End of an era

June 15, 2024 BY

After more than a decade as the face of the iconic Mount Gambier tourism site Engelbrecht Cave, licensee Jan Coleman has decided to hand back the keys to the City of Mount Gambier at the end of this month.

When Jan took over from the previous operators in 2014 the site recorded 9000 visitors per year. Now more than 30,000 people visit the cave annually.

“It has been a journey for sure. I opened the doors with no staff and a faith that it would all work out. I believed in this place, it had so much potential but just needed some love and consistency,” Jan said. “I feel I’ve brought that and developed not only a viable business, but also a tourist attraction that Mount Gambier can be proud of.”

The bustling tourist and cave diving site currently offers five tours per day, expanding to 12 tours per day during the peak summer season.

“Engelbrecht Cave is very different from other caves in the region and is quite unique in that it is also a cave diving site,” Jan said. “There are three cave formations in the one site, so there is the sinkhole which you can see from above, the cave which is the first cavern that we enter and then the collapsed chamber. The water down there is amazing and crystal clear.

“In the busy period we would have 400 people on tour during the day and at least another 100 coming and going to have a look from the top.”

Jan said some visitors mistakenly believe that they can swim in the cave.

“We had a couple of young German tourists turn up in their togs with towels over their shoulder a few years back, as they thought they were going swimming,” she said. “They didn’t really comprehend what we were trying to convey to them at the time, but they stayed and did the tour anyway and once they had done it, they understood.”

Jan’s connection to Engelbrecht Cave began well before she took charge of the site. She remembers ‘ditching school’ to visit the cave with her friends as a teenager in the 1980s and then her time as a Lifeline volunteer, when the organisation ran cave tours in early 2000.

“After a short period of volunteering I was offered the role of site coordinator for Lifeline as they relinquished their lease of the site at the end of November 2004,” she said.

Jan said she has had many highlights during her time at Engelbrecht Cave, specifically meeting new people and watching her staff develop.

“I have met some amazing people from all over the world. We have people who keep coming back year after year, sometimes two or three times a year and they always bring other people with them,” she said. “I have had some staff members who have come on board, and they might have been a little shy or not very confident and I have seen them absolutely blossom which has been amazing to see.”

She acknowledged there had been challenging times throughout her tenure, including the unprecedented impact of the COVID pandemic.

“For us the restrictions and constant lockdowns saw us initially closed for six months,” Jan said. “Most of our local trade at that time was coming from the eastern states and with them in lockdown, especially in Victoria, on and off for nearly two years, it certainly had an impact on us.

“However, it has been phenomenal since restrictions lifted, people just flooded in.”

Jan indicated that she has conflicting emotions about deciding to move on from the cave.

“I’ve loved it here, and I don’t think it has fully hit me and I don’t think it will until it is done and dusted,” she said.

General Manager City Infrastructure Barbara Cernovskis thanked Jan for her passion and commitment to Engelbrecht Cave.

“She has played an important role in telling the story of our landscape, the ongoing preservation of this iconic site and the traveller experience in Mount Gambier,” she said.

Council plans to build on Jan’s success and is currently finalising the details regarding the assumption of operational responsibility for the site from July this year.

“Caves are a major tourism drawcard for the Limestone Coast region which is why Council is carefully considering how this site will operate in the future,” Ms Cernovskis said. “The site will be closed for a short period of time upon handover and reopen following minor refurbishments, with visitor servicing staff located on site later in the year. Plans will be finalised after the June 2024 council meeting.”

Umpherston Kiosk and Souvenirs operator Julie Holdsworth is also stepping away at the end of her lease contract in October this year.

“Council would also like to acknowledge Julie’s work at the Umpherston Sinkhole/Balumbul kiosk over the past 10 years and we wish her the very best as she begins to prepare for well-deserved retirement,” Ms Cernovskis said. “Council recently endorsed a position to prioritise master planning work for Umpherston Sinkhole/Balumbul. That master planning process will begin soon along with a regenerative maintenance plan for the area.

“Umpherston Sinkhole/Balumbul is valued by locals and travellers alike and we look forward to exploring what lies ahead for this important and iconic attraction.”