You can do the short Mount Etna Caves Walk all year – but from December to February you need to book a ranger-guided tour if you want to visit the Bat Cleft at the end of the trail. This is because the Bat Cleft is a maternity cave for Little Bent-winged Bats, with birthing occuring in early summer and the female bats flying out each evening in search of food. A cauldron of bats streams out from a narrow opening each evening. The park is also one of the few places in Australia supporting a colony of vulnerable ghost bats.
The Mount Etna Caves Walk trail starts with a gentle ascent through remnant dry rainforest.
As the Mount Etna Caves trail gains altitude, you can see the remants – and the impact – of mining in the area. Pilkington’s Quarry quarried lime on Limestone Ridge, producing burnt lime which was used in processing sugar. The quarry was operated from the 1930s to 1962 by G.M.Pilkington & Co with the stone was hewn by hand. Four kilns, ore shutes, compressor housing, sheds and tram tracks remain on on the side of Limestone Ridge.
Unfortunately the mining didn’t end in 1962, with Mount Morgan Limited commencing mining on Limestone Ridge in 1963 and Central Queensland Cement Limited (CQC) opening a quarry on Mount Etna in 1966. This resulted in the longest environmental conflict in Queensland over 40 years, from the 1960s until 2008, involving protests, blockades and court action to prevent destruction of the caves. Mining finally ceased in 2004, partly due to public pressure after several caves were blasted, and Cement Australia (formerly CQC) formally handed the former mine site to Environmental Protection Agency in September 2008 to be incorporated into Mount Etna National Park.
Our ranger gives us some of this background as we finish ascending a series of steps, and reach at a long, flat section that offers some great views.
There’s still a little bit of climbing to do, as we reach a timber boardwalk (there’s a chain across the start of the boardwalk – beyond this point you need to join a guided tour from December to February).
The next section is fairly short, with two sets of timber steps – and some more sweeping views…
…before we reach s steep set of steps that descend to the Bat Cleft.
The Bat Cleft is at the end of the trail – it’s one of only seven recorded Little Bent-wing Bat maternity sites, and accommodates 80% of the known Australian population. The Bat Cleft has a small opening, which is hidden in the jagged limestone rocks. If you peer into the gap, you won’t see the bottom of the deep cave – but you will smell the distinctive Eau De Bat wafting out.
There’s some nice views from the Bat Cleft as we wait for the sun to set, and the bats to emerge.
With a a bit of time to explore the area around the Bat Cleft, I scramble across the side of the mountain to get a better shot of the afternoon light to the west.
Once the sun has dipped below the horizon, the bats start coming out of the Bat Cleft… a few at first, and soon a constant stream of the Little Bentwing-bats. They’re quite small, with a body length of about 4.5cm, distinctly short muzzles, and long and thick fur. Mature females and their young inhabit the Bat Cleft cave, and they consume the equivalent of 50% of their body weight in insects each night. It’s an impressive sight, with about 110,000 bats making their way out of the cave over about a two hour period – which equates to 920 bats per minutes, or 15 bats per second.
As well as the spectacle of the bats, we’re treated to a full moon. which rises fom the east and illumuinates the distant hills.
After watching the bats (and the moon) for about an hour, we head back the same way. Crystal, our ranger, collects about 20 cane toads which are lurking along the trail – it’s thought there are now up to 200 million of these pests in Australia, after they were introduced to Australia back in 1935. We also see a few common green tree frogs. which come out at night to feed on insects (and bats!).
The 2.4km return walk involves only about 45min of walking, but once you add the time spent looking at the bats the Bat Cleft Guided Tour takes about three hours, and we’re back at our cars just after 8:30pm.
Getting to the Mount Etna Caves Walk / Bat Cleft
Mount Etna National Park is about 28km (30min drive) north of Rockhampton on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. The Mount Etna Caves Walk and Bat Cleft Tour starts about 2.2km along Rossmoya Road frmo The Caves Country Pub, where a short gravel road goes up to the signposted start of the trail.
- Queensland National Parks – Mount Etna Caves National Park / Bat Cleft Guided tour brochure [PDF]
- National Parks Association of Queensland – Mount Etna: Queensland’s longest environmental conflict
- Queensland Historical Atlas – Pilkington’s Quarry, 2009