WHILE other kids had swings and slides in their backyard, Bram Collins had the world's oldest standing lava tubes in his.
When he first ventured inside a lava tube at the age of seven, he thought it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. His enthusiasm remains undimmed.
The Undara Lava Tubes, in Far North Queensland, were created about 190,000 years ago when 23 cubic kilometres of lava flowed from the Undara volcano into a river bed and kept flowing for some 160 kilometres.
At the time it was the world's longest lava flow from a single volcano. It left behind dozens of lava tubes like huge caves, some more than 21 metres wide and up to 10 metres high.
Today archaeological digs continue, for while 69 caves have been found, most of the lava system remains unexplored.
Bram's ancestors, the Collins family, were the area's earliest white settlers and graziers. His father Gerry applied in 1987 to develop a tourist facility on the family holdings, believing it to be the best way to protect the ancient formations.
Today a national park has been gazetted around the tubes and tours can only be taken from the lodge managed by the family. In the peak season (June-August) as many as 300 people a day take an interpretive tour with specially trained Savannah Guides.
On a Wildlife Sunset Tour, guests enjoy sparkling wine and cheese before heading to Barkers Cave in time for "rush hour". This "maternity cave" is where the tiny insect-eating microbats nurse their young.
In season as many as 40,000 bats are secreted into the crevices. But they must go out at night to feed and do so en masse because there is safety in numbers.
Looped in the branches of trees are waiting brown tree snakes and pythons.
Bram tells us this as we wait just inside the cave entrance. He casually mentions there is a snake on the ground just to his left, which I find rather unnerving as I am standing next to him.
Next morning we take the Archway Explorer Tour along boardwalks to two of the most accessible lava tubes. Ancient roof collapses have created deep, dark, moist depressions and fertile pockets of rainforest. Bram encourages us to look up to the vast water-streaked cathedral ceilings - "... like a natural Sistine Chapel".
The lava tubes have a huge supporter in British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough who declared them the best preserved in the world, saying they should become the eighth natural wonder of the world.
Bram has a vivid recollection of Attenborough's visit. The great man was eating at the lodge with local dignitaries when he noticed staff sitting around a campfire. He swept some bottles off the table and joined them.
Sue Preston was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland.
IF YOU GO...
The Undara Experience is 300km south-west of Cairns in the Gulf Savannah country. It is currently the green season so check the website for tour times and accommodation. Don't miss the bush breakfast with the opportunity for billy tea and toast cooked over the hot coals as bacon and eggs sizzle in the pan. Accommodation ranges from cabins and campsites to railway carriages.
"Grander structures would have meant the removal of trees and landscaping," Bram tells us. "This way we took less than a handful of trees out to get the red rattlers in. People love them."