During the Australian summer of 1802, two European captains in two large sailing boats were leading expeditions in a race to map the coastline of New Holland and New South Wales. These two salty sea dogs, England’s Matthew Flinders and France’s Nicolas Baudin, were no strangers to touring the waters around Terra Australis, and their voyages were your typical mix of death at sea, cartography, naming myriad landmarks, plants and animals and, of course, chundering over the gunwales. The pair crossed paths at South Australia’s Encounter Bay. No doubt Flinders broke out the scotch and Baudin a fine Bordeaux as they recounted their holiday cruises so far.
As they’d both avoided the harsh European winter and their respective countries being at war with each other, cheery discussion may have turned to the natural beauty slightly further west at Coffin Bay, Matt telling Nick he’d named the spot for his mate Sir Isaac Coffin.
“You’ll find calm, crystal blue waters by white, sandy beaches,” Flinders might have said. “There are giant coastal sand dunes, desert landscapes, abundant emus and kangaroos for the barbie, and the seafood’s incredible. There are a few epic surf spots, but watch for sharks and slap on some sunscreen—it gets bloody hot out there.”
Some 200 years later, these natural wonders remain largely untouched in the protected Coffin Bay National Park. Access today need not be aboard a timber survey ship, but this Eyre Peninsula beauty spot remains a challenge to reach. It takes an eight-hour, 700km journey from Adelaide to get there, but it also ensures the journey is the reserve of the committed 4x4 adventurer.
The location is ideal, therefore, as the latest playground for an Isuzu UTE I-Venture Club epic, where MU-X and D-MAX owners could enjoy three days of off-road exploring, tuition, camaraderie and laughs in a spectacular wilderness. And unlike 19th-century explorers there’d be a true holiday vibe thrown in, with barbecue breakfasts, sashimi, sundowner beers, comfy beds and the chance to learn how to shuck your own oysters.
As with all multi-day I-Venture Club experiences, there’s the combination of like-minded adventurous Isuzu owners, expert guides and Isuzu UTE Australia’s ever-busy crew ensuring everyone’s well fed, watered and in the right place at the right time.
Our Friday morning meeting point is Port Lincoln where, over brekkie, 4WD guru and lead instructor David Wilson— nut brown from a life lived outside and rich with local knowledge—gives a quick brief to the gathered Isuzu owners.
“This is the best place on earth,” Wilson insists, biased maybe as he owns a property at Coffin Bay. “It’s a unique, wild space where you can pull up camp and not see a soul for days. Being 700 km from Adelaide dissuades a lot of people from coming over—and that’s a good thing.”
We convoy to Lincoln National Park, drop tyre pressures to 18psi, engage low range and are immediately meandering through sandy tracks. It’s a baptism of fire. All on this trip have done at least one introductory I-Venture jaunt, but the sand is so soft and deep here the driving advice being communicated via UHF from Wilson’s lead vehicle is welcomed by all.
“THIS IS THE BEST PLACE ON EARTH—IT’S A UNIQUE, WILD SPACE WHERE YOU CAN PULL UP CAMP AND NOT SEE A SOUL FOR DAYS.”
The landscape may boast small shrubs, coastal mallee eucalypts and the occasional quandong tree, but the dry, sandy ground looks like it’s not seen rain since 1987. As the sand tracks deepen, so does the likelihood of getting bogged. Every day’s a school day, and with some enthusiastic encouragement to power over a particularly steep sand dune and down onto a striking white beach, Wilson gives a much appreciated lesson in using MAXTRAX recovery equipment. Mental note: digging into hot sand under hot cars while the mercury tips 40°C doesn’t look fun. Avoid getting stuck at all costs.
We follow the Sleaford to Wanna 4WD trail, rich with rocky headlands and views of the wild and beautiful turquoise sea. As enticing as the spot is, it wouldn’t have been an ideal picnic stop for Flinders or Baudin. The full force of the Southern Ocean—next stop, Antarctica—has been pounding these cliffs for millennia. Our MU-X’s ever-rugged 3.0L engine helps plough us through desert landscapes, all in leather-seated, air-conditioned comfort. It was too good to last, though. We hesitate as we crest a dune, lose momentum and bury the SUV up to its axles. The sand burns my feet, the blazing overhead sun scorches my scalp and I prepare for a sweaty digging session. Luckily, blessed rescue is at hand. Wilson’s already cleared said sand dune in his lead D-MAX and in no time a snatch strap is secured and we’re dragged from our burial site. Despite the delay, we agree it has to be one of Australia’s most picturesque sites to get stuck.
“AS EACH SUCCESSIVE ISUZU EVENTUALLY CRESTS, SHOUTS OF TRIUMPH AND DELIGHT FILL THE AIRWAVES. THERE’S A WONDERFUL SENSE OF ACHIEVEMENT AS ALL THE DUCKLINGS FOLLOW THEIR FOUR-WHEELED MOTHER HOME.”
Back on the bitumen we convoy towards Coffin Bay to our apartment, hop in the shower and begin removing sand from places it really shouldn’t reach. A few cold ones at the local yacht club is followed by a beach fire, toasted marshmallows and a celebratory sundowner as the gathered troops share stories of the day’s journey and learnings. The Bay is perfectly still, pastel colours flood the giant sky and sleep comes easily once we retire for the day. Next morning’s hearty breakfast is walked off along Coffin Bay’s Oyster Trail to the Long Beach sand hills. Here an imposing dune rises mightily from the beach and the brave souls who venture up it are rewarded with 360-degree views of clear waters and desert vistas that have a crack at stretching to infinity.
You don’t go to the Barossa Valley and not try a shiraz, so why would you do Coffin Bay and not sample the creamy, salty taste of local oysters? But while you won’t crush wine grapes yourself, here you can shuck your own oysters straight after they’ve been plucked from the sea.
This novelty compels even the most fearful of mollusc munchers to have a try, with their unbeatable freshness winning some of the lifelong avoiders over. Wading waist deep (in waterproof waders, of course) to our oyster dining tables in the Bay all adds to the experience.
As emus wander casually across the road in downtown Coffin Bay, we saddle up our Isuzus and venture to Coffin Bay National Park. If David Lean hadn’t used North Africa to film Lawrence of Arabia, this panorama of undulating white and yellow desert sands might have been a worthy cinematic substitute.
The going isn’t easy. Driving here is as formidable as you might expect and Wilson and his team have to pool their experience to rescue a few bogged participants, as well as advise others how to conquer a long, steep, soft sand dune, as fragile as a giant pile of caster sugar.
It would be too easy for Wilson to take the reins and use his experience to complete the task. But, no. There’s no patronising here—we have to prove we can do the job ourselves. We try lowering tyre pressures, using high-range 4WD rather than low-range to gain more speed, taking manual control for gear changes and keeping wheels straight to avoid ploughing the soft sand.
As each Isuzu eventually crests, shouts of triumph and delight fill the air. There’s a wonderful sense of achievement as all ducklings manage to follow their four wheeled mother home.
Experiencing first hand quite how capable these off-roaders are over the loosest of surfaces is one thing, but there’s no denying its fun, too. With momentum on our side, powdered sand flying off the spinning wheels and our MU-X effortlessly following wheel tracks, it’s a driving experience like no other.
The evening brings a delicious free range Berkshire spit-roast dinner in Wangary, as rustic and authentic a South Australian spot imaginable, where hungry bellies are filled and the enduring heat— it seems to get hotter the deeper into the day you go—is tempered by blissful cold beer and wine from the Esky. The final day is arguably most breathtaking of all. Illustrating the scenic contrast found within a short drive, we begin with the rugged raw beauty of Point Avoid and Golden Island lookouts with the swell smashing into limestone headlands. We off-road north to Yangie Bay and this mesmerising spot, protected from brutal winds and raging seas, is about as peaceful as you’ll find anywhere.
Here we drive on a deserted beach close to the calm water’s edge. Once more the sand is so soft we require all the Isuzus’ power and ability to maintain progress, but we emerge onto Seven Mile Beach, which renders you almost speechless for its beauty. Like a Caribbean tourism commercial, the powdered, white sand is met by shallow, lapping turquoise waters with little fish happily playing in their private paradise.
It feels like one of the most unspoiled, remote places in Australia, but as this is an I-Venture Club trip, luxury isn’t far away. Local caterers 34° South have rolled up in their 4WD and prepare oysters, kingfish, tuna, prawns and chargrilled kangaroo. It’s surreal. I’ve only enjoyed similar quality in the finest urban restaurants. Shows the importance of having fresh, local produce—and knowing talented people able to prepare it.
With the temperature still in the high 30s, I can resist the water no longer. I check with Wilson if those monster four-metre great whites venture round to these sheltered waters. “Hop in and find out,” he says. A few of us take the plunge and, while the water’s surface is superheated from the sun, I dive lower and swear there’s a 10-degree temperature difference. There’s time for the mind to be blown one last time. We climb yet another sand dune and roll down onto deserted Sensation Beach.
The name isn’t misleading. Lucky Flinders and Baudin didn’t moor here, as they surely would never have left. Why return to a foggy and damp London or Paris when Mother Nature is at her very finest right here on the other side of the world? Final stories are shared at Coffin Bay’s impossibly hip 1802 Oyster Bar. We’re so very far from anything, it seems, yet in this tiny town of only a few hundred residents there’s a gin selection hard to beat either side of Melbourne.
Last words go to the ever-effervescent tour guide David Wilson, whose local knowledge and enthusiasm for the region has been obvious since we began. Now we’ve seen this fascinating pocket of South Australia with our own eyes, conquered its sandy trails and sampled its varied and world-class local produce.
Admirably, he wants to share his paradise found. “Bring the kids,” he says. “It would be an amazing adventure and they’ll see stuff they’ll never see back in town. “Bring a camera, your surfboard, there’s fantastic beach fishing, oysters, and if you’ve got a tinnie, bring that along, too.” The grin never leaves his face as he talks of Coffin Bay as a proud grandpa would his grandkids. We’re believers. This wild and spectacular pocket has provided memories to last a lifetime.