There is more to do in Mt Gambier than meets the eye … like spending a night in jail!
Mt Gambier lies on the lower slopes of one of 16 extinct volcanoes and is the major town and commercial centre of South Australia's south-eastern area. The first squatter built his home there in 1839 making it one of the state's earliest settlements.
Lt James Grant, commander of the HMS Lady Nelson, named the 152m Gambier Mountain after spotting it en route to Sydney in 1800. It is not the largest in the group Mt Burr has that honour at 240m above sea level. The much smaller Mt Gambier group comprises Mt Gambier with three volcanic centres and Mt Schank with one. Caused by violent explosions, Mt Schank was formed 7000 years ago and Mt Gambier 3000 years later.
The Lady Nelson Visitor and Discovery Centre is a spectacular landmark and a good place to begin your visit. A full size replica of the ship was built in 1985 and exciting interactive technology tells the historical and geological stories of the area.
There is much to see in the area but probably the most visited and unusual attraction is the extinct volcano called the Blue Lake. It is possibly more than 200m deep and for an unexplained reason changes from grey to brilliant cobalt blue each November and remains that way until March. It is a true mystery of nature which has had many unproven explanations over the years. The water, which supplies the town with enormous natural pressure, is naturally filtered through a limestone base.
Aquifer Tours are the experts and take visitors in a glass panelled lift down the original dolomite well shaft, through a tunnel and there the Blue Lake can be seen at close proximity.
The vast complex of limestone caves under the city was first explored in around 1884. The thickness of the limestone at Engelbrecht, which spreads below seven city streets, is around 100 metres and its topsoil is volcanic. Thought to be 30-40 million years old, it is very popular with cave divers and tours are operated by Lifeline volunteers. The sink-hole is horizontal with one level cave lying at the same level as the ground water table.
Umpherston Cave is another sinkhole which was created when the top of its chamber imploded. The floor of the cave now forms just the right environment for a sunken garden. It was beautified predominantly with palms in 1886 and is floodlit at night. A popular activity is to visit after dark to see possums feeding. You can watch the nocturnal creatures from under a large shelter while enjoying a barbecue and you are welcome to take food for the possums.
The Mount Gambier jail was built in 1866 and held prisoners until 1995. Now it has been converted and restored by the city and is leased for use as budget backpacker accommodation.
All painted and cleaned but structurally unchanged, it can house 96 people in twin share and double cells. Dormitories are in the old gaoler's residence and a self-contained unit which was the women's area.
Beds are made from locally milled pine with deluxe futon mattresses. There is a share kitchen, television room, separate lounge and dining areas and a games yard. Key's Turn is the jail's restaurant and charges $10 for three courses, as well as providing a fine à la carte menu.