EYRE PENINSULA South Australia
A Breath of Fresh Eyre
Top Pic: Camp and coast at Coles Point.
Southern Eyre Peninsula may be best known for its gastronomical seafood delights but the whole region has plenty to offer the adventurous traveller as we discovered on one of our more recent trips.
I stopped the Patrol amongst the dunes, looking for the tall orange sand-pole that would guide me out of the mire. Somehow we had gotten off the marked route through the Sleaford Dunes and with some thick scrub in front of me, and short, soft, sharply banked dunes on each side, I decided to back out and retrace my steps. As it turned out I was just a few hundred metres from a near completely covered sand-pole and with finding that and turning west, we were again back on track.
We were in the Lincoln National Park, south of Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, travelling the ephemeral route along the sweep of sand that borders Sleaford Bay between Wanna and Sleaford Mere. For the most part, and once you have lowered your tyre pressures, it is a fairly easy drive through the dunes and along short sections of limestone rocky track.
The route stays up high above the sea and the beach for the majority of the distance, but a few short offshoot tracks lead to the water and a favoured surfing spot or fishing hole. The view is always enjoyable whether you are driving, fishing or surfing … dunes and blue water dominate the immediate foreground while away to the south amongst the sea haze we could see the bold sheer promontory of Cape Wiles.
But this wild rugged coast is not to be taken lightly as the small sad monuments to lost fisherman dotted along the cliff tops that occasionally interrupt the dunes, testify. Sadly to, Europeans have been dying here right from the very first visitors. In 1802 the great British navigator, Matthew Flinders, sailed by here mapping the coast and spreading names like confetti to the prominent or important landmarks. Cape Wiles was one, but further east, Cape Catastrophe and Memory Cove recall the day when Flinders lost his friend, John Thistle and seven other crew members, to the wild and unforgiving surf. The islands that dot the water nearby recall the names of those lost seaman.
French names dot this coast too and remember the voyage of the French captain, Nicolas Baudin, in his ship ‘Geographe’ who sailed this coast the same year Flinders did. He named, amongst others, Jussieu Bay just west of Flinders’ Cape Catastrophe and from which the whole peninsula that Lincoln National Park now takes up, is named after.
As we approached Wanna, a small cliff-lined bay in the coast that is guarded by a sheer-sided island, a teetering spire of rock and a string of rocky reef, I was again reminded how extraordinary and spectacular this coast is and why we keep coming back here.
The wild rugged beauty of this coast south of Port Lincoln does take a lot of beating. Align that with the fact that you can have a seashore campsite to yourself, with one of the top salmon fishing beaches just sprouting a few surf rods, all in the ‘peak’ holiday season of early January and you have something, that for most eastern state people at least, is close to a bloody miracle!
We had left our waterside camp on the protected northern side of the Jussieu Peninsula early that morning and with lunchtime fast approaching we still hadn’t seen anyone else and now we were heading even more remote. West of Wanna the Wilderness Area begins and that includes the stretch of coast around Cape Catastrophe and wonderful Memory Cove. To access this delightful stretch of coast and scrub you need to apply for a key and permit at the local tourist office; while it is easy and very reasonably priced there is a strict limit on numbers that can enter the wilderness area and an even tighter control on the number that can stay and camp. It’s a policy that has been working for quite a few years now and it works just fine ... some eastern state parks and environment departments should take note!
As we approached Cape Tournefort a wide vista of this ragged coast complete with jagged cliffs swooping down to a deep blue sea swept into view. Curta Rocks stretched seaward like a bead of jewels hanging from the neck of protruding land, while over the bulk of Williams Island far away to the south-east, just visible on the horizon and almost lost in the mist, were the Neptune Islands.
At Memory Cove a 300-metre long sweep of protected, perfect white beach greets the visitor. Here in the head of the bay there are six sheltered campsites set back just a few metres from the high tide mark. A plaque nearby is a replica to the one first erected by Flinders in honour of the men who lost their lives near here.
Over the next few days we explored the rest of the national park discovering dozens of faultless and deserted beaches, miles of cliff lined coast and a host of great campsites that for the most part were completely empty or had just one camp set up amongst them.
This latest trip also saw us heading to Port Lincoln for a planned shark cage dive with Calypso Star Charters (see: http://sharkcagediving.com.au) – no previous diving or snorkelling experience required. Our chosen day broke clear and calm as we headed out of the marina on the Calypso Star, with the sun rising as we cruised past Cape Donington, then turned south passing historic Memory Cove and slipping by Thistle Island into the more open waters of the Southern Ocean for the final leg to the Neptune Islands.
The Neptunes are a known great white shark haunt, being attracted to these remote rocks because of a large New Zealand fur seal colony and a smaller Australian sea lion colony that sees around 5000 pups born each year. These islands and the surrounding waters are protected in the Neptune Islands Group (Ron and Valerie Taylor) Marine Park and it is the only place in Australia where you can cage dive and experience a close and safe encounter with a great white.
But like any wildlife watching the success of the venture is entirely up to the wildlife itself and sometimes they just don't make an appearance. Such was the case when we went out. I was in the first group to enter the cage and while the water was pretty clear and there were a heap of fish swarming around, no shark made an appearance. That became the norm for the day. Ooh, there was a good size mako shark that came in and thrilled the group in the cage at the time, and a smaller bronze whaler came in briefly for a swim-by, but that was all. But no great white!
For a change of scenery we headed back through Port Lincoln and then across to the west coast a short distance to Coffin Bay National Park. Taking up the whole of the protective peninsula that enfolds the calm waters of Coffin Bay, this park offers adventurous campers a fine choice of remote spots to camp.
While you can camp within the park just a short distance after the blacktop finishes at Little Yangie Bay, the best sites are further afield and reached by a 4WD track through the scrub covered dunes and then a 10km long beach run. The Morgans Landing Camping Area offers plenty of shallow protected water on the inside of the bay with the camps tucked up in the nearby scrub, while about 1km south of Point Sir Isaac, the Pool Camping Area is the most distant camping area in the park, being 55km from the entrance gate. It is again on the lee side of the headland, offering safe swimming for the kids, while there’s some good fishing in and around here. Catches of whiting, salmon, flathead, garfish, tommy ruff, snapper, shark, sweep and even tuna are possible.
We’ve spent some time here on previous trips exploring the park and enjoying the extravagant scenery but something has changed in recent years. The famous, wild Coffin Bay Ponies, who had called the peninsula home for over 160 years, were removed in 2004 and the few man-made waterholes that dotted this dry park that lacks nearly any surface water were filled in. I thought the decision stunk … and still do!
But the ponies live on. A group of caring enthusiasts who tried to stop the NP&WS from evicting the horses in the first place have now procured a block of land, ‘Brumbies Run’, that overlooks the indented northern coast of Coffin Bay and the tough but gentle wiry horses are doing just fine (see: www.coffinbaybrumby.org.au).
On that convoluted northern coast of Coffin Bay fishing shacks and small farming and fishing communities dot the shoreline. At Farm Beach, west of historic Mt Dutton Bay with its jetty and old woolshed, the beach is generally crowded over the summer months with vehicles either parked or launching boats over the sand. The ‘tractor park’ with its menagerie of ancient and old tractors used to launch boats across the beach, is more a museum than anything else. Just north of here the cliffs begins and along a rough limestone track you will come to Gallipoli – not the ‘real’ one but the one used in the film of the same name. In the surrounding scrub on top of the steep cliffs there are a number of bush camps but you need to be a reasonably keen fisherman here to go to the trouble of climbing down to the beach.
One of the best pieces of coast along here is around Drummond Point, about 90km north of Port Lincoln. High cliffs guard the beach for much of the way but at Drummond Point itself a long boat ramp has been cut in the cliffs to give access to a small beach tucked in below the ramparts. South from here a track skirts the delightful sweep of white sand of Picnic Beach and gives access to a number of good campsites just behind the first line of dune.
At Hall Bay, just north of Drummond Point, there is some great fishing and diving, although access down the cliff is a challenge, made a little easier by the access walkway that has been hacked into the steep cliffs. There is camping on the cliffs above the bay, but they are a bit exposed and there's better just a little north, found via a track junction a few hundred metres back from the viewpoint over the bay. Once you are on this track you'll find a few camps tucked in amongst the scrub just back from the cliff – at one point a steep ladder gives access to the beach below. The track continues north around the coast cutting through sandhills and along the clifftops, giving access to cliff-lined beaches and rocky reefs below.
At Sheringa about 130km north of Port Lincoln you’ll come to the small store and pub on the highway and by taking the dirt road just north of here you’ll soon be on the coast. There’s a top little camp here (self registration and small fee payable), just back from Sheringa Beach. You can drive the beach here south, but be warned, it does get soft. The good dirt road continues north along the edge of the cliffs for a short distance from Sheringa Beach giving ample opportunity to camp and go diving, surfing or fishing.
About 6km north of the Sheringa campsite you can get access into an area of steep windblown dunes just east of the road. It’s a top spot to play but the lee side of the dunes are nearly sheer! Soon afterwards the dirt road north degenerates into a rough track, but if you keep heading on you’ll find the occasional bush camp tucked in amongst the scrub just back from the beach and you’ll have the place … and the beach … to yourself!
As you head north towards Elliston, (170km north of Lincoln), you'll pass a number of good fishing and surfing beaches, including Lock Well Beach, considered by many to be one of the best salmon fishing spots on the whole South Australian coast.
And, by the time you reach the small hamlet of Elliston beside the protected waters of Waterloo Bay and discover the surrounding bays, beaches and offshore islands you’ll be wondering how this magnificent coast has been kept a secret for so long. I know we do each and every time we visit it!
Best time to go is late spring thru to early autumn for the driving, diving and surfing although there is some great winter fishing over here.
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Copyright Ron & Viv Moon