A road trip to the south east of South Australia will take your breath away with the unique geographical features being a highlight. Coonawarra is a little over 370 kilometres from Adelaide and less than an hour from Mount Gambier, which is only 20 kilometres from the Victorian border.
A series of geological events occurring thousands of years ago, are responsible for the unique beauty and rich landscape of the Limestone Coast region of South Australia’s south east. Volcanic activity formed mountains, sink holes, caves and lagoons and receding sea levels left a ridge of ancient limestone reef. This 26 kilometre long, and two kilometre wide limestone strip covered in a red clay soil, is now the renowned Coonawarra wine region, and the ‘terra rossa’ soil is responsible for some of the best known cool climate cabernet cauvignons in Australia.
While red wine varieties including merlot and shiraz are also what the region is most known for, there is now a diverse range of styles produced by the more than 30 vineyards in the Coonawarra. All of the wineries can be accessed via a wine trail along the Riddoch Highway, which was named after John Riddoch, one of the founders of the Coonawarra.
Descendants of Riddoch are still producing wines at Rymill Coonawarra, and this cellar door is one to definitely see, for its stunning setting as much as for the award winning wines. From the impressive plane tree-lined entrance road, you get the impression that you are in for something special , and it’s no disappointment when you arrive at the imposing grape vine-adorned building with its large scale stallions sculpture, water features and picnic grounds. Once inside the winery, you can take a self-guided tour to watch the wine making process from observation decks.
Other notable founding wine makers in the region include the Redman and Wynn families, both of which are still producing wines, some from vines planted 100 years ago. Many of the wineries are family owned and are very welcoming to travellers, with gardens and picnic areas for families to linger.
A couple of wineries that I would recommend visiting for those reasons, are Patrick of Coonawarra for its green garden space to enjoy a picnic, and Balnaves of Coonawarra with a cellar door overlooking a pond and grounds that are very family-friendly. There is also an extensive rose garden to wander through with over 900 rose bushes to enjoy. Harvest time in the Coonawarra happens during March and April and festivals and events take place during this time to celebrate the annual vintage.
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While visiting Coonawarra make sure to take a drive a further 14 kilometres south to the town of Penola, which has been put on the map thanks to some famous residents including Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop and poets John Shaw Neilson, Will Ogilvie and Adam Lindsay Gordon.
Mary MacKillop together with Father Julian Woods established a school in Penola for the children of poor and isolated families and founded the first Australian religious order, the Sisters of Saint Joseph. You can visit the original school house she used in Penola, as well as an interpretive centre which has an exhibit on Mary’s life and work leading to her canonization. The centre is open 7 days a week and there is a small entrance fee.
Another spot to visit on the outskirts of Coonawarra is Father Woods Park, a roadside park of carved tree sculptures which pay tribute to Mary Mackillop and Father Woods. The site was once on station land and it was here that he would rest during travels through his parish and under the shelter of a huge River Red Gum, celebrate mass and deliver sermons to those in outlying areas.
A little over 50 kilometres from Penola is the town of Mount Gambier, the halfway point between Adelaide and Melbourne. The beauty of Mount Gambier is obvious to see without having to venture far. My top picks of experiences would be seeing the Blue Lake, a natural phenomenon where the lake within this crater of an extinct volcano turns a vibrant bright blue, usually during the summer months from November through to early March.
At other times of the year it is still an amazing deep blue shade. There is a 3.5km walking track around the lake which has vantage points in a number of spots along the way. Nearby is Valley Lake, a picnic ground and recreation area which has plenty of open space, a playground and conservation park where you can find kangaroos and a heap of different birdlife.
Then there are the famous sinkholes, one of which is the Cave Gardens in the heart of the city. This sinkhole was formed when groundwater and rainfall caused the limestone roof to collapse into a cavity and has now become a city garden with platforms built over different levels to view it.
Another must-see garden is Umpherston Sinkhole, formed from a limestone cave which collapsed and was turned into a garden by the landowner of the time, James Umpherston in 1886. Visitors can make their way down into this 20 metre deep sunken garden via a series of steps and terraces. There are also viewing areas above the garden where you can see the ferns and hydrangeas on the garden floor and plants cascading over the edges and down the walls. Umpherston sinkhole can be visited at any time and you will more than likely be joined by resident possums, especially if you visit during the evening.
From one extreme to the other, I’d highly recommend the steep climb to the Centenary Tower set high on a hill above Valley Lake. Although it is a bit of a hard slog scaling the short but steep path, the views from the top, where you can actually see the craters and lakes, are totally worth it.