Cave of wanders

Mist rises off Yarrangobilly's thermal pool at dawn.
Mist rises off Yarrangobilly's thermal pool at dawn.

You don't need me to tell you that it's been a bit on the warm side lately. In fact, the mercury has risen to such an extent, the shy possum that normally doesn't emerge from his custom-made box on our back deck until well after nightfall has been hanging upside down in the fork of our climbing grapevine from noon every day this week. Incredibly, he hasn't even responded with a guttural growl or scurried away in shock when Emily, my two-year old daughter, has repeatedly attempted to spray him with jettisons of water from her toy water guns. Most unpossum-like behaviour.

In our own quest to escape the heat, not wanting to dangle bat-like on our grapevine (it's an imitation variety, anyway) this week, the Yowie clan headed underground. No, I didn't dig a whopping big hole with the shovel Santa left near our chimney on December 25 (sorry Mrs Yowie, that vegie patch of ours will have to wait).

Instead, we packed the Yowie mobile and headed south to Yarrangobilly Caves. Located in the Snowies (I bet just the sound of that word makes you feel cooler, doesn't it?), this extensive catacomb of limestone caverns pockmark a swathe of rugged country in northern Kosciuszko National Park. I've explored this patch of Kosciuszko several times before, usually in winter, to marvel at the cave decorations, not as a subterranean sanctuary during an extended heatwave.

I was once told that a rough (is there any other?) rule of thumb with limestone caves is that they generally take on the average yearly (daytime and night-time) temperature of their surrounds. Here at Yarrangobilly, this means the cave temperatures vary between about 8 degrees and 12 degrees. However, with the in-vehicle thermometer busting through the old century, it's to looks of incredulity from Mrs Yowie and the kids that as we pass through the Yarrangobilly entry gates, I ask everyone to find their sweaters. The only verbal response I get is from Mrs Yowie, who retorts, ''the sweaters are already in the passenger and back seat'' (read: ''get the busted aircon in my Jeep fixed before we go on another trip'').

Despite my pleas, the whole clan refuse to bring their sweaters, leaving their poor old Akubra-clad dad/husband to lug them along the hot, exposed mountain track. Lucky it's only a short walk before a giant gash in the side of a cliff looms - the entrance to south glory cave. One by one, in we scamper. Within metres, the temperature drops dramatically. It's like entering a shopping mall on a hot day - you know, where super-powered airconditioners blast a gale of arctic air on your head just as you pass through the automatic doors. Only there's no incessant hum here; the only noise is from the sooty owl shifting on its roost above us, oh, and an apologetic chorus of pleading, ''Daddy, can I please have my jacket?''

The walk through this self-guided cave (you don't need a torch, movement sensors trigger lights) should only take about 30 minutes, but we linger for almost two-hours. In fact, if we stay much longer there's a chance a stalagmite might start growing on one of our foreheads, either that or we'll turn into some sort of troglodyte. Usually in these show caves there's a constant chorus of ''oohs'' and ''ahhs'' from visitors marvelling at the cave decorations. But not today - all we hear as we amble at snail pace are other visitors remarking, ''How refreshing is this!'' and, ''I wish we could stay in here all day and night!'' Of course, you can't bunk down in the cave as it's against the rules, and besides, who knows what sort of critters lurk in here when the lights go off. We do the next best thing - check in at Caves House. While it's not underground, its wide, timber decks catch the evening breeze and are perfect for that outdoor barbecue and sunset glass of wine.

We've hired out the entire single-level wing and with the adjacent double-storey house still under refurbishment, come sunset, the day-trippers are well and truly on the long trip home and we're the only people within cooee of the caves. In fact, it's a good thing Caves House isn't quite ready for guests, for at the crack of dawn, the silence is well and truly shattered. Sarah, my five-year-old, has discovered the pulley for the almost century-old bell perched high in the cliff above us and which, during the cave's heyday, was rung five minutes prior to tours. At first she pulls the string tentatively, resulting in a gentle chime, but before long she's yanking it harder and harder with such gusto that you could be excused for thinking we'd gatecrashed a carillonist's convention.

No visit to this subterranean playground is complete without a dip in the thermal pool, where the water gurgles from a mountain spring at a constant 27 degrees all year round. People flock here in winter to warm up in the ''healing waters''. But today, it feels refreshingly cool when compared with the blast furnace-like northerlies whipping through the valley. For the ultimate cool-off, we scurry 100 metres or so from the pool to where its waters flow into the gurgling Yarrangobilly River. Here, even on this record-breaking scorcher of a day, this alpine stream is cold (there are some patches of snow left on some of Kosciuszko's highest peaks), ice-cream headache cold. In fact, to combat the chill factor, we keep migrating to where the pool outflow enters the river to warm up!

To beat the heat, you could plonk yourself, Norm-like, in front of the TV and airconditioner and watch reruns of Ice Road Truckers and Northern Exposure or join the throngs in one of our chlorinated public baths, but if you are after a truly cool, natural experience, then beat a path to Yarrangobilly. It sure beats hanging upside down on an imitation grapevine in the hope a toddler's wayward spray of water might finally hit its target.


Yarrangobilly Caves: Located within the northern section of Kosciuszko National Park, 6.5km off the Snowy Mountains Highway and 77km from Tumut and 109km from Cooma. If you live in Belconnen or Gungahlin, it's slightly quicker to go via Tumut. For south-siders, the road via Cooma is the best route. Many cave tours to choose from - guided to self-guided. Entrance fees apply. Phone (02) 6454 9597 for more information, including access on days of total fire ban.

Live it up: Self-contained heritage accommodation (circa 1901) in the single-storey east or west wings from $180 a night. Each wing sleeps seven to nine people. Minimum stay of two nights. The adjoining two-storey extension of Caves House (circa 1917) will be opening in late March/early April. Prices from $150 for a queen room with en suite. Bookings, see or 1300 727 575.

Splash time: The pool is 20 metres long and 2.5 metres deep. There is also a children's wading pool, change rooms, toilets and picnic facilities. There's no lifeguard, so take care. The pool (and river) are accessible via a steep 700-metre walk, so only take the esky (or toddler!) down if you are prepared to carry it (them!) back up.

The 1926 Bell: The pulley to ring the bell is located in the old ticket box on the lower side of Caves House, directly opposite the self-guided-cave car park. I bet you can't ring it just once.



Letters: c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick, 2609.

This story Cave of wanders first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.