I’m staring bright-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 with 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 that is 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 some of that 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, which 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 there. 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 had begun 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 temporary beauty. A bit like if Clint Eastwood was given the Trinny and Susannah treatment. We spend our time walking amongst 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.
That night we camp out around the fire, in swags under the stars, which is something I absolutely love. 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 it to be our base for a couple of nights. And it’s a good thing we’ve got a base, as it’s time to start the mission in earnest, courtesy of the ‘Suicide Three’.
This tempting-sounding trio is 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, 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 some underwater interaction.