Trip 45, post #8 – Mount Gambier

Let me take a moment to say a word about South Australia’s roads.

F#cking atrocious!

Oops, that’s two words, but the first word aptly describes how bad they are.

Almost every road we’ve driven on in South Australia has been shite. Potholes big enough to lose your car in, some bitumen is more corrugated than the gravel roads we’ve driven, and it’s almost always rolly and bouncy enough that with minimal speed you can literally launch all four wheels of the car off the road. Top that off with really heavy rain and strong wind today, and our 470km drive from Mt Barker to Mt Gambier was not particularly fun or relaxing.

Rant over, now returning to normal programming

Our first stop on the drive down was Strathalbyn. We only did a quick drive through the main street but were quickly taken by the well-restored heritage buildings and a cool metal sculpture of Ken Blake racing his motorbike. We’d not heard of Ken before, but upon Googling, (I) learnt – Jules already knew because she took the time to read the info board – he’d won numerous national and international motorcycle racing titles before he was killed in 1981, participating in the Isle of Man in what would have been his last professional race.

We then took the lesser road through Wellington, where we boarded the free ferry that took us across the mighty Murray River. From there, the only other stop we had was in Meningie, where we had mornos and read about the Birdman of Coorong, supposedly South Australia’s only bushranger back in the day.

Cool metal sculpture of Ken Blake
An old building in Strathalbyn
BJ crossing the Murray River on the Ferry

Our home base for the next few days is Mount Gambier, camping at the showgrounds, which are good value.

With a forecast of further showers for our first day here, we opted to do a 150km loop drive South, out and along the coast, taking in various points of interest. First up was the Little Blue Sinkhole, which is a cenote, formed when the roof of a cave collapses, exposing natural groundwater beneath. Mt Gambier, which lies within the Limestone Coast Region, is known for sinkholes with a couple of famous ones actually within the main streets of the town. The Little Blue Sinkhole is outside of town, and between Nov and Feb each year, the conditions change and it appears beautifully blue and crystal clear. Unfortunately, we were out of season and the day was very overcast with passing showers so we only got a glimpse of what this could be in the right conditions.

A quick shot of Little Blue Sinkhole

The next stop was Cape Banks Lighthouse and Carpenters Rocks. Our little bit of excitement here was viewing what we initially thought might be sharks circling a bunch of seals resting on the rocks, as we could see what looked like fins cutting through the water. But, upon zooming in with the lens and binos, we realised the fins were actually seals, lazing on their sides in the water, sticking one flipper up.

The Cape Banks Lighthouse
Seals and what we initially thought were sharks in the water, but realised they were more seals with their flippers in the air

It was then onto Blackfellows Cave where the small cave was barely visible in the high water line, but the beach was covered in cool pebbles.

Pebbles on Blackfellows Cave Beach
Things on a beach at Blackfellows Cave

Next up was the point at Port Macdonnell, which is South Australia’s most southerly mainland point. We grabbed a lovely Seafood Chowder, paired with a glass of wine, at the Salt Cafe in town before moving on to the pièce de résistance of the day, the Ewen Ponds. The ponds consist of three large pools fed by underground freshwater springs which are interconnected by narrow streams. Normally you can snorkel or dive the ponds to glide through the crystal clear water and float above the abundant water plants and fish beneath. Unfortunately, however, both the Ewen Ponds and Piccaninnie Ponds, which we visited next, are closed to swimmers due to low water levels as a result of the recent drought and overuse of the underground water. We ran into a couple of Rangers assessing the Ewen Ponds and they advised they had some plans to resolve the water conditions.

SA’s most southerly point
The coastline around Port Macdonnell
The coastline around Port Macdonnell
Lighthouse at Port Macdonnell
Photo credit Jules – Salt Cafe where we had very yummy Seafood Chowder
My shadow in the crystal clear water of Ewen Ponds
Egbert, as called by the rangers, at Ewen Ponds
Egbert, as called by the rangers, at Ewen Ponds
BJ at Piccaninnie Ponds
Jules at Piccaninnie Ponds
Photo credit Jules – Me at Piccaninnie Ponds
Photo credit Jules – Me at Piccaninnie Ponds
The surf under a leaden sky at Piccaninnie Ponds

Our final day in Mt Gambier was spent exploring sites within and around town. The first stop was a fuel fill, and then, very fortuitously, we found ourselves next to the Engelbrecht Cave so decided to pop in there for a gander. We arrived at 9:56, just 4 minutes before the 10 am tour which, unbeknownst to us, was the 2nd last tour to be run at the cave for the foreseeable future! The council has decided not to renew the current kiosk and tour operator license, and hasn’t decided if, or how, they will re-open and operate the site, so the Engelbrecht Cave is closed until further notice. $15/person is well spent to do the tour and listen to the history of the cave and get to view a small section of what is an extensive underground system, over 1km long, and mostly filled with water making it a mecca for trained cave divers. Our pics don’t do it justice.

Jules and BJ descend into Engelbrecht Cave
Jules in the cave
A pic of the 1st section of the cave, 30m (9 stories) underground, showing the steps the cave divers take to enter the water system.
The other publically accessible section of the cave and the other steps leading down to the diving area, through that gap
Some old bones and artefacts left over from when the original landowner used the cave as a rubbish dump for his whisky distillery and abattoir offal

The next stop was the visitors centre so BJ could get a pic of the sailing ship and even this stop turned out pretty cool as they have a discovery centre out the back with all sorts of local info and heritage, including a cave diving video of the Engelbrecht cave, which made us shudder seeing how confined some of the diving was.

Ship outside of the visitor’s centre

It was now getting on for lunch, so we made our way into the main drag, did some banking, and then explored the Cave Garden sinkhole, which is literally in the middle of the CBD, before grabbing a yummy lunch and coffee at the bakery.

Cave Garden sinkhole which is right in the middle of town

On the advice of the visitors centre, we then popped out of town to view and climb Mt Schank, a 100m tall dormant volcano. The climb was steep but well structured with steps and from the top, there’s a fantastic view of the basalt rock, crater and a clear rim. Well worth the visit, with the upside of burning off the extra calories consumed at lunch!

A shot of the Mt Schank crater
A drone shot of the whole crater, I had to get pretty high for this shot
Looking out to the farmland, with the crater rim in the foreground

We then chose to pop back out to Little Blue Lake to get some drone shots as it was raining when we visited yesterday.

Drone shot of Little Blue Lake
Drone shot of Little Blue Lake

From Little Blue Lake, we then moved back into town and viewed Blue Lake, a much larger lake in the crater of another dormant volcano. Apparently, the blue lakes really take on the blue colour in summer (Nov to Feb), but they were still obviously blue today and the water looked crystal clear and clean.

Blue Lake
The Pump House at Blue Lake

BJ managed to drop his walking stick over the lookout of the Blue Lake and it was way too steep and dangerous to recover it, so we popped back into town so he could purchase a replacement before visiting our last stop of the day, the Umpherston Sinkhole which was just a few hundred metres from our campsite.

The Umpherston Sinkhole was manicured into a lovely, English-style garden back in 1886 by the then landowner. Over the years the gardens went through various states of disrepair and change, but are now beautifully maintained and open to the public for free.

The gardens inside the Umpherston Sinkhole
The gardens inside the Umpherston Sinkhole
Jules and BJ at Umpherston Sinkhole
A Starling inside the sinkhole

That about wraps up our Mt Gambier post. Jules and I both enjoyed the town and local sights and would easily come back for another visit, possibly when it’s a bit warmer, though.

My final pic of the day, and this post, was taken of some sheds at the Mt Gambier Showground, where we’re camping, and I have to say, I think this shot is my favourite of the day!

Agriculture sheds at the Mt Gambier Showgrounds

Tomorrow we’re off to Victoria to visit my family, which will be the subject of the next post!

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