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Caves, ocean and tons of adventure: Mount Gambier to Warrnambool

Travelling by car from Adelaide to Melbourne is a road trip that provides unforgettable scenery, adventure, vineyards and a huge variety of things to see and do. One stretch of the road that is particularly great, especially if you're an adventurous type, is the road between Mount Gambier in the eastern part of South Australia and Warrnambool in Victoria. It's not a very long drive by Australian standards: only about 180 km and easily completed in a little over two hours. 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? Hire a car and enjoy the ride. Slowly.

Mount Gambier

As far as cities in South Australia go, only Adelaide has more people than Mount Gambier, which is more or less halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne. The city is named for the inactive volcano on whose slopes it is  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 those geographic features usually associated with limestone: lots of caves and sinkholes. In fact, you don't even have to venture out of Mount Gambier to see some of these entrances to the world underground. The Cave Garden is located right there in the centre of town and its sinkhole is where the city's early settlers originally got their water from. In the daytime, go down to the viewing platforms to peek right into the cave and at night, go see the light and sound show.

On the outskirts of town is a sinkhole that's even more impressive. Umpherston Sinkhole is overgrown with a garden that seems as if it's sunken into the earth. Be here at night, when the possums come out to frolic in the garden. 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 around here, has taken over as the main source of Mount Gambier's water supply. The Wildlife Park at the edge of Valley Lake, another crater lake, is home to a variety of birds and animals, including the ever-cute koalas. For stunning views of the city and the lakes, walk up to the top of Mount Gambier, where the Centennial Tower, erected in 1904 to mark a century since the first European saw the mountain, stands sentinel over the incredible panorama.

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, now provides really nice heritage accommodation.

Hit the road: To Portland

There are two ways to get to Portland, a lovely coastal town in Victoria. 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 south-east 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.

Take a side trip along the beach back into South Australia to Piccaninnie Ponds, one of the best sites for freshwater diving in the whole of Australia. Another side trip is to cruise through the spectacular gorge up the Glenelg River into the Lower Glenelg National Park and to the Princess Margaret Rose Caves. Sit back and enjoy the scenery slip by.

The stretch of coastline here, all the way down to Cape Nelson, makes up the Discovery Bay Coastal Park. Go camping at Lake Mombeong and explore the swamps and dunes in the area. Take your binoculars too, because this is an important habitat for a huge variety of birds. A rock is not just a rock here either, since there are fossils in the limestone.

Other conservation areas along the way to Portland include Cobboboonee National Park, Mount Richmond National Park and Bats Ridge Wildlife Reserve. Before you reach Portland, make a stop at Bridgwater Lakes and go water skiing, canoeing or fishing on this series of coastal lagoons. Then go explore Cape Bridgewater with its dramatic cliffs, a blowhole, hollow limestone tubes looking like a petrified forest, and a colony of fur seals. Cape Bridgewater is part of a volcanic caldera which became partially submerged over time. Follow the Bridgewater Bay coastline to Cape Nelson, another headland that offers great walks and spectacular views from atop the cliffs. Try to spot whales if you're here in winter or early spring. Why not spend the night here too. The cottages at the Cape Nelson lighthouse are a good choice.

Portland is 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. This is one of those rare towns where you may be able to see whales and seals out in the bay and koalas in the parks and gardens, all on the same day. Take a ride in the Portland Cable Tram, browse the many artists' and potters' studios in town and visit the Portland Maritime Museum to see one of the world's oldest surviving lifeboats. Admire the vintage vehicles at the Portland Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum and take some time to go on a cruise along the coastline before hitting the road again.

To Port Fairy and Warrnambool

A little northeast of Portland you join the Princes Highway again. Follow it all along Portland Bay and admire the ocean views along the way. About 70 km from Portland you reach Port Fairy, a seaside community brimming with charm. There is a large fishing fleet based here and it's another great town from which to go on a cruise along the coast. Why not take one to Lady Julia Percy Island to the west? Here you'll see Australian fur seals, little penguins and a number of other bird species. You may even be lucky enough to spot sea lions, elephant seals or watch out, great white sharks.

Port Fairy has a large number of heritage buildings, from Georgian mansions to fisherman's cottages. It has a vibrant artistic community too. Try to be here over the Labour Day weekend in March for the popular Port Fairy Folk Festival.

Warrnambool is just under 30 km from Port Fairy. On the way, why not make a quick stop at the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve just south of Koroit? Tower Hill is an inactive volcano and its crater lake used to supply Koroit's water. Today, it's part of the scenery.

Warrnambool is a popular coastal destination in this part of Australia and has beaches, water sports, hiking, swimming, golf, horse-riding and, in winter and early spring, 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. There are several historic buildings in town too, including the Victorian Lady Bay Lighthouse Complex. Let history come alive though at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, an award-winning museum complex with a recreated village from the 1870s. With its location near Australia's Shipwreck Coast, Flagstaff Hill also boasts the richest collection of shipwreck artefacts in Australia.

Spend some time in Warrnambool, take a short side trip to the Hopkins Falls Scenic Reserve, take a stroll through the Botanic Garden and recharge your batteries. Warrnambool marks the western end of the Great Ocean Road. Why not make it the beginning of a new adventure?

When to go

Most of the destinations along the road between Mount Gambier and Warrnambool have a temperate climate. Summers are warm but not blazingly hot like in so many other destinations, while winters tend to be cool and wet. The best time to go on your road trip depends on what you want to do. Summer, for instance, is perfect for beach activities but if you want a chance to see whales, it's better to be here in winter or early spring. Whale season generally lasts from around June to September or October.