SOMETHING IN THE EYRE

Something in the Eyre          

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Emerald sea and white sand, the Eyre Peninsula is distinct.

Its black raisin eye seems directed at me as the dolphin makes a semi-circular arc in and out of its wet habitat, to briefly inspect the airy one of mine. Then a second or so later it happens again. Are there two dolphins, or just one deciding to investigate me twice? Just as suddenly all is calm- no time to extract my camera to prove this encounter has happened.

I am balancing my narrow kayak in one part of an intricate mesh of shallow waterways on the extreme tip of a triangular land mass called the Eyre Peninsula that pokes out in the Southern Ocean. We are just west of the halfway point across the Australian continent. The light here seems to have been lime-washed, the water often emerald green, the vegetation low and harassed by a wind that can be spontaneous and unforgiving.

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Padding into the fingers of Coffin Bay.

Cursing my lack of photo proof, I consider how some of my ageing hippy/new age friends might have been impressed. But there is now nothing except the circular ripple left by the creature.

Beyond it, I can see a line of what are marked on the map as “shacks” hugging the shore of a beach that glows white in that limy light. I know from paddling there the previous day, that the beach is not sand, but entirely of shells from the round native oyster that used to be abundant here, but was harvested to near extinction. I also know that one of the buildings under no stretch of the definition can be called a shack.

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Shack lined beach of oyster shells.

It is McMansion in size and style, on a block that takes up an entire headland and is surrounded by a high wall. It might even have a swimming pool, but I could not see beyond that wall. Who would build such a house and need so much privacy in a place as isolated as this? And why would it need to stand out so much from the others here? Is there some person here who chooses isolation to enjoy wealth? The lesser structures on the beachfront nearby seem almost entirely nailed together out of second hand or scrap materials. 

The location is further from the South Australian capital, Adelaide, than Adelaide is from my city Melbourne in the next state to the east. I couldn’t help feeling there was something strange about the enormous building.

Coffin Bay is equally strange, mainly for its name. It is the town my kayak points away from. I am hoping to make it to (for me), an unexplored part of this bay, but the wind is rising and I turn back to the town as the waves build too. 

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Coffin Bay van site.

Jill and I, along with our old dog Astro, have parked our caravan in Coffin Bay for 10 days, the furthest point away from home during a two month trip to parts of Australia we have so far largely avoided.

The first stop on the trip was Australia’s most muscular river, the Murray at Echuca in partial flood, with its nostalgic overload of restored paddle steamers built in the days before railways or usable roads. 

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Echuca, paddle steamer heaven.

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Yellowtail’s wine factory.

Leaving here, we called in on the so called Riverina district of southern New South Wales, particularly famous for its enormous bulk cheap wine production and the city of Griffith with Italian mafia undertones.

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Barrato Winery near Griffith. Great value chardonnay.

Hiding between the huge industrial tank-farm factories of the wine giants like Yellowtail, McWilliams and DeBortoli, are small family wineries offering great value, because the region’s name on a bottle does not command a premium price.

From there we turned south west to the citrus haven Mildura in far north west Victoria where the Murray was even closer to flood. 

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Wide, flat, featureless and alive with flies.

Then it was straight north to the wide, featureless, flat and fly infested outback and one of its few bumps, the old mining city Broken Hill.

This place provided the BH in the name of the world’s biggest miner BHP, but the company has since moved on to ravage more profitable pastures. 

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Broken down Broken Hill mine.

The town also provided the backdrop to the early ’90s drag queen movie “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” that gloried in the songs of ABBA. Ever since this otherwise butch bush town has done a feature in feather boas, false eyelashes and dancing queens. It even has an annual festival called “Broken Heel.”

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Don’t stick your stilettos in the gravel darling.

Leaving there it was a long day west ending in a quick overnight in Port Augusta on the northern tip of Spencer Gulf, the body of water that washes the eastern side of the peninsula that was our destination.

I had been to the Eyre Peninsula once before in 2002 on the day when the car radio was alive with the death horrors of the first Bali bombing. Our family had been to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain and while Jill and our daughter Chloe, flew back, I drove with a much younger Astro as my companion, who slept most of the trip in the back seat. He is about 17 now and still sleeps most of the trip in the back seat, but needs help getting in and out of the car.

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A wild windy place

The Eyre Peninsula is about the size and shape of Tasmania and would be a rival to the island state if it was sawn off the mainland and floated a few hundred kilometres south. On that first visit, Astro and I left our campground at Streaky Bay in the north west corner and I drove the entire peninsula coast, including a stop off at the Point Labatt sea lion colony, then a diversion to Coffin Bay for its oysters, and still made it to Adelaide by midnight.

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Sea lions at Cape Lablatt

Jill had never been to the place, but we were inspired by celebrity chef Adam Liaw who devoted one of his Destination Flavour TV programs to the culinary possibilities of the area’s produce. He grew up in the peninsula steel mill town Whyalla, where his Malaysian born father was a local GP. We were intending this caravan trip to again head north to visit friends in New South Wales and around Brisbane, but thanks to him instead decided to head west.

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Some of the Whyalla scenery, that inspired the childhood of celebrity chef Adam Liaw. No wonder he now spends much time in Singapore and Japan.

Coffin Bay’s name is about as far removed from the usual schlock given to holiday destinations as it is possible to imagine. You could try Garbage Dump Point as an antonym to Surfer’s Paradise, but a town with the same name as the box we are burned or buried in is a pretty good try.

OK how did the town,which has a permanent population well short of 1000 get such a Halloween identity? It was initially named Coffin’s Bay by its first British discoverer, Matthew Flinders who spotted it on his 1802 circumnavigation of the continent, and bestowed on it the name of his friend Sir Isaac Coffin.

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Attempting a Coffin bay oyster.

But as most Australian oyster lovers know, Coffin Bay is one of the most celebrated sources of the shellfish in the country. So is there a touch of black Australian humour in the name’s success? As any oyster eater knows it can take only one bad one to propel its eater in the direction of the rectangular wooden box. Or perhaps it is a bit like the Japanese eating the deadly puffer fish they label fugu, a kind of Russian roulette with chopsticks.

In the ten days we were there, I calculate I ate about 16 to 18 dozen plus two oyster pies from the town’s bakery, with barely a burp. As any reader of my earlier blogs might remember I am very partial to oysters, particularly the sweet native rock oysters that grow around the bays and inlets of Australia’s east coast where I grew up.

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Coffin Bay oyster pie.

There used to be native oysters here too, the flat round Angasi oysters, which have been found in Aboriginal middens dating back thousands of years. But it took only a few decades after they were first exploited by invading Europeans, starting in the 1850s, for the Angasis to be virtually wiped out. Isn’t it one of the features of this country that the so called “settlers” seemed to be able to settle the hand of destruction on virtually everything they settled upon?

Anyway, after World War II, Pacific oysters from Japan were introduced and thrived, proving easy to grow and now make up the bulk of the oysters eaten in this country. However the Pacific is now threatened overseas by a disease that wipes them out and some adventurous South Australian growers are learning how to grow the somewhat tricky Angasis as a back-up. They have also found there is an overseas market for them fetching five time the price of a common Pacific in places like Hong Kong or even France. Back from the edge of extinction they have been saved by the economics of elitism.

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A footpath emu.

Kangaroos and emus wander the town footpaths, but seafood is curiously harder to find. On the Coffin Bay tourist map, the oyster sheds, about a dozen of them, are shown on a back of town industrial estate. The first one we came to is called Pristine Oysters and it turns out is something of a celebrity, being one of the first to successfully farm Angasi. It was paradise, the common Pacific oysters were $8 a dozen and I bought $16 worth, while the Angasi were $10. I did not know what to expect, so I just bought a dozen of them.

The Angasi have a rounder and more scallop looking shell compared with the more elongated Pacifics. Back at the caravan, I prised open a dozen of each and found the Angasi had a browner flesh, compared with the grey fleshed Pacific. This batch of Angasi were also sweeter than the Pacific. I went back for more the next day and this time they had a slight metallic taste, not unpleasant but noticeable, possibly harvested from another location.

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Native Anasi oysters on the left with the common Pacifics on the right. The Angasi is slightly brown in color.

By the time we left Coffin Bay, and I had consumed the 18 dozen or so oysters of both species, I ate them mostly raw and unadulterated with anything but their own briny liquid. But occasionally I experimented with a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped spring onion and ginger which I first ate raw and then cooked on a cake rack, steamed in an electric frypan with some water in the base. All tasted good. Once though I tried a recipe for the Aussie staple, Oysters Kilpatrick. All I can say is that bloke Kilpatrick must have hated seafood.

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A kangaroo contemplates a Subaru.

I’ll stop raving about these shellfish and leave the last word to that American macho master wordsmith Ernest Hemmingway. “As I ate the oysters with their strong flavor of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” This passage is from his autobiography: A Moveable Feast.

My oyster feast turned movable too when it became time to leave Coffin Bay and head for a more northerly location.

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Where wheat meets the sea.

Through the heavy duty agricultural land where wheat grows on the coast, we headed for Streaky Bay where the Eyre Peninsula joins the start of the great Nullarbor Plain, the vast stretch of emptiness that links eastern and western Australia. Here our van had a waterfront site allowing me to launch the kayak right in front, when the tide wasn’t out. 

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Streaky Bay with tide out and Astro enduring bum sniffing.

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Jill walks Astro  on our Streaky Bay beachfront while neighbouring caravanner’s cat watches.

This isolated town was also the location where our ancient dog, Astro, as I said, aged about 17, had a sort of fit which we thought was a stroke. He could barely stand up, but when he did, walked in circles with his head tilted. The local vet had gone out of business and the nearest was 300 kilometres, either south or north west.

There were dire forecasts from fellow caravanners and a farmer we met, with typical farmer tact offered his services of a shotgun and shovel. It is just as well we did not accept because Astro gradually improved and after many hundreds of kilometres heading back east we stopped in the South Australian wine town of Clare, whose vet told us his affliction was common in canine geriatrics, was called “vestibular syndrome,” its cause was unknown and most dogs recovered.

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Australia’s half way point Kimba, marked by a giant concrete galah.

Our dog worries over, we were able to enjoy the real reason we visited Clare: riesling. The valley is famous for producing some of Australia’s best examples of wine from this comparatively delicate grape. Our visit included the region’s oldest winery Sevenhill Cellars, founded in 1851 by Catholic Jesuit priests to produce altar wine. While they claim 90 percent of the Australian market for this very select category, they also produce a pretty decent range of wines for less sacred tables, including of course riesling.

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Jim Barry’s Clare cellars. One of the maestros of reisling.

And with many dozen bottles of this elixir under the caravan bed we headed home where an appointment with my car mechanic loomed. The aged Subaru Outback we used to lug the van half way across the continent and back had split the rubber protection covers on its front driveshafts allowing the dust from those unsealed South Australian roads to get in and shred the internals. Welcome home, remember to spend many $$$$$

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