Home » Towns » South Australia » Port MacDonnell, SA

Port MacDonnell, SA

Southernmost town in South Australia which describes itself as the 'Southern Rock Lobster Capital'.

Port Macdonnell, a port and holiday resort, is the southernmost town in South Australia. It is surrounded by dramatic coastline and attractive parklands. Nearby is the cottage at Dingley Dell where Adam Lindsay Gordon, one of Australia's most famous 19th century poets, lived. Visitors come to the town to enjoy the exceptional lobsters which are caught by the local fleet and to walk the coastline which, particularly near the Cape Northumberland lighthouse, is rugged and isolated.


Port MacDonnell is located 466 km south east of Adelaide via Murray Bridge and Kingston S.E.


Origin of Name

Port MacDonnell was named after Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell who was the Governor of South Australia from 1855-1862. The town officially became a port on 4 April 1860.


Things to See and Do

Stories of Port MacDonnell
There is an unusual brochure (it can be downloaded at https://www.dcgrant.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0033/394395/Stories-of-Port-MacDonnell.pdf) titled Stories of Port MacDonnell. It provides detailed information on the Customs House, the historic cemetery, the Woolwashes, rugged coast, sea wall, German mine, water tank, SS Tenterden, lighthouse, jetty and breakwater.

Customs House - Public Buildings Complex
Located on the corner Standish Street and Sea Parade, the Customs House building combines a police station, court house, post and telegraph office and residence, and a customs house. It was constructed in 1863 for £2605. Substantial additions were added in 1874 and 1938. The buildings were made of stone with slate roofs and were built by F. Reynolds of Port Adelaide. Over the years it has changed significantly. It was used as a police station until 1958.

German Mine
Located in the grounds of the Customs House on Sea Parade, is a German Mine which floated into Port MacDonnell on the high tide on 26 October 1943. The mine caused such local alarm that a number of houses at the eastern end of the town were temporarily evacuated. The mine was first sited by a Mr Hammond about half a mile from the shore. He reported it to the local constable. It eventually floated ashore in the afternoon. The mine was covered with barnacles and seaweed. It was destroyed on Wednesday morning by a naval demolition party from Adelaide. It weighed nearly 0.25 tonnes.

Port MacDonnell Jetty
The first jetty at Port MacDonnell was constructed in 1860-1861. A shed for a lifeboat was added in 1863. The State Library website (see https://www.samemory.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?c=2590) records: "Initially the jetty was 244 metres long, but the townspeople immediately petitioned for an extension. By 1863 it was 305 metres, giving a depth of 2.1 metres at low tide. Prolonged negotiations were undertaken and by 1885 the jetty was 323 metres." By the 1930s the jetty was in disrepair and it wasn't until the 1970s that the state government built the 1,565 metre breakwater. In 2015 restoration works on the jetty, at a cost of $650,000, updated the integrity of the structure.

The Lobster Fisherman
Located near the Jetty is a bronze statue of a fisherman holding a large lobster. It was designed by Sydney-based sculptors, Gillie and Marc who have described the work as "an opportunity to create a feature sculpture for the Port MacDonnell Waterfront. The artists were successful with their design of a life-size bronze figure of a fisherman returning from sea with a freshly caught southern rock lobster. The sculpture commemorates not only the Lobster fishing industry of the area, which is known as Australia’s Rock Lobster capital, but also the local community  and industry of fisherman." For more information check out https://gillieandmarc.com/products/yesterday-will-never-be-forgotten-2.

Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum
Located at 5-7 Charles Street, the Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum has been open since January 1990. The museum tells the story of the shipwrecks along the coast. Of particular interest is the story of the Admella, which was shipwrecked on the Carpenter Rocks in 1859 resulting in the death of 89 passengers. The museum contains a model of the steamer, together with its signal cannon and bell. The exhibits include information about the local rock lobster industry; the historic importance of the port; the early boat making industry; and information about the 30 vessels which sank along the local coastline. The Maritime Museum is part of a community complex that also houses an exhibition gallery and a public gallery. It is open Monday - Thursday 9.00 am - 5.00 pm, Friday 9.00 am - 8.00 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10.00 am - 4.00 pm. Tel: (08) 8738 3000 or check out https://www.mountgambierpoint.com.au/attractions/port-macdonnell-district-maritime-museum.

The Mural on the Maritime Museum and Community Hall
Located at 5-7 Charles Street, this mural was created in 1999 by Kathy Mabon. The  cost was $8104.75. The whole community was involved. "The west wall of the mural is a panoramic view of the jetty and coastline 100 years ago. The lifeboat shed as seen on the jetty was an essential part of life with crews often risking their own lives throughout its history. The coastline of Port MacDonnell is a treacherous passage with many vessels falling victim to its reefs. The first lighthouse keeper Captain Ben Germein, and his assistant, John Dagwell, are depicted, they were skilful and daring men who charted the unknown depths of the bay and safe passage for ships entering her waters. The southern wall is a collage of the people and the industries of Port MacDonnell in 1900, such as Flint Rock, Feasts Woolwash and Wilkes Bark Mill and Tannery. The Shipping terminal and Blacksmiths have been lost in time but Dingley Dell, the old school with its Bell Tower, the Church and Community Lodge are still used today and the Customs House has been beautifully restored. All fifty four people depicted in the paintings are actually former residents with many of them painted by their descendants."

The Bay Wave
Located on the Riddock Highway just to the north of the town centre, the Bay Wave, as the sign beside it explains, "weighs around 50 tonne and is made of limestone. It took 16 days to cut and prepare the stone for removal. The monolith is the largest piece of stone to leave Stafford and Earl Quarry and was carted to the site in one piece, with 2 cranes lifting the stone into place." The wave and the accompanying giant shells were designed by Ivo Tadic in 2006.


Other Attractions in the Area

Dingley Dell & Dingley Dell Conservation Park
Located on Dingley Dell Road 2 km from Port MacDonnell (it is clearly signposted), Dingley Dell was the home of the famous poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon. It now contains examples of Gordon's work as well as his personal belongings.
In South East Sketchbook the journalist Max Lamshed, who was born in Mount Gambier, wrote of Dingley Dell: 'Adam Lindsay Gordon, the romantic poet, spent some of his happiest and most fruitful years at Dingley Dell. It stood in open scrubland which wattle splashed with springtime gold; where the music of wattle bird, magpie and thrush was never far away, and the growl of the sea came muted from the rocks of Cape Northumberland.
'He took his young bride, the gentle and understanding Maggie Park, to live there, and they were a familiar sight in nearby Port McDonnell (sic). He tall, long striding, with open neck shirt and cord riding pants, dark felt hat with long puggaree; she slight, dainty treading, holding her partner by the shirt pocket to give him a check.'
Dingley Dell was the home of Adam Lindsay Gordon from 1864 to 1867. There is a legend that Gordon won the cottage in a card game from its owner George Randall. Guided tours of the cottage are available. It is open every day from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm and the Conservation Park is open 24 hours a day. For more information tel: (08) 8738 2221 or check out https://www.mountgambierpoint.com.au/attractions/dingley-dell.

Cape Northumberland
Located 4 km west of Port MacDonnell, the route out to Cape Northumberland has distinctive rocky formations including a feature which the locals refer to as the Petrified Forest. "The Petrified Forest has been tested and evidently has been found not to be petrified wood although the locals still know it as the Petrified Forest. Frog Rock, just like Rhino Rock and Captains Head Rock, is believed to be named because they look like a frog, rhino and captain's head. Captains Head is no longer recognisable as the years have eroded its character." They are part of a series of strange rocky outcrops which also includes Camel Rocks, Lobster Pot rocks and the Map of Australia Reef. For more information check out http://www.woolwash.com.au/info.html.

Cape Northumberland Lighthouse
Located 4 km west along Sea Parade from the town, the Cape Northumberland lighthouse has a chequered history. The Port MacDonnell & District Maritime Museum records that: "The first lighthouse was approved in 1856 and completed in July 1857 at a cost of £1837. It was built on an extremely exposed part of the coast, with cliffs falling a hundred feet to the sea on either side of the narrow piece of land on which it was built. It was necessary later to erect a stone wall around the buildings to make it safer for the keepers of the lighthouse. By 1880 this lighthouse was considered unsafe. The rocky area on which it had been built was very friable, and so tenders were called for a new lighthouse. It was operating for the first time in April 1882. Originally there were three stone cottages built near the lighthouse but these were replaced in 1909 by three wooden cottages, two of which still stand near the lighthouse. The stone cottages were removed in 1919.
"Very little remains of the first lighthouse however a stone seat has been placed on the site. It carries a plaque honouring the memory of Captain Ben Germein. He was the first keeper. He also surveyed the harbour, selected the site for the port to serve the district and was involved in rescue attempts for many of the shipwrecks along the coast including the famous Admella and John Ormerod." In March 1936, the power was converted from kerosene to electricity. In December 1972, the lights electric operation was converted to tungsten halogen. In July 1977, the light was converted to automatic. In January 1990, lighthouse was de-manned. The light is 45 metres above sea level and has a range of 21 nautical miles. For more detailed information check out https://lighthouses.org.au/sa/cape-northumberland-lighthouse.

Mount Schank
Located 16 km north of Port MacDonnell, Mount Schank was named by Lieutenant James Grant after a friend, Captain John Schank. It is a remnant volcano which rises approximately 100 metres above the surrounding countryside.  and there is a track which leads to the top and it is possible to descend into the crater of the extinct volcano. The walk from the Car Park to the top and around the edges of the old volcano is of moderate difficulty. There is a map and a fact sheet which can be downloaded at https://www.environment.sa.gov.au/topics/heritage/state-heritage-areas/Mount_Schank. It explains the walks at the volcano: "While some visitors prefer to remain at the volcano's base, the walking track up its western side offers spectacular scenery of the surrounding district, with frequent rest stops along the way. This moderately challenging climb is rewarded at the top with a breathtaking view into Mount Schank's crater. For the more adventurous there is a further track down into the bowl of the crater, and another track that follows its rim. A few hours should be set aside to complete all walk options, and hikers should ensure that they have suitable shoes and supplies."
The Fact Sheet goes on to explain the geology: "The features seen at Mount Schank today are the result of two phases of volcanic activity. The first stage developed a significant scoria cone with an ash ring (maar) to the south and a basaltic lava flow to the west. The later phase created the main cone, which buried the original scoria cone and overlapped the maar. Work by the University of Adelaide Physics Department has dated the original Mount Schank eruption to 4,500 years ago ... The initial eruptions at Mount Schank occurred along a 1,200m long, north-west trending fissure in the underlying Gambier limestone and involved the venting of ash, followed by a lava flow. This fissure is now marked by a line of small scoria cones to the north-west of the mountain. Basalt lava flowed to the west and spread southwards over the flat terrain."

Piccaninnie Ponds
Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park is located 28 km east along the coast near the Victorian border. It is a reed swamp with subterranean springs which is recognised as one of Australia's best cave diving destinations. The South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service notes: "The freshwater rising to the surface under pressure has eroded a weakness in the limestone to form The Chasm. This same process has formed the large underwater cavern known as The Cathedral creating its majestic white walls of sculptured and scalloped limestone ... On land, take a walk along the beach and see the freshwater springs bubbling up onto the sand. There is also a walking trail through coastal wattle and beard heath to the ponds outlet. On the way, view the southern ocean and the lower south east marine park. The walk then leads inland via boardwalks into silky tea-tree and cutting grass to a lookout where views of the wetland and bamboo reed and bulrush can be seen.

Ewens Ponds Conservation Park
Located 10 km north east of Port MacDonnell the Ewens Ponds Conservation Park is a wetland (spring fed limestone ponds) habitat with dense stringybark, blackwood, Christmas bush and orchids. It is known for its ponds which are ideal for scuba diving. The South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service notes: "The channels connect three basin-shaped ponds which are approximately 10 metres deep. The clarity of the water enables plants to grow underwater to a depth of about six metres. Some of these plants are not found growing fully submerged underwater anywhere else in the world." For more information check out https://www.parks.sa.gov.au/find-a-park/Browse_by_region/Limestone_Coast/ewens-ponds-conservation-park. It also has a useful and downloadable brochure on the park.



* Prior to European settlement the area was the home to the Bungandidj Aborigines who lived largely on the produce from the sea.

* Port MacDonnell was first sighted by a European when Lieutenant James Grant, sailing the HMS Lady Nelson down the coast on 3 December 1800, observed the coastline. He named both Cape Northumberland and Mount Gambier.

* The town officially became a port on 4 April 1860. It was named after the South Australian governor, Sir Richard MacDonnell.

* From 1860-1880 it gained a reputation as one of the state's busiest ports (second only to Port Adelaide) shipping the wheat and wool from the local area around the world. Clippers arrived to carry the wheat and wool to England.

* In 1878 Port MacDonnell was not included or extended when rail went from Beachport to Mount Gambier.

* In the 1880s the port became so important that the jetty was extended so it reached 1700 feet into the harbour.

* In 1882 Cape Northumberland lighthouse was constructed.

* Today Port MacDonnell is famous for its lobsters. It has South Australia's largest lobster fishing fleet.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

4 suggestions
  • Hi,
    I’m moving to the area and I wondered – what is the history associated with the Norfolk Island Pines in Port MacDonnell please?

    Wendy Taylor
  • Hi, The Norfolk Island Pines in Port MacDonnell were planted for boats in the old days, if they broke a mast on their boat, they were able to use the straight wood from the Norfolk Island Pines to replace it when in Port.

  • Hi, I’m interested in the origin of the name for picanninie ponds. The name obviously has aboriginal reference – in what context is it used here? I’ve looked for this information on multiple sites but they are all silent.

    Fiona Hiscock
  • James Cook had the same thought about Norfolk Island’s pines. Contrary to Cook’s prediction, it turned out that they were not suitable for masts at all, but very good for boat-building.

    David Tyler