South Australia’s remote Eyre Peninsula is a wondrous mix of outback and coastline, where farming, fishing and tourism support enterprising people and make a spectacular journey for travellers.

Story By Terri Cowley

This is a place where the outback yields to the ocean, but not without a fight. Red and raw, the earth grasps at the coast, only to fall off cliffs or somersault into a beach of windswept dunes. Either way, the ramming, beautifully turquoise ocean wins, carrying in its waves billion-year-old dirt. This is the Eyre Peninsula, the largest land mass to jut into the tempestuous Great Australian Bight. Despite its size – 45,000 square kilometres – most Australians would not include it on a hand-drawn map, that stretch from Western Australia to Victoria inevitably illustrated, and imagined, as a smooth line. But the fact that this waterless peninsula (it has no rivers, only ephemeral lakes) has been somewhat forgotten is what makes it a welcome discovery for those who travel its craggy coastline and meet its people.
Port Lincoln is a logical starting point for an exploration of the Eyre Peninsula. But “Lincoln”, as the locals call it, is worthy of exploration in its own right. Until the 1980s it was simply a fishing village, but low stocks of tuna and the introduction of fishing quotas threatened its livelihood. Croat fisherman Dinko Lukin – father of Dean, Australia’s only gold-medallist weightlifter – began farming the fish and a new, lucrative industry was born. With growing Japanese demand for southern bluefin tuna, Dinko and his contemporaries created a prosperous future for this town of 15,000 people. One 130-kilogram bluefin tuna – that’s big but not impossibly so – sold for $140,000 in Japan earlier this year, so the fishing companies are very protective of their catch. In June the town’s biggest fishing company, the Stehr Group, headed by illustrious local identity Hagan Stehr, laid claim to the next exciting and timely step in the development of the industry (some of the gloss having come off tuna fishing with the global economic downturn) with the breeding of tuna in captivity. A town and an industry are waiting to see whether the precious fingerlings survive.
Today there are 150 licensed tuna pens in Boston Bay off Port Lincoln where wild fish are kept for about six months, during which time they are fed two or three times a day and double their weight. The fishing of pilchards to feed the tuna, as well as seafood including kingfish, oysters, abalone, mussels and prawns, means just about everyone here is hooked into the industry.
Former spray painter Peter Dennis, of Triple Bay Boat Charters, is one of the many knowledgeable guides plying the waters of the bays around Lincoln. “We don’t have a big hook to get people to Port Lincoln,” Peter says. “People discover it by accident. But there’s a lot to do once you get here.” Another tour-boat operator, Adventure Bay Charters, has one of the pens for underwater viewing, feeding and swimming with the surprisingly large tuna. One quirky cruise promises a tour of the Gold Coast-like canals on which the city’s upper crust live, on tuna money of course. It’s a chance to hear stories about Lincoln’s rich residents, while cleansing the palate with sashimi and wasabi.
Out of town, gently spoken former electronics technician Phil Porter shares his love of the area’s stunning landscapes on guided bushwalks. He and wife Amanda launched Wilderness Wanders just under a year ago and cater for everything from short walks to overnight hikes. “I just love being outdoors,” Phil, a born-and-bred local, says. “I’ve been bushwalking since my schooldays.” Phil has walked practically the whole coastline of the Eyre Peninsula, so he’s a good man to have with you on any exploration on foot. He can organise access to the windswept Whalers Way, an area of private land about half an hour south, the site of a whaling station for southern right whales in the 1830s.

This story excerpt is from Issue #66

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2009