Plunge into secret Australia
A swim with tuna, dolphins and sea lions is only the start of the adventure on the Eyre Peninsula
Properly wet-suited, I pulled on my mask and slipped into the chilly water of a huge netted open ocean pen and I found myself face-to-face with great mob of bluefin tuna. I’ve been up close and personal with a lot of sea life in my time, but this was the first time I ever swam with sushi.
Two hours later, my next bluefin encounter was just that — hyper-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth sashimi served at Del Giorno’s café overlooking the Southern Hemisphere’s largest commercial fishing fleet at Port Lincoln, South Australia, west of Adelaide. At the very tip of the shark tooth-shaped Eyre Peninsula that bites into the nippy Southern Ocean, it’s a diverse, rugged, pristine and little-known tourism gem, even for Australians.
I’ve spent years in this part of the country with my buddy Jim who grew up here, but neither of us had ever hopped the 35-minute flight west from Adelaide to Port Lincoln. A rural hub of 14,000, we expected a sleepy fishing outpost. Boy, were we wrong. Instead we found chic hotels and bistro menus that listed free range everything and a roll call of abalone, oysters, kingfish, prawns, rock lobster, snapper, and much loved and sought after King George whiting.
All that marine bounty adds up to a most profitable local trade. “Between the tuna barons, abalone license holders and aquaculture folks there’s more millionaires per capita here than anywhere in Australia,” explained our guide, Dave Doudle, a chipper former wheat farmer.
We first considered exploring the Eyre on our own with a rental car, but all but the main roads — including those wild, intriguing routes in the national parks — are sandy or unpaved tracks. So we left the driving to Dave, a chipper former wheat farmer who enthusiastically introduced us to his vast backyard.
As we drove the coastline, the wheat fields on our right were straight out of Saskatchewan while on our left stretched endless Caribbean-calibre white-sand beaches. We started the tour with Port Lincoln’s handful of award-winning wineries. Lincoln Estate’s owner explained he pays the bills with a wild abalone operation, but spends days doing what he really loves, not only making wine that troupes of visiting Chinese and Japanese tuna buyers pair with sashimi, but running an animal park that offers close contact with Aussie creatures from kangaroos, dingos and hairy-nosed wombats to a rockin’ cockatoo who dances to anything by the Foo Fighters.
At the next vineyard, Boston Bay Estate, host winemaker/master chef Tony Ford quipped, “We’re so close to the ocean we have to prune at low tide,” pouring his Great White sauvignon blanc, he went on to explain, “we have a Bordeaux climate with the ocean so close on both sides of the peninsula that temperatures are perfect for grapes”. So perfect, in fact, that Penfolds is looking to plant a vineyard for Australia’s iconic Grange Hermitage. How iconic? Prices for the 2010 vintage start at US$650 and top out north of US$2200.
The next day was all about tuna. We began with the aforementioned swim and sashimi then stopped in at the sleek new Fresh Fish Place, a seafood store/cooking school/restaurant that’s also a processing facility where fisherman drop off their daily catches. The town holds an annual Tunarama Festival that once featured a tuna tossing competition (politically correct plastic ones now substitute) and crowns a Miss Tuna. The lucrative, often cutthroat local enterprises have even spawned two Discovery Channel reality shows, “Tuna Wranglers” and “Abalone Wars.”
Heading to the west coast we walked dramatic beaches and scrambled up silky white dunes in Coffin Bay National Park. We picked up a dozen nationally coveted Coffin Bay oysters and relaxed on the waterfront with chilled wine watching pelicans glide past, kids fishing off jetties and cyclists pedalling the Oyster Trail.
Soon it was time to go koala hunting. At the 600-acre Mikkira sheep station, Bett de la Perelle and her husband restored an historic 1842 homestead and imported four koalas from Tasmania years ago. Dozens now lounge photogenically in the big gum trees, dreamily munching on eucalyptus leaves. Except for the occasional flock of screeching Granny Smith-green Port Lincoln parrots, it was a serene experience as we sipped tea and ate Lamingtons, that popular Ozzie confection made of sponge cake, chocolate syrup, desiccated coconut, strawberry jam and/or cream.
After tea we headed out for our own Outback immersion. Kangaroos hopped by, emus strutted past and a koala “ran” slow motion across the road proving that those koala-crossing signs are not just for funning the tourists.
A couple of hours later, we pulled into tiny Wudinna, 200 kilometres north of Port Lincoln, where Dave introduced us to “a crackin’ bloke,” Geoff Scholz, who piled us into his Land Cruiser and drove us further into “whoop-whoop,” Aussie for “the middle of nowhere.”
At the corner of two sign-posted, red-sand tracks, Rowley and Bartley Roads, he stopped. “The Outback officially starts right here,” he announced. In 1868 Goyder’s Line was drawn across South Australia to mark the limits of sustainable agriculture due to rainfall; the “Outer Regions” morphed into “Outback” which is exactly where Geoff, another ex-wheat farmer, and his wife run Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, an African-style bush camp. After sipping sundowners overlooking a salt lake in the far flung Gawler Ranges, then lingering under a hot rainwater shower, I crashed in my spacious luxury canvas tent beneath a duvet and dreamt of Zambia.
A chewing sound woke me in early morning. Half asleep, I peeked through the mesh window expecting a zebra or giraffe, but a chomping kangaroo startled me back to Australia. More roos sipped at the trough outside the dining tent as we ate breakfast. Then we were off for the day, skidding through white sand, bumping over hard red pan and pebbles. We poked around giant piles of baked dirt marking the entrances to labyrinthine wombat tunnels, a bane to farmers and sheep herders. Geoff spotted a shingleback skink lizard on the track and stopped to pick him up. “We had a yard-long goanna come right into the camp kitchen every day for months,” he said. “We used to call him ‘The Captain’.”
And then there were the mobs of wildlife — the universal Aussie measurement of anything in great numbers. In 35 years of visiting Outback Australia I’ve never seen anything like it, roos to the left of us, emus and brilliant cockatoos to the right, gilded lorikeets and shimmering splendid wrens perched like multi-coloured candles in the gum trees. “It’s unusual that we’ve got three kinds of roos in one area, big Reds, Greys and the less common Euros,” said Geoff. “The EU wanted to call their new currency European Monetary Units, but realized the acronym EMU is an Australian bird. So they named it EURO and learned later it was an Australian kangaroo!”
We arrived just after noon at Lake Gairdner, a blindingly white 160-by-50-kilometre dry lake whose bed is a metre-deep slab of salt stretching to the horizon. Geoff spread a tailgate lunch and we watched wedge-tailed eagles ride thermals as teams of stoked-up vehicles and motorcycles prepared for a weekend of remote madness, salt-lake racing.
For three dry, warm days we awoke to the sounds of magpies and parrots, hiked amid strange rock formations in Gawler Ranges National Park, lingered over picnic lunches, dropped in at sheep stations and strolled through countless small salt pans filled with ankle deep water. Sunset signalled time for a cold beer before darkness set sky ablaze with stars. That’s when Geoff’s hefty telescope came out.
We left early on our last day, heading straight to the west coast, dramatic and rugged cliffs that continued westward towards the stark Nullabor Plain. The trip had started with a critter swim and that’s how it ended at Baird’s Bay, a sheltered natural lagoon where a boat took us out to cavort with playful sea lions and pods of dolphins. As we slipped into wetsuits, our guide strapped on an ankle gadget that emitted electronic noise to keep sharks away, the same as local abalone divers wear. These are not to be confused with the electronic gadgets that chum the waters of Port Lincoln with music to attract Great White sharks towards cages bobbing like wire-mesh teabags and filled with adrenalin-charged divers (we weren’t surprised to learn the sharks have a particular penchant for the beat of AC/DC). We decided against visiting “whities” on their turf, however. If only to avoid becoming someone else’s sushi.
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