Limestone Coast South Australia

Limestone Coast South Australia

From the Grampian National Park in Victoria there are more direct ways to get to the Limestone Coast of South Australia, but Bill and I were lured by names of mind puzzling origin such as Gringegalgona, Gatum and Wombelano, to meander off the beaten track.

In fact, the towns delivered less than their appellations suggested, but to compensate we passed lakes glittering white with salt and overhead watched huge flocks of galahs, fiery finches and sulphur-crested cockatoos. The sun hammered down through the harsh light and the air smelled of warm dust and eucalyptus. It was a very Australian drive.

By mid-morning, we were heading (rather unenthusiastically on my part) for the Naracoorte Caves. I’ve never been big on caves. This time I’d never been so wrong.

This limestone cave area is huge. There are enormous wet caves stuffed with stalactites and-mites, a large cave of fluttering bent-wing bats, 29 other kinds of cave have been uncovered and still more to be discovered. They are archeologically young – a mere 25 million years old – and full of fossilised skeletons of the most astonishing creatures. So far 110 species have been uncovered.

The huge ones (not just big, but grotesquely ugly) are called mega-fauna. Reconstructed models have mega-names such as Simosthenurus occidentalis – a monstrous kangaroo-type creature – and a hippo horror called Sygomaturus trilobus. If I’d met them in the flesh all my yesterdays might have come at once.

There was nothing ancient or ugly, however, about our next port of call. Coonawarra, (South Australia’s red centre) is a short drive south of Naracoorte. This little crocodile-shaped patch of land, only 16km long and 1.5km wide, is world renowned for its deep-flavoured cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz table wines.

They owe their excellence to terra rossa, the famed red soil that is the perfect combination of loam over limestone, and good drainage. The Coonawarra strip is fence to fence vineyards scattered with wineries. Their signboards read like the wine menu of an upper-crust restaurant – Hollick, Bowen, Yalumba, Redman…

Of course, there was some (careful) tippling to be done, and then we drove to Penola, a town at the southern end of the strip, which is small in size and big in history. It was among its tiny neatly-preserved colonial cottages and churches the good and godly aspirations of Blessed Mary McKillop and the charismatic priest Julian Woods unfolded, resulting in the founding of a charitable order and a revolutionised education system.

She is well recognised in New Zealand for the time she spent here. Mary was beatified in 1995. She needs to be credited with just one more miracle to be canonised as Australia’s first saint.

There was little that was saintly about the way Bill and I quaffed a bottle of local shiraz that night, as we sat outside our motorhome scuffing at the red dust.

Next morning, we drove to Robe. Despite a grey-flannel sky and a biting wind, I loved this town, which retains a charmingly historical atmosphere through its many old stone buildings. Its snug harbour, once a lake, and now accessed by a man-dug channel, was jammed with crayfishing boats hiding from the wind.

In the gloomy bar of the old Caledonian Hotel, a fisherman, his features half-hidden by a long, frizzy beard, was downing his first beer of the morning. “There’ll be no crayfish in m’pots in this weather,” he grinned, revealing missing front teeth, “Might as well be in here I reckon.”

In the sea near Robe, in 1941, there was a catch of a different kind. Two fishermen hauled up a German naval mine, one of a number found along this coast. One mine (thoroughly dead) lies like a large silver marble in the main street.

We drove north through Coorong National Park, a narrow 145km-long strip of sandhills, mallee, lagoons and storm-battered beaches. As well as its moody beauty, the Coorong is an important sanctuary for 250 species of bird. I saw about 10. You need to spend time in the Coorong to appreciate its value.

My best experience was visiting the Coorong Wilderness Resort – four basic apartments, and room for parking, perched on a sandhill. It is run (with help from his family) by George Trevorrow, a serene , thoughtful Aborigine in his sixties.

“I am of the Ngarrindjeri tribe,” he told me, “we are from here.” He nodded towards the hauntingly beautiful sweep of sand and a winding water channel. “All this land was created in the Dreamtime by my ancestor Ngurunderi, but we are dislocated from our past. Now, we must find it again in our own way. I run this place to help my people raise themselves up.”

For lunch, George’s wife Shirley cooked a plateful of delicious Coorong mullet, which we ate as a ballet of pelicans glided past on the inlet. We could have stayed a week.

From the Coorong, our route led through Meningie and along the western shore of the huge Lake Albert. Our van was barged across the narrows connecting Lake Albert to the even vaster Lake Alexandrina, where Australia’s largest river system (the Murray) ends its journey to the sea.

I’d come this way to visit an historic pastoral property on its southern shore. The enormous Poltalloch station was established 1889 and bought in 1870 by John Bowman. His great grandson, Chris Bowman, a slight 40-year-old who looked more like a barman than a cattle rancher, still farms Aberdeen Angus cattle on the 2000-hectare property.

The Farm “village” comprises 22 heritage-listed buildings. Many of them still contain the stuff of 19th-century daily life such as side-saddles, a governess’ trap, sulkies and a corrugated iron press.

We lingered at Poltalloch and then stayed the night in Middleton and, I’m sorry to say, we only had time for a whistle-stop dash through the Fleurieu Peninsula in order to make our flight out of Adelaide.

There is nothing else for it. We’ll have to go back.

Author: Jill Malcolm