By Max Anderson
Eyre Peninsula is big adventure country, the sort of place that leaves kids goggle-eyed with its wild seas, huge sharks and ancient ranges.
But Eyre Peninsula is also just plain big. It’s roughly the same size (and shape) as Tasmania, and you’ll easily cover 500km driving from north to south and 400km if you’re crossing east to west at its widest.
So before you start clocking up the Eyre miles here are five quintessential experiences to aim for, all guaranteed to keep the family adventure humming along …
Meet and eat
Like most Eyre residents, Dave ‘Lunch’ Doudle has his secret beaches. These are closely guarded spots where the big fish lurk, the blue swimmer crabs hang out and the precious abalone hides.
For the past 10 years however, Lunch has been sharing those same secrets with families visiting from as far away as New York, London and Beijing.
“There’s only one thing better than showing a city kid where food comes from,” says Lunch. “And that’s getting a city kid to catch it and cook it themselves.”
Join a ‘Goin’ Off’ safari and your kids will quite literally have to work for their supper.
In the rugged playground that is Port Lincoln National Park they’ll work up an appetite by sandboarding down some of the park’s soaring dunes. Then they’ll meet local fisherman in the city of Port Lincoln and pick out the likes of lobster, prawns and tuna; and at beautiful Coffin Bay, they wade out to the blackened racks and harvest oysters.
It doesn’t stop there. In a sheltered cove they’re given masks and snorkels and shown how to forage for scallops, cockles and mussels. And when Lunch finally reveals his secret he’ll teach them how to rig up a rod for salmon, whiting and maybe a little snapper. Meanwhile a roaring campfire is burning down to hot coals, while lemon, black pepper and tin foil sits in readiness.
Question is: will the kids deliver?
Lunch collects guests from their accommodation. In Coffin Bay, try the mid-price Longbeach Apartments or the Caravan Park. More upmarket accommodation to be found in Port Lincoln at the Port Lincoln Hotel or the Marina Hotel Apartments. One of the poshest addresses around is a 500-acre eco-retreat called Tanonga, 25 minutes’ drive from Lincoln. The Port Lincoln Caravan Park is especially good and enjoys amazing views.
The Baird Bay ‘double’
Australia offers a number of bragging rights experiences and this is unquestionably one of them.
The drive to Baird Bay is worth it for the views alone – a great vista of sparkling waters fringed by white sands and serene pastures. The bay is well protected, evident from the ocean swells hammering against a rocky foreshore, sending up the occasional boom and curtain of spray.
Alan and Trish Payne of Baird Bay Ocean Eco Adventures will take you out on their boat, and after dispensing snorkeling gear and a few friendly words of procedure, you’re soon over the side into the still, clear waters.
Within a matter of moments you’ll meet the resident bottlenose dolphins. They’ve been enjoying the company of the Paynes and their visitors for 23 years, and to see the pod swirling under and around you is a thing of joy.
When you’ve had your fill of their antics (ha!) you re-board and head to a different part of the bay – home to a colony of sea lions. Once again you’ll submerge and watch as these inquisitive animals come to check you out; it’s strictly up to them as to how they want to interact, but they’re not backwards in coming forwards. When it’s pup time, the little ones love to play.
The Paynes offer a beautiful self-catering property right on the bay. Alternatively there are campsites and plenty of holiday homes at the nearby towns of Venus Bay and Streaky Bay.
Off the map in Gawler Ranges
There’s nothing quite like the outback to make you reassess your place in the world.
The Gawler Ranges encompass a vast expanse of 1.5 billion year old ranges, sprawling pastoral stations and the emptiness of salt lake country. And the truth is you can get lost around here if you take the wrong unsealed track.
The National Park is no less tamed, but the tracks are at least signed. Head for the Organ Pipes to see the curious landscape of ochre-red columns, formed by powerful volcanic forces. Alternatively, interact with more recent history at Old Paney Homestead, a ruin you’re free to explore. Keep a look out for wildlife – the area is home to 140 species of birds, huge populations of emu and kangaroo, as well as the rare southern hairy-nosed wombat.
Since a little local knowledge goes a long way, you’ll benefit greatly from joining Geoff Scholz on one of his Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris. He’ll show you the gorge country, inland dunes, sites of Aboriginal significance as well as shimmering Lake Gairdner, a salt lake with striking red shores.
The gateway to the park is a lovely country town called Wudinna. Don’t miss the spectacular rock formations nearby, which are high enough (and weird enough) to keep both kids and adults intrigued.
Geoff Scholz has a highly-regarded safari camp called Kangaluna, complete with a ‘Swagon’ wagon onsite which is fun for the kids if they’ve never swagged out under starlight. Within the National Park you can camp at one of seven sites; further north at Mt Ive Station you’ll find a range of accommodation types including shearers quarters; it’s a chance to see a working station up close, plus gain access to private tracks.
The coast of Eyre Peninsula is hung with a necklace of small towns – isolated communities that have flourished on the likes of oysters, abalone, salmon, farmed tuna and King George whiting. Most of the produce is cheerfully sold in the many cafes, restaurants and fishing operations you’ll encounter on the Peninsula’s Seafood Trail. Some producers also offer tours of their operations – a chance to learn as you taste some of the most prized seafood in the world, plus an opportunity for kids to get to grips with things slimy, scaly and slippery.
These towns all thrive on summer tourism between September and April, however the two coasts are distinctly different.
The west coast of Eyre faces the wild seas of the Great Australian Bight. Generally speaking it’s rocky and rugged, with some of its beaches backed by soaring red cliffs. Sublime (and protected) bays like Coffin Bay, Venus Bay and Streaky Bay are home to eponymous towns with family distractions aplenty. Streaky for instance is close to the bizarre rock formations ‘growing’ out of a paddock called Murphy’s Haystacks; Venus Bay has a gorgeous jetty and is one of those fishing spots where even complete novices can get a bite.
The east coast sits on the calmer waters of the Spencer Gulf. It’s much lower in profile, a place of sweeping sands backed by endless pastures. Towns like Arno Bay, Tumby Bay and Cowell offer pretty ports of call, safe beaches, small museums, local fishing charters and the inevitable jetty lined with people fishing into the twilight.
The biggest settlement is Port Lincoln, a striking-looking city of 15,000, spread on steep hills beside prodigious Boston Bay. Lincoln has a distinct personality, and tells a remarkable tale of reinvention through the farming of tuna. Today it’s home to ‘tuna barons’ and aquaculturalists who’ve made many millions since the 1990s.
There’s a lot to see, including Australia’s largest commercial fishing fleet, a slew of museums, and a dramatic foreshore lined with pine-trees and cafes. Adventure Bay Charters can help you immerse the family in the thick of it through a number of action-packed marine adventures (see shark diving below), but you can also get to grips with the essence of Lincoln through their Marina Cruises: you’ll travel in a lovely little electric boat and whirr quietly among the prawn trawlers, tuna boats and the canals which are home to some of the afore-mentioned millionaires.
For Port Lincoln and surrounds see ‘Meet and eat’ section. For the multitude of B&Bs and caravan parks in coastal towns, visit Explore Eyre Peninsula
Port Lincoln with bite
For better or worse (depending on who you talk to these days) Port Lincoln is close to waters that harbor some of the world’s largest Great White sharks. And for better or worse (depending on who you talk to in Port Lincoln) local cage-diving operators love to attract them so visitors can get an eyeful of teeth.
The Neptune Islands, located just over 60km south of Port Lincoln, is where Steven Spielberg shot his live-action footage for Jaws in the early 70s. These days, GoPro-wielding visitors join one of three Lincoln-based operators, Calypso Star Charters, Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions and Adventure Bay Charters. Adventure Bay Charters use the like of rock music to lure whopping apex predators like 5m ‘Big Mumma’ before lowering divers over the side in a cage while Calypso Star Tours use burley.
You may be surprised to learn the minimum age of cage diving is five. Sharks aside, it’s worth bearing in mind the waters out to the island can get rough and seasickness is not uncommon. (Some helpful tips here from the NPS)
Divers are suited and booted, and once in the cage, supplied air via a regulator. If any of the family is uneasy with this, you should consider Adventure Bay Charters which has an ‘Aqua Sub’ (basically a dry underwater viewing pod) so no-one misses the action.
For $395 you get a day-long boat adventure; if you want to dive and/or aqua sub you pay a refundable $100 more, which is refunded if the sharks don’t show. You don’t need a diving license.