From bush to beach, South Australia’s unique experiences attract thousands of visitors each year – but there’s more to our top tourist attractions than you might think.

family inside a cave

South Australia is rich in beauty spots and world-famous for its food and wine. But the state is more than that, boasting many natural and scientific wonders that can be found nowhere else on Earth. We’ve picked a few that could add a sense of wonder to a truly memorable trip.

Naracoorte Caves

Located in the Limestone Coast region of South Australia, Naracoorte Caves National Park is the state’s only World Heritage-listed site. Its underground network of limestone caves contain vast bone deposits that preserve “time capsules” of the past half a million years.

Here you can see everything from the giant kangaroos and marsupials that roamed the Australian bush until their demise around 45,000 years ago, to giant lizards and an extinct five-metre snake. In all there are about 20 species of these giant animals scientists call megafauna, including the 2500kg Diprotodon, whose closest surviving relatives include wombats and the koala.

“Sediment deposits accumulated undisturbed over hundreds of thousands of years and contain the remains of thousands of animals,” says palaeontologist Dr Liz Reed from the South Australian Museum. “Naracoorte caves developed around about a million years ago, forming entrances to the surface over thousands of years which became receptacles to build these archives of sands and animal remains. So they’ve faithfully recorded the past for us in these underground libraries.”

For scientists like Reed this unique experience provides research possibilities to address today’s problems. “Because these animals aren’t so far removed from modern times as dinosaurs, we are essentially studying modern Australian fauna with some extinct animals among them,” she says. “They are really relevant to tackling questions about climate change, extinctions, and patterns of animal response to habitat change – those sorts of pressing questions.”

The Oodnadatta Track

Stretching more than 600km in the northeast of South Australia, the Oodnadatta Track runs from Marree in the south-east to Marla in the north-west and is one of the Outback’s most iconic trips.

The track connects a series of “mound springs”, which look like little volcanoes in the desert, bubbling water up from the Artesian Basin. For hundreds of thousands of years these springs have provided life-giving water, first to Aboriginal people who used the track as a trading route, and later to explorers and pastoralists. The mound springs are also unique islands of biodiversity.

“At last count – and it might’ve gone up – there are 50 species that are found only in these mound springs,” says Flinders University Professor Mike Lee, who is also senior researcher (paleontology) at the South Australian Museum. “And many of them are unique to a single mound spring because they have stayed isolated for so long. There’s snails and shrimps only found in this one habitat literally the size of a swimming pool.”

And, of course, the springs are fantastic for bird watchers. “Every bird within hundreds of square miles, if that’s the only water, boom, they’re going to go there,” Prof Lee says. “You’ll get all rare water birds as well as land birds side-by-side, which you wouldn’t under normal circumstances, because they’re all spread out.”

Emu Bay

Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island to the south of Adelaide is prized by holiday-makers for its beautiful beach and four-and-a-half kilometres of clean white sand. But to scientists it represents vital evidence of the development of life on Earth.

The shale there has preserved minute details of early animals – both those with and those without skeletons. Because of the unique conditions, Emu Bay fossils preserve not only body outlines but also gut contents, appendages and even eyes in a quality that looks almost alive.

The animals lived there during a period called the Cambrian, which began about 512 million years ago – a unique snapshot of one moment in development of life on Earth. “We now see that most of the animals here fall into some of the groups we know today,” says palaeontologist associate professor Diego Garcia-Bellido. “But there’s also some forms that don’t fit into any of those groups. That’s one of the attractive things about the Cambrian. We’re looking at fauna that are so early in animal evolution that some of its members did not belong in any of the classes that we see today.”

The landscape would’ve looked very different too. At the time, there was only life in the oceans and none on land. Kangaroo Island would not have existed and the area would have been shallow water, slowly being filled with erosion from the continent behind it.

We know that it was loosely connected to the ocean – what is now the Great Australian Bight – because scientists see some animals that have come into the basin. “At the time, when there are no plants, any intensive rain would have produced a lot of sediment run-off into this shallow basin,” Garcia-Bellido says. “We think that Emu Bay could have been at about 40 to 60m deep.”

Adelaide’s mining heritage

Most Australians probably don’t realise that an Adelaide suburb was the birthplace of the country’s mining industry.

The first mines were at Glen Osmond, where prospectors discovered silver and lead in 1841.

The first gold mine commenced at Montacute in the Adelaide Hills in 1846 – five years before the discovery of gold in the eastern states and only 10 years after the South Australian colony was founded. The surrounding area is now a conservation park with walking tracks and hikes.

“The colony was struggling financially and the government was very happy for people to look for deposits, to help add some money to the coffers,” says Ben McHenry, South Australian Museum senior collections manager for earth sciences.

The early days of mining were also a golden age for eccentric characters. One of the best-known was Johannes Menge, “the father of South Australian mineralogy”. Born in Germany, he arrived in the colony in 1837 to work for the South Australian Company as a geologist. But the irascible Menge soon parted ways with the government and headed north to what is the Barossa Valley which he believed would be rich in gold. He ended up living as a hermit in a cave, which is still there on the banks of Jacob’s Creek.

Coober Pedy

A trip to Coober Pedy is a journey back in time 100 million years to a landscape that was once the bottom of a giant inland sea teeming with life, including giant marine reptiles. The extraordinary geological history of the region preserved this life in Coober Pedy’s most famous export – turning the bones of ancient creatures into glittering fiery opal.

It works this way. Opals form as water runs down through the earth, it picks up silicon dioxide from sandstone, and fills cracks in the rock. When the water evaporates, it leaves behind the silica gem – a rock opal. But when the water fills the space left behind by a decomposing animal, the opal forms to fill the space like a giant natural mould.

South Australia is known as the opal capital of the world – 80 per cent of global output comes from here. Not only is Coober Pedy worth a trip for the opal and opalised fossils, but also to experience the unique lifestyle of the miners who live underground to escape the searing summer heat in this Outback town.

Flinders Ranges

The Flinders Ranges is the jewel in the crown of South Australia’s Outback experience and rich in scientific and anthropological artefacts. In many places the earth here has been twisted on its side, meaning we can see the geological ages laid out before us horizontally.

Driving along the Brachina Gorge geological trail, for example, you pass through 130 million years of history and geological events that led up to the origins of marine animals in the oceans of the world.

Here visitors can see the specific site marking the beginning of the Ediacaran period – the first new geological period to be named anywhere on Earth for more 100 years, and the only one based on Australian geological evidence.

Fossils from this period, which ranged from 635 to 541 million years ago, show organisms that although very successful at the time, did not survive to the next geological period, the Cambrian. They still are a mysterious link to the very beginnings of complex life on Earth.

Pictured, Naracoorte Caves

This article originally appeared in Future Adelaide