Off the beaten track

Lee Atkinson discovers natural wonders above the ground and below.

Why go?

Just west of the Victoria-South Australia border, Mount Gambier is roughly halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide. More than just a handy place to spend a night on a road trip, SA's second-largest city is also home to some of Australia's youngest volcanoes and lots of crater lakes, caves and sinkholes.

What it's known for

Mount Gambier is most famous for its Blue Lake, a 75-metre-deep lake inside an extinct volcanic crater on the edge of town. Actually there are three lakes, but only one changes colour each year. In winter, it is a steely grey, but over a few days in November the water changes to a brilliant cyan blue and stays that way until March. There's lots of theories as to why, but no one really knows. You can drive (or walk) around the rim of the volcano and there are several lookouts down into the crater. You can take a glass-panelled lift down into the crater. Open daily, tours on the hour.

What you didn't know

Mount Gambier might be famous for its mysterious Blue Lake, but the tiny town of Tantanoola, 35 kilometres to the north-west, is just as (in)famous for its tiger. In the 1880s, after the discovery of a number of mauled sheep, locals became convinced that a Bengal tiger had escaped from a travelling circus. In 1895, 4000 sheep and a lot of hysteria later, a beast was shot by bushman Tom Donovan. Turns out it wasn't a tiger but an Assyrian wolf, thought to have stowed away on a boat that was shipwrecked off the coast - and the culprit responsible for the missing sheep was a local called Charlie Edmondson. The wolf-tiger was stuffed and is still on display at the Tantanoola Tiger Hotel, which also has a prowling tiger on the roof.

What's new

Mount Gambier Gaol has changed a bit since the Tantanoola thief was sentenced to six years' hard labour for stealing sheep. The sandstone prison, home to outlaws and the condemned from 1866 until 1995, has been refurbished and made into a boutique budget hotel, with razor wire and bars intact. Rooms range from dormitories to self-contained family units, and while the guard's peep holes in the doors have been covered for privacy and cells now include a toilet and basin, almost all the original jailhouse fittings and fixtures are still in place - except that these days, all prison guests get a key. A double cell costs $80 a night, dorm beds start at $26.


Don't miss

Prisoners trying to tunnel their way to freedom might have found more than they bargained for. The ground beneath the city streets is a labyrinth of flooded limestone caves. The most accessible is the Engelbrecht Cave, which extends under seven city streets. Once used as a dump by one of the city's whisky distilleries, it's now open for tours. Other must-see spots around town include the two sunken sinkhole gardens. The Cave Garden - a State Heritage Area - is in the middle of town and has a new, free, 15-minute sound and light show every night at about 8pm. Umpherston Sinkhole, about two kilometres from the town centre, is also worth visiting at night, when possums descend en masse to feed. BYO torch.

Where to eat

You'll find the best steak in town at The Barn Steakhouse, where they cook local grass-fed beef, aged on the premises for eight weeks, over mallee coals. It's the perfect match for a local Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon. It's open for dinner daily, (08) 8726 8250. If you get a taste for more of the famous red wines, the wineries (and restaurants) of the Coonawarra region are a 40-minute drive away.

Where to stay

If you don't fancy locking yourself away behind bars at the Old Mount Gambier Gaol, Colhurst House is a luxurious B&B in an 1800s mansion with five gorgeous suites. Rates start at $170 a double. The Barn has new self-contained spa apartments with rates starting at $135 a double.

How to get there

Mount Gambier is 436 kilometres east of Adelaide, 426 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. Rex (Regional Express) has regular flights to Mount Gambier from both capital cities.