Ngilgi Cave is named after one of the Wardandi Aboriginal people’s ‘dreamtime’ spirits. The story Ngilgi was a good spirit who lived in the ocean, while Wolgine was a bad spirit who once lived in the cave.
Along time ago, the entrance to the cave was near the ocean, where the little brook comes out. Food was plenty, and the Aboriginal people used to collect their water from the entrance to the cave. Then an evil spirit called Wolgine began lurking in the cave. Wolgine caused the water hole to dry up and food to become scarce. He drew unwary people into the great hole of darkness – never to be seen again. Ngilgi, who always watched over the tribes in the area, saw the suffering of his people, and decided to do something about Wolgine. He spoke with other good spirits of the ocean and together they planned to rid the district of the evil spirit Wolgine. So the spirits of the waves, the wind, the rain, thunder and lightning joined together and made the most terrifying storm. The ocean formed itself into huge waves and the wind pushed them up into the entrance of the cave. A fierce battle followed – Wolgine was driven further and further into the cave with the sea following him. Finally, driven to the end of the cave, he knew he was beaten and begged for mercy. Ngilgi told Wolgine he could go, providing he never came back to the area again. So Wolgine burst out of the cave; creating the entrance as we know it today, -and ran away as fast as he could – never to be seen again. With Wolgine gone forever, the food once again became plentiful and Ngilgi claimed the cave as his home. From that day on it became known as ‘Ngilgi’s nurilem mia’ (Ngilgi’s cave house).
Europeans first learnt of Ngilgi Cave around 1899. Edward Dawson, William Curtis and Fred Seymour are commonly attributed with the ‘European discovery’, apparently having found the entrance whilst out searching for wild horses and dingo pups in the area. Several accounts indicate that all these men then explored the cave together.
By 1899 there had been so many caves discovered in the region that a government report was drafted, proposing that several of them could be developed for tourism. The government was supportive and, acting on the report, a ‘Caves Board’ was established by J.W. Hackett to develop and promote the caves. Edward Dawson applied to the government to have Ngilgi Cave opened as a tourist site in 1900, and he was head tour guide and caretaker for the next 37 years.
During this time the cave was known as Yallingup Cave; in fact it was not until the year 2000 that the indigenous name was adopted. A tour of the caves during the early 1900’s was vastly different to what is experienced today. A coupon ticket system was organised by the Caves Board. Visitors travelled from Perth to Busselton by steam train, then continued on horseback to the caves and either camped in the bush, stayed in pioneers’ homes or lodged at Caves House Hotel; originally built to accommodate the guests to Ngilgi. Admission to the caves was by guided tour only, with a ticket costing 1 shilling (10c).
The caves were originally crudely lit by candle or kerosene lamps, with patrons stumbling along rough paths in semidarkness. If the guide wished to point out a formation he would light a magnesium flare which burned brightly for a just a few seconds before plunging patrons back into darkness. Ngilgi was the first cave in the region to have electric lighting installed, with power supplied from a generator near Caves House Hotel. Ngilgi Cave undoubtedly played a formative role in the development of tourism in Western Australia.