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One of the most unusual features of the South Australia landscape, Piccaninnie Ponds can be viewed along the Limestone Coast. These unusual ponds are relatively small and unusual in that underground springs pour forth copious amounts of fresh water to flood nearby wetlands filled with birds and endangered plants. Boardwalks through the 2,150-acre Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park allow for casual visitors to enjoy the margins of these always-flooded lands and admire the tiny ponds which give them their name. Water lovers enjoy snorkeling across the clear, smallest 'First Pond', and gazing at the many fish and green algae growing along the sides of the bowl-shaped depression.
It is scuba divers, however, who are privy to many of the secrets hidden beneath the surface of these little ponds. The most spectacular sights are hidden deep down in the extreme depths of the waters connected to First Pond. Rumors of a bottomless lake first led divers to the ponds many years ago. Early dives confirmed that the unique hydrology of this karst (eroded limestone) drainage system led to great depths and unusual diving terrain. The system has not been completely mapped, but the deaths of several divers caused the government to place limits on diving: only certified cave divers may obtain the permit to scuba dive here. The diving community places extra restrictions of how dives should be performed to encourage safety. Although First Pond is only about 33 feet deep, a natural rift drops off to over 130 feet and leads to a connected pond called the Chasm which has been explored to about 200 feet deep. An underwater tunnel leads to a third pond below ground that reaches depths of more than 130 feet, called the Cathedral. The Cathedral is completely underground and can't be seen from the surface, but is likely connected in some way to Turtle Pond.
Originally inhabited by the native Buandig people, Piccaninnie Ponds were originally called Piccanninnie Blue Lake as early as 1896 (note: with two 'double ns'), possibly in reference to the larger Blue Lake in the extinct volcanic crater of Mount Gambier about 20 miles to the northwest. The name Piccaninnie, colloquially designating a small African child, is derived from the Spanish word, Pequeno, meaning small. The area surrounding the ponds was originally pasture lands, with overflow from the ponds keeping the margins perpetually moist. In 1969, the area was declared a National Park and upgraded to a Conservation Park in 1972. Due to its importance as a wetland area, it was designated a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance. Because some of the original natural drainages have been altered, environmental efforts have made improvements to drainage patterns leading to a reliable, natural exchange of water with the ocean for the benefit of migrating fish and aquatic life. The Piccaninnie Blue Lake Drainage Channel, originally built around 1917, has had water regulation weirs built to control the water and allow the wetlands to be kept wet during dry periods, while also allowing for fish migration from Discovery Bay on the Southern Ocean.
Boardwalks have been built through the cutting grass and silky tea-trees so visitors can enjoy viewing the many species of wading birds, egrets, swans, ducks and many of the nearly 50 threatened species of birds known to inhabit the area. Some of the most noteworthy are the migratory orange-billed parrot and the Australasian bittern. As more of the standing water in southeastern Australia dries up, the birds come here to one of the last places to hold water year-round. The fish in the ponds are also unique in that many are species which spend part of their lives in salt water and the remainder in fresh water. Although the water in Piccaninnie Ponds is extremely clear, it is slightly salty due to the interchange of water with the sea.
It is thought that the water in the Piccaninnie Ponds originates from the unconfined aquifer flowing from north of Mount Gambier to the sea. Water seeping into the Ponds has thus been filtered by many miles of limestone. The water in the Piccaninnie Ponds is saltier than in other nearby sinkhole ponds, so these other ponds are from a different ecosystem.
There are no camping facilities at Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park. However, the Ponds are less than 20 miles southeast of the small city of Mount Gambier. Mount Gambier is well-equipped to entertain visitors and has a wealth of campgrounds, hotels and guest houses ready for occupancy by the many tourists who come to the area on holiday. Formerly a town based on logging, mining and agriculture, Mount Gambier now relies a great deal on tourism. Located about six hours from both Adelaide and Melbourne, Mount Gambier takes its name from the extinct volcano nearby. Wineries and golf courses are located in the area, and the city holds numerous restaurants, art galleries and artisan shops.
The landscape around Mount Gambier has several unusual features. A two-mile walking path around Blue Lake is extremely popular, offering several stunning views of the lake and its unusual hues. An aquifer tour takes visitors down the original limestone shaft in a glass-enclosed lift to view Blue Lake, the source of the city's water. Explanations of the area's hydrology will please the curious, and stories of the area's aboriginal and European past will provide colorful details of the area's history. The Lady Nelson Visitor and Discovery Centre gives visitors information on local attractions. One sight not to be missed are the beautiful gardens planted in the dry Umpherston Sinkhole. Besides being the ideal picnic spot, many like to stay after dark to watch the opossums come out to feed. Cave Gardens is another location with lovely gardens and an attached cave, the depths of which can be viewed from an observation platform.
Although Mount Gambier has a number of mainstream hotels, there are also several bed & breakfasts, a hotel built in the reconstructed city jail (gaol), and RV resorts complete with swimming facilities and playgrounds for the youngsters. Ecology-minded visitors will thoroughly enjoy the many nature preserves and national parks near the city, and divers will be overjoyed to attempt a dive at Piccaninnie Ponds. So bring your binoculars, the bird book, and good water-resistant hiking shores.
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