By Max Anderson
WOW is a useful acronym for ‘Wildlife, Outback and Wine’, three attractions that South Australia has in abundance. Why so much WOW? Well, South Australia is the same size as Texas, and yet it’s home to only 1.7m people. As such, it has the space to deliver some powerful experiences in places you never thought possible.
WOW in the city
Most visitors are surprised to find that they can get a taste of Wildlife, Outback and Wine without leaving the genteel capital city of Adelaide.
Take the Adventure Kayak tour on the Port River for instance. It’s one of the most unusual ‘urban’ wildlife experiences in the world.
Your guide will lead you deep into a beguiling wetland of still waters, thick islands of bush and 20 historic shipwrecks.
It’s a wilderness that paradoxically exists behind a modern industrial port within the capital city of Adelaide.
The real WOW moment comes when a resident pod of Port River dolphins breaks the surface of the water and – if you’re lucky – performs a ‘tail-walk’.
An animal named Billie was released from a marine park into the wild in 1988 and taught the local pod some new tricks.
Want to get closer to the marine mammals? Take a 30 minute tram-ride from the centre of the city to the lively beach suburb of Glenelg.
After boarding Temptation Sailing’s 55-foot catamaran, you’ll cruise the Gulf St Vincent, home to over a thousand Common and Bottlenose dolphins.
Snorkels, masks and wetsuits are supplied – then it’s time to enter the calm gulf waters and get better acquainted.
There are drier encounters in the Adelaide Hills (20 minutes by car) at Cleland Wildlife Park: elevated 2000 feet and surrounded by thick eucalypt forests, Cleland is home to native Australian animals.
Kangaroos, emus and wallabies are in open grassland enclosures, and visitors are welcome to mingle and give them a feed. Koalas are also (literally) on hand for a photo.
As for wine, South Australia is responsible for more than half the nation’s production with over 700,000 tons crushed this year alone, and as such you don’t have to travel far for an eyeful of vines or an award wining drop.
Indeed, one of the world’s most sought after names – Penfolds – has a vineyard within the city limits.
Stunning Penfolds Magill Estate is on the city’s eastern edge and grows grapes that go into the legendary Grange Hermitage in some years.
On an ‘Ultimate Winery Experience’ you can taste recent vintages of Grange, with bottles retailing for around $A500. Bottles of 1951 Grange Hermitage – the first vintage – change hands for as much as $A60,000.
For some inner-city outback, don’t miss celebrity chef Jock Zonfrillo’s Restaurant Orana on Rundle Street.
One of Adelaide’s many first-class restaurants, it offers an adventure in exotic native ingredients with a 20-dish degustation including the likes of ‘emu, plum pine and mountain pepper’, and ‘brush cherry, native honey and green ants’.
WOW further afield
The famous Barossa and McLaren Vale wine regions are less than an hour from Adelaide, and an easy day-trip.
However, these havens of vale, vine and village are certainly worth more time.
Take a room in a B&B, farmstay or luxury retreat and spend your days tasting wines at the homes of names like Jacob’s Creek, Henschke and d’Arenberg.
Alternatively, let a wine-savvy tour guide take you deeper into the country lanes – your chance to discover some trophy-winning boutique producers.
Kangaroo Island is -regarded as one of the world’s great wildlife destinations, and it too is within an hour of the city – just a short 30-minute flight from Adelaide Airport, or a one-hour drive plus a 45-minute ferry crossing.
The island is huge, some 100 miles across, and a full third of it is national park.
Spared the damaging effects of rabbits and foxes, the native Australian wildlife has thrived and is easily seen: take a guided walk among sea lions basking in sublime Seal Bay, watch the native kangaroo subspecies grazing in the paddocks at dusk, or find koalas in avenues of lofty eucalyptus trees.
If you’ve got the time (and patience) you can even go on special tours to find the elusive platypus.
Out there WOW
So now it’s time to go the distance.
Eyre Peninsula is a far-flung piece of country shaped like a tooth. You reach it after three hour’s driving north of Adelaide, but this is just the beginning: ahead of you is some 1,300 miles of coastline, complete with golden beaches, dramatic cliffs and big seas.
Eyre is also home to big sharks, indeed the great whites off the Neptune Islands were big enough to provide live-action footage for Jaws.
You can get your own footage of 15-foot monsters on cage-diving cruises which sail from Eyre’s adventure capital, Port Lincoln. Still on Eyre, gorgeous Baird Bay offers a gentler experience – it’s one of very few places in the world where you can swim with dolphins and seals in the same body of water.
Which leads us into Australia’s fabled outback.
The outback is not actually a place but a generic term, something like America’s ‘wild west’ or ‘the back of beyond’.
There is no border to it, but you certainly know it when you’re in it. South Australia has some of the most easily accessed – and most dramatic – outback in Australia.
A four-hour drive north will see you into the Flinders Ranges, a vast and geologically ancient landscape of massive horizons and mind-altering isolation.
By the time you reach the tiny outpost of Hawker, you’ll get your first glimpse of the ramparts of Wilpena Pound – the ‘walls’ of a strange 10-mile wide saucer of uplifted rock.
Wilpena is actually the eroded stumps of ancient Himalaya-sized mountains and has meant many things to many people: to European rustlers, it was the perfect place to hide stolen cattle; to the Adnyamathanha Aboriginal people, it was a sacred place formed from two giant serpents, as well as a meeting point for other tribes wanting to trade for ochre; to paleontologists, the ancient rocks hereabouts were vital in providing clues to when the earliest life on earth was formed.
For different perspectives spend a full day climbing from the shady creek-beds at the foot of Wilpena Pound to St Mary Peak: this lofty and utterly isolated pinnacle at 3,800 feet will have you looking down into the Pound and pondering all sorts of profound questions.
Alternatively, take the easy option and do a scenic flight: rarely will the planet have appeared so awe inspiring and timeless.
Base yourself at one of a number of Flinders retreats, like Wilpena Resort, Rawnsley Park Station and the fabulous 1906 outback pub, the Prairie Hotel. All of them have cool, evocative spaces to relax with a cold beer after your outback adventures. After so much WOW, you may need it.
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways begin daily flights into Adelaide from May 2016. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).
Major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.