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Caves, ocean and tons of adventure: Drive Melbourne to Adelaide

A Melbourne to Adelaide road trip provides unforgettable scenery, idyllic vineyards and a huge variety of opportunities for adventure. One stretch of the journey that is particularly great – especially if you’re an adventurous type – is the road between Warrnambool in Victoria and Mount Gambier in the eastern part of South Australia.

All up, the drive from Melbourne to Adelaide (including a scenic detour to the Great Ocean Road) is less than 1,000 kilometres, which you can comfortably complete within just two days. But why would you want to rush through a region that boasts caves to explore, stunning coastline, national parks galore and adventure around every corner? Feel free to allow yourself a week or more for this spectacular trip.

Though you can do this drive in either direction, our advice below suggests you hire a car in Melbourne and make the trek to Adelaide. Slowly. If you want to start in South Australia, just reverse the list!

Leg one: Melbourne to Warrnambool

345 km | 5.5 hours driving time

If you’re going to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide, you’re not doing it right unless you you take the journey from Melbourne to Mt Gambier via the Great Ocean Road. This stretch of road technically runs from Torquay to Allansford, but it’s considerably easier and more convenient to drive Warrnambool and Melbourne, considering those two end points are much larger cities.

Arguably Australia’s most famous road trip, The Great Ocean Road is a fairly short stretch that sparkles with phenomenal natural attractions, including the Twelve Apostles and London Arch – both surreal rock formations just off the coastline. Take a break to walk some of the Great Ocean Walk in Apollo Bay, and get your swimming gear ready for a dip in Lorne Bay. And of course, prepare to pull over again and again to stop for photos to capture the unbelievable coastal scenery. In fact, some people like to take this drive so slowly that they’ll aim to drive The Great Ocean Road in a week.

Leg two: Warrnambool to Port Fairy

29 km | 30-minutes driving time

Port Fairy is just under 30 km from Warrnambool and is a popular coastal destination in this part of Australia. Spend some time in Warrnambool before you start the drive with a short side trip to the Hopkins Falls Scenic Reserve. Enjoy a stroll through the Botanic Garden and recharge your batteries in nature before getting back behind the wheel.

Leg three: Port Fairy to Portland

75 km | 1-hour driving time

When you arrive in Port Fairy, you’ll have no choice but to stop for a look around. The small town has beaches, water sports, hiking, swimming, golf, horse-riding and whale-watching to offer. One of the best vantage points from which to see these magnificent creatures is the viewing platform at Logan’s Beach where the Hopkins River meets the ocean.

It is a seaside community brimming with charm. There is a large fishing fleet based here, and you may even be lucky enough to spot sea lions or elephant seals lolling about near the shore.

From Port Fairy, you’ll take the A1 – the Princes Highway – west of the city. Admire the ocean views along the way, and it won’t be long before you reach Portland.

Leg four: Portland to Mt Gambier

108 km | 1 hour 20 minute driving time

Portland is a lovely coastal town in Victoria. It’s just a few kilometres northeast of Cape Nelson, and it was the place that the first European settlers in Victoria called home. It later became a thriving fishing and whaling town and even today, many of the town’s inhabitants make their living from the ocean.

There are two ways to get from Portland to Mt Gambier. The short and easy way is along the Princes Highway via Heywood, a farming town about 90 km from Mount Gambier and located on the banks of the Fitzroy River.

The long way round is to head northwest on a leisurely drive towards Nelson, a small fishing town near where the Glenelg River flows into Discovery Bay. This is the road to take if you’re dying for some time on the beach. The best spots for swimming here are in the side channels of the river mouth, because the ocean itself has some dangerous undertows. However, there are plenty of beaches to enjoy, fish to catch and trails to hike.

Leg five: Mt Gambier to Adelaide

434 km | 4 hours 45 minutes driving time

Things to do in Mount Gambier

One of the major reasons people tackle this Melbourne to Adelaide road trip is to enjoy the Melbourne to Mount Gambier drive in the first place. By now, you’ll have seen just how beautiful the coastal scenery is, so it’s time to explore this incredible South Australian spot.

The city is named for the inactive volcano on whose slopes it was built. Mount Gambier is one of the most important centres in the region known as the Limestone Coast, which stretches from the Younghusband Peninsula at Coorong down to the border with Victoria. As the name implies, the Limestone Coast has geographic features usually associated with limestone: lots of caves and sinkholes.

On the outskirts of town is a sinkhole that is jaw-droppingly impressive. Umpherston Sinkhole is overgrown with a garden that appears as if it’s sunken into the earth. Visit at night, when the possums come out to frolic in the garden, for something extra special. If adventure is your middle name, or you’re a bit of a spelunker, head to Engelbrecht Cave (also in town) to go cave diving.

Of course, Mount Gambier is not only about sinkholes and caves. The most popular attraction is arguably the Blue Lake, not far from Umpherston Sinkhole. Today this crater lake, one of several in the area, has become the main source of Mount Gambier’s water supply.

For a bit of history, visit the Old Court House. In fact, why not get a group of people together and take part in a mock trial here? Being “sent to prison” is not such a bad idea either, since the Old Mount Gambier Gaol, built in 1866, also provides lovely heritage accommodation where you can spend the night before your final drive from Mt Gambier to Adelaide.

You can continue along the Princes Highway for those coastal views all the way up to Adelaide. Should you take this coastal route, be sure to plan a stop in Robe (roughly 90 minutes from Mt Gambier) to visit the beach and the Sealife Centre. Should you take the slightly quicker inland route to Adelaide (the Riddoch Highway), you’ll be able to make stops in the stunning Coonawarra wine region for lunch, and at the Naracoote Caves for an unforgettable afternoon underground.

When to go

Most of the destinations during your Melbourne and Adelaide road trip have temperate climates. Summers are warm but not blistering hot like in so many other destinations around the country – while winters tend to be cool and wet. The best time to go on your road trip depends on your plans. Summer, for instance, is perfect for beach activities, but if you want a chance to do some whale watching, it’s better to be here in winter or early spring, as whale season generally lasts from around June to September or October.

Whether you plan to star your trip in Melbourne or hire a car in Adelaide at the start, you’re bound to enjoy this incredible Aussie road trip.