In 1878 this city on the Upper Spencer Gulf became the southern terminus for a north-south railway intended to reach Darwin.
Even now, Port Augusta is seen as an entry point for the vastness of the Outback.
To back that up, there’s a world-class botanic garden showcasing low-rainfall species, and the city’s visitor centre hails the romance and mystery of the land spreading out behind for thousands of miles.
The Flinders Ranges and their ancient ochre formations hover to the east across the gulf and demand a visit, while Port Augusta’s 19th-century architecture breathes a little class into a walking tour.
1. Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden
The diverse and complex plant life of Australia’s low-rainfall regions is the subject for this 250-hectare botanic garden.
Laced with walking tracks, this attraction is on a scenic plot of land, posted on cliffs above the Spencer Gulf and with dreamy vistas of the Flinders Ranges.
The garden was planted in the 1990s, partly to help improve our understanding of the much-overlooked arid zone’s natural bounty.
Something remarkable is the juxtaposition of this arid zone botany with the natural grey mangroves edging the marine environment of the gulf to the east.
More than 150 bird species inhabit the garden, and there’s a stunning eremophilia garden, featuring some 155 varieties of this genus.
The garden’s cafe is a must, with a native inspired menu boasting tuna patties seasoned with local herbs, lemon myrtle pancakes and desert quandong ice cream.
2. Wadlata Outback Centre
In Port Augusta the tourist information centre has been paired with a crowd-pleasing attraction devoted to the wonders of the Outback.
A big part of this is the award-winning Tunnel of Time, a deceptively large installation charting the natural and the human history of the South Australian Outback, from Aboriginal and European perspectives.
This guides you through to the 21st-century, detailing the advances that have brought modernity to the Outback, like Trager’s pedal radio and the School of the Air.
The centre’s Outback Tuckerbox has options for all palates and dietary needs, while the Visitor Information Centre can take care of the practicalities of travelling the Flinders Ranges and Outback.
3. Matthew Flinders Red Cliff Lookout
The English navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) became the first European to explore the Spencer Gulf in 1802, and sailed inland in a cutter from Port Augusta for another few kilometres.
At Port Augusta the gulf has tapered to just a couple of hundred metres across, and you can survey the inlet from the cliffs on the east side of the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden.
The Red Cliffs Loop Trail may bring you close to emus and kangaroos, and waiting at the lookout are jaw-dropping views over the water to the Flinders Ranges.
Those vistas are accompanied with information signs about Flinders and a plaque at the very point where Flinders stepped ashore to take bearings.
4. Gladstone Square
This grand plaza in the heart of Port Augusta’s CBD is enclosed by a number of city landmarks like the Water Works Barracks, old Court House and the Presbyterian Church.
There’s a grassy space furnished with plentiful seating in Gladstone Square, as well as a sprinkling of gum trees and palms.
To escape the sun you’ve got a handsome central rotunda, holding public events in summer, as well as a pair of gazebos on the west side.
The square’s fenced playground has recently been upgraded, and a key for the accessible swing is available from the adjacent public library and Civic Centre.
5. Port Augusta Cultural Centre – Yarta Purtli
A whole cultural district has sprung to life among the historic buildings on the west side of Gladstone Square.
Named Yarta Purtli, which means “Place of the Stars” in the Aboriginal Nukunu language, the Port Augusta Cultural Centre features two gallery spaces, “The Barracks” for outdoor events and the Institute Theatre complex, in addition to the off-site Lea Memorial Theatre.
In store is a busy program of performances, from musicals to live bands and comedy, as well as a busy exhibition calendar and a wide variety of associated activities like art classes, yoga sessions and circus workshops for kids.
6. Water Tower Lookout
On the west side of the gulf, a few streets from the bridge is Rotary Park, a green oasis with lawns, mature trees, flowerbeds and a skate park.
Commanding the park’s east side is the imposing frame of a heritage-listed water tower, raised in 1882 to provide a pressure water supply for Port Augusta.
This structure was later converted into a scenic lookout, as part of an unemployment relief scheme.
The climb up the 80-or so steps is demanding but soon forgotten when you take in the unbroken panorama of the city, Spencer Gulf, Flinders Ranges and the massive sweep of the Outback.
7. Curdnatta Artists’ Platform Gallery
As it happens, Port Augusta has a sizeable community of artists and one group maintains an exhibition/retail space in the elegant confines of Port Augusta’s Railway Station building.
Naturally this is a volunteer-run enterprise, but if you’d like to pay a visit outside the posted opening times on Fridays and Saturdays you can phone ahead and someone will usually be around to let you in.
On show and available for purchase is a trove of painting, but also one-of-a-kind home decoration, fashion, jewellery, postcards, ceramics and lots more besides.
8. Destination Town Tours
Port Augusta has a healthy smattering of beautiful old buildings, thrilling public art and a lot of interesting stories to tell.
For the inside track you could consult this local tour company, which organises two-hour walking tours around the city streets, led by local community leader, Lisa Lumsden.
As you go you’ll encounter the heritage wharf and a host of 19th-century buildings, from the old Town Hall (1887) to the Flinders Hotel (1878). You’ll find out some of the characters who lived in Port Augusta in its early days, as well as a few spooky ghost stories associated with the old architecture.
Port Augusta’s present and future are also central to the tour, and you’ll get the lowdown on the renewable energy boom driving the local economy.
9. Pichi Richi Railway
In 1878 Port Augusta became the southern terminus for a planned north-south transcontinental railway that would have linked the city with Darwin long before the completion of the Adelaide-Darwin railway in 2003. As it was, the line made it as far as Alice Springs in 1929, following the route of the overland telegraph.
This was the track used by the iconic Ghan passenger train between 1923 and 1956, and for the six years until the stretch to Alice Springs was completed, passengers finished their journey on camelback.
March to November you can ride a restored section of the line between the town of Quorn and Port Augusta.
You’ll ride in vintage carriages dating back as far as 130 years and pulled by historic steam or diesel engines.
The Pichi Richi Railway weaves through the Flinders Ranges, past those ancient rocky outcrops and creeks lined with red river gums.
10. Mount Remarkable National Park
Always on the horizon, the South Flinders Ranges are a genuine option for a day out.
Most of these peaks are composed of quartzite dating back hundreds of millions of years, and awaiting you in the park are lofty ochre cliffs, deep gorges and creeks hugged by river red gums.
Three large chunks of the ranges are conserved by this national park, running down the east side of the Spencer Gulf.
The northernmost of these three sections protects the 961m Mount Remarkable.
From the summit you can savour the huge expanses of the Spencer Gulf and the Willochra Plain to the north and east.
In the same section is the magnificent Alligator Gorge, the multilayered walls of which have been carved into overhangs, and are reflected in bright orange pools.
11. Mount Brown
Always on the skyline east of Port Augusta is the outline of Mount Brown, one of the highest peaks in the South Flinders Ranges, at 964 metres.
This is named for Robert Brown, who was the naturalist aboard Matthew Flinders’ HMS Investigator, and there’s a lookout dedicated to the man at the top.
If you’re feeling inspired and want to attack the summit there’s a pair of trails to get you there (one 15km and the other 11.6km). Both set off from the car park at an altitude of 410 metres.
The longer of the two walks leads you past the remnants of a canyon, one kilometre deep and formed 600 million years ago.
12. Warren Gorge
You can plot another trip into the Flinders Ranges, this time north-east to this gorge on the creek of the same name.
You can get there from the town of Quorn on the fully-sealed Arden Vale Road.
At the entrance to the gorge is a campground, and opening up right behind are the gorge’s gnarled walls, with spectacular orange-tinted formations between the majestic cypress pines.
This terrain is ready to be traversed on a 5.2-kilometre trail that crosses the creek repeatedly, ushering you through mature woodland and past reedbeds.
The creek flows for most of the year, and this attracts mobs of little rock wallabies, best sighted at dawn or dusk.
13. Port Augusta Golf Club
A less taxing way to get out and enjoy the scenery around Port Augusta is the local golf club, not far south of the Botanic Garden.
At this slightly elevated position on the west side of the gulf there are astonishing views east to the Flinders Ranges.
Open to visitors, Port Augusta Golf Club has 18 holes, with wide and lush greens and fairways.
Most holes are guarded by tricky bunkers, not least the unforgiving 3rd and 10th, which have four and five pot bunkers circling their greens respectively.
14. RSL Military Museum
If you have an eyefor military memorabilia there’s a lot to love about this museum at the RSL Club on Fulham Road.
The first thing that will catch your attention is the West German Leopard 1 tank sitting out front.
This is one of more than 100 tanks and armoured vehicles acquired by the Australian Army from Porsche in the 70s and 80s.
The small museum has collections of weapons, documents, uniform, equipment, flags, medals and more from the mid-19th century New Zealand Wars to 21st-century operations in Afghanistan.
There’s also a series of panels naming the Port Augusta men who enlisted in the First and Second World Wars, formerly displayed in the Town Hall.