Its industrial reputation precedes it but with dazzling wildlife and sunsets to match, Whyalla is not all it seems, writes Mark Chipperfield.
Should Steel City be rechristened Cuttlefish Central? Whyalla is known for its giant rolling mills and awesome blast furnace but visitors are now flocking to the pristine waters of the Upper Spencer Gulf to witness a natural phenomenon – the annual cuttlefish mating season. Between May and August each year, some 200,000 of these peculiar creatures congregate here to breed. The sight attracts naturalists, divers and the plain curious from around the globe.
And that’s not all. Get past its industrial skyline and Whyalla reveals itself to be a feisty, resilient and intensely proud city that’s keen to share its attractions – both man-made and natural – with outsiders. That might involve joining the locals for a spot of croquet at their 1940s club or discovering why photographers are mesmerised by the Stranded Shingle Beach Ridges, a series of ancient low-slung gravel dunes just out of town.
“There’s something magical about the place. A unique spirit,” says one local. “It’s hard to explain but if you stay long enough you’ll feel it, too.”
Day 1 AM
South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent. The early-morning flight from Adelaide to Whyalla is a dramatic introduction to this sparse, big-sky landscape. Our flight path takes us across the Yorke Peninsula before the enormity of the Spencer Gulf looms into view.
From the airport, it’s a 10-minute drive into town (the city is short on public transport so a hire care is essential). First stop is Hummock Hill Lookout, with its sweeping views of the gulf, steelworks and Southern Flinders Ranges. “Whyalla is a city built in a desert,” says my guide, Elizabeth McNeill, tourism development manager at Whyalla City Council. In the early days, water was piped from the Murray River – about 400 kilometres away – due to a lack of springs or creeks on this part of South Australia’s coast.
Then we spot two dolphins frolicking in the marina. Steel City is full of such surprises. We pick up a takeaway coffee from Sempre (08 8645 9099), a family-run Italian café, before heading out to Whyalla Conservation Park – one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The park is home to kangaroos, reptiles, honeyeaters, wrens, parrots and wedge-tailed eagles. Stretch your legs and follow the walking trail to the summit of Wild Dog Hill, allowing about 40 minutes for the round trip.
Back in town we drop into Whyalla Beach Café (08 8644 0815), which has views of the revamped foreshore, complete with palm trees. The sunny kiosk is a popular local hangout and serves snacks and light lunches, including fish and chips.
Day 1 PM
Whyalla has no shortage of coastline but chose a site next to the Lincoln Highway for its Maritime Museum. Motorists are no doubt intrigued to see HMAS Whyalla, a World War II minesweeper, looming above the trees.
My grandfather served on minesweepers in the Atlantic so I was delighted to join a guided tour of the vessel. As well as the fear of enemy aircraft, sailors had to put up with cold showers, communal hammocks and a ship that rolled up to 40 degrees. It’s also worth visiting the museum, which houses naval and mining artefacts, ship models, shark skeletons and historic photos.
After all this talk of the sea, we desperately need to plunge into the ocean. The main city beach is family-friendly, with safe swimming, flat surf and a children’s play area nearby.
Whyalla is a city of many pubs so there are plenty of options if you want a cold beer. The Eyre Hotel is one of the newer establishments and has a lively bar, a beer garden and an extensive menu. The food – schnitzel, pizza, pasta and salad – is hearty, solid fare.
Just a two-minute walk from the main beach is the Foreshore Motor Inn, a well-run establishment offering a selection of light-filled rooms and a swimming pool. My Garden View Room, which overlooks the city’s lush parklands, is hard to fault, with crisp linen, contemporary décor, pay TV and an efficient air-conditioning system.
The complex includes The Watersedge Restaurant (08 8645 8877). With sublime views over the Spencer Gulf, it serves local seafood, including King George whiting and Coffin Bay oysters, alongside classics such as sirloin steak and pan-seared chicken.
Day 2 AM
Begin the day with a quick ocean dip before driving to Sempre, the only place in town serving authentic Italian food and coffee. We kick off with an espresso and freshly made zeppole (a type of doughnut). The café’s owner, Alessandro, came to Whyalla from Rome with his parents in the 1970s. “We couldn’t find any Italian food,” he recalls. “That was the hardest thing – my mother was so homesick that she cried for two years.”
I arrive at the visitor centre at 9.10am to join the Whyalla Steelworks Tour, which offers a rare chance to see inside the 1000-hectare Arrium mining site. The two-hour minibus ride to see blast furnaces, coke ovens and rolling mills provides a glimpse into Australia’s past industrial glory. The site once contained a major shipyard, where a skilled workforce built corvettes, freighters and oil tankers until its closure in 1978.
A similar cloud now hangs over the steelworks, after Arrium went into voluntary administration in 2016, adding an extra poignancy to the tour. Locals remain confident that an overseas buyer can be found to take over the plant that, among other things, manufactures all of this country’s steel rails.
“There is a lot of accumulated knowledge here,” says Grant, our guide, who worked at the plant for 36 years. “We make extremely high-quality products – much better than the imported stuff. We can’t let that just disappear.”
Day 2 PM
Even if you’re visiting Whyalla outside of giant-cuttlefish breeding season, it’s worth the half-hour drive to Point Lowly to see where they gather each year. The main attraction is the Point Lowly Lighthouse, which dates back to 1883.
Nearby is a pleasant swimming beach and visitors can stay overnight at one of the two lighthouse cottages. Apart from fishing, snorkelling and scuba diving, the other major drawcard is the Stranded Shingle Beach Ridges, which have been listed on the South Australian Heritage Register and provide a dramatic backdrop. Meanwhile, cyclists and keen hikers can follow the 12-kilometre Freycinet Trail along the coastline – maps are available from the visitor centre in Whyalla.
Just before dark
No visit to Whyalla is complete without an early-evening stroll along the foreshore jetty. This is where the locals come to fish for tommy rough, garfish, King George whiting and squid. In the warmer months, families wade out across the sandbank looking for blue swimmer crabs – they have strong pincers so wear decent footwear.
The jetty is also a great place to witness an Eyre Peninsula sunset. The intense oranges and ochres are said to derive from desert sand suspended in the upper atmosphere.
SEE ALSO: Explore Kangaroo Island
Photography by Millie Brown