Jenolan Caves offers the perfect adventure for amateur spelunkers. Experienced guides, some of whom have worked as emergency rescue personnel, lead groups of up to 12 people though their underground network.
Two important prerequisites for embarking on a group activity to consider are age and health. You will be kitted with overalls and a headlamp with two light settings. The guides spend some time helping the group adjust their kit. Soon a group of strangers will bond over the course of the journey and the real fun begins.
As the cave surfaces are damp and gritty you will probably get dirty—expect to get a little sore afterwards too. Be sensible and remember that your time in the cave is not a race. We were regaled with a guide's tale where two young guys decided to rush through to impress the crowd only to exhaust themselves halfway. The guides, fit and well past their sixties, had to practically drag the duo out.
The shortest tour is the plughole cave ($90 per person paid in advance), which can take 2 hours to complete. Bookings are essential. Please note that if you miss the scheduled day and time the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust will not refund your money and instead will offer you another day to do the activity. So, if you are only visiting the area, do not be late. These tours run like clockwork.
The plughole tour group moves along, single file, to negotiate the rocky terrain. For those who ever never navigated a cosy cave before you might be surprised by the constant climbing up, crawling through tight pockets and squeezing down narrow openings. One by one, the guides demonstrate and advise how best to proceed. The guides are kind, patient and genuinely amusing fellows.
Be prepared for total darkness, albeit temporary, as an exercise in adjusting your eyes in the Elder Cave. Nobody screamed, which was good.
History buffs will be in for a treat as the guides impart some local knowledge. Significance can be gleaned from particular markings, the odd fossil is really cool and then there is that old glass bottle In the passages.
Weather permitting, there is an opportunity to abseil a few metres into the cave. On the day I went it was pouring, unfortunately. Instead, our group got to spend a little more time traversing the 'S bend', which at times got a little confusing (because I cannot follow basic instructions). Oh, you want me to slip down into the opening rather than step out onto nothing.
At the end of the tour the guides teach everybody a lesson in perspective. During the tour you are so focused on every step and every hand hold that you can forget that you are sometimes hanging on in a very precarious position. Due to limited visibility this is not a conscious issue. Looking back at where you have just climbed down though can leave you both shocked and triumphant. That moment when everyone's headlamps were shining on the vertical rocky maze we just clambered from was, and still is, memorable.