Not many people’s CV includes tobacco grader, café owner, high pressure cleaner sales rep, tag-along tour operator, palm tree nursery owner and cave builder. René’s does, and this Indiana Jones character of Tropical North Queensland is the first to admit not all of his business ideas worked.

But his one big idea did. René built singlehandedly the elaborate series of caves and grottoes behind a humble shop front in Atherton. Now this business attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who are gobsmacked by the cave system, and the riches it contains.

The Crystal Caves are René’s masterpiece where he shares his passion for natural crystals, minerals, gemstones and fossils with the world. He built the 300 square metres of tunnels and caves as a showcase for his eclectic collection of the earth’s bling; amethyst geodes, rose quartz and pyrite cubes sit alongside dinosaur bones and 385-million-year-old marine fossils.
René financed the project with his own house as collateral and now has more than 600 items in the vast network of corridors and caverns which – kitted out with a miner’s lamp – visitors can explore at will.

The value of the collection is in the millions, but for René, the payoff is seeing kids and adults get the same buzz as he does from the earth’s treasures. The crazy thing is that he allows people to touch.

“How can you show something spectacular and then say don’t touch – that would be like giving a child a kitten and tell them they can’t pat it.” He says.

That kind of exuberance – plus his gung-ho style – saw him recently named one of the “must-meet characters” in Queensland. After a statewide search, organisers of the poll said René “stood out with his crazy style and passion for the local area and crystals.”

Caveman Rene has lived on the Tablelands since immigrating from the Netherlands in the early 1960s when he fell in love with the nature and wildlife of the region. Today, he and his wife Nelleke live on the shores of Lake Tinaroo in a Balinese Hut. With big open doors and no screens, they invite nature in. Insects, bats, birds and snakes come and go as they please and he will never eradicate any of them.

He has planted his garden to attract the birds and butterflies of the Tropics and his natural swimming pool is a haven for animals.

Rene is retired now and his daughter Ghis runs The Crystal Caves. He spends his time cutting and polishing agates he has from his former fossicking days and he’s an avid photographer.

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