Port Augusta, dubbed as the "Gateway to the Outback", is also known as the "Crossroads of Australia", being situated the major east-west highway connecting Perth and Sydney, and also the north-south highway connecting Adelaide and Darwin. It also lies on the routes of both the Indian-Pacific and the Ghan. Consequently it is said that most people visit Port Augusta on their way somewhere else.
Port Augusta is a town of about 20,000 people 300km from Adelaide at the top of the Spencer Gulf. It is at the start of the Stuart Highway to Darwin, and the Eyre Highway towards Perth. The Ghan and the Indian Pacific both stop here.
Premier Stateliner have a coach terminal, with coaches between Adelaide, Whyalla and Port Lincoln stopping here. Greyhound stop here on their trips from Adelaide toward Alice Springs and Darwin.
Spencer Gulf (only a few hundred metres wide at this point) divides the west and east of the town with the city centre and main commercial street on the east side with its commercial buildings, banks, shops, supermarkets and small malls.
Wadlata Outback Centre: A step up from your average country town museum, the Wadlata Outback Centre is an interesting exploration of the Aboriginal and European history of outback Australia. Restored railway carriages, interactive exhibits, and several movie productions. Allow at least an 90 minutes to experience it.
Water Tower: The old town watertown that has been converted into a lookout and has some great views of the town. Walk the four flights of steps to the top. In the west of town, just over the bridge, turn left and look out for it.
Wharf Precinct: Port Augusta used to have six commercial jetty wharves, and the main street of town looked down to the wharfs. The finger wharves were replaced by a parallel wharf in the 1950s, and the town's use as a port continued. That view is now unfortunately obscured by a supermarket, and the wharf is no longer a commercial wharf, but a recreational precinct. Just behind Woolworths.
Arid Lands Botanic Garden: As you enter the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens, the first thing you will observe is that nothing changes. It is just the same low level cover over red sands that you would have experienced during the drive there. After you get over this initial amusement, drive to the visitors centre and spiral out through the gardens, and you will see why this is an award winning and unique place. The various types of plants you have been driving past are classified, with interesting interpetive signage about their uses by the Aboriginal and early Europeans. Displays on how to set up an arid garden too. The gardens are open until sundown, the visitors centre is open until 5pm, and admission is free.
Located at the end of Shack Road, about 23km from town centre, this area was once overrun with 4wd tracks, and overgrown with weeds. The area has now been rehabilitated by local residents, and is a great spot for a picnic, or for some birdwatching. Spot the Mulga Parrot, and a few emu and kangaroo. The trip along Shack Road is interesting in itself, to see all the signs to the houses that line the water.
Pichi Richi Railway
Take a ride back in time on the Pichi Richi Railway, an historic train (sometimes steam, sometimes diesel train) that runs on a section of the original Ghan railway line in the Flinders Ranges between Port Augusta and Quorn. It is one of Australia's most famous tourist railways, heading through the picturesque Pichi Richi Pass. If you are visiting this region, it is worth timing your visit around the day that it operates. Services usually operate on Sundays during school holidays and usually once a month on a Sunday in the winter months outside of that time. Check the website for a timetable. Some services depart from Port Augusta railway station (the same as the Indian Pacific/Ghan station), others depart from Quorn's historic railway station. While you are in Quorn, take a walk around the historic rail yard.
Quorn (39 km northe-wast) is a historical railway town and the first major stop of the original Ghan great northern railway, which travelled through the desert from Port Augusta to Alince Springs in the Northern Territory. At Quorn, you can ride the Pichi Richi from March to November; visit Warren George to see the Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby; climb Mt Brown or hike on the Hysen Trail to Dutchmen Stern.
The town's buildings have made Quorn a popular location for feature films and commercials. The first one was Bitter Springs, filmed in nearby Warren Gorge in 1949. It starred Chips Rafferty, Tommy Trinder, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, Michael Pate and Gordon Jackson. The Hollywood movie, The Sundowners, which starred Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov and Chips Rafferty, was filmed at Quorn in 1961.
Other films shot here include Kangaroo (1953), starring Peter Lawford, Maureen O'Hara, Chips Rafferty; Sunday Too Far Away (1975), starring Jack Thompson, Reg Lye and John Ewart, was filmed in the Flinders Ranges near the town with Quorn and Peterborough both featuring in it. The 1986 TV mini-series, The Shiralee, starring Bryan Brown and Rebecca Smart; the TV mini-series The Last Frontier; a youthful Mel Gibson was filmed at the same hotel, running down the stairs and onto Railway Terrace in a scene in the movie, Gallipoli. Many of the town's historic building had supporting roles in the film. Russell Crowe also filmed his Gallipoli movie, The Water Deviner, in and around Quorn.
Whyalla (76 km south) is South Australia's second largest city and once a major industrial force with an iron ore smelter, steel rolling mill and shipyard. It is a large, sad sort of place that has spent many years struggling for survival, reddened, like a bruised eye, by the iron ore which is blown over the city from the steelworks.
Whyalla Maritime Museum is an ideal starting point for any visit to Whyalla. The museum has an excellent and comprehensive display, combines a history of local shipping (through models, photographs and audio visual displays) with a guided tour of the 650 tonne corvette HMAS Whyalla (the first ship built at Whyalla) and a huge model railway display.
Originally known as Beautiful Valley, Wilmington (43 km south-east) is nestled in a lovely part of the Lower Flinders Range, surrounded by highly productive rural holdings. It is a popular place to stay due to its proximity to the tourist areas of the region, most notably Wilpena Pound. It also borders the Mount Remarkable National Park; Alligator Gorge is a 10-minute drive from Wilmington. When in town, visit the Wilmington Toy Museum, Sansouci Puppet Museum, and take in the views from Handcock's Lookout over Spencer Gulf, and the Mt Maria Walking Trail.
Alligator Gorge, within the Mt Remarkable National Park, offers some of the most spectacular and colourful rock formations in the Flinders Ranges.
Melrose (67 km south-east) is a small township at the foot of Mt. Remarkable, which has many historic buildings. Melrose proudly declares itself the 'oldest town in the Flinders Ranges'. Melrose is a quiet and attractive town nestled below the Flinders Ranges. There are many interesting historic buildings in town and the area around the town is ideal for bushwalking.
Mt. Remarkable is a popular destination for bushwalking and camping, the dramatic gorges, walking trails and diverse wildlife are just the beginning of its appeal. The park features the 960m high Mount Remarkable Summit which can be reached along the Mount Remarkable Summit Hike from Melrose, providing impressive views of Willochra Plain and Spencer Gulf. The walk from the Melrose Caravan Park at the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill takes around 4-5 hours return. The effort is rewarded but this is not an easy walk.
Iron Knob (70 km south-west) is an iconic iron ore mining town in the heart of a semi-desert area, which today struggles not to become a ghost town. The Iron Knob mine is widely recognised as the first commercial iron ore mine in Australia. It was first exploited by Mount Minden Mining in 1880. BHP took over the lease in 1896 and started mining in 1899 when their smelters at Port Pirie required ironstone as a flux to smelt the silver-lead ores from Broken Hill. At the time, and really until the discovery of the huge iron reserves in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the Iron Knob deposit was the largest in Australia.
The settlement is a shadow of its former self even though the Iron Monarch pit was re-opened in 2012 and ore was once again transported to Whyalla. Iron Knob tourist centre and Mining Museum is about all there is for visitors to see in the town, but it is well worth a visit. The enthusiastic locals who man the place are eager to share the story of their town and the history of iron ore mining in the local region, and conduct mine tours.