IF YOU’VE ever been caving, even one of those walk-in-walk-out tours where you don’t have to get your feet too dirty, you’ll know the experience does something to the soul.
“I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’.”
Perhaps it’s primal, a DNA memory from millennia ago when our ancestors found shelter underground? Perhaps it’s all those fairy tales reminding us that once upon a time there might have been something more in the dark than our elders were letting on?
It’s a frisson that people across the globe subject ourselves to daily, as tourism cave operators everywhere will tell you.
I had the chance to work at a cave system, one of the world’s largest, when I was a cave guide at NSW’s Jenolan Caves. Taking people into the dark recesses of the mountain was always a thrill, and I was lucky enough to be guided on a very special tour recently that was a real highlight.
Jenolan’s Arch Cave has been closed to the public since the 1930s, but late in 2017 I was granted access during a scientific inspection in order to find one name written on the cave wall in the 19th century.
Finding J. Falls
As a guide, the most intriguing stories I came across in my time at Jenolan are those that tell the tales of the people who went into the dark long ago.
The first people of the area, the Gundungurra and Dharug, had long traversed the passageways and underground rivers, and their Dreamtime mythology included several of the cave systems in the NSW Central West.
By the middle of the 1800s, local settlers were regularly visiting the caves under the guidance of the local Whalan family, whose property at Oberon was one of the closest ‘gateways’ to the valley. They started the tradition of leaving names to record visitation, and, on occasion, the discovery of caves.
Most of what Jenolan guides related at the time I worked there came from the surviving oral traditions handed down by generations of guides before them, and one of the strongest stories concerned the discovery of a major section of the cave system by a local woman, Katie Webb.
I explored as much of her story as I could find, but there was another name that interested me, that of Jane Falls, whose legend at Jenolan include the possibility that she was one of the explorers to discover the system’s largest publicly open cave, the world-famous Lucas Cave, in around 1860.
The name Jane Falls polarises Jenolan guides. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s been bit of a male-dominated place in its time. Women have only been officially guiding tours since the 1980s, and between Katie Webb’s exploration in the 1880s and the next discovery of a cave by a woman there is a gap of more than a century.
The very idea that a woman might have discovered the Lucas Cave is confronting for some, which is one reason I suspect the issue of where Jane Falls’s signatures are remains a bit of a muddle.
‘J. Falls’ is credited as being one of the first European visitors to enter the Lucas Cave in newspaper reports from January 1860, but if that was Jane, she presents a conundrum for researchers. As was common practice, many of the signatures on Jenolan’s walls are initials only, so any appearance of ‘J. Falls’ could be one of three people: Jane Falls, her mother (also Jane), or Jane’s brother James, all Irish emigrants in the 1850s.
Nevertheless, a former colleague came across one trace of the Falls family in the Arch Cave, and so we went to see it for ourselves.
What became quickly apparent in the Arch Cave is that it’s a signature-rich chamber. Situated high in the Jenolan limestone, it was one of the earliest caves entered by European settlers, since it was easily accessed from the surface.
Like all caves, the major formations were named. By the time we were standing at the Assyrian Lion, identified as such for its similarity to those in the British Museum, we were looking at signatures scrawled in every direction, on walls, on crystal, and on the ceiling.
People left their mark using graphite pencil, or charcoal, or even the smoke from their candle, and in some places the names have quickly deteriorated.
I was struck by the possibility that we’d never find Jane’s name in this mass of graffiti!
A couple of side chambers required us to squeeze through into a narrower space where 19th century explorers had gone before, and I immediately saw the name ‘Edwin Whalan’ written boldly on a promontory of rock.
It made me chuckle. The Whalans earned their place in Jenolan lore, no doubt, but compared to some tiny signatures, the size and passion of this lustily scrawled Whalan moniker smacked of ownership.
A sweep of the torch above revealed other familiar names, but once again there were just so many. The Arch is a small cave but even so it would take hours and hours to search them all.
Some visitors had inscribed more than just names, also. Short poems, or expressions of how they felt, were touching reminders of the mysteries of the underworld, begging that question again, about why we come to gather in the dark and remember those who were here before us?
I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’. I stepped up for a closer look, and a shadowy word came into sharper focus. Most definitely ‘Falls’… my heart thumped. Most definitely a ‘J’ and an ‘A’. This was it! But standing there in wonder I had to admit immediately, this could be ‘Jane’ or ‘James’ Falls.
I grumbled at myself, and at poor handwriting, and the passage of time, then got a bit hopeful at the possibility of another name starting with ‘J’ and ‘A’ slightly above. Could this be Jane and James Falls, siblings on an expedition?
We took plenty of pictures and mused over the curlicues of the Falls signature. Nobody wanted to dash my hopes, but as our tour concluded and we journeyed out, I had to admit that it was not a conclusive sighting of Jane, not yet.
My search for her goes on, and will feature in plenty of writing to come, but to have stood in the dark where the Falls name was written, I feel closer than ever.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.