The bone dry South Australian heat and straw-coloured paddocks seem eerily misplaced beside the deep, cool blue of the Southern Ocean.
You're often alone in Eyre - on the road, at the beach or camping in one of the coastal national parks. You sometimes feel as if you're on a deserted outback island, which has broken off from the mainland and just drifted away. The interior is one vast wheat field. The coast is thinly populated and almost completely undeveloped, except for a few small port communities.
The peninsula is actually a neat triangle, with Spencer Gulf on its eastern side, Ceduna and the Nullarbor Plain to the west and the Gawler Ranges as its northern boundary. Eyre is renowned for its fishing: whiting, herring (known as tommy ruff), salmon trout, snapper and trevally are just a few of the species which thrive in these cool, fertile, relatively unexploited waters. The southern rock lobster and western king prawns are other local delicacies.
Port Lincoln, Eyre's largest town by far with 13,000 people, sits at the tip of the peninsula on Boston Bay. Its fishing fleet catches tuna, which goes straight to Tokyo. Eyre wheat, stored in a monolithic silo complex, is shipped around the world.
Lincoln National Park, on the south-eastern tip of Eyre, is only a few kilometres from the centre of town. It's a rugged, windy, forbidding landscape. In contrast to the placid, protected waters of Spencer Gulf, the Southern Ocean swell heaves up from Antarctica and pounds the towering limestone cliffs. The Roaring Forties blow strongly.
At Cape Catastrophe, Matthew Flinders on his coastal survey expedition in 1802, lost eight men when their small boat, sent ashore to look for fresh water, was wrecked on the rocks.
The major tracks in Lincoln National Park are accessible in a conventional sedan, but, as with much of the peninsula, a four-wheel drive is the only way to get to the really wild places.
The Sleaford-Wanna sand dunes are enormous. Wave after yellow wave rolls down to the beach. A sign points the way to the 4WD track across the dunes, but it must have been put there by an optimist. Nothing on wheels would get further than 10 metres before becoming hopelessly bogged.
We camped at Spalding Cove - the sheltered side of Cape Donington - right on the beach. There was no-one else within cooee. The secluded beachside campsite might be a distant memory on the NSW coast, but we were all by ourselves for our five camps on the Eyre Peninsula.
Coffin Bay is only an hour's drive west of Port Lincoln. It's a sleepy, ramshackle village, becoming gentrified by Adelaide retirement money. We were looking for somewhere to buy the famous Coffin Bay oysters, without luck. "Go and see the bloke on the corner. He sells them from a shed out the back," said a woman at the shop. He charged $7 a dozen, opened on the shell.
We carefully packed our oysters in the fridge in the back of the ute - and headed into Coffin Bay National Park where we would spend the next two nights.
There's no sinister or tragic tale about how Coffin Bay got its moniker. It was named by Flinders after his friend, Sir Isaac Coffin. The first 15km section of road into the national park is sealed, but soon becomes a 4WD-only track. Deep sand alternates with sharp rocks. You need to carry a snatch strap in case you get stuck, plus a portable compressor for adjusting tyre pressures. It was slow, rough going - 20km in several hours - to Black Springs, a remote beachside campsite about halfway up the bay.
As the sun set, we opened a bottle of local Boston Bay chardonnay and hoed into the oysters. The Pacific varieties, which are common on Eyre but are banned from NSW waters, are larger than Sydney Rock oyster. They're deliciously plump, with a soft, creamy texture. These, however, were thin, meaty critters, with a clean, fresh, intense sea taste. Yet again, we blessed the inventor of the portable fridge. Camp with one and you'll never want to mess around with ice and eskies again.
It was only 30km or so to the next night's campsite at Point Sir Isaac, almost at the tip of the Coffin Bay Peninsula. The drive took the best part of the day. The track runs for several kilometres along Seven Mile Beach, where, should you get stuck, you face the distinct possibility of watching your car disappear under the next high tide.
The tide chart said we were OK until about 5pm. The hard packed sand between the tide marks - the best place to drive on a beach - is littered with rocks in places, so we had to move higher up the beach where the fine, dry sand made the going extremely difficult. Fear and momentum got us through.
After another night of solitude, camped behind the dunes amid the mallee, we backtracked to Coffin Bay and paid the oyster man another visit. Lunch was a dozen oysters natural. Did this really have to end?
The west coast of Eyre continues towards the Nullarbor in a series of sheer cliffs. A large colony of sea lions, which you observe from a platform high above the rock ledge, lives at Point Labatt near Streaky Bay, the peninsula's only real "tourist town." Monstrous bulls - 400 kg of lard with eyes and flippers - snooze in the sun or pursue the comparatively lithe cows, while pups play in the rock pools.
You can swim with the sea lions on an organised tour, but they're also food for the Great White shark so we gave it a miss. The Great White likes the cold waters off the Eyre's western coast, and occasionally - about once a year on average - eats out instead and takes a surfer. You can, if you dare, also go diving with the Great Whites (you're in a cage, by the way) on a charter boat from Port Lincoln.
Beyond Streaky Bay, the Eyre Peninsula segues into the main sweep of the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain. Tribes of grey nomads, on the trip to Western Australia, stop for a night or two in the Streaky Bay caravan park before the big trek west.
Our last night in Eyre we again spent alone, camped above a small cove on Sceale Bay. We fished off the rocks, caught a few Samson fish and tossed them back in. As the sun set, the cliffs across the bay lit up in brilliant yellow/orange/red hues and the shimmering sea deepened to a blacker shade of blue on this wild, lonely, beautiful part of the Australian coast.
Article and photo by Bill McKinnon, April 2003.