DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Walking on Eyre
Christine McCabe gets back to nature in the nicest possible way
HE sleekly plumed osprey hovers metres above our heads, riding the wind as it scans the pounding surf for lunch. There’s little respite along this wild stretch of coast 30 minutes’ drive south of Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. The Southern Ocean punches and grinds at the towering limestone cliffs, forging blowholes, crevices and gaping sea caves that would make prime pirates’ lairs.
We’ve been walking this dramatic coastline for several hours, tracking some of the highest sea cliffs on the continent, pausing to admire the stoic vegetation, plucky white currant bushes rendered bonsai by the relentless wind, and the remnants of a fossilised forest dotted about the ancient rocks — dating back 2.6 billion years — of Cape Carnot.
Our quietly spoken guide, Phil Porter, knows these cliffs like the back of his hand. A fourth-generation Lincoln lad (his great-great-grandfather escorted the first European settlers to this remote outpost), Phil has spent his life exploring the region’s empty beaches and bush hinterland. This abiding passion has fuelled the recent formation of a touring company, operated with wife Amanda, traversing the cliffs and dunes cuffing the southern Eyre Peninsula, a region of captivating beauty and wildness far, far from the madding crowd.
‘‘ There’s a beach I know,’’ says Phil, ‘‘ where in a lifetime I’ve never seen a footprint.’’
Our lucky sighting of the osprey (Phil had earlier pointed out its nest perched precariously atop a sheer island cliff just offshore) marks the end of our walk along Whalers Way.
The privately owned reserve is skirted by towering cliffs, the low bush made navigable by a series of dirt tracks and worn but romantic signs indicating the likes of Moonlight or Blue Whale bays. Here and there lie the remnants of a short-lived whaling industry that was abandoned in the late 1830s.
You need to keep your eyes open; the vertiginous cliffs are as crumbly as shortbread and at one point the dirt road collapses into a limestone cave. We rely on Phil to point out the detail (tiny black dots take shape as seals), often overshadowed by the spectacular cliffcuffed vistas stretching east towards Sleaford Bay and the rugged Lincoln National Park.
Located just 10km out of town and covering 31,000ha, this park, when added to the nearby Coffin Bay reserve, means much of the bottom of the peninsula is protected, Phil says, and many areas are still accessible only on foot. Which makes Phil’s tours indispensable, whether you walk and camp or combine your trek with a fourwheel-drive tour tracking towards the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Driving tours begin near the vast, powder-blue Sleaford Mere. In 1802, having lost eight men in quest of fresh water at nearby Cape Catastrophe, a desperate Matthew Flinders trekked across country to this promising expanse of water only to discover more salt.
Lincoln National Park is home to the massive Wanna sand dunes, an impressive Himalaya of shifting sands, lapped by dense mallee bush jumbled with quandongs, drooping sheoaks, dainty correas and, to the delight of my adolescent sons, great veils of snottygobble. Wildlife abounds: western grey kangaroos, goannas, emus (sometimes found cooling their heels in the surf, Phil says) and reintroduced mallee fowls and brush-tailed bettongs (doing well after a fox eradication program).
The coastal scenery is breathtaking but not nearly as impressive, according to my sons, as tackling the marked, but often extreme, dune track in a 4WD, akin to riding a slo-mo roller-coaster or driving the marshmallow highway.
All the while we are on the look-out for whales although the day’s wild seas make a sighting unlikely.
And so to camp, usually tucked into the lee of a protected gully on Whalers Way but, given this winter day’s inclement weather, tents have instead been pitched in a sheltered paddock on nearby Mikkira Station. The campsite is ringed by ancient manna gums and koalas are so plentiful they practically drop from the trees. There’s a cuddly chap snoozing above my tent and across the way is a mum with a new babe so small it’s barely out of the pouch.
Amanda has been busy while we’ve been bush. The fire is lit, soup on the stove, local Delacolline wine on ice. Phil fires up a gas heater and dinner is readied: a paella liberally dotted with Port Lincoln prawns and mussels, local lamb and a delicious quandong and apple pie served with wattleseed cream.
We’ve been joined for the evening by Wander, a tiny joey and one of many road accident orphans the Porters have adopted. Requiring around-the-clock care, she accompanies Phil and Amanda on all their tours, much to the delight of guests, who can later track her progress on the Porters’ website.
After a cosy night’s sleep, punctuated now and then by the freakishly primeval grunting of several randy koalas, we explore the magical Mikkira paddocks. A restored settlers’ cottage (made good for an episode of
sits among the remnants of a forgotten garden and fields of fragrant narcissi.
This month the Porters’ fledgling tour company forges links with another exciting development on the lower Eyre, the Tanonga luxury eco lodges.
Opened six months ago by Jill and Michael Coates, the twin villas lie at the end of a red dirt road in the hills behind Port Lincoln.
It’s back to nature with a vengeance, as we manoeuvre our mild-mannered family wagon up the narrow, muddy track to the Ridgetop lodge, a sleek, contemporary structure wrapped in glass and affording far-reaching views across bush and rolling paddocks to the sea.
The dense bush is laced with ghostly limbs (the disastrous 2005 fires swept through these hills) giving the appearance of waving seaweed on the ocean floor. A not altogether ridiculous analogy, I conclude, as Jill knocks on the door bearing two dozen oysters fresh from the family lease at Coffin Bay.
Washed down with a bottle of local sauvignon blanc (nowhere in South Australia is so remote it can’t have a winery), these plump gems are the curtain-raiser to a delicious dinner provided by local chef Marion Trethewey, who runs the popular Oysterbeds restaurant on the esplanade at Coffin Bay. The food is pre-cooked. All I have to do is pop it in the oven, set the table and stoke the wood fire while my sons head outside armed with eco torches to spotlight for kangaroos.
The lodge may be self-sustaining (with rainwater on tap, a bank of solar panels and savvy design that enables
Footprints in the sand: A beach on the Eyre Peninsula
Glass houses: The view from Tanonga easy temperature control) but sacrificed in terms of luxury.
The living area, with soaring ceiling, includes an allmod-cons kitchen (stocked with local goodies and featuring a coffee maker), comfortable leather sofas set around the super-efficient combustion wood fire and a flat-screen telly. A king-size bed with long views of the bush is joined by a luxe bathroom featuring a Japanesestyle tub (another water-saving measure) set at the window and affording more lovely views. Kangaroos
been graze nearby and jewel-like Port Lincoln parrots flit from tree to tree. A network of walking trails winds down the valley, skirting the second lodge, crisscrossing the 25,000 trees, shrubs and sedges the Coateses have planted since they began rehabilitating this 200ha historic grazing property seven years ago.
Tanonga is an Aboriginal word meaning sweet water, a reference to the permanent springs and billabong lining the valley-floor creek.
The Coateses have placed a couple of seats here, allowing quiet contemplation of the lush sheoak and sugar gum woodland. There are more than 100 species of birds to be found on the property and the Coateses are paying special attention to plantings that encourage this birdlife, particularly vulnerable and rare species such as the yellow-tailed black cockatoo.
In summer I can imagine enjoying a barbecue on the Ridgetop terrace, watching the moon rise over the sea and stars dust the sky. But on this winter’s day we have rain: wild, sorely needed rain blowing in from the ocean,
Wilderness Wanders operates walking, camping and 4WD tours on the Eyre Peninsula and in the Flinders Ranges. More: (08) 8684 5001; www.wildernesswanders.com.au. Tanonga Luxury Eco Lodges are priced from $290 a night (with breakfast). Roll-out and sofa beds are available for children. More: 0427 812 013; www.tanonga.com.au. The new Luxury Eco Experience combines a two-day guided walk with camping and Tanonga lodge accommodation, gourmet meals and local wine.