Moon milk

12 minute read


The first conferences I ever attended as a doctorate student were IJCAI 2017 and CP 2017, which both took place in Melbourne. At the time, I had a position as a visiting researcher at ICTEAM at Université catholique de Louvain. After the conference, three fellow doctorate students from UC Louvain and I travelled to Tasmania, for a two-and-a-half-day trip. It resulted in one of my favourite travel stories of all time.

The plan

On our first day in Tasmania, Hélène, Guillaume, John and I had gone on a hike to see a forest and waterfalls. We spent the second day going to Port Arthur, the famous former penal colony that was the site of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, which triggered Australia’s ban on guns.

On our third and last day, we would drive from Hobart to Devonport, so we could catch the overnight ferry back to Melbourne from there. The plan was to stop by Mole Creek Karst National Park on our way north, so we could visit the Marakoopa caves, which are famous for their glowworms. Even though it was winter in Australia (all of this happened on 4 September 2017), which means fewer glowworms than in summer, we were still excited to by the prospect of seeing an underground starry sky.

Or, at least, I was. Us girls had pretty much done all the planning and reservation-making and ticket-buying, under the implicit agreement that the boys would not complain about the choices we made and the attractions we visited. The Marakoopa caves had been my suggestion, and I just hoped that they would be exciting enough for the others to be happy with that decision.

Being in charge of logistics, Hélène and I had minutely planned every detail of the trip, including the routes that we would take to get to the different attractions. I had loaded the .gpx files of the routes into my Garmin eTrex® 10, just in case all phones would fail. As we were feeding our AirBnB’s alpacas (one was called Frankie, and I forgot the other one’s name, which is incredibly irritating) one last time, Hélène looked at the map and noticed that there was an alternative route north, which would take us along some lakes, and only be a little bit slower. She proposed to take that one, instead of the one we had planned. Since seeing some lakes sounded like a good idea, and since she was the driver and therefore had veto rights on the route, we agreed, and we went on our way.

A harrowing ride

It turned out that the road that looked like one of the main roads of Tasmania was actually a gravel road through the mountains. Not a huge issue, except that we were also in the middle of a snow storm. It was -4 °C outside, and the gravel road wound its way along the slopes, which were thickly forested with icicle-adorned eucalyptus trees. We could only drive 30 km/h. Any faster, and we were afraid of slipping in a bend in the road or colliding with another car, due to the bad visibility in the snow storm. Any slower, and we were afraid that we would get stuck in the snow and be unable to restart the car. We had been warned that one of the biggest causes of deadly road accidents in Australia were collisions with kangaroos, so that worried me, too (in fact, that evening, we had to carry a dead wallaby off the road because it was blocking our way).

Two days ago, as we picked up our rental car, the rental car company had tried to sell us an upgrade to a bigger car. We had refused, but found that they had given us the bigger car anyway (likely it had been the only one they had, and they had tried to make some money off of us by trying to make us pay extra for it). Now, we were very grateful to have a heavier vehicle, which was less likely to be blown off the mountain road by a gust of wind.

As I looked at the time, my heart sank. There was no way that we were going to make the 1 pm tour through the Marakoopa caves that I had selected for us. I didn’t say anything, though. No point in stressing out our driver.


Somehow, though, we pulled into the parking lot of the Marakoopa caves visitors centre at 12:58 pm. I ran to the ticket office, while Hélène, Guillaume and John parked the car. I bought the tickets, and we ran to the cave entrance, to find nobody there waiting for us. Did we miss it? Had the guide just gone in without us?

As we looked around and tried to figure out what to do, a young woman arrived, carrying a guitar case and a violin case. Hearing us speak English in three different accents, she introduced herself as “Emily”, and asked who we were and what had brought us to Tasmania. We explained, and as I was waiting for an opportunity to ask her why on earth she was carrying a guitar and a violin, our tour guide arrived, and took Hélène, Guillaume, John, Emily and me into the cave.


It was beautiful. The limestone was reddish and yellowish, and glittered with all the crystals embedded in the stone. We heard the drip drip dripping of stalactites and stalagmites forming around us. We followed an underground river, sometimes diverting away from it, then catching up with smaller streams. Often, we had to squeeze through low or narrow passages, and all the time I wondered why Emily would put herself through all of this with a guitar and a violin.

Eventually, we reached quite a large cavern, through which a wider river flowed. The guide turned off the lights and, in the dark, we saw the small specks of lights that were the brave little glowworms trying to attract a mate. I imagined myself in a friendlier version of the Koom Valley caves that Commander Vimes finds himself in, in Terry Pratchett’s Thud!.

From the ashes

We moved on to the highlight of the tour: a large cavern, called The Great Cathedral. There, the tour guide dimmed the lights, and Emily took out her violin. She explained that she was a composer, and that she was in the process of composing some music. Some time ago, she had been walking on the beach, in the aftermath of a forest fire, when she saw something move. Somehow, a bird’s nest had survived the fire, and the baby chicks were hatching, shaking the ashes off their tiny little heads.

I don’t remember if she actually said this, but in my mind, Emily told us that a parent bird arrived to attend to the babies. I hope that that’s what happened.

Emily explained that she had composed a piece inspired by that experience, and was now adapting it for performance in The Great Cathedral, specifically. Every day, she would enter the cave with the first tour, and stay there until the last tour of the day would take her back above ground. In between those tours, she would be alone in the Cathedral, working on her music.

Then, the tour guide dimmed the lights, and Emily played the piece for us.

Awesome, unexpected, and free

It was magical. Her music was quiet in a way that I always find hard to explain to people. How can music be “quiet”? But it was, and it was beautiful. It reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s work. Later, when I asked her who her favourite composers were, she mentioned him first.

Standing in The Great Cathedral, suddenly getting a private concert, listening to the kind of music that I loved, I tried to experience that moment to the fullest. I was such a lucky person. I had had the opportunity to travel all the way here, and to experience all of this. Happy, happy, happy. As Guillaume later described it, this experience was “awesome, unexpected, and free”.

Greetings from Brussels

After Emily’s concert, we left her in the Cathedral, and made our way back to the surface. When I travel, I always like to carry post cards of my hometown. That way, if I meet someone special, I can leave them a little memento of our meeting, and leave them my contact details. Since Louvain-la-Neuve, however much I love it, is perhaps not the most photogenic place in Belgium, I had brought postcards of Brussels, instead.

I had one left, of the Brabantine gothic Town Hall of Brussels, if I remember correctly, and we decided to write Emily a post card. We thanked her for her concert, and left our contact details, asking her to let us know if/when she would ever release her music. We asked the nice lady at the ticket office to give our post card to Emily.

We never heard back from her.

The end of this story (for now)

Until now. Sort of. I had often wondered what had happened to Emily’s project. Surely, if I were to contact the Marakoopa caves visitors centre, someone would remember an Emily who went down to the caves every day in September 2017 with a guitar and a violin to compose a piece of music? I never contacted them, though.

A few days ago, however, I decided to Google her. Emily turned out to be Emily Sheppard, and that she ended up creating a full album from her time in the caves: MoonMilk. Based on her description, I wonder if the piece she played for us was an early version of “Aftermath”.

I have purchased her album, but I haven’t listened to it yet. Part of me is afraid that the music will disappoint me, or overwrite my memory of it, precisely because it is such a precious memory of mine. Part of me is also trying to savour the experience, building up my own anticipation for just a little longer. Some music just hits me straight in my soul.

Maybe I will report back, to share what happened when I finally listen to the echos of one my most precious travel experiences ever.

P.S. Some notes

Moon milk is a white, creamy substance that is found in some limestone caves. See its Wikipedia page for some hypotheses on its origin. Moon milk is also an Ayurvedic drink, which apparently is super “hot” right now, and supposedly helps you sleep.

When I asked our tour guide about the meaning of “marakoopa”, she explained that it likely means “beautiful” in the language that was spoken by the Indigenous people. The European colonisers eliminated not only most of the people, but also their language, so they do not even know that for certain. They do have indications that the caves were of cultural importance to the Indigenous people, but they don’t know much more than that. Even though I had just spent three weeks in Australia, repeatedly hearing these kinds of stories, it still broke my heart. Two days ago, we had touched trees that were old enough to have been around before colonisation. Maybe, when those trees were much smaller, Indigenous people had touched those trees also. Now, nothing but a few words and whispers of their existence were left. It is such a waste. It is such overwhelming injustice.

While writing this blog post, I made a donation to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, who are running a crowdfunding campaign to buy back land, so it can return to the lutruwita/Tasmania’s Aboriginal Community.