An interpretive centre next to the St Joseph’s Catholic Church reveals info about Saint Mary MacKillop. While she focussed on the human spirit, looking after spirits of a different kind are the 26 cellar doors located in this special pocket of terra rossa soil. Take that rusty-coloured, free-draining topsoil, laying on an ancient limestone ridge, add an underground aquifer and a long, cool ripening season and you have the makings of a perfect wine region — the Coonawarra.
Just 25km long and 2km wide, it lies 390km from Adelaide. The drive here can be done in a loop, south through pastures and the cattle and sheep grazing heartland and back up along the coast. If you’re coming from Adelaide, head through the Hills to Tailem Bend and Coonalpyn (stop for the silo art) to Keith — gateway to the South East.
Padthaway offers the first glimpse of grapevines as the Riddoch Highway cuts through the Padthaway Wine Region. It’s worth stopping at Naracoorte to visit the ancient cave network at Naracoorte Caves National Park.
This 500,000-year-old, World Heritage-listed fossil hotspot has tours to four of the 28 caves and a campground if you want to stay longer. Bird lovers will want to see (and maybe stay) at Bool Lagoon where a boardwalk crosses the wetlands.
The Riddoch Highway then slices through the Coonawarra and, with cellar doors dotted along either side of the road, winery hopping is a case of coming out of one driveway and turning into the next. But to get an insider’s knowledge — and avoid drink-driving — a Coonawarra Experiences tour is a much better idea (see the break-out story for all the details).
On to ‘The Mount’, through kilometres of pine plantations and Nangwarry where the Forestry and Logging Museum shows how important the timber industry is in this neck of the woods.
Mt Gambier is where you’ll get a city-style fix with all the shops, specialty stores and amenities you can think of. It also has some special attractions. The Blue Lake is the big drawcard. Come in November for the famous vivid cobalt blue hue. You can drive around the lake or walk the trails — especially if you stay at the Big 4 Blue Lake Holiday Park (big4.com.au). And don’t miss the sunken garden at Umpherston Sinkhole and Cave Gardens.
Just outside of Mt Gambier are a few possible ‘firsts’ to try. Climb a volcano at Mt Schank — thankfully this one is ‘sleeping’. It’s a hike to the top — not really a ‘scenic walk’ like signs indicate, but the view of a crater from the last eruption is worth it. On the way down, green fields extend to the horizon, interrupted only by cows, sheep and the odd homestead.
How about swimming in a volcanic sinkhole? Located beneath one of these nearby farms, Kilsby Sinkhole is world-renowned as one of the best sinkhole dive sites due to its crystal-clear water, and Little Blue Lake (though it doesn’t turn bright blue anymore) can be found close by in the middle of a paddock.
View on the way down at Mt Schank
It’s not far to Piccaninnie Ponds or Ewens Ponds for more snorkelling or diving, then on to Port MacDonnell — SA’s most southerly point and our ‘southern rock lobster capital.’ The Maritime Museum details this historic port’s past and the resident fishing fleet keeps local fish and chip shops busy. Poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, once lived in Port MacDonnell — check out his home at Dingley Dell.
From here, sealed roads lead to coastal spots like Cape Douglas, Nene Valley, Blackfellows Caves, Pelican Point and Carpenter Rocks, where you might see the cray fleet anchored in Bucks Bay. Pack fishing rods because the locals swear you’ll catch whiting, garfish, mulloway and salmon from the Cape Banks Lighthouse area. It’s a 30-minute drive back to Mt Gambier.
Today, the Limestone Coast loop turns north again through Tantanoola, where you can stop to see another limestone cave, and Millicent, the commercial hub for surrounding farming and timber industries.
Detour to Southend to see the start of Rivoli Bay. This is also the gateway to coastal Canunda National Park. Book at parks.sa.gov.au if you want to camp. Then see Rivoli Bay from the other end on Beachport’s 772m jetty — SA’s second longest after Pt Germein. After the heavenly inspiration back in Penola, here’s your chance to try walking on water at the Pool of Siloam. The water is seven times saltier than the ocean. You’ll find it on Beachport’s stunning Bowman Scenic Drive.
Next stop is chic Robe — one of SA’s most popular beach destinations known for its long white-sand beach (funnily enough, called Long Beach), crayfish, cosmopolitan cafes, hip pubs and funky homeware shops. It’s also home to Robe Town Brewery and Mahalia Coffee.
Walking is the best way to get around the tourist highlights. The Obelisk Coastal Trail passes Robe’s old gaol ruins, jetty and marina to the Obelisk — built to help ships navigate Guichen Bay. The path stops short of the Obelisk thanks to cliff erosion.
Discovery Park, with direct access to the beach, is a great place to unhitch the van (discoveryholidayparks.com.au)
If the name Cape Jaffa sounds familiar, it might be the wine connection. Cellar doors like Cape Jaffa Wines and Ralph Fowler line the road into the Cape Jaffa Anchorage. At the end of the road is a stunning marina with huge boats and houses to match.
Kingston SE feels like a quiet, hidden gem. But perhaps it’s not so hidden, though, as there are three places to stay: Maria Creek and Pinks Beach RV parks at opposite ends of town (with on-site pay stations) and Kingston Foreshore Caravan Park, next to Cape Jaffa Lighthouse (kingstonforeshorecaravanpark.com.au)
A 7km coastal drive and walkway stretches along the shore. Larry the giant Lobster lives here — though I managed to miss him somehow. There’s also a boat ramp but it closes seasonally so check ahead before bringing the dinghy.
The Coorong National Park lines the highway north towards Meningie. The scenery is a mix of thick vegetation and open waterways with a few places to stop and rest and turnoffs along dirt roads into the national park.
Signs show camp spots along the way at 28 Mile Crossing, 42 Mile Crossing, Tea Tree Crossing, Salt Creek and Magrath Flat past Policeman’s Point. Salt Creek was a favourite place to stop and shop, refuel, rest and pick up Coorong mullet, but it’s now closed. If you’re lucky, the roadside pop-up van selling fresh fish might be open.
Bellwether Wines in Coonawarra
On to Meningie on the shores of Lake Albert, and our loop is almost complete. Picture pelicans gracefully sliding on to still waters. It’s a beautiful town to stay and soak up the tranquillity. Lake Albert Caravan Park is one of the lakeside holiday parks — right next to the Cheese Factory Museum and Freshies Cafe.
It’s only 150km back to Adelaide — unless you turn left at Tailem Bend, skirt around Lake Alexandrina and through Milang to Goolwa. The Fleurieu Peninsula is full of more adventures and you can take a Spirit of the Coorong cruise along the wildlife-rich waterway you have just passed