|The Blue Lake
from Lions Lookout
Large centre in the far south east known for
its remarkable Blue Lake.
Located 439 km south east of Adelaide, Mount
Gambier is the jewel of South Australia's
south-eastern region. It is a large rural centre
(population over 22,000) which is characterised
by a large number of attractive, historic
buildings and the major attraction of the Blue
The area was originally inhabited by the
Buandig people who reputedly called the Mount
Gambier area 'ereng balam' or 'egree belum'
which supposedly meant the home of the eagle
The first European to sight Mount Gambier was
Lieutenant James Grant sailing the HMS Lady
Nelson. He sailed down the coast on 3 December
1800 and observed what he thought were four
islands. On closer investigation they proved to
be two mountains and two capes which he duly
named Gambier's Mountain (after Admiral Lord
James Gambier who had commanded the fleet at the
Battle of Copenhagen), Cape Banks, Cape
Northumberland and Mount Schank
The Buandig were the first Aborigines in
South Australia to see sheep and to experience
the arrival of Europeans with herds of sheep.
The first squatters into the area were the
Henty Brothers who had established huge property
holdings around Portland in western Victoria.
Realising that the government of South Australia
had little control over this far-flung extremity
of the state they simply moved sheep and cattle
into the area in June, 1839. So slow was the
South Australian government to react that they
managed to farm the area around the lakes for
five years before they were ordered back to
Victoria. How successful this operation was is
open to debate as the Hentys and their workers
spent much of their time fighting with the local
Buandig Aborigines who were unimpressed with the
arrival of Europeans on their traditional
grounds. There was also a major issue over
sheep. The Aborigines quickly developed a taste
for mutton which infuriated the settlers.
Once the Hentys had been removed (in 1844)
the land was given to Evelyn Sturt, a brother of
Charles Sturt who had explored the Murray River
to its mouth. A township of sorts began to
emerge in the 1840s. The Mount Gambier Hotel was
built by John Byng in 1847, a blacksmith and a
general store set up business near what are now
the Cave Gardens, and in 1849 a Dr Welh arrived
with a handmill for turning wheat and barley
into flour. He was later to build a substantial
millhouse on Commercial Road.
The town was formally established by Hastings
Cunningham in 1854. He called it Gambier Town.
During that year 123 allotments were surveyed
and by 1860 lots of land in the township were
being offered for sale.
The city of Mount Gambier was created exactly
a century later in 1954. It is now recognised as
the most important centre in south-east South
Today Mount Gambier is sustained by a range
of industries. There is a very active timber
industry sustained by plantations of radiata
pine, the surrounding area is noted for sheep
and cattle raising and the soil is rich enough
for both grain crops and vegetables to be grown.
Things to see:
The Blue Lake
This is really one of the wonders of the world.
To stand on the edge of the Blue Lake,
particularly on a beautifully sunny, and to gaze
down on something which is so impossibly blue is
to marvel at the mysteries of nature. The lake
itself is reputedly 75 metres deep and now fills
an extinct volcanic crater. It is claimed that
the lake is only intensely blue between November
and March. During the winter months it returns
to an uninspiring greyish colour.
Evidence suggests that the Blue Lake volcano
last erupted about 5000 years ago. It is about
20 metres above sea level and, because of its
great depth, its bottom is about 30 metres below
the level of Mount Gambier's main street.
The lake was subject of one of the most
famous exploits in Australian literary history.
Between 1853 and 1867 the poet Adam Lindsay
Gordon lived in the area. He worked as a mounted
policeman, a drover and a horse breaker. There
is a story that Gordon, an exceptional horseman,
took a horse and leapt the old post and rail
fence. It was all for a bet. The challenge was
that the area of land beyond the post and rail
fence was no more than a metre across and beyond
lay a 60 metre drop (not totally vertical) into
the lake. It is said that not only did Gordon
leap the fence on his horse and land it safely
on the narrow ledge but he managed to get the
horse to leap back across the fence - such was
his skill. The support for this event is
contained on an obelisk on MacDonnell Bay Rd
which was put up in 1887 and records the event.
Why is the lake blue?
No one knows for sure why the Blue Lake changes
colour. There are a number of theories most of
which have merit. In times past, when blue dye
was used extensively to clean clothes, it was
believed that the blue was filtering through the
limestone and appearing in the lake. This
reached its most amusing highpoint when people
started accusing Mt Gambier locals of putting
blue into the water so it would become a tourist
Another theory argues that the water is home
to microscopic blue organisms which rise to the
surface in the warmer months.
A third explanation, offered in an old
brochure on the town, argued as follows: 'The
most likely theory is that light is scattered by
calcium carbonate which saturates the lake. As
the temperature rises at the surface level it
causes them to precipitate out as extremely fine
particles of a similar wavelength to blue light.
This causes a scattering of the light at the
blue end of the spectrum, making the lake appear
At the highest point overlooking the city's
famous lakes is the Centenary Tower which was
built by public subscription (it cost
£482/11/6), is set on a cement foundation and is
a total of nearly 10 metres high. The foundation
stone was laid on on 3 December 1900. It was
built of red dolomite and the walls are 60 cm
thick. It celebrates the sighting of Mount
Gambier by Lieutenant Grant in 1800.
on Valley Lake
The Crater Lakes
While the Blue Lake is the most famous of the
city's lakes it is by no means the only one. The
lakes, which include the Little Blue Lake,
Browne's Lake, Valley Lake and Leg of Mutton
Lake (this is now totally dry and wooded over -
a remnant of an old volcano), are all located
quite close together and it is easy to find the
vantage points which offer views over the lakes.
There are at least five vantage points around
the Blue Lake and a similar number of viewing
points around the other lakes which are grouped
together to the west of Blue Lake.
Mount Gambier Tourist Information Centre
The major appeal of the Mount Gambier Tourist
Information Centre is that it also houses a
full-size replica of the Lady Nelson, the brig
in which Lieutenant James Grant RN first sighted
Mount Gambier. This is only part of a very
clever, and carefully considered, Interpretative
Centre which starts with the Lady Nelson, moves
on to the Geology Room (which explains the
volcanoes in the area and shows how the Blue
Lake was formed), then the Cave Walk (which
displays fossils from the local area and ancient
kangaroo bones), the Green Triangle Room (where
the history of the area bounded by Kingston S.E.
and Bordertown) is portrayed through film and
interactive games and outside to a sample of the
local wetlands which is crossed by a boardwalk.
It is located on Jubilee Hwy East, (08) 8724
9750, 1800 087 187, fax (08) 8723 2833.
The City's Historic Heritage
The Old Courthouse
The Old Court House which is open between noon -
4.00 p.m. is now called the National Trust Law
and Heritage Centre and the Courthouse Gallery.
The building, the original Court House, remained
in use until 1975 when it was replaced by a more
modern building. It was completed in 1864-65 to
a design by G.T. Light. It is characterised by
squared quoins and arches. The building still
has the jury box, judge's chambers and cells and
it is possible to inspect them all. The
Courthouse Gallery sells a wide variety of
locally made sweets.
Located in the city centre at the corner of
Penola Road and Commercial Street, the Cave
Gardens were the sight of Mount Gambier's first
source of water. There is an easy walkway around
the edge of the cave. The steps were cut by a
W.A. Crouch. There was a time in the early
history of the city that water was raised and
sold by the bucket. In 1909 a rose garden was
planted around the edge of the cave.
|The Town Hall
Former Town Hall
Located in Commercial Road (the main road in the
city) the Old Town Hall, with its prominent
clock tower, is now a Community Arts Centre.
This huge building was constructed out of
dolomite and limestone. The Town Hall was
completed in 1882. An Institute was added in
1882 and a theatre in 1906. The tower clock was
a donation from a Mr Ellis of Benara Station.
Beside the town hall is an ornate and beautiful
marble fountain cost £700 and was donated to the
city by Captain Robert Gardiner in 1884. It is
claimed to be the first marble fountain made in
South Australia. Gardiner was the grandfather of
the famous ballet dancer, Sir Robert Helpmann.
Mount Gambier Hotel
Built in 1862 and originally known as Giffords
Hotel (the second storey was completed in 1883
and the balcony was added in 1902) this is a
fine example of a prosperous country hotel of
its era. It is located in Commercial Street
Built in 1884 out of dolomite and limestone (the
preferred local building materials) this elegant
old hotel was enlarged in 1904 and added to in
1927. It has a beautiful cast-iron balcony and
is very much a prominent site in the city
The City's Churches
Christ Church - Anglican Church
Located on Bay Street this unusual church was
erected in 1865 to a design by W.T. Gore. It is
characterised by being built from dolomite and
featuring a roof notable for its many gables. In
1895 the chancel and organ chamber were added.
As well there was a memorial porch and lych gate
built. There were further additions in 1915.
St Andrews Uniting Church
Built from an attractive and distinctive pink
dolomite in 1871 and characterised by buttresses
and a small gabled port and a towering spire
(which was replaced in 1885) it is positioned on
top of a hill and can be easily seen from post
parts of Mount Gambier. It has been added to
over the years with a gallery being built in
1879, a porch in 1885 and a vestry in the 1920s.
It is located in Elizabeth Street.
St Pauls Roman Catholic Church
Built from dolomite in 1855 it is characterised
by a distinctive castellated tower on the right
hand side of the building.
Apple Farm and Tearooms
If you are passionate about apples here is a
place where they grow 19 different varieties and
duly offer them for sale in every imaginable
form from apple juice to pies and tarts. It is
located on Clare Rd and is open every weekend
and public holiday from Feb-Oct. Contact (08)
8726 8205 for more details.
Located on Attamurra Road there is a display of
characters from popular children's fiction as
well as a huge display of bears. Outside there
is a glasshouse with numerous cacti as well as a
very pretty cottage garden. Contact (08) 8725
3269. It is open daily 10.00 am - 4.30 pm.
The whole south-east of South Australia (and
spreading into Victoria) is honeycombed with
caves. The Engelbrecht Cave, which extends under
seven city streets, was formed some 30-40
million years ago. At one time it was used as a
dump by one of the city's local whisky
distilleries. It is now possible to go on
conducted tours where visitors can see water
which is making its way under the city towards
the Blue Lake. Tours go every hour and all you
need to do is turn up at about 10 minutes before
the hour. The major viewing platform, where you
can see the water under the city, is 27 metres
below the surface
Garden of Angels and Birds
Located on Wandilo Forest Road this animal and
reptile park has a good collection of Australian
animals including marsupials, reptiles, local
nocturnal animals and birds. Contact (08) 8723
0619. It is open every day during daylight
Lieutenant Grant named this fascinating remnant
volcano at the time he named Mount Gambier. It
was named after a friend, Captain Schank. There
is a track which leads to the top and it is
possible to descend into the crater of the
extinct volcano. The walk from the Car Park to
the top and around the edges of the old volcano
is estimated as being of moderate difficulty and
should take about 2 1/2 hours. Get directions
from the Tourist Information Centre or take the
Port Macdonnell Road
Tarpeena Fairy Tale Park
Located on Penola Rd this is an attraction for
children. It depicts a miniature world which
will have children enchanted although it
promotes itself as being for everyone. It is
open 7 days a week 10.00 am - 5.00 pm. Contact
(08) 8739 6363.
Located on the Jubilee Hwy near the Carter,
Holt, Harvey Timber Mill, the sinkhole has been
landscaped with terraced gardens and is floodlit
at night. It is an impressive garden with palm
trees reaching to the sky and plants hanging
over the edges of the sinkhole.
The Tantanoola tiger is on display in the
Tantanoola Hotel. The place is very small and
very spread out. It is a tiny town located near
a huge woodchip operation.
Trying to establish the correct dates and the
actual facts surrounding the Tantanoola tiger is
almost impossible. No two versions are the same
although there is a kind of central germ of
truth. Where there are more than one possible
date I have simply listed them all with question
It is claimed that the first sighting of the
Tantanoola tiger occurred in (1883? 1889? 1895?)
when a young man riding near Tantanoola claimed
he saw a large shaggy animal leap over a fence
with a sheep in its jaws. (Or was it because two
tigers escaped from a travelling circus?) This
led to hysteria in the local area. Children were
escorted to school by men with guns. People
refused to leave their homes at night. Loaded
shotguns were carried by virtually everyone.
Eventually a local bushman, Tom Donovan,
assisted by three other men, managed to shoot a
large wild dog (an Assyrian wolf?) was shot in
1895. It was given to the Tantanoola Hotel which
had it stuffed and declared that it was the
Tantanoola tiger. It is claimed that in 1911
Robert Edmondson and David Bald were arrested
for stealing and killing sheep and that this was
the real resolution to the problem. Not a
tiger/wolf/dog but some canny men. Who really
Tom Donovan had the animal stuffed and kept
it in a private museum in Nelson. In 1905 it was
placed in a glass case and put on display in the
Railway Hotel which changed its name to the
Tantanoola Tiger Hotel.
Tantanoola Cave, located 33 km from Mount
Gambier, may be the only cave in Australia which
claims to have wheelchair access. It is a single
cave which has been formed in an ancient coastal
cliff. It is notable for its excellent columns,
shawls and helictites. The cave was first
discovered by Boyce Lane in 1930 and since then
has been a popular local attraction. For opening
times and cave tours contact (08) 8734 4153.
Located 20 km west of Mount Gambier, Glencoe's
sole claim to fame is that it has a superb old
National Trust Woolshed with a 36 stand stone
shearing shed and lots of interesting displays
of woolshed activities. The area was originally
settled, in 1844, by Edward and Robert Leake who
named the settlement after the mighty Glencoe in
Scotland. They built their famous shearing shed
in 1863 out of limestone and blackwood timber.
While in the district you should visit both Lake
Leake (a volcanic crater like the lakes at Mount
Gambier) and Lake Edward both of which have
grassed picnic areas. Check with the Mount
Gambier Tourist Information for opening times.