Some of the top tourist attractions around Mount Gambier are either closed or having their lease taken over by the local council. 

The City of Mount Gambier council is not renewing its leases for the operator of the Engelbrecht Cave tours and cafe or for the kiosk and souvenir shop at the Umpherston Sinkhole.

Both sites rival the Blue Lake as the most popular attraction in South Australia’s second largest city.

Jan Coleman will finish at the Engelbrecht Cave on June 27, while Julie Holdsworth is hopeful of running Umpherston’s Kiosk and Souvenirs until October. 

The Umpherston Sinkhole was created through the erosion of limestone.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

City of Mount Gambier general manager of city infrastructure Barbara Cernovskis said the council was “working through” how it would run the sites but they may close briefly.

“We’re not anticipating [Engelbrecht Cave] being closed for any lengthy period of time,” Ms Cernovskis said.

“There will be a short period we’re anticipating just to be able to transition and do … not so much a refurb but to be able to do just some maintenance on the facility before we open up to the tourists — a small interruption is all we’re anticipating.”

Jobs lost in transition

The council took over running the visitor centre at the Blue Lake in 2020 and, since then, it has been closed for some periods or had much-reduced hours. It no longer hosts a cafe.

The Engelbrecht Cave operator said it was a sad end to her 10 years at the helm.

“It’s not the way we wanted it to go down,” Ms Coleman said.

“We had a staff member ready to take on the next tenure, but apparently that’s not happening and so, yeah, my staff have lost their jobs and we’re just sort of getting through each day now as best we can. 

“Staff morale has taken a hit, but they’re still turning up to work enthusiastic and doing their job the best way they can.”

Jan Coleman offers tours at the Engelbrecht Cave in Mount Gambier.(Supplied: City of Mount Gambier)

Ms Holdsworth said she was looking forward to retirement and hoped the council would keep running the Umpherston Sinkhole kiosk well.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen after I leave,” she said.

“I just can only hope after all the hard work I have put into the shop and the tourists that it does continue.”

Tourism Industry Council of South Australia chief executive Shaun de Bruyn said the tourism industry was seeing a lot of older operators retire and younger people start new businesses rather than taking over existing businesses.

He said the Limestone Coast was an “amazing place” with its unusual geology that could be better exploited for tourism. 

“I think the cave experiences that are in and around the Limestone Coast are truly special and it’s such a great experience,” he said.

“It’s something that really the region needs to do further product development to, to provide a range of experiences in which people from outside the area can access and appreciate what is so special.”

Light hitting the bottom of Ewen Ponds helps plants grow that usually are not found under water.(Supplied: Michel Roggo)

Dry weather leads to diving ban

Meanwhile, diving has been banned at Ewen Ponds, south of Mount Gambier, because of low water levels, joining the nearby Piccaninnie Ponds in waiting for environmental conditions to improve.

National Parks and Wildlife Service Limestone Coast manager Nick McIntyre said people going into the water could disturb the bottom and ruin the water clarity.

Both sets of ponds near Port MacDonnell are renowned for their clear water, but one of the driest starts to a year on record and an over-allocation of groundwater has closed the Ewen Ponds for snorkelling and scuba diving.

The Piccaninnie Ponds were famous around the world for their clarity.  (ABC Open: Alyssa G)

“A good winter rainfall accompanied with an increase in water levels and discharge from groundwater into that pond system should result in a higher pond level — that would be great; that’s the ideal scenario,” Mr McIntyre said.

“We would monitor that and then make a decision on reopening and I hope that that would be some time in early spring.”

Time stands still at the visitor centre at the Princess Margaret Rose Cave in far western Victoria.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

Long closure for Victorian cave

The Princess Margaret Rose Cave, just across the border in Victoria, closed to tourists in early 2021 after the private owners retired, amid COVID-19 restrictions that limited cross-border travel.

It was meant to reopen with a new operator this month, but a Parks Victoria spokeswoman said a wastewater treatment system at the site was still in the design phase.

She said lease negotiations were underway for a new operator to take over, a year after the tender was put out.

Stalactites at the Princess Margaret Rose Cave near Nelson.(ABC South West Victoria: Jeremy Lee)

The cottage of the lower South East’s most famous former resident, poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, has been closed to the public since 2019.

New accommodation for the site was announced three years ago, but it is now up in the air pending consultation on the future of the Dingley Dell Conservation Park that began last month.

Get our local newsletter, delivered free each Friday