The South Australia guide: Eyre Peninsula

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From the big fish of Port Lincoln to a luxury inland camp, the Eyre Peninsula can easily be explored over a long weekend, writes Dominic Rolfe.

Thursday night

- (overnight) in Adelaide

The Eyre Peninsula, a 45-minute flight west of Adelaide, has it all. Well, almost. Yes, there are stunning rugged coastlines, endless white-sand beaches, a wealth of salmon, abalone, oysters and world-class tuna. Not to mention rolicking sea lions and dolphins and luxury bush camping in tracts of wattle-soaked mallee woodlands by dazzling salt lakes. But it's missing that thing you usually get with country as extraordinary as this. The crowds. Just leave time in your diary for a return visit.

Friday morning

- (fly) into Port Lincoln and swim with the tuna

You've jetted in over the ocean, picked up the hire car and scooted along the shores of Boston Bay to Port Lincoln. But you'll need to get in the water to discover what really drives the gateway to the peninsula.

Adventure Bay Charters at the Port Lincoln marina runs the world's first tuna swimming experience, a two-hour introduction to a town that has grown rich on the tuna's back. Dive into the glistening bay waters and watch in awe as the sardine you're clutching in your hand disappears in a furious metallic flash when 60 kilograms of southern bluefin tuna torpedoes past at 60kmh to devour its lunch. There's no need to flinch, though. The grace and power of these fish is breathtaking and exacting - they don't even brush you as they whoosh past during the swim ($95).

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Owner and tour leader Matt Waller is a fourth-generation fisherman who grew up eating mackerel belly four days a week. His knowledge of the industry is encyclopaedic and the tuna farm he set up in 2007 is important for both research and tourism. If you don't want to get wet, you can watch his charges being fed from the platform ($65), as well as seeing the tuna and a host of other marine life - including snapper, trevally and crabs - from the underwater viewing room.

Friday lunch

- (experience) local fare at the Marina Hotel

At the spot where you disembark, duck into the Marina Hotel for local fare such as bluefin tuna with rosa sauce and squid-ink pasta and spinach, washed down with a glass of Coopers Pale Ale, the iconic South Australian brew.

Friday afternoon

- (do) the dunes

After fuelling up, it's time to hit the sandhills. Unlike a pre-season boot camp, however, this trip lets you discover the beauty of the Lincoln National Park's 6000-year-old Sleaford-Wanna dune system without breaking a sweat. Meet Phil and Amanda Porter, owners of Wilderness Wanders, at the marina for their Wild Dune Drive ($95). They're also animal rescuers, so nursing an orphaned joey could well be part of the journey.

On one of the most popular tours Wilderness Wanders offers, the more adventurous can surf the 80-metre-high waves of grit on a sandboard or just explore the craggy coastline and untouched beaches that jut into the Spencer Gulf and are only accessible to experienced four-wheel-drive drivers.

After the tour, as the sun sets, grab a panoramic view of Port Lincoln and Boston Bay from the lookout at Stamford Hill just outside town and get some rest at the Port Lincoln Hotel for a big day tomorrow (don't miss breakfast - bircher muesli, fruit and pancakes).

Saturday morning

- (drive) to Coffin Bay

Even if you've never heard of the Eyre Peninsula, chances are Coffin Bay rings a bell. This small, picturesque town, a 30-minute drive from Port Lincoln, produces some of the country's best oysters, including Pristine Oysters, which recently won the 2010 Sydney Royal Fine Food Champion Oyster award. Head up to the lookout on the outskirts of town for a bird's-eye view of the waterways that have a greater length of coastline than Sydney Harbour, then follow the road around the bay to the boat ramp and climb aboard the Coffin Bay Explorer for a half-day tour ($85).

Local lad, former agronomist and sometime oyster-farm labourer Darian Gale, who runs the Explorer, explains the oyster life cycle as he navigates shallow, sandbar-dotted waters brimming with fish, dolphins and seal colonies on his way to leases that hold up to one billion oysters at any one time, from nascent spats to jumbos. If you're lucky, you might spot an emu or kangaroo wading out into the bay in search of the freshwater springs that bubble up from the ocean floor. Then taste freshly shucked oysters with a dash of lime or lemon juice pulled direct from Coffin Bay. While you're gobbling them down, ask Gale to point out Gallipoli Beach, where the invasion scenes for Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, were filmed because of its striking resemblance to the actual Anzac landing point in Turkey.

Saturday lunch

- (indulge) at The Oysterbeds Restaurant

It might have a laid-back vibe but there's some serious business going on in the kitchen of The Oysterbeds. Chef and owner Marion Trethewey draws on the best of the region's produce, from seafood and Tumby Bay lamb to local organic almonds, all served up with spectacular views across Coffin Bay. Feast on delicate tuna sashimi wontons with wasabi crème and nashi pear, citrus-soused kingfish or wok-tossed chilli sandcrabs at one of the peninsula's best restaurants.

Saturday afternoon

- (explore) the west coast

For the out-of-towner, there's a custom you need to get used to on the sparsely trafficked roads of the Eyre Peninsula: the one-finger salute from passing cars. It's not a derisive city-style salute - more a languorous raising of the index finger from the wheel as you pass a fellow traveller on the lonely highway. Even the local police indulge.

The lack of traffic, however, gives no indication of what lies just off the highway. Or maybe the locals want to keep this secret to themselves - a rugged, weathered coastline with rocky outcrops topped with osprey nests, sheer cliffs tumbling into the swirling whitewash of the Great Australian Bight and sand dunes bookending wide, open beaches.

This is the Great Ocean Road without the crowds.

Head out from Mount Hope, a one-hour drive from Coffin Bay, with David Doudle of Goin' Off Safaris to see the best of the area, from long cliff-top walks to local picnic and whale-watching spots. Born and raised on this stretch of coast, Doudle knows all its secrets - from secluded shallows littered with green-lip abalone and King George whiting to stunning white sand dunes and beaches teeming with hungry Australian salmon. He will also customise tours to your needs - a half-day tour ($135) will barely whet your appetite. So bait up quickly and throw a line in. It's unlikely you'll have to wait long for a bite.

Saturday night

- (go) bush

Kangaluna bush camp is more than 200 kilometres inland from Mount Hope, north of Wudinna, but it's an easy drive on quiet roads with a maximum speed limit of 110kmh. It's noisier when the road trains roar by at Wudinna, which lies on the Eyre Highway, the great east-west road that crosses the Nullarbor Plain.

Meet local Geoff Scholz, who runs Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris in Wudinna. He'll take you to his luxurious six-year-old Kangaluna camp on the edge of the Gawler Ranges National Park. After weaving over white-sand hills, through she-oak forests and into the eucalypts by a salt lake, it's time for a glass of red as the sun sinks.

By dark, mallee stumps will be smouldering on a fire under a billion-star sky (the camp has a computer-controlled telescope for avid stargazers). But don't be fooled - there's nothing rustic about dinner. On a long wooden table, Scholz will serve roast stuffed chicken thighs rolled in prosciutto and a chocolate soufflé with vanilla-bean ice-cream and strawberries.

This is camping in comfort. The three two-room tents Scholz set in the bush are perfectly appointed (he declined a request from Taronga Zoo to replicate his set-up for them) and the mattresses are dreamy. For this chance to sleep among the stars, you'll need an extra day in your diary, as rates are based on staying two days ($560 per person for two days and one night).

Sunday Morning

- (marvel) at the Gawler Ranges

Rise early, enjoy that hot shower and head to the dining room for breakfast, from which you are likely to spot kangaroos, emus or one of more than 100 species of birds, including the ever-present Mallee ringneck parrot.

Amateur geologist and botanist Scholz or one of his guides will take you out to discover the beauty of the ever-changing wilderness through the Gawler Ranges National Park, including the stunning Organ Pipes rock formations, ochre pits and the billion-year-old stromatolite formations.

Sadly, there's no time to squeeze in a trip to Lake Gairdner, the striking, 160-kilometre-long salt lake north of the ranges, but put it on the list for next time before heading back through open farmland and mallee scrub to the coast, grabbing a late lunch on the run.

Sunday afternoon

- (swim) with the sea lions

At Baird Bay, the sea lion colony that lives at the mouth of a shallow inlet outnumbers the permanent human colony of the tiny village. That's good news for nature lovers because these curious, eternally playful and rare natives love human interaction.

Alan and Trish Payne run the Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience and are passionate about the welfare of sea lions and dolphins and about showcasing them in their environment. Cruise out on their purpose-built boat, don supplied snorkels and wetsuits and try to make like a sea lion on this four-hour tour ($140). Watching them watching you, mimicking your ungainly moves and then zooming effortlessly past is magical.

In the same stretch of water, a pod of dolphins cut through the waves like expert bodysurfers. Drop into the water as they glide beside you and dive down to hear them talk.

Drag yourself, wrinkled and reluctant, on deck and towel off. Take a quick drive up over the headland from Baird Bay and soak in the vista over to the Venus Bay peninsula before heading north to Ceduna.

Sunday afternoon

- (fly) home

As you make your way to Ceduna airport, swing by Sceale Bay, Streaky Bay or Smoky Bay for a final glimpse of the gorgeous, untrammelled beaches a world away from city life. Peer out at the ocean where those southern bluefin tuna cruise by. Is that the sea spray or are you getting a little misty-eyed for a simpler, more scenic existence?

The writer was a guest of South Australia Tourism.

THE ADDRESS BOOK

- Adventure Bay Charters Office. 2 Jubilee Drive, Port Lincoln. Phone: 0488 428 862. adventurebaycharters.com.au.

- Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience, 35 Baird Bay Road, Baird Bay. Phone: (08) 8626 5017. bairdbay.com.

- Coffin Bay Explorer, Lot 17 Nancy Road, Coffin Bay. Phone: 0428 880 621. coffinbayexplorer.com.

- Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, Bedford Road, Wudinna. Phone: 1800 243 343. gawlerrangessafaris.com.

- Goin' Off Safaris, 16 Kitchener Terrace, Mount Hope. Phone: (08) 8687 7480. goinoffsafaris.com.au.

- The Marina Hotel, 13 Jubilee Drive, Lincoln Cove Marina, Port Lincoln. Phone: (08) 8682 6141. marinahotel.com.au.

- The Oysterbeds Restaurant, 61 Esplanade, Coffin Bay. Phone: (08) 8685 4000. oysterbeds.com.au

- Port Lincoln Hotel, 1 Lincoln Highway, Port Lincoln. Phone: 1300 766 100. portlincolnhotel.com.au.

- Wilderness Wanders, PO Box 1239, Port Lincoln. Phone: (08) 8684 5001. wildernesswanders.com.au.

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