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The Great Ocean Road is on the top of any Australian traveller’s bucket list, but for those who think it can’t get any greater – you’d be wrong. Just across from the Victorian border you’ll come across some of South Australia’s best kept secrets along the Southern Ocean Drive which continues all the way to Adelaide, including giant crustaceans, prehistoric Australian megafauna (think giant echidnas and gargantuan goannas!) and some world famous wineries.
Here are six cool things to see while driving through country South Oz.
#1 What lies beneath
Who knew South Australia is situated atop a mixture of extinct volcanoes, cavernous sinkholes, craters and caves? Crossing the border into South Australia, the first thing you will come across on the Southern Ocean Drive is the Piccanninie Ponds which hold “world heritage wetlands” status as a Ramsar site and bring divers from across the country.
Despite looking like a murky swamp on top, the Ponds hide an amazing underwater world of caves and caverns that, thanks to the crystal clear freshwater, allows you to see more than 40 metres straight down. Snorkel across the top of “The Chasm” or dive down into the white walled “Cathedral” to explore the unique underwater world formed in the limestone over thousands of years. Permits are required and bookings are essential.
If diving ain’t your thing, then take a walk along the beach or hike along the nearby bushwalking trails.
#2 Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Driving into the second largest city in South Australia – Mount Gambier – you will come across the first of many sinkholes located in the area. The Umpherston Sinkhole (open dawn to dusk) isn’t your typical sinkhole that swallows up a house or two. It’s more like a secret garden oasis with beautiful ferns and cascading plantlife. You can walk down to the floor of the sinkhole and enjoy the garden and natural waterfalls.
Only five minutes’ drive away is the Engelbrecht Cave, a huge complex of limestone caves. Enter via the limestone sinkhole and take a 45 minute tour ($12AUD) into two of the chambers where cave divers enter the water to explore the myriad of underwater caves that lie beneath the city and learn how they came to be.
#3 The Blue Lake
The Blue Lake is more than just a blue lake. Located on top of a dormant volcano, the lake turns an intense blue from around November through the summer months until around mid-March, thanks to the dissolved minerals in the volcano crater.
Take a wander along the 3.6 kilometre walking track around the lake to get the best views of the mysterious Smurf-coloured water hole and surrounding township before joining local guides Aquifer Tours on a journey to the Lake’s Pumping Station, an old limestone building constructed in the early 1880s. The tour runs for approximately 45 minutes (for a bargain $9AUD) and goes all Willy Wonka on you, taking you down the original dolomite well shaft in a glass lift. Learn all about the history of Mount Gambier’s most famous water source and the Aboriginal legends that surround the mysterious blue lake.
#4 Home of the Saint
North of Mt Gambier, you will come across Penola, the historic home of Australia’s only saint – St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
Here you can visit the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre and state heritage listed Petticoat Lane where you can go back in time by entering the tiny timber Sharam cottages, still standing just as they did in the 1850s. (Tip: Head out the back to find the community herb garden run by National Trust volunteers and pick a few for your next meal).
You can get a feed at the Bushmans Inn with locally sourced produce (try the locally grown Dorper lamb cutlets for a true taste of country South Australia) before heading further north into the world famous Coonawarra wine district, said to be the “Cab Sav Capital” of Australia.
Drop into one of the 20+ cellar doors to taste the spoils of the South Australian winemakers or try your luck at making your own blend at the Wynns Coonawarra where you can take a personalised bottle home of your favourite blend (one hour tours run at 11am and 2pm daily for $55AUD per person. Bookings essential).
A short photo stop at the Father Woods Sculpture Park just north of Coonawarra is a must. Created in 2010 by chainsaw sculptor Kevin Gilders, you will find bright orange skeletons of pine tree trunks sculpted into characters depicting Father Woods as various characters.
#5 Walk with Australian dinosaurs (sort of)
You won’t miss the entrance to the town of Naracoorte, which is guarded by two enormous sculptures of Australia’s largest ever marsupial, the Diprotodon (described as something akin to a giant koala mixed with a bear), and a Zygomaturus which once roamed the South Australian plains and represent the world heritage listed Naracoorte Caves nearby.
Described as the “heart of the Limestone Coast”, this small country town draws crowds from across the globe every year who want to walk with the prehistoric lifesized mammals of Australia’s yesteryear with a tour of the Wonambi Fossil Centre ($15AUD combined entry with the Wet Cave).
Get a glimpse of how the land looked like over 200,000 years ago on a tour of the four caves open to the public or get adventurous and go caving ($60-100AUD).
#6 Meet Larry the Lobster (Hashtag #thebiglobster)
Haven’t heard of Larry the Lobster? You have now.
Standing at an impressive 17 metres high, you won’t miss “Larry” (as the locals call him) who stands proudly in front of the Visitor’s Centre and Café of the sleepy seaside town of Kingston SE renowned for its southern rock lobster.
Tick this big guy off your “Australia’s Big Things” list and grab yourself a selfie with “Larry” the Lobster before heading to nearby Cape Jaffa to watch the commercial fishermen bring in their catch around 1pm daily or see the heritage listed Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country before continuing on your great southern journey to the capital city of Adelaide.
(Lead image: Supplied)
South Australia’s Southern Ocean Drive is ripe for exploring. Find out more information on the drive here.
Siân Edwards is a Sydney-based freelance writer and food and travel blogger who has travelled to more than 20 countries. She has written for publications including Holidays for Couples and Go Camping Australia magazines and contributes to various online sites like this one. When she’s not travelling, she’s tweeting at @sianwithashh about how she wishes she was travelling (plus other cool stuff).