Exploring the remote Limestone Coast takes time but the reward is rugged scenery, deserted beaches and a flourishing food and wine scene.
“Don’t bother locking up,” says Bill Young when we stop for coffee in Robe’s main street. “Nobody does. If you wanted to, you could probably steal every car in town.” And yet he gulps his takeaway flat white as if he’s expecting someone to snatch it from his hand.
Within minutes I learn why. “Hold onto your cup,” he grins, “it’s a bit bumpy up ahead.” Then he guns his Land Cruiser towards a steep hill of soft sand that could double as a slalom course. As we crest the dune he pats the dashboard appreciatively. “This is what it’s all about,” he says, gesturing towards limestone crags sculpted by the elements into twisted forms that resemble the set of a Tim Burton film. Beyond a tiny beach, the blue expanse of the Southern Ocean seems to stretch forever. “A couple of minutes from town and you can have this all to yourself,” adds the four-wheel drive tour guide.
You could comfortably drive the 200 kilometres from one end of the Limestone Coast to the other in a day. But allow a little longer and you’ll find yourself falling under the spell of this beguiling region where the stone meets the sea and timeless fishing villages, idyllic lagoons and epic surf beaches lie between towering sandhills. Stop to eat and you’ll find fresh seafood hauled from the glittering waters and surprisingly sophisticated cooking.
The 300-kilometre drive south from South Australia’s capital to the Limestone Coast takes me through the lush Adelaide Hills before descending to the windswept Coorong – and you can also fly directly into Mount Gambier to explore the region. There’s a wild magic to this remote landscape, where vast lagoons fed by the Murray River shine like copper in the morning sun. Rough shacks and giant shell middens lie hidden in the 100-kilometre long sliver of sandhills that provides protection from the crashing swells of the Southern Ocean.
This landscape of subtle beauty comes to an abrupt end at the arresting 17-metre tall orange fibreglass construction known as Larry the Lobster. Kingston SE’s contribution to Australia’s “Big Things” acknowledges the spiny crustaceans hiding under rocky ledges all the way to the Victorian border, almost 200 kilometres away, but I’m more interested in another local product.
Some of Australia’s most famous reds come from Coonawarra, which is where winemaker Derek Hooper learned his trade. But 90 kilometres was too far to drive every time he wanted to catch a wave and in the early 1990s he found some patches of prized terra rossa soil closer to the surf. Today, Mount Benson is one of six recognised Limestone Coast wine regions and Hooper’s hilltop cellar door of reclaimed timber and limestone overlooks several neighbouring wineries.
The soft, aromatic reds and skin-contact whites at Hooper’s Cape Jaffa Wines benefit from the clay-rich soil and cool maritime climate. But the Astral Project series seems to have come from another planet entirely. Wines fermented with beer yeasts and skin-contact beers from the onsite Loophole Brewing Co blur the boundaries between the two beverages. The gorgeous, plum-coloured brett-nat (a sparkling wine made with a mercurial strain of yeast favoured by more adventurous brewers) even has a black and white label that can be coloured in at home. These are not backcountry wines but fresh, exciting drops that can hold their own in the hippest of inner-city laneways.
Hooper’s not the only local who likes to do things differently. “The great thing about this area is it attracts a lot of artistic types,” he says. And when it comes to this section of coastline, all roads lead to Robe. On the short drive to the port town, green hills turn into woolly, sand-coloured humps at a camel dairy that produces low-allergenic milk and gelato.
Some locals show off their creative side in other ways. Fourth-generation farmer Charlie Bainger takes every opportunity he can to “dance on water” and runs a surf school at the appropriately named Long Beach in Robe in summer. Here, in a wide bay of milky blue water, row upon row of perfectly straight waves slowly march into shore.
“There’s a 100 per cent flat bottom, no reef or rocks, and it’s very easy to read the oncoming surf,” Bainger says. “As a surf coach, I couldn’t create a better set-up for beginners, except maybe making it a bit warmer.” And yet there’s literally nobody out there. That’s a large part of the appeal.
“It’s isolated,” he admits, “but that’s what makes it a special-occasion place. You have to work a bit to get to the coast because it’s not on the highway.” And this isn’t even the best spot. “Little Dip,” Bainger says reverently, “that’s where you want to get to.”
On the other side of Robe, Little Dip Conservation Park protects a maze of shifting dunes and a stretch of coastline where the elements reign. With my coffee safely cradled in my hands, Young drives me around the sandy tracks and extols the virtues of every tiny cove we pass. At Stony Point, the local surf shop (simply called Steve’s Place) has been hosting an annual surf comp for more than half a century. The idyllic aquamarine lagoon at Little Domaschenz Beach is perfect for snorkelling, thanks to the protection of a fringing reef. Further along he points out prime spots for cray and abalone diving, where the craggy bluffs provide enough shelter for a barbecue in summer.
For most of its length the Limestone Coast has no coastal road so after leaving the park I lose sight of the ocean until I reach Nora Creina. A tiny fishing village of weatherboard shacks and rusting cars, it looks like it’s barely changed in 50 years. Gazing down at a sheltered bay of sugarwhite sand and sparkling turquoise water, I can only hope it remains stuck in a time warp for generations to come.
Further along the coast, the little town of Beachport greets me with an ocean breeze strong enough to cure even the most persistent of hangovers. Walking into it, I’m able to overtake gulls flying next to the jetty that, at 722 metres long, feels like it must be overcompensating for something. I think the better of sharing my theory with two heavily rugged-up fishermen huddled at the jetty’s end. Instead we exchange nods as one says, “Nice day for it.” I wonder if he’s joking until the quilt of grey clouds overhead is momentarily pulled back. As the murky water is transformed into a beautiful teal and the long, white strip of sand behind me shines in the sun, I’m inclined to agree.
A short drive away, the evocatively named Pool of Siloam provides a welcome respite from the ceaseless wind. Nestled between tall dunes like the glittering eye of Neptune, this hypersaline lake provides extra buoyancy for swimmers, much like the Dead Sea. And yet the only thing breaking the water’s surface is a gently bobbing pontoon. Like so much of this coastline, it’s a treasure still waiting to be discovered.
Where to stay
The rough-hewn stone walls of Robe House are thick enough to withstand the apocalypse and the converted studios in this former government residency are a great place to sleep in after a long day. If you prefer something more modern and self-contained, Robe also has a range of luxury holiday homes with water views. Our favourite is Tempest, which has a large, open-plan kitchen and living room overlooking the harbour. The three bedrooms sleep up to eight and early risers can watch the sunrise through the enormous wraparound windows.