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I got up this morning just after 07:00 and let Michelle snooze for a bit while I did my stretching exercises. Halfway through she stirred and asked me to get her bran flakes in bed for her. After breakfast and packing the car, we checked out of the Mount Gambier Hotel and drove a couple of blocks to the Baker's Delight we'd spotted near Coles last night. Michelle chose a cheesymite twisted delight as provisions for the day, while I picked a sweet chili and mustard seed rodini. Michelle wondered aloud if they would stamp our Baker's Delight frequent buyer card, so I pulled mine out and read on the front "Valid only in NSW/ACT", but the woman serving us overheard and said she'd stamp it for us anyway. Next door was a fruit market, so we bought some more apples and pears for snacks.
Mount Gambier Hotel
So provisioned, we drove south to view the famous Blue Lake, residing in the old volcanic crater for which the town is named. It's not much of a mountain, and we barely climbed a mild hill before we came across the circuit drive around the lake and the first lookout, which was across the road from a bunch of houses. The view was amazing, of a smallish but vivid blue lake deep in the crater below us. A walking track circled the lake, but we drove around to the next lookout about a third of the way around. While admiring the view there, we saw a woman pushing a young boy in a stroller on the walking track.
Blue Lake, Mount Gambier
We circled the lake in the car, stopping at four or five other viewpoints along the way. At every single stopping point, the woman pushing the stroller passed us as we stood there admiring the view. It was clearly a good workout, with no way of cutting the walk short, there being a big lake in the way. The weather was warm and getting hot, with the sun blazing out of a cloudless sky. At one lookout we struck up a conversation with an elderly couple, who said we were lucky to see the lake in its blue colour, since it only changed from winter grey in November each year.
Us at the Blue Lake, Mount Gambier
At a final lookout there was a view over an adjoining crater, into a deep depression full of trees. I spotted a tiny pool of water at the bottom and tried to point it out to Michelle, but she couldn't see it for all the surrounding trees, despite several attempts to show her where it was. At the position I was pointing to, she claimed to be able to see only grass. Another old couple joined us and the woman said, "Look at the water," and the man said, "Where? I don't see it." The woman and I tried to convince both Michelle and the woman's husband that it was really water, not grass, but neither of them were having a bar of it. We crossed to the other side of the ridge via an underpass beneath the road, for a final view of the Blue Lake. I said, "Where's this lake? All I can see is grass!" The old couple cracked up.
Passing through the town again on our way north, we stopped for a toilet break at the KFC across the road from the hotel we'd stayed at. It opened at 10:30, and the door stayed stubbornly closed since it was 10:28. We decided to cross the road and use the hotel toilets instead. On our way back, I noted that I was going to buy a bucket of chicken, but not any more...
The road north passed through fairly boring farming country until near the town of Penola, when we started noticing grape vines planted in fields by the road. We were getting close to the Coonawarra wine region, where several world class wineries were located. We stopped briefly at Penola itself for a stretch and to eat some of the bread we'd bought. Michelle browsed a tiny knick-knack shop while I took some photos of an old Presbyterian church and then browsed in the tourist information centre adjacent. Michelle bought a handbag in the shop before joining me in the tourism centre, then we continued on the road north.
As Coonawarra approached, the road became dotted with wineries to left and right, each indicated by signs advertising cellar door sales. We had decided to visit the best known of the choices: Wynns Coonawarra, which the Lonely Planet noted was the oldest in the region and had an interesting historical building that was worth a look. The building was only mildly interesting, and there was no hint of getting a look at the actual winemaking process. A helpful lady behind the wine tasting and sales counter said that, alas, there was nothing much to look at for photographers; even she had to don hardhat and visibility vest before heading out back to attend to business in the working part of the winery. We bought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon for Michelle's dad, and the woman said that if we were interested in seeing some of the action at a winery, we should head north along the main road to Rymill, which had a building where you could walk upstairs and look out over the barrels and processing facilities.
We hadn't intended to stop at another winery, but given this useful local knowledge to choose from among the otherwise anonymous estates littering the highway, we took her advice and pulled in 6km down the road at the Rymill Winery. It immediately presented a more interesting appearance than Wynn's, with an immaculately kept avenue lined with poplars leading through pristine vineyards to a gleaming new building with interesting architecture and surrounded by trellises on which grapes were growing up against the building. We crunched our way across the crushed white gravel parking area to the glass and wood-panelled entry area, where we were greeted by a man whose nametag identified him as Andrew Rymill, presumably the owner of the estate. We confessed to not being wine drinkers ourselves when he offered a tasting, and he invited us to climb the stairs up two levels for a view of the facilities. We did so, observing a man filling oaken barrels from a hose that led from large stainless steel vats, and another working a forklift to place the newly filled barrels into storage in the large shed where we could see thousands of them stacked about twelve high.
Back downstairs we selected a young cab sav vintage for Michelle's brother and took it over to pay for it, explaining that it was for family members back home. Mr Rymill looked dubious, stating that he wouldn't recommend that wine for anyone expecting a typical Coonawarra region cab sav, as it had come out with a very different flavour. We said that our family liked trying new wines and experimenting a bit to discover new tastes, at which he cheered up and said that our selection would be fine then. As he packed it for us, I spotted a botrytis dessert wine on the list of available bottles, and said to Michelle that maybe we should get one of those, since we liked the sweet wines. Overhearing us, Mr Rymill reappeared with a bottle of it and proceeded to pack it for us. Lucky we decided to go ahead and get it!
Leaving the wine country, it was a half hour or so drive to our next stop: Naracoorte Caves National Park, a World Heritage Site known for its limestone cave formations and major fossil discoveries of extinct Australian marsupial megafauna. We'd arrive in time for a tour of Alexandra Cave at 13:30. There was a following tour of the Fossil Cave at 14:15, but that would have eaten up too much of the day that we had to devote to driving, so we reluctantly decided it would have to wait for another trip.
With half an hour before the cave tour began, I decided to eat some more of my bread and have a pear to make up lunch. Michelle had eaten in the car while I was driving, so she just waited in the air conditioned comfort of the visitor centre while I braved the now baking heat to return to the car for supplies. I came back and ate in the visitor's centre out of the heat, while three other parties joined us for the tour to start soon: a couple about our age, one older, and another couple with two boys about 10 years old.
Alexandra Cave, Naracoorte Caves National Park
The tour guide led us outside and to the entrance of Alexandra Cave, a short walk away. Before letting us in, she showed us the extent of the cave with reference to surface features, pointing out that the cave extended across the lawn we were standing on, under the cafe over there, and under the road beyond until it was adjacent to Wet Cave, another of the caves in the area open for visitors. Then she led us into the cool dankness of the cave, a welcome change from the heat and flies outside. She showed us various formations in the young limestone - noting the age of the rock was merely 20 million or so years, compared to the hundreds of millions of years for other limestone formations such as the ones we'd seen in Tasmania, as evidenced by the visible presence of shells and coral in the cave walls, which hadn't had enough time to be compressed into oblivion.
Stalactites reflected in a pool, Alexandra Cave, Naracoorte Caves National Park
The guide gave an excellent tour, pitching much of it to the young boys, who had never been in a cave before, and showing them the effects of human hands on delicate formations so that they understood why you should never touch anything in a cave. The geology was interestingly different from other caves I've seen, with the caves forming as sinkholes in the limestone rock thousands of years ago, and filling up with dirt and animal bones washed in, then being hollowed out again either by the action of water, or by human excavation of the dirt, leaving the limestone caverns intact. In this way, the dirt in the caves has yielded numerous important fossil finds and painted a vivid picture of the fauna population this region of Australia tens of thousands of years ago; fauna including such wonders as Procoptodon, Thylacoleo, Diprotodon, Megalania, and others.
Cave straws, Alexandra Cave, Naracoorte Caves National Park
The tour completed, we took a half hour to wander through the fossil displays in the visitor centre, which consisted of some excellent animatronic recreations of the mammal and reptile fauna of the past, well annotated with explanatory text and diagrams - so much so that one could easily spend several hours going through it all to learn about it - plus various casts and actual fossils, as well as some explanation of the paleontological process itself. All in all, it was one of the best educational displays I have seen anywhere.
Following that we investigated Wet Cave on the self-guided tour that came as part of the package when we took a guided tour. It was smaller and less spectacular than Alexandra Cave, but still worth the look (and also to get out of the heat of what was turning into a stifling day). That done, we took some water and drove on to Naracoorte itself.
The road signs entering the town were not helpful in locating the road we wanted to take, west to Lucindale and on to Kingston S.E. We turned in to a service station to ask for directions, and noticed that the fuel tank was nudging a quarter full, so filled up while there. The woman who took my money nodded at the map I carried in and asked where we were headed. I said Kingston and she pointed us on the right road, which was pretty much the one we were on before deciding to ask for directions, although we hadn't known it. Before leaving town, I washed the windscreen free of bugsplats once again, for the third time being astounded that the buckets and squeegees at every place we've stopped so far had honest-to-goodness actual real detergent in them! We are used to the buckets at servos in Sydney, where you're lucky to get a bit of dirty water, or if you're really lucky, half-clean water, with nary a skerrick of any sort of cleaning product in it. I can't remember the last time I saw a service station windscreen cleaning bucket with mildly soapy water, let alone an effective detergent.
Pier at Kingston S.E.
From Naracoorte, we basically hotfooted it west along the road, passing through Lucindale in the blink of an eye (because it was so tiny, not because we sped through it), and then on to the coast and Kingston S.E. (The S.E. distinguishes it from Kingston O.M., on the Murray River, though I have yet to work out what S.E. stands for.) We stopped there for a toilet stop, using the facilities at the Crown Hotel, which was decorated somewhat like Rymill, with grape vines trellised along the outside of the building. Michelle also browsed yet another bric-a-brac shop across the road, while I finished off my bread. Then it was off to the Old Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, which had been moved bodily from Cape Jaffa to Kingston at some point. It was a steel structure of gridwork and tensioning rods, with a galvanised iron surface over a small room at the bottom and another at the top, connected by a narrow tube up which presumably rose a ladder, there not being room for the traditional spiral staircase. The gate immediately outside was locked and access had closed at 16:00 (it now being almost 17:00), so we contented ourselves with a quick snapshot.
On the way out of Kingston we stopped briefly at a pier for some photos, and then on the road out of town we were struck by the appearance of a giant lobster by the side of the road. Clearly an eye-catching tourist attraction, this lobster towered some 10 or 12 metres over the road. As we were pulled over to take some photos, a couple of other cars drove by, did the same double take, and rapidly stopped to allow someone to get out and snap a photo of this amazing sight. It was only after taking one shot here that I discovered that my camera was still set on -1.3EV exposure compensation, which I'd set during our tours of Naracoorte Caves in order to get a reasonable shutter speed, so I'll have to push all of the shots taken between then and now. Setting it back to normal, I took another shot of the lobster, and we were on our way.
The drive north from Kingston was along the coast, but not quite close enough to actually see any water, there being high sand dunes in the way. One point was marked with a signpost indicating The Granites, precipitating a turnoff and following of the dirt road out through the dunes and to a parking area within sight of the ocean. Another track led down on to the sand for 4-wheel drives, one of which was out there on the beach itself, with a bunch of guys sitting back relaxing next to it. The place had obviously been called The Granites for a formation of large granite boulders that projected from the smooth, flat sand just on either side of the surfline. They formed quite a picturesque scene, and I wandered on to the sand to get some close shots.
One small brown lump that I'd assumed was another boulder turned out to be two dead wombats, lying slumped together in the sand - lord knows how they got there. I tactfully managed to omit or hide them from view in my photos. The sand I walked on was surprisingly hard packed; I walked leaving no trace of footprints. It was also very flat, sloping only gently from the beach into the water, which lapped gently in off the ocean with a swell of no more than a few centimetres, causing swathes of water to gently rise tens of metres up the level beach. The only thing that would have made the scene even better would have been a glorious red sunset, but the sky had clouded over dramatically since Naracoorte, and was now thick with grey overcast that blocked off all but a dirty smudge of yellow on the horizon.
Returning to the main road north, we passed mile after mile of featureless scrub that obscured a view of anything more than a few metres from the road. It was frustrating, knowing that somewhere to our left was beginning the vast lagoon wetland of The Coorong, home to countless waterbirds and other wildlife. If only we could see any of it! We looked out for signs pointing to 42 Mile Crossing, a place where a road led out over the Coorong so that we might see some of this marvel of nature. Belting along the road at 110 km/h, spotting the sign before the turnoff was essential to slowing down in time.
We passed an unmarked side road, and just as I was wondering if that might possibly be it, and dismissing the possibility since there'd been no prior indication before the turn, I spotted a sign facing the other way that I thought, as we flew by, might have looked something like "42 Mile Crossing". Not wanting to miss this, I slowed the car, turned around, and backtracked, and sure enough, it was. For some reason, the sign in the north-travelling direction had gone missing, so we were lucky to spot the turnoff at all. Every other tourist feature we've been seeking on the road all the way from Melbourne has been signposted with plenty of time to slow down, so this was something of a surprise.
We followed the dirt road through an eerie landscape of salt-crusted dry lakebed, patched with saltbush. Clearly the drought affecting Australia had not been forgiving of this place either. Several small kangaroos bounded slowly away from the car as we continued on to the dunes on the other side of the "lagoon". From the carpark, the walk to the ocean looked quite long, and as we were short for time we elected not to take it. Driving back, we stopped by the dry lagoon bed for a couple of photos of the parched landscape, during which it ironically began to rain. With fat drops splatting the windscreen, we drove on.
Our original plan had been to stop tonight at the Coorong Hotel/Motel at Policeman's Point, but we decided to push on to the significantly larger town of Meningie instead. After making this decision, we passed Policeman's Point, seeing that the town consisted of the Coorong Hotel/Motel, a clearing to park caravans or pitch tents, and... well, that was it. At least at Meningie we figured we'd have a slightly wider choice for dinner.
Continuing north, we came across a sign indicating Jack's Point pelican viewing platform. We pulled off into the carpark, which was next to a large expanse of lagoon, finally full of water, though not to the level it obviously normally was, since there was a stretch of dry mudflat for about the first 30 metres. A few ducks swam fitfully across the grey surface under the leaden sky as spits of rain tantalised the lagoon with the unkept promise of a heavy fall. We could see the viewing hide on a point in the distance, and took the 10-minute walk out there, hoping against all sense that by the time we got there the lagoon in front of us would magically fill with pelicans. of which currently not a one could be seen. The walk was made unpleasant by the presence of numerous buzzing insects, which gave the appearance of mosquitoes but thankfully failed to bite, numerous spiderwebs clearly set to catch these insects, some of which crossed the path we were taking, and a smell of rotting vegetation and stagnant water.
At the viewing platform, the promised flocks of pelicans failed to appear, so we took a hasty photo and made a quick about-face, braving the bugs and the stink on our way back to the car. The stink stayed with us as we drove north along the water's edge, despite trying several air-conditioning options to get rid of it. We concluded that it was in the car, and outside the car, and nothing would remove it until we broached countryside with cleaner air.
That was not too far away, as we turned inland away from the Coorong towards Meningie, a town of population about 800 on the shore of Lake Albert, one of the large delta lakes of the mighty Murray River. Driving through the hamlet, we picked the Lake Albert Motel and Restaurant as the place to stay, becoming the new cheapest accommodation of the trip. The room was pleasant enough, but we discovered with a walk through the town (all 100 metres of it) that the attached Restaurant was in fact the only restaurant in town, if you didn't count the pub bistro that served up random slop of the day from bain-maries and the fish and chip shop that closed at 19:30 as we were walking past it.
Unimpressed by the vegetarian options on the restaurant menu (i.e. there were none), Michelle decided we should drive out to the other motel, advertised by a sign entering town as being 2 km further down the road. We pulled up to note that there was an attached restaurant there, but that it closed at 20:00, in 5 minutes. We hastily entered and a man seated us at a table as we apologised for arriving so late. He said it was fine. Again, however, the menu offered precisely zero meals without meat in them. Michelle contented herself with an order of vegetables and chips, while I ordered the fisherman's basket. The view from our table was out a panoramic window on to Lake Albert, which lapped gently at rocks directly beneath our feet. The sunset over the lake would have been spectacular if it had been less cloudy. The meal was workmanlike and uninspiring. An older couple came in even later than us and conversed in something that sounded like German, but with no words I recognised; I concluded it was Dutch.
The least inspiring meal of our trip done, we drove back through the inky blackness of the country night to our motel and turned in.
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