South Australia, the driest state of the driest continent, is split into two distinct halves. The long-settled southern part, watered by the Murray River, with Adelaide as its cosmopolitan centre, has a Mediterranean climate, is tremendously fertile and has been thoroughly tamed. The northern half is arid and depopulated, and as you head further north the temperature heats up to such an extreme that by Coober Pedy people are living underground to escape the searing summer temperatures.
Some of the highlights of southeastern South Australia lie within three hours’ drive of Adelaide. Food and especially wine are among the area’s chief pleasures: this is prime grape-growing and wine-making country. As well as wineries the Fleurieu Peninsula, just south of Adelaide, has a string of fine beaches, while nearby Kangaroo Island is a wonderful place to see Australian wildlife at its unfettered best. Facing Adelaide across the Investigator Strait, the Yorke Peninsula is primarily an agricultural area, preserving a copper-mining history and offering excellent fishing. The superb wineries of the Barossa Valley, originally settled by German immigrants in the nineteenth century, are only an hour from Adelaide on the Sturt Highway, the main road to Sydney. Following the southeast coast along the Princes Highway, you can head towards Melbourne via the extensive coastal Coorong lagoon system and enjoyable seaside towns such as Robe, before exiting the state at Mount Gambier, with its deep-blue crater lakes. The inland trawl via the Dukes Highway is faster but less interesting. Heading north from Adelaide, there are old copper-mining towns to explore at Kapunda and Burra, the area known as the mid-north, which also encompasses the Clare Valley, another wonderful wine centre, famous for its Rieslings.
In contrast with the gentle and cultured southeast, the remainder of South Australia – with the exception of the relatively refined Eyre Peninsula and its scenic west coast – is unremittingly harsh desert, a naked country of vast horizons, salt lakes, glazed gibber plains and ancient mountain ranges, epitomized by the Nullarbor Plain. Although it’s tempting to scud over the forbidding distances quickly, you’ll miss the essence of this introspective and subtle landscape by hurrying. For every predictable, monotonous highway there’s a dirt alternative, which may be physically draining but gets you closer to this precarious environment. The folded red rocks of the central Flinders Ranges and Coober Pedy’s post-apocalyptic scenery are on most agendas and could be worked into a sizeable circuit. Making the most of the journey is what counts here though – the fabled routes to Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Innamincka are still real adventures.
Rail and road routes converge in Adelaide before the long cross-country hauls west to Perth via Port Augusta on the Indian Pacific train, or north to Alice Springs and Darwin on the Ghan – two of Australia’s great train journeys.
The coast of South Australia was first explored by the Dutch in 1627. In 1792 the French explorer Bruni d’Entrecasteaux sailed along the Great Australian Bight before heading to southern Tasmania, and in 1802 the Englishman Matthew Flinders thoroughly charted the coast. The most important expedition, though – and the one that led to the foundation of a colony here – was Captain Charles Sturt’s 1830 navigation of the Murray River, from its source in New South Wales to its mouth in South Australia. In 1836, Governor John Hindmarsh landed at Holdfast Bay – now the Adelaide beachside suburb of Glenelg – with the first settlers, and the next year Colonel William Light planned the spacious, attractive city of Adelaide, with broad streets and plenty of parks and squares.
Early problems caused by the harsh, dry climate and financial incompetence (the colony went bankrupt in 1841) were eased by the discovery of substantial reserves of copper. The population of Adelaide boomed over the following decades, while the state’s tradition of civil and religious libertarianism that was guaranteed to the early settlers continued; in 1894, South Australia’s women were the first in the world to be permitted to stand for parliament and the second in the world to gain the vote (after New Zealand). The depressions and recessions of the interwar period hit South Australia hard, but the situation eased following World War II when new immigrants arrived, boosting industry and injecting fresh life into the state.
The 1970s were the decade of Don Dunstan: the flamboyant Labor Premier was an enlightened reformer who had a strong sense of social justice, abolishing capital punishment, outlawing racial discrimination and decriminalizing homosexuality. It appears that since his retirement in 1979, South Australia has gone back to being a sleepy state – after all, how can you follow up a premier who once wore tight pink hot pants to work?
Perhaps this is part of why South Australians themselves feel that their state’s attractions have been unfairly eclipsed in the past by the lure of other Australian destinations. However, today South Australia has a renewed confidence buoyed in part by its strong art, culture, and food and wine scenes, as well as a renewed interest in its natural features and wildlife.
When European settlers arrived in 1836, South Australia was home to as many as fifty distinct Aboriginal groups, with a population estimated at fifteen thousand. Three distinct cultural regions existed: the Western Desert, the Central Lakes, and the Murray and southeast region. It was the people of the comparatively well-watered southeast who felt the full impact of white settlement, and those who survived were shunted onto missions controlled by the government. Some Aboriginal people have clung tenaciously to their way of life in the Western Desert, where they have gained title to some of their land, but most now live south of Port Augusta, many in Adelaide.Read More
The east-coast ports of Ardrossan, Port Vincent and Edithburgh are all pleasant to visit, but EDITHBURGH offers the most facilities. There’s also a tidal swimming pool set in a rocky cove, and from Troubridge Hill you can see across to the Fleurieu Peninsula and the offshore Troubridge Island Conservation Park, with its 1850s iron lighthouse. Accommodation is available in the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage, which sleeps up to ten and a minimum of four – if you stay here you’ll have the whole island to yourself.
Innes National Park
Innes National Park
At the tip of the peninsula lies the Innes National Park, with its contrasting coastline of rough cliffs, beach and sand dunes, and its interior of mallee scrub. The park is untouched except for the ruins of the gypsum-mining town of Inneston, near Stenhouse Bay. The main camping area is at Pondalowie Bay, which has some of the best surf in the state; there are several other good surfing spots around the park and north towards Corny Point. Other more sheltered coves and bays are good for snorkelling, with shallow reef areas of colourful marine life, while on land you might see emus, western grey kangaroos, pygmy possums and mallee fowl.
The Acraman meteorite
The Acraman meteorite
In the mid-1980s a band of red earth from 600-million-year-old deposits in the Flinders Ranges was bafflingly identified as coming from the Gawler Ranges, 400km away. Investigations and satellite mapping suggested that 35km-wide Lake Acraman in the Gawler Ranges was an eroded meteorite crater, while Lake Gairdner and fragmented saltpans (such as Lake Torrens) further east were set in ripples caused by the force of the strike. Estimates suggest that to have created such a crater the meteorite must have been 4km across; the mystery band in the Flinders Ranges was dust settling after impact. Though there is fossil evidence of animal life prior to this event – notably the Ediacaran fauna – recent research indicates that the Acraman meteorite may well have killed it all. It’s certainly true that the ancestors of almost all species living today evolved after this impact.
The Simpson Desert crossing
The Simpson Desert crossing
Crossing the approximately 550km of steep north–south dunes through the Simpson Desert between Dalhousie in South Australia and Birdsville in Queensland is the ultimate challenge for any off-roader. In late September, 4WD groups are joined by bikes attempting to complete the punishing Simpson Desert Cycling Classic (wwww.desertchallenge.org). In winter, a steady stream of vehicles moves from west to east (the easier direction since the dunes’ eastern slopes are steeper and harder to climb), but there’s no help along the way, so don’t underestimate the difficulties; extensive 4WD experience is required. Convoys need to include at least one skilled mechanic and, apart from the usual spares, a long-handled shovel and a strong tow-rope. You’ll also need more than adequate food and water (six litres a day per person), and of course fuel – around a hundred litres of diesel, or two hundred litres of petrol, if you take the shortest route.
The enjoyment is mostly in the driving, though there’s more than sand to look at: trees and shrubs grow in stabilized areas and at dusk you’ll find dune crests patrolled by reptiles, birds, small mammals and insects. Photographers can take advantage of clear skies at night to make timed exposures of the stars circling the heavens. At the uncapped spout of Purni Bore, 70km from Dalhousie, birdlife and reeds fringe a 27 °C pool; camping facilities here include a shower and toilet. A post battling to stay above shifting sand at Poeppel Corner (269km) marks the junction of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. After the corner the dunes become higher but further apart, separated by claypans covered in mulga and grassland. Big Red, the last dune, is also the tallest; once over this it’s a clear 41km run to Birdsville.
The Simpson Desert Regional Reserve, linking the Witjira National Park to the Simpson Desert Conservation Park, is closed in summer (Dec–March). As with other areas, a Desert Parks Pass is required – contact the DENR for details (t1800 816 078, wwww.environment.sa.gov.au/parks).