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South Australia

 
 
South Australia, the driest state of the driest continent, is split into two very distinct halves. The long-settled southern part, watered by the Murray River, and with Adelaide as a cosmopolitan centre, has been thoroughly tamed; the northern half, arid and depopulated, most definitely has not.

Most of southern - which is to say southeastern - South Australia lies within three-hours' drive of Adelaide. Food and especially wine are among its chief pleasures: this is prime grape-growing and wine-making country. As well as its wineries the Fleurieu Peninsula , just south of Adelaide, has a string of fine beaches along the Gulf St Vincent coastline. Cape Jervis, at the peninsula's tip, is the departure point for ferries to sparsely populated Kangaroo Island , a fine place to see Australian wildlife at its unfettered best. Facing Adelaide across the Investigator Strait, the Yorke Peninsula is primarily an agricultural area, preserving a little copper-mining history and some great fishing. The superb wineries of the Barossa Valley , originally settled by German immigrants in the nineteenth century, are only an hour from Adelaide on the Sturt Highway , the main road to Sydney. This crosses the Murray River at Blanchetown and follows the fertile Riverland region to the New South Wales border. Following the southeast coast along the Princes Highway, you can head towards Melbourne via the extensive coastal lagoon system of the Coorong and enjoyable seaside towns such as Robe, exiting the state at Mount Gambier with its crater lakes. The inland trawl via the Dukes Highway is faster, but far less interesting. Heading north from Adelaide, there are old copper-mining towns to explore at Kapunda and Burra in the area known as the mid-north , which also encompasses the Clare Valley , a quieter, more down-to-earth wine centre and perhaps the southeast's most enjoyable.

 

In contrast with the gentle and cultured southeast, the remainder of South Australia - with the exception of the relatively refined Eyre Peninsula and its strikingly scenic west coast - is unremittingly harsh desert, a naked country of vast horizons, salt lakes, glazed gibber plains and ancient mountain ranges. Although it's tempting to scud over the forbidding distances, rewards from this introspective and subtle landscape develop slowly and you'll miss its essence by hurrying. For every predictable, monotonous highway there's a dirt alternative, which may be physically draining but enables you to get closer to this precarious environment. The folded red rocks of the central Flinders Ranges and Coober Pedy 's post-apocalyptic scenery are on most agendas and could be worked into a sizeable circuit, but overall the Outback lacks any real destinations. Making the most of the journey is what counts - the fabled routes to Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Innamincka are still real adventures, and not necessarily 4WD only.

Rail and road routes converge in Adelaide before the long cross-country hauls west to Perth via Port Augusta or north to Alice Springs and Darwin. The Ghan to Alice Springs is one of Australia's great train journeys; as is the Indian Pacific between Perth and Sydney, which passes through Adelaide - though if you hop on the eastbound train here, you'll have missed traversing part of the country, which is really the point of the journey.

Adelaide and the surrounding gulflands, cooled by the Gulf St Vincent, enjoy a Mediterranean climate that makes them tremendously fertile. As you head further north the temperature hots up to such an extreme that by Coober Pedy people live underground to escape the searing summer temperatures.

 
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