Surrounded by more than 700 kilometres of stunning coastline, the Yorke Peninsula is a trove of treasures just waiting for you to explore.
When you jag your first squid, you’ll want to mark it in your book of ‘life experiences’. It’s oddly satisfying – just a sudden small weight on your line, no fight.
The action happens when you lift the animal clear of the water, at which it promptly shoots a jet of thick ink with surprising force. Indeed, time it wrong and the squid will mark your book of life for you.
The early evening on the Port Vincent marina was perfect, the water still, the air warm. A couple next to me congratulated me on the catch. They were novices too, but the guy had hooked a trevally. “It’s not the biggest trevally,” he admits. “But certainly the unluckiest,” says his girlfriend.
We sat looking out over the becalmed gulf waters towards a far horizon of hills, which was all we could see of Adelaide. Early that morning, the couple had woken in the city and realised they’d never been to the little seaside town of Port Vincent on Yorke Peninsula. Feeling adventurous, they packed a fishing rod and drove two hours to the town on the other side of the Gulf St Vincent.
“I know it sounds silly,” she said, “but I feel like I’ve gone back in time. It’s like Australia in the 1950s. It’s so quiet! There’s no road noise, the only sounds you hear are birds and boats.”
Port Vincent has a jetty, a pub looking over the sea and a small string of shops. In January its population goes from 400 to 4000, with most visitors towing their boats or caravans from Adelaide.
It’s loved for its family-safe sheltered beach, the kiosk that sells awesome fish and chips, the ‘wharf jump’ that reliably exhausts everyone’s kids, and of course the fishing.
All around the Peninsula’s 700-kilometre coast are towns just like it – Point Turton, Port Victoria, Port Hughes, Moonta Bay and Edithburgh among them – all little slices of much-loved Australiana.
And all practically unknown outside of SA.
Top to bottom on the Peninsula
Yorke Peninsula is a primary producer that hides its light under a bushel. Drive the country roads of Yorke in summer and you’ll have shimmering fields of golden grain on one side, and glittering seas of blue on the other. There are riches below the soil, too.
One of the wealthiest-looking towns is Moonta in the northwest, with a huge town hall and church, significantly grander than a 3300 population would warrant. In 1861 shepherds spotted copper ore at the entrance to a wombat hole – a hole that would get considerably bigger and become the richest mine in the state.
Today, you can go below ground in the Wheal Hughes mine on a tour by special train. As well as seeing veins of coloured ore, you’ll learn how Cornish miners were brought to Yorke Peninsula to work the deposit.
The cultural connection survives to this day: in the old town centre of Moonta, you’ll find historic limestone dwellings and shops selling some of the state’s finest pasties. Traditional ‘Swanky Beer’, brewed to a secret recipe, is served at Moonta’s annual Kernewek Lowender Festival, the world’s largest Cornish festival.
Head south into the Peninsula’s distinct boot shape and the landscape rises, evident in precipitous limestone cliffs that glow orange when the sun is low on the water. The scenery is at its most wild at Innes National Park, at the very toe of the boot and a full two hours’ drive from Moonta.
Innes National Park is another ‘off-radar’ national treasure – 9000 hectares of bushland, with long white beaches, the deserted village of Inneston (where gypsum was mined), the bones of wrecked ships and Aboriginal heritage sites.
The bottom of the Peninsula offers rich pickings for marine adventure. There’s hardcore surfing country up and down the western face of the toe, with Daly Head hosting a number of major competitions. Powerful surf breaks at Chinaman’s and Trespasser’s also keep the adrenalin flowing.
Not unrelated, scuba divers enjoy some 40 wrecks on the Investigator Strait Shipwreck Trail. The most infamous is the Clan Ranald, which sank in 1900 off Troubridge Island visible from the small town of Edithburgh.
It claimed 40 lives from a crew of 64, most of whom were Indians and Asians. You can see their poignant mass grave at the rear of Edithburgh Cemetery; the graves of five British officers are interred separately.
For an easy diving experience, head to Edithburgh jetty with snorkel and mask: the kelp and the jetty pylons are surprisingly rich with marine life. If you’re lucky you’ll encounter the hauntingly lovely leafy sea dragon, a sort of seahorse in a wedding dress.
Fresh perspectives, odd histories
Yorke Peninsula certainly rewards those with a nose for exploring. At any of the region’s small and unusual museums, you’ll find quirky exhibits; George the Giant Squid, lying pickled in a glass tank in Wallaroo’s Heritage and Nautical Museum, is a display case in point.
Giving proper credence to the expression ‘in the middle of nowhere’ is the Bublacowie Military Museum.
An old schoolhouse in an all-but defunct township is home to South Australia’s largest military museum.
After making your $10 entry to owner Chris Soar, you’ll be given a quick briefing before being left to explore displays dedicated to both World Wars as well as conflicts in Vietnam, Korea and the Gulf.
Take your time because there’s materiel at every turn, including a Storch reconnaissance aircraft, a flare pistol from Gallipoli and a cricket bat signed by the Rats of Tobruk cricket team.
The mid-peninsula town of Minlaton is a classic ‘ag-town’ and offers a brush with aviation history.
In 1919 Captain Harry Butler flew his Bristol monoplane to make the first mail-service flight over water in the Southern Hemisphere. He flew 108km from Adelaide to his home town, Minlaton, in 27 minutes. The Red Devil Bristol – the last of its kind – is on display as you come into town.
Beginning in December, visitors will be encouraged to explore coastal country that’s rarely seen.
Walk the Yorke will consolidate 60km of existing walking trails with marked beach tracks as well as some access onto private land to provide a 500km trail right around the Peninsula. Obviously one to do in stages, it will open new views, extraordinary beaches and introduce you to some tiny coastal communities.
Fish dishes and crab pots
Fine dining is thin on the ground but local farmers and fisherman keep the ingredients first class.
You won’t often go wrong in the local pubs, most of which have good restaurants serving local food. Well worth a visit is The Coopers Alehouse Restaurant at Wallaroo for seafood, great views and a wide-ranging menu designed to placate smaller members of the family’s fussy palates. Cracking views over Hardwicke Bay are a major drawcard at the Point Turton Tavern as well as more solid family fare.
Try the Stansbury Dalrymple Hotel for great fish and chips, the Marion Bay Tavern for a signature scotch fillet and lovable rogue, the Coobowie Hotel.
The latter sells our favourite souvenir, a beer cooler which aims for some oft-used ‘Where the hell is…?’ humour, but kind of gets it wrong. It reads: ‘Coobowie: Where the f—k’s that?’
To posh it up, try The Inland Sea Restaurant near Warooka which gets rave reviews for its locally caught gourmet seafood including whiting, garfish, tommy ruff and crayfish.
You should also seek out fresh oysters. They’re far less famous than Coffin Bay oysters from neighbouring Eyre Peninsula even though Yorke producers actually grow some of the primo oysters that then go to the Coffin Bay farms. You can buy a dozen for around $12 from local outlets.
Any Yorke bakery will serve you well (Peninsula bread is particularly good). And sweet-tooths will like the 40 flavours of truffle from Minlaton Chocolaterie - a 19-time winner at the Royal Adelaide Show.
The Peninsula has two wineries. Barley Stacks Wines produces a popular chardonnay and is an interesting stop, not least for the sight of trellised vines surrounded by fields of grain. Emoyeni Wines near Ardrossan is a newcomer producing Shiraz and Riesling.
Finally, for your Yorke Peninsula visit to be truly complete, you must be able to lay hand on heart and say you caught a blue swimmer crab, a whiting and a squid. It’s a seafood trifecta and any local conversation will at some point reference any or all.
The easiest and arguably most rewarding to catch are blue swimmers, a beautiful crustacean with the sweetest of meats, inhabiting the local shallows in summer.
All you need is a crab rake ($12 from any local store) a tide timetable (free), a bucket and a pair of sandshoes.
At low tide, wade out to where the sand meets the seaweed and gently rake at the edges. Any lurking ‘bluey’ will grab your rake and generate a surprisingly loud noise – at which you skillfully flip it out of the water and into your bucket.
If you lose the crab you’ll appreciate the sandshoes. Later you’ll need a pan of boiling water (seven minutes, no more) fresh white bread and cracked pepper.
The simple things are indeed the best.