Eyre do well
Christine McCabe sets off on a bountiful seafood trail along the state’s wildest peninsula
Remains of the day: The tide recedes at tranquil Coffin Bay, a remote holiday retreat on the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula famous for the quality and freshness of its seafood
THE plucky Sea SA ferry rolls across Spencer Gulf riding a dark swell barrelling in from somewhere near Antarctica and erupting every now and then with a pod of surprisingly chipper dolphins. The two-hour voyage on this windy, midwinter day feels much longer but in fact shaves considerable time from the road journey between South Australia’s Yorke and Eyre peninsulas, a route usually tracking up and around the gulf via Port Augusta.
Docking late afternoon on the Eyre’s far shore, the ferry disgorges its cargo of sea-shaken four-wheeldrives and trucks on to the reassuringly firm red-dirt road to Cowell, where there’s not much happening, even at the pub, but the bakery is open and promises sausage rolls, cinnamon buns and oysters.
Oysters are not the first snack one thinks of when nursing a slightly queasy tummy but this is the first sign we have arrived in an acknowledged seafood capital. This remote and vast peninsula, buffeted by cold, clean waters, produces 60 per cent of the state’s seafood and has long enchanted amateur anglers. ( My sons have their rods stowed in the back of the car and first stop, they insist, is for bait.)
The Eyre Peninsula boasts that rare thing in Australia, a long, spectacular coastline almost entirely devoid of sea changers (thus far discouraged by the tyranny of distance). It is marked instead by oldfashioned country towns tethered to the sea by wooden jetties and remote foreshores dotted with proper shacks, where a pub or small sailing club and boat ramp constitute downtown.
The good news for visitors is the recent appearance of a handful of interesting restaurants and several ventures providing a first-hand glimpse of the aquaculture industry. It’s an epic seafood trail, winding not for three or four blocks but for hundreds of kilometres, showcasing prime oysters, abalone, mussels, lobster, tuna, whiting, kingfish and snapper.
So, with a strong coffee in the tank and bait in the boot, we set out along the dead-straight road to Port Lincoln, flanked on one side by snow-white dunes and blue sea, and on the other by just sprung, pea-green crops. Cruising into town at dusk, we have no trouble locating the Port Lincoln Hotel. Set on the waterfront, it overlooks a deep-water harbour 31/ times the size of
2 Sydney’s. At seven storeys, it is also apparently the tallest building in town, except perhaps for the enormous wheat silos looming above the port.
The broad, dark bay, speckled here and there with lightly sketched fishing boats, has a shadow history, one
Sculpted by nature: Murphy’s Haystacks, an unmissable landmark between Port Lincoln and Streaky Bay provided by French explorer Nicolas Baudin, as Danielle Clode explains in her book Voyages to the South Seas .
‘‘ In this alternative world of what might have been, it is the port of Champagny (named after Napoleon’s minister of the interior) that looks east across the twin gulfs of Bonaparte and Josephine,’’ she writes.
A French Australia might have made this the state capital (Baudin was deeply impressed by the safe harbour) and one can imagine a foreshore of fish restaurants, striped awnings and quaint bistros.
As it is, Port Lincoln is a quintessential Aussie town with a statue of champion racehorse Makybe Diva taking pride of place on the foreshore. (Owner Tony Santic is one of the city’s tuna millionaires and favourite sons.) But there’s an energy here you don’t find in many country towns. The recently opened Port Lincoln Hotel, developed by fellow tuna king Sam Sarin, with the lease held in part by the AFL’s Adelaide Crows heroes Mark Ricciuto and Simon Goodwin, offers the city’s first fourstar digs, with large, contemporary guestrooms and a stylish restaurant dishing up kingfish sashimi and blue fin tuna, tataki style, fresh from the farm.
In a region where dining out traditionally has meant the pub or club, restaurants are popping up along pretty Tasman Terrace and a thriving arts community exhibits through the large Civic Hall complex. Locals await the rumoured arrival of Virgin Blue to drive the growth of tourism, while Mayor Peter Davis has long harboured dreams of converting Boston Island into a Queenslandstyle holiday village.
This heady optimism is fuelled not by mining but by the fruits of the sea. In the style of a Sydney Harbour cruise, where stellar real estate is a big part of the attraction, Peter Dennis of Triple Bay Boat Charters points out Tuna or Hollywood Hill, home to some of the city’s fishing millionaires, as we bounce out across Boston Bay. The houses are too distant to make out but he assures us Lincoln’s real estate includes faithful replicas of the mansions in the old US television series Dallas and Dynasty.
The tuna behind this fish boom are captured in the Great Australian Bight, then drifted in large floating pens at a leisurely one knot to the leases fringing Boston Bay. There they are fattened like foie gras to provide the oily, plump flesh so prized by the Japanese.
Their processing ships are in port during our stay and every day besuited buyers come out to the leases to inspect the harvest.
We tie up to a bobbing pen to observe the athletic tuna whizzing about (during summer, visitors swim with these fish; more intrepid souls cage dive with great white sharks). But today’s weather is inclement so Peter seeks shelter in the lee of a small island where seals and sea lions swim out to meet us. They must think they’ve died and gone to heaven as tuna, mussels and kingfish are all conveniently corralled in the bay.
Our tour concludes with a platter of best-quality tuna sashimi, the belly meat so fatty it almost dissolves on the tongue. But this only serves to sharpen the appetites of young sons, so it’s back to the Port Lincoln Hotel to order a large quota of Coffin Bay oysters kilpatrick.
Synonymous with the moreish mollusc, Coffin Bay lies less than 30 minutes from Lincoln. Quiet waters meander through a labyrinth of bush-clad dunes where, as early as 1849, fishermen were dredging for native oysters. But the area was effectively fished out by the 1940s and today Pacific oysters are farmed instead.
They are available direct from the lease courtesy of the Coffin Bay Explorer catamaran, unshucked from the general store, or every which way (natural, spiked with vodka and lime, or Florentine) from Marion and David
Fruits of the sea: Oysters on the Eyre’s seafood trail