Cannibals and Caves

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Blind Cave Spider: picture courtesy of Paul Flood

There are cannibals in Tasmania’s Marakoopa Cave. The darkness suits them well. Lets them go about their messy business unseen. Creep, creep. Gotcha.

Sometime around 1906 two boys, the Byard brothers, were the first white people to find the caves. Can you see them, those teenage boys, crawling about the mysterious cave with their kerosene lantern casting ghoulish shadows, rapturously scaring themselves half to death? I can’t think about their adventures without envy accosting every thought.

In a sign they were gifted dash beyond their years the Byards were in no hurry to share their discovery, kept it a secret for four years apparently. This of course makes perfect sense. The boys probably spent a good few years lying on their backs watching the light show put on by the glow worms (Arachnocampa tasmaniensis)

No doubt lots of people think cannibals and children aren’t much of a mix. The notion is rubbish. At least in this instance. Those that eat their own kind in Marakoopa are confined to spiders (the Tasmanian Cave Spider, Hickmania troglodyte)] is one and other fond-of-darkness invertebrates.

The Mole Creek Valley, in central-western Tasmania, separates the Great Western Tiers from Mount Roland. The Mole Creek Karst National Park includes the Marakoopa and King Solomons Caves. Both caves are karst landscapes – that is, according to information from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, they have developed by chemical rather than physical processes (in this instance the limestone rock has been eroded by naturally acidic water).

Two creeks, the imaginatively named Long and Short creek, run through the Marakoopa Cave. Marakoopa has some 4km of caves but visitors can access only around 650m of this. The creeks are a delicious soundtrack to the place.

The path visitors follow was created by a far larger body of water, a river, which last flowed through the cave about the time Tassie lost its land bridge to the Australian mainland. That was a piddling 25,000 years ago. There are fossils in the roof of the cave that are some 450 million years old. Evolution sleuths will also delight in the connection to South America. Like the myrtles of the Tassie rainforests the Tasmanian cave spider, found in Marakoopa, has relatives in caves in Peru.

Our cheery guide, Rebecca Kearns, claims the glow-worms on display in the Marakoopa Cave are the largest you'll see in any public access cave anywhere in Australia. Though they’re not really worms but maggots: “glow worm is a far more attractive way of describing a maggot with a bright bum”, says cave manager Paul Flood. As for the cannibals, sadly they’re confined to the fauna, the spiders, pseudo scorpions (Pseudotryannochthonius typhlus) and the Cave Shrimp (Anaspides tasmaniae), that have decided the darkness and the constant nine-degree year round temperature suit them perfectly.

Greg Clarke

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Greg Clarke

Greg Clarke regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines in Australia and throughout Asia. He once lived in London's East End, which aside from the proximity to ripping curries and cheap haircuts proved handy while he was at The Sunday Times. Greg regularly plunges into Tassie’s extraordinary wilderness as much for adventure as a way to shed some of the pounds he stacks on while sampling way too much of the island’s food and fine wine. When he's not travelling or writing his daughters take him on wanderings in search of fairies, wombats and devils.

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