Plus a wrap up of which caves to visit
By Neil McLeod
My father, Dudley McLeod, was a cave guide back in the mid 1950’s. He was actually a dairy farmer, but like many farmers he was battling to make ends meet, so he took on a part time job as a tour guide at Lake Cave and Mammoth Cave.
The caves were discovered around the turn of the century, and by the 1950s they were a huge drawcard. Yallingup Cave (now named Ngilgi Cave) became WA’s first tourism attraction when Edward Dawson opened it for tours in 1899.
Plenty has changed since the fifties, but it’s funny how life circles around, and nowadays I’m a tour guide, as is my son Lincoln. That makes three generations of Margaret River Tour Guides – incredible!
MARGARET RIVER HISTORY
Back in the 1950s there was a huge timber mill in the centre of town. Wool and timber were Western Australia’s biggest exports, and agriculture was the hub of Margaret River’s economy.
Farmers were doing it tough. My father had a farm his father had purchased in 1902, and to keep food on the table he started working at Lake Cave and Mammoth Cave. He had the gift with people, and took great pride in his new job.
He actually took it a few steps further, becoming president of the Augusta Margaret River Tourist Bureau. He was a driving force in having Lake, Jewel & Mammoth caves as well as Leeuwin Lighthouse vested with the Tourism Association. The local government handed over control of the caves and the Leeuwin lighthouse on the condition that the tourism association promoted the Margaret River name and the upkeep of these world class draw cards. Hence the region is so well known today.
It was only in the late 1950s and early 60s that surfers started to make their way south and explore the waves. I remember Midget Farrelly and Nat Young – both were highly accomplished surfers – camping in the hayshed on our farm.
In 1967 the first vineyard was planted – Vasse Felix – the very beginning of the Margaret River wine region.
MARGARET RIVER CAVES
There’s over 100 limestone caves along the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge, running parallel to the coast line. There’s four main caves open to the public; Lake, Mammoth, Jewel and Ngilgi. They’re all really different; the accessibility, depths and crystal decorations, and hence they’re all worth a visit if you’re keen.
If you only have time for one or two caves, here’s a quick guide to help you choose one;
Lake Cave is possibly my favourite – it’s got a beautiful outlook in the Boranup Forest plus it’s so much more alive than the other caves. It’s got plenty of water and the stalactites and stalagmites are still growing. There’s a wonderful interpretive centre where you can learn some cave science and some of the history of the Wardandi people, the Aboriginal families of the south west region. Be warned there’s 376 stairs in… so 376 stairs out, too. Approximately 20 minutes south of Margaret River town.
Mammoth is the oldest of all the caves – and it’s known for its megafauna fossils. What’s ‘megafauna’? Looks like a wombat but as tall as me! During school holidays they host the Megafauna Funshops – an interactive workshop aimed at kids. It’s the most accessible of the caves too; perfect if you’re not ready for all those stairs.
Jewel Cave is spectacular – it’s also one of the largest caves. Worth visiting for the beautiful crystal formations. Located near Augusta, it makes sense to visit the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse too, where the ‘Southern Ocean’ meets the ‘Indian Ocean’ for a true ‘above and below’ experience.
Ngilgi Cave was known as Yallingup Cave, it first opened in 1899 and Caves House was built shortly after to accommodate all the tourists who were travelling here by horse and cart to visit the cave. You’ll follow stairs and boardwalks 40 metres below ground. They also offer Adventure Tours (reservations essential) where you don a helmet and headtorch and a guide takes you off the boardwalk, crawling through narrow tunnels and past beautiful crystals.
THE MOVE TO EXMOUTH
Dad gave it his best shot, balancing farming and working in the caves, but financial pressures grew and in 1963 he decided to lease the farm and move to Exmouth. I was 14 at the time.
Just a few years later, 1967, Tom Cullity planted the first vineyard at Vasse Felix. This was to be the beginning of the Margaret River wine region; a new industry and the start of something wonderful.
I loved Exmouth; it’s a great place for a teenager, plenty of sunshine, outdoor adventures and sport.
Eventually I met Coralie and we started a family, and a business – Ningaloo Safari Tours. Our flagship tour took guests four-wheel-driving over the Cape Range National Park, through rugged gorge country, a boat trip up Yardie Creek gorge and snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef. Mum made all the cakes for morning & afternoon tea – you can see the recipes for the orange cake and fruit cake.
RETURN TO MARGARET RIVER
Coralie and I are lucky to have four boys and as they started to leave home we decided it was time to move back to Margaret River. My wonderful mum had the foresight to divide the family farm into four; each one of her children was lucky enough to be given a quarter each of the farm. The farm has been in the family since 1902 so we feel very fortunate to be able to look after it for the next generation.
We moved home to Margaret River in 2005 and began the next chapter of our lives – McLeod Tours Margaret River. In January 2014 Lincoln joined us in the business – he’s a natural tour guide, takes after his grandfather. We offer a range of tours, taking in the beautiful wineries, breweries, natural attractions and other great businesses in the area.
I sat down to write about the caves, and instead I’ve shared my family history! Lincoln, Coralie and I wouldn’t be here running tours of Margaret River if it wasn’t for Mum & Dad; I’m still really grateful to have picked up their love of this incredible place. It’s a privilege to share it with you; the ancient caves, beautiful coast and forest, and of course the delicious wines, chocolate, cheese and other incredible produce.
Our most popular tour, Eat Drink Explore is a one-day highlights of Margaret River tour where you experience coffee appreciation, visit four awesome wineries, a brewery and plenty of chocolate and cheese on the way.
If you’d like to join me for a Cave tour look at our Forest, Cave and Lighthouse Tour, where we explore the region’s stunning scenery and natural attractions. That’s a one day tour. Alternatively our 3 Day Perth to Margaret River Tour visits either Mammoth or Lake Cave and includes accommodation and travel from Perth.