Caves were forming in the soft limestone of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge long before people appeared on the continent. Growing softly, the rainfall of a million winters cementing beach sand into stone. Or mixing with plants on the surface and dissolving it, before crystallising it again, drip by drip.
Wadandi ancestors took shelter in the caves 50 000 years ago, during the extreme cold of the last ice age. More recently, they were avoided and treated with respect, as places of spiritual significance.
And then, not so long ago, newcomers arrived. People with bright lights, and curiosity stronger than caution. Some marveled at the beautiful delicacy of the cave formations. Others were not so respectful, and by the 1890s there were reports of damage and vandalism. In 1900 Irishman Tim Connolly was appointed as government caretaker and guide. Infrastructure was built to assist visitors, and gates were fitted for the safeguarding of the caves.
Before the opening of Lake Cave in 1901, Calgardup was the star of the show. Its most famous decoration was the meteoric shower, a ceiling to floor cascade of straw stalactites. Straws are delicate tubes made from calcium carbonate crystallising around a single drop of water, so fragile that a light touch will shatter them. Connolly would escort small parties in to view the chamber. In 1913, one anonymous visitor wrote:
“… Let us away with the local restrictions of meteor-orbits, and imagine rather every star in the firmament suddenly taking a dive towards earth, only to stop arrested, each at the end of his shining track…”
Connolly guarded the straws carefully, but after his death in 1935 visitors were left to enter the cave unsupervised. No-one seems to know exactly what happened to the meteoric shower. There are tales of drunken parties during the depression; or of a careless worker turning with a plank on his shoulder and wiping the ceiling clean. Perhaps it was gradual attrition over the years. Whatever happened, the straws have been reduced to stumps on the ceiling.
Calgardup is now a self-guided adventure cave. Unknowing visitors, ducking along the length of the old meteoric chamber, would never guess the marvels it once held. We all love to admire the fragile beauties of nature. We are drawn to the wild spaces, and the feeling of adventure.
The tragedy is: it’s such a fragile world.
BSc (hons) Anthropology
University of Western Australia
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