Stalactites and Straws in Newdegate Cave

Newdegate Cave: A Claustrophobe’s Journey

Where we went: Newdegate Cave – Hastings Caves

When we went: late winter 2020

Price of tickets: $24 each

Cave rules: No tripods, no selfie sticks, no photography of insects or animals found in the caves. Thermal springs are closed due to covid-19 restrictions

When I first suggested that we give the Hastings Caves tours a whirl Sommelier was sceptical (to put it politely) largely due to the fact that I have panic attacks when trapped in clothing and do not enjoy elevator rides on account of it being a tiny box flying through the innards of a building held on by a string and a dicey hydraulic system. I was able to appeal to the gem and mineral enthusiast in both of us by pointing out the rare and precious opportunity to see helictites.

“what are helictites?” Sommelier asked, and I replied;

“it’s a speleothem!!” which is the point at which Sommelier cottoned on to the fact that I was surreptitiously googling under the table.

Burdened with the burning desire to learn what the heck a helictite is (and, by extension, a speleothem) we signed up for a bit of light immersion therapy. Sommelier would like the record to show that this was my idea and he advised against sending a claustrophobe into a hole with giant spikes of rock hanging from the ceiling. No claustrophobes were harmed in the making of this article; even thought the ceiling was rock spikes.

stalactites, artificially lit by an extensive light system, hang from the top of Newdegate Cave. Some have formed into ribbons thanks to a draft in the cave.
The “rock spikes” in question. Apparently it is very safe.

Hastings Caves State Reserve (Hastings Caves) is nestled deep in the forest some 90 minutes south of Hobart. There are a series of caves one might explore if one were attached to a caving society and had experience and interest in such things. If, like us, you are an amateur spelunker then Newdegate Cave is the thing for you. It is Australia’s largest tourist accessible dolomite cave and there are frequent guided tours departing throughout the day. Due to the current covid-19 restrictions tour parties are limited to 8 people at a time, so it is recommended that you book at least a day in advance. Sommelier and I booked on Thursday for a Sunday outing and had no issue getting a tour time that suited us.

Knowing that the road to Hastings is pretty squiggly-wiggly and not really the sort of road that our very old car particularly appreciates, we left ourselves a little over 2 hours to complete our journey from Hobart, through Huonville and out to Hastings. We had plans to stop by a few honesty boxes and road-side stalls on our way as well. Calories don’t count if they come in the form of a locally sourced baked-good you see, and we are on a wedding diet, so we have to be sensible with our eating.

We almost missed the turn off to Whispering Spirit Farm (by which I mean we fully missed it and had to turn around), which, we now know, is one of the best honesty boxes in Tasmania. Whispering Spirit used to come to Farmgate Market on Sundays, and we have missed them, but their delicious, old-style European baking can still be foraged direct from the unmanned stall about 2.5km up a dirt road between Huonville and Franklin (named ‘Swamp Rd’). There is a sign, follow it, it is worth it. Like very hungry kids in a candy-shop we went nuts in the tiny little shopping quarters. We bought frozen cherries, frozen myrtus berries, frozen tayberries, youngberry jam, spätzle, a loaf of bread, the world’s best blueberry cheesecake (not its official title, just the one I awarded it based on my extensive research), and homemade morello cherry and dark chocolate ice cream. Now fully stocked on a myriad of tasty treats we continued on to the Hastings Caves visitor centre, eating our ice creams as we went.

Sapphire from Sapphire and Sommelier is stands near the doorway of the Whispering Spirit Farm roadside stall. She is wearing a yellow jacket and the stall is very small compared to her 6ft frame.
Sapphire squeezes in to the Whispering Spirit Farm stall

There was ample parking at the visitor centre and there is a great gift shop with lots of locally made jewellery, there is also a café in case you are feeling peckish and have left yourself enough time to stop and have a light meal. We had filled up on cheesecake and ice cream (super relieved that calories don’t count when they’re from local sources). We renewed our parks pass (although it should be noted that a parks pass is NOT necessary to visit Hastings Caves; we just needed to renew ours), picked up our cave tickets and drove the last 5 kilometers into the forest to find the cave entrance.

A sign, nestled between mossy ferns, reading "Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area
Hastings Cave State Reserve
Newdegate Cave"
The sign at the start of the track

As soon as we stepped out of the car at the Newdegate Cave carpark we were heralded by the multifaceted warble of a lyre bird, somewhere out in the forest, singing his heart out. Often, if it sounds as though every bird in the southern hemisphere is singing all at once, it is actually a solitary lyre bird. They have amazing mimicry skills and their females seem to be endless enraptured by this impersonation act. There are toilets at the carpark and the visitor centre and there is a very short, manicured forest walk up to the cave entrance. There are plaques situated throughout the forest with educational information about the history of timber logging in Hastings, and there are still some historical reminders of the once thriving industry dotted throughout what is now a world heritage area.

A tree stump, white with age and green with moss and ferns still bares the antique foot posts that were driven into it when the tree was felled.
A tree stump with foot posts driven into it. The remnants of the Hastings timber industry

We arrived at the entrance much sooner than expected (I think it only took us a very leisurely 3 minutes) where we walked up a small flight of stairs (all the better for viewing the forest) and were greeted by Paddy, our tour guide, who informed us that 5 of our party of 8 seemed unable to make it, so our very small group of Paddy, Sommelier, one other stranger, and myself made up the entire team of explorers for this particular session. This was of immediate relief to me, the world’s worst candidate for a spelunking voyage and a truly terrible crowd-occupant. A second tour guide stayed behind to let the other 5 in if they ended up making it (they did).

Paddy was at pains to inform us that if we do get overwhelmed in the cave we must let him know so he can guide us out again. He also was at pains to inform us that touching the cave at any time is very much against the rules. Which was reassuring, because if I’m not allowed to touch the cave, then the cave probably isn’t allowed to touch me. I especially do not like to be touched by caves. It makes the walls feel like they’re inching closer.  

The ribbons curls that form in the stalactites can take hundreds of years to form

On entry we were gathered in a small, dark chamber. The glittering columns, stalactites and stalagmites were fleetingly illuminated in the pale blue orb of Paddy’s flashlight. The sound of dripping water echoed from the deeper recesses of the cave system, and I busied myself with the distraction of photography (I find it a helpful coping mechanism to focus on the little screen of the camera. It makes me feel as though I just watching a slideshow on a really old phone rather than being trapped in a cave with crystal formations on the ceiling that resemble the devil’s gapping maw) while Paddy explained that the cave was discovered by accident by loggers when a tree fell across the entrance. Lacking proper caving equipment, they returned later with better gear to fully explore.

The first chamber of Newdegate Cave. The staircase that leads further inside is seen in the left of the picture and the largest column in the cave can be seen at the bottom of this winding staircase.
The first chamber of Newdegate Cave

It was at this moment that Paddy turned on the complex light system to reveal the full extent of the cave. In the soft golden glow of very painstakingly installed lights the full height and breadth of Newdegate was revealed. The natural ceiling is spacious, there is a mild draft in the cave, evidenced by a few unruly stalactites which point sideways. All in all it was immediately apparent that this is probably as claustrophobe friendly a cave as anyone in the world could ask for. I breathed a sign of relief.

Flash photography is permitted in the cave (provided there are no insects in the shot), but we generally found no need for it as we were taken through the various, unique, ancient chambers of the world below Hastings at least 40 million years in the making.

We navigated the stairs and a few low hanging sections with Paddy’s help. Each chamber has its own characteristics; the largest chamber ‘The Stage’ has particularly notable acoustics and has been used for concerts and weddings in the past, ‘The Atruim’ is also an open-enough-to-be-bareable canopied by gloriously rippled ribbons of rock that look like poured caramel; but the chamber known as ‘Titania’s Palace’ is the tableau that saw Newdegate named one of the most beautiful cave systems in Australia. The columns meet the natural floor that glistens like polished ice and the stalactites look like chandeliers just waiting to be lit so the ball dance can begin.

the chamber of Newdegate Cave known as Titania's Palace. It features hundreds of very thin stalactites, but an unusually stalagmite free floor which resembles a chandelier filled ballroom.
Titania’s Palace

The helictites were revealed not long after Titania’s Palace. Imagine, if you will, that stalactites could drink caffeine, and that their crystal formation could be influenced by their caffeine intake. Helictites are over-caffeinated stalactites who tried to pull an all-nighter and then had to go to work and be a functioning and cheerful stalactites (and a speleothem is a cave-formed mineral).

a dimly lit and digitally zoomed image shows the formation of helectities formed along the shaft of stalactites.
A very shaky image doing its best to depict the speleothems we came for

 Our 45 minutes passed in a blur of crystals piled and dripped into ribbons and pillars run through with tannins, magnesium, and the rippling rings of colour that show the ebb and flow of glaciers and ancient forests millions of years ago. I was nearing the end of my enclosed space tolerance when we were released into the outside.  All stress was immediately alleviated when we were back in the lush greens and crisp wintery mentholated scent of the forest. The lyre bird (who did not consent to being photographed) now in the carpark, singing its song of many voices to any who would listen.

Sapphire, sprinting through the forest to put as much distance between her and the cave as possible as quickly as possible.

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