The week before Christmas, the One & Only and I took the Toyota, Bruce, for a run to the Yorke Peninsula. A simple, short break was required before the Christmas mayhem kicked in.
The road north out of Adelaide is rarely a tempting proposition, particularly in summer, when the flat, dry, unresponsive landscape seems to suck the marrow from your bones. The horizon is vast, and the sky is deep blue and cloudless, but even that feels joyless, when it leaves the sun free to blister your skin like a grilled pepper, despite the tinted windows.
And yet, after what seemed like hours of empty, yellow paddocks and shimmering tarmac, we shimmied through Port Wakefield – where the fish shop was ‘sorry, closed, for it’s a bit hot’ – and rounded the elbow at the top of Yorke Peninsula, and followed the coastline south-west to Marion Bay. Here, the pelicans were soaring over the jetty in perfect synchronicity and the oystercatchers, ankle deep in clear water, were pecking delicately at the sandbank.
It was my first trip to the Yorke Peninsula since a brief and boozy weekend during the university years. Prior to that, there is a solitary photo of me in my slippers and dressing gown at Pine Point, at a point in time when I was too small to remember even the best beach holiday. So, I had few expectations, other than the supposition that bleak, dry moonscapes would feature heavily. They do. Man has cleared mile upon mile of scrub and eucalyptus for the purpose of planting mile upon mile of wheat and barley. Random settlements have sprung up along the coast where boats could anchor and fill their holds with the farmers produce. A scant sprinkling of gum trees lines the highway – a churlish nod to the thick, cluttered hedgerows of the Homeland – and dust invades every orifice.
Shaped like a boot, Yorke Peninsula is the central leg of three peninsulas in South Australia: Eyre to the west and Fleurieu to the east, with Kangaroo Island floating just below, across Investigator Strait, like a football. It was named for British Home Secretary Charles Philip Yorke by Matthew Flinders, who sailed around the coast of South Australia in his ship HMS Investigator in 1801-1802. It may sound more prosaic than the choice of French explorer Nicolas Baudin – Cambacérès, after a statesman of the French Revolution – but given that Yorke Peninsula was to become a land of Cornish copper miners and tough, farmers, it seems more fittingly pragmatic.
Originally, this peninsula was home to the Narungga people, but the early settlers soon decimated the local tribes with their European diseases and desire to claim the land, and today, Innes National Park is all that remains of the original landscape: 10,000 hectares of coastline, scrub and sand dunes. The tea tree is king, and blowflies are in aggravating abundance. Several attached themselves to us as we wandered around the ruins at Inneston and then proceeded to hitch a ride on the car so they could accompany us to every corner of the park, even out to the lighthouses where a feisty wind threatened to blow us over the cliff, but could not dislodge the flies from our shoulders.
Weathered cliffs and rocky islands loom over the graveyards of numerous shipwrecks. On land, the park teems with wildlife. Drivers must potter along at a mere 40kmph in order to give way to a sun-struck lizard who plods witlessly across the road in front of us, or a family of emus stepping daintily through the saltbush, completely oblivious to the road and our bright orange car. The shy Tamar Wallabies, once extinct, have been successfully reintroduced, but prove impossible to find. However, we do spot a solitary, rust-coloured peregrine falcon swooping overhead in search of lunch. And on Pondalowie Bay, a mob of dolphins – we count an extended family pod of about thirty – play in the water, competing with surfers for the breaking waves, racing up and down the coast and dodging neatly between the surfboards. Out on the Sternhouse Bay jetty, we first smell and then see a bunch of penguins balancing on the smooth rocks at the foot of the cliff. And, out for an early swim one morning to beat the heat, we interrupt Kanga and Roo grazing in the sand dunes above Whipbird Way.
It is a harsh climate, even in this era of air conditioning and icy beer. Yet I imagine the lives of the gypsum miners and their families, isolated at the south-western tip of the Yorke Peninsula, a two-day ride to the nearest town, were imminently harder. Here, in the late 19th century, about a hundred and fifty inhabitants were toughing it out beside the saline Marion Lake. A rough paddock on the edge of the tiny town is now labelled ‘cricket ground’ but there is little else to indicate a lighter side to life. Odd to think that even the joys of the surf probably did not register with these late Victorian settlers, working to scratch a living from the less-than-lush landscape.
Yet, aside from the persistent Fly and the insidious dust, both exhibiting a keen desire to inhabit my nostrils, Marion Bay is quiet and serene, well removed from the hue and cry of Christmas shopping. With one pub and a small grocer at the petrol station, there is little to do but drift along pristine beaches, search out lonely light houses and rhapsodize over sunsets.
On the one day when the soaring temperatures trap us indoors with the air conditioner and Christmas lists, we are set free a little sooner than expected, when the hot north wind whipping through the treetops suddenly does an about-face and blasts the heat away in a matter of minutes. We push lists aside and decamp to the veranda with a glass of rosé and a local Brie. Restoring the calm is a worthy occupation. The magpies seem to agree.
*With thanks to the One & Only for his beautiful images.