Get swept away by the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

By Quentin Chester 3 June 2014
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The coastline of Eyre Peninsula, SA, has offered up both tragedy and wealth for more than two centuries.

IT’S A GREY, BLUSTERY morning on the Eyre Peninsula’s southern tip. A 4m swell is building and misty squalls are bustling in from the south. In the distance, a long, ragged headland is getting a hammering.

From this angle, Cape Catastrophe slumps like a half-sunken battleship. Waves boom into its dark flanks and rocky prow. On such a day the hazards in these waters are plain to see. If only it was always that simple.

In February 1802, HMS Investigator was anchored just off the largest of the islands clustered near Cape Catastrophe. Commander Matthew Flinders had spent the day exploring this island with John Thistle, the shipmaster. While Flinders returned to the island to double-check his bearings, Thistle took a party across to the mainland in a cutter to search for anchorages and much-needed fresh water. The conditions seemed innocuous. At dusk the cutter was sighted returning under sail. Then suddenly it vanished.

For two weeks the expedition lingered in the area. Flinders charted islands and the peninsula’s snaking shoreline. He gave places names from his home county in England: Boston Bay, Sleaford Mere, Port Lincoln, Cape Donington. The crew caught fish and topped up their water casks. All the while the coast was scoured for any sign of the missing men. Yet, apart from locating boat debris and the tidal eddies that were presumed to have swamped the cutter, no trace of Thistle or the others aboard was ever found.

Just 2km north of Cape Catastrophe is another world. Here the shoreline tucks into a deeply indented bay sheltered by granite headlands and thickly wooded hills. Facing north-east, this haven is immune to the furies of the open ocean. And at the head of the bay lies a glorious white-sand beach.

Flinders named this exquisite refuge Memory Cove. Of the eight islands dotting nearby Thorny Passage, each was named in tribute to one of the lost men. The largest – Thistle Island – honoured the shipmaster who had served with Flinders for eight years. At Memory Cove a copper plaque was mounted “on a stout post” as a memorial to those “unfortunately drowned near this place from being upset in a boat”. For the entire ship’s company – alone on one of the longest unexplored coastlines left on the planet – it was a gut-wrenching loss.

Eyre Peninsula abounds in contrasts

EYRE PENINSULA’S TIP abounds in startling contrasts. The two huge hammerhead peninsulas, forming Lincoln and Coffin Bay national parks, jut to the east and west respectively. These geological wonders give the region an uncanny symmetry.

Both sport natural harbours and discreet, hideaway bays. But each turns to the open ocean with wildly exposed cliffs and beaches – plus a slew of menacing reefs, islands and unyielding capes, not to mention freakish currents and waves. From drifting dune and surf-filled bay, to lives lost and fortunes won, the sea is the great maker and breaker here.

The driver for this multi-barbed coastline is a geological double act. Eyre Peninsula is part of the Gawler Craton, one of the most stable hunks of our continental crust. It’s home to some of Australia’s oldest rocks, dating back as far as 2.44 billion years – about 1.4 billion of which has seen barely a ripple of tectonic activity.

This ancestry is reflected in the distinctive dome-like hills that dot the peninsula, as well as formations such as the Marble Range looming out of vast wheat paddocks north of Coffin Bay.

Meanwhile, along the foot of the coast, these crystalline-tough basement granites hold fast as robust headlands and broad, wave-cut terraces. This sturdy frontline takes the brunt of the ocean’s heaviest blows, and protects the much younger layers of limestone above. Born out of wind-blown calcareous dunes, this limestone caps vast areas of the coast and hinterland. Scalloped cliffs of pale, biscuit-coloured stone are the peninsula’s gritty signature.

With so many twists and nooks these shores dish up habitats aplenty. For Ranger James Tomlinson, this bounty of landscapes is the great gift of Lincoln National Park. “Here you’ve got the best of both worlds,” he says. “Grey nomads love sheltered bays like Surfleet cove, fishermen head to remote spots on the east side and then there’s the dunes and rugged stuff across at Wanna [beach].”

With a hectic work schedule that covers everything from fox-baiting and mining liaison to fire management and helicopter surveys of islands, this ex-chef is drawn to the park’s more restful outposts.

“This is my get-out-of-office spot – it’s on my screensaver too,” quips James, as we stand atop the lichen-plastered boulders at MacLaren Point.

“I just like the quiet here. There’s always something happening on the water and the waves.”

Remote Port Lincoln on the Erye Peninsula

HE’S NOT ALONE. With such an array of coastal haunts on their doorstep, it’s little wonder the lives of Port Lincoln’s 14,088 residents are so tightly entwined with the sea.

On any weekend, board riders by the dozen are catching breaks at Sleaford and Fishery bays. Meanwhile, across the peninsula, the waters of Boston Bay will be flecked with cabin cruisers, tinnies and white sails of all sizes. In this working port, regattas unfold against a backdrop of tuna boats toing and froing, and hefty bulk carriers loading grain.

Even far-flung Memory Cove – hidden at the end of a rough four-wheel-drive track in a wilderness protection area – is a cherished hotspot for local campers and boaties. “I guess we’ve been down here about half-a-dozen times this summer,” says Port Lincoln-based diesel mechanic Chad Wilsdon.

He’s just back at camp after a dawn tinny run with his mates to check their catch in craypots out in Thorny Passage. “This place is pretty protected. It can be blowing 25 knots [about 46km/h] on the other side and here it’s like this,” he says with the wave of a hand towards the bay’s twinkling turquoise calm.

Indeed, despite its sombre back story, the cove has a bright, lively air. Birdlife abounds. In a few strides through the coastal mallee you can step from a world of New Holland honeyeaters, silvereyes and Port Lincoln parrots to the beachfront domain of hooded plovers and oystercatchers – with a white-bellied sea eagle rarely far from view. It’s seventh heaven for twitchers.

This natural vigour flourishes offshore as well. For Chad and friends in their tinnies, just as for the crew of Investigator and the sea eagles aloft, the diversity of life in these waters offers a feast for the taking.

To South Australians, Eyre Peninsula is better known as the ‘west coast’. It’s talked about as a larger-than-life place that’s home to vast wheat farms, raging surf, sharks and sudden storms. The region’s grain harvest might be a whopping 2 million tonnes but, above all else, the west coast is synonymous with big-time fishing. The legends here feature boats punching into mountainous seas, 40t-a-day hauls of tuna and the strong-armed families who wrestled fortunes from the ocean depths.

Three Haldane brothers and their families turned up in Port Lincoln in 1952. They arrived aboard the Tacoma, a brand new 25m boat the brothers had built in their home town of Port Fairy, Victoria. Over the next 40 years their exploits chasing massive schools of bluefin tuna and prawn trawling in Spencer Gulf helped transform the region.

The Haldanes, followed by families such as the Puglisis, Sarins, Lukins and Santics, turned Port Lincoln into the bustling hub of the largest commercial fishing fleet in the Southern Hemisphere with an amazing annual tuna haul of up to 4600t.

“Our whole life was seaward looking,” says Ross Haldane, recalling his 1950s childhood, much of it spent aboard the Tacoma. “Even on school holidays we’d head out to sea visiting different bays and islands. Wedge [Island] was a favourite place, a real kid’s playground.”

This affinity with all things maritime gave Ross a passion for fishery management. “It’s incredibly complex; there are so many parts to it,” he says. “On land we’re always talking about seasons and bushfires and droughts. The sea is just the same. There are all these fluctuations – the thing is we just don’t see it.”

Efforts to fathom this complexity have paid dividends. Practical science, largely initiated by prawn-boat skippers and crews, strictly controls the where and when of trawling. Strategies to protect stocks have turned Spencer Gulf into one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. With an annual prawn harvest hovering near 2000t, the gulf is one of the region’s star performers.

In truth, the entire region boasts an astonishing bounty – from abalone and sand crabs to southern rock lobsters, known to South Australians as crayfish, mussels, scallops, oysters and a host of prized scale-fish species. An intricate shoreline fosters this diversity, yet as Ross Haldane points out, Port Lincoln is also a prime launching pad into a vast part of the ocean, including the Great Australian Bight.

“You only have to look at the number of seabirds nesting here to know that if you’re into fishing it’s an ideal roosting point,” he says.

However, one of Eyre Peninsula’s assets is invisible. The Great South Australian Coastal Upwelling System brings cold, nutrient-rich waters billowing to the surface from the edge of the continental shelf. These dissolved nutrients are the foundation links in the marine food chain – including the pilchards that bluefin tuna feast on. Among the other beneficiaries are the famed oysters of Coffin Bay. This network of enclosed waterways is mollusc paradise. Clean, unspoilt waters and daily tides deliver all the necessary goodies for the area’s 40 or so oyster farmers.

With its jetties, waterfront shacks, caravan park and general store, Coffin Bay’s township is the quintessential laid-back fishing village. Self-confessed ‘foodie nomad’ Marion Trethewey and her husband David were smitten at first sight. Calling into town on a light-plane jaunt to watch whales at Head of Bight they noticed a For Sale sign in the window of a local eatery. They bought, and seven years later they’re still revelling in the place.

“There was an optimism here. For the first six months it was blue skies and sunshine every day,” says Marion. But the clincher is the gift of working on a “seafood frontier” blessed with so much produce. “For me, as a restaurateur, it’s a real cornucopia.”

Coffin Bay National Park, Eye Peninsula

THAT KIND OF profusion applies equally to the patchwork of nearby Coffin Bay National Park. From the placid waters of Yangie Bay it’s a short spin on sleek bitumen roads to the cliff-top vistas and ocean surf at Almonta Beach.

But the heart of the park spills westward past ephemeral lakes and tea-tree scrub to a widening peninsula. It’s a spine-shuddering ride by 4WD. As well as dune-drifts to climb and waves to dodge on Seven Mile Beach, the inland tracks are so lumpy that drivers rarely graduate from second gear.

It’s almost hard to believe that swathes of this castaway terrain were cleared and grazed from the mid-19th century. Although hundreds of twisted skeletons of old she-oaks are a legacy of this era, work has been underway since the late 1990s to rehabilitate patches of she-oak grassy woodland. As part of this program, the last of the historic Coffin Bay brumbies – wild descendants of Timor ponies first brought to South Australia in 1839 – were relocated away from the park in 2004.

Stepping into one of the fenced revegetation plots is a tantalising peek at how these habitats might have been. The feathery branches of the tall, drooping she-oaks catch the breezes with a breathy sigh, while underfoot the ground is spongy, matted with fallen branchlets. Tucked amid the trees the sea feels distant, yet in reality everywhere you go in this park, a restless coastal dune is rising somewhere on the horizon.

For ranger Nat Staniford, this connection to the ocean and the dynamics of the landscape are a constant highlight. “Here it really is parks and wildlife because of all the interactions in the place, from the coastal raptors and shorebirds, to kangaroos, huge mobs of emus, and we get plenty of snakes and lizards, too. Then you get to the shore and there are sea lions or a pod of dolphins.”

Nat needs little prompting to show off the Whidbey Wilderness Area, in the park’s far south-western corner. It’s a mild afternoon but cloud lurks low on the horizon so that islands appear and disappear in a ghostly haze. Inshore, long lines of breakers are crashing into reefs and rocky bluffs, filling the air with sharp, salty mist.

Walking the limestone cliff-tops involves dodging potholes and loose shards of rock that sound similar to broken crockery underfoot. One hundred metres from the shoreline, one of the holes lets out a startling, throaty growl as air shoots skyward, forced up by seawater surging below. Then another does the same. Not content with battering the cliffs until they fret and crumble like blocks of honeycomb, here the ocean has to tunnel under your feet to vent its anger.

Point Whidbey is part of the peninsula’s seaward flank that extends all the way past Reef Point to slender Point Sir Isaac in the north. There, in a matter of metres, the personality of the place is transformed as the shoreline veers south into the sanctuary of Coffin Bay. Suddenly the coast becomes inviting curves of warm beach backed by dunes and shady paperbarks. In the distance hover the shadowy hummocks of the Marble Range. Nowhere is the split personality of the West Coast more starkly revealed.

Eyre Peninsula’s many faces

FOR ROSS HALDANE, Eyre Peninsula’s strength is in its many guises. “At every turn and every angle it offers something different,” he says. But as a sailor, he also travels in the knowledge that the whims of wind and weather dictate the show along every crinkle of the coast.

“One day a spot will be rough and rugged. The next time you might have a wind change and you can get in close. Some places you visit quite rarely, but then there’s a special moment when it’s revealed.”

From the secure footing of a lookout on terra firma, the landscape shifts are dramatic, even unnerving. But that’s nothing compared to the view from the deck of a small boat beneath cliffs in a pitching sea. Moreover, in certain conditions, even the most benign waters can become exposed and treacherous. Then, all it takes is a sudden punch of wind, a wrong move or a tidal rip.

The very shores that give the region its allure also make the west coast a perilous place. Similarly, the forces that drive the vitality of life here can conspire to exact a terrible toll. Since World War II some 50 of Port Lincoln’s professional fishermen have died at sea. Meanwhile, the past 15 years have seen five fatal shark attacks. The most recent – in 2011 – was on experienced local abalone diver Peter Clarkson. He was surfacing from a dive near Perforated Island off Point Whidbey when two great whites struck.

There’s no better place to contemplate the raw power of the Southern Ocean at work than Reef Point, in Coffin Bay NP’s south-west. Here a clutch of headlands and reefs face the incoming barrage. Even the tenacious basement geology can’t stop the grinding impact of the elements on the 100m-tall limestone cliffs.

Day and night the waves thunder in. As darkness closes in, the masthead light of a small fishing boat appears out to sea. With a storm front approaching, its crew are heading north, hoping to make the safe haven of Coffin Bay. Their light keeps swaying with the toss of the swell until it finally recedes up the coast, vanishing behind a relentless haze of waves and spray.