow log. Not succeeding in his purpose with the first hole, he dug another and still another and shoved the long pole down each one as before. There are several weather worn ‘pot holes’ on top of the Whambeyan caves still, which are said to be those made by Mirragañ on that occasion.

Robert Hamilton Mathews (1908): Some Mythology of the Gundungurra Tribe, New South Wales In: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (ZfE) / Journal of Social and Cultural Anthropology (JSCA), 40. Jahrg., H. 2, 1908, pp. 203-206. Published By: Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH. online html


1828 discovered by the party of the explorer and NSW Surveyor-General John Oxley and John Macartur.
1842 Victoria Arch and ShowcaveFig Tree Cave first entered by the Reverend Denning (creek section).
1865 Charles Chalker discovered three of the main caves: ShowcaveWollondilly Cave, ShowcaveKooringa Cave and ShowcaveMulwaree Cave.
1900 Caves House accommodation house built.
1928 first electric light in three of the caves.
1935 Caves House burns down and is not rebuilt.
2019-2021 closed due to Black Summer bushfires for the first time in history.
2022 NSW Government funds AUD 9.6 million makeover.