The Eyre Peninsula, South Australia: The Aussie spot where Google maps can't help you

Google maps can't help  you here ...  if you get a signal for your cell phone, that is. Some of the Eyre Peninsula Google never seemed to bother mapping at all; just imagine: entire chunks of Australia hidden from satellites. In these parts, rental cars – four-wheel drives most of them, there's not much point in driving anything daintier – come equipped with walkie-talkies and ugly black bull bars to muscle off the metre-and-a-half-high red roos that come at you in the dawn and  dusk. 

Clay dirt doubles as highway on the Eyre. It creeps to every major thoroughfare; when the wind's up it blows dry red dust right across your path. Drive 200 kilometres round here and you won't see another car: if it's isolation you're looking for, then it's perfect.

I've driven two hours south from Ceduna – the last town before the Nullarbor – past rolling hills and dusty farmland where ancient windmills turn ever so slowly, pumping groundwater that does nothing to green the countryside. With modern technology rendered useless I'm remembering, sort of, how to read a map. 

I find tiny Baird Bay eventually. It's stretching it calling it a town, more a collection of old timber shacks and corrugated iron sheds by an endless expanse of bay. There's no signs here; tourist operators prefer you rely on common sense: an IQ test I reckon that if you fail they win because they don't have to take you. I contemplate using an old Telstra payphone to call for directions, but head for the beach and the stench of sunburnt kelp. 

I've come here to swim with sea lions and dolphins because I've heard there's no better place on Earth to do it. A grey-bearded bloke in a beanie, with ruddy cheeks, is waiting for me by the water, a sea lion beside him barks at me like it's his dog. 

Alan Payne has run Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience with his wife, Trish, since 1992. Jono the sea lion's not his pet; you can't keep wild creatures as pets and Payne knows the rules better than anyone. Payne's done everything to release Jono back into the wild, but he keeps coming back. "I take him all the way up the bay every night and I have to push the bugger over the side," he says, looking down into Jono's face. "Breaks my heart every bloody time, you've got no idea, but he swims all those miles home every time. Then he's here, barking at me again for doing it."

We take off on Payne's boat, motoring out towards the mouth of the bay where more than 120 sea lions live in a colony in among the shallow sea grass ocean floor. Payne pushes Jono off the boat again, knowing all too well he'll be back. "Come on, mate, find your home," he says sadly. I jump from the boat into the water with the milling sea lions. You won't find a more playful creature in the sea and, while Payne warns that no wild creature is ever completely safe, he reckons sea lions are the gentlest of marine creatures. 

I snorkel as scores of sea lions dart in and around me. They like to view themselves reflected in swimmer's masks so the more lively creatures swim in, stopping just inches from my face – they spin and flip around me, speeding back and forth. After 45 minutes of play we take off for deeper waters near the mouth of Baird Bay. Resident dolphins slice through the clear, chilly waters, some jump clean out of the ocean. There's at least 20 of them, though Payne says sometimes he sees a hundred here. I leap back into the water as dolphins gather all around me, surfing the bow wave of the boat, and coming close for a look at a fresh group of humans. Our guide Michael has a shark shield strapped to his waist so I linger close by him, though Payne says he's seen only four great whites in 23 years of operation.

The Eyre Peninsula stretches for more than a thousand kilometres from the West Australian border to Port Lincoln in the south and Whyalla in the north, covering more than 2000 kilometres of coastline. I plan to see as much of it as I can in a few short days, so I journey back to the dusty highway and travel north-west to Streaky Bay. Every seaside drive round here rivals Victoria's Great Ocean Road.  Just out of Streaky Bay I head west to Cape Bauer and drive past sheltered bays where limestone cliffs tower above and huge waves  crash with a boom on the shore.

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There's not a soul in sight. At sunset I walk to the town's old jetty as a crescent moon hangs in the sky and blokes with boats and gum boots clean their hefty catch. Yachts bob slowly on the mirrored apricot water, while diners gather at iconic local restaurant Mocean Café, with its big deck facing out towards the setting sun.

Just because the Eyre Peninsula is isolated, it doesn't mean your stomach has to suffer. Quite the contrary; they call the Eyre the seafood frontier – home of the country's (the world's) best oysters and tuna.

I drive next day catching snippets of local news on radio stations that drift in and out of reception as I venture south over rugged coastal ranges and beside long, empty beaches, I hear of a shark attack. While great whites are a fact of life here, it is a shame it is these – which visitors travel across the world to view from cages – that are the Eyre's primary tourist drawcard. That's to miss the subtleties of the region entirely; this place where the Australian outback meets the sea. And where much friendlier creatures – with far smaller teeth – frolic with you in their endless expanse of Great Southern Ocean.  

The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See www.southaustralia.com 

GETTING THERE

Major airlines operate regular flights from Sydney or Melbourne to Adelaide. See www.qantas.com.au, www.virginaustralia.com.au, www.tigerair.com,  www.jetstar.com.au. Then fly Regional Express to either Ceduna or Port Lincoln (see www.rex.com.au). Hire a 4WD with Ced Rent (see www.cedrent.com.au). 

STAYING THERE

In Ceduna there's the Ceduna Foreshore Hotel (see www.cedunahotel.com.au), in Streaky Bay the Streaky Bay Motel & Villas (see www.streakybaymotelandvillas.com.au) and in Port Lincoln the Port Lincoln Hotel (see www.portlincolnhotel.com.au)

SEE + DO

Take a morning or afternoon half-day tour to swim with sea lions and dolphins with Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience, see www.bairdbay.com.

DINING THERE

Try the tastiest seafood on the Eyre at Mocean Café in Streaky Bay (see www.moceancafe.com.au), at 1802 Oyster Bar & Bistro in Coffin Bay (see www.1802oysterbar.com.au) and Sarin's Restaurant & Bar in Port Lincoln (see www.portlincolnhotel.com.au).


See also: The only Australian hotel to make the world's top 100

See also: Twenty reasons to visit Kangaroo Island

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