South Australia Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

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 the time you get to 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 winemaking country. As well as vineyards the Fleurieu Peninsula, just south of Adelaide, has a string of fine beaches, while nearby Kangaroo Islandis a wonderful place to see Australian wildlife at its unfettered best. Facing Adelaide across the Investigator Strait, the Yorke Peninsulais 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 Stuart 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. 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 postapocalyptic 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.

Brief history

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 third in the world to gain the vote (after the Isle of Man and 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.

South Australia had an important, though controversial role during the early years of the Cold War. In 1947 an Anglo-Australian project founded the Woomera rocket range, site of British-run atomic bomb tests in 1950. The Woomera area later became part of the US space programme, and in 1947 launched Australia’s first satellite.

Aboriginal South Australia

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.

Around Adelaide

Escaping Adelaide for a day or two is easy and enjoyable. Close at hand are the Adelaide Hills, southeast of the city, which are popular for weekend outings and have numerous small national and conservation parks. To the south, the Fleurieu Peninsula extends towards Cape Jervis and has plenty of fine beaches and around fifty wineries at McLaren Vale.

If wine is your priority, head for McLaren Vale first, then the Barossa Valley, Australia’s premier wine-producing region, with another sixty or so excellent wineries within 50km of Adelaide. The valley is easily visited in a day from the city, but is also a great place to chill out for a few days. The Yorke Peninsula, across the gulf from Adelaide, is often ignored by foreigners, though many locals holiday here: as well as the wonderful beaches, it’s home to the remains of an old copper-mining industry and an excellent national park.

The Adelaide Hills

The beautiful Adelaide Hills are the section of the Mount Lofty Ranges that run closest to the city. Many people have set up home in the hills to take advantage of the cooler air, and there are some grand old summer houses here as well as sleek contemporary weekenders. You can access the towns and some stunning walks via short bus or train rides from Adelaide, but having your own car opens up a lot more of the area, notably the Torrens River Gorge. Leaving the city by Glen Osmond Road you join the South Eastern Freeway, the main road to Melbourne – there’s an old tollhouse not far out of the city at Urrbrae and several fine old coaching hotels.

The Heysen Trail, a long-distance walk from Cape Jervis to Parachilna Gorge, cuts across the hills, with four quaint YHA hostels along it; most are run on a limited-access basis and you’ll have to pick the key up first from the office at the Adelaide Central YHA.

Wineries in the hills

Less than thirty minutes’ drive from the city, the Adelaide Hills’ wineries may not be as famous as those in the neighbouring Barossa Valley, but they are gaining popularity and are definitely worth a trip. The cool weather (this is the coolest wine-growing region on mainland Australia) contributes to wonderful Sauvignon Blancs and fresh Chardonnays and you can even expect a superb cool-weather Shiraz.

Hahndorf Hill Winery hahndorfhillwinery.com.au. Hahndorf Hill Winery makes an award-winning Sauvignon Blanc and a rosé of rare German grapes; it’s also great for lunch overlooking the valley.

Petaluma Bridgewater Mill www.adelaidehills.org.au. Apart from being an excellent winery, Petaluma Bridgewater Mill, in an 1860 mill, has won prizes for its restaurant and is well worth a visit.

The Barossa Valley

The Barossa Valley, only an hour’s drive from Adelaide, produces internationally acclaimed wines and is the largest premium-wine producer in Australia. Small stone Lutheran churches dot the valley, which was settled in the 1840s by German Lutherans fleeing from religious persecution: by 1847 over 2500 German immigrants had arrived and after the 1848 revolution more poured in. German continued to be spoken in the area until World War I, when the language was frowned upon and German place names were changed by an act of parliament. The towns, however – most notably Tanunda – still remain German in character, and the valley is well worth visiting for the vineyards, wineries, bakeries and butcher’s shops, where old German recipes have been handed down through generations. With around eight hundred thousand visitors each year, the valley can seem thoroughly touristy and traffic-laden if you whizz through it quickly, but the peaceful back roads are more interesting, with a number of small, family-owned wineries to explore.

The first vines were planted in 1847 at the Orlando vineyards, an estate that is still a big producer. There are now over sixty wineries with cellar doors, from multinationals to tiny specialists. Because of the variety of soil and climate, the Barossa seems able to produce a wide range of wine types of consistently high quality; the white Rieslings are among the best. The region has a typically Mediterranean climate, with dry summers and mild winters; the best time to visit is autumn (March–May), when the vines turn russet and golden and the harvest has begun in earnest. Much of the grape-picking is still done by hand and work is available from February.

Barossa wineries

While there is a mind-boggling array of wineries in the Barossa Valley, this selection should start you off on a good footing.

Bethany Wines bethany.com.au. A hillside winery set in an old quarry, with views over the village; the Schrapel family have grown grapes here since 1852 and produce consistently good wines. Very good reds (the Shiraz is outstanding) and a decent Semillon.

Langmeil Winery langmeilwinery.com.au. This was the original Langmeil village, built in the 1840s; the little vineyard you can see from the tasting area was planted in 1843, and prints of nineteenth-century photos document the local industry. An outstanding winery with excellent reds, particularly the Shiraz – try the increasingly popular sparkling variety.

Peter Lehmann peterlehmannwines.com. A pleasant spot for a picnic as well as a tasting, with some excellent varieties such as the Eden Valley Riesling and the more expensive Stonewall Shiraz. The wines satisfy several price points and palates.

Pindarie Wines pindarie.com.au. One of the valley’s newer cellar doors, Pindarie offers some interesting alternative blends. Set on the western ridge of the Barossa, the family-friendly restaurant and gorgeous heritage function-space offer stunning views.

Richmond Grove richmondgrovewines.com. Large, historic winery with a lovely picnic area alongside the North Para River. It’s a big producer, sourcing grapes widely, and does a decent Watervale Riesling.

Rockford Wines rockfordwines.com.au. Excellent winery with outstanding wines by Robert O’Callahan, produced using old-fashioned techniques. The wines are hard to find, so snap up the Basket Press Shiraz, the amazing fizzy Black Shiraz or the Eden Valley Riesling.

St Hallett’s Winery sthallet.com.au. Medium-size, quality producer whose star wine is Old Block Shiraz, sourced from vines 80–100 years old, with an intense flavour and a velvety softness.

Taste Eden Valley tasteedenvalley.com.au. Ten boutique Eden Valley wineries (an area internationally renowned for its Rieslings and cool-climate reds) are represented in this intimate family-kitchen-like setting. The friendly and knowledgeable staff can walk you through the wines, many of which are available only at the cellar door.

Yalumba Wines yalumba.com. Largest and oldest family-operated Barossa winery, established in 1849, set in a lovely building and gardens.

The Fleurieu Peninsula

The Fleurieu Peninsula, thirty minutes south of Adelaide by car, is bounded by Gulf St Vincent to the west and the Southern Ocean to the south, the two connected by the Backstairs Passage at Cape Jervis (where ferries leave for Kangaroo Island). There are fine beaches on both coasts and more wineries inland in the rolling McLaren Vale region. It’s a picturesque area: many of the towns were settled from the 1830s, and there’s a lot of colonial architecture, much of it now housing restaurants or B&Bs.

Cycling across the Fleurieu Peninsula

The Fleurieu Peninsula is a good place to cycle. The 24km Encounter Bikeway follows a scenic 30km stretch of coast between Victor Harbor and Goolwa. Parts of the route are on-road and slightly inland, but mostly it follows the coastline and is for cyclists and walkers only. The return trip can be completed comfortably in a day; the most scenic – and hilliest – section is between Dump Beach in Victor Harbor and the town of Port Elliot. Unfortunately, there’s no bike rental available in Goolwa, but on Sundays you can take your bike on the Cockle Train between Victor Harbor and Goolwa and cycle back.

The Heysen Trail

The spectacular Heysen Trail is Australia’s longest dedicated walking trail, spanning a 1200km route between Cape Jervis and Parachilna Gorge. En route it takes in the Fleurieu Peninsula, the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Bryan, and the Flinders Ranges. Walking the full trail, which is open May to November, takes around 60 days, but there are countless shorter strolls, day-hikes and multiday options. For more information, including maps, contact the Friends of Heysen Trail, which has an office and shop in Adelaide (heysentrail.asn.au).

McLaren Vale wineries

Listed here are six favourites from a wide choice of excellent wineries.

Chapel Hill chapelhillwine.com.au. A small but very civilized winery in an old stone chapel with nice views over the vineyards.

d’Arenberg darenberg.com.au. A family winery set up in 1928, well-known for its prize-winning reds and excellent restaurant (see d’Arry’s Verandah).

Kay Brothers Amery Wines kaybrothersamerywines.com. A wonderful family winery established in 1890; old photos of the Kays and the surrounding area cover the oak casks containing port. It’s renowned for its Block 6 Shiraz from vines planted in 1892 (it tends to sell out quickly). The winery also has a picnic area set amid towering gum trees.

Lloyd Brothers Wine & Olive Company lloydbrothers.com.au. Third-generation vignerons producing some of the finest hand-picked Shiraz wines in the region. The cellar door also has a large selection of top-notch olives and olive products from the on-site grove – one of the oldest commercial olive groves in Australia. The Kalamata mustard is fantastic.

Oxenberry Farm Wines oxenberry.com.au. Small, historic cellar door with a relaxed atmosphere and lovely views across the surrounding vineyards and wetlands. It shares its premises with the award-winning Bracegirdle’s House of Fine Chocolate and there’s charming accommodation in a restored 1940s cedar cottage.

Wirra Wirra wirrawirra.com. A large, classic ironstone building provides the setting for an impressive range of reds (especially Shiraz) and whites (try the Chardonnay).

The Yorke Peninsula

Just ninety minutes’ drive from Adelaide, the Yorke Peninsula offers a peaceful weekend break as well as good fishing and surfing. The north proudly upholds its Cornish heritage with the three towns of the Copper Triangle or “Little Cornwall” – Kadina, Wallaroo and Moonta – hosting the Kernewek Lowender (Cornish Festival) over a long weekend in May during odd-numbered years.

The far north: Marree and beyond

The highlight of this region is Lake Eyre, a vast, awe-inspiring salt flat. Marree is the closest settlement and the starting point for two epic journeys: the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks. There’s no public transport in this region, so you’ll need your own vehicle.

The Birdsville Track

Tearing north from Marree, the distant tips of the Flinders Ranges dip below the horizon behind, leaving you on a bare plain with the road as the only feature. Look for the MV Tom Brennan, a vessel donated to the area in 1949 to ferry stock around during floods, but now bearing an absurd resemblance to a large grey bathtub. Before the halfway house at Mungerannie Gap, a scenic variation is offered by the Natterannie Sandhills (150km). The Mungerannie Hotel provides the only services on the track. In a 4WD you can head west from the roadhouse to Kalamurina campsite near Cowarie Homestead (58km) for the thrill of desert fishing on Warburton Creek.

Back on the track, a windmill at Mirra Mitta bore (37km from the roadhouse) draws piping-hot water out of the ground beside long-abandoned buildings; the water smells of tar and drains into cooler pools, providing somewhere to camp. By now you’re crossing the polished gibber lands of the Sturt Stony Desert, and it’s worth going for a walk to feel the cool wind and watch the dunes dancing in the heat haze away to the west. The low edge of Coonchera Dune to the right of the track (190km from the roadhouse) marks the start of a run along the mudpans between the sandhills; look for desert plants and dingoes. In two more hours you should be pulling up outside the Birdsville pub.

Lake Eyre

Lake Eyre is a massive and eerily desolate salt lake caught between the Simpson and Strzelecki deserts in a region where the annual evaporation rate is thirty times greater than the rainfall. Most years a little water trickles into the lake from its million-square-kilometre catchment area, which extends well into central Queensland and the Northern Territory. However, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 major floods in Queensland and New South Wales filled the basin, transforming it into a massive inland sea. A hypnotic, glaring salt crust usually covers the southern bays, creating a mysterious landscape whose harsh surrounds are paved by shiny gibber stones and walled by red dunes – in 1964 the crust was thick enough to be used as a range for Donald Campbell’s successful crack at the world land-speed record.

Some wildlife also manages to get by in the incredible emptiness. The resident Lake Eyre dragon is a diminutive, spotted grey lizard often seen skimming over the crust, and the rare flooding attracts dense flocks of birds, wakes the plump water-holding frog from hibernation and causes plants to burst into colour.

Timber at the lake is sparse and protected, which means that there’s little shade and no firewood. There’s no one to help you if something goes wrong, so don’t drive on the lake’s crust – should you fall through, it’s impossible to extricate your vehicle from the grey slush below. This isn’t a place to wander off to unprepared, but if you wish to grasp the vastness and emptiness of the state, don’t miss it.

Marree

MARREE consists of a collection of tattered houses that somehow outlived the Old Ghan’s demise in 1980, leaving carriages to rust on sidings and rails to be used for tethering posts outside the wonderful big old pub. Although it was first a camel depot, then a staging post for the overland telegraph line, and finally the point where the rail line skirted northwest around Lake Eyre, today all traffic comes by road and is bound for the Birdsville Track into Queensland or the Oodnadatta Track, which follows the former train route to Oodnadatta and beyond into the Northern Territory or Simpson Desert.

The Oodnadatta Track

The road from Marree to Oodnadatta is by far the most interesting of the three famous Outback tracks, mainly because abandoned sidings and fettlers’ cottages from the Old Ghan provide frequent excuses to get out of the car and explore. Disintegrating sleepers lie by the roadside along parts of the route, otherwise embankments and rickety bridges are all that remain of the line.

The Simpson Desert

Apart from the track out to the Stuart Highway, the area north of Oodnadatta is strictly for 4WDs, with Dalhousie Hot Springs in the Witjira National Park a worthwhile destination, or the Simpson Desert for the ultimate off-road challenge. The route directly north, towards Finke and the Northern Territory, is relatively good as far as Hamilton Homestead (110km), though Fogarty’s Claypan, around halfway, might present a sticky problem. From Hamilton the route is via Eringa ruins (160km) and Bloods Creek bore on the edge of Witjira National Park.

From Bloods Creek you can detour 30km northeast to Mount Dare Hotel. In winter the homestead is busy with groups of 4WDs arriving from or departing for the desert crossing; it’s at least 550km to the next fuel stop at Birdsville in Queensland.

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 (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 (environment.sa.gov.au/parks).

The Flinders Ranges and northeast

Recognized as one of Australia’s oldest natural landscapes, the rugged peaks and tranquil bush scenery of the Flinders Ranges stretch over a distance of 400km from Port Pirie, 220km north of Adelaide, to Lake Callabonna in the far northeast of the state.

From Mount Remarkable National Park and the picturesque town of Melrose in the southern Ranges, the roads bear west to the hub of Port Augusta or north to the quaint villages of Quorn and Hawker from where you can take an adventurous route through the spectacular Flinders Ranges National Park to the off-the-beaten-track settlement of Blinman in the Northern Flinders. From here it’s 200km of dirt road to the Gammon Ranges from where you can carry on to the isolated Strzelecki Track and the far-flung settlement of Innamincka, or head back to the highway to the Outback town of Marree.

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.

Flinders dreaming and geology

The almost tangible spirit of the Flinders Ranges is reflected in the wealth of Adnyamathanha (“hill people”) legends associated with them. Perhaps more obvious here than anywhere else in Australia is the connection between landscapes and Dreamtime stories, which recount how scenery was created by animal or human action – though, as Dreamtime spirits took several forms, this distinction is often blurred. A central character is Akurra, a gigantic serpent (or serpents) who guards waterholes and formed the Flinders’ contours by wriggling north to drink dry the huge salt lakes of Frome and Callabonna. You may well prefer the Aboriginal legends to the complexities of geology illustrated on boards placed at intervals along the Brachina Gorge track, which explain how movements of the “Adelaide Geosyncline” brought about the changes in scenery over hundreds of millions of years.

Flinders Ranges National Park

The procession of glowing red mountains at Flinders Ranges National Park, folded and crumpled with age, produces some of the Outback’s most spectacular and timeless scenery, rising from flat scrub to form abrupt escarpments, gorges and the famous elevated basin of Wilpena Pound, a colossal crater rim rising from the plains. The contrast between sky and ranges is softened by native cypresses and river red gums; and in spring the land is burnished by wild flowers of all colours and there are more kangaroos than you can count. Bushwalkers, photographers and painters flock here in their hundreds, but with a system of graded walking tracks ranging in length from a few minutes to several days – not to mention roads of varying quality – the park is busy without being crowded. Most tracks lead into Wilpena Pound, though you can also pick up the Heysen Trail and follow it north from Wilpena for a couple of days around the ABC Range to Aroona Ruins on the northern edge of the park.

Hiking is restricted to the cooler winter months between May and October, due to significant bushfire danger and summer temperatures that often exceed 40°C. Don’t underestimate conditions for even short excursions: you’ll need good footwear, a hat, sunscreen and water – at least a litre per hour is recommended. Note that the weather is very changeable; wind-driven rain can be a menace along the ridges, especially for campers, and heavy downpours cause roads to be closed (check conditions on 1300 361 033).

Wilpena Pound

Nestling up against the edge of Wilpena Pound, WILPENA is a good place to orient yourself for a range of accommodation, fuel and food. Wilpena Pound’s two main walks are the Hills Homestead Walk (6.6km, 2hr) from the visitor centre, and the Wangara Lookout Walk (7.8km, 3hr). Consult the visitor centre before attempting the less publicized full-day hikes to St Mary’s Peak on the rim, and Edowie Gorge inside the pound, or any overnight trips.

The Strzelecki Track

The 460km Strzelecki Track between Lyndhurst and Innamincka is the least interesting of the Outback tracks offering little variety in scenery and some rough-as-guts sections of heavily corrugated, single-lane track that can be treacherous after rain; it’s restricted to 4WD vehicles by the state’s Road Transport Authority.

You need to be completely self-sufficient and carry plenty of water and food and extra fuel. Start at Lyndhurst by filling the tank – the next fuel is at the other end of the track. The drive first takes you past the northern tip of the Flinders Ranges; once you pass them, the journey becomes flat and pretty dull.

Around 190km from Lyndhurst, the road from Arkaroola connects within sight of Mount Hopeless (a pathetic hill, appropriately named); the next place to stop and perhaps camp is at the hot outflow from Montecollina Bore, 30km on. From here the scenery improves slightly as the road runs between dunes, and it’s hard to resist leaving footprints along one of the pristine red crests.

At Strzelecki Crossing there’s a fork in the road: to the east is Cameron Corner, where there’s a store with fuel, a small bar and a campsite; and to the north, Innamincka via Moomba. Within an hour you’ve crossed into the Innamincka Regional Reserve and are approaching Innamincka’s charms.

Innamincka

Cooper Creek, which runs through Innamincka, is best known for the misadventures of explorers Burke and Wills, who ended their tragic 1861 expedition by dying here. INNAMINCKA was later founded on much the same spot before the town was abandoned in 1952. Now the area falls within the three-million-acre Innamincka Regional Reserve and Coongie Lakes National Park and the increase in popularity of recreational four-wheel driving has led to a renaissance. With a vehicle you could strike out 20km west to Wills’ grave or 8km east to where Burke was buried (both bodies were removed to Adelaide in 1862). Another 8km beyond Burke’s cairn is Cullyamurra waterhole, the largest permanent body of water in central Australia, and a footpath to rock engravings of crosses, rainbow patterns and bird tracks. If the roads are open, you can also tackle the 110km 4WD track north to the shallow Coongie Lakes, where you can swim and watch the abundant birdlife. An hour’s drive east of Innamincka along a rather poor track is Queensland, the Dig Tree and a fuelless route to Quilpie.

Kangaroo Island

As you head towards Cape Jervis along the west coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, KANGAROO ISLAND (or KI), only 13km offshore, first appears behind a vale of rolling hills. Once you’re on the island, its size and lack of development leave a strong impression. This is Australia’s third-largest island (after Tasmania and Melville Island), with 450km of spectacular, wild coastline and a multitude of wildlife including kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, platypuses, Little penguins, fur seals, sea lions and, in passing, southern right whales.

To see Kangaroo Island properly you’ll need at least three days, though most people only visit the major south-coast attractions – Seal Bay, Little Sahara, Remarkable Rocks and Flinders Chase National Park. Although promoted as South Australia’s premier tourism destination it’s still unspoilt; only in the peak holiday period (Christmas to the end of Jan, when most of the accommodation is booked up) does it feel busy. Once out of the island’s few small towns, there’s little sign of human presence to break the long, straight roads that run through undulating fields, dense gum forests and mallee scrub. There’s often a strong wind off the Southern Ocean, so bring something warm whatever the season, and take care when swimming – there are strong rips on many beaches. Safe swimming spots include Hog Bay and Antechamber Bay, both near Penneshaw; Emu Bay, northwest of Kingscote; Stokes Bay, further west; and Vivonne Bay, on the south side of the island.

Coming by boat, you’ll arrive at Kangaroo Island’s eastern end, at the small settlement of Penneshaw. The airport is a little further west in Cygnet River near Kingscote, the island’s administrative centre and South Australia’s second-oldest colonial settlement, though little remains to show for it. Between Penneshaw and Kingscote, sheltered American River is another good base. From here, the Playford Highway and South Coast Road branch out to traverse the island, entering Flinders Chase National Park from the north and south respectively. The national park and surrounding wilderness protection area cover the entire western end of the island.

The mid-north

Stretching north of Adelaide up to Port Augusta and the south Flinders Ranges is the fertile agricultural region known as the mid-north. The gateway to the region is the town of Kapunda, 16km northwest of Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley, which became Australia’s first mining town when copper was discovered here in 1842. Kapunda can also be reached as a short detour from the Barrier Highway en route to Broken Hill in New South Wales, a route that continues through the larger mining town of Burra, and close to Peterborough, the self-proclaimed “frontier to the Outback”. The centre of the mid-north’s wine area, Clare, is 45km southwest of Burra on the Main North Road, the alternative route to Port Augusta.

Burra

In 1851 the “Monster Mine” at BURRA, an hour’s drive north of Kapunda, was the largest in Australia, producing five percent of the world’s copper and creating fabulous wealth. However, when the mines closed in 1877, Burra became a service centre for the surrounding farming community, and nowadays takes advantage of its heritage to attract visitors. Plenty of money has been spent restoring and beautifying the place, and it’s now a popular weekend escape between March and November, before it gets too hot. The mine is in the northern part of town, while the southern section has the shopping centre, based around Market Street.

The Clare Valley

In the cool uplands of the North Mount Lofty Ranges, the Clare Valley is really a series of gum-fringed ridges and valleys running roughly 30km north from Auburn to the main township of Clare, on either side of Main North Road. The wine industry in the valley was pioneered by Jesuit priests at Sevenhill in the 1850s. There’s no tourist overkill here: coach tours are not encouraged, and because it’s a small area with just over forty cellar doors, you can learn a lot about the local styles of wine (the valley is especially recognized for its fine Rieslings). You’ll often get personal treatment too, with the winemaker presiding. Several sheep stations can be visited among beautiful historic villages, well-preserved mansions, quaint old pubs, and there’s plenty of atmospheric accommodation, as well as numerous superb restaurants attached to wineries.

Clare Valley wineries

Crabtree crabtreewines.com.au. The pick of the four wineries at Waterville, and one of the most enjoyable to visit in the valley.

Eldredge Vineyards eldredge.com.au. Located in a small farmhouse fronting a dam, with a good restaurant.

Jim Barry jimbarry.com. A friendly, family-run place founded by a pioneer winemaker.

Knappstein Winery & Breweryknappstein.com.au. Housed in an ivy-coloured sandstone building with a veranda. Taste fine wines, and equally good lager.

O’Leary Walker Wines olearywalkerwines.com. Relatively new vineyard, founded in 2000, with some fine Rieslings.

Paulett Wines paulettwines.com.au. This winery has fabulous views, with a veranda overlooking the “river” – a dry creek for eleven months of the year.

Reilly’s Wines reillyswines.com.au. Housed in an 1856 Irish bootmaker’s buildings. There’s a great restaurant, as well as vintages from 1994 onwards.

Sevenhill Cellars sevenhill.com.au. The oldest winery in the valley, still run by a religious order that mainly makes sacramental wine, though the brothers have diversified into table wines, sweet sherry and port. There’s a charming sandstone tasting room, and an old Catholic church in the grounds.

Skillogalee Winery skillogalee.com. Occupying a wonderful spot set against a backdrop of a clunking windmill, bush-clad hill and vineyards, with tastings by the fire in an 1850s cottage. Good restaurant too.

Kapunda

Heading to KAPUNDA from the Barossa, the landscape changes as vineyards are replaced by crops and grazing sheep. The discovery of copper here (and in Burra) in the 1840s put the region at the vanguard of Australia’s mining boom, attracting huge numbers of Cornish miners; today as you come into town, you’re greeted by a colossal sculpture of a Cornish miner entitled Map Kernow, “Son of Cornwall”. However, the boom ended as suddenly as it began, as resources were exhausted – mining finished at Kapunda in 1878.

A place that once had its own daily newspaper, eleven hotels and a busy train station is now a rural service town, pleasantly undeveloped and with many old buildings decorated with locally designed and manufactured iron lacework, as well as the ruins of the mine.

Port Augusta

How you see PORT AUGUSTA depends on where you’ve come from. Arriving from the Outback, the town’s trees, shops and hotels can be a real thrill, but compared with the southeast of the state, there’s little here. Its role as a transport hub has saved the town from destitution, while recent developments have made the foreshore area with its city beach more attractive. While you’re deciding where to head next, there are a couple of brilliant sights to see in town and some good bushwalking country around Mount Remarkable, at the tail end of the Flinders Ranges.

Port Augusta sits at the tip of the Spencer Gulf with the Outback all around. Despite the name, the docks closed long ago, while the power station and railways were drastically scaled down during the 1980s. The centre of town overlooks the east side of the Spencer Gulf, more like a river where it divides the town. Shops, banks and the post office are clustered along narrow Commercial Road. During summer, you should make the most of the swimming beach at the end of Young Street or escape the dust and heat at the attractive foreshore – the old wooden pile crossing, now a footbridge, and a 100-year-old jetty, all that remains of the port, make good perches for fishing and there are barbecue facilities and swimming pontoons in the water.

The Riverland

The Riverland is the name given to the long irrigated strip on either side of the Murray River as it meanders for 300km from Blanchetown to Renmark near the Victorian border. The Riverland’s deep red-orange alluvial soil – helped by extensive irrigation – is very fertile, making the area the state’s major supplier of oranges, stone fruit and grapes. Fruit stalls along the roadsides add to the impression of a year-long harvest, and if you’re after fruit-picking work it’s an excellent place to start; contact the HarvestTrail service. The area is also a major wine-producing region, though the high-tech wineries here mainly make mass-produced wines for casks and export. Many are open to visitors, but their scale and commercialism make them less enjoyable than those in other wine regions. The Sturt Highway, the major route between Adelaide and Sydney, passes straight through the Riverland and Premier Stateliner runs a bus service along it.

The Murray River

The Murray River is Australia’s Mississippi – or so the American author Mark Twain declared when he saw it in the early 1900s. It’s a fraction of the size of the American river, but in a country of seasonal, intermittent streams it counts as a major waterway. Fed by melting snow from the Snowy Mountains, as well as by the Murrumbidgee and Darling rivers, the Murray flows through the arid plains, reaching the Southern Ocean southwest of Adelaide near Goolwa. With the Darling and its tributaries, it makes up one of the biggest and longest watercourses in the world, giving life to Australia’s most important agricultural region, the Murray–Darling basin. Almost half of South Australia’s water comes from the Murray; even far-off Woomera in the Outback relies on it.

Historically, the Riverland was densely populated by various Aboriginal peoples who navigated the river in bark canoes, the bark being cut from river red gums in a single perfect piece – many trees along the river still bear the scars. The Ngarrindjeri people’s Dreamtime story of the river’s creation explains how Ngurunderi travelled down the Murray, looking for his runaway wives. The Murray was then just a small stream, but, as Ngurunderi searched, a giant Murray cod surged ahead of him, widening the river with swipes of its tail. Ngurunderi tried to spear the fish, which he chased to the ocean, and the thrashing cod carved out the pattern of the Murray River during the chase.

Cruises

The best way to appreciate the beauty of the Murray is from the water itself. Several old paddle steamers and a variety of other craft still cruise the Murray for pleasure. The PS Industry is one of the few wood-fuelled paddle steamers left on the Murray, and cruises on the first Sunday of the month (bookings through the Renmark visitor centre). Murray River Cruises (murrayrivercruises.com.au) has a range of two- to seven-day cruises, many of which start from the lower river town of Mannum, an hour’s drive east of Adelaide. Other cruises from Mannum can be booked through the visitor centre (mannum.org.au).

Canoeing and kayaking

Riverland Leisure Canoe Tours (riverlandcanoes.com.au) rents out kayaks and canoes, and arranges guided day-tours.

Houseboats

Renting a houseboat is a relaxing and enjoyable alternative, available in most towns on the river. All you need is a driving licence, and the cost isn’t astronomical if you get a group of people together and avoid the peak holiday seasons. A week in an eight-berth houseboat in the high season should cost around $3500–6000. Contact Oz Houseboats (houseboatbookings.com.au) for details and reservations.

The southeast

Most travellers en route between Adelaide and Melbourne pass through southeast South Australia as quickly as possible, which is a shame, as the coastal route offers wild, pristine beaches and tranquil fishing villages, while inland there are a couple of brilliant wine regions.

From Tailem Bend, just beyond Murray Bridge some 85km out of Adelaide, three highways branch out. The northernmost, the Mallee Highway, is the quintessential road to nowhere, leading through the sleepy settlements of Lameroo and Pinnaroo to the insignificant town of Ouyen in Victoria’s mallee country. The second, the Dukes Highway, offers a fast but boring route to Melbourne via the South Australian mallee scrub and farming towns of Keith and Bordertown, before continuing in Victoria as the Western Highway across the monotonous Wimmera. It is, however, well worth breaking your journey to visit the Coonawarra and Naracoorte, in between the Dukes Highway and the coastal route: the former is a tiny wine-producing area that makes some of the country’s finest red wine; the latter is a fair-sized town with a freshwater lagoon system that attracts prolific birdlife, and a conservation park with impressive World Heritage-listed caves.

The third option, the Princes Highway (Highway 1), is much less direct but far more interesting. It follows the extensive coastal lagoon system of the Coorong to Kingston SE, and then runs a short way inland to the lake craters of Mount Gambier before crossing into Victoria. There’s another possible route on this last stretch, the Southern Ports Highway, which sticks closer to the coast, plus a potential detour along the Riddoch Highway into the scenic Coonawarra wine region.

Mount Gambier

Set close to the border with Victoria, MOUNT GAMBIER is the southeast’s commercial centre and South Australia’s second most populous city. The city sprawls up the slopes of an extinct volcano whose three craters – each with its own lake surrounded by heavily wooded slopes and filled from underground waterways – are perfect for subterranean diving.

The Stuart Highway: Woomera and beyond

North of Port Augusta, the Stuart Highway and the New Ghan rail line travel through progressively drier scenery to the Northern Territory. The first place of any consequence is the town of Woomera, from where you can visit the mining centres of Roxby Downs and Andamooka, and the salt flat of Lake Torrens; you’ll need your own vehicle to visit these three destinations. Northwest of Woomera, the Stuart Highway heads up to the isolated, iconic settlement of Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy

COOBER PEDY is the most enduring symbol of the harshness of Australia’s Outback and the determination of those who live there. It’s a place where the terrain and temperatures are so extreme that homes – and even churches – have been built underground, yet it has managed to attract thousands of opal prospectors. In a virtually waterless desert 380km from Woomera, 845km from Adelaide, and considerably further from anywhere else, the most remarkable thing about the town – whose name stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” – is that it exists at all. Opal was discovered by William Hutchison on a gold-prospecting expedition to the Stuart Range in February 1915, and the town itself dates from the end of World War I, when returning servicemen headed for the fields to try their luck, using their trench-digging skills to construct underground dwellings.

In summer Coober Pedy is seriously depopulated, but, if you can handle the intense heat, it’s a good time to look for bargain opal purchases – though not to scratch around for them yourself: gem hunting is better reserved for the “cooler” winter months. At the start of the year, spectacular dust storms often enclose the town in an abrasive orange twilight for hours. Coober Pedy has a bit of a reputation as a rowdy township. This is not really surprising considering the extreme climate, alcohol problems, access to explosives and open mine shafts to fall down.

The local scenery might be familiar to you if you’re a film fan, as it was used to great effect in Mad Max 3, among other films. There’s not much to it, just an arid plain disturbed by conical pink mullock (slag) heaps, and dotted with clusters of trucks and home-made contraptions, and warning signs alerting you to treacherously invisible, unfenced 30m shafts. Be very careful where you tread: even if you have transport, the safest way to explore is to take a tour, follow a map, then return on your own.

Finding and buying an opal

Opal is composed of fragile layers of silica and derives its colour from the refraction of light – characteristics that preclude the use of heavy mining machinery, as one false blow would break the matrix and destroy the colour. Deposits are patchy and located by trial and error: the last big strikes at Coober Pedy petered out in the 1970s, and though bits and pieces are still found – including an exceptional opalized fossil skeleton of a pliosaur (the reptilian equivalent of a seal) in 1983 – it’s anybody’s guess as to the location of other major seams (indeed, there may not be any at all).

Unless you’re serious (in which case you’ll have to buy a Miner’s Permit from the Mines Department to peg your 50m-by-50m claim), the easiest way to find something is by noodling over someone’s diggings – ask the owner first. An area on the corner of Jewellers Shop and Umoona roads has been set aside as a safe area for tourists to poke about freely without danger of finding open mine shafts. Miners use ultraviolet lamps to separate opal from potch (worthless grey opal), so you’re unlikely to find anything stunning – but look out for shell fossils and small chips.

The best time to buy opal is outside the tourist season, but with about fifty dealers in town, it’s up to you to find the right stone; reputable sources give full written guarantees.

Lake Torrens

A thirty-minute 4WD ride away from Andamooka is Lake Torrens, a sickle-shaped salt lake related to the Acraman meteorite that gets popular with birdwatchers in wet years. The lake is also renowned in paleontological circles for traces of the 630-million-year-old Ediacaran fauna, the earliest-known evidence of animal life anywhere on the planet, first found in Australia and possibly wiped out by the meteorite. Delicate fossil impressions of jellyfish and obscure organisms are preserved in layered rock; the South Australian Museum in Adelaide has an extensive selection, but rarely issues directions to the site, which has been plundered since its discovery by the geologist Reg Sprigg back in 1946.

Travelling around the South Australian Outback

When travelling through the Outback, water is vital: with few exceptions, lakes and waterways are dry or highly saline, and most Outback deaths are related to dehydration or heatstroke – bikers seem particularly prone. As always, stay with your vehicle if you break down. Summer temperatures can be lethally hot, and winters pleasant during the day and subzero at night; rain can fall at any time of year, but is most likely to do so between January and May. Many roadhouses and fuel pumps take credit and/or debit cards, but it’s essential to carry cash as well.

To find out about road conditions in the Outback, call 1300 361 033 or visit the South Australia Transport website (transport.sa.gov.au). If you’re not driving, it is possible to travel through the region by bus services run by Greyhound (greyhound.com.au) and Premier Stateliner (premierstateliner.com.au). Flying can save you a lot of time and energy; Regional Express (rex.com.au) is the most useful carrier in the area.

Maps

RAA road maps are good but lack topographical information, so if you’re spending any time in the north, pick up the excellent Westprint Heritage maps and the Gregory’s 4WD maps. Hikers traversing the Flinders on the Heysen Trail need topographic maps of each section and advice from the nearest DENR office. Conditions of minor roads are so variable that maps seldom do more than indicate the surface type; local police and roadhouses will have current information.

Permits

A Desert Parks Pass is required for legal entry into Innamincka Regional Reserve, Lake Eyre National Park, Witjira National Park and the Simpson Desert: $150 per vehicle allows unlimited access and use of campsites for twelve months, with copies of the detailed DENR Desert Parks Handbook and a map thrown in. Passes are available from agencies throughout the north, can be purchased online (environment.sa.gov.au/parks; allow 7 days), or bought at the Port Augusta visitor centre.

The west

West of Port Augusta the Eyre Highway runs 950km to the border of Western Australia; the journey can be made more interesting by taking a detour around the coast of the Eyre Peninsula, which has sandy white beaches, aquamarine sea, excellent fishing, and Australia’s finest seafood. Once past Ceduna, on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain, there’s little beyond you and the desert. The Indian Pacific train traverses the Nullarbor further inland, through even more extreme desolation.

The Eyre Peninsula

Long appreciated by Adelaidians as an antidote to city stress, the Eyre Peninsula’s broad triangle is protected by the Gawler Ranges from the arid climate further north. The area was first farmed in the 1880s, fishing communities sprang up at regular intervals and iron ore, discovered around 1900, is still mined around Whyalla. The drive around the coast passes stunning scenery and superlative surfing and beach fishing, especially where the Great Australian Bight’s elemental weather hammers into the western shore.

The Nullarbor Plain

Nullarbor, from the Latin “Nullus Arbor” or “treeless”, is an apt description of the plain, which stretches flat and infertile for over 1200km across the Great Australian Bight. Taking the train brings you closer to the dead heart than the road does, which allows some breaks in the monotony of the journey to scan the sea for southern right whales, or playing a few holes of golf on the Nullarbor Links (nullarborlinks.com) – an eighteen-hole, par-72 golf course between Ceduna and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. At 1365km, it’s the world’s longest and arguably the most unusual golf course.

From Ceduna to the Western Australian border it’s 480km, which you can easily cover in under five hours; the Dalí-esque fridges standing along the highway in the early stages of the drive are actually makeshift mailboxes for remote properties.

The Rough Guide to Australia and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Australia here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Andy Turner
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Australia?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels