The Ultimate Beginners Guide to the Limestone Coast – Part ONE

Last Updated on August 25, 2020 by Red Nomad OZ

Cape Buffon, Southend, Limestone Coast South Australia
Cape Buffon, Southend, Limestone Coast South Australia

Wild rocky coastline littered with lighthouses and shipwrecks; dormant volcanoes, jewel-like caves and craters; oddly coloured lakes, mysterious pools and deep sinkholes; long, deserted beaches full of fishing spots, surf breaks and secluded bays; spectacular coastal scenery and the Southern Rock Lobster Capital of Australia – if not, the WORLD!

And not many travellers even know it’s there!

It’s South Australia’s SUPER Cool Limestone Coast and it’s a nature-lovers paradise; an unspoilt scenic sensation and an awesome outdoor adventureland.

It’s so cool, it’s HOT!

But with so much to see and do, how does a Limestone Coast beginner know where to start?

Glenelg River Mouth, Nelson, Limestone Coast
Glenelg River Mouth, Nelson, Limestone Coast

Take my two-part beginners guide and I’ll show enough RED HOT Limestone Coast things to do that’ll keep you busy for at least a week.

In Part One (just keep on reading below) I’ll show you 6 amazing things to do mostly around Mount Gambier and the southern end of the Limestone Coast (see the fast facts at the end of the post). And in Part Two (take the link below!) we’ll see more of the coast and head further north.

But for now relax, grab a drink and discover some awesome Limestone Coast things to do!

1 Go Caving!

Wedding Cake Formation, Princess Margaret Rose Caves via Nelson, Limestone Coast
Wedding Cake Formation, Princess Margaret Rose Caves via Nelson, Limestone Coast

The hardest part of going underground on the Limestone Coast is choosing which of its 800 cool caves to explore first! They’re all part of the Kanawinka Geopark – the remnants of volcanic activity in the dim, distant past – at least I hope so!

Not all the caves are accessible though, so here are FOUR (entry fees apply) to get you started!

Take a 45 minute guided tour of the Engelbrecht Cave system right underneath Mount Gambier – if you do, then tell me what it’s like! I didn’t have time to take the tour myself on this visit!

Then head north along the Princes Highway towards Millicent for a self-guided tour of the Tantanoola Cave and its spectacular formations

If I hadn’t already seen the awesome Marsupial Lion at the World Heritage listed Naracoorte Caves on a guided tour – which included a trip to the Bat Cave – from Wonambi Fossil Centre just out of Naracoorte, it would have been first on my list.

But instead, I crossed the border into Victoria to take a 45 minute tour 14 metres underground into the fantastic

This stalagmite is the same age as me! Who knew!
This stalagmite is the same age as me! Who knew!

otherworldly splendour of the Princess Margaret Rose Cave, named for Princess Margaret by a woman born on the same day! There’s a superb range of veil and wedding cake formations, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites – and even a newish stalagmite the same age as me!

But I’ll leave you to visit the caves yourself if you want to find out how old it is – and I am!

Above ground, the Lower Glenelg National Park surrounding the cave complex is pretty awesome too with a picnic and campground, walks and a lookout over the Glenelg River.

Glenelg River Cliffs and Cruise Boat near Princess Margaret Rose Caves, Nelson
Glenelg River Cliffs and Cruise Boat near Princess Margaret Rose Caves, Nelson

For a great day out, take a return 3½ hour cruise up the river from Nelson to the cave for the tour (PS – there’s a LOT to do at Nelson, too)!

(BONUS: Read about my Naracoorte Caves adventure HERE!)

This killer cave collection has something for everyone! That’s if you’re not claustrophobic, afraid of dark, enclosed spaces or bats, or full of pointless fears about that unsupported roof right above you crashing down!!

2 See Scenic Sinkholes!

Umpherston Sinkhole Gardens, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast, South Australia
Umpherston Sinkhole Gardens, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast

Ever wondered if the roof of a cave could ever collapse? Check out EXACTLY what happens at FOUR of the Limestone Coast’s biggest Sinkholes (all with FREE entry)!

Every night, the FREE sound and light show in Mount Gambier’s Cave Garden fires up the caverns as well as giving the indigenous history of the area – it’s an awesome view from the lookouts suspended high above the sinkhole.

By day, it’s good, but not as impressive as the Umpherston Sinkhole Gardens, a magical below-ground-level open-air experience where the rugged limestone walls are hidden behind a beautiful garden.

But sinkholes are more impressive in the wild – if you can find Caroline Sinkhole in Penambol Conservation Park just out of Mt Gambier, you’ll see what these massive circular depressions actually look like in their natural state. The above-ground walking trail from the car park through the forest is pretty too!

Penambol Conservation Park walking trail, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast
Penambol Conservation Park walking trail, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast

It’s even harder to find Hells Hole – apparently the sign keeps getting pinched! I get that – it’d probably look cool at the front gate or in the garden!! Hells Hole is at the end of a pleasant walk through the pine forest, and a scary suspended walkway 30 metres above the water level, with a sign telling (omigod-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding) divers to close the gate behind them!

I SO didn’t bother getting a diving permit 😀

3 Experience Life on the Ponds

Ewens Ponds Conservation Park, Limestone Coast, South Australia
Ewens Ponds Conservation Park, Limestone Coast, South Australia

A much smaller (but WAY more picturesque) version of the sinkholes are TWO limestone karst wetlands full of clear water freshly filtered through the limestone from the aquifer beneath.

Colours of Ewens Ponds, Limestone Coast South Australia
Colours of Ewens Ponds, Limestone Coast South Australia

The three ponds connected by Eight Mile Creek (and a walking track) that make up the Ewens Ponds Conservation Park are generally open for swimming, snorkelling and diving. It’s a pretty spot even without going in the water!

Permits are required for cave diving in the 110 metre deep ponds in the Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park, but the walking track through the coastal scrub, then along a magnificent stretch of beach to the Outlet Creek and boardwalk is a varied and interesting hike.

4 Look out for the Lakes!

Blue Lake, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast South Australia
Blue Lake, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast South Australia

It’s pretty hard to miss Mount Gambier’s famous four Crater Lakes (all with FREE activities) – especially from the vantage point of Centenary Tower (see last photo), a steep climb along the network of mountain bike and walking trails, lookouts and rest areas linking the Lakes to the Mount’s highest point.

It’s also got excellent views over Mount Gambier, South Australia’s 2nd largest city, and over to Mount Schank (see #6 below), an extinct volcano on the Kanawinka Geotrail, Australia’s biggest volcanic province. Then it’s all downhill – praise be!

Valley Lake and Blue Lake Crater from Centenary Tower, Mount Gambier
Valley Lake and Blue Lake Crater from Centenary Tower, Mount Gambier

The Leg of Mutton Lake was dry on our visit – but there’s a walking trail around it! In autumn, the deciduous trees once part of a nursery on the site make a fine display of colour.

Browne’s Lake was also dry on our visit, but can be seen from the road through the lake complex.

Have a picnic down at Valley Lake (yes, it’s down in the valley at the bottom of the crater) and take a walk through the Valley Lake Conservation Park. On our walk, we saw koalas, kangaroos, lizards, Cape Barren Geese, manic Blue Wrens – but thankfully no snakes! Barbecues and boat ramps make it easy to spend the whole day here.

The famous Blue Lake reaches its bluest blue from November to March – see it up close on an Aquifer tour (fees apply) down the old well shaft to the water level, or just admire it from the walk around the rim.

Little Blue Lake Swimming Platform, Limestone Coast near Port MacDonnell
Little Blue Lake Swimming Platform, Limestone Coast near Port MacDonnell

But for an even closer look at that famous blue water take a drive out along the Port MacDonnell road to Little Blue Lake. It’s a micro-mini version of its bigger, more famous buddy, but it’s actually got a swimming platform and rails so you can take a dip! For FREE!

5 Walk on the WILD Side at Canunda National Park

Southend Jetty, northern end of Canunda National Park, Limestone Coast
Southend Jetty, northern end of Canunda National Park, Limestone Coast

Take a 4WD drive along Canunda National Park‘s 40 km of rugged coastline between Southend and Carpenter Rocks and discover rocky cliffs, surfing breaks, sandstone formations, rock stacks beaches, fishing spots, massive dunes and camping spots.

Cape Banks Lighthouse
Cape Banks Lighthouse, Carpenters Rocks, South Australia

No 4WD? No problem! Drive to Cape Buffon at the northern end of the park for walking tracks, lookout points and the beautiful beaches and bays of Southend. 2WD roads from Millicent and Carpenter Rocks give access to other areas of the park, including the toxic orange Cape Banks Lighthouse!

Canunda National Park near Carpenters Rocks, Limestone Coast
View from Cape Banks Lighthouse, Canunda National Park near Carpenters Rocks, Limestone Coast

Yes, with FREE entry, this is one of the best places to see exactly why this stretch of the Limestone Coast is also known as the Shipwreck Coast!

6 Climb an Extinct Volcano!

Mount Schank from Centenary Tower, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast
Mount Schank (in the distance) from Centenary Tower, Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast

Mount Schank and Mount Gambier (the mountain, not the city) were Australia’s most recent eruptions – recently enough to be recorded in the area’s Indigenous history. It’s also re-enacted on the big screen (for FREE) every day at the Main Corner Dress Circle in Mount Gambier (the city, not the mountain).

But without any eruptions in a VERY long time, Mount Schank is now considered extinct.  Let’s hope it stays that way!!

It’s also been a VERY long time since I climbed Mount Schank, about 15 km south of Mount Gambier. But not long enough to forget the awesome landscape all around this 158 metre high mountain – and the fantastic view below me in the crater.

Red on Mt Schank, via Mt Gambier, Limestone Coast
Red climbs Mt Schank – a VERY long time ago!

Experience life in a volcano by continuing the walk around the rim and down a VERY steep trail into the crater!

(BONUS: Read about my other adventures on the Kanawinka GeoTrail HERE)

Like what you’ve seen so far?

Then go straight to Part Two of The Ultimate Beginners Guide to the Limestone Coast – Link BELOW!!

Beach on the Piccaninnie Ponds Trail, Limestone Coast, South Australia
Beach on the Piccaninnie Ponds Trail, Limestone Coast, South Australia

Limestone Coast FAST FACTS:

Centenary Tower atop Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast South Australia
Centenary Tower atop Mount Gambier, Limestone Coast South Australia
  • WHERE: South East South Australia, from Meningie and the Coorong National Park at its northern tip to Port MacDonnell in the south. Mount Gambier is the largest centre.
  • HOW to get there: Self-drive from Adelaide to Mount Gambier (~450 km); or Melbourne to Mount Gambier (~450-550 km) – distances vary depending on route taken. Coach from Adelaide or Melbourne. Fly from Adelaide or Melbourne. Hire cars available.
  • WHEN: All year round. Average maximum temperatures range from 14°C in winter to 30°C in summer.
  • WHERE to stay: There’s a range of accommodation throughout the Limestone Coast – campgrounds, caravan parks, motels, apartments, B&Bs etc.We stayed in Mount Gambier, Port MacDonnell and Robe which were central to the attractions we wanted to see.

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    1. Really? And you’re a holiday rentals expert?? Add it to your site NOW!!! Seriously, thanx for dropping by, Cam! Happy to write you a piece about it for your site if you like!

  1. Sensational photos of an area that I just have to get to soon. Have to agree those sink holes are incredible. My geologist hubby would be a little ecstatic 😉

    1. Even us non-geologists found the whole region amazing, Jo! Maybe not knowing anything about the technicalities behind weird land formations means one ha even MORE of a sense of wonder?? Add to that the cool eating places and climate and you’ve SO got a winner!

    1. Thanx Yum! Bizarre sinkholes are just one of my favourite Limestone Coast things – it’d be awesome to see a theatre production in one, wouldn’t it?! Have a great week 😀

    1. Self-drive is the best way to see it, Diane – that’s my opinion, anyway! It’s easier to pick and choose what you want to see, and decide where you want to stay. We didn’t book ANYTHING, even though it was school holidays in both SA and Victoria. We stayed in on-site accomodation (gave the camper trailer a rest!) in Mt Gambier for 2 nights, Port MacDonnell for 3 and Robe for 3, but we could have just as easily stayed in Beachport, Southend, Naracoorte, Nelson or Millicent – they’re all central to the main attractions. Hope you get to do it – just wait for Part Two!

  2. We only saw half of what you mention when we visited a few years ago, and it really is a terrific area, even mid winter. I think my days of caving have passed unless it is an upright and well lit walk.

    1. Haha, REAL caving is for people a LOT braver than I am, Andrew!! You’ll be happy to know that ALL the caves I visited fall into the ‘upright/well lit’ category 😀 In my opinion, this area is one of Australia’s best ‘all rounder’ destinations – something for everyone at all times of the year!

  3. I remember we visited Tantanoola Cave in 1995, I was quite impressed – little did I know there were three other caves!
    The Sinkholes sound weird/scary! Also like hell 😉
    The colors of the lakes are awesome. I remember a blue and green lake near Mt Gambier? And a Tea tree lake or such? Sooo long ago!
    Can´t wait to retire and come back! (Not so near future…)

    1. If you like Tantanoola Cave, you’ll LOVE Princess Margaret Rose Cave, Iris! It’s got some great formations – unlike the sinkholes which are just great big round holes 😀 They’re not so scary from the top!! Valley Lake used to be called ‘Green Lake’ in Mt Gambier – I’m not sure when the name changed, but it still looks green, especially compared to the BLUE lake. You might be thinking of a couple of lakes near Robe for your Tea Tree Lake – you’ll have to come back down and show me what you saw!!

  4. Every time I see your photos, I really feel that Aussie unspoilt nature is very energetic.
    I sometimes write about rural places on my blog. And I cannot help feeling so lonely in quiet countryside even if the views are very beautiful. But somehow it doesn’t happen in Australia.
    I love the beaches so much. I’m waiting for Part 2!!

    1. Part Two will be your lucky post, Kozue – there’ll be a LOT more beaches!! I am quite happy to wander through the natural attractions without a lot of other people – it’s powerful and calming at the same time! I hope that makes sense!! Maybe it’s because the beauty is so wild??

  5. Sadly we didn’t make it this far on our trip to SA in 2013, but I am definitely adding it to our travel itinerary next time. Wow those sink holes and those crater lakes! stunning. I’ve just had my map book out to check out where it is. 2017 maybe? Thanks Red for another fabulous, and very readable travel post. You are the go-to girl for Oz travel!

    1. It really is an unusual spot, Jill – the remains of the volcanic activity are everywhere making this a unique place to explore. Add the rest of the Kanawinka Geotrail to your list too – it’s fascinating!! Oh, and can you let Tourism Australia know about the title you gave me?!?!?! That’s what I’m aiming to be, anyway!

    1. It’s just not really on the tourist radar, Pauline – maybe because it’s at the northern end of the more famous Great Ocean Road?? But that’s what I’m here for, right?!?!?!

  6. The Limestone Coast was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to South Australia. My only regret is that we didn’t go to Mount Gambier to have a look around. Maybe next time!

    1. You can’t do everything in one visit, Kathy – unless that visit is a bit longer than our 8 day trip!! We’ll be back to do the bits we missed the first time with any luck – foolishly, we got there just DAYS before the lobster season opened and the only one left in town was frozen and cost about $150!!

  7. The blues in the lakes were so lovely! “Caving” was popular where I went to college in limestone country in southern Indiana, but since this seemed to involve a lot of wiggling yourself through really tight spaces, I and my claustrophobia never attempted it. Give me the daylight and open spaces of your Limestone Coast! Christie

    1. It’s awesome when it goes blue from November to March, M! But if it’s NOT blue, you can always pick up a bottle of blue water from the Visitor Centre to make up for it, haha!

  8. Wow what wonderful places I would love to visit them and maybe one day I will, when my loving husband retires and we travel around this wonderful country

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