A tour of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula delivers ruggedly beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife and exceptional seafood.
Near-skipping into the 4WD, impatient with excitement, a childhood road-trip memory flashes by. Only this time, I’m not stuffed into my uncle’s three-wheeled Reliant Robin. Nor are we choking in traffic somewhere between London and Brighton to the soundtrack of Quadrophenia crackling from the radio. No, this is luxury touring, in a Toyota Landcruiser. With three other travellers that also just landed in Ceduna, our soundtrack will be conducted by nature.
It’s my first post-lockdown getaway, and I’m pumped to be back on the Eyre Peninsula. Steeped in peace along its rural east and wondrously wild on its western side, it stretches from the head of Spencer Gulf to the Great Australian Bight. And we’re headed towards the Nullarbor, in search of head-spinning vistas and wondrous wildlife.
But why, you may ask, would you go on an organised tour when you could quite easily drive yourself. Well, when you meet the dude that is David Doudle, who refuses to be called anything other than Lunch (there is a story behind that too, but you have to join his tour!), you know this will be no ordinary trip.
Lunch runs Australian Coastal Safaris throughout his vast backyard. And of his many day-trip, multi-day, themed and tailor-made journeys on offer, we’re on the 4-day/4-night Winter Whale-watching and Wildlife Encounter tour. And I love that we’re already in a traffic jam – stuck behind a Rosenberg’s goanna, sunning itself on the highway.
Jetties, lakes, wombats and cakes
Pulling over to Denial Bay’s wooden picnic shelters, chicken salad wraps and watermelon platters appear from the boot. Famished after our 5am starts, we eat in near silence, aside from the splish-splashes from the egrets and sooty oystercatchers spear-fishing along the shore.
Our next stop drops all jaws: the pink waters of Lake MacDonnell. How full this high-saline algae-rich lake gets, determines how vivid its pink waters turn, but we enjoy today’s shy blush. The poker-straight road that divides its pink and blue sides leads to Port Le Hunte. Reaching its Point Sinclair jetty, a plaque reveals the cove’s 1975 tragedy. While swimming out to a fishing boat (wanting to bring a crayfish home to his mother) 11-year-old Wade Shipard was taken by a shark. The fatality led to a shark-proof net that continues to be lowered every summer.
An hour’s drive west takes us to Coorabie Farm: a 50,000-acre merino sheep and grain-growing property, from which, two effervescent characters emerge. Poggy and Deb welcome us to their outdoor bar adorned in ramshackle farming paraphernalia, old rusted Maralinga signs, and a wine bottle collection (with naughty labels!).
“Sit here!” Poggy orders. Pointing to metal chairs that have seen better days — his face riddled in mischief. But we sit, intrigued, around the flames of a roaring fire pit fashioned from an old satellite dish. Poggy then picks up a shovel (the scene from Psycho still seared in my mind) and begins scooping up incandescent coals from the campfire. He tips them directly beneath our seats.
“Now you know what it’s like to have a hot bottom!” quips Poggy. But boy does it work. We happily stay put, roasting our rumps on this chilly outback eve. The laughter that ensues… the drinks beneath the outback stars… the jokes… the rhymes… the songs… and the roast dinner and sticky date pudding, all lead to the highlight of the night.
Nearing midnight, Poggy loads us into his ute. And through his potholed paddocks we steer. And into his torchlight the creature appears. Off goes the engine. A handsome southern hairy-nosed wombat claps eyes with us, standing by its burrow. We hold the stare. My eyes moisten. I’m in love. It’s a moment, a precious encounter, in the middle of nowhere, during a global pandemic. I sleep with a smile on my face…
Molas, raptors and windmills
Within 15 minutes of checking out of our Coorabie cabins, we reach striking dune country that drapes a sandy cape across the back of Fowler’s Bay. Lunch heavily deflates our tyres for us to scale the epic sand hills. Bouncing along, we giggle and groan like Beavis and Butt-Head with every swing, swaying around the dunal plants that embroider the slopes, seemingly to infinity.
Emerging to rugged limestone cliffs layered through time, the mighty Great Australian Bight crashes below. Poignant is the plaque at Point Fowler, in memory of Graham and Aileen Shipard who drowned in the seas below in 1989. The Shipard family certainly met with the wrath of the ocean…
Next up, it’s windows down, as our cameras capture the exhilarating four-wheel-drive along the sandy highway of Scott’s Beach. Fishermen cast their lines as schooling salmon darken the turquoise, while sanderlings scarper between the ebbing waves. Just another day in SA…
Come afternoon, it’s onto Fowlers Bay we go. What was a mid-1800s whaling station is now, thankfully, a sanctuary for endangered southern right whales. Boarding 50ft Asherah, belonging to Rod and Simone Keogh of EP Cruises, we cruise out to Point Fowler. Its strikingly sculpted cliff formations offer near nose-to-nose encounters with Australian sea lions, long-nosed fur seals, pelicans, and pied and sooty oystercatchers. Rock crabs hide between orange ledges as emerald-eyed shags flaunt upon sun-toasted rocks.
Just as a pod of bottlenose dolphins breach the waterline, they become shadowed by an osprey wheeling above. It causes hysteria among camera lenses, but when the hydrophone is lowered into the water, the eerie wail of the humpback silences all gobs and shutters.
Meeting no southern right whales (Fowlers Bay is a calving and nursing site) is soon compensated by the rarest of sightings, sending the crew into a spin. Circling our boat like an inquisitive shark is a bump-head sunfish (mola alexandrine). As the world’s largest bony fish, it can weigh more than 2,300 kilos and grow to 3.5 metres — vertically! Sporting both a dorsal and anal fin, it has a somewhat science fiction-like body. “This is only the third sunfish I’ve seen in 12 years!” says Rod, our now hyped-up skipper. “I thought its fin was a shark!” We realise the privilege of the encounter on the exceptional Eyre Peninsula.
Heading back east, we visit Penong Windmill Museum: a hodgepodge collection of retired wind-driven workhorses. It’s where Bob Oats and Tim Hardy restore and showcase donated windmills typical of the state. The 35-ft Comet, believed to be Australia’s largest windmill, pumped water up to steam trains in its heyday. Its blades capture the fading afternoon rays.
We then pop into Ceduna’s Aboriginal Arts Centre. It’s filled with vibrant acrylic on canvas works from 140 regional artists. Scenes depict everything from bushfires to bush tucker and salt lakes to crabs and constellations — beautiful visuals before we close our eyes bedding down at the nearby Ceduna Foreshore Hotel.
Beaches, boulders and bays
It’s a new Eyre Peninsula morn, and we continue south. Sandy drives are a rite of passage on the peninsula, so we scoot along Perlubie Beach, admiring its brush-thatched shelters where families chill. A loop through Eba Anchorage reveals the most seductive seaside shacks, fronted by holidaymakers unashamedly happy.
A detour inland leads to the striking 1500-million-year-old pink granite Inselbergs of Murphy’s Haystacks, inviting classic Kodak moments. The landscape is quite magical as I sit and listen from the base of a bulbous boulder. A soft wind whistles between the shapely pillars, rousing the grasses of the surrounding fields into a teasing tousle.
Returning to the coast, today’s lofty lunch location outshines all others. We sit, as if eagles in nests, looking down onto the formidable ocean assaulting Talia Beach. Lunch brings out a tray of oysters, and is clearly in his element perched upon this precipitous cliff. So are we, slurping to the burping surf, below.
Now we watch our footing, reaching The Tub. This striking one-time limestone cave has been gouged so ferociously by wave action, its collapsed 60ft-thick roof now rests on the sinkhole’s floor. Skirting the rim is exhilarating.
Nearing Port Lincoln (but still on the west coast) one final vertiginous lookout tops all others. Another tragedy took place at this spot, however. Walking towards the monument of local cray fisherman, Leo Cummings, we can almost guess what it reads. Indeed, the young fisherman lost his life after his boat, the Wangaree, struck reef. Reaching the sheer cliff-face, we look down on a stalwart rock stack being violently bashed by the laundering surf. The panorama hijacks my breath. Humbling doesn’t even cut it.
Tuna, koalas and galahs
It’s our final day, and after a peaceful sleep at the Port Lincoln Hotel, our eyes widen at Winters Hill Lookout. Capturing views of Port Lincoln (Australia’s seafood capital), Lunch points out the tuna and abalone farms of Spencer Gulf. “Tuna is being wild-caught at the moment,” he says, before driving us through Lincoln Cove Marina. Home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest fleet of fishing boats, the marina is a rainbow of colours lined with prawn trawlers and mussel boats.
We enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of The Fresh Fish Place, where marine-scale fishermen drop off their King George whiting, southern calamari and nannygai. A southern bluefin tuna weighs in at 17 kg, and a yellowtail kingfish arrives, with a whopping $1,000 market value. And an octopus is tenderised before us, turning it inside out like a ballerina. We then enjoy impressive pickled, smoked and grilled seafood platters: just a taste of the succulent bounty hailing from this seafood frontier.
Post feast, we drive to Mikkira Station. Originally Aboriginal land, occupied due to its permanent waterhole, it is today a wildlife refuge. It also hangs onto its colonial history after being settled on by a Scottish sheep-grazier in 1839. A framed picture of Adam Borthwick leans against the wall within the family’s old homestead. We view each room’s old stone walls. They’re merely the bare bones of its former youth.
Lunch then walks us to the skeleton of a wall, which may have been a vegetable patch. An old mulberry tree stands bare. Hidden in the foliage behind us is a heart-wrenching plaque where a day-old infant was buried beneath the gums: Lilly May Farrant. 7/7/1879 – 8/7/1879. “The mother, who was the manager’s wife,” says Lunch, “also died after the baby passed away.”
Needling between the she-oaks and melaleucas, we inspect the station’s manna gums. “There were 180 koalas here at last count,” says Lunch. We believe him. Wedged into almost every tree is a ball of grey and white fluff with twitching ears — some in such low forks, we can almost touch them. Of course, we don’t.
At sundown, galahs pass in flocks of flashing pink — squawking their alarm call at the snoozing koalas, while Port Lincoln parrots hogs the hollows. We observe them sat upon the boughs of Mikkira’s fallen trees. Lunch lights a bonfire, marking the end of our trip, then hands out champagne glasses. Partnering the tipples are produce platters of local cheeses and nuts. We chink, and drink, celebrating our magnificent encounters on the wild and wonderful Eyre Peninsula.
The 4-day road safari includes airport transfers from Port Lincoln or Ceduna (the trip can be taken in either direction), National Park entry fees, and all meals, soft drinks and beers and wines. australiancoastalsafaris.com.au
For more great reads on Australia, try these stories:
Reasons to visit BROOME
Is this the best new restaurant in Australia?