Did you know that about a hundred thousand years ago, giant marsupials used to roam Australia? Some of these looked a bit familiar, such as Diprotodon optatum, which resembled a much larger version of the modern wombat. Others, like the Thylacoleo carnifex, a creature best described as a carnivorous marsupial lion, went extinct, never to be replicated again.
With the largest marsupial weighing close to 3,000 kg, it requires a good stretch of the imagination to visualise these sorts of animals fitting into Australian landscapes nowadays. But if you’re after proof that these animals once lived, breathed and thrived, then you won’t need to look any further than Naracoorte Caves National Park.
When we were putting together our Australian campervanning trip itinerary, which involved a five-day meander from Adelaide to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road, I insisted that a Naracoorte Caves visit would be part of our journey.
Located in South Australia, Naracoorte Caves National Park is officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the park itself is beautiful and worthy of seeing (and it’s full of modern-day marsupials), its main claim to fame has to be the 28 caves that call this place home. You can take a tour of some of these caves and, while each of these is unique, there’s one cave that gained the interest of paleontologists all over the world. And this is the one Chris and I chose to explore on our visit to Naracoorte.
Having spent the night at the campsite within the national park the night before, our drive to the caves was a short one. Immediately upon arriving, there’s a visual clue as to what makes Naracoorte Caves so special: a ‘lifesize’ statue of Diprotodon optatum, or the wombat ancestor I mentioned before.
If you want to see the remains of this friendly looking creature, you’ll probably be surprised about where you’d find these. As it turns out, it’s the Naracoorte Caves themselves that are considered to hold one of the biggest fossil deposits in the world.
But how did this fossil deposit land up in the depths of a cave?
The limestone in this area formed millions of years ago and, thanks to the passing of time and a hefty amount of water erosion, a series of caves gradually opened up. Some caves were deep, while others were closer to the ground surface. An opening to what would eventually be called the Victoria Fossil Cave was literally just a hole in the ground – which was, ultimately, a deadly trap for any animal passing over it.
Over tens of thousands of years, animals would fall through and perish in the cave, leaving their skeletons behind. This eventually created a fossil deposit layer that is, in some spots, 20 metres thick. It’s hard to imagine that so many ancient animals met their end here, so it’s a good idea to visit the Wonambi Fossil Centre to get an understanding of how this all happened.
You’ll need to visit the Wonambi Fossil Centre to buy any cave tour tickets, and you can get discounts if you want to visit multiple caves/sites. We bought a combination ticket for the fossil centre, Victoria Fossil Cave and Wet Cave (the latter has since been renamed to its original title, the Stick-Tomato Cave). Since there are fixed times for cave tours, we had some time to see the fossil centre first, which features a diorama of the ancient Australian megafauna (defined as species with a body mass of over 45kg) found in the cave, as well as visuals of how animals would fall – and be subsequently preserved – in the cave pit.
After doing some size comparisons and feeling like we wouldn’t fare very well at all in prehistoric Australia, we left the centre to find the Victoria Fossil Cave. All visits to this cave are guided, and we were met by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide at the cave’s entrance. The temperature inside the cave remains at a pleasant 17 degrees Celsius all year round, which, for us, made it a very welcome retreat from the hot weather outside.
The first part of the tour took us through numerous cave tunnels and chambers, some of which were filled with impressive displays of stalactites, stalagmites and columns. There are a few steps to navigate here but the path is pretty flat and well established, so it’s an easy walk.
Along the way, we heard the long history of the cave. For over 200,000 years, the cave acted as the aforementioned pitfall trap until it become completely full, thereby closing up the trap and remaining undisturbed until about 30 years ago. It was then that paleontologist Rod Wells and cave explorer Grant Gartrell broke through into what was a previously unknown subterranean passageway. Our guide brought the next moments of that incredible discovery to life, where the duo’s first find turned out to be the skull of the long-extinct marsupial lion.
What followed was an extensive dig, where many different types of extinct animals were found, including our wombat and lion friends mentioned earlier, as well as species like the short-faced kangaroo, smaller wallabies, birds and reptiles. Later species were also found, including the wide-jawed, now-extinct Thylacine and even the Tasmanian Devil.
The giant species classified within Australia’s megafauna are thought to have gone extinct about 50,000 years ago. Most scientists believe that their extinction was caused by either the arrival of man or climate change, or a combination of both. Whatever ultimately caused their downfall, it became impossible to deny these animals’ existence when we got the chance to handle their ancient skulls and bones.
Part of the fossil bed is visible but it’s estimated that only the tiniest portion of the whole fossil deposit has been excavated to date, so there’s no doubt that there are plenty of other finds that could be made in the years to come. To our eyes, the exposed fossil bed looked like a mass network of bones, where skeletons upon skeletons upon skeletons lay upon each other. At that moment, I remember feeling awestruck at the idea that so many years of biological history could be located in this single space.
Having heard more about the individual species found here (including the fact that the marsupial lion had a bite that’s comparable to a 250kg version of our contemporary lion), it was time to head back outdoors and say goodbye to our guide.
Luckily for us, we had one more cave adventure awaiting us before we continued our road trip. The Wet Cave (now called Stick-Tomato Cave) is a self-guided visit, meaning that you can explore at your own pace. Some ominous-looking stairs lead down into a chamber, but, despite first appearances, this large cave has plenty of natural light.
The first thing we noticed was how large this cave is. The chambers, with the initial few largely exposed to the elements, are all massive, with high walls, huge formations and hole-ridden ceilings. Since there’s plenty of light here, there’s an abundance of moss and vegetation too, resulting in a much more colourful cave visit.
The cave does gradually become more protected, with corridors leading into darker and more properly subterranean spaces. There was one dramatic reveal where the narrow path we were on suddenly widened into a hall-like great chamber. While the Stick-Tomato Cave may not have its own fossil bed, this large cave also holds a few surprises. If you have the time to visit, I’d highly recommend it!
There are few places in the world that can simultaneously connect my passions for both history and biology, but Naracoorte Caves National Park managed to do just that! This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our time in South Australia and I’d love to return to go on the other available cave tours, which include opportunities to see bats and to visit some colossal cave formations.
– Tips for visiting Naracoorte Caves National Park –
- If you’re planning on visiting Naracoorte Caves National Park as part of a road trip, I’d really recommend staying at one of the park’s accommodation options. As mentioned, we stayed at the campground, which has powered and unpowered sites for vehicles, as well as bathroom and kitchen facilities. It turned out to be one of my favourite campsites, as we got to see plenty of wildlife here, especially in the morning and evening.
- Be sure to check out the timetable for cave tours. You can book tickets on site at the Wonambi Fossil Centre, but you can now buy tour tickets online too. Note that entry into the national park is free, but you’ll need to pay for any tours or site visits; you can get concessions/discounts for booking multiple activities.
- At the time of writing, the cave tours are not accessible for wheelchairs or prams.
- As with any cave tour, refrain from touching any cave formations, as the natural oils on our skin can do serious damage to these.
- If you’re feeling hungry (or need to pick up something for the road), there is a cafe on site.
- While the temperature within the caves is pretty steady, it’s worthwhile to bring an extra layer of clothing just in case.
Have you visited the Naracoorte Caves? Or which caves have impressed you the most on your travels? Let me know in the comments below.
* Pin it for later: *
Looking for other adventures in South Australia? Check out: