MOUNT ETNA, QLD – 24 July – 4 August 2022
When Rod put the Mount Etna trip on the MSS calendar, neither Marcia nor I had heard of the place. We figured we’d go for a holiday in a warmer climate and do some surveying. I have to admit after the first day of bush bashing lantana to find a cave, and gingerly walking over tower karst, I wasn’t impressed. But, after 11 days there, I’m hooked!
I’ll talk about the caving itself in my next post. This post is all about the back story/history of Mount Etna National Park, and a few reasons why the area is unique. You should know, I’m prone to having a soft spot for the ugly ducklings of the karst areas – you know the areas that cavers dismiss because they’re not as good as the awesome caves like Mole Creek, Yarrangobilly or the Nullabour (and all the other cool caving spots that cavers want to go to). Not that I’m saying it’s “ugly”, it’s sort of like the kid that’s not in the popular group at school (I have a soft spot for them too).
So, where are we? – Mount Etna is one of a couple of limestone peaks and ridges and is 22k north of Rockhampton, Queensland (Qld). The karst area is quite small when you compare it to other karst areas. Qld isn’t over-endowed with karst, it has Chillagoe of course (stunning caves west of Cairns), cool Lava Tubes at Undara, Camooweal Caves which are apparently really unique and Broken River (the land that is now occupied by the Defense Forces so seriously doubt anyone will be getting a permit to go there any day soon). I may have missed some so hope the caving gurus forgive me for any omissions. So, compared with the other Qld areas, Mount Etna is not on everyone’s “must do” list.
The limestone/karst is not just at Mount Etna, there are a number of ridges that are in the National Park (Limestone Ridge and some ridges, I can’t remember the names), and then Capricorn Caves (tourist caves) are on private property. There are some small outcrops on other privately owned properties too, everyone who lives in the area seems to “have a cave” on their land. What isn’t private property is now part of the Mount Etna National Park.
Why were we there? Cathy H-H and Rod O’B had recently passed through Mount Etna after a Chillagoe trip and had caught up with some local cavers. Cathi might have suggested to Rod S that a trip up there was a good idea, and there were a few other factors, so Rod S then got in touch with said local cavers and that cemented the idea for the trip (apologies Rod, I made this sound much simpler and easier than it was for you, particularly with getting the permits for the caves and dealing with all the various personalities).
What’s its history? The history of the area is what is/was really interesting for me, it’s a story of passionate cavers and environmentalists and the “longest environmental conflict in Queensland – from passive protest to direct action with blockades and caves being destroyed over a 40 year period from the 1960s until 2009. Central Queensland Cement Limited (CQC) was the limestone miner, opposed by the University of Queensland Speleological Society (UQSS) and Central Queensland Speleological Society (CQSS).”1
The caves on Mount Etna had been visited by cavers since 1886 and were Rockhampton’s first tourist venue. Recreation reserves were proclaimed in 1920 but did not prevent the mining of guano (bat poo), and the development in the 1930s of a small limestone quarry. These activities were not seen to be detrimental to the reserve, and a geologist’s memo in March 1939, considered that the mountain did not merit “reservation for scenic purposes” – obviously he wasn’t a caver. During World War II a large cave was used for munitions storage and Mount Etna became a secret training base for commando troops – even today Defense Force personal occasionally go caving at Mount Etna as some sort of horrific training régime (do they send them in without lights? lol).
In the late 1950s and 1960s a couple of caving groups were formed UQSS and CQSS – of which two of our local cavers, Noel and Clive were members.
Around about the same time the two clubs were forming, apparently (unsubstantiated), the Queensland Government had as part of its procurement protocol a rule that consumables were to be obtained from Queensland where possible, and so Mount Etna became the scene of ramped up limestone mining (of course, the profit angle played a huge role in what was to come). Two mines were set up, one on Limestone Ridge and the other on Mount Etna (opened in 1966).
The mining started to threaten the caves, letter writing and lobbying were, in the main, ineffective. Eventually the mine on Limestone Ridge was closed (Mount Morgan Limited who held the licence no longer needed the lime flux they were mining), but mining on Mount Etna continued and by the mid 1970s, the mining started moving towards known caves and the Bat Cleft (a maternity cave for the Miniopterus (Bent-winged) bats. Exploration of the caves also revealed a colony of rare Macroderma gigas (Ghost) bats.
The cavers by the late 1970s, with lobbying and letter writing not working, took a leaf out of the books of other environmental conflicts (eg Colong Caves in NSW and the Franklin River in Tasmania). Sit-ins, sabotage, boycotts and blockades were all considered and the full story, and it’s great reading, can be found here. Clive and Noel were both involved with the sit ins etc, and things got really hairy when it came to Speaking Tube cave, which was full of bats. Apparently the mining company had drilled a few holes for explosives and one night the protestors filled the holes with cement, not to be deterred though, the holes were re-drilled. Although only 6 people were available from the CQSS club for the sit-ins, over 140 protestors from Lismore and Cape Byron hit town to support the campaigners (where did they stay it’s a very small town?). After six weeks of sit-ins, blockades etc, the mining company and the campaigners called a cease fire, which included a halt to mining, and so the blockades were lifted.
Then the mining company dismissed an environmental report prepared by the campaigners and the cease fire collapsed. On 2nd November 1988 the mining company blew up two caves, Speaking Tube and Elephant Hole. A colony of Horseshoe Bats were killed by the explosion. This was perceived to be in breach of the Fauna Conservation Act, and so the mining company was taken to court in an action filed by the conservationists. The case failed, apparently in Queensland (unsubstantiated), it’s not against the law to kill a whole bunch of native fauna, they would only have broken the law if they’d taken away the bats (note to those of us who might accidentally run over a kangaroo in Qld, it’s not against the law to kill the ‘roo, but it is against the law to take it home and eat it – well, that was the case back in 1988).
In June 1988, the mining company completed its destruction blew up some more caves, in a fit if pique it would appear, no good reason apparently. Shortly thereafter there was a change in ownership and the new owners perhaps decided that mining Mount Etna wasn’t worth the aggravation and so all mining ceased in 2004. In 2008, the mine became part of a National Park. There’s still a lot of residual bitterness, the caving club, CQSS, had racked up a $200,000 legal fee and so CQSS disbanded – should CQSS restart, they’d have to find the funds to cover the $200,000 debt. That’s not to say that another group of cavers could start a new (incorporated) caving club. Many of the cavers in the area are individual members of the ASF.
Whilst Clive and Noel seem to be a bit “over” it all, it must have taken a lot out of those that were involved. I was rapt though, couldn’t get enough of the anecdotes that they shared.
Many of the caves in the area (and now part of the National Park were initially on private land. For instance, Forster’s Caves (now known as Cammoo Caves) were found in 1912 by Oswald Forster (a German immigrant) and later became the focus of the property (rather than farming). In the 1930s, the caves were mined for guano, but after the depression of 1932, the Forsters closed down the guano mining and returned to farming. In 1966 the Forster’s received a letter from a lime company, E.M. Pilkington & Co who wanted to mine limestone from the caves on the Forster’s property. The Forster’s joined up with the Olsen’s (Capricorn Caves owners) to look for a way to convince the courts that the cavers were a “natural asset … and should be preserved” (Theodore Olsen).
Guano mining was still being conducted (it was highly sought after in most caving areas in Australia where there was a large population of bats), but there were disastrous outcomes. In 1975, there was a large colony of small bats using Johannsen’s Cave (part of Limestone Ridge), and in some areas, guano had almost filled the cave to the top. The cave was going to be mined for the guano and the miners burned Sulphur to chase the bats out of the cave, sadly this killed most of the bats. Eventually, the Forster’s sold the caves to Frank Rudd who planned to open them as a tourist attraction, but the threat of limestone mining was all around, particularly on the Mount Etna. In 1998, after the establishment of Mount Etna Caves National Park, the groups that had fought over Mount Etna (the limestone mining company, now Pacific Lime) and the local caving group (CQSS), decided to put the past behind them, they chose to put funds held in trust from the Mount Etna court battle towards buying the Cammoo Caves property (along with QPWS) to add the property to Mount Etna National Park.
Nowadays, some of those cavers who were active in the conflict are now working towards regenerating the limestone areas, working hand in hand with QPWS. MSS helped out on two Thursdays, with tree planting and weeding of fossil piles.
What’s unique about the Mount Etna area?
Well, apart from the history which is both impressive and disheartening, there are a number of points of difference from other caving areas.
The area … I don’t know of any other caving area that is on the edge of a small town a couple of ks just out of the main township. The Caves township is very small, looked to me like maybe 20 or so houses on the main road, plus a pub, school, general store, pony club, showground where you can camp and a few other small shops, everyone seems to know each other. I loved the small town feel of The Caves and most people seem to be “into” caves. Everyone that we met was very welcoming and went out of their way to help us.
Tower Karst – yes, you get that in areas such as Bullita, Ningbings, and Chillagoe too, so it’s not totally unique, but is certainly different to anything further south away from the tropical rains that (apparently) causes the strange formation of the limestone.
Tectaria devexa – this fern which grows in very thin pockets of soil on cave walls, in the daylight areas. It is known to grow in areas such as Sri Lanka, SE Asia and Vanuatu, but the caves at Capricorn Caves (the privately owned tourist caves), are the only known places that they have survived in Australia. Many of the ferns died when a fire swept through the area, but Capricorn Caves now have a breeding program and have introduced a system where the ferns are kept moist as they don’t like an arid climate.
Macroderma gigas – Ghost Bats – this is the only Australian bat that eats large vertebrates (birds, reptiles and other mammals). Colonies have been found in NT, the Kimberlies and in Northern Qld, specifically Mount Etna caves. Apparently, there’s been a decline in their numbers and its thought that this may coincide with the introduction of the Cane Toad (a ghost bat could easily eat a cane toad) and it’s spread across northern Australia, along with the destruction of many of the caves at Mount Etna. Capricorn Caves note that the population is down to 40 in the area, although I had heard that the number was 50. Anecdotally, we heard that a bat was found on some barbed wire in the area, so maybe the number’s now 49. QPWS have been systematically removing barbed wire from the park (Ghost Bats apparently fly low to the ground looking for food so often collide with barbed wire and can’t escape from it.
Trapdoor spiders – but not the ones you see down south. Trapdoor spiders occur in all habitats and are found throughout Australia but become rare in the far north of Queensland and apparently the ones we saw are a new species which only occur north of Rockhampton (apparently). Trapdoor spiders belong to a group called the Mygalomorphae – spiders in this group don’t make normal webs like you see in your garden; instead they construct burrows which sometimes have a hinged door at the top. The ones we saw were very small, they have their burrows in un-trogged areas of caves, in sandy spots and you can only just see hinged “traps”. I could see the traps but couldn’t see the beady little eyes, I think Jim and Marcia were able to. The trapdoor traps are about the size of your little fingernail.
Tufa deposits – whilst not unique, they are quite often found around karst areas, however, there are two impressive tufa deposits from the Limestone Ridge area.
So, have I sold the place to you, if you were a caver would you want to go and maybe help put Mount Etna back on the map for reasons other than environmental vandalism? Lots of work to do to regenerate the place, and lots of surveying opportunities – plus we only touched the tip of the iceberg with regards to the caves we could visit. I’ll be going back one day! Thanks Rod for putting the trip on the calendar and a big thank you to all the local cavers who made us feel so welcome.
Banner: Tufa dams in the creek beside the Showground camping area
Thumbnail: Marcia planting some trees with the OGREs