The Eyre Peninsula in South Australia is one of the most iconic 4WD destinations on this vast continent of ours. This Australian gem should be on the list of any avid adventurer. Sure, it’s difficult to get to, but once you do, oh boy. It is something else. It boggles the mind that anyone ever leaves. It is that stunning.
To be honest, I can’t think of another place that compares. If you dream of gin-clear water bordered by expansive dunes, where the wind blows the sand across your feet as if to remind you that standing still is not an option, beaches so long and quiet you’ll really know what it means to be alone, and rocky headlands complete with dolphins frolicking in the empty waves below, then this is the place for you.
We are in the deep south of the Eyre Peninsula, a triangular-shaped stretch of land bordered by the Gawler Ranges to the north, the Spencer Gulf to the east and the Great Australian Bight to the west. This is raw Australia. Barely discovered and preserved in a time warp. The Yacht Club in Coffin Bay is possibly the quaintest I’ve been to, and inexplicably there are no yachts. Maybe no-one knows it exists just yet?
To our east is the magnificent Lincoln National Park and to the west the stunning Coffin Bay National Park. We are here with a fleet of Isuzu vehicles to explore the area with the brand's iVenture programme. A trip open to anyone who owns an Isuzu, for a modest fee.
We are the lucky ones. Our journey starts in Port Lincoln and not on the blacktop either, staring at a seven-hour drive from Adelaide up and around the Spencer and Vincent gulfs. On a map, it seems you could get here in much less time. A bridge spanning both expanses of water would do it, but the difficulty of access makes the area all the more special. Access limitations mean you must work for your gold, keeping the area relatively untouched, pristine and empty. You can’t say that about many places anymore. The constant threat of over-development lurks in the background for many coastal towns.
For anyone accessing the region from Adelaide, there is a car ferry that picks you up at Wallaroo on the Yorke Peninsula and delivers you to Lucky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula. My understanding is the service is suspended at present with a resumption expected in mid-2019. That leaves, for now, the aforementioned journey north from Adelaide, through the infamous township of Snowtown, up to Port Augusta, followed by a left and a southern run through Whyalla and on to Port Lincoln, as the only way here.
The carpark of the Port Lincoln Hotel was a fairly upmarket start for what was to come: three days of driving through the bush and dunes getting dirty and testing the stock Magnetic Red Mica Isuzu MU-X we were driving. Port Lincoln and the hotel is a great place to start, offering access to both the Lincoln and Coffin Bay national parks. Why not enjoy a little luxury before heading off-road?
Before tackling any off-roading, it is important to understand the physics of your vehicle and the 4WD system. Luckily for attendees to the iVenture programme, they have David Wilson to help from Adventure 4WD. He is responsible for running the 4WD tuition on all the Isuzu iVenture trips. In our case, the Isuzu runs a part-time 4WD system. To keep things running smoothly, it uses 2WD on the road, 4WD on the faster graded tracks, and 4WD high or low on the sand. Failure to turn off the 4WD system on the grippy tarmac can cause big problems.
Lincoln National Park is accessed through the town of Sleaford, a mere 15km or 22 minutes south of Port Lincoln. The park itself is a coastal plain, consisting of flowering shrubs including bearded heath, dry land tea tree and thyme rice flower, which pop up on any surface they can find between scattered limestone rock and the hard earth. Further inland is coastal white mallee, a member of the eucalypt family. Long-dead gnarled trunks lean like old men in the direction of the dominant wind. It’s otherworldly yet beautiful, with something to catch your eye around every bend.
We entered on a hard dirt track alongside a massive dune to our right. At its base lay a group of thongs and shoes, seemingly forgotten and left to time. It was a timely reminder of the isolation of the area. Lone Pine Lookout was the first chance to air down our tyres, and here the clifftop track dips away to a red rocky cliff face and the azure ocean. Breathtaking. There were waves in the area for the keen surfer, but beware of the men in grey suits. The view here is spectacular, yet it was to be but a precursor to the main event.
The track snaked its way through the brush, running around the base of some dunes and across scattered rock before it wound itself through fairly hard sand and onto the beach. This was the Sleaford track and it was no match for our Isuzu MU-X, which wasn’t troubled at all. Just to reinforce the point, though, David took the opportunity to run through a demonstration of the correct method of getting out of a fix. We watched and listened and some people made notes. I was to be reminded later that maybe I should have paid more attention.
Matthew Flinders landed in this part of the world in 1802 at Memory Cove. Here disaster struck with a landing party drowned. Seen at dusk, lost by nightfall, Flinders named Cape Catastrophe after this incident and the nearby islands after the lost men. Before their arrival, the fish-rich waters were home to the Banggarla and Nawu people. If you look carefully enough, you will see traditional fish traps and middens throughout the area.
After lunch, it was more dune driving. Unsurprisingly, there is lots of sand. Here it varied between white and red, and in some parts it was soft. Particularly soft atop of one particular sand dune.
On any trip there is always a guinea pig, and like Flinders before me, it fell on my shoulders to be ‘the guy' to lead the way, to forge the path and go first. My job was to make it look harder than it was for all the people to follow. To offer my followers the chance-appropriate level of anxiety, followed by the feeling of glowing accomplishment when they succeeded. As we headed out of the park, we had one soft uphill section that required quite a few biscuits of the car. Even the lead car, a professional at that, took three to four attempts.
I can say proudly that it took me only one attempt. At the crest, however, I spontaneously decided that it was due time for another serious 4WD instructional. I got myself in a no holds barred, good old fashioned bogging and I pulled it off magnificently. We stopped, time stopped, and the convoy stopped, until we were towed free.
In all seriousness, driving on the sand can be difficult as you are driving a large, heavy vehicle on a surface that is soft, can move, and zaps the engine power quickly. Make sure that if you are that guy, you have the required safety gear to get free.
Once out of the park in the late afternoon, we hightailed it to Coffin Bay to the west and a dinner at the quaint Coffin Bay Yacht Club.
After all the excitement of the previous day, we had a leisurely walk around Coffin Bay, along the Esplanade on the Oyster Walk and down to the surrounding beaches. It’s well signposted and we covered a 4km return trip taking in sandy white beaches that stretched for miles, and some large dunes with spectacular views out over the bay.
Coffin Bay is a small spur of land jutting westward and was named by Flinders in 1802 after his friend and sponsor, Sir Isaac Coffin. Whalers and sealers followed and then pastoral leases came into effect around 1847. The park itself was formed in 1982. Coffin Bay is famous for one thing, oysters! After peering into the crystal-clear Southern Ocean water teeming with life, it’s easy to see why.
As it turns out, you can walk up quite the appetite, so the Oyster HQ, just off the Esplanade, was our next stop for an oyster farming lesson, and some tasting. If you do come by and see Ben and Kim who run the operation, I urge you, if you like oysters, to go with people who, maybe, don’t really like them much. They are spectacular and the more you can get, the better.
Here you can wade across a sand flat and take a first-hand look at a working oyster lease. Most of the productive leases are located where the nutrient-rich waters enter the bay, but this is one of the originals and kept in good working order for just this type of thing. It made for a delicious precursor to lunch overlooking the bay.
The tracks in Coffin Bay National Park are a crisscross of low-lying scrub that cover similar terrain as the Lincoln. Here the sand seems much softer and less forgiving. Dropping your tyre pressures is a must, and while the pressure you go to can vary, aim for somewhere between 16 and 18psi to start with. After traversing some dunes, we were overdue for another bogging. Gunyah Beach was a highlight. White sand, surf and no-one for miles. The sand near the shoreline was as soft as a cloud and brought us undone for a second time. I wasn’t behind the wheel this time, but some fancy wheel work and a further reduction of our tyre pressure saved the Magnetic Red Mica MU-X the ignominy of a second tow.
From here, the return journey included passing one very tough dune that took many vehicles several attempts to clear. Not us, though, one-go wonders! And no getting stuck this time. From there, it was back to our accommodation and dinner at a local farm.
Our last day gave us one final look at Coffin Bay National Park. This time I noticed a few campers hiding in the scrub with a few emus their only company. There is nothing out here, so if you do visit, I suggest you make sure you are fully self-sufficient.
That includes recovery equipment and the skills to extract yourself on your own too. One hapless fellow adventurer was lucky enough to get himself stuck close enough to our convoy to hail emergency help. He was ill equipped and may have been stuck there for a while had we not been there.
Within the park, there are campgrounds located at Yangie Bay, the most popular and easily accessible camping area. Big Yangie is located 1km north of the Yangie Track. It is a little more secluded than Yangie Bay but has no facilities.
Black Springs Campground has toilets, while Black Springs overflow has no facilities and room for eight vehicles. Morgans Landing and The Pool Campground have toilets, while Sensation Campground has no facilities either.
All these campgrounds have to be booked before you arrive. For more information go to www.parks.sa.gov.au and search for the park you wish to visit.
While we mainly drove, fishing, surfing (if you’re game) and bushwalking are all possible within the Coffin Bay National Park. We proved that even a stock-standard car, in the right hands, can tough it out with more modified vehicles. Given the amount of SUVs and dual-cab utes on the market, including Isuzu MU-X and D-Max models, I wonder where they all are. They should be in places like this, but many never leave the bitumen. But maybe that’s for the best, leaving places like this to you and I.
We continued through the park in the afternoon and stopped at a few lookouts, including Black Springs, to take in the Horse Peninsula and Mount Dutton before continuing on to Seven Mile Beach. Seven Mile is spotted with piles of seaweed, which can remind a lazy driver just how hard they can be if not paying attention.
Looking out of the passenger window, the water was, like the rest of the area, crystal clear with not a breath of wind. A fishing rod wouldn’t go astray here. It was hot too and a quick dip was well deserved. I noticed a few oyster boats also enjoying a quiet lunch nearby.
Sensation Beach was our final obstacle and a sand dune with a right turn at the top the final challenge. This beach is named after a tuna boat that ran aground here. Incredibly, there are parts of a trailer on the beach, aged by the tides that remain, after they tried, unbelievably, to beat the tug boat fees and tow the boat off the beach on the trailer back to civilisation. Suffice to say it didn’t work, and the machinery from the failed operation was left to rot. It makes for a great photo instead.
It was, perhaps, a fitting reminder that we couldn’t hide here forever, and neither can the Peninsula from the encroachment of everyday life and development. Take me back Eyre Peninsula, before it is too late!