Illumination comes suddenly for Sean Mooney on a guided tour of the labyrinth Jenolan Caves in the state's central west.
You haven't experienced absolute darkness until you've been underground — when the lights go out. It's as black as coal at midnight and a relief when the lights come back on. Yet there's something else that makes you praise electricity: the sight of one of the world's most beautiful and ancient caves lit up like a jewellery store. The sheer shock value of going from nothing to wall-to-wall crystal with just the flick of a switch is hard to beat.
One suspects turning off the lights is a favourite party trick of the guides at Jenolan Caves. Not only does the transition from black to bling emphasise the beauty of the caves, it allows visitors to gain a healthy respect for earlier explorers of this extensive underground labyrinth. Nineteenth-century settlers of the NSW central tablelands clambered through these caverns by the uncertain light of hand-held candles. They surely knew that losing a flame meant losing their way and almost certainly their lives.
Cave visitors now follow experienced guides through well-lit passages and chambers. As our group moves through areas adorned with glistening stalactites, chunky columns and delicate cave pearls, I can't get a line from an obscure '90s song out of my head: "I'm so far underground, I'm a one-person scene." That's a Generation X sentiment if ever there was one. Many Sydneysiders in their 30s and 40s have fond childhood memories of driving across the Blue Mountains in the family car to wander through the caves, perhaps even staying at Jenolan's Victorian-era hotel. Now we want to take our children to a cave system that we can confidently tell them is - at 340 million years of age - older than their parents.
Certainly there is plenty for young visitors to see and do; on top of a long list of cavern and bush tours in and around 11 show caves, there are several child-only offerings available during the school holidays and year-round for groups and birthday parties. These include Stones & Bones, Bats, Bugs & Beasties and Junior Explorers programs, which engage seven- to 12-year-olds with treasure hunts, fossilised megafauna and cool helmets fitted with lights. With a palaeontologist on staff and passionate guides such as Sasa Kennedy and her sons leading the tours, youngsters get a great insight into the geological marvels that surround them.
Adults other than guides and the carers of children with disabilities are not usually allowed on these tours, but I blag my way in for "research purposes" and become fixated on a map that leads to irresistibly named locations such as Forbidden Junction and Disappearing River.
There are plughole adventures for older children and adults, not to mention self-guided tours in many languages, including, bizarrely, Klingon — as spoken on Star Trek and at conventions held by groups of (mostly) pale-looking men wearing novelty T-shirts.
Music and theatre performances held underground are also popular with visitors, and I'm told smartphone apps with indigenous and geological themes are in the pipeline. All of which is indicative of the importance of Jenolan's triumvirate of ancient natural wonders, old-world atmosphere and clever technology. It's what makes the place so unique.
Take Caves House, the heritage-listed hotel that feels as though it might belong in a European alpine foothill. It gives Jenolan an Edwardian holiday-spa vibe, but does so in a manner one might expect from an ageing public servant: in the same job for decades, looking a bit dishevelled but still getting things done. I guess this is fitting for a facility owned by the NSW government and which claims to be Australia's longest continually operating tourist attraction.
But then there are the two gold awards Jenolan Caves won in this year's Australian Tourism Awards, one of them for being the best attraction in the country. You don't win a prize like that for flogging faded glories.
A lot of thought has gone into modernising the area's caving experiences in an unobtrusive manner; thankfully, it's all about the creative use of light and sound rather than installing escalators or piping in Muzak.
While the weird and wonderful formations found in such impressive caverns as the Persian Chamber and Temple of Baal are the undoubted stars of the show, the public areas of Caves House aren't far behind. All dark wood and comfy couches, several rooms have open fires, including Jeremiah's Bar and Chisolm's Restaurant. The 200-seat grand dining room is one of the last left in Australia that dates to the 1890s. As well as the bar snacks and Devonshire teas you'd expect in a place filled with day trippers, there's also fine dining to rival many top city eateries.
We sample the new winter menu created in the hotel's recently renovated $1.2 million kitchen. We feast on carpaccio of beef fillet, local slow-cooked lamb shoulder and paella filled with chickpeas, haloumi and cashew nuts, washed down with a local red (sadly, not one of the really top drops stored in the Imperial Cave, which does double duty as the hotel's fine-wine cellar). We finish with a delicious white-chocolate cheesecake rolled in honeycomb and hot pistachio and cranberry pudding dripping with orange syrup. We dine at a table by the fire, the whole experience a highlight of our visit.
A seven-course truffle dinner used to be held each winter in the grand dining room. This year the event is not being held but as the black Perigord grows just a short drive away at Lowes Mount Truffiere, near Oberon, caves visitors can book weekend truffle hunts and tastings with property owners Col and Sue Roberts and their five-year-old truffle dog, Morris. Children are made to feel welcome and enjoy watching Morris sniffing out tasty tubers. Everyone gets a taste of Sue's truffled yellowbox honey with hazelnuts and her truffle ice-cream.
While our children also tuck into regular ice-cream at Chisolm's Restaurant, talk at our table turns to the restaurant's namesake, a certain Miss Chisolm, whose ghost is said to haunt Caves House's halls. Apparently she likes to move chairs, throw cutlery and slam doors in the dining room. Then there's the unsettled spirit of Lucinda Wilson, the wife of Jenolan's first caretaker, Jeremiah. She's said to like floating around in 1880s period dress when the mood strikes.
The kids' ears prick up when tales are told about invisible groups, strange figures and floating lights seen in the caves. Their spoons and jaws drop during a story told about a night spent by a staff member in the apparently seriously haunted room 123. It's said the staffer was unable to move, the sheets having been drawn tightly over her head as though the bed had been made - with her still in it.
Parents beware, these tales can thrill some young visitors, but could terrify others.
Ghosts and public servants aside, this underground world has always fascinated families with its natural attractions and unique atmosphere. The fact it still appeals to adults and children after so many years is reason enough to pack the car and head to Jenolan again.
Sean Mooney travelled courtesy of Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Oberon Tourism.
Jenolan Caves are near the town of Oberon, on the western edge of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, about three hours' drive west of central Sydney.
Accommodation ranges from a GateHouse room (from $26-$32 a person a night, sleeps six) to rooms in Caves House with shared facilities ($99-$155 a room a night) and with private facilities ($154-$210 a room a night). The grounds include cottages that sleep up to 12 people, including the two-level Binoomea Cottage, each floor of which has three bedrooms (with one king and two single beds), a lounge area, kitchen and bathroom. Each level costs $300-$355 a night.