|A look inside the Buchan Caves.|
Picture: Destination Gippsland/ Gavin Hansford Supplied
The road to Buchan in East Gippsland was long and dusty, but it ended at a genteel campground, populated with European trees and rolling lawns.
Church services were held in a purpose-built stone chapel on Sundays. A mineral spring-fed pool took the edge off the summer heat and, later, an on-site car wash returned the shine to your automobile.
Today the car wash is long gone; the church is a communal kitchen and the campers' "lounge" serves as the visitor centre. But campsites are still shaded by ornamental she-oaks, liquidambar and cypress trees, and the swimming pool still glistens in the sun.
We've come to Buchan to see its famous caves, one of Victoria's earliest tourist attractions.
Discovered by Europeans in the late 1880s, the caves were opened to visitors in 1913. By the 1930s they were a major tourist destination, rivalling New South Wales' Jenolan Caves.
The caves are actually one long complex of winding passages and weird formations.
The first European to explore the caves, Frederick Wilson, was so crazy about them he named his daughter after Fairy Cave. Fairy even got married in this cave. Old photos show a romantic, candle-lit, subterranean ceremony, although admittedly the bride does look a little chilly.
We join a tour of Royal Cave, tramping deep underground in single file.
The caves were formed by ancient underground rivers, coursing their way through the soft limestone. Rainwater also seeped through cracks, their slow dripping eventually creating stalactites and stalagmites.
Royal Cave also features a spectacular series of flowing pools, rimmed with white calcite. The water in these pools is pure and clear, its still surface rippled only by an occasional drip.
We stop to take blurry low-light photos, then follow a winding path through elegant formations, some floodlit and sparkling. Tiers of frosty limestone create the illusion of wedding cakes, curtains of rock and spiny columns.
Emerging blinking above ground, we walk back along a ridge looking for fossils and then, back at the campground, check out the mineral pool, which is fed by the network of streams that flow through the caves. The water is icy, and though the deco-era rock walls give it an old-world Hollywood feel, we're not brave enough to jump in.
The campground is booked out for the school holidays, so we drive to "the Junction" campsite, at the confluence of the Buchan and Snowy rivers. Thousands of Aboriginal artefacts have been found here, including middens and so-called scar trees. We spot one by the picnic area. A tall gum has a large sheath of bark cut from its trunk. The bark was probably used to make a canoe or shield.
The junction is a popular local swimming spot, but today it's just us and a lone kingfisher, who watches us float in the warm waters.
The next morning we hit the road and cross the border into NSW, where Kosciuszko National Park is home to another spectacular cave complex, Yarrangobilly Caves.
Some of the caves here are two million years old. Yarrangobilly was developed during the same "cave-tourism" heyday as Buchan Caves.
Visitors stayed at the Yarrangobilly Caves House, built in 1901. The guesthouse was closed in the late 1960s, but has reopened and has two comfortable, self-contained wings. Like Buchan, this caves reserve has a mineral pool, too, though the water here comes from hot springs and is naturally heated to 27C.
There are guided and self-guided tours of the caves. After a dip we walk along the nearby Yarrangobilly River to South Glory Cave for a self-guided tour. The mouth of the cave is stunning, a yawning gash in the rock face. It feels like we're being swallowed by the mountain as we enter.
It's cold underground, and as our eyes adjust we walk into the appropriately named "ice-age" chamber. Here the formations are covered in a pure white coat of minerals, which fall in bright flows down the rocks. The path starts to climb, and before we know it we're back in the sunlight again.
Looking back, there is nothing to indicate what lies beneath, but a small metal door in the side of the mountain.
Getting there: Buchan is about 4 1/2 hours drive from Melbourne on the Princes Highway.
Tours: Guided tours run through Buchan caves every day except Christmas Day,
$15 an adult for one cave, or $22.50 for two caves. Entrance to Yarrangobilly Caves reserve is $3 a car. Self-guided tours of South Glory Cave cost $13 an adult, $8 concession. Swimming at the mineral pools at both cave reserves is free. There are many bushwalking tracks in both areas, with maps available at the visitor centres.
Stay: Buchan Caves Reserve has campsites and cabins. Booking is essential during peak periods, ph: 5162 1900 or visit parkweb.vic.gov.au
Unpowered sites cost $13.50 a night during peak season; cabins sleeping up to five people are $73 a night. Camping at the Junction campsite is free.
Yarrangobilly Caves House Heritage Accommodation has two self-contained wings from $180 a night. Book with the Tumut region visitors' information centre, ph: (02) 6947 7025. Tumut also has various accommodation options. There are free campsites in the Kosciuszko National Park.
Source: Herald Sun