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Innes National Park: Jewel of the Yorke

April 04, 2019


At the southernmost tip of the Yorke Peninsula lies a haven of calm bays, white sand beaches, unbroken coastal cliffs, rugged headlands, ancient saline lakes, shipwrecks and hiking trails.


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South Australia’s majestic peninsulas are one of the state’s biggest tourist draws, with hundreds of kilometres of pristine coastline stretching out towards the Southern Ocean. Between Eyre, Fleurieu and Yorke peninsula, these great spits feature some of the best beaches in the country. Yorke is the middle of the three, with a Mediterranean climate, rich grazing land, a reputation for great seafood, and a coast lined with budget beach camping.


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Away from the coast, Yorke Peninsula can be a little...well, bland, for the most part. Its rolling hills and flat plains are largely occupied by cleared agricultural land, and after a few years of dry weather the gently undulating country is parched and brown. But, as with most places, it’s those protected areas where European development never quite managed to reach that are most worth visiting, protecting the relatively tiny remaining expanses of pristine Australian serenity. Innes is one of these places.


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Like Lincoln and Coffin Bay National Parks on the Eyre Peninsula to the west, Innes claims the far southern-most tip of the peninsular, and preserves the largest remaining portion of natural vegetation in the area. It’s about 300km from Adelaide, and while far from the most spectacular drive, there are plenty of good beach stops in coastal towns along the way. The entire coastline is dotted with campgrounds, all covered by a $10 a night permit, although none of the handful we visited could hold a flame to those in Innes.


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After passing Marion Bay, a small town with a caravan park and a few small stores, the vegetation transforms as you enter the park boundary. There’s really only a single road that curves around the park, and although all our maps showed it continuing right through to exit the far side, it turns out the far end is gated and inaccessible, so plan for a return trip.

Our first stop and base for exploration was Stenhouse Bay Campground, one of the seven campgrounds in the park. It’d be hard to go wrong with any of them, with Stenhouse and Pondalowie Bay the largest, while the others all have around ten sites each. South Australia’s relatively new online-only booking system is now firmly in place, which works great until you decide you want a second or third night and realise you have no reception within 50km. Fortunately, Innes has a fair bit of Telstra reception, so we checked out the sites before choosing one.


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The draw of this place is pretty evident right off the bat. We had some cool, clear and just about perfect weather, managing to avoid a week of heavy winds by barely a day, and the few days we spent here was just enough to explore a good portion of the park.


The History

The park was first declared in 1970, primarily to protect one of the few remaining habitats of the endangered Western Whipbird in South Australia, as well as a slew of historical buildings and other relics. Populated by the Nharangga people for thousands of years, European settlement of the Yorke first began in the 1840s, their interest lying mainly - as with much of SA - in sheep grazing. In the early 1900s, the area was found to be rich with commercial quantities of gypsum, and the soon-to-be thriving mining town of Inneston was founded in 1913. Mining continued through the 1920s, before slowly being abandoned, and the restored town now sits hidden in the surrounding bushland. You can take a walk right through this little piece of colonial history, and even rent out some of the restored huts for accommodation.


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If old buildings aren’t your thing, the area hides two other historical drawcards. The first is a unique and fascinating slice of living geological history, stromatolites. These are small dome-shaped structures consisting of stacked layers of blue-green algae, the lower layers of which harden and fossilise over time, while new layers form on top. They occur across the edges of the park’s salt lakes, and it’s one of the only places in the world where living examples still exist, with some over 3000 years old.


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The second is a veritable treasure-trove of shipwrecks. Between Innes and Kangaroo Island lies the Investigator Strait. This treacherous stretch of water has claimed dozens of ships in the past 200 years, with over 40 wrecks lying off the coast of Innes National Park. Four of these lay directly adjacent to the park: Marion, Ethel, Ferret and Hougomont, with the rusted spars of the Ethel thrusting forth from Ethel beach at low tide, her remnants long swallowed by sand. The wrecks that lay offshore now provide popular scuba diving sites.


Walking, Wildlife and Waves

For those, like me, who prefer to base their explorations on foot, the park is packed with a selection of great walking trails. The 500km Walk the Yorke trail passes across the entire park, with the section here linking up many of the park’s trails, including a good slog from Stenhouse Bay to historic Inneston. If you’re staying at Stenhouse Bay, the Lookout walk here is great late in the day, with the afternoon light really lending itself to the views across the bays and headlands.


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Along with the endangered Whipbird, the bush here protects a dozen other vulnerable or rare bird species, including the Malleefowl, Hooded Plovers, and Ospreys. Seals, dolphins, bats, pygmy possums, kangaroos and echidnas all thrive here, and the area now boasts a healthy population of reintroduced Tamar Wallabies, once extinct on the Australian mainland.

Our wildlife encounters were largely with the swarms of feral bees that hang around the campsites in search of water, although these can be easily subverted with a well-placed bowl of water, and Peninsular Browns and Black Tiger Snakes basking in the warm sand.


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And if it’s your thing, we saw plenty of evidence of the park’s good fishing and surfing conditions. The waters offshore here are all protected as the Southern Spencer Gulf Marine Park and Chinaman’s Hat Sanctuary Zone, hiding rich marine habitats and dynamic coastal ecosystems ripe for snorkelling and scuba-diving.


The Beaches

We didn’t quite have time to visit every beach here, but we weren’t far off. You can hit up nearly all of them just by following the road through the park and taking a couple of short detours. At Stenhouse Bay, the bay itself was a placid expanse of deep greens and blues, while just below the campground there’s a small beach of white sand and crystalline water ringed by low cliffs.


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From here, we followed the road over the headlands, with quick stops at Chinaman’s and Cable Beach, the latter a scenic and private beach directly below a campground.

We hit up the Cape Spencer and West Cape Lighthouses, both with short walks and killer views across the bays, then headed to Pondalowie Bay. A stretch of white sand beaches with good surf line the northern side, with calm, shallow beaches on the southern side. Goblet Bay and the small cove at the end even had good conditions for a quick snorkel.


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Our last campground was at Shell Beach, which was easily our favourite beach of the trip. Sheltered by rocky outcrops and with that same soft sand and beautiful pale turquoise water, it was a great place to spend an afternoon. Dolphin Bay, directly to the west, was pretty damn nice too, while Browns and Gym beach further along looked better suited for the surfing and fishing crowds, especially with the wind picking up.

Vehicle Entry fees for Innes run at $10 per day, which can really pile up when combined with the camping fees, so I’d recommend grabbing a two month park pass for $40 before you start exploring.


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