For almost 170 years the red and white obelisk at the tourist town of Robe, in SA’s south-east, has been a must-see for visitors.

But, due to coastal erosion, the iconic landmark is at risk of plunging into the water below.

The Robe District Council plans to put together an “erosion adaptation pathway” for the obelisk, and other coastal infrastructure at imminent risk.

The council is set to work with the nearby Wattle Range and Grant District councils – whose coastal towns are also suffering the impacts of erosion – to put together a strategy and apply for funding.

Robe’s obelisk in 1919, 64 years after it was built.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

Council’s concerns

The 12-metre-tall obelisk was built on Cape Dombey in 1855, at a cost of £230, with the distinct red and white stripes painted in 1862.

At first it was a day guide for ships entering the bay, and now is a notable landmark and tourist attraction.

The impacts of erosion can be seen when the obelisk is viewed from the water.(Supplied: Limestone Coast Boat Tours)

Robe Mayor Lisa Ruffell says the council is concerned about the future of the obelisk, and has been for many years.

“The waves keep hitting it, so it keeps undercutting it. So in time, one would think that it might fall in, but we need to look at that,” she said.

Robe District Council chief executive Nat Traeger says while it is expected the obelisk will one day fall into the sea, it will not be clear when until more investigations are undertaken.

“Most things go in timeframes of 20, 50 to 100 years, [but] until we get that strategy in place we’re unsure,” she said.

Robe District Council chief executive Nat Traeger and Mayor Lisa Ruffell say the council is investigating options for the obelisk.(Supplied: Robe District Council)

While council has previously considered the risks facing the obelisk, and in 2012 installed a fence to restrict access, Cr Ruffell says more investigations are needed.

“It needs engineering reports [and] we need to look at it in a big scale, and come back with something for the elected members to decide the way forward,” she said.

“We need to have another look at all this and bring it back to council and say, ‘What do we want to do?’

“Do we want to save it or do we want to just let it fall in [the sea]?”

Robe home owner Richard Angove is passionate about protecting the obelisk.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

Can it be saved?

The Robe community has a strong connection with the obelisk, whose red and white colours feature prominently around town.

Richard Angove’s family has owned a house in Robe and visited the town over three generations.

He met with the council earlier this month to discuss his ideas for protecting the obelisk, including possible engineering solutions.

“I’d like to see it saved and I think that reflects the vast community’s view as well,” he said.

“I think it’s incumbent on council to take the lead on this and do something before it is too late.”

Robe’s coastline about 1940.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

A recent council survey asked participants how they would like to honour the obelisk, with 70 per cent saying an “attractive replica” should be built.

Less popular suggestions included an interactive display, light show, or even a hologram.

“The survey was mostly people in town and that area, whereas now … the 20,000 visitors that come in here, they’ve got the appetite that they want to try and save it,” Cr Ruffell said.

She says a community planning day will be held in March.

This “blowhole” appeared near a walking trail not far from the obelisk.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

Homes at risk

Ms Traeger says the council has been informed Robe’s coastline is eroding at the fastest rate of anywhere in South Australia, putting other sections of the town’s coastline under threat.

“The obelisk is adjacent [to] a walking trail — a coastal trail that circumnavigates most of Robe — and along that trail is some cliff undercutting,” she said.

“Then we have Hooper and Fox beaches, which also have significant erosion to a point where some of the private infrastructure, by way of homes, would be seen as being at risk.”

In 2021, a hole opened up near the walking path due to erosion.

Robe District Council says Hooper Beach is also susceptible to erosion.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

Ms Traeger says the three councils will seek funding through the Coast Protection Board.

“We’re looking at discussions around the next step in that project, which should be taking that data and then putting it into a strategy,” she said.

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