Inspiration

The Secret World of Cenotes and Sunken Gardens In Australia’s Limestone Coast

This will blow your mind. We head underground in South Australia to find an ancient world of cenotes, natural swimming holes, and very, very good wine.

Diving & Snorkelling in Kilsby Sinkhole, Moorak

Diving & Snorkelling in Kilsby Sinkhole, Moorak. Courtesy of Tourism Australia

By Jenny Hewett

Jul 11, 2022


IT’S HARD TO WRAP YOUR HEAD around the geological phenomenon that is South Australia’s Limestone Coast. A sun-bleached wonderland of cenotes, volcanic craters, sinkholes, sunken gardens and prehistoric caves, this is one of the most arresting landscapes in Australia.

Stretching 28,000 kilometers along the southeast coast of South Australia to the Victoria border, the low-lying area was formed over a period of 26 million years as a result of sea, coral and marine life that once flooded the area, subsequent limestone deposits and relatively recent volcanic activity. Its traditional owners, the Boandik people, have lived here for nearly 30,000 years.

Today, its fertile soil produces some of the country’s best wine and produce, not to mention ’grammable swimming and walking spots—and a road trip is the best way to explore it. From the town of Mt Gambier to Coonawarra and Naracoorte to Robe, here’s what to do in this unique and ancient world that is quite literally Down Under.

Stay

The full-size billiard table upstairs of Delgattie Estate Limestone Coast
Courtesy of Delgattie Estate

Mt Gambier town may not seem like much of a destination, but its surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Base yourself at Delgattie Estate, a grand manor built in 1902 and featuring just three suites, each with antique furnishings and a private sitting room and fireplace, plus coffee, croissants and fruit delivered to the room each morning. It’s rumored that one of the older British royals once played on the full-sized billiard table upstairs.

delgattie.com.au/accommodation; doubles from A$220.

Walk

The Blue Lake, Mount Gambier, Australia Limestone Coast
The Blue Lake. Photo by stokaji/Getty Images/Canva

Soak in the layers of limestone and ombre blues and greens of the vivid Blue Lake on an easy five-kilometer walk around the coast of its circumference. This spectacular natural wonder is a volcanic maar crater that was formed by an eruption nearly 4,800 years ago, which the sign says is ‘extremely recent in geological terms.’ Not to fear, the volcano is now dormant and the lake supplies the town’s water so swimming is forbidden.

Sit

Umpherston Sinkhole, Limestone Coast, Australia
Umpherston Sinkhole. Courtesy of Offroad

Few aspects are as spellbinding as the blue sky through the leafy lens of Mt Gambier’s oasis-like Umpherston Sinkhole. Formed through the dissolution of limestone, this cave was transformed into a sunken garden by James Umpherston in 1886 and today its walls are draped in green vines, while inside is a landscaped garden terraced with palms, hydrangeas and other flora.

Sponsored by Tourism New Zealand

Swim

Located in the middle of a paddock (like most of the Limestone Coast sinkholes), The Little Blue Lake is more green in color, and the perfect place to cool off on a hot day. Roughly 40 meters in diameter with cliffs that reach about eight meters, the stairs and floating pontoon make it one of the most accessible sinkholes in the area for swimming.

Snorkel

Diving & Snorkelling in Kilsby Sinkhole, Moorak Limestone Coast
Kilsby Sinkhole, Moorak. Courtesy of Tourism Australia

Kilsby Sinkhole is found on a family-owned sheep farm outside of Mt Gambier and snorkeling it should be on your bucket list. Snorkelers are kitted out in head-to-toe wetsuits to combat the icy 15 degrees C. The deepest part of the lake is 27 meters, but its eerie cave system leads to depths of up to 60 meters. The visibility is astonishing, so it’s little wonder that human fish call this the best free-diving spot in Australia. It’s such a phenomenon that South Australia weapons research spent a decade testing an underwater tracking device here and police use it to train specialized units.

kilsbysinkhole.com/about-the-sinkhole; from A$99 per person.

See

Tunnel in the Naracoorte Caves, Australia Limestone Coast
Naracoorte Caves, Australia. Photo by Totajla/Getty Images/Canva

Can you imagine a time when Australia’s megafauna roamed the earth? A peek into a prehistoric cave will put things into perspective. South Australia’s Naracoorte Caves is the state’s only World Heritage site. Over a period of at least 500,000 years, holes in the limestone caves here have acted as traps, collecting and fossilizing many extinct species. Victoria Fossil Cave is recognized for preserving the most complete fossil record in the world for that period of time. Take a tour inside to see bones of marsupial lions and extinct kangaroos.

naracoortecaves.rezdy.com; from A$17.50 per person.  

Eat+Drink

Everything from the steak to the lobster is supersized down on the Limestone Coast. Steakhouse The Barn is all cowhide and leather with a 400-bottle wine list that you’ll want to pair with the local Mayura Station grade 5/7 wagyu sirloin with Bearnaise sauce. Brand’s Laira in Coonawarra is one of the region’s oldest and most iconic vineyards and sits alongside big-hitters such as Penfold’s. Book a table at 1900s church-turned-fine-diner Piper’s of Penola on the outskirts of Coonawarra for elevated seasonal eats, such as duck breast with herbed gnocchi and smoked pork cheek. Then go big on crayfish. It’s just over an hour’s drive to the seaside towns of Robe and Beachport, where you can buy the biggest fresh lobsters you’ve ever seen from local spot Sky Seafoods.

barn.com.au; from A$200 for two. 
brandslaira.com; wine tastings free, bookings essential.
pipersofpenola.com.au; from A$170 for two.
skyseafoods.com.au; from A$75 for two
.

Glamp

Bellwether Wines Limestone Coast
Bellwether Wines. Courtesy of Tourism Australia

Bellwether Wines is a glamping-grape hybrid with six luxury bell tents, an old shearing shed with cozy nooks and sitting areas, a well-stocked outdoor camp kitchen, an herb garden you can pick from, plus breakfast of scrolls and prosecco delivered to your tent if you so wish.

bellwetherwines.com.au/pages/camping; doubles from A$400 for two nights

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