After a snug night, we woke to a gorgeous morning. The sun was out strong in a clear sky, and the camp ground was filled with noisy birds. Despite our plan to move on, we got a slow start, lingering over Mike’s pancakes, and, after packing up, detouring on the way out to Katoomba’s Chocolate Factory to stock up.
Our route to the Janolan Cave took us back west toward Lithgow, until we turned south. The landscape again was gorgeous, rolling hills and forests, until we entered the final approach to the caves where the road grew narrow and twisty descending through tight forested switchbacks deep into a narrow valley bottom.
You never know what you’re going to get in OZ! After passing though an incredible rock arch, TaDa!!...we might have been in Disneyland. It turned out that Janolan Caves is a well-developed tourist destination. A narrow street of touristy shops and cafes surrounded the hotel complex, whose architecture was a hybrid of kitschy alpine and castle! We were funneled up to a second level parking lot, from which we hiked back down to the street, where we stood in line to buy tickets to one of ten main cave tours. The tours, each billed at 1-2 hours long, were grouped into three different price ranges, and, were we staying longer, we could have bought a whole package. The choice was unexpected! How to choose just one? We hemmed and hawed over options as the line moved forward, the best-sounding one -- “The Orient”— showing as sold out. Then, just as we reached the ticket window, the phone rang, a bus tour canceled and suddenly we were in!
The Saturday 1:30 tour for The Orient drew a good crowd, probably around two dozen people. The group ascended a hill and entered the mountain through a “new door” blasted in the 1950s in order to tour the cave top down. Our guide let us know that she preferred the old way, bottom up. May be, but I’m sure top down is easier on the old folks, and it was a damn impressive show as it was.
After the entry tunnel, there were probably five caves linked together by ladders through tunnels, all of which was theatrically lit in stages. How they place these lights (now mostly converted to LED) is a mystery. It would be like stringing stage lights through a giant crystal shop, with fragile-seeming formations the guide called “decorations” growing prolifically up, down and horizontally over every inch of surface! The chambers were named after different countries – Persia, Egypt, India, etc. – and colors varied from blinding white, to apricot to terra cotta. It was mind-boggling. Everyone took dozens of pictures.
And then we were gone! Back out in the glare of sunlight, climbing back out of the deep valley, back out into the rolling countryside driving in search of a campsite! One would never imagine such a fantasyland lurking below ground!
The afternoon growing late, we ended up near the town of O’Connel at a free roadside camp spot called “Peat Rock.” This was little more than an open sloping field with a desultory river at the bottom. The several “prime” sites – ones with tables and fire rings along the river -- were already taken, so we simply plotzed ourselves in the middle of the field. It was rather rubbly and not quite level, and we ended up making up our beds athwart the tent so that we wouldn’t be rolling downhill on top of each other in the night! We cooked a big dinner on the smokeless grill set-up – lamb, mashed potatoes and salad – and sat back to enjoy the clear sky. Despite being out of the mountains proper, the night air grew chilly, and after our long day of driving to and from the cave crawl, we all slept snug and well.