Text by Angel Rivero
Photos by Jakob Kurc

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, Australia has been burning. The country-continent’s most recent fire season was completely devastating, and it was only last Feb. 13 that the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service declared that, after more than 240 days of active fire in NSW, now all of the fires in the state had been contained.

So many casualties haunted the nation as old-growth woodlands, endangered species, and even human beings perished from the catastrophe. This piece is dedicated to remembering some of the beautiful natural sites I was able to visit during a previous trip to Australia — the scenic Blue Mountains National Park and the eerie Jenolan Caves.

The Jenolan Caves are probably Australia’s most celebrated caves. They have just recently been identified as the oldest discovered open caves in the world. It is believed they came to be around the Carboniferous Period (290 to 354 million years ago). To put things in perspective, the Blue Mountains only began to form some 100 million years ago; dinosaurs only became extinct some 65 million years in the past.

The Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve lies within the Central Tablelands Region of NSW, Australia. It is approximately 175 kilometers west of Sydney, and just 30 kms west of Katoomba — the closest train stop en route to the caves. Driving from Sydney only takes about three hours. Obviously, I was happy to drive, and my vehicle for this trip was the iconic Toyota Corolla Ascent hatch.

The road to the Jenolan Caves is long, winding, and properly paved all the way. During my research, I’ve come across online forums that described the roads as narrow and scary. But to be honest, that’s quite an overstatement. It was a singular route that was designed with first-world safety standards, and certainly not even close to some of the most challenging terrains I’ve ever driven on. Believe me, with a trusty car, it is an enjoyable drive.

In my case, I drove a 1.8-liter, seven-speed Corolla, and it was more than enough to get us there, hassle-free. The car has a nice-looking low, wide stance — and being low wasn’t a problem at all, as the roads were in great shape and free of nasty potholes. The cabin is spacious and the boot is of a very decent size. The car offers fairly good handling and steering as I took on the twisties, and it even has Sport Mode if you wanted a little more driving fun.

This Corolla also has front bucket seats as standard. It drives generally quiet on the highway and, in legendary Corolla style, registered very low fuel consumption. Should there have been any threat of a collision (perhaps with crazy tourists confused with right-hand drive), I was aware that we had seven SRS air bags at the ready. After all, the Corolla did get a five-star Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) safety rating.

Characteristic to the Jenolan Caves National Park is a dramatic entrance with a grand arch that is 24m high, 55m wide, and 127m long. Passing the arch will lead you into a part of a cave — the largest open cave in Australia — before you arrive at the visitor center, where you can buy tickets for scheduled cave walks. Advance reservations are highly recommended!

Stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, antediluvian columns, and curious cave pearls riddled our surroundings as we stood within a labyrinth that was over 340 million years in the making. It was just another day for our cave guides at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve.

But for us first-timers, the journey to behold the footprints of the passing of geologic time was undeniably exciting. Each grouping of cave chasms had its own name, its own highlights, and its own special tour. Some standard walks are easy, others classified moderate, and the rest considered “adventurous” (involving climbing, squeezing yourself through tight cave openings, and sometimes even crossing through water). You take your pick based on your own level of fitness, willingness, and degree of claustrophobia, if any.

The Jenolan Caves were discovered by Europeans circa 1835 to 1840. And shortly after, the Caves House Victorian Era hotel was erected (this is where we chose to stay the night). The said hotel is Australian heritage-listed, and within it is the popular Chisolm’s Restaurant, named after a certain Miss Chisolm — whose ghost allegedly still haunts the halls to this day.