Buchan Caves Reserve is a place of tranquil beauty – both above and below ground.
WORDS ALI MILLAR
As you descend into the belly of the cave, the darkness gathers – the cool stone surrounds of the black tunnel reminiscent of an underground bunker. The steps spiral down and the cave opens up into one of the many chambers hidden beneath the hillside. It’s here that you catch the first glimpse of the beautiful decorations that captured people’s imaginations over 100 years ago, and drew visitors from far and wide to make, what was then, a very arduous journey to see these wonders of the underground.
If you’ve heard of the tiny town of Buchan, 360km east of Melbourne in Victoria’s Gippsland region, it’s most likely because of these caves, which extend for 3km through the hillside of the Buchan Caves Reserve, forming part of the Buchan-Murrindal cave system.
But Buchan is more than just its caves. Even after living in Victoria for a number of years, I’m still amazed at the beauty of this small state and the diversity it has to offer anyone willing to explore it. The Gippsland region is no exception and Buchan does not disappoint: green countryside, rolling hills, smatterings of cows grazing in the distance, a quaint streetscape, a grassy-green reserve and spectacular caves to explore… What more could you want for a relaxing getaway?
The Buchan Caves were first set up for tourism in 1907 after intrepid local Frank Moon was asked to explore the cave system. What he found were expansive caverns and an array of stunning decorations. Today, you enter the Fairy Cave – the smaller of the two show caves in the reserve – in the same place Frank Moon originally blasted a hole in the hillside. Although, he didn’t have the luxury of the stairs that now lead us down into the depths!
The limestone here dates back to Devonian time. About 300-400 million years ago, this was the ocean and the rich limestone rock formed from the compressed shellfish, coral and algae that once lived here. Over time, the land lifted and buckled forming the mountains and valleys. Cracks in the rock allowed rainwater to seep through, slowly dissolving the limestone and forming underground rivers that, over many years, washed away the loose soil to create the caverns we walk through today.
Water continues to seep through the rocks and over thousands of years the drips that form have created the many stalactites and stalagmites, and the amazing calcite shawls and blankets that so closely resemble bacon rashers. The decorations glitter like fairy dust, it’s actually the calcite reflecting the light but it is, of course, how the Fairy Cave got its name.
The Buchan Caves Reserve is on the outskirts of the town and daily tours operate through the Fairy Cave and the Royal Cave. The tours take anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour, so you can easily see both caves in a day and they both have different features worth checking out. The mesmerising calcite-rimmed pools of the Royal Cave are a highlight, filled with crystal-clear water that perfectly reflects the delicate formations.
The caves are a very comfortable 17°C, year-round, with humidity reaching up to 90 per cent. The paths are well defined and flat, and there are handrails in most places but there are lots of steps and a few tight places to squeeze through. You also need to stoop down to get underneath the low ceilings in some areas – the Fairy Cave even has an aptly named Limbo Rock. Something to keep in mind!
The 260ha reserve is jointly managed by Parks Victoria and the Gunaikurnai people, the traditional owners of the land, with ongoing work into developing this partnership. Aboriginal people have a long history in this area, with archaeological findings showing people have lived in the region for at least 23,000 years.
Parks Victoria chief ranger commercial operations for East Gippsland Jody O’Kane told us the reserve has around 120,000-130,000 visitors each year, about half coming to tour the caves and, on average, a few hundred people pass through the caves on a weekend. But although it gets busy, he said it usually doesn’t feel too crowded. And while our cave tours were at capacity, the reserve was very quiet during our visit in late spring.
You enter the leafy green wonderland of the well-maintained reserve through a wooden and stonework arch. There’s an array of exotic plant species, planted as part of the landscape design prepared by renowned landscape architect Hugh Linaker in 1929. The valley, which contains a campground, picnic areas and the visitor centre, features colourful deciduous species which blend with the native Australian plants, creating a peaceful setting reminiscent of its 1930’s origins.
The reserve is small enough that you can walk from the campground and visitor centre to the cave entrances and the starting points for the numerous bushwalks, should you feel like a leisurely stroll. However, there are sealed roads throughout the reserve and carparks near both cave entrances.
Once you’re done exploring the underground, there are several short walks to choose from, some of which offer good vantage points over the reserve. We chose to amble along the Kanooka Track toward Spring Creek Falls (3km return), stopping to rest on the mossy rocks by the creek. There were plenty of ‘roos and a few little lizards about but, if you’re lucky, you might come across a lyrebird here. The 4km return walk to the Granite Pools is also worth checking out for the view it affords over the Buchan Valley.
The tiny town of Buchan has a roadhouse, a general store with very basic supplies (it’s worth stocking up before you arrive) and a cafe that does tasty wraps and quiches, and also offers breakfast, but was only open Friday through to Monday when we visited.
The local pub burnt down in 2014, leaving a gaping hole in the town’s main street and in the lives of locals who lost an important community hub. Impressively, the town has rallied together and raised $600,000 to rebuild using a crowdfunding campaign, and everyone we spoke to was looking forward to its reopening later this year. Visitors will also benefit from having the pub back in action as there is currently nowhere in town to go for an evening meal or drink.
Buchan is located near the beachside holiday towns of Metung and Lakes Entrance as well as Bruthen and the start of the Great Alpine Road, making it a great base for exploring the diversities of the Gippsland region, including the Snowy River National Park.
The mighty Snowy River joins the Buchan River nearby at a spot called Balley Hooley, which is a pleasant half-hour drive from town through the rolling green countryside. There is a free campground here but this winding and sometimes steep unsealed road isn’t suitable for caravans, so it’s best to leave the van back at the reserve. There are a couple of picnic tables not far from the river bank and it’s a pleasant spot to stop for lunch.
The town of Buchan is 360km east of Melbourne in Victoria’s Gippsland region. The Buchan Caves Reserve is just on the edge of town – turn left on to Caves Road before you cross the Buchan River.
Guided tours of the Fairy Cave and Royal Cave run daily throughout the year. Tours cost $21.50 for adults and $12.60 for children for one cave or $32.20 for adults and $18.60 for children for both caves. Family and concession prices are also available. The Fairy Cave’s Blackwood Chamber is accessible to people with mobility disabilities and tours can be organised if you contact Parks Victoria in advance.
Parks Victoria has a visitor centre with a small shop and kiosk on site where you can book cave tours and camp sites: 13 19 63.
For more accommodation options in and around Buchan, click here.
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