Wild animals in Australia's Port Lincoln

In South Australia's Gawler Ranges National Park, a harmless shingleback or sleepy lizard attempts...

In South Australia's Gawler Ranges National Park, a harmless shingleback or sleepy lizard attempts to terrify a safari party into taking a different route. PETER FISHER/HORIZON WRITERS' GROUP

PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY, Horizon Writers' Group

, Last Updated: 2:58 PM ET

ADELAIDE, South Australia -- A short voyage out into Boston Bay from the small South Australian town of Port Lincoln, Matt Waller of Adventure Bay Charters regards a large circular floating pontoon with a loving eye.

Assorted sharp-beaked gulls fill the air with their cries, and piebald cormorants line the pontoon's rim, but the metre-high nylon fence that drops a further 10 metres underwater to form a giant sack is not there for them.

"We only have two kinds of predators," Waller says, "seals and people. One's very smart and one's very stupid. I've had cameras on here for four years but I've never managed to take a photograph of a seal."

The thieves are after his bluefin tuna, once plentiful in neighbouring seas but now rare, whose numbers paid for mansions and smart cars in sleepy Port Lincoln before stocks crashed and catches were restricted to tiny quotas, reducing the fishing fleet to a handful of vessels.

The town turned its attention from tuna to tourism, and developed several water-based attractions as well as promoting itself as a base to reach vast coastal and inland parks, including areas of arid outback unusually well-populated with Australia's distinctive wildlife. It offers the best of both the wet and the dry.

Out at sea, fourth-generation fisherman Waller has capitalised on the local industry's wily response to tuna cutbacks and his floating pen is nearly identical to those floating nearby and developed to house tuna caught 300 nautical miles away. These are raised until their body weights and fat distribution are best for the premium sashimi cuts that bring huge prices at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

He's added an underwater viewing gallery from which these purposeful silvery torpedos can be observed dashing for sardines, but it's better still to don a snorkel and take the world's only opportunity to swim with tuna. Matt's fish are up to 70 kilos in weight and 1.2-metres long, and they accelerate through the water after tidbits faster than a Porsche 911 from a green light on land. Yet they never bump into the swimmers captivated by this water ballet.

Toss a sardine from the edge of the pool and tuna can be seen streaking its way while it is still in the air. They can also be fed by dipping the head of a sardine in the water, although there's a slight element of danger. Tuna have teeth, if only tiny ones, and if the fingers are too close to the surface the fish may inadvertantly bite the hand that feeds it, leaving something like a paper cut.

"For those with a career as a hand model," Waller says drily, "I suggest you use tongs."

Another Port Lincoln company, Calypso Star Charters, offers day trips further out and through less sheltered seas in search of aquatic life that, given the chance, would take your whole arm rather than scratch your finger.

Here's an opportunity to come face to face with great white sharks. These are first seen Jaws-style as menacing triangular fins scything the waters. They are teased toward the boat with a banging on the vessel's side that acts as a dinner gong with tuna offal as an hors d'oeuvre. This is flung out on the end of a long line then pulled rapidly in towards a flimsy looking yet robust diving cage partly submerged at the rear of the boat. Many times the line comes back bitten clean through.

Passengers descend in groups for periods of around 45 minutes, clad in neoprene from top to toe, hung with lead weights, and given regulators through which to breathe and which are connected to an air supply on the boat. No previous diving experience is required.

"Any last words?" joke the friendly operators as they close the hatch at the top leaving an airspace for any who feel the need to escape. Videos about the great white shown on the trip out fail to reassure. Its monstrous jaws close with three times as much pressure as those of an adult male lion.

The sharks seem leisurely in comparison to the tuna but their vast bulk, as much 5.5-metres long, is unnerving. It's not only against common sense to put yourself in their way, but their swerves past the cage in a swirl of bubbles speak directly to some deeper primordial fear. Not everyone stays down for the full allotted time.

Occasionally these leviathans manage to throw their vast bulks spectacularly out of the water, providing a show for those recovering on deck with hot showers and drinks, and there are also chances to sight seals, whales and dolphins, too.

From the summit of the vast granite monolith of Mount Wudinna, a two-hour drive inland, all is considerably more peaceful. The granite slopes away in shades of pink and grey dotted with dark lichens, to the feathery green canopy of the gum trees below and an intermittent mosaic of orderly farmland. Broad-winged wedge-tailed eagles soar in a sky of perfect blue, pestered by a small orangey falcon. This is the last sign of civilisation before the vast wilderness of Gawler Ranges National Park, a former sheep station that's now rapidly reverting to nature, and only accessible using sturdy 4WD vehicles.

The route to Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris' Kangaluna Camp offers sightings of the euro, a kangaroo that likes rocky hills and caves, as well as wallabies and ungainly emus that run stupidly down the track ahead of the vehicle rather than turning off. The camp has permanently fixed tents beneath corrugated roofs, with solid floors, proper beds and hot showers, all set around a small central kitchen and dining room which produce exceptional candlelit dinners in the middle of nowhere.

"Five-star? This is million-star accommodation," joke the staff, gesturing upwards at a night-sky ablaze with light that faces no competition from city glare.

The Gawler Ranges are the detritus from a vast eruption nearly 1.6 billion years ago that blew cubic kilometres of material out of the earth and spewed minerals across the landscape, painting it in an extraordinary combinations of reds, pinks, creams, ochres and greys.

Day trips from the camp visit arid Lake Sturt, where the chemistry of different salts and iron absorption has produced banks resembling caramel and chocolate pudding topped with spilt milk, whose whorls and textures change every few steps. This unexpected beauty holds even those who have never previously looked twice at a rock spellbound staring at the ground. At one nearby spot the deposited metals have the texture of soft paste, and once provided the aboriginal population with body paint in pinks, whites and dark shades of orangey-brown.

Nearby Lake Gairdner, a vast salt pan 160-km-long, has a spongy crystalline surface like crisp frost which sparkles as you walk. It's a vast ocean of brilliant white, an Antarctic scene with tropical heat in which all sense of perspective disappears. Island hills that look merely 3 km away are in fact five times as far.

The area also has grey and western red kangaroos in large numbers and nearly 150 species of birds, all drawn by the moisture-laden air that arrives nightly on sea breezes. Track-side trees may be home to gaudy galah cockatoos, which strip the bark to deter goannas from climbing to their nests. There are occasional pauses to move shinglebacks or "sleepy lizards," slow-moving stump-tailed creatures that gape their serrated mouths and flick their blue tongues in an attempt to terrify.

After the sharks? Not a chance.

NEED TO KNOW

-- Port Lincoln is a 300-km coastal drive from Adelaide, including one ferry, or a brief flight by Qantas or Regional Express. See qantas.com.au and rex.com.au.

-- For travel information on Australia, see australia.com. For more on South Australia, see southaustralia.com. The Port Lincoln Visitor Information Centre site has details of attractions, accommodation and dining at visitportlincoln.net. The Port Lincoln Hotel is recommended. See portlincolnhotel.com.au.

-- Adventure Bay Charters runs trips to swim with tuna daily, year-round. "Got to feed the fish," Waller says. See adventurebaycharters.com.au. For great white encounters with Calypso Star Charters, see sharkcagediving.com.au. It's a 2.5-hour cruise to the Neptune Islands through fairly open waters so bring anti-seasickness agents as a precaution. Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris pick up in Port Lincoln and Wudinna. There are several itineraries involving both the outback and the coast but the four-day/three-night Outback Contrasts tour, with nights spent at Kangaluna Camp, offers the best of the wilderness with every creature comfort.


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