With its abundant wildlife, sleepy villages and pristine wilderness, a drive through South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula is to experience the country at its ruggedly beautiful and charming best.
Driving out of the small country town of Wudinna on the way to Kangaluna Camp, we take a sudden left and the landscape is just that little bit more wild. The road becomes a rolling, orange dirt track cutting through an expanse of bush as far as the eye can see.
“I love getting into the outback,” I say dreamily to my guide Geoff Scholz of Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, sat beside me at the helm of the 4WD.
“We’re not there yet,” he replies.
“The outback,” says Geoff with a smile. I think about this as we pass a bullet-hole-ridden kangaroo road sign covered in what I thought was outback dust. “It’s not for a few kilometres yet.”
Turns out that unlike those endless towns you drive through in NSW proclaiming they’re the true start of the outback, South Australians know exactly where it begins.
As we drive to his (official) outback retreat, Geoff tells me the fascinating story of George Goyder, a surveyor who, in the mid 1860s, made it his mission to determine a boundary where Western civilisation could exist in the new colony of South Australia before a lack of water made farming nay on impossible and ‘districts’ of land were no longer sold.
We wind our way towards the Gawler Ranges National Park, 1633 square kilometres of pristine bush in the northern Eyre Peninsula, 350 kilometres north-west of Adelaide.
In the distance stands the fantastically named Mt Allalone; we stop to take a shot of the battered old, original ‘Out of Districts’ sign, marking the point where civilisation ends and wilderness begins. Now we’re in the outback.
Indeed, the Eyre Peninsula has a long history of people trying to tame it, and the flight into the isolated coastal town of Ceduna the day before is a fitting introduction to this wild place.
Arriving at the tail-end of a cyclone that has carved a path across the deserts from the Kimberley to here, the weather is worsening and I wonder if our small, twin-propeller plane will be turned back to Adelaide. But we seemingly fly through the eye of the storm and make it on to the remote landing strip.
The arrivals lounge is basically a small 1930s house that would be charming if it weren’t for the lashing rain. But we’re not staying here; we drive along flooding roads to the attractive fishing village of Streaky Bay and find our room at Streaky Bay Motel & Villas.
But in the deluge there isn’t much to do apart from retreat to the local pub opposite an old wooden jetty for its specialty of oysters Kilpatrick; there’s even a couple of grey nomads at the bar who are here especially for the dish, having ordered theirs en route.
The following morning it’s bright, warm and still, as if nothing had happened, and I’m greeted by the peculiar view of a pensioner zooming down the road on a Segway.
I track his progress as he pulls up outside Streaky Bay Seafood, dismounts and hurries inside the shop, as fishermen in white gum boots carry boxes of their fresh catch through a side door.
We’re not similarly inclined to start the day with fish, however, and so make our way to Bay Funktion, a pretty little cafe cum flower and gift shop that seems to be where the rest of the village has decamped, save that Segway-mounted old man.
Coffee and a slice of cheesecake later we’re back on the road, past the remarkable Murphy’s Haystacks rock formation and heading north to Wudinna and our rendezvous with Geoff.
Meeting the locals
“Stony should be there to greet us,” says Geoff as we approach Kangaluna Camp in deep sand tracks that threaten to bog us down.
Blue eyes and blond hair betray a German ancestry, but Geoff couldn’t be more local; he hasn’t just lived in Wudinna all his life, an hour down the dirt track, he was born there, too.
“Why would I want to live anywhere else?” he smiles, parking outside the impressive camp that he built himself, positioned on the border of the national park and on the banks of a striking purple–mauve-coloured lake owing to the clay here.
Unloading bags from the Hilux as the sun starts to set, I’m peering around for Stony, no doubt a salt-of-the-earth kind of fellow, to help with the luggage.
But all I see is a three-foot-tall joey bouncing towards us. Stony is a baby grey that Geoff and his team rescued, his mother having abandoned him at the nearby water trough, unable to feed him in time of drought.
Stony would become one of the star attractions of our stay, as we try not to trip on his tail around the dinner table and watch as the team gets him used to being back in the wild, ready for his eventual safe release. It’s getting dark as we savour wine and canapés.
Our fellow guests are sleeping in glamorous safari-style, canvassed huts, each with their own verandah, but we’re the lucky ones. We’re staying in the ‘swagon’, a converted wagon more than a hundred years old that would have been pulled by five cart-horses back in Goyder’s day.
Somehow they managed to drag it to the middle of nowhere out here for guests to sleep in. We roll the canvas sides up and listen to the silence of the desert as the Milky Way rises overhead.
Going On safari
The Gawler Ranges National Park has its stand-out attractions such as the Organ Pipes rock formation, but we’re here to see the subtle beauty of the place, secret corners that only Geoff and big reds know.
We’re talking excitedly about a mob of 30 or so greys that we’ve just admired leaping across the plains, when another group does their best to throw themselves under the wheels of our convoy.
Geoff brakes and swerves to avoid them by inches. There can’t have been a vehicle pass through this stretch of bush in days, but the suicidal roos decided to choose that precise inopportune moment to cross. Typical!
We’re heading deep into the park, the range itself making a dramatic scar in the bush to our left. Geoff points out an innocuous hill with a boulder on top, in fact an ancient marker placed by aboriginals to reveal the site of a good source of flint; a pause for some tea is a chance to look for white, angular stones that were once spearheads.
The aboriginal heritage is rich here; earlier we were shown a rock site – the ochre, white and yellow clays of which were once used for ceremonial decoration. It’s all illustrated by Geoff and guide Rosemary Woodford Ganf (who happens to be one of Australia’s most renowned wildlife artists, her sculptures and furniture employed throughout the camp), with an ancient indigenous tale of squabbling goannas.
We make an abrupt stop and I find that we’re suddenly in another national park altogether and surely one of this country’s most striking for its stark beauty. Lake Gairdner is a brilliant white desert of salt that blends seamlessly into clouds on distant horizons, making you want to start running into its featureless nothing.
The salt basin is a photographer’s dream and we spend an hour taking in this remarkable alien world, so vast that it’s used for land-speed records and by NASA to calibrate the position of spacecraft.
As the suns sets, we take detours to nowhere as we’re driven off-track to where the wild things are. It’s strangely emotional to see the big reds in their element, the lions of Australia.
They always seem to stand as a pair with young joey in sight. A big male puffs his chest as we make a slow pass, his red-blond fur blending with the grasses and rocks of his kingdom.
It’s a long drive south to our final destination, Port Lincoln, but it couldn’t be any more dramatic, and that’s discounting the countless times we have to swerve to avoid blue tongues basking on the hot bitumen.
Leaving the Gawler Ranges behind, we track across to coastal town Elliston and follow a cliff-hugging ocean road.
Stopping at Cummings Lookout we stand on a precipice and gaze out to the roiling Southern Ocean; we’re literally on the edge of the world, next stop Antarctica.
Looking back along the coast affords the almost Escher-like, logic-defying sight of the ocean together with Lake Hamilton perched on top of the adjacent cliffs in the same view, the two bodies of water a couple of hundred metres or so apart.
The lookout commemorates the place where 23-year-old Leo Cummings drowned when the crayfish boat he was on, the Wangaree, ran aground in 1959; a poignant reminder of the Eyre Peninsula’s beautiful yet wholly wild and unforgiving nature.
Edge of the world
Back on the road, a sign for Coffin Bay doesn’t require a second thought to make an impromptu detour. The picturesque town occupies a complex coastal geography of isles, inlets and channels, the perfect habitat for its world-famous delicacy.
We pull over at 1802 Oyster Bar + Bistro, order a dozen oysters and its bespoke on-tap Cutter’s Dredge beer, and dine in silence with views of the estuary, its surface broken only by rows of oyster traps. I think back to that mirror-like, purple-coloured lake adjacent to Kangaluna Camp.
We had taken a stroll along its shores as dusk fell and I watched in amazement as kangaroos burst out of the bush and headed straight out over the water.
In fact only a few inches deep, the roos seemingly danced across the lake, making ripples with each hop. It’s something that will stay with me, an indelible memory of a place where the outback begins.
Streaky Bay Motel & Villas – Not far from the airport at Ceduna, a two-bedroom villa here is a great place from which to start a road trip in the quaint village of Streaky Bay. From $110 a night for a motel room.
Port Lincoln Hotel – Having explored the Eyre Peninsula, this plush, modern hotel looking out to the Southern Ocean is a fine place to unwind before your journey home… or to go shark caging. From $155.
REX provides a daily passenger service to and from Adelaide, with two flights daily Monday to Friday and one flight daily Saturday and Sunday.