Some of the Limestone Coast’s most unforgettable visitor experiences are hidden from sight. Deep below the rich volcanic earth lies a spectacular labyrinth of caves created over thousands of years by the constant slow drip of rainwater filtering through porous limestone. There are approximately 800 caves in the Limestone Coast region, and a cluster of the safest and most spectacular sites are accessible to the public.
Experience the Caves
Beneath Mount Gambier’s city streets, experienced divers can explore the secret tunnels of Engelbrecht Cave, carefully weaving their way through an intricate maze of water-filled passages while the world passes by overhead.
Two of the dry chambers, which serve as the diver entry point, are open for public tours and provide a fascinating window into the region’s geological past.
Engelbrecht Cave is a favourite place to visit and cave divers from around the world explore its secrets below the urban streets of Mount Gambier.
South Australia’s only World Heritage site is only an hour’s drive north of Mount Gambier. The Naracoorte Caves National Park contains a priceless fossil record of the ancient animals that once roamed the local landscape.
The Wonambi Fossil Centre brings the extinct creatures back to life and demonstrates how the caves acted as pitfall traps, preserving their skeletal remains for up to 500,000 years.
Four caves are open to the public for self-guided, guided and adventure caving tours, while the rest are used for scientific research, with paleontologists still unearthing chapters of our past.
The wheelchair-accessible Tantanoola Caves are set into a cliff face and were once part of an ancient coastline – the evidence lies within, with seal bones and shells among the many fascinating finds.
The ocean’s gradual retreat left behind the cavern filled with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, and knowledgeable tour guides are on hand to explain how the delicate formations developed.
Take the 500-metre loop hike leading to the top of the cliff for 360-degree views of the surrounding forest land, and enjoy a packed lunch in the pine-scented picnic grounds.
Just across the South Australian – Victorian state border in the Lower Glenelg National Park, Princess Margaret Rose Cave features varied hues of crystalline structures created by centuries of minerals and tannins filtered through the soil.
Most limestone caves are formed by water seeping down through cracks and fault lines in the limestone, dissolving the rock and creating fissures and tunnels. The formation of Princess Margaret Rose Cave, however, was assisted by water from the Glenelg River which worked its way along a fault line for approx 500m. Take the guided tours and gain an understanding of the fragility of this natural wonder.
The Sinkholes (Cenotes)
The extensive subterranean network of sinkholes located in the south-eastern corner of South Australia lay hidden deep underground for many thousands of years. It took the gradual collapse of cave roofs to expose their secret existence, with remarkable natural forces shining new light on the region’s fascinating past. They now form the ‘must see’ list for visitors to the regions.
In the Mount Gambier and Limestone Coast area it has been said there are over 50 sinkholes containing water.
Experience the Sinkholes (Cenotes)
One of the most well-visited sinkholes can be found in the very heart of Mount Gambier in the Cave Garden.
Located in a state heritage area, behind the Riddoch Art Gallery. There are several viewing platforms suspended over the abyss and a path to descend into its centre. After heavy rains it is a spectacle to see the filtered stormwater cascade down the exposed rocky wall.
The Cave Garden is in a beautifully manicured garden that includes the most stunning of roses. This is a place you really need to have time to linger.
On the eastern side of Mount Gambier, set in a beautifully maintained park, is a historic Sunken Garden.
This is a century old sunken garden planted on a series of terraces reflecting a bygone era.
Appreciate its size and depth from the viewing platforms at the top of the sinkhole, then, walk down into the sinkhole, along the terraces and behind the hanging vines. Have a unique experience with a picnic or barbeque in the gardens under the shelter of the caves overhang.
The resident colony of possums make an appearance at dusk and enjoy being fed fresh fruit.
A suspended platform also provides great views of Caroline Sinkhole in Penambol Conservation Park.
Water appears in this sinkhole only during extremely wet years, and it’s likely that the internal ledges once provided valuable shelter from the elements, with archaeological digs unearthing evidence of early Aboriginal habitation.
According to local legend, the ominously-named Hell’s Hole tucked deep within a forest was discovered long ago by two night-time travellers.
Today, the circular sinkhole filled with deep blue water is a popular spot for abseiling cave divers.
Permits must be obtained to dive, and a viewing platform offers incredible views for those wishing to stay high and dry.
Situated in the middle of a paddock on a private sheep property, with access to the site only possible through a limited number of licenses provided by the landowners.
Divers rate the 65-metre-deep sinkhole among the world’s best due to its exceptional water clarity.
Volcanoes & Lakes
Mount Gambier is one of few cities in the world to be established on the slopes of a volcano, but visitors needn’t be nervous; the imposing landmark last erupted 5000 years ago. The Blue Lake and Valley Lakes craters formed during the eruption, but according to the Dreamtime stories of the Boandik Aboriginal tribe, they were the work of the giant Craitbul; every time he lit a campfire, it was doused by emerging underground water, leaving gaping holes in the ground.
The free one-hour movie Volcano further unearths the region’s fascinating past along with a short film of the Craitbul story; both screen daily at Mount Gambier’s Main Corner.
The Crater Lakes’ area is less than 10 minutes drive away. Allow time to explore and pack a picnic or plan a barbeque to make the most of the stunning parks with open spaces and glorious surrounds. There are several viewing platforms around the rim of the Blue Lake. The lake is spectacular on chilly winter mornings when it’s draped in mist as the sun rises.
Experience the Volcanoes & Lakes
This much-photographed landmark mysteriously changes colour as summer approaches, switching from a steel grey blue hue to dazzling turquoise in November.
Experts attribute this phenomenon to the presence of microscopic calcite crystals which “scatter” the light entering the lake, and change seasonally. A chemical reaction occurs in early summer when the surface water is warmed, but the deeper water remains cold.
The lake also serves as the city’s chief water supply, and guided tours feature a ride down the original dolomite well shaft in a glass-panelled lift.
The Valley Lakes are adjacent to the Blue Lake. The precinct is accessible by vehicle, and is the perfect spot for a picnic. While picturesque year-round, the area is majestic in autumn when the flame-like trees put on a spectacular show.
Free barbeques, an adventure playground, walking trails, a skiing lake and a wildlife conservation park with kangaroos and koalas are among the family-friendly attractions.
This crater is only about 4,600 year old, the youngest crater in the Mount Gambier system. In the late 1800’s this area was the nursery for the then Mount Gambier forest, it was where the first Pinus Radiata was planted which now dominates forestry in South East of South Australia.
Today it is an inviting area at any time of year, with flora and fauna changing with the seasons. Although not a naturally vegetated area it has a wealth of exotic plantings over the years and is the most attractive and accessible park in the area.
An invigorating walk to Centenary Tower offers a birds-eye view of this unique landscape, as you decide where to start exploring the area. On a clear day enjoy breathtaking views of the sand dunes and ocean in the distance.
The Centenary Tower commemorates the naming and discovery of Mount Gambier by Lieutenant James Grant in December 1800. Grant undertook the first eastwards passage along the southern coast of Australia in the HMS Lady Nelson. He sighted and named Gambier’s Mountain (Mount Gambier) from the deck of his ship.
Located a 15-minute drive south of Mount Gambier is like a mini replica of its larger namesake.
Originally a cave, it is now a popular local swimming hole and features a floating pontoon for easy access.
This volcano dominates the skyline south of Mount Gambier, and a 15-minute drive from the Blue Lake city will deliver you to the base of the cone.
Dubbed Australia’s ‘youngest’ volcano despite erupting 4500-5000 years ago, visitors can climb hundreds of steps to enjoy sweeping 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape with its richly textured patchwork of fertile paddocks and the ocean beyond.
A basic trail traces around the top of the crater and descends deep within the dormant landmark.