Chris­tine McCabe gets back to na­ture in the nicest pos­si­ble way

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.wilder­ness­wan­ 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; The new Lux­ury Eco Ex­pe­ri­ence com­bines a two-day guided walk with camp­ing and Tanonga lodge ac­com­mo­da­tion, gourmet meals and lo­cal wine.


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