The South Australian road trip every Aussie should drive

A Mitsubishi Pajero Sport beside Coffin Bay

Kendall Hill

Posted November 29, 2019

Why south Australia's stunning Eyre Peninsula is one of the great Australian drives.

From my balcony at the Port Lincoln Hotel, Boston Bay shimmers like quicksilver in the dusky light. The breeze from the Southern Ocean smells like oysters – salty, briny, delicious. It’s so good to be back on the Eyre Peninsula.

A decade ago I came here to camp beside the Gawler Ranges National Park. Few people venture out this way – national park figures suggest only around 10,000 a year – but its red earth and endless blue sky are more impressive for their quiet isolation. With kangaroos and emus dashing across saltbush fields, abandoned settlers' huts and sprawling sheep stations, thorny devils and Sturt’s desert peas, this land is more Australian than almost anywhere else I’ve been on the continent.

This time around I’m doing a road trip in two parts. I’ll drive myself around the southern peninsula over a weekend, eating and drinking in the region’s flourishing food scene. I’ve arranged to borrow a gleaming Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed for the food odyssey and to visit some of the southern beauty spots. Then I’ll head to the outback with Gawler Ranges Safaris, letting their skilled drivers handle the rugged dry river beds and ancient sand dunes. The Pajero is a fine 4WD, but I have zero experience so it’s best to outsource that part of the trip to experts. 

The peninsula, a seven-hour (650-kilometre) drive or 45-minute flight from Adelaide, is probably most famous as Australia’s richest commercial fishery. The Southern Ocean brims with lobster, prawns, abalone, oysters and the southern bluefin tuna that’s made many a Port Lincoln millionaire.

Sunbaked surface of Lake Gairdner
View of Lake Gairdner
Windwill in the Ayre Peninsular

To savour the bounty of Australia’s self-styled ‘seafood capital’, my first stop is The Fresh Fish Place, a processing plant that owner Craig McCathie transformed into a supercharged fish shop and restaurant serving delicacies such as garfish plucked straight from Proper Bay at the end of the road. Informative tours start with the seafood delivery at the loading dock before its consumption on the alfresco deck – in my case, with a platter of smoked oysters, sashimi kingfish, line-caught squid and more.

“The product is there, all we have to do is cook it simply,” Craig explains. “It doesn’t need anything fancy.”

Next morning I set a course north up the Lincoln Highway to Tumby Bay, a coastal town known for its painted silos and, more recently, a terrific French cafe called L’Anse Tumby Cafe that makes croissants and pains au chocolat as good as in Paris. Then I cut across the centre of the Eyre, leaving a trail of dust as I quit main roads for gravel tracks that baffle Google maps.

It’s rare to pass another vehicle but when I do it’s reassuring to see the country salute persists on the peninsula – a single index finger, raised from the wheel in greeting. If a driver’s feeling particularly perky he might give a slight nod of the head as well. 

I reach Coffin Bay in time for a quick recce of the national park where the single road winds through sculpted coastal scrub and signs announce turnoffs to 4WD-accessible beaches. Striking Almonta Beach, Golden Island and Yangie Bay are accessible by sealed road but I’m out of time – I have an appointment with oysters.

Hopeful pelicans line the foreshore while guide Tania Henriksen fits me into wading dungarees for a walk into the water. Tania leads a group of us past Coffin Bay’s oyster-growing lines to Saltwater Pavilion, a semi-submerged ‘cafe’ where we sit at wooden benches, legs in the sea, as server Sunny Yu shucks Pacifics and native angasis for our pleasure. “Always chew the oyster,” Tania says. “You want to get the texture and coat your mouth with the flavour.” 

The peninsula coastline is a string of beautifully scalloped bays; you could lose a week drifting from one to another searching for your beach nirvana. But I’m itching for the outback so it’s a relief when guide David Boxall from Gawler Ranges Safaris arrives next morning to haul me and five foreigners off to the bush.

Saltwater Pavilion at Coffin Bay

Saltwater Pavilion at Coffin Bay

The steep, domed rocks of the Gawler Ranges have stood for some 1.5 billion years but the 50,000-square-kilometre national park is only 17 years old. Fourth-generation wheat farmer Geoff Scholz has guided safaris here since the 1980s and in 2004 set up Kangaluna Camp beside the national park. My fellow travellers take the three African-style ensuite tents; I get the Swagon, a comfortable swag in a Wild West-style wagon.

The Swagon – and the tents’ mallee beds, hand-painted bedspreads and the pine and Oregon dining table – are the work of artist and safari guide Rosie Woodford-Ganf who has worked with Geoff since 2007.

“Are you quite robust?” she asks while showing me the Swagon and its outhouse-style bathroom. I assure her I am so she shows me how to roll up the canvas so I can sleep under the stars. 

The coming days are spent spotting kangaroos, western greys and wallaroos; laughing at bustling emus – “crazy bush chooks”, David Boxall calls them – painting our skin at an ochre pit and crossing sheep stations with names like Buckleboo and Thurlga en route to Lake Gairdner, an endless mirage of 160-kilometre-long salt lake studded with rock islands.  

Golden plains of button spinifex give way to fields of bluebush, then minty-green saltbush, then stands of bullock bush that look like ancient, gnarled olives. We visit the organ-pipe rock formations of Kolay Mirica Falls, but there’s no cascade now after a record-breaking drought. The native animals are suffering too – Geoff reckons he’s never seen them so depleted. 

But the landscape is as stunning as ever and the evenings just as magical as we sip sundowners on the camp veranda and watch roos and emus drink from a trough not 10 metres away. 

After a dinner of massive steaks from the Wudinna butcher, cooked masterfully by Geoff and served with free-flowing wines, I lie in the Swagon, canvas up, staring at the Milky Way and feeling absolutely at home in this silent, silvery wilderness.

Roadside sheep on Lincoln Highway

Roadside sheep on Lincoln Highway

The Playlist

  • Private Eyes, Hall & Oates
  • California Dreamin’, Mamas and the Papas
  • Live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Flight Facilities
  • Juno soundtrack, various artists
  • Telluric, Matt Corby

The fuel

  • Baby abalone with seaweed and wasabi emulsion, at 1802 Oyster Bar overlooking Coffin Bay.
  • Platter of raw, cooked and smoked Southern Ocean seafood at the Fresh Fish Place, Port Lincoln.
  • Roast beef and jalapeno paninis from Five Loaves Bakery at Cummins.

While you’re there

  • The award-winning Beer Garden Brewing is Port Lincoln’s only craft brewery, offering a dozen beers plus one specially for the canine in your life.
  • Tour the fishing fleet and fishermen’s mansions of Port Lincoln’s marina on an electric cruiser with Fred’s Marina Cruises.

The wildlife

Mikkira Station’s abundant koala population and stunted manna gums offer a rare opportunity to view Australia’s cutest marsupials at eye level.

The car

Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed

The distance

1302 kilometres