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Travel Guide: Australia: Shark diving, beaches and koalas

9th Jan 2012 12:00am | By Andrew Westbrook

We head to South Australia’s underexplored Eyre Peninsula and get face-to-face with great whites, sea lions, and shagging koalas.

I’m staring wide-eyed at a school of frenzied fish devouring a lump of tuna, when suddenly, SMACK! The cage I’m in is rocked to the side. Looking over my shoulder in shock, I’m overwhelmed by a love for metal bars I never thought possible.

The reason? It’s the only thing separating me from the giant, violently thrashing great white shark just inches from my face.

I’m in the chilly Southern Ocean waters off the Neptune Islands, by Port Lincoln, a place famous for two things above all else – some of the world’s tastiest tuna and those tunas’ biggest fans, great white sharks.

It’s for good reason that Steven Spielberg chose these South Australian waters to film the real sharks in Jaws. It just happens to be a favourite holiday destination for the world’s biggest predatory fish. But more on that later, as the cage diving experience is the grand finale to my six-day tour of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula – a region, it’s fair to say, that is not on the usual backpacker trail.

Nestled between the Great Australian Bight to the west, the Spencer Gulf to the east and the Gawler Ranges to the north, the Eyre is a vast area that boasts some of Australia’s cutest, scariest and most downright surreal animal experiences. Which is why I’m here. I’m on a mission to do them all.

Starting with a bleary-eyed pickup in the early hours of an Adelaide morning, the operation begins with a drive a couple of hundred clicks north to the southern reaches of the Flinders Ranges. While there’s no time on this trip to make it as far north as the region’s pin-up star Wilpena Pound, even the southern Flinders are a geological wonder it’s hard not to stare at in awe. Six hundred million years or so of erosion has meant the mountains no longer soar as far beyond the clouds as they once did, but there’s no doubting the majesty of a range 10 times older (and once higher) than the Himalayas.

Seasonal wild flowers adorn every rising hill, adding psychedelic waves of colour to the craggy contours, combining an ancient unspoken authority with a temporary beauty. We spend our time walking among the canyons, spotting the rare yellow-footed rock wallabies, which are common in the area, plus a variety of crazy-looking and crazy-named lizards, like the shingleback skink or painted dragon.

We’re told to be wary of the brown and tiger snakes that are abundant – “you absolutely will be within a metre of one of the world’s most dangerous snakes on this trip, even if you don’t know it,” assures tour guide Simmo. That makes us nervous. But gagging to see one. No such luck.

At nightfall, we camp out around the fire, in swags under the stars. Forget diving the reef or climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A swag, some good people and the Milky Way for a roof is all you need for the ultimate Aussie experience.

The next day, we move on to Coodlie Park, a farm retreat that is to be our base for a couple of nights. Now it’s time to start the mission in earnest, with a full-on day that leaves our adrenal glands aching as much as our muscles.

It starts with something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – swimming with sea lions at Baird Bay. While I’ve been lucky enough to swim with dolphins in half a dozen different places, sea lions, I’ve been told time and time again, are the coolest cats when it comes to underwater interaction.

In we jump to the bay’s undeniably icy blue, treading water in a natural pool by the nearby sea lion colony. And luckily, due to some serious shivering, we don’t have to wait long. Just as I’m pondering the symptoms of pneumonia, our first playmate speeds inquisitively through the perfectly clear waters towards us.

As the cold is jolted from of our minds (well, almost), this forerunner is soon joined by his buddies.

They swim under and around us, spinning and swivelling, twisting and turning. It really is incredible. With their gentle faces and big, friendly eyes, they genuinely seem to want to play with us (or at least laugh about how rubbish we are in the water), hanging around for much longer and coming much closer than dolphins generally do. At one point, something grey and much bigger darts in front of me. My heart skips a beat until I realise it’s a bottlenose dolphin. Two, in fact. They clearly don’t want to miss out on the fun.

However, I never tire of the privilege of seeing and swimming with dolphins in the water, they’re no match in the personality stakes, for the sea lions, who, like the perfect party host, seem determined to make sure we never get bored while in their neck of the woods.

When the party does finally end, we’ve just got time for a quick barbie before it’s back into the water, this time for a surfing lesson. After a few pointers on trying to master “the snap”, we’re released into the blue for our chance to hang 10. Cue several near drownings, an arm-straining workout and some brilliantly glorious, if very brief, moments actually standing up. Despite my muscles screaming for mercy, I’m immediately hooked, always wanting one more go. But our time is soon up and I begin to regret my eagerness in the water as we head towards the final leg of our adrenaline-packed day – sandboarding.

Turning a corner, it seems the South Australian landscape has transformed into the Sahara, as we’re met by a series of soaring sand dunes. We’re soon clambering up the sand, boards under our arms, only to fling ourselves back down screaming our heads off. It’s a lot of fun, but coming straight after surfing, we can only manage a few goes each before slumping back into the dunes to catch our breath and admire the sandswept panorama.

The next morning we hit the road again, heading onwards to check out the area’s spectacular coastline, all the while edging closer to Port Lincoln’s sharks.

For our final night, we stay at Mikkara, a sort of koala-sanctuary-meets-campground. There are more wild koalas here than I’ve ever seen. Back in a swag for the night, I fall asleep to the sounds of the horny marsupials in the trees around us.

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