When Deb Hunter gave our group a list of caves to choose from for our first wild cave tour, Sassafras Cave with its glow worms had been my initial pick. But back then it was Honeycomb Cave that won out. All that changed though when I finally visited Sassafras and saw what an extraordinary cave it is.
Local cave expert Deb Hunter invited me to go with her and her client to Sassafras Cave. Located in South Mole Creek, the cave is accessible by invitation only (in my case) or permission with a caving club. The reason for this is that to get to the cave trailhead one has to drive across private grazing land and past a eucalypt plantation.
While heading to the cave carpark, Deb told us that the road we were following was actually the original Trans Kooparoona Niara Trail, which the local Pallittore Band of Tasmanian Aboriginals had used to connect villages in the area from Cressy in the east to Mole Creek in the west.
There was a minor delay while we stopped to wait for the farmer to come and chainsaw a tree that had fallen across the road during the freak storm we had had a week or so ago. As we finally arrived at the cave carpark, it was not hard to notice the three massive eucalyptus trees, or ‘three sisters’, standing sentinel at the trailhead. With their massive girth and split trunks large enough to accommodate several people, they could have easily been 600 years old or more.
The trees marked a site of cultural significance for the local Pallittore tribe, who had lived in the surrounding glacial valley. The valley had been shaped by a giant glacier that had sat on top of the Central Plateau and Great Western Tiers some 13,000 years ago. It was still possible to see the u-shaped depression it had left behind on the Tiers’ profile near Western Bluff.
As we started on the short walk in to the cave, we followed not only the Platypus and Sassafras Creeks but also another ancient route which had been the trail to the local Aboriginal village, located not too far from today’s Mole Creek. The walk took us past areas which were undergoing rehabilitation, with the replanting of trees and plants native to the area. Deb explained that it was her mission to motivate and bring together Aboriginal youth and make them a part of a multi-disicplinary team dedicated to restoring the local bush to its original glory.
As we followed the creek past several bends perfect for platypus to hide and play in, we also kept an eye out for any tiger or copperhead snakes sunning themselves at the water’s edge. We saw plenty of evidence of wombat and devil activity though. Deb described the changes that had occured to the woodland since the arrival of the British, as well as how bushfires had changed the volume of undergrowth and age of mature tree stands in the forest.
With the woodland slowly disappearing and outcrops of limestone rock making more of an appearance, we came to what could be called a small wooded grove that was alive with birdsong. It was here where the entrance to Sassafras Cave was located. It was going to be a wet walk into the cave through the creek but the water level was gratefully low. Upon entry we stopped to admire and count the number of cave spiders, as well as crickets, which in low light could easily be mistaken for one another. Crickets are always found at the entrance to caves as they need to go out into the open to feed. The health of a cave is often determined by the number of cave spiders, and in this cave there were plenty about, laying eggs and producing the next generation.
Once further inside the cave we followed the creek’s meandering path into large wide chambers that were packed with flow stone, huge populations of thick stalagmites and stalactites, reflection pools and the reason we had come to Sassafras - the glow worms. Above us were colourful walls of rock that had split allowing dripping water from the surface to form incredible displays of limestone that resembled crystalised explosions and hanging lights.
Deb pointed out the delicate sticky threads hanging from the cave ceiling that glow worms knitted in order to catch their prey. Glow worms themselves only have a lifespan of about 2-3 days, after which they change into flies or gnats and spend the rest of their days outside the cave. Upon closer inspection we could see the glow worms were covered in mucosal suits which gave them their green tinge.
Instructing us to switch off our headlamps and camera phone lights, we waited to see the glow worms switch on theirs. Deb was impressed with the conditions in the cave and so we waited for the impending light show. It took a while but the glow worms gradually lit up the cave ceiling, displaying their own million star night sky or milky way galaxy. We could see off in the distance another part of the cave that also had glow worms, whose lights were leaving a shiny reflection in the creek.
It was a mesmerising experience to stand in the chamber listening to the animated chatter of the creek and watching the glow worms reveal themselves and the contours of the cave walls. It would have been easy to have stayed there for hours but we had to move on up to a higher level of the cave.
Here we could see evidence of nocturnal wombat and native rat activity, who used only their sense of smell to find their way around in the absolute darkness. Their wanderings painted dark marks on the rocks, as they rubbed their bodies against the formations, and left their infamous square droppings as calling cards.
We picked up a broken piece of stalagmite and were amazed by how heavy it was. The inner rings of the stalagmite were similar to tree rings, providing anyone who wants to know an incredibly detailed inventory of the cave’s life. Several times we could see the signs of how climate change had left its impression on the cave. Evidence of hot dusty weather could be seen in the unique patterns left behind on certain cave features.
We moved through a richly decorated hallway that could have easily put a European palace to shame with its natural ornamentation. Sassafras Cave was no doubt one of the most decorated caves I had been in so far. After crawling through two short narrow passages, we eventually came to the end of the tour, and rejoined the outside world with a final crawl to the surface. Outside the Tiers bathed in spring sunshine welcomed us. As usual the tour was over far too quickly, but there’s always a next time.