Treasure with a copper tinge

Carol West skirts a coastline heavy with metal and memories.

IT'S DANK and dark and I'm not feeling too comfortable as Ned runs through a history of mid-19th-century gold and copper mining. Waving a thin beam of torchlight,

I follow him slushing through mud in rubber boots - "the day spa", Ned quips - tracing the ore body down 55 metres below sea level. As the pathway corkscrews to a dead end, we turn off our lights to experience the Moonta mine shaft's eerie blackness and dripping water, while he recounts the story of the legendary copper deposit discovered here in 1861.

"The Welsh were the world's best smelters and they came to Wallaroo along with Cornish tin miners to work the Wheal Hughes copper mine," says Ned, a proud fifth-generation miner. Back in the day, one miner focused his light on the steel rod he was holding while another hit it with a sledgehammer. "It's called trust," Ned says dryly.

A two-hour drive from Adelaide, the Yorke Peninsula's Copper Coast and surrounding districts are chock-full of heavy-metal experiences, both below and above ground. Our first encounter is the Highway 1 protest statues, a motley collection of tin sculptures that loom out of the plains just south of Dublin. Including a giant rat, blowfly, Ned Kelly and a spaceship, they were created by a local farmer as a visual objection to a planned dump and have since become quirky landmarks.

This is barley-growing country, where manicured fields roll into the Gulf St Vincent and, at Ardrossan, ochre cliffs swoop dramatically down to the sand, where a long, slender jetty points a bony finger seawards. Rivulets of clear water shimmy over sandy bottoms, where people stand knee-deep, fishing for King George whiting hiding in seagrass beds and boys excitedly net blue swimmer crabs.

At Black Point, the road slips down to the beach, where we stroll past million-dollar "shacks". Monkey-puzzle trees trim the Gulf's gentle curve into Port Vincent, a quiet village of limestone buildings with a 1960s-holiday vibe, before we follow the arrow-straight bitumen strip to Stansbury, famous for its plump oysters sampled for lunch in the Port Vincent Hotel.

Judging from the motor homes and towed vehicles, this is South Australia's camping and caravan heartland, but what better way is there to spread your wings, explore vast spaces and simply get away? Reaching the peninsula's southern tip, we enter Innes National Park, where young park ranger Aaron is ready to show us around. The fast-talking Aaron is obviously a man in a hurry with a lot of territory to cover: 9223 hectares, to be precise. Standing above the park's wild West Cape, stunning vistas fan out with water on three sides and a short walk to the West Cape lighthouse takes us to the brink of a high-energy coastline. "We had a run of salmon off West Cape Beach recently; it was awesome," says Aaron, who obviously keeps his fishing rod under the desk.

During the next few hours, we tramp the high tracks, passing emus and wallabies, before taking timber walkways down to the shoreline, where churning water is carving into ochre cliffs. Overlooking Investigator Strait, Spencer Lighthouse guards treacherous waters that have chalked up six shipwrecks since 1878.

Turning inland, we explore the company town of Inneston, established in 1913 by the Yorke Peninsula Plaster Company. This isolated community was home to 130 settlers who used picks and shovels to mine the top layers of gypsum. A pathway skirts the edge of a lake and we pause at the remnants of village life: dwellings, a general store, school and the stables that housed teams of clydesdales, used to haul bags of plaster to the jetty at Stenhouse Bay. Native scrub has reclaimed the Inneston cricket ground and forced its way through cracks in the concrete tennis court.

Further along the coast at the Marion Bay Tavern, surfer dudes line the bar and tuck in. The restaurant's surf-loving chef, Adam Sommariva, has created a mod-Oz menu that includes local tuna, naked oysters and Marion Oscar, a fillet served with Asian greens, succulent Moreton Bay bugs and tangy lime dill mayo. I was expecting a tired '60s motel experience at Marion Bay but instead find six sleek units with scrumptious in-room breakfast hampers included.

Our easy driving odyssey continues past expansive barley fields, the tranquil Spencer Gulf, straggly acacias and clusters of limestone cottages. Huge grain stacks signal our arrival into Maitland, a regional hub replete with country pubs and bull-nose verandahs. "October is a beautiful time to visit," Lyall Schulz says. "The canola is golden and the barley is high." He's behind the bar of Barley Stacks Winery, the first commercial vineyard to be established in the midst of this traditional barley belt. Housed in a large corrugated-tin shed with dirt floor, he pours a tasting glass of plum-coloured shiraz that fills the mouth with rich fruit flavours.

Continuing along the coast, we reach Wallaroo, where men drive on to the broad, sunlit beach, looking for the best fishing spot. At pretty Port Broughton, we follow a five-kilometre trail that skirts a stretch of water to reach Fisherman Bay. It's eerily quiet, just the buzz of flies, as we wander Whiting, Perch and Sole roads. A strand of painted fibro shacks are seemingly cobbled together with whatever could be salvaged, as fishermen, silhouetted by a bronze sunset, leave the Copper Coast in their wake.

The writer travelled courtesy of South Australia Tourism.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas operate daily services to Adelaide from major capital cities. 13 13 13,

Staying there

Port Vincent Holiday Cabins, 12 Main Street, Port Vincent, from $120, (08) 8853 7411,

Marion Bay Motel, 7 Stenhouse Bay Road, Marion Bay, from $130, (08) 8854 4044,

Wallaroo Marina Apartments and Hotel, 11 Heritage Drive, Wallaroo, from $159, (08) 8823 4068,

More information

Three (other) things to do

1. Minlaton boy Harry Butler rose to great heights as an early 20th-century aviation pioneer. His Bristol Monoplane the "Red Devil", believed to be the only one of its kind, can be viewed in a display hanger in Minlaton. Captain Butler was the first man to fly across Gulf St Vincent to Yorke Peninsula.

2. Keep your eyes peeled for The Coffee Barn Gelateria and Villa Martini signs about two kilometres south of Moonta. Frank Martino's handmade gelati, including peanut butter fudge, Turkish delight, blood orange and green apple, are well worth the detour.

3. Artful food is on the menu at Palate 2 Palette in Port Broughton. The restaurant and coffee lounge incorporates a gallery of the work of local artists from sculptors and painters to jewellery and woodwork artisans. A treat for all the senses at 6 Bay Street.