In another life, I was working for the Northern Territory Government. Part of my job was to evaluate the viability of small-scale business ventures in the outback. My travels took me on visits by chartered plane to remote locations in all areas of the Territory.
On one such a visit, to a station south of the Roper River, we were talking about the viability of including Aboriginal input to a tourism venture and in the conversation the station owner casually mentioned an area to the north, where, according to him, and, although he had never been there, a secret cave was to be found. My ears pricked up at this because there is nothing like a bit of adventure and mystery in looking for long lost places or objects. The proponent did mention that it was a very sacred and secret cave and that it had an aura about it, as aboriginal families living on the station had told him.
A while later, some months in fact, I was having a beer with locals in the Katherine Pub and the subject of the secret cave came about again. No definite details of where the place could be were offered but I had studied my maps beforehand and was forming an opinion of a likely location. Then later, by chance, I was at a Photographic Book launch in Darwin one day and whilst paging through the contents of the book saw a photograph named the Secret Cave. So I questioned the photographer about the whereabouts of it. He was very coy at first to state where it was and said that he had been flown over it by helicopter and noticed unusual rock formations along a ridge. I suggested offhand that it might be in an area south of the Roper River and he agreed that it could well be in that area. At last I was making progress!
The pastoral lease covering the land area in question had been resumed by the government some years before, and was for the time being, in the mid 1980’s, unalienated Crown Land. Now with all these snippets of information before me I spoke with a mate of mine in our 4×4 club, and we decided that we should go and have a look for this place. Word got out in the club and soon it was to be a club trip. It was the last long weekend of the year somewhere in September, I recall. The wife and I managed to get some days off from our respective jobs either side of the weekend and we were set for a ten-day holiday in the bush. The plan was that my mate and his family would accompany us earlier in the week and that the club would come down on the weekend. I gave the clubs’ trip leader some details of where to look for a ribbon in a tree or on a shrub by the side of the road.
The first night out we camped at Rocky Bar on the Hodgson River and travelled on early the next morning to look for the track to our perceived destination. Now, there was an old station track marked on my topographical map, but it took us two hours to find it. The track had not been used in years and was very overgrown. We were forced to cut back some shrubs so as to gain access to the track. I left a piece of cloth tied to the shrub for those who were to follow us later. Further along the track we came to a faint track heading northeast, and so we left a marker with stones to show in which direction we had gone. Our progress was slow along this overgrown track as we trundled along towards a wetlands area, which meandered through a natural gap in a low range of hills. The little used track through the gap was very washed out, and we packed stones for over an hour so as to make it driveable. We made camp on the edge of a small billabong. The children in our group had great fun playing games and splashing on the water’s edge. That night around the campfire we could see the red eyes of small freshwater crocodiles lurking in the darkness beyond. We were all a bit more wary of the billabong after that. An old saying though, confirms that if there are lots of freshwater crocodiles around, it is unlikely that an Estuarine Man-eating Crocodile would be nearby.
We spent two days driving through the long grass and walking around the foothills of the ranges looking for a likely cave and although we found some stone artefacts and some overhangs with rock art on them nothing showed up as a cave. We combed both sides of the creek along the lower rock ledges but still found nothing to excite us. Then I noticed a small aperture in the rock face across from the creek. This was the one place we had not searched as yet and it needed investigating. We needed however, to cross the creek, which filtered through the ranges, and formed part of the billabong where we were camped on. The sandstone rock face, which seemed unscaleable, dropped right down to the water’s edge. Thick Pandanus Palms grew either side of the rock face, and knowing of their capability to inflict serious prickle wounds, the destination seemed difficult to reach. We had to walk upstream for close on a kilometre before finding a way across the creek without swimming through crocodile infested waters and then made our way back towards where we had seen the hole on the wall. Some rock hopping was necessary and once we had climbed the small escarpment we found ourselves looking at a small pound surrounded by weird tower-like sandstone structures. At one end of this enclosed valley, we could see a low opening in the rock face, and so, with much anticipation, we made for that feature.
The Secret Cave must have been a relic dating back to the days when the earth was still forming. The cave could have been part of a small lava flow rushing through the sandstone valley some millions of years ago. It is about 50 metres long and about 1.5 metres in height and on average 5 metres wide. It is open at both ends and in the middle of it there is a west window, an east facing aperture in the cave wall and a hole in the roof. These holes in the rock dome could have been made by trees caught up in a lava flow, and either burnt out or rotted away over time. It made for a perfect shelter by modern standards with entrances both sides, windows and a smoke outlet to boot.
The cave floor had no human footprints and we ascertained that no one had been there for quite some time. Charcoal lay pretty well much scattered about 100mm thick through out the cave floor. There was a collection of painted bones. We did not see any human skulls but having researched the subject I knew that the ancients all over the world, painted the bones, of the long deceased ancestors. There are a number of very nice rock paintings depicting mystical figures and we formed the opinion that this might have been a ceremonial cave. We must have spent and hour or so looking around the cave and savouring the ancient ambience of the place. Outside the northern entrance a tall sandstone pillar almost depicts a human face. When we left the cave we used some clumps of grass to sweep away any evidence of our footprints, so as to leave the cave as we had found it. That evening we had a long discussion about the ancients and how they must have lived their lives in this land so rich in resources of food and shelter. The cave is within a natural walled enclosure and it cannot be seen from ground level.
It was lucky that for us the other club members never saw the piece of cloth which I had left on the side of the road to indicate where we had turned off, as we would not have liked people tramping all over this special place. I have never divulged the exact location of this cave.
In the year 2000 a Native Title determination was made to the Wandarang, Alawa, Marra and Ngalakan Peoples and that land encompasses the area of the Secret Cave. It has recently been included inside the Limmen National Park boundaries and is out of bounds for access.