Our route towards the Eyre Peninsula, at the bottom end of South Australia, took us through an area that was sprinkled with salt lakes – lots of them. They really are an arresting sight; very much reminiscent of a winter wonderland, however incongruent that might seem in soaring temperatures.
It was a novelty that we’d been looking forward to experiencing. However, the lakes themselves are best enjoyed from afar as I discovered after rushing to the shore to take a close look at the pretty salt crystal formations. The ground looks like hard, sun baked and cracked soil, but is in fact deep and very thick muck. Moreover, once walked on, it releases a most unpleasant odour and produces enough suction to hold your feet hostage … while you start retching until somebody (who’s smart enough not to follow you and shall remain nameless) kindly pulls you out, both of us heaving.
But apart from this fetid interlude, the salt lakes were a visual delight, especially with the swathes of vivid purple wild flowers that covered the nearby shrub. How on earth any plant can survive in such a harsh arid and saline environment is utterly amazing.
(And yes, I tasted the soil and the salt crystals – very salty.)
In the end though, we found the salt lake novelty to be a fleeting sentiment, not helped by throngs of bushflies that always promptly arrived as an unwelcome welcoming committee whenever we stepped outside. They sure know how to take the gloss off things.
And thus we tootled on towards Port Augusta, “where the desert meets the Sea”, in anticipation of seeing the ocean again and hoping for a respite from the very high temperatures we’d had for months now.
A breath of fresh Eyre
Port Augusta reminded us of an old proverb … the one that cautions you to be careful what you wish for.
Instead of the usual 40-odd degrees that we’d had for the past few months, the Eyre Peninsula greeted us with a bracing 19°C maximum temperature and a very brisk southerly breeze that made it feel more like 14°C. Very much on the freezing end of refreshing!
The town itself – at a major crossroads – felt like a charmingly confident place right from the outskirts (“Welcome to Augusta. You’ve come a long way. So have we!”). It looked like a picture perfect place with a great mix of beautifully restored heritage buildings and attractive open spaces especially along the riverfront where a cute beach beckoned. While we couldn’t bear thinking about water activities in light of the subantarctic temperatures, it didn’t stop a bunch of budgie smuggler attired swimmers. They sure breed them hardy around here.
The pace of life – and traffic – is delightfully slow (as everywhere on the Eyre Peninsula), people are friendly and the whole place emanates a content and staid vibe. The townfolk’s contentment apparently also extends to their council governance: they’ve kept their mayor in the job for 30 years until his death this year. Maybe they put something in the water. Now that I think of it … it did taste strange!
There’s one other odd thing they’ve got going, and that’s the sound of the local radio station which is being piped through speakers around the entire town centre. Not just music, but all the advertisements, announcements, interviews and news. It might have been just us, but it felt plain weird with overtones of Stepford Wives.
We decided to circumnavigate the peninsula in a clockwise fashion, taking in various National Parks, and starting with the relatively milder east coast to minimise the climatic shock that was no doubt in store for us. But as we were to find out, it’s either cold and windy, or warm and windy, or – infrequently – windstill and flyblown.
We learned to like the wind.
After getting blown about in beautiful secluded camping spots in Fitzgerald Bay where we stayed amidst rare shingle dunes (we never even knew such a thing existed) and around the iron ore mining town of Whyalla, a real highlight was the area around Port Gibbon where fabulous sand dunes beckoned. Truckie got us into the midst of the dune landscape (thankfully also out again!). We camped there for a few days surrounded by sandy awesomeness, with nobody around for miles. Nobody, that is, apart from regular visitors of the reptile persuasion.
We must have booked the wildlife encounter option because snakes, lizards, dragons and their scaly mates put in frequent appearances. On that note, I’d like to point out that, despite having been a bit of a scaredy cat as far as these creatures are concerned, I’ve become surprisingly comfortable in their presence. Whereas I would previously run the other way, I now enthusiastically approach them, armed with our compact camera. Although, I do make an exception for snakes. Sometimes distance is king.
Port Lincoln at the bottom of the peninsula is another pretty town; one that also felt quite prosperous; probably on account of the booming fishing and aquaculture industries (including many massive tuna farms) which dominate the town and the harbour. We were already salivating in anticipation of sampling some of the superb seafood that the area is famous for. But having visited the major fish shops and seafood wholesalers, we were underwhelmed by the range, quality and price of what’s on offer. Sorry Australians, but New Zealand totally kicks your arse in the seafood department.
above: Lincoln National Park
Wildlife, oysters and happy campers in Coffin Bay
We loved Coffin Bay. It became our Eyre favourite and we quickly got over its morose sounding name which actually has nothing to do with one’s last piece of furniture. For the record, Matthew Flinders named it after his naval officer friend Isaac Coffin who helped him prepare for his voyage to Australia.
As a long isthmus – surrounded by National Parks, conservation reserves and the Southern Ocean – it’s a superbly peaceful environment with amazing flora and fauna, and pretty bays. Though from what we gather, the peace and quiet we so enjoyed is replaced by hustle and bustle during the holidays. The large number of holiday houses that dot the landscape bear witness to the holiday influx when the population swells from 300 to 5000.
We explored the area for a while and found ourselves a bunch of beaut’ waterfront camping spots (including some “secret” spots that generous locals shared with us), typically in the illustrious company of emus, red kangaroos, goannas and their ilk. After being visited by an emu family (one adult with four chicks) we became especially fond of those large birds which roam here in plentiful numbers. But despite their fluffy and somewhat amusing appearance (their entire bottom flounces in an entertaining fashion when they run) their size actually makes them pretty impressive in a face to face encounter. Having to look up to make eye contact is, well, a tad unsettling for recovering city folk like us.
However, I’m taken by their social policies, specifically the fact that Mr. Emu does the child rearing. The ladies nonchalantly deposit their eggs in the best looking nests and let the blokes take care of the rest. Alan, an ornithologist we chatted with, told us that some of the popular emu caregivers end up with a whole heap of eggs in their nests. And the super charismatic ones sometimes even add additional chicks to their flocks. He told us of one local emu that currently looks after a flock of 16 chicks which he assured us was quite a sight. What a legend! Feathered Father of the Year, right here.
On the crustacean end of the animal spectrum, the Bay is highly regarded for their world-renowned oysters which are extensively farmed in the pristine waters here. Notwithstanding our erstwhile seafood disappointment, and despite neither of us being card holding oyster aficionados, we sampled a dozen freshly shucked molluscs – right on the picturesque foreshore with the oyster banks within spitting distance. Well, much to our delight, it was a festival for our tastebuds! The oysters were indeed superb in every respect, the freshness no doubt being a major factor.
The wild west coast
The Eyre Peninsula basically consists of a coastline and an interior filled with vast wheat fields. All of it rather thinly populated, especially along the west coast where there are only a few small settlements including Venus Bay which actually turned out to be basically just a weird collection of ramshackle buildings. Nothing at all like what the alluring name conjured up for us.
But apart from this minor disappointment, we adored the pristine coastline, fringed with low Mallee scrub, dense undergrowth and fabulous array of succulents. It all looked quite amazing – peaceful and totally wild at the same time. It felt like we’d stepped into a “Wild South” documentary, complete with wild weather. Accordingly, we didn’t mind the obligatory lengthy gravel road detour to check out a sea lion colony that made a windswept headland on Point Labatt their home. It was well worth it. (You never know when you might be asked about the difference between sea lions and seals.)
Above: Sea lions lying about – Point Labatt
With oodles of bird species on the peninsula, the birdlife here is obviously prolific and has given us much enjoyment. As a budding bird fancier (blokes of course are born with that gene) I’ve become fond of trying to imitate various birdcalls; with mixed results. On one occasion, we had a couple of large Pacific Gulls on the rocky shore right where we were camped. As we walked towards them, one started screeching at us, which prompted me to practice that particular call, in a tit-for-tat fashion. It transpired that the bird was looking after its two fluffy chicks and most likely told us to get the hell out of her nursery. When I reasoned that by mimicking her call, I had probably impolitely impersonated her directive, the bloke had the good sense to suggest a swift retreat. Over the next day I decided I ought to make peace with the bird and thought some left-over rice noodles might do the trick. “That might not be the best idea,” the bloke cautioned and asked if noodles were in fact part of their natural diet. But I was undeterred by such details; a woman on a mission. Noodles in hand I headed across the rocks, approached Mama gull and told her in what I thought were soothing gull sounds that I came bearing a peace offering.
Regrettably, something was lost in translation.
The cranky Mama gull snubbed me and took off very briefly, only to return with a bunch of bad tempered friends, all seemingly hell bent on scaring the living daylights out of me. They repeatedly dive bombed me in a tight formation while all I could think of was escaping unharmed. A scary experience for somebody who was left traumatised by Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.
I’ll have you know that Pacific Gulls have a 1.5m wingspan and with sharp red-tipped beaks they become decidedly fear inspiring in a close combat situation.
I obviously lived to tell the tale, but was lucky I escaped without requiring a change of underwear and only a bruised ego.
On reflection it’s admittedly a feeble wildlife scare, especially as it happened in the same week that two people came off second best in altercations with white pointer sharks. But thanks to my policy of avoiding swimming in anything that doesn’t have lanes, I’m probably safe from Jaws. Just need to look out for angry birds.
The Peregrine Falcon below wasn’t quite so angry … but kept an eye on us all the same. On the upside, I got a photo of its undercarriage.
A change of direction
With some rather wild and woolly weather around us, we made our way towards the fishing and holiday town of Streaky Bay at the western top of the peninsula. The first thing we inadvertently stumbled across right after we arrived, was a replica of a 5.2m white shark that was caught in the bay in 1990. At the time it was the largest ever caught on a handline. Quite a feat, landing a 1520kg shark on a 24kg line!
During the long journey from Darwin, we had plenty of time to reflect upon our travel adventure and future. One thing that transpired was that we’d become lukewarm about doing the planned WA loop. For one thing we’d already extensively visited south western WA a few years ago; more to the point though, the distances involved and particularly the timing required overwhelmed us. We simply didn’t fancy it any more. And just like that, the decision was made to head east instead. As the bloke said “Western Australia isn’t going away any time soon. It will be there for another time”. Right on the mark.
With that in mind, we took a right hand turn, and headed East towards Adelaide. Along the way we visited coastal settlements, like Port Germein and Redhill, that had all the charm of yesteryear. In fact, everything we’ve seen of SA thus far seems to have a quaint vibe reminiscent of life in the 70s. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the pulse just seems to beat at a more leisurely pace here. Quaint General Stores that look like they haven’t changed in 50 years are still the commercial hub of local communities … all this, less than two hours’ drive from Adelaide. It’s quite inconceivable how they manage to keep ‘progress’ at bay. Nevertheless it speaks volumes for those communities that they retain their genuinely laid back character.
Even Adelaide, which we dreaded driving into (we almost needed trauma counselling after Sydney), turned out to be a pleasant big city experience. There’s still hustle and bustle, but it’s devoid of the manic pace that normally goes hand in hand with metropolitan life. We wondered if we arrived in the middle of a new Festival of Civic Calm (It’s “The Festival State” after all) but no – that’s apparently how they roll in Adelaide. We didn’t even encounter one instance of aggressive (or ‘assertive’) driving, nor did we witness any whacky lane-changers during rush hour; all of which was like a dose of Prozac when you’re navigating an oversized vehicle through unfamiliar inner city streets. It’s the total opposite of what we expect in any big city, no less during the frantic pre X-mas season; it blew us away.
On our way to explore the Fleurieu Peninsula we zig-zagged through the tourist magnet that is the Adelaide Hills with its attractive heritage villages, pretty gardens, abundant vineyards and various gastronomic enterprises. It’s easy to see why tourists flock here. Yes, there’s a touristy atmosphere, but it’s not as overwhelming as we’d anticipated. There’s a good mix of industries which balances things quite nicely. Overall, there’s an air of cultured contentedness, devoid of the snob factor that often comes with offerings on the sophisticated end of the tourism scale.
Funnily enough, I ended up unwittingly looking – or rather sounding – like a snob (some might say knob) when pronouncing the fabulously named Fleurieu Peninsula. Francophiles will understand my genuine ‘mistake’ of pronouncing it the French way. Well, I should have known better. It’s pronounced Floo-ree-oh, duh! Needless to say, my fancy pants French diction did nothing for me, other than make me a laughing stock. (It opened up the scars of embarrassment I suffered back in the day in Wellington when I asked for directions to Jervois Quay …)
Upwards and onwards.
Some eye candy
Dusky Woodswallow (l) and Petrel (r)