Southern Ocean Drive is Australia’s coastal boulevard
Until 2002, the Southern Ocean didn’t actually exist – at least on maps.
Hydrographers argued that it was merely the southernmost bits of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans reaching down to the Antarctic landmass, where the waters simply got cleaner and colder.
But the Ocean, now duly classified and considered the fourth-largest of the world’s five great oceans, is perfectly distinct.
The Southern Ocean Drive, extending some 450km from Adelaide to Mt Gambier, is similarly distinct.
If you’re crossing the border into Mount Gambier, then you’ve probably come off Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, with its picturesque ribbons of surfside bitumen winding through forest groves and pretty beach towns.
The Southern Ocean Drive takes broader strides into wider horizons, including the Coonawarra wine region, the remarkable wetland phenomenon of Coorong, and the famous wildlife haven that is Kangaroo Island.
The following is a series of sequential stops on the Southern Ocean Drive. You can string them together depending on the time you have for the journey. Or of course you can make like the Southern Ocean – and just go with the flow.
Distance travelled: 17km from border
Why: The sleepy town of 27,000 was once a hotbed of cataclysmic volcanics, and you don’t have to look far to find a relic of its fiery past. The town sits alongside a crater filled with the famous Blue Lake: visit before early November and the lake looks grey; then, almost overnight, it changes to a radiant blue affecting to a deep turquoise, a colour that stays until February. The town also has a number of sinkholes (limestone caves), including one converted to a stunning sunken garden by James Umpherston in 1886. His eponymous garden is especially charming at sunset when the possums come out to play.
If you have time: There’s more limestone quirkiness at nearby Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park, 20km south. Flooded limestone sinkholes – complete with chains of drowned caverns – are the preserve of fearless (lunatic) divers. The more sane among us can snorkel over the ponds to get a sense of the dark and eerie worlds below.
Distance travelled: 52km
Why: The rest of the world found it miraculous that Australia could produce a saint, but so it was, thanks to Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) who was canonised in 2010. At the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre you can visit the schoolhouse where she taught poor children from the bush; her story is told by volunteers in lovely surrounds. The small town has plenty of charm, lots of heritage and some decent vintage shopping.
Hallowed names can also be found just outside Penola, which is the gateway to the Coonawarra, the part of the Limestone Coast wine region that’s famous for its red soils and red wines. The Riddoch Highway is a veritable gauntlet of good stuff, including cellar doors belonging to Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Hollick Wines, Zema Estate, Balnaves of Coonawarra and Rymill Coonawarra.
If you’ve got time: Try the full-blood wagyu beef from Mayura Station near Millicent. The marbled slices of bovine are primo quality – and served up Thursday to Saturday, 7pm, in Mayura’s intimate restaurant experience.
Naracoorte Caves National Park
Distance travelled: 50km
Why: In 1969, explorers entered Victoria Fossil Cave and discovered huge quantities of fossilized remains. They’d discovered what was once a trap: animals that lumbered around 200,000 years ago fell through a hole and into the cave where they perished. Today this is one of 28 known caves within the World Heritage Listed Naracoorte Cave system, offering evidence of life from several ice ages including the marsupial lion, thylacine and a giant kangaroo which scientists believe walked rather than hopped. Today, visitors can go underground to encounter bones, rare bent-wing bats and dramatic rock formations: you can do it in a nice-n-dry fashion; or suit up with overalls, kneepads and helmet to get down-n-dirty.
If you’ve got time (and the money): Amateur paleos can go behind the scenes on a $250 World Heritage tour, visiting areas normally off limits to meet contemporary researchers working on dig sites.
Distance travelled: 113km
Why: The pretty fishing town of Robe is loved for the family-friendly Long Beach, 80-odd heritage buildings, the Third Ramp surf break, year-round fishing and locally caught rock lobsters. A holiday seaside town if ever there was one.
If you’ve got time: Check out the Cape Dombey Obelisk. It’s 12m tall and served as a beacon for ships since 1852. For more history, the attractive Customs House (1863) is now a museum and tells the story of Chinese gold diggers who would alight at Robe to avoid paying a punitive tax in Melbourne, then walk to the Victorian goldfields.
Distance travelled: 340km – the longest part of the drive
Why: Goolwa is your best place to properly see (and for that matter understand) the complex wetland system that is the Coorong. Spirit of The Coorong offers two-hour and up to six-hour cruises into the 140km long lagoon of fresh and salt water, fringed by huge and ancient dunes on the Southern Ocean. Expect to encounter Aboriginal heritage, birdlife, Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy and wild, wild seascapes.
If you’ve got time: Explore Goolwa. This rather cute and historic port is located where the Murray River ends its journey across the nation to arrive at the sea. It’s also where paddle-steamers used to unload their cargoes onto horse-drawn rolling stock for overland shipment to sea ports in Port Elliott and later Victor Harbor. That same rolling stock became Australia’s first passenger railway. Steam trains still ply a line to Victor, usually on weekends; they leave not far from the very good Steam Exchange Brewery which serves boutique beers and moonshine out of a lovely old wharf building.
Distance travelled: 17km
Why: Victor is an impressive-looking town, backed by hills and fronted by a famously misspelled harbour complete with an unusual island at the end of a long pier with rails. This is The Causeway: start here to get your bearings, as well as to meet the Clydesdales that pull the last of only two horse-drawn tram operations in the world (the other is on the Isle of Man). It’s been in operation since 1894. Let them take you out to Granite Island, and be sure to do the circular Kaiki Walk to enjoy views up and down the dramatic coast.
For a closer look at the marine action, join a Big Duck Boat Tour. You’ll travel in a powerful rigid inflatable boat to see dolphins and seals; if you’re visiting between May and October, you’ve got a good chance of seeing visiting humpbacks and Southern Right whales which come here to breed.
If you’ve got time: The history of local whaling is excellently told at the SA Whale Centre, not far from the horse-drawn tram.
Distance travelled: 60km to Cape Jervis; then an hour’s sea-crossing to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island via the SeaLink car ferry.
Why: Kangaroo Island is 150km-wide chunk of briny brilliance, blessed with Australian wildlife, sublime scenery and a salty history.
Island heroes are numerous, but there are a few must-dos, depending on your time. Be sure to join a ranger-led walk among the sea lions at Seal Bay Conservation Park. If you’ve got kids, stop at Little Sahara to hire a sandboard and surf the dunes, or ride quad bikes through the bush with Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action. In the remote south-western corner, walk a trail through Flinders Chase National Park, looking out for the native KI kangaroo, koalas and echidnas; while you’re there, stop to admire Admirals Arch (complete with seal colony) and the surreal forms of Remarkable Rocks perched high over powerful seas.
If your itinerary allows, the island is a great place to explore and locate gourmet food producers: try Kangaroo Island Spirits gin made from local juniper, Island Pure’s sheep cheese, two honey farms producing unique Ligurian bee honey, Andermel Marron (freshwater crays) plus several wineries. One of the most magical dining experiences on the island (actually in Australia) is Hannaford & Sachs Enchanted Fig tree near beautiful Stokes Bay. The restaurant is within the canopy of a massive fig tree – but it’s only open while the tree is in leaf, between December and the end of March.
If you’ve got time: Stay at least three days. You won’t regret it.
After the ferry crossing, it’s an hour more to South Australia’s capital, taken via the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula.
If you’ve got time: Stop at McLaren Vale, the famous wine region where the “sea meets the vines”. It’s home to winery cellar doors like Coriole, d’Arenberg and Wirra Wirra; you’ll also discover three of the state’s finest eating experiences – the newly reopened Salopian Inn, old favourite Star of Greece, and the recently opened Leonard’s Mill.