Caves Road: a Short History of a Winding Way.

Caves Road deserves special protection as a heritage and tourism icon.

Caves Road traverses the limestone ridge between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. It runs south from Yallingup, through tree lined hills and valleys, past vineyards and breweries. Across the Margaret River and down into the Karri country, past Hamelin Bay and onwards to Augusta. It is heralded as one of the iconic experiences to have in Western Australia.

It began as a network of sand and gravel tracks taking visitors to the spectacular caves so numerous along the Ridge. Now the beauty of the road is under threat by virtue of its appeal. Traffic, tree lined bends and speed make a dangerous mix. But widening and straightening is not the only way to improve safety on Caves Road. By recognizing the heritage value of the journey, drivers can be encouraged to slow down. Respect, reminders, and rumblestrips.

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By the turn of the twentieth century the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge was already a touring sensation. People came from across the world to visit the spectacular caves being discovered in a far flung corner of Western Australia. John Bussell was the first to advertise a cave and accommodation package, at Wallcliffe in 1891. For the first few years, visitors came down the old road through Yelverton and Ellensbrook, to stay at Wallcliffe House, or at Frances Brockman’s farm at Burnside. They marvelled at the trees along the rough sandy track, and the journey became a wonder in itself.

“…..The Karri trees are worth riding 50 miles to see ; they rise straight and graceful as a palm for 100ft and sometimes 150ft without a branch. In the summer they have a blueish grey colour, but during the winter a salmon relief of shell gives a pretty aspect to the Queen of trees…..”  a traveller 1885

But others were eyeing the giant trees with a different view in mind. In 1882 M. C. Davies obtained a timber license, opened Hamelin Bay as a harbour, and began to export timber out of the region. The new enterprise demanded a new road. The “Karridale Road,” now Bussell Highway, was pushed through in a direct line south from Busselton. The newer, faster route to the rapidly falling trees.

The region opened up. The karris growing on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge have their roots stretched deep into the limestone, and loggers discovered more caves. People began to flock to the Ridge, attracted by work at the timber mills, but also by wildly poetic tales of the ‘crystal palaces’ and ‘fairy wonderlands’ hidden below the trees. They shunned the slow coast road past the lodgings at Wallcliffe and Burnside, to cross instead at the new bridge, into the new town of Margaret River.

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Frances Brockman  lobbied the West Australian Government to maintain the old coast road. She also pushed for official promotion and protection of the caves. In 1900 a Caves Board was formed at the instigation of surveyor Erskine May. He advised the development of the caves as a government tourism venture, and made the first official (call) to build a better road. He proposed to consolidate the tracks from Busselton to Yallingup Cave, and to open a new road south along the coast to Margaret River.

Yallingup Cave, now known as Ngilgi, opened in 1900. The Caves Board promoted a package deal complete with rail transport and accommodation at the purpose built Caves House. Early visitors made a daytrip from Busselton, navigating a series of confusing sandy tracks to Yallingup. Many made a wrong turn, and arrived at Cape Naturaliste. Travellers were advised to wear pale clothes, as they would be coated with white dust from the limestone road, and would all arrive the same colour. Despite the inconvenience, the journey was memorable:

….You might reflect for a moment on the days not so long ago, when four good horses would have galloped you there in a cloud of dust and happiness…”  D’arcy-Evans 1946

In 1901 the Caves Board also opened Lake Cave, said to be the most beautiful of all. The extension south to Margaret River became the new craze, and the time had come to invest in major roadworks. Erskine May brought road engineer George Farrar along to tour the caves. Keen for an opportunity to promote Western Australia, they officially approved the making of the “Lake Cave Road” in 1902.

May and Farrar devised a route that was to leave Caves House and head south within one to two miles of the coast. It was to cross the old bridge, past Wallcliffe and Burnside, and onwards to Calgardup, Mammoth, and Lake Caves. Clearing and grubbing works began in 1903, but the making of the new road turned out to be a long process. In 1907 the Caves Board reported that the Lake Cave Road “was partly made, partly a good natural road, and partly sand.”

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Image courtesy of Margaret River Busselton Tourism Association

The success of the “caves run” meant that in 1908 coach operator Percy Bignell imported the first motor car south of Perth. A ‘Starcar’, it was shipped from London and came complete with spare tyres and a driver. The era of motors had arrived, and by 1914 the road was said to be macadamised all the way to Lake Cave. But as one early travel blogger wrote, the journey south was still an adventure two years later:

“…..On the whole, the road is good, although it degenerates towards the end of the journey into nothing more than a bushtrack, just wide enough for the car to squeeze through. In places many of the trees have been ringbarked, and others have measured their length on mother earth as a result of winter storms, the huge fallen monarchy adding a touch of the capricious to the sylvan scene. As we fly along the track we are continually ducking and dodging the foliage of the undergrowth…..”  Westward Ho! 1916

In the years following the first world war, the West Australian government devised the group settlement scheme to attract people to the region. The caves were used in promotional material. Visits by dignitaries and the odd aristocrat ensured the continued upgrading of the road. Meanwhile the Augusta Roads Board was working its own way north, past Moondyne Cave and onwards from Karridale. In 1921 Dave Gibb drove his ‘Super 6 Hudson’ north to Golgotha Cave, and the route from Yallingup to Augusta was complete.

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Empire press conference delegates at Mammoth Cave 1925

In 1911 diversions were planned from the Lake Cave Road into Wilyabrup, Cowaramup Bay, Joey’s nose, Gnarabup, Calgardup, and Freycinet. With easier access, the Ridge became the playground and fishery for hard working group settlers, deprived of material success, but endowed with a magical coastline. The Lake Cave Road became an artery for exploration of the coast; not just of the caves but the waves as well.

“Surfing” was mentioned as early as 1934, in an article on the wonders of Redgate Beach. During the 1950s cars became more readily available, and the way opened for the surfing expeditions of the 1960s. The days when everyone camped wherever they fancied, got bogged overnight on the sandy tracks, lit fires, and lived the wild life.

Now, visitors are drawn in huge numbers to the scenic beauty of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, and Caves Road has become an icon of regional identity. Locals are fiercely protective. The tree lined road has wound its way into the regions heart.  ‘Caves’ is not just a pretty road: for those who live here it is a way of life. Connecting all the small places, in a long and winding way.

But the 21st century is demanding a different type of path, and the road network has morphed into super highways. Once, not so long ago, the drive ‘Down South’ passed through Fremantle and Mandurah, along the Old Coast Road to Bunbury; through the signal tuart forest at Wonnerup, and into the sleepiness of Busselton. Now all the small places have been bypassed, and lost along the way. The roadside vistas have changed. The adventure of the drive is no longer along tree lined avenues, but through super-roundabouts circled by lights and chainstore takeaways. Shunting down on wide, straight roads, to drive along and marvel at the old winding way.

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The tree lined bends of Caves Road are now seen as a traffic hazard, and more needs to be done to make the road safer. Locals believe the Caves Road speed limit should be dropped. Main Roads disagree: their road safety policy favours widening and straightening rather than changing the behaviour of motorists. They have a long track record of impacting on environmental and cultural values, and destroying our sense of place. How to balance these opposing views and ensure the safety of Caves Road, without compromising on character?

Make Caves a heritage road. There are regional precedents. Singapore and Shanghai both have listed roads. In Australia, Great Ocean Road is on the National Heritage Register. Caves Road is loaded with environmental and social values: it traverses the nationally significant karst landscape of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge; it played a major role in the development of the region, and is now enjoyed by thousands of interstate and international visitors every year.

Heritage protection demands planners consider sense of place, custodianship, and sustainability for the future. Main Roads can draw up a management plan, with the community consultation promised in their heritage policy statement. Heritage status may also have more impact on driver behaviour than simply telling them to drive slower. Encourage people to enjoy the journey as a wonder in itself, not just as a headlong rush towards a destination.

People love the wild spaces, the old world feel of a winding tree lined vista. Natural beauty is what they come for, what they’ve always come for. To escape the rush and the lights, the kerbs and the concrete. To journey at the slower pace of the old days, with time to wonder at the light bouncing off the silver trunks of the giant trees, and time to avoid the roadside kangaroos.

Make Caves a heritage road.  Enhance, rather than ruin the attraction.


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Jinni Wilson, BSc(Hons) Anthropology,
University of Western Australia.