Category Archives: Travel

Jenolan’s secret signatures come to light

IF YOU’VE ever been caving, even one of those walk-in-walk-out tours where you don’t have to get your feet too dirty, you’ll know the experience does something to the soul.

“I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’.”

Perhaps it’s primal, a DNA memory from millennia ago when our ancestors found shelter underground? Perhaps it’s all those fairy tales reminding us that once upon a time there might have been something more in the dark than our elders were letting on?

It’s a frisson that people across the globe subject ourselves to daily, as tourism cave operators everywhere will tell you.

I had the chance to work at a cave system, one of the world’s largest, when I was a cave guide at NSW’s Jenolan Caves. Taking people into the dark recesses of the mountain was always a thrill, and I was lucky enough to be guided on a very special tour recently that was a real highlight.

Jenolan’s Arch Cave has been closed to the public since the 1930s, but late in 2017 I was granted access during a scientific inspection in order to find one name written on the cave wall in the 19th century.

Finding J. Falls

As a guide, the most intriguing stories I came across in my time at Jenolan are those that tell the tales of the people who went into the dark long ago.

SIGNATURE SPOTTING Dr Anne Musser, paleontologist and Jenolan guide, reading names on the crystal.

The first people of the area, the Gundungurra and Dharug, had long traversed the passageways and underground rivers, and their Dreamtime mythology included several of the cave systems in the NSW Central West.

By the middle of the 1800s, local settlers were regularly visiting the caves under the guidance of the local Whalan family, whose property at Oberon was one of the closest ‘gateways’ to the valley. They started the tradition of leaving names to record visitation, and, on occasion, the discovery of caves.

Most of what Jenolan guides related at the time I worked there came from the surviving oral traditions handed down by generations of guides before them, and one of the strongest stories concerned the discovery of a major section of the cave system by a local woman, Katie Webb.

I explored as much of her story as I could find, but there was another name that interested me, that of Jane Falls, whose legend at Jenolan include the possibility that she was one of the explorers to discover the system’s largest publicly open cave, the world-famous Lucas Cave, in around 1860.

The name Jane Falls polarises Jenolan guides. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s been bit of a male-dominated place in its time. Women have only been officially guiding tours since the 1980s, and between Katie Webb’s exploration in the 1880s and the next discovery of a cave by a woman there is a gap of more than a century.

The very idea that a woman might have discovered the Lucas Cave is confronting for some, which is one reason I suspect the issue of where Jane Falls’s signatures are remains a bit of a muddle.

‘J. Falls’ is credited as being one of the first European visitors to enter the Lucas Cave in newspaper reports from January 1860, but if that was Jane, she presents a conundrum for researchers. As was common practice, many of the signatures on Jenolan’s walls are initials only, so any appearance of ‘J. Falls’ could be one of three people: Jane Falls, her mother (also Jane), or Jane’s brother James, all Irish emigrants in the 1850s.

Nevertheless, a former colleague came across one trace of the Falls family in the Arch Cave, and so we went to see it for ourselves.


What became quickly apparent in the Arch Cave is that it’s a signature-rich chamber. Situated high in the Jenolan limestone, it was one of the earliest caves entered by European settlers, since it was easily accessed from the surface.

Like all caves, the major formations were named. By the time we were standing at the Assyrian Lion, identified as such for its similarity to those in the British Museum, we were looking at signatures scrawled in every direction, on walls, on crystal, and on the ceiling.

People left their mark using graphite pencil, or charcoal, or even the smoke from their candle, and in some places the names have quickly deteriorated.

I was struck by the possibility that we’d never find Jane’s name in this mass of graffiti!

A couple of side chambers required us to squeeze through into a narrower space where 19th century explorers had gone before, and I immediately saw the name ‘Edwin Whalan’ written boldly on a promontory of rock.

It made me chuckle. The Whalans earned their place in Jenolan lore, no doubt, but compared to some tiny signatures, the size and passion of this lustily scrawled Whalan moniker smacked of ownership.

A sweep of the torch above revealed other familiar names, but once again there were just so many. The Arch is a small cave but even so it would take hours and hours to search them all.

Some visitors had inscribed more than just names, also. Short poems, or expressions of how they felt, were touching reminders of the mysteries of the underworld, begging that question again, about why we come to gather in the dark and remember those who were here before us?


I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’. I stepped up for a closer look, and a shadowy word came into sharper focus. Most definitely ‘Falls’… my heart thumped. Most definitely a ‘J’ and an ‘A’. This was it! But standing there in wonder I had to admit immediately, this could be ‘Jane’ or ‘James’ Falls.

JANE’S NAME? The elusive signature of Jane or James Falls in Jenolan’s Arch Cave.

I grumbled at myself, and at poor handwriting, and the passage of time, then got a bit hopeful at the possibility of another name starting with ‘J’ and ‘A’ slightly above. Could this be Jane and James Falls, siblings on an expedition?

We took plenty of pictures and mused over the curlicues of the Falls signature. Nobody wanted to dash my hopes, but as our tour concluded and we journeyed out, I had to admit that it was not a conclusive sighting of Jane, not yet.

My search for her goes on, and will feature in plenty of writing to come, but to have stood in the dark where the Falls name was written, I feel closer than ever.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.


#Brighton daze, with a saucy streak

Story and Photos by Michael Burge

WHO said the beaches in England are no fun?

IMG_0639At the end of a recent trip to the Old Country, during which we experienced a little too much of what the French call ‘English Weather’, my partner and I visited the south coast town of Brighton (known these days as Brighton and Hove), an experience that certainly put the spark back in our step before our long-haul flight home to the subtropics.

England’s original seaside resort, Brighton faces due south, which is why the streets fill with the kind of undeniable sunlight that leaves you warm to your bones.

The sun has always brought the tourists in droves, and the town has a saucy reputation as the place for a romantic getaway, having featured in many a divorce citation in times past.

The town is justifiably proud of its origins, and heritage splendour is everywhere, from the follies of King George IV’s Royal Pavilion, to the whitewashed Georgian streets.

IMG_0606IMG_0560We stayed at the relaxed Blanch House, a comfortable, intimate hotel set on a quiet street away from the rat-race, but close enough to walk to shops and restaurants, including the divine Terre a Terre, billed as the UK’s best vegetarian restaurant, a claim which is hard to deny after sampling a three-course flavour explosion at this popular Brighton establishment.

While having our hair cut, the locals gave us all the best places to visit, including nearby Saltdean, where the famous white cliffs of England’s south start their eastward course; and the breathtaking South Downs view from Devil’s Dyke.

No trip to Brighton is complete without a visit to the terrific and trashy Brighton Pier, home of the original British fish and chips.


© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

France, a country driven by différence

300px-Eoliennes_d'Is-en-BassignyBy Michael Burge Photo: Wikipedia

IT’S safe to assume our Treasurer Joe Hockey would not have enjoyed a trip to France with Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this month.

There’s just too many wind turbines across the French landscape. Hockey would have been offended every few kilometres.

I should know, I spent hours admiring the French commitment to clean wind-generated energy as endless, slender, spinning white needles slid past on my high-speed rail journey into the heartland of the country’s southwest.

In the region known as the Lot (with its capital Cahors), massive forests reach wide green arms into built-up areas and quickly swallow visitors into an ancient rural landscape which still sustains its farming industries.

These abundant forests are not national parks, but a regularly harvested source of timber and firewood, large and well-managed enough that supply is not threatened and wildlife has a permanent refuge alongside livestock.

LOCAL FARE White asparagus at Cahors market.
White asparagus at Cahors market.

Supporting the regional agricultural economy, serious fresh food markets take place in most towns a few days every week, a vibrant and profitable exchange of local produce and other goods for the benefit of residents. Compare that to token farmers’ markets once a month, begrudgingly permitted by local chambers of commerce in Australia.

Every day, street sweepers (teams of people with brooms employed by the local council) clean the towns. Not just a cursory brush here and there, but every cigarette butt and scrap of paper.

Far from major cities, reliable service connects people to the internet without the same dropout I regularly encounter at home, a mere 35 kilometres from the central business district of Brisbane.

But the greatest surprise, for me, came with the palpable sensation of creativity happening all around me.

Millennia-old heritage architecture abounds. Wherever recent building work has been undertaken, it complements townscapes instead of fighting against them. Modern repairs are completed with ancient building techniques. New properties are built in the same manner as homes that are hundreds of years old. Satellite dishes and solar panels are positioned to blend in. From their homes, to their public spaces and their everyday items, the locals are not afraid of heritage or design.

Local theatres, cinemas, galleries and ateliers (artist ‘workshops’) are in high saturation. Their output is not tourist fodder, but art for art’s sake.

In a region whose food export relies heavily on dubious animal welfare principles (foie gras, anyone?), and where hunting is commonplace, I spotted the word ‘vegetarian’ more often in advertising than I have ever encountered it in Queensland, where I’ve had a worse time as a veggo than a homosexual.

Travelling with my husband, we didn’t sense a hint of homophobia. Same-sex marriage has been legal in France for a year.

About now, you might be thinking: “If it’s so great, why don’t you move there?”, along the lines of the ‘Australia: love it or leave it’ principle.

Well, we did go into a real estate agent in the Medieval town of Gourdon, only to find that our dream home (a flat above a 15th century shop) was on the market for 55,000 euro (just under AU$80,000). Tempting enough to admit that I really don’t love Australia to the point that I would never leave it.

As we left the region, I got the sense that I was returning to a world that is busy destroying itself. There is no doubt in the Lot they know that they’ve got, culturally and environmentally, and they are busy protecting it.

I felt bereft as this special place disappeared in the wake of the high-speed rail journey back to Paris, where the sight of cars plugged into electrical recharging points, which have become part of the very infrastructure of the streets, was a sign that even French cities are connected to an alternative present, not just dreams of a different future.

No one demographic dominates the Paris population. Mass immigration has resulted in the kind of melting pot of cultures which goes well beyond tolerance of unfamiliar cuisine. Both days we were in the city, loud, peaceful political protests for Sri Lankan and other refugees occurred. Australia’s base fears about racial and cultural differences, and our government’s cry that we are being overrun by asylum seekers, simply fade into the multicultural Parisienne haze.

Western masterpieces are just the tip of the iceberg.
Western masterpieces are just the tip of the iceberg.

At The Louvre, all the great Western masterpieces are on show, but included in this ‘greatness’ were acres of decorative arts from the Muslim world in the museum’s permanent collection.

Yes, I could be accused of seeing the grass as greener through my rose-coloured glasses, but before leaving the Lot I asked a couple of local British expats about the region.

Wages are low. The economy is seasonal and almost shuts down over the deep winter. To counter this, most residents live well within their means. Perhaps that is what people did before economies relied so heavily on debt, deficit and the need for everyone to spend, spend, spend?

I don’t know why France and Australia are the way they are. Penal colonies, bloody revolutions and wars feature in the histories of both countries. Both have elected conservative governments for most of the years since the turn of the millennium. Something is at work in France which is beyond political ideology.

I left with far more questions than answers: What lies about the environment, immigration, culture, heritage and development have we believed, that such vast differences have become the reality in two Western economies?

What makes it possible for Australia’s Treasurer to be so vehemently offended by something which is already deeply embedded in France’s way of life? Are France’s wind turbines more or less offensive to Joe Hockey than Australia’s tradition of exporting uranium to France for their nuclear electricity generation program, which is Europe’s largest?

The French have a term for it – vive la différence (‘long live the difference’) – and perhaps they have learnt to say it about themselves more than others?

A much younger nation with an ancient first population, Australia doesn’t yet have words to express the same sentiment, and that is a telling difference indeed.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords