The Blue Lake
This is really one of the wonders of the world. To stand on the edge of the Blue Lake, particularly on a beautifully sunny, and to gaze down on something which is so impossibly blue is to marvel at the mysteries of nature. The lake itself is reputedly 75 metres deep and now fills an extinct volcanic crater. It is claimed that the lake is only intensely blue between November and March. During the winter months it returns to an uninspiring greyish colour.
Evidence suggests that the Blue Lake volcano last erupted about 5000 years ago. It is about 20 metres above sea level and, because of its great depth, its bottom is about 30 metres below the level of Mount Gambier's main street.
The lake was subject of one of the most famous exploits in Australian literary history. Between 1853 and 1867 the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon lived in the area. He worked as a mounted policeman, a drover and a horse breaker. There is a story that Gordon, an exceptional horseman, took a horse and leapt the old post and rail fence. It was all for a bet. The challenge was that the area of land beyond the post and rail fence was no more than a metre across and beyond lay a 60 metre drop (not totally vertical) into the lake. It is said that not only did Gordon leap the fence on his horse and land it safely on the narrow ledge but he managed to get the horse to leap back across the fence - such was his skill. The support for this event is contained on an obelisk on MacDonnell Bay Rd which was put up in 1887 and records the event.
Why is the lake blue?
No one knows for sure why the Blue Lake changes colour. There are a number of theories most of which have merit. In times past, when blue dye was used extensively to clean clothes, it was believed that the blue was filtering through the limestone and appearing in the lake. This reached its most amusing highpoint when people started accusing Mt Gambier locals of putting blue into the water so it would become a tourist attraction.
Another theory argues that the water is home to microscopic blue organisms which rise to the surface in the warmer months.
A third explanation, offered in an old brochure on the town, argued as follows: 'The most likely theory is that light is scattered by calcium carbonate which saturates the lake. As the temperature rises at the surface level it causes them to precipitate out as extremely fine particles of a similar wavelength to blue light. This causes a scattering of the light at the blue end of the spectrum, making the lake appear blue.
At the highest point overlooking the city's famous lakes is the Centenary Tower which was built by public subscription (it cost ?482/11/6), is set on a cement foundation and is a total of nearly 10 metres high. The foundation stone was laid on on 3 December 1900. It was built of red dolomite and the walls are 60 cm thick. It celebrates the sighting of Mount Gambier by Lieutenant Grant in 1800.
The Crater Lakes
While the Blue Lake is the most famous of the city's lakes it is by no means the only one. The lakes, which include the Little Blue Lake, Browne's Lake, Valley Lake and Leg of Mutton Lake (this is now totally dry and wooded over - a remnant of an old volcano), are all located quite close together and it is easy to find the vantage points which offer views over the lakes. There are at least five vantage points around the Blue Lake and a similar number of viewing points around the other lakes which are grouped together to the west of Blue Lake.
Mount Gambier Tourist Information Centre
The major appeal of the Mount Gambier Tourist Information Centre is that it also houses a full-size replica of the Lady Nelson, the brig in which Lieutenant James Grant RN first sighted Mount Gambier. This is only part of a very clever, and carefully considered, Interpretative Centre which starts with the Lady Nelson, moves on to the Geology Room (which explains the volcanoes in the area and shows how the Blue Lake was formed), then the Cave Walk (which displays fossils from the local area and ancient kangaroo bones), the Green Triangle Room (where the history of the area bounded by Kingston S.E. and Bordertown) is portrayed through film and interactive games and outside to a sample of the local wetlands which is crossed by a boardwalk. It is located on Jubilee Hwy East, (08) 8724 9750, 1800 087 187, fax (08) 8723 2833.
The City's Historic Heritage
The Old Courthouse
The Old Court House which is open between noon - 4.00 p.m. is now called the National Trust Law and Heritage Centre and the Courthouse Gallery. The building, the original Court House, remained in use until 1975 when it was replaced by a more modern building. It was completed in 1864-65 to a design by G.T. Light. It is characterised by squared quoins and arches. The building still has the jury box, judge's chambers and cells and it is possible to inspect them all. The Courthouse Gallery sells a wide variety of locally made sweets.
Located in the city centre at the corner of Penola Road and Commercial Street, the Cave Gardens were the sight of Mount Gambier's first source of water. There is an easy walkway around the edge of the cave. The steps were cut by a W.A. Crouch. There was a time in the early history of the city that water was raised and sold by the bucket. In 1909 a rose garden was planted around the edge of the cave.
Former Town Hall
Located in Commercial Road (the main road in the city) the Old Town Hall, with its prominent clock tower, is now a Community Arts Centre. This huge building was constructed out of dolomite and limestone. The Town Hall was completed in 1882. An Institute was added in 1882 and a theatre in 1906. The tower clock was a donation from a Mr Ellis of Benara Station. Beside the town hall is an ornate and beautiful marble fountain cost ?700 and was donated to the city by Captain Robert Gardiner in 1884. It is claimed to be the first marble fountain made in South Australia. Gardiner was the grandfather of the famous ballet dancer, Sir Robert Helpmann.
Mount Gambier Hotel
Built in 1862 and originally known as Giffords Hotel (the second storey was completed in 1883 and the balcony was added in 1902) this is a fine example of a prosperous country hotel of its era. It is located in Commercial Street West.
Built in 1884 out of dolomite and limestone (the preferred local building materials) this elegant old hotel was enlarged in 1904 and added to in 1927. It has a beautiful cast-iron balcony and is very much a prominent site in the city centre.
The City's Churches
Christ Church - Anglican Church
Located on Bay Street this unusual church was erected in 1865 to a design by W.T. Gore. It is characterised by being built from dolomite and featuring a roof notable for its many gables. In 1895 the chancel and organ chamber were added. As well there was a memorial porch and lych gate built. There were further additions in 1915.
St Andrews Uniting Church
Built from an attractive and distinctive pink dolomite in 1871 and characterised by buttresses and a small gabled port and a towering spire (which was replaced in 1885) it is positioned on top of a hill and can be easily seen from post parts of Mount Gambier. It has been added to over the years with a gallery being built in 1879, a porch in 1885 and a vestry in the 1920s. It is located in Elizabeth Street.
St Pauls Roman Catholic Church
Built from dolomite in 1855 it is characterised by a distinctive castellated tower on the right hand side of the building.
Apple Farm and Tearooms
If you are passionate about apples here is a place where they grow 19 different varieties and duly offer them for sale in every imaginable form from apple juice to pies and tarts. It is located on Clare Rd and is open every weekend and public holiday from Feb-Oct. Contact (08) 8726 8205 for more details.
Located on Attamurra Road there is a display of characters from popular children's fiction as well as a huge display of bears. Outside there is a glasshouse with numerous cacti as well as a very pretty cottage garden. Contact (08) 8725 3269. It is open daily 10.00 am - 4.30 pm.
The whole south-east of South Australia (and spreading into Victoria) is honeycombed with caves. The Engelbrecht Cave, which extends under seven city streets, was formed some 30-40 million years ago. At one time it was used as a dump by one of the city's local whisky distilleries. It is now possible to go on conducted tours where visitors can see water which is making its way under the city towards the Blue Lake. Tours go every hour and all you need to do is turn up at about 10 minutes before the hour. The major viewing platform, where you can see the water under the city, is 27 metres below the surface
Garden of Angels and Birds
Located on Wandilo Forest Road this animal and reptile park has a good collection of Australian animals including marsupials, reptiles, local nocturnal animals and birds. Contact (08) 8723 0619. It is open every day during daylight hours.
Lieutenant Grant named this fascinating remnant volcano at the time he named Mount Gambier. It was named after a friend, Captain Schank. There is a track which leads to the top and it is possible to descend into the crater of the extinct volcano. The walk from the Car Park to the top and around the edges of the old volcano is estimated as being of moderate difficulty and should take about 2 1/2 hours. Get directions from the Tourist Information Centre or take the Port Macdonnell Road
Located on the Jubilee Hwy near the Carter, Holt, Harvey Timber Mill, the sinkhole has been landscaped with terraced gardens and is floodlit at night. It is an impressive garden with palm trees reaching to the sky and plants hanging over the edges of the sinkhole.
The Tantanoola tiger is on display in the Tantanoola Hotel. The place is very small and very spread out. It is a tiny town located near a huge woodchip operation.
Trying to establish the correct dates and the actual facts surrounding the Tantanoola tiger is almost impossible. No two versions are the same although there is a kind of central germ of truth. Where there are more than one possible date I have simply listed them all with question marks.
It is claimed that the first sighting of the Tantanoola tiger occurred in (1883? 1889? 1895?) when a young man riding near Tantanoola claimed he saw a large shaggy animal leap over a fence with a sheep in its jaws. (Or was it because two tigers escaped from a travelling circus?) This led to hysteria in the local area. Children were escorted to school by men with guns. People refused to leave their homes at night. Loaded shotguns were carried by virtually everyone. Eventually a local bushman, Tom Donovan, assisted by three other men, managed to shoot a large wild dog (an Assyrian wolf?) was shot in 1895. It was given to the Tantanoola Hotel which had it stuffed and declared that it was the Tantanoola tiger. It is claimed that in 1911 Robert Edmondson and David Bald were arrested for stealing and killing sheep and that this was the real resolution to the problem. Not a tiger/wolf/dog but some canny men. Who really knows?
Tom Donovan had the animal stuffed and kept it in a private museum in Nelson. In 1905 it was placed in a glass case and put on display in the Railway Hotel which changed its name to the Tantanoola Tiger Hotel.
Tantanoola Cave, located 33 km from Mount Gambier, may be the only cave in Australia which claims to have wheelchair access. It is a single cave which has been formed in an ancient coastal cliff. It is notable for its excellent columns, shawls and helictites. The cave was first discovered by Boyce Lane in 1930 and since then has been a popular local attraction. For opening times and cave tours contact (08) 8734 4153.
Located 20 km west of Mount Gambier, Glencoe's sole claim to fame is that it has a superb old National Trust Woolshed with a 36 stand stone shearing shed and lots of interesting displays of woolshed activities. The area was originally settled, in 1844, by Edward and Robert Leake who named the settlement after the mighty Glencoe in Scotland. They built their famous shearing shed in 1863 out of limestone and blackwood timber. While in the district you should visit both Lake Leake (a volcanic crater like the lakes at Mount Gambier) and Lake Edward both of which have grassed picnic areas. Check with the Mount Gambier Tourist Information for opening times.