During my recent visit to the Limestone Coast I spent some time in the Naracoorte Caves National Park. Here are all the details so you can plan your own visit.
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TL;DR? Here's the outline
- Why Visit the Naracoorte Caves National Park
- Visiting Naracoorte Caves National Park
- Where is Naracoorte Caves National Park?
- Where to Stay when visiting the Naracoorte Caves National Park
Why Visit the Naracoorte Caves National Park
The Naracoorte Cave National Park is home to South Australia’s only World Heritage listed site. Along with Riversleigh in Queensland, the caves here make up the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites.
Naracoorte is special because there are huge amounts of megafauna fossils found here. Megafauna were those larger-than-today mammals that roamed the Australian landscape until around 40 000 years ago.
The fossils in the area go back for around 500 000 years, so it is the most complete record of Australian fauna in more recent times.
Megafauna are not dinosaurs (they became extinct about 65 million years ago), ad they are not necessarily the ancestors of our animals today, but rather completely different species that lived at the same time as the common animals today.
They also lived side by side with the Aboriginals who came to Australia around 60 000 years ago. Some of the common megafauna from Naracoorte include the Marsupial Lion, the Tasmanian Tiger and the large, Sthenurine Kangaroo.
The first cave at the Naracoorte Caves National Park was the Blanche Cave discovered in 1845. Soon after the area became popular with visitors keen to see the impressive stalactites and stalagmites that adorn the caves.
Since then a total of 28 caves have been found, but only four of them are currently open to the public. The others are being used for scientific research or are being preserved in their natural state.
FUN FACT - one of the fossil discoveries at Riversleigh has been called the "Drop Croc", a huge 400kg crocodile-like creature that lived in trees. This is not the origin of the popular drop bear myth that Australians love to share with foreigners though. That may have come from the Marsupial Lion that climbed trees and was certainly big enough to jump down onto early Aboriginal people and be a threat to their lives.
Visiting Naracoorte Caves National Park
The highlight of Naracoorte Caves National Park is of course the caves. There are a few different options to enable you to visit the caves, we took advantage of three of them.
Stick-Tomato Cave is located a short walk from the Visitors Centre and is the easiest to visit. There are no guided tours, just pay the entry free and explore.
Stick-Tomato Cave was previously called Wet Cave, unsurprisingly because it was wet. Over the years the water table has lowered and the cave is no longer as wet as it once was, so it was decided that the name needed to be changed.
It end up being called Stick-Tomato Cave after its two entrances, the Stick entrance and Bush Tomato entrance.
Only two large chambers of the cave are open during the self guided tours. In that section are impressive high ceilings with columns, stalactites and stalagmites.
The Adventure Caving tours cross the barriers and explore more of the cave, going through a small crawl-space to reach another large chamber.
(Unfortunately during my visit the Adventure Caving was not available due to Covid, but hopefully it will be back up and running again soon)
I recommend starting with this cave as in my opinion it is the least spectacular of the ones we saw. It will give you a good starting point to seeing the other caves though.
Victoria Fossil Cave
Located about a kilometre up the road from the visitor centre, the Victoria Fossil Cave is where a good proportion of the megafauna fossils have been found. This cave seems to have been an open cave, forming a pit that “collected” animal remains for around 200 000 years.
Discovered in 1969 by two scientists who squeezed through a narrow gap and came into a chamber filled with bones.
Knowing what they did about the other caves that had been found in the area, they immediately recognised the importance of their find.
Since then, tens of thousands of bones have been removed from Victoria Fossil Cave to be studies and catalogued.
While there are still some beautiful rock formations, a visit to this cave will focus on the fossils. Once in the main chamber, visitors will see an open paleontological dig, containing bones exactly as they have been found.
There are also some replica skeletons similar to those found in the caves, of a marsupial lion and a leaf-eating kangaroo.
There are still dozens of scientific digs happening all over the Naracoorte Caves and Victoria Fossil Cave is likely to be the site of future work for years to come.
Alexandra Cave was discovered in 1908 and named for Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, the reigning king of England. A year later it was opened for tourism, and has been receiving visitors ever since.
Thankfully access has improved over the last 100+ years and it’s much easier to get into the cave and to get around.
This means it’s the best cave for families with younger children and those with less mobility (although there are still some stairs along the way).
Alexandra Cave is billed as the “Royal Cave” and it certainly is the most adorned and sparkly of the caves I saw. There are some truely spectacular stalactites and stalagmites within the cave.
I can’t decide if my favourite was the ones reflected in the pool below or the group of thin straw-like stalactites right near then end.
The tour of Alexandra Cave is a short one at thirty minutes, but there is plenty to see. Even our small group had to be rushed along at the end because we had taken longer than the timeframe allowed (the guide was very good about it though).
Alexandra Cave was my favourite and the one I would recommend if you only have time to go inside a single cave.
Wonambi Fossil Centre
Part of the Naracoorte Caves visitor centre, the Wonambi Fossil Centre is a huge diorama showing a recreation of the area 200 000 years ago.
There are models of all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds, some of which are animated with both movement and sound.
Wonambi is a local Aboriginal word for the rainbow serpent from the Dreamtime. The word was used to name a huge species of snake that came only from this region, Wonambi Naracoortensis.
These guys were up to six metres long, and the skeleton in the foyer of the building shows exactly how big they were.
Naracoorte Caves National Park Walks
Once you have finished your tour – or perhaps before while you wait – take a walk along one of the three walking trails in the area.
We did the short Roof Top Loop Walk, a short 850m walk over the tops of some of the caves. The signs told us to all 45 minutes for the walk, but was were back in around 25 minutes.
As we walked along the path we noticed the changing colour of the path. This is how to tell if the path is over the top of one of the caves.
If the path is a grey then there is a cave below, if it is pale then there isn’t. The signs will tell you which cave is below.
The trail passes by the entrances and openings of a few caves, with viewing platforms to allow visitors a glimpse into the caves. Some of them have multiple openings, such as the Bat Cave, named for its inhabitants.
The path also goes past the Bat Observation Centre and is flanked throughout by various megafauna sculptures hiding in the scrub.
The Heritage Hike and the Stony point Hike are longer (between 2 and 3km each) so will need a little more time to complete. They are both rated as moderate hikes and care should be taken when setting out.
Naracoorte Caves National Park has a cafe on site for coffee and light meals. It’s a great place to relax for a few minutes after visiting the caves.
There is also a fantastic adventure playground called the Fossil Hunters Playground that kids will love. Let them loose here to wear off some more of that energy before jumping back in the car.
If you have brought your own food, there is plenty of space for a picnic. There are a few tables and shelters scattered around.
Keep an eye out too for some of the local kangaroos as you dine – we saw quite a few of them taking advantage of the nice green grass of the area.
Free SA Tourism wifi is available outside of the Wonambi Fossil Centre. I found phone coverage to be patchy in the surrounding areas, so it might be a good idea to take advantage of the wifi.
Where is Naracoorte Caves National Park?
Located just under 350km south of Adelaide, the Naracoorte Caves National Park is just outside of the town of Naracoorte and not too far from the South Australia/Victoria border.
This means not only is it a great attraction to visit while holidaying on the Limestone Coast, it can also be a stop to break up the long drive from Adelaide to Melbourne. It can also be an add-on to the Great Ocean Road drive.
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Where to Stay when visiting the Naracoorte Caves National Park
Right next door to the Naracoorte Caves is the Wirreanda Bunkhouse.
This is mostly used as accommodation for school groups or research groups, but if there is availability, during school holidays and weekends then the dorm rooms can be rented by families to stay in.
There is also parking space for your self-contained RV or camper, and powered and unpowered sites for others in tents, caravans and motorhomes. All accommodation can be booked through the website here or in the visitor centre.
We also ate lunch here as we passed through Naracoorte a week earlier and had a delicious meal (I was even able to get a vegan option). For cottage-style accommodation up to four people consider Carolynne’s Cottages, and another well-rated motel is The Avenue Inn.
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