South Australia has Australia’s most underrated road trip


Disappointingly, there are no balloons or brass bands waiting for me at the South Australian border when it reopens – after 251 days – to its Victorian neighbours on December 1. But that’s the only let-down on a revealing road trip to the Limestone Coast.

The surprises start at Mount Gambier, just over state lines, South Australia’s second-largest city and one of its most dramatic. The city basically clings to the side of a volcano, which seems unwise but the effect is striking.

At the summit is the Blue Lake, surely Australia’s most beautiful water supply. Fed by an aquifer, every year in late November the crater lake’s colour changes magically from grey to a blinding Caribbean blue.

There’s a terrific 3.6km walking circuit around the rim, so the shimmering spectacle can be admired from every angle. This region’s defined by its craters, lakes and sinkholes, or cenotes, filled with crystal-clear waters that lure divers from around Australia.

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For non-divers, there’s the Umpherston Sinkhole on the edge of town, a sunken pleasure garden designed in 1886 by the former state MP James Umpherston.

It’s a surreal sensation to descend the wooden staircase, Alice in Wonderland-style, to an open chamber with ivy cascading down stone walls, terraced flower beds and trim green lawns, crowned by two lofty slender palms.

The Limestone Coast is a new name for an ancient landscape that started life as a seabed some 20 million years ago. The term captures the area’s unique geology, but undersells its breadth of experiences, from volcanic plains to exceptional wines and a coastline of lovely, lonely beaches.

An hour’s drive north of Mount Gambier is a small town (population 137) and a venerable wine region. It’s compact, with just 5000 hectares of vines, but more than 20 cellar doors along a 15km stretch of the rose-lined Riddoch Highway.

The flagship varieties are cabernet sauvignon and shiraz raised in the iron-rich terra rossa soils, but cellar door tastings offer diverse wines and experiences.

At DiGiorgio Family Wines, the Wine Flight with Six Bites is a civilised way to enjoy their blanc de blanc sparkling paired with a bite of lavash and Onkaparinga chevre, for example, or a sparkling merlot with shards of red cacao chocolate.

Each vineyard has a unique story to tell through words and wines. At Brand’s Laira, the shiraz vines date from 1893 and founder Eric Brand’s original fruit-packing shed, now decorated with dusty wine bottles and antique souvenirs, sits within a striking cellar building opened in February.

At Wynns, Coonawarra’s oldest and largest winery, a house museum traces the history of the property and the grapes. The charm of the place is it never gets busy like the Barossa or Hunter. Wynns cellar door manager Tony Gleeson says on a normal day they might see 40 people. “That’s what people really love about this region,” he says. “It’s really laid-back, with good booze.”

Much as I love wine, I can’t wait to get to the beach. I haven’t seen the ocean since February. So I skip the World Heritage-listed fossil caves at Naracoorte Caves National Park and drive straight to the coast, an hour away, and check into an Airbnb at Robe’s Long Beach, a ravishing 17km stretch of glacial-blue sea against limestone-white sand.

The robe itself is an attractive town rich in sea views and settler history. At the smarter end of central Victoria Street, the Caledonian Inn’s ideal for sunset cocktails, Sails Restaurant for seafood including (pre-ordered) local lobster, The Project for pizza and pasta and Drift Cafe for decent coffee and brunch or lunch in the shady garden.

The surrounding coastline resembles an impossible jigsaw piece, all tricky edges of headlands and coves. It’s also riddled with lakes so getting around can be confusing, but the joy is in seeing where the roads lead you.

In my case it’s Beachport, a sleepy village west of Robe with an avenue of Norfolk pines and a jetty jutting almost 800 metres into the sea. I take a short hike to Cape Martin Lighthouse, the town’s tallest point, and then stumble down a steep dune to wander the rugged, ragged beaches while marvelling at the roiling Southern Ocean, equal parts mesmerising and terrifying.

There’s a stunning touring route here, the Bowman Scenic Drive, and if you’re in the area you must make time for it. It’s like the Great Ocean Road in miniature – all sweeping panoramas and delirious freedom. There’s plenty more to do, but make sure to pencil in some you time, too. Especially after the year we’ve just had. Find a sheltered beach – there are dozens to choose from, almost all of them empty – and then roll out the towel. Turn the phone to silent. Open a book. And breathe.


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This article originally appeared on Escape and was reproduced with permission


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