Margaret River – Cave of the Drop Bear (at last)

Thylacoleo carnifex — from a display in Australian Museum, Sydney. My photo. The original Drop Bear?

We’ve had enough rain this year. We didn’t actually get soaked to the skin at any stage in WA (as I’d heard had happened repeatedly to family and friends needing to do the damp dash from car to house in the sudden downpours). But there really was a lot of water around.

As we drove to Margaret River we hoped that perhaps we would soon emerge from the belt of rain and fog, into winter sunshine. However, all along the highway we could see deep puddles and paddocks with part-submerged fences.

It didn’t augur well.

Flooded roads and heavy skies all the way to Margaret River from Perth.

We had planned a few stops along the way for coffee with a view, but with rain persisting and views misted out by heavy clouds and rain, we pushed on.

Margaret River loomed out of the rain, green and gorgeous. Towering trees, trunks straight up into the clouds, gave an added sense of peace.

We looked at each other. This was a good place to stop. We were done with travel for the day.

The view from our tiny hotel room in Margaret River — a historic centre with well-preserved buildings from the early days of European settlement.

Of course we hadn’t booked ahead. We often don’t. It’s part of the adventure, to also be free to keep moving on if we feel it’s not quite what we’re looking for.

After a slow loop of the town, we pulled back in to the most likely-looking place. No Vacancy. But over the road they had a spot. Just as picturesque, a bit more secluded, and thankfully on the ground floor.

We waited in reception for yet another cloudburst to pass, and explored their wall of brochures. With more bad weather forecast, outdoor activities were off our list. In a break in the downpour, we dashed to our room and settled down under the doona to explore our undercover options.

“There are caves!” Jeff exclaimed. I looked at the information. We chose  the nearest and one with fewer steps. At least it would be undercover.

Next morning we drove towards the cave of our choice, Mammoth Cave, through hailstorm. It was tiny hail, about grapeshot size. But there was so much of it. In places it looked like it had been snowing. We’re used to hailstorms being a passing thing, one scud and that’s it for the day. But this kept going. However, we appeared to have driven out of it by the time we got to the cave.

It was cold, heavily overcast and miserable, so I pulled on the medieval hood I’d brought on the trip to maybe mend buttonholes — another sewing project for spare minutes. The hood kept my ears from aching in the wind and the ‘skirt’ of the hood was excellent for keeping my neck warm.

An earlier medieval hood. I actually used this one as a pattern.

Our car was parked right outside the entrance (and shop) for Mammoth Cave. Today was clearly a slow day. We bought our tickets, got our self-guided digital player and ear bud and set off. In between cloud bursts.

“There are bones!” I exclaimed as the first stops (still outside the cave) showed us life-size figures of the animals whose bones have been found in the caves. It was a snapshot of the now-extinct megafauna of Australia’s Pleistocene period. Procoptodon goliah, the giant short-faced kangaroo that stood three metres high. The wombat the size of as rhino (Diprotodon). Then I saw my favourite Australian extinct animal, Thylacoleo carnifex. Imagine a creature the size of a leopard and just as adept at climbing trees, with retractile claws on its thumbs, front teeth like steak knives and side teeth like secoteurs that could crunch through the heaviest bones. According to Australian Museum it weighed 90 – 160 Kg. More closely related to possums, the harsh, guttural scream of these creatures would have been terrifying. Possums are bad enough, and they’re cute, fluffy and not predatory. Thylacoleo was an apex predator. It also would have preyed on humans — the megafauna only died out 40,000 years ago after Aboriginal settlement in Australia 60,000 or so years ago. Thylacoleo was also known as the marsupial lion and had the strongest bite of any mammal that has ever lived.

Lower jaw of Thylacoleo carnifex. My photo, taken in Australian Museum, Sydney.
Upper jaw and cranium of Thylacoleo carnifex. My photo, taken in Australian Museum, Sydney. Note the heavy zygomatic arch which allowed for heavy musculature, giving this creature the strongest bite of any mammal that has ever lived.

And here’s where it can get interesting — or bizarre. Australian folklore tells of a fearsome predator, a drop bear, which lurks in trees and drops on unsuspecting hikers from on high to rip out their jugulars. Australian Museum even has a fact sheet for Drop Bears, although they classify a drop bear as Thylarctos plummetus, which would put them in the same genus as koalas. https://australian.museum/learn/animals/mammals/drop-bear/

I respectfully disagree. I believe the original drop bear was Thylacoleo carnifex, more closely related to possums than koalas. The stories led to me writing a novella (which prompted the title of my second anthology) called “Cave of the Drop Bear”. Email me if you want to buy a copy, I still have a few.

So you can understand, I was even more keen to get to grips with a cave containing my favourite, fascinating marsupial.

When the rain eased off to a brief drizzle, we made a dash for the cave entrance. Those familiar with me will know I’m no longer a dashing figure. But we got to the entrance without getting soaked, and began our exploration of the drier interior.

Stalactites and stalacmites inside Mammoth Cave, Margaret River.
So many limestone formations inside Mammoth Cave.

If you know caves, you will understand that even inside, they drip, like a toddler with a permanent case of the sniffles. Water seeps down from the surface, soaks through the limestone and dissolves some on the way. Then it drips from the end of a projection and splashes below. Stalactites and stalagmites form from this dissolved limestone being slowly deposited over many thousands of years. For those needing a refresher — stalactites ‘hold on tight’ to the ceiling while stalacmites ‘might grow up’ to reach the ceiling. However, this part of WA (in fact, much of the state) had been experiencing a lot of rain. The drips were no longer just drips, they were trickles. But at least it wasn’t hailing inside the cave.

Stalactites growing at different angles. They all grow down, but rock falls over time can change what ‘down’ means.
Thylacoleo carnifex lower jaw embedded in limestone. Inside mammoth Cave, Margaret River, WA.

As we made our way through I became lost in thoughts of the past, of what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Around us we could see the evidence of past rockfalls, with stalactites now growing at odd angles to the true vertical. From what I could see, this area was a lot more volcanically active than the eastern Australian caves with which I am more familiar. An underground river flowed through the cave and the path climbed high (where we saw a Thylacoleo jaw encased almost completely in limestone) or down low, where the underground river flowed unusually full and heavy for the season.

The underground river was at times lapping the edges of the path.

At last we turned a corner and saw daylight; the exit to the cave at a sinkhole (just as in my novella) where tumbled rock surrounded a hole to the outer world. Steps led up to thick undergrowth and a leaden sky almost as dark as the inside of the cave. In my novella the sinkhole leads to a lost world of remnant species.

The way out at last. Back to the bad weather.

Outside the cave the temperature dropped, but it was green and lush as we walked back to the car. After clambering up and down steps inside the cave, I was only able to pick my way slowly through the bush. Then once more the heavens opened, and it began to hail. My medieval hood was very good protection.

I really love it when my interests come together so well.

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