South Australia’s second most populous city is built right on top of a volcanic crater.
Breathtaking geomorphology is all part of the cityscape, at volcanic rims, crater lakes, cave systems and two sinkholes that were turned into gardens at the end of the 19th century.
In summer, people flock to Mount Gambier for a sight of the Blue Lake, which for a few weeks takes on a mesmerising cobalt blue.
Due to its natural prominence, in 1800 Mount Gambier was the first place in South Australia to be identified and named by Europeans, and there’s a 120-year-old tower at the volcano’s summit commemorating this moment.
1. Umpherston Sinkhole
In the 1880s the Mount Gambier resident James Umpherston (1812-1900), a member of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Adelaide, turned a sinkhole east of the town into an exquisite sunken garden.
This landform is a limestone solutional cave with a collapsed roof, leaving a deep depression in the landscape with high vertiginous walls.
There are platforms at the top where you can admire the garden’s kaleidoscopic colours and the vines hanging from the walls, before taking the stairs down to the sinkhole’s floor to peruse the hydrangeas, tree ferns and fountain.
A colony of possums makes its home in the sinkhole and comes out at night, when you can feed them healthy treats (no bread or junk food!).
2. Blue Lake
At the height of summer in December, the sweeping crater lake in the south of Mount Gambier suddenly turns from a greyish blue to a beguiling shade of cobalt blue.
This phenomenon is believed to be caused by a chemical reaction when the lake’s water rises to 20°C, and lasts for about three months before the Blue Lake returns to its more muted shade.
There’s a walking trail along the crater, depositing you at lookouts on the north and west sides where you can gaze awestruck at this unforgettable sight.
But if you want to get even closer, Aquifer Tours will take you in a lift down the lake’s old well shaft.
During this 45-minute experience your guide will tell you all about the lake’s place in Aboriginal culture and share entertaining anecdotes about its modern history.
3. Cave Garden
Once a source of water for early European settlers at Mount Gambier, this sinkhole in the heart of the city was landscaped and turned into a garden in the late-19th century.
The sinkhole is some 30 metres deep and its steep sides can be accessed via walkways and lookouts that overhang the chasm.
The garden is also treasured for its rose beds, and if you pay a visit after a rainy spell there’s an enchanting waterfall.
After sunset the excellent Evening Light Show recounts the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories relating to Mount Gambier and its volcanic landforms.
4. Engelbrecht Cave
There’s another opportunity to go below Mount Gambier’s surface at this limestone show cave just west of the CBD.
Engelbrecht Cave was discovered by Europeans in 1864, but for the next century would be used by its owners as a rubbish dump! The dry portion of the cave system is now a tourist attraction, illuminated and installed with stairways and viewing platforms.
You’ll descend with a tour guide who will tell you all about its formation and history.
Much of Engelbrecht Cave is flooded, making it a big draw for cave divers.
If you want to explore the submerged portions you’ll need a CDAA Cave grade for the eastern passage and a CDAA Advanced Cave grade for the western passage.
Free maps are provided by the Cave Divers Association.
5. Centenary Tower
Cresting the volcano, west of Mount Gambier’s two crater lakes stands the castle-like Centenary Tower.
This dolomite structure is an icon of the city’s skyline and stands 190 metres above sea level.
It was begun in 1900 on the centenary of Mount Gambier’s sighting by Lieutenant James Grant aboard the HMS Lady Nelson and received its first visitors in 1904. There’s nowhere better to survey Mount Gambier’s unique volcanic landscape, and there’s an orientation on the platform below, pointing out the various landmarks in the distance.
One way to get to Centenary Tower is via the Mountain Trail, which traces the rim above Valley Lake.
6. Valley Lake
The lake in the crater below Centenary Tower has the same volcanic origins as Blue Lake, but remains off the tourist trail.
Before you get to Centenary Tower there’s another great vantage point for the lake, Mount Gambier and the surrounding landscape at Potters Point Lookout.
Down on the western lakeshore is a wildlife park, with trails and a boardwalk where you may spot kangaroos, wallabies, emus, koalas and wombats.
And close by, next to the water, there’s a children’s playground, a barbecue area, shelters and sports facilities like cricket nets.
7. Mount Schank
Take the Riddoch Highway south of Mount Gambier and before long you’ll come to another dormant volcano dominating the otherwise flat landscape.
At 100 metres tall, Mount Schank has two overlapping craters to the north and south, measuring 300 metres and 200 metres in diameter.
The volcano is thought to have last erupted 5,000 years ago, and its prehistoric activity is woven into the local Aboriginal Dreamtime stories about the giant Craitbul (more later). You can park by the highway and follow the two-kilometre trail up to the rim to stare into the cider cone, mostly unaffected by erosion, and see Mount Gambier on the horizon to the north.
8. The Riddoch & Main Corner Complex
Overlooking the Cave Garden from the north is Mount Gambier’s Civic Centre, home to the Riddoch Art Gallery and the Main Corner, which has riveting interactive exhibits about the area’s volcanic geomorphology.
The complex merges the Romanesque Revival, dolomite-built Town Hall (1882), with new architecture completed in 2011. As for the Riddoch Art Gallery, this is South Australia’s oldest regional gallery, housing a permanent collection running to more than 2,000 works.
You can check out exhibitions drawn from this collection, as well as first-rate touring shows from major institutions like the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia.
9. Volcano – The Story of Earth, Fire and Water
For an eye-opening intro to the Kanawinka region’s Aboriginal origin story and tumultuous natural history there’s a regular big screen presentation at the Main Corner.
This starts with the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories of the volcanic landscape, centred on the giant Craitbul and his vast camp ovens.
Then you’ll learn about the eight colossal eruptions that formed Mount Gambier, and how the Kanawinka Region has been defined by volcanic activity.
You can catch this audiovisual experience at 13:00 and 15:00 on weekdays, and 11:00 and 13:00 on weekends.
10. Railway Lands
In 2015 the old industrial railway corridor for the closed Mount Gambier Station was turned into a dynamic and award-winning public space.
At Railway Lands you’ll find lawns, an amphitheatre, an expansive events plaza and a raised, nature-oriented play area, barbecues, a labyrinth, pond with creek and sheltered market platform.
This is a venue for an endless list of public events, from fitness classes to outdoor film screenings, concerts, markets and art installations.
Meanwhile 5.5 kilometres of the old line has been turned into a multiuse rail trail that passes through the old station.
11. Lady Nelson Visitor Centre
Naturally this complex to the east of the CBD is the best place to get hold of brochures and leaflets and chat with knowledgeable staff about accommodation, attractions, tours and events all over South Australia.
You can also buy locally made souvenirs, pick up a soft drink and make use of the public toilets.
But the Lady Nelson Visitor Centre is also an attraction in its own right.
For one thing there’s a full-size replica of HMS Lady Nelson, the survey vessel from which the dormant crater of Mount Gambier was first sighted by Europeans in 1800. Inside the centre the documentary, “Across the Green Triangle”, showcases the nature, history and development of Mount Gambier and its surroundings.
Also on display is the ossified skull of a simosthenurus, a distant ancestor of the kangaroo, from the Pleistocene.
Finally, there’s a glass floor suspended over an array of fossils, and a series of interactive displays dedicated to marine life off the South Australia coast.
12. Echo Farm
This attraction a few minutes out of town is a place to reconnect with agriculture on a self-guided tour.
All across Echo Farm there are historical exhibits from the 1890s to the 1950s, shining a light on the livelihoods of the past, and you can poke around the old farmhouse, which has been preserved as it was in the 1940s.
Kids will have a fine time meeting Echo Farm’s animals, among them donkeys, sheep, horses, goats, ducks, pigs, emus, geese, chickens and cats, many of which can be petted.
Light refreshments are sold on site, or you can bring your own food and drink for a peaceful picnic.
13. Vansittart Park
For a more sedate urban park in the centre of Mount Gambier there’s Vansittart Park on the west side of the CBD, dating back to the 1880s.
This green space surrounds an oval, home ground for North Gambier Football Club, which plays in the Western Border Football League.
Vansittart Park meanwhile is well-equipped and carefully tended, boasting walking and jogging tracks, a vibrant botanical garden, a fenced picnic area and a handsome rotunda from 1913. The children’s playground is also top-notch, offering a wide variety of equipment safely bedded with woodchips.
14. Mount Gambier Public Library
A word on this multimillion-dollar amenity on the southern margins of Cave Garden.
Not long after it opened in 2010 there were claims that Mount Gambier had the best small public library in the world.
More than a decade on it remains a benchmark for its bold, future-forward architecture and comprehensive services.
Travellers who need to keep in touch or are plotting their next move will be pleased with the computer access, free Wi-Fi and Bookmark Cafe.
But it’s the children’s section that really stands out, inspired by Mount Gambier’s caves, sinkholes and lakes, and integrating a play area.
15. Mount Gambier RSL War Museum
If you still have time to spare there’s a diverting museum at Mount Gambier RSL (Returned and Services League) Club building, around the corner from the Cave Garden.
In display cases mounted on the wall is a wide-ranging collection of military artefacts, including uniforms, flags, weapons, ammunition, documents, medals, gas masks, helmets and all sorts of other equipment.
These objects span every conflict that Australia has been involved in, from World War I to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.