Features Australia

In the dark

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

When I was very young (it must have been before I was sent to boarding school at the age of 7), I was taken with a party of other children – the West Australian Junior Naturalists’ Club, on a tour of Yanchep National Park, a few kilometres north of Perth.

One of Yanchep’s major attractions was its limestone caves, including the beautiful Crystal Cave, with its reflecting pool and, at that time, Yonderup Cave. They were the only large limestone tourist caves reasonably near Perth, with some spectacular formations of stalactites and stalagmites.

Yonderup Cave however, contained more than this. We junior narturalists were deliciously horrified to discover, in one great ballroom chamber, a heap of human skeletons.

The guide pointed to a hole in the roof above where daylight could be seen. From where we stood it looked a long way away. The first white explorers had been let down through that hole into the cave on a rope. It was the only known way into the cave until the artificial entrance used by tourists had been dug.

The guide told us shuddering children that some of the skeletons had been found some distance from the hole. They were all Aboriginal, the pelvises showed that they were all females, all had had their heads bashed in (the skulls had holes in them), and those found a distance from the hole had apparently not been killed instantly by the blow to the head or the fall, but had crawled away to die in the blackness, perhaps hopelessly seeking a way out.

This also seemed to rule out any idea that the cave had been used merely for the disposal of naturally dead bodies.

Quite a story for 7 year-olds, or anyone else.

I know I had a couple of  nightmares after that, until boarding school drove them out by offering something worse.

I revisited Yonderup a few more times over the years. Each year the number of skeletons seemed to become fewer, until at last there was only one, behind a wire netting, but this one with bones of different sizes and obviously cobbled together out of different bodies.

In reference to the fact that they had all been female, the guide of the day made a jocular reference to the fact that they were thought to have been nagging mothers-in-law.

There was also a skull on the mantle-piece in the park manager’s office.

Some years went by, and I returned from England with a wife to whom I was interested in showing Western Australia.

When we got to Yanchep there was a large notice board showing the different attractions of the park. But of Yonderup Cave there was no mention.

When I asked several rangers about this they denied knowledge of its existence. Finally, one admitted reluctantly that ‘Aborigines closed it’.

What Aborigines? I asked, and why? I gathered with some difficulty the information that all the bones had been removed. In that case, I asked, what was the problem about entering it to admire the formations? To this there was no answer.

I remembered more or less the position of the cave, and found the terrible hole into which the dead or dying women had been dropped (fortunately it had been covered by mesh).

Making further enquiries, I discovered an old man who had assisted an American archaeologist in examining the skeletons before World War II. He recalled ‘a great heap of bones, several feet across’. They had counted about 50 skulls.

This was borne out by an account I discovered in the State Library of this expedition, which had apparently been put a stop to by the war and had never been resumed. It was concluded that the bones were several hundred years old, and it was thought that they were the remains of women who had broken tribal laws.

This, of course, left unanswered the question of how some unnamed modern Aboriginals had locus standi to close the cave and remove it from the map.

What connection could they – whoever they were – be proven to have had with the nomads who had been in the region hundreds of years before? And again, if it was a matter of fearing some sacrilege, what was the point of closing the cave and trying to deny its existence after the bones had been removed? What, incidentally, had been done with them?   If, quite impossibly, the descendants of their killers could be traced, could they be said to have any property rights in the bones?

I wrote to the Minister at the time asking why the cave had been closed and obliterated from the map, but received no reply.

Crystal is now the only cave open for tourism in Yanchep.

There are today a few very brief references to Yonderup Cave on Google, including a statement that its re-opening is being considered, and apparently it is possible to arrange special tours of it – if people are allowed in at all, it is hard to understand why this restriction is necessary,

It is true that ‘over-use’ of a cave will damage delicate formations but Yonderup had been opened to the public under the supervision of guides for many years (and if ‘Aborigines closed it’, who is going to have authority to unclose it?).

There is no mention of skeletons apart from one brief comment in a document of the West Australian Planning Commission, mentioning it as an Aboriginal heritage site, with the cryptic words ‘skeletal material/burial’.

However there is elsewhere a totally weird comment: ‘Further up in the park, Yonderup Cave will leave even the adventurous a little wary, renowned for crocodiles laying within.’

There are no crocodiles, except in the zoo, for thousands of kilometres.

What seems to emerge, looking at all the rather vague information, and the undeniable fact of the bones piled beneath the sink hole, is an evidently government-sponsored attempt to cover up and re-write an unsavoury fact of indigenous history.

Almost, it might be said, a second burial for the poor wretches thrust down dying into the hopeless dark.

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