Many Australians would describe the Yorke Peninsula (YP) of South Australia as a barren place, especially if you arrive from our rainforested coast of Queensland or from the northern beaches of NSW.
And I would have to agree. If you drive down the YP at the end of summer, when the wheat and barley fields lie fallow, covered in dry stubble, the grey flocks of sheep huddling together in the open or immobile under a few remaining trees, it is not enticing. Most of the remaining native vegetation seems to have survived along the roadsides and in the Innes National Park at the foot of the peninsula. The YP is often called the ‘Ill-shaped’ leg – rather like Italy, the YP is in the shape of a bumpy foot.
The YP has predominately limestone, alkaline soils with calcareous loams and calcrete. The early settlers said that the land ‘grew rocks’ because as fast as they cleared paddocks by hand, more white lumps appeared. There are only shallow hills and the wind is notorious – a great place for wind farms. 150 years ago, the smoke from the burning of the mallee eucalyptus and allocasurina forest blanketed Adelaide for months on end. And after that came the dust: the topsoil blowing away before farmers learnt not to plough the stubble after harvest.
But farmers have learnt how to manage the land, finding it was perfect for barley, wheat and canola.
So much for the history of the YP. There are a few places where you can catch a glimpse of what it once was. It’s strange how humans only start to realise what they have lost when it almost too late: the wombats are virtually gone; the echidna is rare and emus and kangaroos are seldom seen unless you are in a National Park.
But the coastline of the YP is relatively undisturbed. The beaches are long, with deep white sand and aquamarine seas: hardly a soul in sight. Go there for the sea, the beaches, if nothing else.
I have lived next to the sea, more or less, since moving to Zanzibar at the age of 8. Zanzibar, Durban, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide. All different seas. It is one of life’s perfect pleasures. Sixteen months ago, not long before Covid-19 blighted our world, we sold our beachside holiday home on the YP, and for all of 2020 I have missed being there. I knew the phases of the moon: the tides, the way the winds dropped at low tide and when to hurry inside during the 40-degree spells. I paddled my bright yellow Hobbie kayak over the shallow reefs and seagrass, fishing for squid and blue-swimmer crabs. Sometimes pods of dolphins followed me.
This last week we travelled down the YP to a friend’s remote property located on the peninsula’s wild southern instep. Much of her 400 acres is dune scrubland, too sandy to farm, and so it has been left alone. Her property flanks about 3-4 kms of beach on the Gulf of St Vincent. This is a beach where it is rare to see another soul.
On the beach you always discover something – each day, something different: perhaps the desiccated skeleton of a leafy sea-dragon, or a perfect abalone shell. Bleached lumps of sea grass face the sea. They will be taken by the winter storms. In one cove I came across four endangered hooded dotterels, running back and forth as they foraged on the edge of the waves. I found a great green twist of rope that had come ashore, probably from a commercial fishing vessel. I always take a bag to the beach to gather rubbish left on the line of the high tide. But this day, all I gathered was a milk carton and one plastic bottle. A few years ago, we came across a beached mountain of fishing rope, over four metres long and two metres high. Perhaps it had been discarded by a deep-sea trawler. The council came and managed to remove it.
There is some good news on the YP in terms of conservation. Our state government is constructing a feral-proof fence across the narrowest section of the YP. They hope to remove foxes, cats and other ferals from the lands west of the fence to allow native fauna some protection.
‘At least 27 Australian mammal species are believed to have disappeared from the peninsula due to feral predators and the clearing of vegetation. While kangaroos and emus can still be seen around the area, many native species will never return without assistance.’
My friend’s house had no electricity, only gas for the stove and small solar panels for pumps. So, no TV and the mobile phones died. It’s very relaxing without news. You get used to it: we played bridge, cleared scrub from around the house, completed a difficult jigsaw, read books, birdwatched, walked the beach and shared long dinners and bottles of rather good Australian shiraz. What more could you ask for?