His introduction to the Coorong was hard yakka but John Reeves is now showing a select group of visitors the secrets of his beloved beach from the bucket seats of a luxury four-wheel drive.
John Reeves has experienced the backbreaking work of hauling Goolwa pipis out of the sands of South Australia’s Coorong beach. He no longer hauls pipis – “I’m not tough enough,” he says – but he has found a way to share his profound connection with the panoramic beauty and unique history of this World Heritage-listed gem.
“People are always so mesmerised by it. It’s a beautiful place,” he says. “Even the guys that fish here all the time. It’s like, when you come to this beach, you lose time. Everybody forgets whatever they were thinking.”
The journey from the city, deep in the leather-lined seats of his Jeep Wrangler, is full of personal yarns and indigenous history, all communicated with the gusto of a natural storyteller.
After giving up on harvesting Goolwa pipis (also known as cockles) himself, Reeves joined ranks with other families in the area to form Goolwa PipiCo. Now contractors collect the tiny shellfish from the licensed fishing grounds for the company, which distributes 96 per cent of Australia’s pipis to market from its base in Port Elliot.
“They’re all hand dug from the beach. The boys all have big strong arms and biceps on them. They’re hardcore, a real breed of their own,” Reeves says of the contractors.
The industry is now surfing a wave of interest as changing food tastes swing to focus on the once humble mollusc. “The market for pipis has got a lot more sophisticated … it’s very trendy at the moment,” Reeves says. “Chefs from around Australia are saying, ‘I reckon we need a pipi dish on our menu’. We’re getting a lot more restaurants asking for them. We are the only real company that does it in Australia on this scale.”
His idea for “The Untold Story of the Coorong” tour sprang from guiding increasing flocks of chefs by barge across to the beach to see for themselves where the in-demand delicacies were coming from. “We started taking chefs down, often … Matt Moran and all the chefs you can imagine,” he says.
Presented with the exquisite charms of the place, each new gourmand fell hard for the Coorong and Reeves’ plan to bring newcomers to his quite large chunk of paradise was born. He had the barge to transport small tour parties quickly across the Coorong lagoon and a unique knowledge of the place to share with them.
“No one can get there, really, without a barge. It’s difficult for most people to access,” he says. “During summer, you might see three or four cars that have driven up all the way from the south (from Kingston).”
Once we have made the trip from Mundoo wharf on Hindmarsh Island, through waters thick with seabirds including the mighty pelicans of Storm Boy fame, we come to the Younghusband Peninsula. Out of Barkers Knoll – a site for filming on both versions of the Storm Boy movie – miles of pristine sand stretches ahead of our tour group of two, and the Jeep is ready to eat up the distance to our next destination.
Line after line of waves crash onto the beach, roaring in, even on this sparkling spring day, with all the sound and fury the Southern Ocean can generate, and Reeves explains why beauty is not the only reason he wants to share this place.
Harvesting pipis also led him to an unexpected discovery – a link to the ancient indigenous history of the Ngarrindjeri people, who had been harvesting pipis from the same beach for thousands of years
“The whole point of today is looking at this modern pipi fishery, which I’m part of, and then you can go into the sand dunes and see the ancient history of this culture that’s been eating this same food source for at least 14,000 years,” he says.
His fascination drove him to forge links with local Ngarrindjeri elders, particularly Major Moogy Sumner, better known as Uncle Moogy. The strong relationships he formed opened the way to being trusted with traditional knowledge and finally being granted permission to share it with his guests.
With Uncle Moogy sometimes joining in on the tours, the pair tell of a vibrant culture that has held stewardship of the area for 150 generations, and lead guests to huge clearings in the dunes teeming with evidence of ancient life.
“There’s human remains everywhere on the Coorong. It was a rich area for the Ngarrindjeri. Wherever you find a midden, there’s always a burial site as well,” says Reeves.
“The Ngarrindjeri had such a huge food bowl here. Pipis, fish, wild animals. They were amazing chefs – the recipes these guys knew and the way they preserved their food in earthenware pots.
“They had these massive rafts, canoes made out of redgum trees, and they’d put three or four together and in the middle they would have an area for cooking mullet. They had nets up to 500m long and they would go to Lake Alexandrina and the Lower Lakes harvesting mullet and mulloway. They had like a processing factory aboard these boats – they’d smoke and preserve the fish and bring them back to their villages in storage containers, up to 300-400kg of fish.
“It’s an incredible story of an incredible people.”
Walking through the dunes, Reeves points out bush tucker like sea spinach, pigface and muntries or native cranberries. The tracks of emu and kangaroo are clear in the sand.
All that talk of food means a quick return to camp is welcome, ready to see what Reeves – also chief cook and bottlewasher on this tour – can rustle up in his portable kitchen.
After a quick try at hauling our own pipis from the sand, it remains only for guests to settle into comfortable deckchairs, dig their toes into the sand and watch those mesmerising waves.
Reeves rolls out a proudly local menu – bread rolls with Paris Creek butter, a salad of greens, orange segments and shaved fennel, and fresh pipis barbecued and dressed with butter, lemon juice, lemon rind, capers, tarragon, parsley and garlic. Washed down with a citrusy Reg & Co riesling from the Clare Valley, and served on white-clad tables with accompanying silverware, the feast tempts even reluctant fish eaters into happy surrender.
A return to the Jeep and a quick sortie through the ever-thinning no-man’s land between the dunes and encroaching waves brings us back to the inner lagoon and on to the journey back to the city.
Reeves sums it up: “It’s a beautiful beach and I love the Aboriginal part of it. I think it’s a great story to see how we still harvest pipis now after thousands of years of history of it. I love the flow. You can see the timeline and how it’s sustained 150 generations of people and it still does – it sustains my family.”
New Adelaide was a guest of The Tailor, organisers of Australian luxury travel and The Untold Story of the Coorong tour (thetailor.com.au).
WORDS – Jennifer Hullick
Photography – South Australian tourism commission
and Calum Robertson
I’m standing in the middle of a shining natural amphitheatre inlaid with cockle shells, listening as tour guide John Reeves explains how this site set among the Coorong dunes was a summer home for the Ngarrindjeri people.
Sand, littered with millions of bleached shells, extends hundreds of metres in every direction, rising into yet higher dunes also laden with pipi remains. Groupings of dark red “fire” rocks dot
a sparkling landscape that is almost vibrating with stories of the past.
“There are lots of big middens like this one,” Reeves says. “The middens were a summer camp – a gathering place for many tribes. They’d bring their gear over here (tanned possum skins and tent poles to make a lean-to)
and set up for the summer and just feast on pipis, and that’s when they did their pipi dance, their corroboree.
“There was no other time when the tribes were all together. Here you could strut your stuff and find yourself a mate. It was a festival, A Day on the Green. They think the tribes spent about eight or 10 weeks here every summer.
“The rocks are remnants of fire pits. It is volcanic rock traded from people from the South East. They would sit around and tell stories about the half-man, half-fish who lived in the surf, teaching their kids about the ocean and not to go out into the rip.”