Volcanic activity over untold centuries has shaped much of the landscape in southwest Victoria and South Australia’s lower southeast, a landscape punctuated by many conspicuous hills and circular lakes, the remnants of more than 400 volcanoes. The most recent eruption is believed to have occurred at Mount Gambier about 5,000 years ago.
Victoria’s most well-known volcanic crater is Tower Hill, 13kms west of Warrnambool, which is thought to have erupted about 32,000 years ago. Tower Hill’s formation is known as a “nested maar” – crater lake – and, at 3.2km wide, is the largest of its type in Victoria. Today the dormant volcano is known as the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, home to prolific wildlife and birdlife including emu, koala, kangaroo, echidna, and wedgetail eagle.
The Great Ocean Road, the 243-kilometre-long road that winds spectacularly along Victoria’s southwest coast between Torquay and Allansford, 12kms east of Warrnambool, is one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations.
Many who travel this legendary coastal journey conclude the drive at the southwest’s rural city Warrnambool, visiting sites such as Tower Hill, Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village and, from June to September, Logan’s Beach for a spot of whale watching.
From Warrnambool, the 158-kilometre drive to Nelson near the South Australian border in the state’s far west is far less busy than the Great Ocean Road, but no less fascinating, featuring towering cliffs, pearly-white beaches, wetlands, woodlands, interesting towns, and rich history.
Warrnambool to Port Fairy – 26km
Eight kilometres west of Warrnambool is the turnoff to the Belfast Coastal Reserve, a 20-kilometre-long sliver of coastal dunes and wetlands first gazetted for conservation back in 1861. Fringing the coast between Warrnambool and Port Fairy, Belfast Coastal Reserve has long been popular for its freshwater wetlands, dazzling beaches, sheltered dunes and rockpools.
Killarney Beach, 2.6kms south of the village of Killarney, is part of this popular reserve, and home a gem of a caravan park with access to a one-kilometre-long stretch of beach. Killarney village was settled by Irish potato growers in 1845-1846. Today this small settlement on the Princes Highway is home to a vineyard and an antique shop.
Eight kilometres north of Killarney lies Koroit, a charming town also established by Irish immigrants who were attracted to the region by its rich volcanic soil and lush green landscapes reminiscent to the those they left. Koroit is named for the Koroitch Gundidj people, who occupied this area for thousands of years, and is well worth a detour.
Koroit’s main pub, Mickey Bourke’s, has Irish food and character, and Guinness on tap. The annual Koroit Irish Festival (April 28-30, 2023) is a weekend of music, Gaelic games, dancing, and spud-picking. The town’s Tower Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of many Irish immigrants to Australia including Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of novelist Henry Handel (Ethel) Richardson, who authored the literary masterpiece The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, based on her father’s life.
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, Warrnambool (Credit: Tourism Victoria)
From Koroit it’s 20kms southwest to Port Fairy, which lies at the mouth of the Moyne River. Famous for its annual folk festival (March 10-13, 2023), Port Fairy was first established as a whaling and sealing station around 1835. The town’s many quaint cottages, historic pubs and waterside warehouses offer a sense of the late 1850s, when it was Australia’s busiest port.
In 2012 Port Fairy, population around 3500 lucky permanent residents, was voted the world’s most liveable small community (towns with a population of under 20,000), and it’s easy to see why as you stroll its historic streets.
A popular destination for all travellers, Port Fairy has several lovely beaches, museums, historic walks, a picturesque wharf, plenty of dining opportunities, and easy access to Griffiths Island, which you can walk around to see a short-tailed shearwater (mutton bird) viewing point and, on the island’s eastern extremity, Port Fairy’s circa 1859 lighthouse.
Port Fairy to Portland – 70kms
Twelve kilometres west of Port Fairy, driving past one of the most rugged and scenic sections of the west coast, is the turnoff to The Crags. This scenic spot on the coastline is three kilometres off the highway and overlooks Lady Julia Percy Island.
The island, a two-kilometre-long plateau six-kilometres off the coast, is Australia’s only offshore volcano, formed seven million years ago by violent underwater eruptions relating to the final separation of Australia from Antarctica.
Lady Julia Percy Island supports one of the country’s largest breeding colonies of Australian fur seal, with an estimated 27,000 animals, and little penguin and mutton bird also breed on the island.
Port Fairy (Credit: Tourism Victoria)
At the Crags carpark a memorial commemorates the memory of four RAAF personnel who lost their lives when their Arvo Anson-AW878 plane lost contact with its Mount Gambier base on February 15, 1944. For unknown reasons, the crew tried to land the plane on bleak Lady Julia Percy Island. The bodies of the crew were never found.
This region is part of the Shipwreck Coast, a dramatic 130km stretch of jagged cliffs and deep gorges and towering dunes; it’s estimated that around 700 ships were wrecked in the vicinity between the mid-18th and early 19th centuries.
From The Crags it’s nine kilometres west to Yambuk, which was settled in 1839 and is one of the earliest European settlements in the southwest. This region reveals many signs of early European settlement in dry stone walls and historic farmhouses.
Sadly, the bluestone Yambuk Inn, dating from the 1850s, closed recently. Even so, Yambuk is well worth a pitstop, particularly if travelling with children as, five kilometres off the Princes Highway near the Yambuk Lake and its caravan park, is a 33-metre-long slide guaranteed to thrill any youngster.
Tranquil Yambuk Lake is an extensive wetland system formed from the meeting of the Shaw and Eumeralla Rivers, and is an ideal spot to picnic, cast a line, watch the birdlife, or stroll along Yambuk Beach, just beyond the sand dunes, where waves explode onto shore.
From here its 52km to Portland, Victoria’s first permanent European settlement, driving past lush pasturelands and great swathes of blue gum plantations along the way. Portland, which predates Melbourne, was first established as a whaling station in the early 1830s. In 1833 Edward Henty arrived from Tasmania on the lookout for grazing land and landed at Portland in late 1834 with livestock and supplies to establish a settlement. He was soon joined by his brothers John, Stephen and Francis.
Portland has many industries. The Port of Portland specialises in bulk commodities, particularly forestry products, hence the huge container ships you see in the bay. The port is also home to a large fishing fleet. But Portland is also a coastal beauty, it’s array of historic buildings make it one of Victoria’s handsomest harbour towns. This interesting town has more than 200 National Trust-listed buildings, including the 1845 bluestone courthouse, which is still in use, and Customs House (1849), also still in use.
Portland (Credit: Tourism Victoria)
Another of Portland’s treasures, the Botanic Gardens, were established from the early 1850s and today feature more than 300 varieties of roses, a circa 1868 croquet lawn and several trees classified by the National Trust.
Motoring enthusiasts will enjoy Portland’s Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum, which houses a collection of veteran, vintage and classic cars and motor bikes and a 1920s cable car. Also historic is the Portland Cable Tram, which meanders 7.4km along the foreshore, and is an ideal way to get to know the city.
For thousands of years, south-west Victoria has been home to the clans that comprise the nation of the Gunditjmara, living on the coast and volcanic plains of their traditional lands, in a cultural landscape that continues to exist today.
At the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, 40-kilometres north of Portland, Gunditjmara people used the local volcanic rock to construct fish traps, weirs and ponds to manage water flows from nearby Lake Condah. Budj Bim, is home to the world’s oldest and largest aquaculture systems, and ruins of around 200 stone dwellings – evidence of a large, settled community farming and smoking eels for food and trade dating back some 6,600 years, and is well worth a visit.
From Portland it’s 22-kilometres west past rolling farmlands to Bridgewater Bay Beach, a glorious four-kilometre-long arc of golden sands popular for surfing, sailboarding, swimming and surf-fishing that is practically deserted for most of the year save for lucky locals.
Aside from a smattering of houses and the ocean-facing Sea View Lodge there’s the Bridgewater Bay Cafe, where the coffee is good and the hamburgers keep you going all day.
At Cape Bridgewater on the western side of the bay is Stony Hill, towering 130-metres above sea level and the highest clifftop on Victoria’s coastline. The surreal landscape here is the rim of an ancient volcano crater. Cape Bridgewater is part of the 8,500-hectare Discovery Bay Coastal Park, a combination of sweeping beaches, huge sand dunes, placid lakes, and bay after bay of jutting promontories that extends 65-kilometres westwards to Nelson.
Heading back towards Portland, Bridgewater Lakes is popular for fishing and canoeing, and ideal for a picnic if it’s windy at the beach. Opposite the entrance to the lakes are the Tarragal Caves, a network of limestone caves that were a Gunditjmara camping site for thousands of years.
Nearby Cape Nelson Lighthouse, which has towered 50-metres above the raging ocean since 1884, is still in operation today. Ferocious winds – more than 125km/h has been recorded – blast this coast, and it’s exhilarating to witness the full force of nature, when intoxicatingly fresh wind whips across jagged cliffs, where you may spot humpback and southern right whales in winter, and blue whales in summer.
Robert Hunt, who leases the Cape Nelson Lighthouse precinct from Parks Victoria and opened the lighthouse to the public for tours in 2009, grew up in Portland. “This region offers such a sense of freedom,” he said. “As a child living here was like living in a big natural playground; immersed in a beautiful space with forests and rivers, surrounded by the ocean to go surfing, swimming and diving.
“Many once-lovely coastal towns are unrecognisable now, but Portland hasn’t changed much – the tyranny of distance from large cities has saved this beautiful corner of Victoria from overdevelopment.”
Nelson, mouth of the Glenelg River (Credit: Sandy Guy)
Portland to Mount Gambier – 104km
From Portland it’s 67km southwest to Nelson, passing mostly tree plantations along the way. These plantations, consisting mainly of Californian Radiata pine and Australian Blue Gum, date back to 1876 and are the oldest plantations in the Southern Hemisphere
Eighteen kilometres west of Portland along the Portland-Nelson Road is the turnoff to Mount Richmond National Park. Mount Richmond is another extinct volcano, this one covered with a layer of sand blown inland long ago from nearby Discovery Bay.
The park boasts an amazing 500 flora species, and Brown Stringybark and Manna Gums here are up to 200 years old. There are picnic tables at the summit, and bush walks in this lovely park include the Benwerrin Nature Walk and Ocean View Walk, with views of Cape Bridgewater and Discovery Bay.
Situated in the far southwestern corner of Victoria, just six kilometres from the South Australian border, Nelson dates from the late 1840s. At this small community, a popular holiday destination during the warmer months, the slowly-flowing Glenelg River meets the Great Southern Ocean.
Cruise operators offer journeys along the peaceful Glenelg, passing limestone cliffs rising to 50-metres amid the Lower Glenelg National Park.
Visitors to Nelson enjoy surfing, fishing, camping, water skiing, kayaking and hiking, said Neil Skelton, publican of the Nelson Hotel for 32 years.
“Thousands of caravanners visit this region every year, getting off the beaten track and discovering the best of this far-flung corner of Victoria,” said Neil. “With such beautiful beaches, the river, prolific wildlife and birdlife, and carpets of wildflowers in the spring, it’s a very special part of the world.”
Mount Gambier, Blue Lake (Credit: Tourism South Australia)
The Nelson Hotel, the epicentre of town since it was built in 1855, is a popular pitstop for traditional pub fare, with local seafood and beef on the menu. The nearby Nelson Kiosk, right on the river, serves homemade pies and sausage rolls, and makes a darn good coffee.
From Nelson it’s a mere 35km to bustling Mount Gambier, South Australia’s second largest city, along the Glenelg River Road. Along the way, a turnoff just past Caveton leads to Mount Schanck, another dormant volcano. The two-kilometre walk around the crater offers sweeping views of Mount Gambier and the surrounding area.
Nearby is Little Blue Lake, a natural water-filled sinkhole that is a popular swimming lake in summer, and a truly picturesque spot to have a dip.
Mount Gambier is one of few cities in the world to be established on the slopes of a volcano, but visitors needn’t be nervous – it’s been 5,000 years since the city’s famous Blue Lake (Warwaw) last erupted. The volcano’s 72-metre-deep crater is filled with cobalt-coloured water that changes to a dazzling turquoise blue between November and late February.
Mount Gambier is the gateway to South Australia’s Limestone Coast, which has more than 50 water-filled sinkholes and over 800 caves, a product of intense volcanic activity thousands of years ago, and even more reason to continue exploring this captivating region.
Warrnambool has an array of caravan camping options that feature anything from swimming pools to easy beach access.
The Koroit-Tower Hill Caravan Park has powered sites from $30 per night. This cozy park, located at the town’s Botanic Gardens, is a five-minute walk to the town center.
The Killarney Beach Caravan Park has powered sites from $30 per night. Amenities include a children’s playground and a large oval for kids to run and play.
Port Fairy has six caravan parks, situated between the rolling green hills in the north to the beautiful coastline in the south.
Yambuk Lake Caravan Park has powered sites from $30 per night. Peaceful spot popular for its lake, wetland and pastoral views. Kids playground, near Yambuk slide, undercover barbecue area.
There are an array of caravan parks in Portland and surrounds to choose from.
Nelson has two caravan parks – the River Vu Caravan Park (powered sites from $35) and Kywong Caravan Park (powered sites $35).
Sawpit Campground is situated in Mount Clay State Forest, north-east of Portland. Drop toilets, plenty of shade, fire pits, 15-minute drive to Portland.
Henty Park Campground at 2B Bentick Street, Portland, has free camping for self-contained caravans, 48-hours maximum. Toilets, dump spot, pets allowed.
The Dry Creek Campground, 10.5km northwest of Nelson, is right on the Glenelg River. Boat ramp nearby for easy river access, toilets, running water, undercover barbecues.
Travelling without the van?
Portland’s circa 1856 Mac’s Hotel Bentinck, in a prime position overlooking Portland Bay, has comfortable rooms and suites featuring all the mod cons you’d expect from a 4.5-star establishment. Rooms start at $175.
At Cape Nelson, the lighthouse precinct offers four beautifully renovated 4.5-star lighthouse keepers’ cottages from $242 per double per night.
The Old Mount Gambier Goal accommodation is about as unique as it gets (for those on the right side of the law). Dorm cells are $30 per person per night; double cells with ensuite toilet $100 per night (sleeps 2), family cell with lounge and kitchenette $195, all very comfy these days.
Trails and tours
Guided bush tours provide an opportunity to discover native wildlife and learn about traditional Aboriginal culture.
Lady Julia Percy Island
For information on sightseeing tours of Lady Julia Percy Island visit the website.
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Budj Bim landscape and learn about the Gunditjmara people’s extraordinary aquaculture system, set within a volcanic lava field. For more information.
Great South West Walk
The Great South West Walk has been developed as a bushwalking trail suitable for most ages and abilities.
Cape Nelson Lighthouse
Cape Nelson Lighthouse has guided tours at 11am and 2 pm daily, adults $15, children $10, families $40.
Mount Gambier Volcano film
The Riddoch Arts and Cultural Centre has free daily screenings of the film Volcano, outlining the geological blitz that created the Mount Gambier region. Monday to Friday at 11am and 2pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am.