Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW)

Craig often makes the pilgrimage to the northern end of Kosciuszko National Park. The wide open country, intriguing rock formations in Clarke and Nichols Gorge and wild swimming at Blue Waterhole inspires a literary mindset that he uses to outline just why the region is so special.


Highlights

  • Swimming in the crisp Blue Waterhole
  • Karst formation and alpine gorges
  • A thermally heated open pool
  • Stunning cave formations at Yarrangobilly Caves

Long Plain and Cooleman Plain

Let’s call it the rustic end of the Kosciuszko National Park, shall we? Up the northern end, I’m talking about, where accommodation is predominantly tent, tarp and truck, rather than the hard-roofed variety extensively available in the southern coupling of Thredbo and Perisher and its non-park neighbour of Jindabyne.

Long Plain — an extended length of grassland, kept treeless by frost on the plain and skirted by thickly forested shoulders of hills — runs about 30km northwards from the Snowy Mountains Highway near the remnants of the old gold mining town Kiandra.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country,

Along with its neighbouring Cooleman Plain, the area has a long grazing history, and before that Aboriginal peoples were regular residents. There are camping areas custom-designed with yards for those who bring up their horses for riding in the warmer months. They keep the commonly sighted brumbies — or feral horses — distant company.

It’s a magical place with many of the grazier’s huts kept alive by NSW’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, making them a haven for those caught short up this way in snowy winters (though the road down Long Plain is kept shut in the winter months,).

Two of the highlights of camping on Long Plain, that my son and I have consistently visited every time we’ve camped there, are the northern Kosciusko karst pairing of:

The Bluest Of Waterholes

A short way off Long Plain down a rugged and just about two-wheel drive tolerant track are an idyllic, archetypal piece of Australian paradise. Bookended by the Clarke and Nichols gorges and fed by Caves Creek, they seemingly radiate with their startling, iridescent blue, made so by the water’s high calcium carbonate content, dissolved from the area’s geological trademark, limestone.

It features the fascination of a limestone cliff face where never-ending water materialises from its base, sprung up from an underground creek.

Most summers, Caves Creek itself runs underground up to the waterholes where it too magically appears. One result of this, other than the water’s pristine nature, is its bone-rattling frigidity. Not many people relax in the water here; more often than not a sudden enter and exit strategy is applied! Nonetheless, it’s provided many a summer bath.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country, blue waterholes

Between Long Plain and Blue Waterholes there’s the amazingly preserved Coolamine Homestead, set in a serene, open-grassed clearing with a view of the surrounding hills which must have provided a fair bit of compensation to those situated here for long, snow-trapped months in years gone past. It’s much grander than your typical high-country hut.

The homestead’s original building was built in the early 1880s, then two more were added on. The walls are papered with newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s, so you can spend some relaxing time reading.

Here you get an insight into the area’s grazing heritage. Occupants were often some of the few who resided here year-long, not just for the warmer months. Self-sufficiency was the order of the day.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country,

Coolamine Homestead

The waterholes are on the edge of the Cooleman Plain’s karst environment (a separate but similar environment to the karst of Yarrangobilly Caves), formed from limestone. This is a sedimentary rock, comprised of the cemented remains of marine organisms and/or fine-grained calcite. (Karst is of German origin and refers to a limestone landscape.)

Cooleman Plain contains a variety of signature karst features, including dry valleys, springs, stream sinks and caves. It’s unique because it’s surrounded by igneous rock, such as granite. The limestone erodes more easily than granite, hence the plain’s lower altitude than the surrounding hills.

The recreational and scientific significance of the area was recognised as early as 1882 (which seems quite something), when parts of the area were reserved. Here’s their reasoning:

  • Complex ecosystems support highly specialised plants, animals and microorganisms
  • The local caves contain fossils such as Brachiopod, crinoids and corals
  • A modern contingent also call the caves home: amphipods, crickets, spiders, millipedes and the eastern bent-wing bat

Flora in the area is dominated by snow gums and black sallee on the hills. The leafy anchor plant, one of Australia’s only deciduous plants and a botanical rarity, inhabits the Caves Creek neighbourhood. Communities of platypus, brushtail and ringtail possums, along with eastern grey kangaroos and red necked wallabies, also call the area home.

A Walk For Wet Feet — Clarke Gorge Trail

After many years of our own adventures, recently my son and I were able to introduce the wife (the non-camping, non-bushwalking member of the family) to the waterholes’ dramatic, romantic multiple creek-crossing, Clarke Gorge Trail.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country,

On the momentous day in question, the high-arching blue sky was flecked with a scant wisp of cloud. It was about 20 degrees — perfect.

It took about four creek crossings for my wife to take my advice that she would tire of removing then replacing shoes; and she should just paddle on through, but other than that it was clear she was enjoying herself.

The final reward of this 5km return walk through the sheer-sided limestone-cliffed gorge is Coolaman Falls. In front of its high-walled cliff backdrop, Cave Creek surges over the precipice, blasting off protruding rock at crazy angles for about 30m before showering into a generously proportioned pool where a hard-core, skin-zinging baptismal shower is on offer at no cost.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country, waterfall

As we explored the pools and adjacent cliffs, I noticed rumbles in the distance, and the speedy loss of blue sky. A festival of clouds were coming to party, soft grey at first, but darkening quickly. Of course, it had to be one of those very rare walks where I didn’t stow the waterproofs, didn’t it?

As soon as we started back the rain began but, unbelievably, it started hailing, too… and hailing… and hailing. This was the first bushwalk I’d been hailed upon (at least the brim of my Akubra proved handy). And it had to be with the non-outdoors member of the family, on a walk where there is nowhere to take cover; not that you’d want to hang about under trees when thunder’s booming and its electrical partner in crime is in close quarters.

In hindsight, when asked what was the highlight of her introduction to the beauty of the Long Plain area, my wife said it was this walk. Go figure. But she isn’t the only person who’s taken to Clarke Gorge and its powerfully compelling beauty.

Little Boy Lost — Nicholas Gorge Loop Walk

Heading the other way from the waterholes is Clarke Gorge’s sibling, Nichols Gorge, and its 7km loop walk.

One year, with our kids-led gang of friends, Caves Creek was actually flowing above ground the whole way. This was the only time I’d seen it like this (normally it runs underground), which made the creek crossings much more of an adventure and enriched the whole experience. The walk also boasts the Cooleman and Murrays Caves and many dolines (basins, often about 30m wide, which can sometimes collapse into caves underneath).

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country,

And then there was the time my son and I did the walk, on our first camping in Kosciuszko experience, the year I look back on as that of ‘little boy lost’…

More accurately, it’s ‘father lost’ who just happens to have a four-year-old with him. Knowing there were track markers at frequent intervals, I didn’t bother with a map. I wouldn’t need it, would I?

About half-way around the walk, after climbing out of the creek bed up to the Cooleman Plain, the track markers suddenly became scarce (i.e. I couldn’t see any), so I relied on my memory of the map and a sense of direction. Both, as it turned out, are fundamentally flawed.

On realising something wasn’t right, and being too stubborn to simply backtrack, I did a massive loop to get us back on track, much of which took place with a tired four-year-old on my shoulders as I struggled through scrub.

Finding the bed of the creek that forms the spine of the walk, then going downstream until we recovered the track (and its markers!) ended up bearing fruit. But it was an instructive lesson in common sense — take the damn map! Especially if this is the first time you’re doing the walk, no matter how ‘easy’ or ‘well marked’ you think it is.

In this case, while scary for a while, there was a happy ending (though my son has never let me forget it…)

Read: How to Stay Safe in the Bush (and Keep your Mum Happy): The Ultimate Hiking Safety Guide

Yarrangobilly Caves: Nature’s Theme Park

Yarrangobilly Caves, off the Snowy Mountains Highway near the Long Plain turn-off, is bush paradise, especially if you’ve been camping for a few days. Not only are there an array of fascinating caves to explore, mostly with a knowledgeable guide, but the location boasts:

  • a large thermal pool, permanently heated to 27 degrees, fed by an underground spring
  • beautiful, shaded picnic areas, including by the swift-flowing Yarrangobilly River
  • short walks with interesting farming and tourism heritage dimensions
  • crucially, an opportunity to buy ice cream

The caves locale also boasts some of the few hard-roofed forms of accommodation in northern Kosciuszko, with its expansive Yarrangobilly House and an eco-cottage.

It’s quite astonishing just how much there is to do at this out-of-the-way location. Tumut is the nearest town of significance, about an hour away. It makes for a great stop on a road trip, but you’ll want to spend at least half a day here.

When we’ve been camping on Long Plain, it’s been a perfect ‘variation’ day: pack a picnic, take one of the top-drawer caves tours (both the caves and the guides are enthralling and the caves’ diversity is quite incredible), have a good swim in the thermal pool and, best of the lot, grab an ice cream.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country, thermal baths

Not many people seem to take up the option of swimming in the fast-flowing Yarrangobilly River, adjacent to the thermal pool, but most definitely do the relaxing walk by the river, down a relatively steep path from Glory Arch. There are other short-ish walks to do as well, up and down the river, one of them has a particular heritage focus on where a small farm used to exist. It produced meat and vegetables for miners at nearby Kiandra mines in the late 1800s.

The caves are set into the side of a gorge the Yarrangobilly River cuts through. The views into, across and up and down the gorge are mesmerising, though I’ve felt less than mesmerised on a scorching summer’s day walking up the murderous hill from the thermal pool back to the car pack. In more recent times a cold shower has been installed at the top of this walk, though, which was a simple work of genius.

The Sobering Truth

Like many outdoors locations in Australia, Blue Waterholes and the Cooleman karst area are in danger of being loved, if not to death, then to a point of where the environment could be significantly damaged. Four-wheel drives going off track; feral horse damage; pollutants and toilet waste getting into overground and underground water systems; vegetation being knocked around by human visitors; even the gathering of firewood which is habitat for native wildlife, has a detrimental effect.

Yarrangobilly Caves And Blue Waterholes // Karst In The Kosciuszko (NSW), Photo by Craig Pearce, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Alpine, High Country,

The closing of the track to Blue Waterholes to vehicles has been discussed as an option (meaning walk or ride-in access only to the vicinity, including its great camping areas). Ultimately, those who visit the area are accountable for what happens next. For the moment, paradise remains. Let’s hope it lasts.

How To Get There

To get to Cooinbil Hut Campground drive south down the Snowy Mountains Highway from Tumut and take a left onto Long Plain Road after 72.8km. If you’re coming from Adaminaby you’ll be driving north and taking a right after 56.2km.The campground is 14km down Long Plain Road.

To get to Blue Waterholes Campground, Clarke Gorge and Nichols Gorge walking tracks, turn off theSnowy Mountains Highway onto Long Plains Road. Turn onto the Blue Waterholes Trail and drive to the end.

To get to Yarrangobilly Caves, turn off the Snowy Mountains Highway onto Yarrangobilly Caves Entrance Road.

All roads are unsealed once you turn off the main highway.

Activities

  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Exploring caves
  • Photography
  • Ice cream

Skill Level

Beginner — but bring a map!

Distance / Time Taken

Clark Gorge Trail — 5km return (4 hours)

Nichols Gorge Loop Walk — 7km

 


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