Yorke Peninsula, South Australia travel guide: A spectacular, forgotten place

In the main street of Stansbury, there's a delay on the steak sandwiches.

"Come on, let's go to the pub," says Steve Bowley with a nod to the Dalrymple Hotel. And in he strolls, leaving the doors of his ute open wide in the street like a cormorant drying its wings.

Through the windows of the pub, we look across the waters of the Gulf St Vincent towards Adelaide, huddled just over the horizon. The South Australian capital is little more than 60 kilometres away, but here on the Yorke Peninsula distance is irrelevant. The city couldn't feel further away.

Yorke Peninsula might easily be called South Australia's other peninsula. Without the McLaren Vale wineries of the Fleurieu Peninsula, or the epic marine wildlife of the Eyre Peninsula, it's little known outside the state.

There's a timeless holiday air to the leg-shaped peninsula, known locally as Yorkes. It's a place where utes can sit open in main streets, caravan parks still command the best foreshore addresses, and town populations swell tenfold over summer school holidays. 

It's where I spent childhood fishing holidays, and where I recently returned, more than 30 years after my last visit. "You'll probably find nothing has changed," Bowley jokes.

Bowley is a former Adelaide accountant who, 10 years ago, purchased one of Stansbury's five oyster farms. Today, Pacific Estate Oysters has three leases, producing about 2.5 million oysters.

This afternoon I'm heading to the leases with Bowley, as part of a crewing experience offered by Pacific Estate Oysters. Visitors can pick oysters from the baskets, paying for nothing but the oysters they wish to buy at the end.

"It's a working tour - there are no airs and graces," Bowley says. "What you get is an authentic working boat. Your feet get wet; there's spray."

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Sure enough, I'm soon licking salt from my teeth as the boat skims over a forest of the sea grass that gives Stansbury's oysters a distinctive flavour. The town's leases are lined along a sand spit that arcs out from the town. We pull alongside, stepping off the boat and onto the spit, unclipping baskets from the lines and emptying them onto the floor of the boat.

Bowley was wrong; things have changed. This is a fishing experience unlike any from my childhood.

There are more changes as I continue down the peninsula. Twenty-five kilometres south of Stansbury, Edithburgh was once South Australia's third-busiest port, exporting 80,000 tonnes of salt a year. Today it ships out nothing but recreational fishing boats and holidaymakers, like me, heading for Troubridge Island.

This tiny sand island, seemingly staked into the sea by its lighthouse, is a 15-minute boat ride from Edithburgh. The lighthouse was built in the 1850s after seven ships wrecked in an eight-month period, and was manned until 1982. The light ceased operating in 2002, but still stands tall and prominent, even as the island continually changes shape around it.

Chris Johnson first came to the island in 1974, running supplies to the lighthouse keepers. With wife Judy, he leased the island from the state government in 1993, and has been running the lighthouse keeper's cottage at the foot of the candy-striped lighthouse as guest accommodation ever since.

As Johnson's boat pulls up in the shallows around the island, I wade ashore, clear ocean to my knees and white beach ahead.

The island offers pure isolation, with the cottage hired out exclusively to single bookings at a time, though I will be far from alone. The island, which is effectively a sand shoal built up by the presence of nearby Marion Reef, is home to a colony of about 350 little penguins, with about 30,000 other birds using the island for nesting, breeding or migratory stopovers.

"At any given time of the year there will be some birds nesting on the island," Johnson says.

Today, as I walk a lap of the island, it's like a bird convention. Hundreds of cormorants nest in the scrub and wander the beach. Pelicans and black swans cruise the shallows and, on dusk, clouds of starlings seem almost to drop out of the sky onto the island. As darkness falls, the island whirrs with the sound of penguins in the burrows that surround the cottage. For mammalian company, I have Troubridge's single resident sea lion.

The cottage, which sleeps up to 12, is basic, but for the duration of my stay, it's my deserted-island/private-beach dream in one. At high tide it shrinks to become a virtual pot plant in the sea, but at low tide it grows 10 times in size as the sand flats that ring the island are exposed.

Dusk and dawn are ritually spectacular, with the rising sun electrifying the sky as it climbs above the night-time glow of Adelaide, and the falling sun seemingly chopped to pieces by the wind turbines behind Edithburgh.

Returning to the mainland, I continue driving south, rounding the heel of the peninsula on dirt roads that skirt the rim of low sea cliffs topped with wind-pruned shrubs.

Yorkes' wildest places are down here, where the Southern Ocean whittles away at a brittle limestone coast. Waves tower from the sea, drawing surfers to the likes of Marion Bay, where the peninsula's pulse beats slowest.

"There's an understanding that if the surf's up, you'll have to wait till tomorrow for a tradey," one local tells me.

Just beyond Marion Bay is Yorkes' lone national park. As the road rises over a hill past Stenhouse Bay, just inside Innes National Park, I realise I'm entering a place of great beauty.

Stretched out below are jagged cliffs underscored by white beaches. Islands huddle close to shore in a scene that might have been plagiarised from the Great Ocean Road. Only a pair of lighthouses – mainland and island – hint at a darker side to the beauty.

The park, which covers Yorkes' south-western tip, provides some striking contrasts. It's a place of low bush and high surf; a former gypsum mine that's become the peninsula's prime natural asset.

Perhaps the most striking contrast of all comes at Pondalowie Bay, where I head one morning before sunrise, drawn along a boardwalk through the dunes by the hum of waves.

At one end of Pondalowie Bay, fishing boats shelter in protected waters. Further along the same beach, past a fishing boat run aground on the sand, are fierce breaks where surfers are often joined in the waves by dolphins. Only days before, a video of a dolphin leaping almost over the nose of pro surfer Soli Bailey's board near here had gone viral.

From an observation platform at the boardwalk's end, I sit and watch the ocean, less intrigued by the half-dozen surfers in the water than by the idea of the dolphins that sadly aren't in the water this morning.

If Yorkes' natural assets are in the south, much of its human history is in the north. Around Moonta and Kadina, the wealth of what was once Australia's richest copper mine filled the streets with grand buildings, while the presence of Cornish miners created a heritage that still fills bakeries with Cornish pasties.

But like so much of the country, human history here goes back much further. At Port Wakefield I meet Quenten Agius of Aboriginal Cultural Tours. Agius has been running indigenous-focused tours around Yorkes since 2003 and is a hall of fame member in the South Australian Tourism Awards. 

For a day I travel with Agius, seeing the peninsula from an entirely new perspective. There will be stops at the 500-year-old grave of an Aboriginal woman, an ancient fish trap arcing out from the cliffs at Black Point, and a sobering visit to an innocuous-looking stone building in a field that was a prison in the 19th century for Aboriginal people who resisted encroaching settlement.

"That's how they dealt with the people," Agius says, pointing to slits cut into the crumbling walls. "They shot them through the slits. The old people said that if we didn't put the prison in our tours, we weren't telling the whole story."

Creation stories run like contours across our day, including the battles that stained Ardrossan's cliffs red, and the sporadic salt lakes scratched out by a kangaroo.

At one point we stop on a nondescript hill, and I think Agius might be showing me a view, but instead he points down, to a seemingly bare patch of earth.

"That's a stone midden," he says, forcing me to look closer. Suddenly the surface resembles an ancient toolbox, covered in cutting stones, grinding stones and the thick bases of old glass bottles shaped into knife-like tools. Elsewhere on the peninsula, there are middens dated to about 8000 years of age.

Thirty years between visits suddenly doesn't seem an eternity any more.

FIVE MORE YORKE PENINSULA ATTRACTIONS

Corny Point Lighthouse: Lighthouses abound on Yorkes, including this photogenic 1881 light station on a wild point that Matthew Flinders likened to a corn on the peninsula's foot.

Moonta Mines State Heritage Area: Tour the remnants and reminders of the copper mines at the very edge of Moonta town.

Barley Stacks Wines: Amid wheat and barley crops near Maitland is the unexpected sight of 10 hectares of grapes from this award-winning vineyard, with cellar door.

Walk the Yorke: Opened in 2015, this 500-kilometre hiking trail circuits the peninsula. The wildest, most scenic sections are around the south-west corner.

Inneston: Wander the century-old ruins of the former gypsum-mining town inside Innes National Park. Seven buildings have been restored into surprisingly contemporary visitor accommodation.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

southaustralia.com

yorkepeninsula.com.au

GETTING THERE

It's a two-hour drive from Adelaide Airport to Moonta or Ardrossan. Virgin Australia flies daily to Adelaide from Sydney and Melbourne. See virginaustralia.com.au

STAYING THERE

The lighthouse keeper's cottage on Troubridge Island costs $120 per person per night. Call (08) 8852 6290. At the peninsula's northern end, Wallaroo Marina Apartments and Hotel has a range of rooms overlooking the town marina. See wallarooapartments.com.au. 

The writer travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.

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