Eye of the Eyre


, Travel

Wedged between the Great Australian Bight and Spencer Gulf, the Eyre Peninsula is untouched, uncharted paradise, says Becca Hensley

A shark-tooth chunk of land that protrudes into the unbridled waves of the Southern Ocean, the Eyre Peninsula lies along Australia’s most down-under frontiers – untouched and timeless. Wedged between university chic Adelaide and infinity-evoking Great Australian Bight, it is a spine-tingling wilderness composed of soaring seaside cliffs that are best known as the primary breeding ground for the southern right whale. Driving to the Eyre from Melbourne is a stunning affair, spread across a day and punctuated by breathtaking coastal, hilly and tree-lined views. You can stop over at Port Augusta for a feel of the quaint coastal city, fondly known as the Crossroads of Australia, before the final stretch to the peninsula. As we begin our safari into the Eyre, our guide – David Doudle, founder of Goin’ Off Safaris – steers us purposefully down a bumpy, dusty road that leads to what seems like the middle of nowhere. Watching for kangaroos and other street-crossing animals, we make our way into this stunningly beautiful, untrammelled landscape.

The Eyre Peninsula, documented by Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin in the 19th century, hasn’t changed much over the years. A breathtaking place defined by nature and fuelled by a palpable survivor’s spirit, the peninsula would seem vast and unnavigable without a guide. Yet, people live here — and they thrive, proud of the way their world marches to its own rhythm. Vastly varied, the peninsula seizes your attention with ancient giant outcroppings, rugged ridges and crags, treeless expanses in the Nullarbor Plain, verdant stretches elsewhere, and light-coloured sand dunes that seem to stretch to the skies. Quieter bays and lagoons abound, but also inaccessible beaches, pummelled by angry waves. Giant cuttlefish draw aficionados to some water bodies, as sea lions and bottlenose dolphins flit through other shores and great white sharks, ever ominous, lord over every corner of the sea. Arguably the best oysters in the world hail from these waters and at havens like Coffin Bay one can see how they’re grown — we taste them, plucked right from the water.

The Gawler Ranges, a string of volcanic rock hills more than 1.5 billion years old, set a mood, while feisty towns like Streaky Bay, Port Lincoln and Coffin Bay feature teenagers, grizzled fishermen, tuna and oyster barons, and hearty farmers. Vineyards flourish – most notably Boston Bay – in Port Lincoln too. Our first adventure on the safari involves sea lions. Squeezed into wetsuits, we board a 40- foot vessel and glide across a lagoon in normally limpid Baird Bay. Today, the water is a bit rougher, but we sight osprey and pelicans as we churn through the waves in search of a frisky sea lion colony.

Well-known to the naturalists in the team, these delightful, protected mammals live life in the wild on their own terms. Still, playful and inquisitive, they love to interact with humans. When we find them, the boat slows and they leap around us, poking their heads out from the water like be-whiskered mermaids, beckoning us in. Post haste, we follow the naturalist in charge and leap into the water. We’re told not to touch them, but apparently they know nothing of these rules and prod and poke us with their faces and flit about us like old friends. We end the day tired at vibrant Port Lincoln, sipping Boston Bay Riesling and recharging with chef-owner Kris Bunder’s famous seafood dishes — salt and pepper calamari, and devilled scallops sinfully wrapped in bacon and served with a cream and chilli sauce. The next day, our guide takes us to the airport. But instead of leaving the peninsula, we board an R44 chopper – a light-as-air, four-person helicopter. With the goal of going heli-fishing, we levitate over the bush-land, hovering over Port Lincoln National Park and Coffin Bay National Park. We veer to the peninsula’s far southern point, before swooping along Wanna Beach and its pristine coast. Kangaroos jump and scatter below amid the greenery. In the sea, we see entire schools of salmon clustered together in purple-hued circles that resemble the layered petals of a rose.

At last, our guide glimpses a perfect, secluded beach, sequestered from civilisation by soaring hills of sand, and we land the chopper right by the water. We clamber out, grab some fishing poles and begin casting amid the surf. It isn’t easy — more than once I get drenched by powerful waves and I don’t catch a thing — but it’s fun, not to mention poetic, to look about and see us few humans, a handful of birds and the (anachronistic in this setting) flying machine.

The day only gets better. We tour oyster farms in Coffin Bay, wading into the water, pulling them from baskets, shucking them and then gobbling them up in all their briny glory. We go koala-spotting at Mikkira station and find marsupials aplenty, festooning eucalyptus trees like baubles on a Christmas tree. I caress the back of one, who bleats and coos with delight (I consider carrying one back home, but our guide advises against it). Finally, we picnic on an idyllic crescent of sand, feasting on King George whiting cooked with lemon and salt on a grill. As far as vacations go, it doesn’t get more delightful than this.

The author is a travel writer and the views expressed in this article are her own

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