The word ‘frontier’ suggests somewhere little-visited, untamed and a touch perilous. The fabulous coastlines of Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas are just that – 2700km of white sands, rugged cliffs and clean seas.
Eyre is a gigantic triangle of land, sharp as a blade, pointing out into the Southern Ocean. On the west coast, the powerful seas of the Australian Bight have carved out impressive red cliffs; on the east, the land is lower and sits on the more benign waters of Spencer Gulf. Both water bodies are pristine and teeming with sea life.
Adjoining is the narrower Yorke Peninsula, which has coasts on the Spencer Gulf (looking across to Eyre) and the waters of the Gulf St Vincent.
The ‘Seafood Frontier’ is a trail of fisherman, aquaculturalists and growers, strung right along this extraordinary part of the word. Many of them are in small coastal towns and no small number are concentrated in the fascinating seafood capital of Port Lincoln. Together, they account for more than 65% of Australia’s total seafood catch, as well as some of the world’s most prized produce.
If you can afford to dine in the finest restaurants of London, New York and Tokyo, you may have already tried the like of Eyre Peninsula’s sashimi-ed Southern Blue Fin tuna, Coffin Bay oysters au naturel and wild green-lipped abalone.
But if the budget doesn’t stretch to that, fear not, because the Seafood Frontier rewards the adventurous. It’s all about looking, learning and ultimately tasting. Those famous Coffin Bay oysters are sold for up to $5 each in Sydney and Melbourne. Out here? Well you can get a dozen straight off the rack for about eight bucks.
To drive the whole Frontier – and do it proper justice – would take weeks, which is why many people choose to focus on one coast or the other. Eyre is the richer of the two in terms of local operations and experiences; Yorke is more of a backwater, full of charm and relatively undiscovered by visitors from outside of South Australia.
Yorke Peninsula highlights would include the old-school seaside towns of Port Vincent and Stansbury (home of fabulous oysters), the wide open beaches of Marion Bay, the wilds of Innes National Park and the unusual mining heritage of Moonta. Theoretically speaking, total driving time would be eight hours, ending at Port Augusta.
Yorke Peninsula is a primary producer that hides its light under a bushel. Drive the country roads of Yorke in summer and you’ll have shimmering fields of golden grain on one side, and glittering seas of blue on the other. There are riches below the soil, too.
One of the wealthiest-looking towns is Moonta in the northwest, with a huge town hall and church, significantly grander than a 3300 population would warrant. In 1861 shepherds spotted copper ore at the entrance to a wombat hole – a hole that would get considerably bigger and become the richest mine in the state.
Today, you can go below ground in the Wheal Hughes mine on a tour by special train. As well as seeing veins of coloured ore, you’ll learn how Cornish miners were brought to Yorke Peninsula to work the deposit.
Head south into the Peninsula’s distinct boot shape and the landscape rises, evident in precipitous limestone cliffs that glow orange when the sun is low on the water. The scenery is at its most wild at Innes National Park at the very toe of the boot and a full two hours’ drive from Moonta.
Innes National Park is another ‘off-radar’ national treasure – 9000 hectares of bushland, with long white beaches, the deserted village of Inneston (where gypsum was mined), the bones of wrecked ships and Aboriginal heritage sites.
The bottom of the Peninsula offers rich pickings for marine adventure. There’s hardcore surfing country up and down the western face of the toe, with Daly Head hosting a number of major competitions. Powerful surf breaks at Chinaman’s and Trespasser’s also keep the adrenalin flowing.
Not unrelated, scuba divers enjoy some 40 wrecks on the Investigator Strait Shipwreck Trail. The most infamous is the Clan Ranald, which sank in 1900 off Troubridge Island visible from the small town of Edithburgh.
For an easy diving experience, head to Edithburgh jetty with snorkel and mask: the kelp and the jetty pylons are surprisingly rich with marine life. If you’re lucky you’ll encounter the hauntingly lovely leafy sea dragon, a sort of seahorse in a wedding dress.
Yorke Peninsula certainly rewards those with a nose for exploring but it’s the seafood you’ll be keen to encounter. And while fine dining is thin on the ground local farmers and fisherman keep the ingredients first class.
You won’t often go wrong in the local pubs, most of which have good restaurants serving local food. Well worth a visit is The Coopers Alehouse Restaurant at Wallaroo for seafood, great views and a wide-ranging menu designed to placate smaller members of the family’s fussy palates. Cracking views over Hardwicke Bay are a major drawcard at the Point Turton Tavern as well as more solid family fare.
Try the Stansbury Dalrymple Hotel for great fish and chips, the Marion Bay Tavern for a signature scotch fillet and lovable rogue, the Coobowie Hotel.
To posh it up, try The Inland Sea Restaurant near Warooka which gets rave reviews for its locally caught gourmet seafood including whiting, garfish, tommy ruff and crayfish.
You should also seek out fresh oysters. They’re far less famous than Coffin Bay oysters from neighbouring Eyre Peninsula even though Yorke producers actually grow some of the primo oysters that then go to the Coffin Bay farms. You can buy a dozen for around $12 from local outlets.
Any Yorke bakery will serve you well (Peninsula bread is particularly good). And sweet tooths will like the 40 flavours of truffle from Minlaton Chocolaterie, a 19-time winner at the Royal Adelaide Show.
Finally, for your Yorke Peninsula odyssey to be truly complete, you must be able to lay hand on heart and say you caught a blue swimmer crab, a whiting and a squid. It’s a seafood trifecta and any local conversation will at some point reference any or all.
The easiest and arguably most rewarding to catch are blue swimmers, a beautiful crustacean with the sweetest of meats, inhabiting the local shallows in summer.
All you need is a crab rake ($12 from any local store) a tide timetable (free), a bucket and a pair of sandshoes.
At low tide, wade out to where the sand meets the seaweed and gently rake at the edges.
Any lurking ‘bluey’ will grab your rake and generate a surprisingly loud noise – at which you skillfully flip it out of the water and into your bucket.
If you lose the crab you’ll appreciate the sandshoes. Later you’ll need a pan of boiling water (seven minutes, no more) fresh white bread and cracked pepper.
The simple things are indeed the best.
Eyre Peninsula taster
The trail on Eyre has always started at the head-of-gulf town of Port Augusta (home to the very good Wadlata Outback Centre and Arid Lands Botanic Garden). From here, it’s theoretically a six-hour drive all the way to Ceduna. Highlights would include Whyalla (for the fine Maritime Museum), Arno Bay acquaculture, Tumby Bay, Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay, the Great Ocean Tourist Drive (viewing the clifftop art trail to Elliston), Streaky Bay and Ceduna.
However, by far the more colourful way to view the Eyre Peninsula Seafood Frontier tour is to look at it through the optic that really counts – the fish-eye lens…
PRAWNS: Each year, some 2,000 tonnes of wild King Prawns are caught in the cold, clean waters of the Spencer Gulf and the Bight. In contrast to farmed prawns from overseas, they’re full of flavour despite of their size.
See it, taste it: Fred’s Marina Cruises offers one of the most charming tours in Australia. You’ll join old-salt Cap’n Fred in his little electric cruise boat and whirr sweetly around Port Lincoln Marina. The boat is dwarfed by the largest commercial fishing fleet in Australia, including fishing boats, cray boats plus a sizable cohort of prawn trawlers with their distinct colours and wide booms.
KING GEORGE WHITING: Whiting is a fabled South Australian fish and they don’t come much bigger than off the coast of Eyre. They’re part of a popular seafood group called ‘marine scale fish’ which includes other barbecue stoppers like Tommy Ruff (herring), garfish, snapper and Southern Calamari (squid). There are over 50 species of marine scale off Eyre, making it the most diverse fishery in Australia and the nation’s largest provider.
See it, taste it: No small amount of the day’s catch goes straight from the boat to The Fresh Fish Place in Port Lincoln – the region’s biggest seafood wholesaler, supplying 100 local restaurants and outlets. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to watch the catch of the day being prepared (including some high-speed whiting filleting action); you’ll also get to taste in-house smoked fish as well as pickled bivalves and octopus. The shop and restaurant sells all manner of prime deep-sea protein, such as Reef Snapper, snook and shark; and if you want to know how best to prepare them, sign up to the Fresh Fish Place cooking school, held once a month, with guest chefs at the helm.
WILDCATCH ABALONE: Abalone is exotic indeed. Top-draw wild-caught green-lip abalone – shucked and extra-large — sells for around $250 a kilo retail. It’s most loved by Asian diners and more than 95% of Eyre’s produce goes overseas. The expense comes from the fact divers must enter dangerous (often shark-filled) waters to carefully hand-harvest each shell. The off-shore abalone divers work up and down the coast, usually a solitary operation with a crew of two. It’s a competitive, somewhat secretive industry with a lot of money at stake, so the closest you’ll get to one will be when it’s served on a plate.
See it, taste it: Rather like the equally exotic truffle, abalone is one of those tastes that, once acquired, is hard to give up. Beautiful Streaky Bay in the region’s northwest corner has a fish processing operation and its own abalone brand called 2Brothers Abalone which is available at their retail outlet. The town is also home to one of the very best eating experiences on the Peninsula, a character-filled waterfront shed called Mocean. Within, you can dine on wild blacklip abalone, flash fried in butter on a bed of tomato, avocado and wild rocket. Price? Just $26.
TUNA: Southern Bluefin Tuna is a signature species that is now inextricably bound up with Port Lincoln’s history and its recent (spectacular) fortunes. In a nutshell, local fishermen and entrepreneurs figured out a way of catching wild tuna, rearing them in huge floating ponds and on-selling them to the Japanese who paid top dollar for premium fish. Possibly true (possibly apocryphal), the story goes that tuna led to the town boasting more millionaires per head than any other in Australia.
See it, taste it: For the tuna story, you won’t go wrong with Fred’s Marina Tour (see ‘Prawns)’, but if you’re mad keen to get up close, you may need to sign up with a Why Not? Fishing Charter. Do a day’s deep sea fishing between Jan and April and you’re in the box seat for wild tuna that grows up to 260kg – though if you hook one, get ready for a fight. Perhaps it’s easy to try tuna sashimi at the evergreen Del Giorno’s on Lincoln’s foreshore or the 1802 Oyster bar and Bistro in Coffin Bay.
KINGFISH: Sweet, firm and exquisite when served raw, Yellowtail Kingfish is one of the most delicious fish around. It’s yet to earn the respect it deserves from Australian diners, but the Japanese haven’t been so slow to appreciate it, highly prizing the Hiramasa Kingfish, fabulous examples of which swim in the Spencer Gulf.
See it, eat it: Adventure Bay Charters offers a new Seafood Bay Cruise. Guests motor out into Boston Bay for two hours to learn about aquaculture industries, with visits to Hiramasa Kingfish farm, tuna ponds and a mussel farm. Tastings happen during the experience – and sashimi-ed Kingfish is a definite highlight.
OYSTERS: Eyre Peninsula’s ‘Pacific Oysters’ are grown up and down the coastline to please shuckers and slurpers with their creamy, plump flesh and ocean-fresh flavour. Oysters are grown at Cowell, Streaky Bay, Smoky Bay, Denial Bay and St Peter’s Island, but it’s the Coffin Bay name that endures, owing to nutrient rich waterways and super-clean tidal flows. It doesn’t hurt that the area is jaw-droppingly lovely.
See it, taste it: Collect oysters straight from the racks on a Goin’ Off Safari. Operator David ‘Lunch’ Doudle will also help you harvest some other local seafood accompaniments, including cockles, mussels and a wild salmon if you get lucky with the beach rod. He’ll even cook it for you – right there on the beach or back at your accommodation.
SOUTHERN ROCK LOBSTER: If you’re ever invited to pick up a mighty Southern Rock Lobster (or crayfish), think twice: these animals are big and powerful. The valuable crustacean is exported live, especially to Asia where it’s prized for its sweet firm flesh and extraordinary colour. Be warned, prices are stratospheric, thanks mostly to insatiable demand from China.
See it, taste it: Lobster is sold at Mori Seafoods in the Marina, where the crustaceans are also processed for export. If you don’t have the readies, try the ‘crayfish spiders’ in the Fresh Fish Place: they’re lobsters with the head and tails removed, leaving body and a bunch of legs (like a spider). They’re not as pretty, but at $30-$40 per kilo (cooked) who cares?!
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. There are local flights available from Adelaide to Port Lincoln (Eyre Peninsula); the drive to Port Lincoln from Adelaide takes six hours. Most major hire car companies are represented at Adelaide Airport.