SOUTHERN EXPRESS

ADELAIDE MAY BE FAMOUS FOR ITS QUIET CITY STREETS AND EXCELLENT EATERIES, BUT THESE HIDE A WILD SIDE: A SHED-LOAD OF NEARBY OFF-ROAD ESCAPES.

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER

COORONG NATIONAL PARK

A RELATIVELY short 200km jaunt southeast of Adelaide, the Coorong, as it’s colloquially known, offers plenty for the off-road tourer. The fantastic beach driving (the best access point is from Tailem Bend, off the Princes Highway) is an obvious highlight, but there’s also plenty of opportunity to throw a line in, with both beach-based and lagoon-focused fishing on offer (Coorong NP encompasses a lagoon ecosystem; the waters of the Coorong are protected from the Southern Ocean’s swells by the sand dunes of the Younghusband Peninsula). Salmon and shark are common catches offshore, while flathead and bream are just two species you have the chance to hook in the Coorong’s calm waters.

The ocean-beach drive (speed restrictions apply here, so be aware) is brilliant, but be sure to only tackle it at low tide and to stick to the section of beach between the low and high water marks. You can camp anywhere along the beach in this zone. Alternatively, you can keep an eye out for post markers that signal a sidetrack that will take you to designated campgrounds on the other side of the dunes, offering a modicum of protection from the coastal winds.

The driving is relatively straightforward (don’t forget to drop tyre pressures), with the sand only becoming particularly treacherous after heavy rain. Don’t forget the ocean beach is a gazetted road, so speed limits apply – and use common sense, as people fishing, swimming and sunning on the beach means slow speeds are a no-brainer. The beach is also shut down for a short period during spring to assist in the protection of hooded plover nests, so check the park’s website (environment.sa.gov.au/parks/find-a-park/Browse_by_region/Limestone_Coast/coorong-national-park) for the latest access info. This shutdown covers the section of beach running from the mouth of the Murray River to Tea Tree Crossing. Finally, don’t forget some of the water crossings are also tide-dependent, so check the charts first before driving in those areas.

DRIVING IS STRAIGHT FORWARD, WITH THE SAND ONLY BECOMING TREACHEROUS AFTER HEAVY RAIN

The Coorong’s popularity with visitors is reflected in the number of campgrounds in the park. With 14 to choose from (some are also 2WD-accessible, and there are a few that are boat-access only), spread from Barker Knoll and Godfreys Landing in the north and dotted toward the south along the curve of the Younghusband Peninusla right down to the southernmost, 28 Mile Crossing, there are plenty of options for two nights in this coastal wonderland. Facilities are varied from campground to campground, with a number of these campgrounds offering access to bushwalks and the park’s many waterways for boating and paddling enthusiasts.

Boaters and kayakers will have a ball here thanks to the 150km of lagoon (the Northern Lagoon and Southern Lagoon are ‘split’ by Parnka Point that nearly touches the peninsula’s Hells Gate, linking up small beaches and the lagoon’s islands, such as Seagull and Wild Dog). One bushwalk – Godfreys Landing, which is about a 3km hike of around an hour’s length – is boat-access only. There are numerous other short walks that are accessible to everyone, the majority of which are ideal for families as they usually entail only an hour at most and take you past a number of historic and natural sites within the park. A great family-oriented short wildlife walk is the Jack Point Observatory Walk, a short 20-minute journey through sand dunes to a lookout positioned over the park’s pelican-breeding islands. Another nice one is the Lakes Nature Walk Trail, an hour loop that mixes in lakes, dunes and the ubiquitous mallee scrub.

For the more adventurous hikers, the two-day, 25km (one-way) Nukan Kungun Hike is brilliant. Located in the park’s southern section and running from its northern start point of Salt Creek (accessed via the Princes Highway) to 42 Mile Crossing down south, this trek passes by a chain of lakes that include Chinaman Well Lake (don’t forget to check out the short diversion of Chinaman Historic Walk) and has a number of bush campgrounds just off it. You can even stretch the hike out another one kilometre and traverse the sand dunes near the 42 Mile Crossing campground, to reach the ocean beach.

Fishing is very popular in the Coorong, and with good reason: the same-named ocean beach provides easy access to deep channels near shore, while the lagoon contains Coorong mullet and mulloway. Note: fishing is not allowed in the marine park sanctuary zones near here, so check access and maps first.

Add the fishing and bushwalking to the fact the Coorong is a haven for birds – more than 200 species, including numerous water birds, have been recorded here – and pile all this on top of the beach driving and sublime campgrounds and you’ve got an epic weekend (or longer) in the Coorong.

LITTLE DIP CONSERVATION PARK

THE quaint coastal township of Robe, 335km southeast of Adelaide, belies its underwhelming appearance by acting as a gateway to the Limestone Coast, one of Australia’s most spectacular environments. As the Limestone Coast name suggests, the coastline here is dramatic; craggy rocky cliffs, sea caves and more dot this part of the coast, linked together by sweeping beaches abutting the waters of the Upper South East Marine Park. The beaches around Robe are also renowned as topnotch surfing destinations.

This part of South Australia offers not only said spectacle in terms of the coastal/hinterland landscape, but truckloads of outdoor activities – fishing, 4x4 touring, hiking, kayaking, swimming, surfing and camping – with most of these located within the boundaries of Little Dip Conservation Park, around two kilometres south of Robe (if accessing the park through its northern boundary). For those keen on checking out the park’s southern section, you can follow Nora Creina Road southeast out of Robe and enter the park near Long Gully Campground.

The conservation park is named after one of its beaches – Little Dip Beach – and contains four campgrounds. For those lugging a camper trailer, the Long Gully campground offers the best access as it (unlike its moniker) is a wide, flat area of ground with plenty of site space. This area also provides more protection from coastal winds as it’s about one kilometre from the beach. You can drive the sand tracks from here through sand dunes to the beach, but don’t forget to drop tyre pressures accordingly. The other three campgrounds – The Gums, Old Man Lake and Stony Rise – are more compact but closer to the surf and offer the bonus of more shaded sites (The Gums and Stony Rise are found in the park’s northern section; Old Man Lake and Long Gully are in the south). All four campgrounds have minimal facilities, so remember to bring water and all supplies. Also be aware that solid-fuel fires are banned year-round; a portable gas barbecue/stove is the go (usage of this will be subject to fire bans within the park).

Little Dip Conservation Park contains numerous small lakes including Fresh Water Lake, which is also the start-point for a nice bushwalk that leads along a melaleuca-shrouded path (with intermittent coastal views) and is ideal for those with young kids (just remember to cover them with insect spray, as the midges in the park have a fearsome reputation). Other lakes worth checking out include Lake Robe, Lake Eliza (check for aboriginal middens along its shores) and Big Dip Lake. The longer hike between these two bodies of water is worth the effort as well, thanks to the mix of vegetation and the resultant birdlife inhabiting it (and the lakes themselves; waterbirds are prolific), along with some speccy views to the Woakwine Range farther inland.

Along with bushwalking in the park’s hinterland there are the obvious beach walks on offer, with the added bonus of the kids being able to do some beachcombing for lost treasures, as well as have a crack at some beach fishing. In terms of fishing, this park is brilliant; depending on the season and the conditions at the time, you may catch salmon, flathead and snapper from the beach. Rock fishing also yields similar species and (hopefully) potential for success.

Driving here is challenging as the sand’s very coarse nature promotes a soft texture that offers zero support for a two-tonne 4x4 (or even when walking on it, for that matter). Drop tyre pressures to around 18psi and, if you do cop an early bogging, don’t hesitate to drop further.

It’s also essential to bring recovery gear (MaxTrax, snatch strap, shovel, etc.). It sounds daunting, but the fear of a potential bogging shouldn’t put you off exploring the beaches in your vehicle. Just remember to keep your speed low and an eye out for people on the beach, and be aware of tide times.

For a relatively small park, at 21.5km², Little Dip Conservation Park does a sterling job of proving size doesn’t matter when it comes to offering an awesome outdoor/camping experience not that far from Adelaide.

FOR A RELATIVELY SMALL PARK, LITTLE DIP DOES A STERLING JOB OF PROVING SIZE DOESN’T MATTER

CANUNDA NATIONAL PARK

ANOTHER Limestone Coast destination, albeit a better kept secret, Canunda National Park is around five hours’ drive south of Adelaide, so it’s probably at the outer limit of a weekend away. However, tackle that drive and you’ll be rewarded with a coastal park that allows you to pack in a couple of days full of fishing, beach driving, camping, surfing, diving, bushwalking and exploring.

The Canunda NP landscape differs from its northern neighbour (Little Dip CP) by offering a totally different experience in the northern section of the park, where rugged limestone cliffs dominate, along with spectacular rock stacks off the coastline and rugged, thick bushland to explore. The southern section contrasts with its more open terrain dominated by sand dunes that stretch to the park border, and low dunes just back from the beach. Driving in Canunda NP you can cover the full length of the park, with the northernmost entry point accessed via the township of Southend. You can also enter the park via Carpenter Rocks in the south, or the township of Millicent, which has an access road that leads to the park’s centre section, just above the expanse of Lake Bonney. The town of Southend is worth spending some time in, even if it is just to pick up some mega-fresh seafood (lobster, anyone?) on your way to camp.

Upon entering the park’s northern section you have the option of two campgrounds: Kotgee and Nal-a-wort. These are two of the six campgrounds you’ll find in the park; Oil Rig Square and Geltwood campgrounds are located in the centre of the park, while No 2 Rocks Campground south of these two, and Cape Banks Campground at the southern border, just north of Carpenter Rocks. Most of these campgrounds are small and the majority have six sites; Kotgee has seven, with limited facilities.

The pick of the campgrounds would be Number 2 Rocks. This is the most remote campground with limited sites and a pit toilet (be fully self-sufficient if camping here), but the reward is the beach is only 200 metres away, plus there are beaches to the north and south of the campground, separated by a lagoon that offers great swimming for young kids (the beaches are considerably rougher). This campground also allows access to two beautiful limestone headlands. Having said that, Cape Banks, right down south, is also worth a final night stay; the historic Cape Banks Lighthouse is near here, too, so check it out before the long drive back home.

The off-road driving here is sublime – and surprisingly uncrowded – with a nice mix of challenging and straightforward coastal terrain to experience. As with any beach driving, check and double-check tide times before heading out onto the soft sand of Geltwood Beach.

If it looks sketchy, there are numerous alternative tracks to explore behind the beach among the sand dunes, but, again, be well-prepared and deflate tyres accordingly. Some of the tracks in the dunes behind the beach are dotted with marker posts that will guide you through these sections, with a number of tracks looping back to Geltwood Beach.

Before you do delve into the park’s tracks, though, one drive that should be on your list is the short poodle up to Cape Buffon, just outside the park’s northern boundary. The cliffs, sea stacks and roaring ocean below make for a speccy intro to your weekend. Along with the expected beach driving, the park’s tracks will throw up other challenges including rocky sections and soft sand behind the beach dunes. Follow some of these and you’ll pass through small clusters of coastal wattle and other coastal tree species as you move east/southeast away from the beach itself. Another great track is Bevilaqua Ford, with its undulating dune sections, that acts as a great link track to park highlights such as Khyber Pass, a collection of large sand dunes that are ‘solid’ on top, being capped by sandstone and petrified tree roots.

For keen bushwalkers the Seaview Hike is a must. This 12km trek takes you along the steep cliffs in the park’s north. You’ll spot plenty of wildlife here; sea birds are commonplace, plus dolphins, seals and – during migration – whales. On land there’s every chance you’ll surprise a grazing wallaby or wandering echidna. For those looking to catch their own seafood meal, the beach fishing is excellent; mulloway and salmon are commonly caught off the beach here, while rock fishing may reward with sweep. For divers – noting the bag limits – crayfish and abalone can be found along the many reefs offshore.

For a small, relatively out-of-the-way national park, Canunda packs a mighty big punch. As we mentioned earlier, it’s a longish haul for a weekend, but, snare yourself an extra day and it’s the perfect long weekend away.

FOR A SMALL, OUT-OF-THEWAY NATIONAL PARK, CANUNDA PACKS A BIG PUNCH

NGARKAT CONSERVATION PARK

FOR a contrast to bright lights, busy traffic and a bustling city, Ngarkat Conservation Park’s vast outback landscape, a touch more than three hours’ drive west of Adelaide along the Mallee Highway, is the perfect choice. The park’s sand dunes, mallee scrub and heathlands tick all the boxes when it comes to the quintessential outback elements. As you’d expect, the park’s location – and its weather – means this desert escape is a definite cool-months-only destination. We’d recommend any time from late April until September to experience Ngarkat at its best.

Ngarkat CP features 11 campgrounds, the majority of which are 4x4-access only. Pertendi, just off the sealed Ngarkat Highway, offers caravan sites, while Nanam Well and Pine Hut Soak – both in the northwest section – offer 2WD access, as does Comet Bore, off the Ngarkat Hwy. Most campgrounds in the park are quite small, and sites range from unallocated to one, through to six sites at Cox’s Windmill. Of course, think of Ngarkat CP and you can’t help but be reminded of its most famous attraction for off-road tourers: the Border Track. As the name so obviously implies, this north-south track follows the fence-line boundary that signifies the Vic/SA border. The track is challenging and includes a southbound (from the park’s northern boundary) section that reverts to a two-way track once it joins the Centre Track (around 29km south of the track’s northern start-point). This is designed to ensure the fragile sand dunes and vegetation are as protected as possible. The Border Track is a fantastic adventure, and for visitors who loop up and enter the park from its northern boundary just south of Pinnaroo, it’s a great way to kick off your Ngarkat experience with a true desert driving test.

The Border Track isn’t the only exciting touring option in the park; another option, for those heading north to south in the park’s western section, is to enter via Pinnaroo but turn toward Pine Hut Soak (rather than the Border Track start-point). From the campground here you can drive south along the Centre Track, stopping along the way for the short (40 minutes return) Orchid Hike that, as the name suggests, leads bushwalkers through a pine forest that contains beautiful native orchids – a seeming oddity out here in mallee/desert country. The Centre Track turns east to join the Border Track and, continuing south, you reach the turnoff to the rugged Mt Shaugh Track. This leads to the sealed Ngarkat Highway before you turn, again, onto dirt and follow the South Boundary Track west to Rabbit Island Soak campground (or Bucks Camp if you so wish). It’s a big day, but this campground makes it worthwhile.

For the energetic (and those with young’uns in tow), there are two short walks – the Gosse Hill Hike and Mount Rescue Hike – near here, both of which offer some cracking views across the low hills and open country of the park’s interior. Following these short jaunts you have the option of leaving the track via Mount Rescue Track on the western edge, or you could head north along Jimmys Well Track to Box Flat for another night of camping. A second drive option, again starting from Pine Hut Soak in the north but this time with a short hop across the border into Victoria’s adjoining Big Desert Wilderness, repeats the Centre Track-to-Border Track adventure south until you reach the junction of the Border and Red Bluff tracks. You can continue east from here to camp below this big outcrop, then return west via Mt Shaugh and South Boundary tracks to Rabbit Island Soak. An alternative, for those who wish to return north, is to turn right before Rabbit Island Soak and head up along Baan Hill Track. This eventually leads out of the park.

THINK OF NGARKAT AND YOU CAN’T HELP BUT BE REMINDED OF THE FAMOUS BORDER TRACK

As well as off-roading Ngarkat CP has a load of great bushwalks, ranging from the short ones mentioned previously (Gosse Hill and Mount Rescue) through to more ‘serious’ treks that are more suited to experienced feet-borne adventurers. Pine Hut Soak is the start-point for three big ones: the four-hour/11km return trek from Pine Hut Soak to Fishponds takes walkers through a sand dune landscape dotted with claypans; the shorter hike to Nanam Well takes you to a restored water well of the same name; while the longest – 17km/sevenhour return Pine Hut Soak to Scorpion Springs – allows well-prepared, experienced hikers to enjoy a journey through more mallee country, interspersed with clumps of native pine trees and stringybark mallee bush. For the vertically inclined, there is the 1.5-hour slog up to the summit of Mount Shaugh. The views across to the ‘other side’ (aka Victoria) make this worth the effort. Keep an eye out for wildlife at any (small and often dry) waterholes, as this arid country hides a surprising amount of native animals and wildflowers when in season.

ALPANA STATION

SOUTH Australia has long been known for its multitude of outback station stays, all of which offer amazing experiences. Property owners in this part of Australia twigged early to the financial benefits of opening up their lands to 4x4-borne tourists, and there are now many of these types of off-road adventures available. Alpana Station is a great example of this kind of escape, with the massive (206km²) working sheep station just north of Wilpena Pound (around five hours’ drive from Adelaide) first offering 4x4 guided tours in 1998 and now offering both these and a number of self-drive adventures around the property’s amazing landscape. Plus, the accommodation is pretty awesome; the four powered campsites (for caravans and camper trailers only) each have their own private en suite bathrooms, while the other amenities at this campground – covered barbecue, table, firepit and toilet – make it even more spectacular. As a bonus for dog owners, the station is pet-friendly.

Bush camping on the station is restricted to two sites (and is again petfriendly), with the high-clearance-access Horseyards campground set off the nearby road and accessible only if you have a key from the station. There are four sites in here, with pit toilets and – if in season – a running creek right next to them. The Bill’s Paddock campground is closer to the Alpana homestead, nestled on the bank of Butler’s Creek, and is accessible to ’vans and even 2WD vehicles. For those who want to mix a luxury digs experience with a night in the bush, you can even book an en suite bathroom for your own use. Of course, for that truly luxurious outback ‘camping’ experience, you can opt for one of the buildings on the property (including a huge shearers’ quarters building for large groups), with the 4x4-accessible Nungawurtina Hut (a traditional-style hut built from pine and stone), located in a secluded valley. This hut offers sleeping room for six, a gas stove, table, chairs and solar-powered lighting, and it would be a cracking weekend away for a family (you can also set up additional tents around the hut if there are more in your group). There’s even a walking track that takes you into the nearby Angorichina Village.

MT SAMUEL TRACK WILL MOST DEFINITELY TEST YOUR OFF-ROADING SKILLS

The station has some great 4x4 tracks that range between easy to very challenging, all of which take you through some truly amazing outback South Australian terrain. The two self-drive options are a mix of moderate grade and challenging. The two-hour Sunset Hill 665 self-drive track is the perfect option for those keen on witnessing an outback sunset/sunrise, with the top of Sunset Hill offering expansive views across the ABC and Heysen ranges. Views to the south take in Wilpena Pound and its red-rock cliffs, as well as the distant waters of Lake Torrens. You can also tack on an additional 10km of driving to Nungarwurtina Hut (if there’s nobody camping there).

The big bopper is the one-way, fivehour Mt Samuel Track, which is rated challenging. This drive will most definitely test your off-roading skills, but the reward is a journey through the full gamut of quintessential Flinders Ranges terrain. This drive doesn’t mess around; after winding through open grazing country, you are soon into the serious stuff and confronted with a steep climb along a narrow creek bed that throws in rock ledges, a loose, shale-covered surface and plenty more. Throw in regular steep washouts that will test your 4x4’s approach and departure angles, as well as plenty of ruts (caused by flooding during heavy rain), and you can see how the ascent to near the summit (of what is actually two Mt Samuels) achieves such a tough rating. Once you finish the long, steady ascent you’re about a 30-minute walk from the summits of Mt Samuels. It’s a steep walk but you’ll regret it if you don’t make the effort as, again, the views from the top are magnificent.

The next part of the self-drive is the descent into the aptly named Mt Buggery Gorge where, if you have the option, having someone walking out front of your vehicle will help to guide you down this steep section – it is definitely low-range, first gear for this. Upon reaching the bottom (and letting out that held breath) you trundle along the still-challenging track that follows Mt Buggery Creek, with the high peaks of the surrounding mountains shadowing your progress. The terrain here is still a challenge with washouts, tree roots (and branches) and large rocks to ensure you pick your way slowly along. If there has been recent rain – and you are visiting in season – this area offers the chance to view some wildflowers. It’s a cracking experience and definitely one to challenge drivers. For those less keen on the rough stuff, joining the guided Alpana Station Experience is a must. There are half- and full-day options and these drives are still great fun, with the added bonus of showcasing both the history of the station and just how much work goes into running these properties.

It’s a bit of a haul from Adelaide, but for those looking for the true ‘station stay experience’ Alpana Station does a great job of fulfilling that dream. And then, of course, you can always return and tackle a few of the other station stays in the area, a number of which fit the Adelaide weekend escape bill to a tee.