The explorer Edward John Eyre saw a few things in his illustrious lifetime, but when he trekked through the Gawler Ranges in 1839 he was underwhelmed. The hills of this ancient landscape in South Australia resembled "so many islands in the level waste around them", he wrote in his travel journals. "All is barren, rocky and naked in the extreme." Eyre's only consolation was the discovery of a "splendid creeping plant in flower… one of the prettiest and richest looking flowers I have seen in Australia".
Following Eyre's pioneering path 170 years later, I had the opposite reactions. I saw that splendid plant, Sturt's desert pea, clinging valiantly to the red earth and found it flowerless and drab, but I was surprised again and again by the dramatic and diverse land in which it grew.
The Gawler Ranges National Park was proclaimed just seven years ago, about 1.5 billion years after the landscape formed from volcanic explosions. While it lacks the star quality of Kakadu or Daintree, this unique semi-arid terrain, sandwiched between the lucrative pastoral leases of the south and deserts to the north, hosts a wealth of natural attractions for the modern-day explorer. Its 'organ pipes' rock formations are among the most extensive in the world, and its ever-changing ecologies span grasslands of spinifex, fields of cauliflowery saltbush that shimmer minty green and coppery blue, and forests of woody she-oak and western myalls that sing softly in the wind. The park is home to more than 160 animal species including mobs of red and grey kangaroos, hairy-nosed wombats, wedge-tailed eagles and painted dragons.
Gawler, for me, was a standout attraction among the many highlights of the peninsula that now bears Eyre's name. This isolated corner of our country, between the Spencer Gulf and the Nullarbor, a long day's drive from Adelaide, is part granary and part fishery (with the largest commercial fishing fleet in Australia, no less); part desert and part sea (it has 2000km of coastline to explore). And it's just compact enough for you to fit at least two once-in-a-lifetime experiences in one day - swim with dolphins in the morning, then afterwards toast the sunset beside a salt lake that seems to stretch to infinity.
Funny thing is, the many pleasures of the Eyre Peninsula are little known outside the ranks of Adelaide holiday-homeowners, anglers and grey nomads. Many Australians would probably struggle to locate it on a map (heading west from Adelaide, it's the second peninsula after Yorke). Its remoteness is obviously a key reason for its lack of celebrity, but don't let distance daunt you. All you need do is fly to Adelaide, then catch a 40-minute regional flight to Port Lincoln and you're there. Let the adventures begin.
Port Lincoln - simply 'Lincoln' to locals - is not your average country town. For starters, it's a city, population about 14,000. And as any student of Australian trivia will tell you, the hub of the Eyre Peninsula is reputed to have the most millionaires per capita in the country, thanks largely to the teeming waters of the Southern Ocean. Tuna, prawns, lobster, abalone, kingfish and other Neptunian treasures are hauled from the seas and sent around Australia and the world by a band of blessed fishermen who reap riches in return for their catch.
Commercial fishing may not sound like the stuff of dream-holiday destinations, but savvy locals have devised tours that give visitors an insight into what makes Port Lincoln, and the Eyre Peninsula, tick. Among them is Matt Waller, a fourth-generation fisherman whose Close Up Tuna Tours lets you feed the fish, swim alongside them, and then eat them.
Aboard his boat, Waller provided a potted history of the port's past - how tuna fishing boomed in the 70s, fuelled by an insatiable Japanese appetite for top-grade sashimi and sushi. By 1984, when fisherman (and millionaire) Dean Lukin won a weight-lifting gold at the Los Angeles Olympics, the industry had already peaked at lifting an unsustainable 80,000 tonnes of tuna from the ocean a year. These days there are quotas in place to protect stocks; operators catch the fish wild in the Great Australian Bight, then fatten them to almost double the size (and price) in purpose-built ocean pens. About 95 per cent of Australia's bluefin tuna quota is owned and farmed in Port Lincoln.
"Welcome to the world's biggest goldfish bowl," Waller said when we arrived at one of these pens, a black-framed and netted contraption floating in the middle of Proper Bay. The 14-metre-deep pens would normally hold up to nearly 2000 tuna but, fortunately, Waller's pen is merely recreational, not commercial. He had just enough fish in there for us to handfeed and to provide some fast-paced company for those, like me, who chose to swim with them.
It was a thrilling experience - especially when some wag lobbed a pilchard in the drink beside me and a musclebound blue bolt flashed by my face in a blur of hunger. It made me realise how terrifying life as a pilchard must be, though the experience was perfectly safe. And tasty, too - we got to snack on fresh sashimi on the way back to shore.
Port Lincoln is one of few places in the world (apart from South Africa and California) where you can go cage-diving with white pointer sharks, but I have far more sense than to entrust my life to a complete stranger.
From Waller's boat, I transferred to that of Graham Daniels, another former fisherman who now runs cruises around the Port Lincoln marina, fringed by look-at-me mansions built by the community's wealthy elite. We began in the working marina, surprisingly picturesque with its serried vessels, which he sorted into those used for catching shark, abalone, lobster, tuna, squid and prawns.
This was no dry lecture on aquaculture; Daniels was also an authority on local gossip. That big island you can see out in Boston Bay is a private sheep station belonging to the town's colourful mayor, Peter Davis, he said. There's the home of property developer Ron Forster; it's got an internal rainforest atrium inhabited by a macaw and an 80,000-litre seawater aquarium. That oversized pleasure boat, the Taruna IV, is for sale for $2.5 million; its owners are upgrading to Taruna V. And here's the former home of Croatian-born tuna titan Tony Santic, best known as the owner of three-time Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva (a bronze statue of the horse graces the city's esplanade). Santic's wife Christine got a then-record $125-million separation settlement, and last year she installed a personal trainer from the Cayman Islands.
There's more to Port Lincoln than tuna and titillating tales. At Boston Bay Wines, I tasted a terrific riesling from the Ford family's 25-year-old vineyard, followed by a decent chardonnay and a silky shiraz (the riesling has recently been added to Rockpool's wine list). At Del Giorno's, widely regarded as the best restaurant in town, owner Kris Bunder successfully lobbied local fishermen to keep aside some of their catch for local businesses so you can now graze on Spencer Gulf prawns, squid, kingfish, mussels and oysters while gazing across the waters they came from. And there are at least half a dozen mega-pubs strung along the esplanade - including the $45-million Port Lincoln Hotel, financed by tuna king Sam Sarin and run by Adelaide Crows alumni Mark Ricciuto and Simon Goodwin - to occupy your evenings.
The northern reaches of the Eyre Peninsula are a world and millions of years removed from the fish and flash of Port Lincoln. Former farmer Geoff Scholz spirited me there in his LandCruiser, past endless plains punctuated by silos that rise from the flats like cathedrals. Early in the journey, we crossed the 1675km-long Eyre Highway, the lifeline between Adelaide and Perth, but we ignored it and pressed on. It was not civilisation we were after but glorious isolation.
Our destination was Australia's third largest salt lake, Lake Gairdner. By mid-afternoon, we had arrived at the banks of this blinding white basin caked in up to a metre of salt and flanked by domed mountains permanently silhouetted by the intense refracted light. It was a stunning spectacle, the dry-frosted lake surface a stark contrast to the rust-red earth caking its perimeter. Two islands shimmered in the distance, but there was no visible end to the lake. I realised why later when Scholz showed me the lake on a map; the tiny section we viewed was less than five per cent of its 160km length. "It's an amazing place," Scholz said, "and it's different every time you come."
Unlike the explorer Eyre, Scholz always felt his homeland was special. This affable outback identity has been guiding visitors through the region since 1988. He started small, taking swags and food into the desert and camping in musterers' huts. Four years ago, he opened Kangaluna, a deluxe tented camp in the African mould: raised wooden platforms sheathed in voluminous canvas with very comfortable beds (one queen, two singles in adjoining rooms) and bathrooms serviced by tank water and solar power. The three tents and communal dining room/kitchen sit on a white-sand plain shaded by mallees and populated by thorny devils and goannas. In the evenings, over prime steak and salad dinners, his mostly European guests sit back and review the day's discoveries as kangaroos drink from the trough outside and tawny frogmouths grunt in the darkness. Come daybreak, a convention of galahs, honeyeaters, whipbirds, wattlebirds, flycatchers and superb fairy-wrens praise the morning with a raucous hallelujah chorus.
Using the camp as our base, Geoff and guide Clare Wallwork took me on excursions into the desert where spectral willy-willies materialised from nowhere like red-earth Dementors, stalking our trail before vanishing as swiftly as they appeared. We inspected a tree with a bark ellipse carved from its trunk for use as a coolamon by long-gone Aborigines, and a fossilised clump of stromatolites, the earliest evidence of life on Earth. Emus streaked through the grasslands ahead of us and frozen euros eyed us warily before bounding off into the safety of the scrub.
Gradually, I learned to appreciate the subtle changes in landscape and light that defied Eyre's description of a barren waste and breathed constant life into the desert, even to the sculptural forms of long-dead trees. There was no risk of going barmy out here because Scholz smartly balances outback exposure with coastal outings. There is beautiful scenery to be had along the coast - rugged limestone cliffs shearing into inky blue seas - but it is a mere backdrop to the region's extraordinary marine life.
When retirees Alan and Trish Payne arrived at Baird Bay, permanent population five, in 1992, they decided the best way to protect the colony of 100 sea lions on nearby Jones Island was to introduce humans to them. Each day between September and May, they ferry holidaymakers to the island where, in the shallow waters of sandy coves, they can frolic with these slinky, adorable creatures. "It wins [the sea lions] a friend at the end of the day and that's the important thing," Trish said. "They are gentle giants of the sea. You can do anything with them as long as you treat them like you would your best mate, or your mother."
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to forge any friendships with the sea lions because it was mating and pupping season in early January and the animals were more interested in territorial spats and sunbathing than braving chilly winds to please curious passers-by. Luckily for me, right across the other side of the bay, a resident population of a dozen dolphins were in a playful mood and I had three charming experiences swimming with these gorgeous grey beasts.
Further south, at Coffin Bay, Darian (Daz) Gale has also applied for a licence to conduct dolphin swims as part of his Coffin Bay Explorer tours. He reckons there are 800 of the creatures in the bay - we saw dozens of them idling by a sandbar at Point Longnose - but for now there is plenty else to fill the three-hour outing. We sailed by the famed oyster beds that supply some 800,000 dozen oysters a week to Australian tables, then feasted on freshly shucked samples plucked from the sea that morning by Daz. There were a couple of sea lions here, too, and New Zealand fur seals, and kilometres of creamy, deserted beaches backing onto national park.
It's just about impossible to pick the ultimate experience of my five days on the underrated Eyre Peninsula, but probably that evening after the dolphin swim, when we drove deep into the Gawler Ranges, would be it. We were heading for the Kolay Mirica Falls, a natural amphitheatre of organ-pipe rocks, but the light was fading fast so we stopped instead on a ridge in the middle of nowhere. Kangaroos kept watch as Geoff and Clare unpacked the hors d'oeuvre and wine and we stood in the violet dusk watching the last rays of sun streak the western sky as a full moon rose in the east, shedding a silver lining over this exceptional environment.
Poor old Edward Eyre. He really should have been there.