Port MacDonnell, South Australia: Travel guide and things to do

Located 467 km south east of Adelaide, Port Macdonnell is the southernmost town in South Australia. It is surrounded by interesting coastline and parklands. Nearby is the cottage at Dingley Dell where Adam Lindsay Gordon, one of Australia's most famous 19th century poets, lived.

Prior to European settlement the area was the home to the Bungandidj Aborigines who lived largely on the produce from the sea. Like Mount Gambier, which is only 28 km inland, Port MacDonnell was first sighted by a European when Lieutenant James Grant, sailing the HMS Lady Nelson down the coast on 3 December 1800, observed the coastline. It was at this time that he named Cape Northumberland and Mount Gambier.

Like many places in South Australia the name, MacDonnell, comes from Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell who was the Governor of South Australia from 1855-1862. The town was officially became a port on 4 April 1860. For the next twenty years, servicing the local district, it gained a reputation as one of the state's busiest ports (second only to Port Adelaide) shipping the wheat and wool from the local area around the world. Clippers arrived to carry the wheat and wool to England. In the 1880s the port became so important that the jetty was extended so it reached 1700 feet into the harbour.

Port MacDonnell would be much more important today if it had become the major rail centre on the south-east coast but the rail went to Beachport and it declined. Today Port MacDonnell is famous for its lobsters. It has South Australia's largest lobster fishing fleet.

Things to see

Public Buildings Complex
The Port MacDonnell police station, courthouse, telegraph station and customs house complex was completed between 1862-75 and stands on the corner Standish St & the Parade. The buildings were made of stone with slate roofs and were built by F. Reynolds of Port Adelaide.

Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum
Located in Meylin Street, the Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum has been open since January 1990. It is constantly being expanded with new artefacts from the local area. The people who open the museum are a source of information about the district. The museum has been assiduous in collecting information about the local area and write of the Wagon tracks to the west of the township.

Wagon Tracks
'Although good building stone was available an edict of the colonial government was to the effect that no stone should be raised for building purposes. The carting of stone from the beaches was also under a ban but these laws were later rescinded. Large quarries of limestone were opened up at the west end of the township and stone buildings went on apace. Bullock teams carted huge loads of flat beach flints along the low rocky shores to the west of the town and the wheel ruts of these bullock wagons are still to be seen scarring the limestone flats at low water. When the tides are low these wheel tracks are plainly visible filled with water and provide a hiding place for crabs, mussels and anemones.

Victoria Hotel
Located at 40 Meylin Street, this hotel gained some fame in the 1860s when it became the stopping point at the end of the coach trip from Adelaide. The journey took three days so the passengers were very grateful to see the Victoria Hotel come into view.

Dingley Dell
In 'South East Sketchbook' the journalist Max Lamshed, who was born in Mount Gambier, wrote of Dingley Dell: 'Adam Lindsay Gordon, the romantic poet, spent some of his happiest and most fruitful years at Dingley Dell. It stood in open scrubland which wattle splashed with springtime gold; where the music of wattle bird, magpie and thrush was never far away, and the growl of the sea came muted from the rocks of Cape Northumberland.

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'He took his young bride, the gentle and understanding Maggie Park, to live there, and they were a familiar sight in nearby Port McDonnell (sic). He tall, long striding, with open neck shirt and cord riding pants, dark felt hat with long puggaree; she slight, dainty treading, holding her partner by the shirt pocket to give him a check.'

Dingley Dell was the home of Adam Lindsay Gordon from 1864 to 1867. There is a legend that Gordon won the cottage in a card game from its owner George Randall. It is open every day in the school holidays from 10.00 a.m. - 4.00 p.m. It is 2 kms out of Port MacDonnell and is clearly signposted from a number of points around the town. Each of the rooms has been recreated.

Cape Northumberland
As you drive out to Cape Northumberland you will notice some rocky formations which the locals refer to as the petrified forest. They are a series of strange rocky outcrops. Cape Northumberland is fascinating and well worth a visit.

Veronica Jenkins from the Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum writes of the cape and its lighthouse: 'The first lighthouse was approved in 1856 and completed in July 1857 at a cost of £1837. It was built on an extremely exposed part of the coast, with cliffs falling a hundred feet to the sea on either side of the narrow piece of land on which it was built. It was necessary later to erect a stone wall around the buildings to make it safer for the keepers of the lighthouse. By 1880 this lighthouse was considered unsafe. The rocky area on which it had been built was very friable, and so tenders were called for a new lighthouse. It was operating for the first time in April 1882. Originally there were three stone cottages built near the lighthouse but these were replaced in 1909 by three wooden cottages, two of which still stand near the lighthouse. The stone cottages were removed in 1919.

'Very little remains of the first lighthouse however a stone seat has been placed on the site. It carries a plaque honouring the memory of Captain Ben Germein. He was the first keeper. He also surveyed the harbour, selected the site for the port to serve the district and was involved in rescue attempts for many of the shipwrecks along the coast including the famous Admella and John Ormerod.

'The Petrified Forest has been tested and evidently has been found not to be petrified wood although the locals still know it as the Petrified Forest. Frog Rock, just like Rhino Rock and Captains Head Rock, is believed to be named because they look like a frog, rhino and captain's head. Captains Head is no longer recognisable as the years have eroded its character.'

The area is well worth visiting but, as a study of desecration of natural beauty it would be hard to beat the shute where the shells of crayfish and lobsters are disposed of. It is right in the middle of the view at the Cape. The shapes which the sea has eroded out of the rocks are very spectacular and unusual.

Mount Schank
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 road to Mount Gambier. It is 10 km north of Port MacDonnell.

Piccaninnie Ponds
Located along the coast and reaching the Victorian border this is a large reed swamp with subterranean springs which has a reputation as one of Australia's best cave diving destinations. The caves are actually sinkholes and require considerable skill. The main sinkhole, Piccaninnie Pond, can be dived but a permit is needed from the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Mount Gambier.

Ewens Ponds Conservation Park
Located 6 km north east of Port MacDonnell this is an important and interesting wetland habitat characterised by dense stringybark, blackwood, Christmas bush and a range of interesting orchids. It is also an area of sinkholes which are popular with divers.

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