In South-West WA some of the best tourist attractions are literally under your feet.
There is a lot to see in South-West WA, but some of the most surprising sights are hidden underground. Many of them are regular tourist sites that anyone can visit. All it takes is a willingness to look beneath the surface.
1. CAVE MAN
The Margaret River region is famous for its wines, but it also has an amazing collection of caves. The vineyards and wineries are scattered along Caves Road, and the caves are too. A good place to start exploring them is at the CaveWorks Eco Centre, which has displays about how caves are formed. There is even a walk-through artificial cave, so you can get a feel for what it’s like without needing to venture underground.
Right next to CaveWorks is Lake Cave, which gets its name from the lake inside its main cavern. You can go on a guided tour, walking down a wooden stairway into the large hole above the cave, and then on through the cave on raised walkways.
There is an interesting variety of rock formations, plus the added beauty of reflections from the water. When the guide turns the lights off during the tour, it makes you realise just how brave the early cave explorers were, venturing into caves with no stairs, no guide and just a candle for lighting.
2. COAL HOLE
Collie is WA’s only coal town and has many coal-related monuments and relics. Along the main street you can see the Art Deco-style Mineworker’s Institute building with its bas-relief showing a miner and a steam train, an old coal rail wagon, steam locomotives and a statue of a miner with his shovel, helmet and lamp.
Those things are all above ground, but immediately behind the miner’s statue is an arched entrance into a replica coal mine, which was constructed to show visitors what it was like to work in one. The mine just slopes gently downwards into the ground, making it on easily accessible on foot.
3. GOLDEN MINE
For an even more dramatic experience of life in the mines, go to the Mining Hall of Fame in Kalgoorlie. There are plenty of above-ground attractions, including an extensive reconstructed mining village, complete with miner’s shanties, banks and mining equipment. There are also displays about famous prospectors and miners in the main building, exhibitions of gold pouring, and even a small stream where you can try panning for gold.
But that is all kid’s stuff compared with going on a mine tour. A retired miner takes groups of visitors deep into the old Hannan’s North mine where the shaft drops nearly 400m over 13 levels. The lease for this mine was first pegged in 1893. BHP worked the mine from 1934 to 1952 and held the lease until 1991 when it became a tourist mine,
Tours now take place on the first level which is 40m underground, and visitors descend in a small lift cage. As you follow the tour guide along some of the narrow side tunnels you realise how difficult it would have been to work underground with only a small candle for light and poor ventilation.
A short demonstration of a miner’s drill, which makes a surprisingly loud noise, showed that even in more recent times the miner’s work environment was very dusty, noisy and potentially dangerous. The fan-driven air extractors that continuously emit a banshee shriek also make you feel very sorry for the miners.
Afterwards you can drive to the observation lookout at the nearby gigantic Super Pit. This modern, working open-cut mine makes an unbelievable contrast with the confined space in the old-fashioned mines.
4. WARTIME TUNNELS
Back in Perth, just north of Fremantle, there is a very different underground attraction. Leighton Battery was a WWII observation post and gun replacement, built on top of a limestone hill and looking out over the main entrance to Fremantle Harbour. The site has an underground command post, partly underground observation room, communications room, several concealed cannons, an ammunition room, and about 400m of underground tunnels.
Construction of the observation post started shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The site monitored shipping going in and out of Fremantle but never fired a shot in anger. Today the complex is maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers who take visitors on a tour through the tunnels. There are displays showing how artillery shells are constructed, and a diorama re-creates the site’s interaction with an incoming vessel.
MORE UNDERGROUND ADVENTURES
There are some slightly more challenging subterranean attractions that you may want to visit. One idea is to ‘do time’ at Fremantle Prison, which has been decommissioned and is now a major tourist attraction. The cells are interesting in a gloomy way, but the real adventure is to take a guided tour through the old convict-built tunnels beneath the prison. You have to wear waterproof boots, overalls and a hard-hat with built-in light. You use a safety harness to descend into the tunnel complex and canoe through some of the half-flooded tunnels.
Some caves in the Margaret River region also offer an increased level of adventure. At Moondyne Cave, guided tours in overalls and caving gear go into some relatively inaccessible sections. You get to slither over rocks, rather than just walking along a pathway. And if you really want to go it alone, at Mammoth Cave you can do a self-guided tour with an MP3 audio player as your guide.