A twist of limestone

Bill Bachman | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 6
Captain’s Head Rock is one of a number of strange rocky outcrops in an area known to locals as the “Petrified Forest” along the eroded limestone cliffs near Cape Northumberland, Port MacDonnell.
Down in the south-east corner of South Australia lies some of the most rugged and striking scenery.

Probably like most people, every time we have driven from Melbourne to Adelaide during the past 20 years, we’ve galloped along the Western Highway past the Grampians and through all the little three-silo towns of the Wimmera, then along the Dukes Highway via Bordertown, Keith and Tailem Bend to Murray Bridge.

It’s an easy one-day drive if you get an early start, and it has its charms, but perhaps nowhere near as many as good old Highway One, which parallels it along the coastline to the south.

The entire bottom right hand corner of South Australia is more or less on the road to nowhere, which is part of its appeal. Many coastal travellers end their journey westward at the end of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, but, in fact, from Warrnambool and Portland, the Princes Highway continues to follow the coast all the way through the Coorong and up to Tailem Bend. It certainly takes longer, but it’s a lot more interesting than hammering along the major inland roads, as we discovered over a couple of days last March.

Once covered by the Southern Ocean, South Australia’s south east is underlain by limestone bedrock, which accounts for the region’s many honeycomb caves, its prehistoric fossil riches and the world-famous terra rossa soil of the Coonawarra vineyards.

It also gives the Limestone Coast its name. Low cliffs of spiky Swiss-cheese limestone, broad sandy beaches and a necklace of coastal lakes stretch all the way from the Victorian border to Lacepede Bay at Kingston. From there to the mouth of the Murray River, the dunes of the Younghusband Peninsula squeeze the shallow salty waters of the Coorong into what must be Australia’s skinniest national park.

Camping opportunities are plentiful all along the coast in the many national and conservation parks, but for those not so inclined or on the march, it is the series of delightful little coastal towns that make this drive such a pleasure.

Starting in the south, Port MacDonnell is a classic fishing town that lays claim to the title of Australia’s Rock Lobster Capital. Sadly for the hype – and for us – our much-anticipated feed of local lobster at the pub on the night we stayed there was one of the most uninspiring meals we’d ever eaten. While we won’t remember it for that, we loved the wonderful public murals that brightly illustrate the history of the district and, all things considered, it was just the right place to stop after a long day in the car.

Low-slung and unpretentious, the town lies just to the east of craggy Cape Northumberland, which is rocky testimony to the treachery that awaits unsuspecting seafarers in these parts.

Back roading it west from there, we called in at Blackfellow Caves and Carpenter Rocks, dozy little fishing communities with million-dollar boats at anchor and seaweed on the beach. Then we meandered through the hinterland before popping out at the once busy whaling town of Beachport, where both the colour of the water in Rivoli Bay and the town jetty – one of the longest in SA at 770 metres – reminded us of Broome.

In Robe we scored both a hilltop room with a view of their beautiful little fishing harbour and, ever hopeful, the lobster we should have had at Port MacDonnell. Though not quite the commercial fishing powerhouse it once was, with its restaurants, galleries, beautiful coastline and beaches, it remains one of South Australia’s most popular seaside destinations. No doubt insufferably busy at the height of the season, in the gentle light of late summer and relatively devoid of tourists it was spot-on, and we’d have stayed a few more days if we could have.

Kingston, though not as overtly picturesque as Robe, is another gem with modest homes and unfenced front lawns that go right down to the beach, and if we were locals we’d no doubt be happy as Larry, the giant lobster that looms beside the highway at the gateway to town.

Arriving at Camp Coorong, where the road turns north, we hightailed it to Adelaide, but on the way home a few days later we backtracked around the Fleurieu Peninsula, home to more grapes, galleries, designer menus, colonial-style B&Bs, and eye-catching seaside towns like Port Elliott and Victor Harbour.

In the end it took us four days to cover a distance we could have driven in one, and for all that we agreed it was just about the perfect road trip.