road tripping the limestone coast
With school holidays and COVID still upon us, it was time to decide on a local South Australian destination for another family road trip. If COVID has done one thing, it has given us more time to get to know our state a little better.
If you're looking for national parks, thought-provoking geography, historical sites, beaches, wine, and a little culture, then the Limestone Coast has plenty to offer. Plus it is only a half-day drive from Adelaide (or Melbourne in pre-pandemic times) with lots to see and do along the way.
We often avoid the tourist hot spots, but this trip included plenty of them, along with some lesser-known destinations.
The Wirreanda campsite in the Naracoorte Caves National Park provided us with the first of our holiday surprises. The website photos failed to do the set-up justice, and I had not noticed that I had booked a powered site with full amenities, a tennis court, walking trails, and stunning views to boot.
Once we'd picked up our jaws from the ground, we did a quick set-up, the kids dashed off to practice their soccer skills over the tennis court net, forthwith known as soccer tennis, and we poured a glass of red wine and watched the kangaroos graze in the adjacent paddock.
We booked a tour of the world heritage listed Victoria Fossil Cave for our first-holiday activity. Stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites line the way to the main fossil chamber. Some new electronic video enhances the commentary from the guide. Entry to the park is free, and it has a range of tours and activities available at various costs. This is an excellent park where you can see your fees hard at work.
Mt Gambier served us some poor weather. We tried to keep as dry as we could and make the best of things. We didn't manage to get onto the mountain bike tracks, and a sore foot hampered my ability to hike great distances, so we'll be heading back for those activities and the free disc golf in the Leg of Mutton Lake area another time.
We visited the Riddoch Arts and Cultural Centre and checked out a couple of exhibitions. It's fair to say that they weren't our cuppa tea, but they were different from what I'd seen there a couple of months back on another visit. The Centre is currently screening the locally made Craitbul and Volcano films, which tell the Aboriginal story, and the geological events of the area. It is an hour well-spent.
Of course, you can't visit the heart of Mt Gambier without a trip to the magical Cave Gardens, although the rain kept us away from the nightly light projections.
Hells Hole is a sinkhole that left us wondering. Firstly how was it that we were the only ones there because it is incredibly beautiful? Secondly, how is the suspension bridge anchored? Thirdly, how do the divers get down from the bridge to the water? Even more implausibly, how do they get back up again?
We didn't love the many steps leading to the top of Mt Shank, but it was worth the climb, providing excellent views across the farmland. The boys took the unmaintained track to the bottom of the crater floor while we stayed on the rim. At its lowest point, they discovered a cherry tree growing in the mud. And who would have thought that if you left the track and opted for some cross-country, you would sink up to your knees in muddy water?
We did a day visit to the busy Umpherson Sinkhole. We were impressed with the maintenance of the gardens, and the interesting history of the sinkhole. Despite possums reputedly being nocturnal, one little critter was happily out and about eating fruit, providing a spectacle for several fascinated children.
We wrapped up our visit with a parkrun, where we took part in the 5km course around Blue Lake. The Lake wasn't quite its brilliant blue best, but it was certainly getting there.
4WDing through Canunda National Park
Canunda National Park stretches from Southend to Carpenter Rocks and is the second-largest coastal park in the south east of South Australia. The park is dominated by huge sand dunes and a spectacular coastline and sandwiched between the sea and Lake Bonney.
We packed the Pajero with lunch and requisite recovery gear and headed out for a day of 4WDing, following the orange marker posts through the dunes and along the coastline of the park.
The conditions change regularly and it is worth taking some of the side tracks to check out the rugged coastline, spectacular dunes, and views of Lake Bonney. They say the fishing is good here, but we didn't have any rods with us this trip. Download the map.
Despite traveling with the tyres down to 15psi, we followed the recommendations to stay off the soft sand past Oil Rig Square. We realised this was a wise decision after we talked to a party who had spent considerable time digging themselves out of trouble. Our Maxtrax recovery tracks and winch are yet to be tested, making me very happy and the boys very disappointed!
We pulled into the CMCA campsite in the oldest inland town on the Limestone Coast, where we spent a comfortable night in our caravan for very little cost.
We investigated the town by bike, starting with the John Riddoch Centre where we wandered through the museum and enjoyed the small but exceptional art collection.
We searched the antique store, for what I'm not sure! We bought ice cream and fudge at the sweet shop and explored the Petticoat Lane Heritage Area. We loved the self-guided tour of Sharam Cottages and couldn't quite believe that 15 children could have slept in two tiny rooms.
Or that poor Ellen Sharam was married at 15 years of age before having her first child at 16 and then pushing out another 14 children over the next approximately 20 years. And that she largely raised them herself while her husband was often absent.
Of course, we were right on the doorstep of the Coonawarra and could have sampled some excellent reds while we were in the area. But we didn't feel inclined and we left it for another time.
We battled a big headwind and driving rain across to the coast with the thought of visiting Kingston. We found the excellent RV Park right on the esplanade by the fresh food shop. Write this down - $10 for 3 nights! Not joking!
Unfortunately, the weather was so bad that we didn't think we'd be able to leave the van or sleep a wink. We decided to head inland instead in the hope of finding a more sheltered campsite. But we couldn't leave without visiting Larry the Lobster, where I stood in the rain to take the obligatory photo of the kids and the giant crustacean.
You won't find this in too many tourist magazines, but we found it on the WikiCamps app, on a dirt road between The Coorong and Culburra. It's a great little campsite with a couple of decent outcrops to explore. The wildflowers were lovely and the climb to the top of the highest rocky outcrop gives great views over the mallee. Oh, the solitude! We had the whole place to ourselves.
Don't be fooled by the recommendations. You can safely take in a 2WD but stay out of the deep sand in the middle of the main camping area. And you don't need a 4WD caravan or trailer to enjoy this place.
What a great finish to another successful road trip, full of family memories. The kids are angling to get back to the Limestone Coast next Easter. But we've got one or two more holidays we need to plan before then.