The Western Eyre Peninsula: Journeying through the Australian Mediterranean

The Western Eyre Peninsula is a gorgeous Australian landmark marred by a dark past.

CW: discussions of colonial violence.

The Western Eyre Peninsula is an underappreciated region of an underloved state – 500 or so kilometres of pink lakes, rolling sand dunes, mallee-scrub, rugged coastline and the most spectacular beaches in the world, cherished and cared for by Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years before colonisation. Every limestone cliff is met by sparkling shades of turquoise and azure, lapping and breaking on stark-white sands.

This part of South Australia is a Mediterranean paradise – a slice of the Greek Islands in the Australian bush; with that extra flare of antipodean exoticism that comes from purple bushes, pink water, and Southern hairy-nosed wombats. It’s also the sight of extensive colonial violence, holding histories of dispossession and massacres – something that every traveller must keep in mind when passing through.

A journey through the region should start in Ceduna, gateway to the Nullarbor; this strip of road, whilst not technically on the Eyre Peninsula, will take you to the edge of the infamous Nullarbor plain. The Nullarbor is a special type of flatness that has to be seen to be believed – journeys through outback Queensland, NSW and even the Northern Territory did not prepare me for the sheer, all-encompassing nothingness that accompanies a 1,100 km stretch of windswept, treeless desert. Fittingly, this area was originally called Oondiri by the local Indigenous people, meaning “waterless”. At the Head of Bight this plain gives way to sharp limestone cliffs that stretch to the Western Australian border, with spectacular views over the wild Southern Ocean.

Back towards Ceduna is Fowlers Bay, home to one of the best examples of the immense – sometimes 80 metre tall – dune systems that dominate the flatter areas of the Western Eyre Peninsula. A 30 minute drive east to Penong is the sublime Lake MacDonnell, one of the most surreal places I have ever seen. The spectacular hot pink hue – and it really is hot pink – is likely caused by a type of algae and sits in stark contrast to the brilliant white sand dunes and open blue sky.

Ceduna itself is a town of 3408 people on the edge of the South Australian outback – here, as with many of the west-facing towns on the Eyre Peninsula, a traveller can see the sun set over the ocean: an extraordinary sight for a resident of the Eastern seaboard. Southwards from Ceduna are a number of wonderful detours; the Point Labatt Sea Lion colony is an excellent opportunity to see one of Australia’s most endangered marine mammals – the magnificent Australian Sea Lion – from a spectacular vista over multicoloured limestone cliffs. Nearby are Murphy’s Haystacks, a great little detour featuring orange-stained inselberg rocks rising above the highest hill in the area.

Further south are the Talia Caves; Limestone is a porous rock and erodes in very interesting ways, leaving huge caverns that are sometimes open to the air. The Talia caves are one such place – the deep blue Southern Ocean crashes against pink, orange and white hued limestone cliffs speckled with caverns, some of which are accessible to the public. Between the caves and Elliston is a fantastic scenic drive around an amazing example of chapparal ecosystems perched on yet more stunning limestone cliffs – the Italian coast may be off the cards for most at the moment, but this is easily as beautiful.

Elliston is also the access point for the most spectacular beach I have visited in my life – Locks Well. Accessible by a formidable looking wooden stairwell that meanders down a steep hillside, Locks Well features electric lolly-blue water capped with white surf breaking on an expansive, empty beach enclosed by brown, windswept escarpments. A traveller can feel entirely alone here, surrounded by some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery Australia has to offer.

Underlying all this natural beauty, however, is a bloody colonial history. Elliston, in fact, is an apt place to delve into the troubled past of the Eyre peninsula as a whole. As with the rest of our country, these are blood lands – expropriated from and never ceded by First Nations People in a context of brutal colonial violence. Elliston is the site of an 1849 massacre: a reprisal attack for the deaths of two colonists involved the murder of at least 10 Wirangu people as they hid in the bushes of the headland.

Indeed, the entire Eyre Peninsula is a stark reminder of an unsavoury past – the region, home to the Barngala people, is named after explorer and colonial administrator Edward John Eyre. Eyre, in the late 1830s, travelled as far west as Ceduna in a series of expeditions through the interior of South Australia – the name is probably familiar to most Australians as the moniker given to our most famous Salt Lake: Lake Eyre.

What most Australians don’t know is that Eyre was infamous, even in his time, as the brutal Governor of Jamaica. Eyre insisted on interacting only with the white land-owning class, and consistently pursued racialised draconian policies towards his subjects. In 1865 he violently suppressed the Morant Bay rebellion, murdering at least 439 black peasants alongside 600 floggings and the burning of over a thousand properties. Eyre also used the rebellion as an excuse to execute his political critic George William Gordon, a mixed-race member of the Jamaican assembly who was not involved whatsoever in the revolt. The events of 1865 led to widespread debate (and from some quarters condemnation) in contemporary British society. Unfortunately, this history is largely unknown in Australia.

From Ceduna to Port Lincoln, the Peninsula represents some of the most beautiful, fascinating and underappreciated scenery in the country. Unfortunately, it’s also a place associated with horror, violence, and oppression.  It is important to confront this past when travelling along the Peninsula’s remarkable coastline; to face the incongruity between the region’s natural beauty and tragic history. Perhaps one day, the region will stop celebrating this past by changing its name.