Sooner or later, most travellers in Australia will reach the great cross-roads at the head of Spencer Gulf that is Port Augusta.
North is the Stuart Highway to the Northern Territory. West is the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor to West OZ. East is the Barrier Highway to Broken Hill and New South Wales. And South is to Adelaide and beyond.
Many travellers stop overnight either going to or coming from their main destination.
But discerning visitors who stay an extra day (or two or three) will be rewarded by discovering some of the FAAAAABULOUS things to do in Port Augusta.
Like what? Like THESE! Here’s TEN of my favorites!
1 Time Tunnel Travel at Wadlata
Wadlata Outback Centre isn’t just about tourist information. There’s the excellent gift shop – try a Journey Jottings map or a piece of Indigenous artwork! There’s a cool cafe – try the quandong cheesecake or the quandong slice!
And then there’s the time tunnel!
Walk into the jaws of the giant ripper lizard and be transported into the prehistoric world of life before man on Gondwanaland. This ancient history lesson is never dull as it moves through aeons (via interactive displays, dreamtime stories and intriguing facts) from the beginning of time to the present day in Port Augusta NOW!
While THIS time travel won’t take millions of years, don’t underestimate the time you’ll need – it’s easy to spend several hours there, especially with breaks for lunch and/or morning and/or afternoon tea. Just watching ‘Back of Beyond’, a movie about Outback legend mailman Tom Kruse takes an hour!
The good news is if you run out of time on this visit, just pick up a pass-out from the Wadlata staff and come back to finish it off other time!
2 The Full 360º at the Water Tower Lookout
It’s a long way to the top if you want a shocking fall – and the see-through metal mesh staircase doesn’t help either.
Luckily for us acrophobics, the Water Tower Lookout’s horribly exposed four flights of stairs ends in a fully enclosed viewing platform complete with wire mesh criss-crossing the view in four directions.
Except for a thoughtfully placed hole in the middle just right for a camera lens.
A camera lens like MINE, that is. If size DOES matter; and you’ve brought a giant lens along for a big day out, you might be in trouble 😀
But cameras aren’t required to enjoy the superb view of boats, bridges and birds on Spencer Gulf; the iconic silhouette of the power station; and the general landscape filled with parklands and houses that make up this town, named for Augusta Sophia Marryat, wife of South Australia’s first civilian Governor.
Is late afternoon leading up to sunset the best time to check it out? I haven’t been there at any other time, so I don’t know – but it sure worked for me!
3 Matthew Flinders Lookout and RED Cliff Walk
Even if you’re more immune to the promise of RED Cliffs, the Matthew Flinders Lookout – a short walk from the car park – is worth a visit for its staggering vista of Spencer Gulf against the magnificent backdrop of the Flinders Ranges.
A landscape so fine that even standing atop a high and crumbling cliff face to view it becomes a pleasure. Well … almost 😀
But throw in a killer sunset and even a coward like me can forget the perils of standing on the edge!
For more than double the fun, take the 4.5 km RED Cliff Circuit Walk from the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens to the Matthew Flinders lookout via a bird hide, a bluebush plain and the railway bridge with fine views from the edge of Spencer Gulf over the RED Cliffs, claypans and mangroves! Follow the loop trail back through the gardens.
4 Arid Lands Botanic Gardens
If you’ve got lemons, make lemonade.
And if you’ve got a climate with extreme temperatures, lengthy periods of drought and low rainfall, showcase the plants that LOVE arid conditions in your garden!
That’s exactly what the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden, established in 1993 as an initiative of the Port Augusta Council, has achieved with its arid zone plant habitats – like dunes, desert and saltbush plains – spread over 250 hectares.
But demonstrating water-wise gardening techniques isn’t the only attraction!
When you’re tired of the walks, bird hides (and over 100 bird species recorded), a nationally significant Eremophila garden, art works, lookouts and plant nursery outside, there’s the Bluebush Café and Gift Shop inside.
Entry to the gardens is free, and they’re open all year round (other than Christmas and New Years Day, and Good Friday).
5 Pichi Richi Railway
Take a trip on a small section of the old Great Northern Railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs, once dubbed the Afghan Express and now affectionately known as the Ghan, through the rocky Pichi Richi pass in fully restored heritage carriages.
The Ghan hasn’t passed this way since 1956, but from April to November, experience the magic of steam and take a return trip on the restored Afghan Express from Port Augusta to nearby Quorn (41 km to the north-east); or the Pichi Richi Explorer from Quorn through the pass to Woolshed Flat.
With railway memorabilia at both Port Augusta and Quorn, the railway is a great way to experience the magic of train travel.
Railway enthusiasts need not fear having to adopt alternative pursuits like sightseeing, birding and wildflower watching when the Pichi Richi Railway isn’t operating.
SO … if your preferred lullaby is the soothing sounds of shunting, then find somewhere to stay within sight and sound of the railway because all passenger and freight trains heading north, south, east and west pass through Port Augusta.
Even Railway ambivalents may find a multi-coloured goods train tracking north along the eastern side of the gulf with the Flinders Ranges a resplendent backdrop an awesome sight.
I know I did!
7 Quorn and the Quandong Café
Even without the enticement of a Pichi Richi train ride, the short drive to Quorn is well worth it. And top of MY list of Quorn must-do’s is a visit (or two) to the Quandong Café.
Actually, it’s not the cafe. It’s the scones. AWESOME scones. They even beat my own faithfully copied secret recipe pumpkin scones AND give the discerning epicure the opportunity to experience the delights of the Quandong, Australia’s own arid land fruit at its best when turned into a marvellously piquant jam, the perfect accompaniment to THOSE SCONES!
When you’re done with that, explore the town’s Galleries, historic buildings, cafés, pubs, an Agricultural Museum and the Powell Gardens botanic garden.
If the Quorn scenery looks familiar, it MAY be because scenes from a number of films were shot in the area. Most recently, the region AND the Pichi Richi steam train featured in The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe! Other notable films include Wolf Creek 1 and 2 (2005 and 2013), Tracks (2013), The Shiralee (1986) and Gallipoli (also featuring the Pichi Richi in 1981).
I’m not sure if the Quandong Café featured in any of the films – but it should have!
8 The Flinders Ranges
If you want to explore the folds and peaks of the ragged range that makes such an awesome town backdrop, Port Augusta is an easy day trip from some of the Flinders Ranges hot spots.
Near Quorn there’s the Dutchmans Stern, Devils Peak and Warren Gorge. A little further north there’s Kanyaka Historic Site, Death Rock and the Jeff Morgan Gallery at Hawker, 107 km north-east. 67 km south is Melrose, gateway to the Mount Remarkable National Park.
Exploring the Flinders Ranges will take a LOT longer than a weekend – but a Port Augusta day trip makes a good teaser!
9 Wildflower Wonderland
Just in case you didn’t quite catch the beauty of the arid land vegetation, here’s a little taste of what you’re missing!
10 Blanche Harbour
Past the Port Augusta city limits heading south along the western side of Spencer Gulf, the sparsely vegetated dry hills of the outback to the right contrast nicely with the brilliant blue of the sea on the left, and the intriguing skyline of the Flinders Ranges beyond.
With a landscape like this, it’s no wonder the gulf is lined with holiday shacks.
23 km later, the gulf widens as the outback sweeps down to the sea at Blanche Harbour in a magnificent sweep of coastline. Atop a low hill above the car park, there’s a marvellous vantage point inside a picnic shelter that tells the story of this place while showing off its natural attractions.
But it didn’t always look this good. The ‘before’ photos show what the area looked like 15 years ago, when a group of concerned ‘shackies’ banded together to reverse the ravages of rubbish dumping and off-road vehicle driving.
Now, with revegetation well under way and stunning scenery, Blanche Harbour is a place of beauty and peace.
So take a look at my TOP TEN – and start planning YOUR stop-over – or weekend getaway – now! And if you can fit all TEN of my favourite things to do in Port Augusta into just ONE weekend, you’re doing well!
PS Did I mention the Scenic Public Loos?? Here’s a triple-toilet-teaser – see if you can find them all when YOU go to Port Augusta!