South Australia is a great driving destination with plenty of beautiful natural attractions, many of which fly under the broader tourism radar.
One of these is the Coorong, a series of lakes and lagoons that stretch from the eastward from the Murray River mouth near Goolwa and are shielded from the Southern Ocean by more than 130kms of giant sand dunes.
This camping, angling, kayaking, birdwatching, sky-watching and touring paradise is less than two hour’s drive from Adelaide and less than seven hours from Melbourne. We ventured out from the latter, albeit with a detour to one of Victoria’s premier gourmet-destinations, the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld.
Our ride for this trip is WhichCar’s Nissan X-Trail Ti long-term review car, which until now has mostly been consigned to urban duties. The X-Trail is one of the world’s biggest-selling SUVs, and Nissan’s biggest-selling model in Australia thanks to its family-friendly practicality and reputation for reliability.
And it’s one of the few popular medium SUVs with genuine all-wheel-drive capability.
Priced at $44,790, the top-spec Ti variant has extra active safety including active cruise control and auto braking with pedestrian detection, and a revised and more elegant interior featuring leather-accented trim, Bose premium audio system, heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats and a panoramic sunroof. All nice things to have when you're spending hours behind the wheel.
The X-Trail Ti is available with a choice of petrol or turbodiesel powertrains, each with a CVT gearbox. Our car has the punchy 2.5-litre petrol and all-wheel drive
With 126kW/226Nm on tap, it has more than enough grunt for such a trip, but its official 8.5-litre/100km combined fuel economy is a little greedier than the 130kW/380Nm 2.0-litre diesel’s 6.0 litres/100kms.
One of my least favourite things about the Nissan X-Trail actually helped make the drive from Melbourne to Dunkeld a more pleasant one.
The antiquated satellite navigation system told me to bypass Ballarat, which seemed a little odd as the last time I went out that way I turned left on to the Glenelg Highway before reaching town.
But there are plenty of exits into Victoria’s biggest inland city, so I indulged the technology for a while before asking my road-trip buddy/wife Jacqui to check the route on Google Maps via her phone as the X-Trail isn’t equipped with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
With both systems running, a digital argument between the Google and the in-built sat-nav ensued that sounded like a passive-aggressive catfight between Kylie and Helen Mirren.
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Ignoring both, we turned off the freeway and mystery-toured it until seeing a sign pointing to Skipton, which I knew was on the Glenelg Highway (B160) that takes you out to the southern end of the Grampian Ranges where Dunkeld is nestled.
This meant experiencing fun-driving roads and scenery that you'd otherwise miss and gave us an opportunity to try out the X-Trail on less than perfect roads, where it actually felt better-suited versus the Western Freeway’s smoother blacktop.
On the motorway, the top-spec X-Trail Ti’s 19-inch wheels generated considerable road noise on coarser surfaces and its active cruise control had trouble settling on the selected speed, which I reckon was due to it sensing cars in adjoining lanes on gentle curves.
But on the meandering C296 heading south-west of Ballarat, Nissan’s popular mid-sized sports utility seemed to be in its happy place. The 2.5-litre petrol engine was more than adequate for negotiating hills or overtaking, and the suspension handled road imperfections well and lapped up bends through charmingly named localities such as Snake Valley (where we dared not stop) and Mount Emu.
For something to take a route that's a little off the beaten track (whether intentionally or by accident), the X-Trail got off to a very good start.
This was by no means the most direct way to South Australia’s Coorong region, located in the state’s south-east, but we had decided to book a night at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel, one of Australia’s premiere gourmet travel destinations.
On a perfect April afternoon, we arrived at the small town in Victoria’s Western District in the shadow of Mt Sturgeon, which stands guard over the town's 700 or so inhabitants.
We’d chosen the Parker Street Project Package that included a night in a Deluxe Mountain View Room and a six-course set-menu ‘Feed Me’ dinner for two, which all up cost $375 for the two of us.
The ground-level room was excellent, with a nice view out through native gardens bustling with indigenous birdlife to Mt Sturgeon that, by the time we checked in, was morphing into silhouette with the setting sun behind it.
The room was everything you’d expect of contemporary five-star accommodation, not least the massive king-sized bed that was Goldilocks perfect and complemented by a good choice of quality pillows. Fussy sleepers, rejoice.
Dinner at the Parker Street Project, the name given to the more casual alternative to the high-end Wickens at Royal Mail restaurant, also lived up to repute. This included a series of magnificently presented small but numerous dishes served by knowledgeable and friendly waiters, with many ingredients sourced locally including from the hotel’s own kitchen garden.
Bound for South Australia
As with a suitcase, you can never repack a car as neatly as before you departed. That said, our luggage and extras including folding chairs and shopping bags filled with supplies were easily swallowed by the X-Trail’s capacious 565-litre boot. Being able to slide the rear seats forward to eke a few extra litres of stowage can definitely be an advantage.
All packed, we head west, but not before doing an interesting tour the Royal Mail’s vast kitchen gardens, which is part of the accommodation package.
We stop again to get fuel in nearby Hamilton – the X-Trail is averaging about 9.0 litres/100km by this point. We push on, staying on the Glenelg Highway, which ultimately ends up at Mount Gambier, but turn on to the C198 at Casterton, whose claim to fame is being the birthplace of the Kelpie dog, though the folk of Ardlethan in NSW will tell you otherwise.
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The dispute comes down to the fact the mother of the breed’s first pup, which was born in Ardlethan, came from Casterton - meaning the bloodline started in Victoria.
But it was the Coorong and not cattle dogs we are heading westward to see, and the undulating landscape of Victoria’s far west flattened out as we cross the border heading towards the South Australian coast from Penola.
One good thing about South Australian rural highways is the 110km/h speed, limit even on single lane roads. The terrain is pretty featureless, though, as we head toward Kingston SE on the coast, via the Princes Highway which meant bypassing Robe.
The active cruise control works better here, co-operating well with the CVT gearbox that manages to find the right revs when negotiating the odd hill or slowing down behind slower traffic – which isn’t always the case in city traffic.
Kingston SE (the SE stands for South East, which is kinda weird because that would mean Kingston proper would be in the ocean) is a sleepy coastal town even during the school holidays. It does have a tourist attraction though, in the form of the Big Lobster that’s the coolest of Australia’s iconic ‘Big Things’ and makes Ballina’s Big Prawn look like a shrimp.
Too early for lobster dinner, we stop for a bite at the local bakery that must be the only such establishment in regional Australia that doesn’t have an award-winning pie or vanilla slice. That said, its sausage rolls should be entered into a national competition.
Jumping back in the X-Trail after a few hours in the saddle feels good. The Ti’s heated, power-adjustable and leather upholstered seats aren’t plush, but they’re comfortable, supportive and afford a good driving position.
We head further north along the Princes Highway, finally capturing a glimpse of the lagoons of the stunning Coorong National Park, which are separated from the Southern Ocean by a 130km strip of sand dunes.
In good times the water flows into the Coorong from the Murray River via Lake Alexandrina, but when the river isn’t flowing strongly, which thanks to drought and irrigation further upstream is pretty much always, saltwater ingress does become an issue.
It’s still incredibly stunning, though, and I wonder why this place isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other great Australian natural wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef, Grampians and Kimberley.
We are soon at our ultimate destination, Meningie on the eastern shore on Lake Albert that, like the lagoons, is also fed from Lake Alexandrina and is at the mercy of the Murray River’s fortunes and flows.
Meningie’s a nice little town that’s more of a passing point for tourists rather than a destination, but it services a vast rural community making it reasonably self-sufficient.
Its west-facing position on the Lake Albert makes for stunning over-water sunsets made all the more alluring by birdlife, including the pelicans that are synonymous with the region – this is Storm Boy country, after all. Squawking corellas do their bit to ruin the ambience, though, especially in the morning.
We stay at the Lake Albert Motel across the road from the lakeside park. It’s fair to say this isn’t as salubrious as the Royal Mail, with a bathroom and fittings from about the same era as ABBA’s last album, but it’s very clean and a bargain for under $100 per night considering the location.
In the evening there aren’t too many dining options still open, so we head to the Meningie Hotel bistro. It’s pretty busy here, but you get served quickly and with a smile. They do great pub grub, particularly the local delicacy, Coorong mullet, which tastes great fried in breadcrumbs.
Woken early by the pesky corellas, we headed along Nurrung Road that encircles all but the north eastern end of Lake Albert and ended up a Long Point, which juts into the glassy lagoon close enough to the dunes to hear the surf pounding on the other side.
The X-Trail is in its element on the white limestone dirt road that leads to the Point, which we had to ourselves for most of the time, apart from the fur seals that use the little jetty to nap and dry off.
Wishing we’d brought fishing rods, we hang around for ages taking in the serenity, before venturing back to the main road and on to Raukkan. This community on Ngarrindjeri land is known for being the birthplace of David Unaipon, a preacher, inventor and author who was featured on the first polymer $50 note along with the town’s sandstone chapel.
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It’s a quiet but welcoming town where you’ll spend much of your time waving back to friendly local tradies in their utes.
Back on the road, we continue in a clockwise direction toward the Princes Highway, which required taking a ferry across the narrows linking Lakes Alexandrina and Albert.
There are a few of these in the area, including along the Murray River at Wellington and Tailem Bend. The short wait would be irritating to locals, but for us tourists it was a quaint way to get across to the other side.
This provides an opportunity to see the bigger Lake Alexandrina, which is vast enough to disappear beyond the horizon.
That evening, we head south a short distance from Meningie to McCallum Point, which has access to the lagoon beaches. The X-Trail’s AWD system (that distributes up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels) allows for moderate off-roading that is sufficient enough to negotiate the wet sand with a bit more confidence than more road-focused SUVs.
The Coorong is a mecca for serious off-roaders, with great fishing and plenty of campsites, but most of the dirt roads in the area are negotiable by normal cars in dry conditions, making it the perfect place for those who like driving around to discover spectacular views.
And the X-Trail proves a great ride to do all this in. It’s probably not my first choice of urban SUV, but it’s a great open-road tourer with enough power, space and off-road capability to let you get to places many of its mid-sized rivals can’t.