It was early March 2022 and we had been given the opportunity to travel on the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Perth on a one-way trip. We thought it was a good idea to visit our daughter in Perth for the weekend and then fly home back to the east coast. Having only spent a long weekend in Adelaide in the early seventies, it seemed to be also a great opportunity to have a look at Adelaide for a few days before we caught our train across the Nullabor. We spent our first day in Adelaide touring the inner city and we were able to book a bus tour for the next day to take us on a tour out to the Adelaide Hills, down to the Southern Ocean via Goolwa and Victor Harbor and then back to Adelaide via McLaren Vale.
I was surprised how the road out of Adelaide very quickly arrived at a steep climb into the hills and the journey turned into a very pleasant drive though rolling hills and farmlands. It was quite the contrast with Brisbane at the time as this city had just survived its second major flood in 11 years. Our bus driver informed us that rather than floods, this area’s biggest enemy was the bush fires that regularly brought devastation. Our first destination was Hahndorf, a famous German settler town that I thought I may have visited briefly in January of 1973. Of course no personal memories were triggered but I certainly enjoyed the visit to the long main street of Hahndorf.
Above left: The Hahndorf Inn, originally established in 1854 as the ‘Australian Arms’ hotel; on the right, an artistic representation on the local side-walk of what happens to overly critical tourists in Hahndorf.
The town of Hahndorf is less than 30 minutes from Adelaide so it wasn’t long before we were alighting at a restaurant in the main street for morning tea.
Of course, like all places in South Australia, the area was inhabited by first nations folk, the Permangk people, who called the area Bukatilla (meaning ‘deep pool’). The Onkaparinga River was the key feature of the region providing abundant food sources. I am not sure if the original founders of the convict-free settlement of Adelaide were surprised when settlers from the German province of Prussia arrived to take up land, not in the recently designed town of Adelaide, but out in the bush of the Adelaide Hills. Three years after the colony was founded in 1836, Lutheran immigrants from Prussia arrived in Adelaide, fleeing religious persecution in their home country. There were apparently 54 founding families who arrived in the ship, Zebra, and then had to walk into the Adelaide Hills to set up their first farms. The town is named after the captain of the ‘Zebra’ (Captain Dirk Hahn) who clearly assisted the Lutheran arrivals with many aspects of their new settlement. One curious note about the Prussian origins of the original settlers here is that the district of Prussia they arrived from is today part of Poland, a charge coming in the aftermath of WW2.
We must have lingered too long over our traditional German morning tea as we only had 45 minutes to stroll the main street of the town. There is plenty to see, such as the picturesque German Arms Hotel (below) that was the site of a hostelry in 1839 but was burnt down 22 years later and was rebuilt as a hotel. It is a great example of the stone architecture of the original settlers.
It was within twenty years that the first school was established in Hahndorf and lasted, in today’s impressive stone building, as the Hahndorf Academy from 1857 to 1916. Today it is the visitor information centre for the town but over the years it has served as a betting shop and a hospital. Apart from tourist information, the Academy today houses art galleries, a migration museum and artist studios. In the grounds of this Academy is the beautiful sculpture, Tte Angel of Hahndorf (see left). It is one of the art works of the Adelaide Hills Sculpture Trail that displays works in the towns of the Adelaide Hills and the Fleurieu Peninsula that were created in international sculpture symposiums between 2012-16.
The maple trees were just starting to reveal their Autumn colours as we strolled the picturesque main street of Hahndorf. We made it back just in time before our bus headed on towards its next stop. It is clear that a lot of time could be spent in Hahndorf, appreciating the heritage charm of the place as well as driving around the other towns of the district, enjoying the amazing artworks of the Sculpture trail.
Our next stop was in Goolwa, a town situated at the heart of a very significant section of the geographical makeup of our continent. In the early years of Australian colonisation, the British controllers of the Sydney convict settlement had no idea about what was over the mountainous barrier that seemed to stretch all the way down the east coast of ‘New Holland’. When Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth crossed these mountains and discovered the great plains that spread out to the sunset, the next question they puzzled over was where did all the inland flowing rivers go?. Was there and inland sea in the centre of this confusing continent? It was Charles Sturt in 1828-30 who followed these rivers and made his way down what eventually became known as the Murray River, despite opposition from the original river-side dwellers, and entered Lake Alexandrina. This lake collected all the water from the many rivers flowing westward from the Great Dividing Range and then turning south down to the Southern Ocean. This lake and its attendant rivers has been a source of conflict and controversy ever since as farmers over the last two centuries have fought over access to Australia’s valuable waterways.
The town of Goolwa sits on the edge of Lake Alexandrina on one side and the Fleurieu Peninsula on the other side. Given its position back in the late 1830s, it was considered a great site for a town that could be the entrance port for the Murray River and be able to service the shipping trade for goods brought in by sea and then transporting them up the river. A wharf was built in 1852 along with storage warehouses but both nature and changing technology didn’t favour this vision for Goolwa’s future as Australia’s inland port. The first issue was the long sandbar that separated Lake Alexandrina from the ocean. The actual Murray Mouth into the ocean is a moving target and tides and storms means that it naturally moves depending on the season. Thus it was always a treacherous entry point for ships. The other plan was to transport goods up river on Paddle-Wheel steamers but this plan didn’t survive the 19th century with the eventual spread of the railways
Goolwa’s misfortune in not becoming a great trading hub wasn’t the death-knell for the town as its port facilities and its Paddle Steamers have become the basis of a large tourist industry for visitors that like the fishing, the paddle-steamer tours and the beautiful environment of this unique Australian place. The image below shows the railway station that replaced much of Goolwa’s river trade but even its future as the hub of future trade for the town did not last long. Today this line carries the ‘Cockle Train’ that takes visitors on the scenic ride between Goolwa and Victor Harbor.
One feature of Goolwa that took up much of the view when we arrived at the docks was the huge single span bridge that crossed the waterway that separated the town from Hindmarsh Island. Back in the 1990s the proposal to build this bridge was headline news for some years as local indigenous leaders and environmentalists objected to the construction of such a large bridge to replace the original ferry service. What particularly interested the rest of Australia was the point of view of local Ngarrindjeri women elders who claimed the Hindmarsh Island site of the bridge was sacred to them for reasons that could not be revealed. This triggered a series of legal battles and eventually the Howard Government of the time passed special legislation to enable the bridge to be built. Issues of the land rights of indigenous people in Australia at the time were big news given that Eddie Mabo had not long before won his case in the High Court of Australia for native title over Murray Island in the Torres Strait in 1992. Our visit to Goolwa was not far off the 30th anniversary of this significant event in Australian history.
From Goolwa it was around 18 Kilometres to our next destination on this southern coastline, Victor Harbor. No, the name of this town has not been misspelt despite the lack of a ‘u’ in “Harbor”. This was the name given to the spot in 1837 by the captain of a ship heading to the Swan River colony. The name was accepted by the public servant who recorded the name and didn’t correct the spelling. For some reason, the locals have been happy to keep the spelling.
While Goolwa is important in the Australian story because of its geography, Victor Harbor is important for the long stretch of beach in front of the town, Endeavour Bay, which was where the early European explorers of Australia met with cordiality as they competed to map this huge new continent for their own nations who were technically at war. It was 1802 and Great Britain was not only fearful of Napoleon invading across the English Channel, but of French navigators laying claim to Terra Australis. On Matthew Flinders’ trip to return to England with the first complete map of the great south land in 1803, he was held prisoner on the island of Mauritius for 6 years by the French governor of that island.
The other memory of this encounter between the two famous navigators of the early 19th century is contained in the name of the Peninsula that Victor Harbor sits on; Fleurieu Peninsula. It was named by Nicolas Baudin after one of his companions on his voyage along the coastline of Southern Australia, the hydrographer Charles Fleurieu. The name didn’t make it onto the British maps for another century until one of Fleurieu’s descendants visited Adelaide and pushed for the peninsula to be named after his great uncle.
As we drove into Victor Harbor, our bus driver told us a little bit about Encounter Bay. As we crossed the railway line into town, he explained that there was also a “whale-way” into Victor Harbor as the annual whale migration along this coastline used the ‘harbor’ as a resting point. This awful joke was just one of many we had to grin and bear as part of our otherwise very interesting trip that day. Our driver also pointed out on the hill above town, the Mount Breckan Mansion (image below right) that was completed in 1881. It was built in the ‘Gothic Revival’ style and was one of the largest residents in Australia at the time (60 rooms!)
Our bus stopped in the car park that sits at the back of the curiously named ‘Police Point’, directly over from the start of the causeway built across to Granite Island, one of the major tourist spots of Victor Harbor. The European settlement was set up here around 1839 when two whaling stations began work along this coast line to take advantage of the fact that the whales were literally ‘floating targets’ while they rested at their millennia year old stopping point on their journey north to calve. The town itself was laid out in 1863 and horse drawn trams were pulled along between Goolwa and Victor Harbor. On the wall of a building next to the Police Point’ car park is a series of cartoons setting out a brief history of the town, particularly emphasising its whaling period. Given that whales were hunted almost to extinction on the southern coastline of Australia including Tasmania in the 19th century, its not surprising that the industry here died out in 1872 when the last whale was caught in Encoubnter
The bus was stopping for an hour in Victor Harbor so we chose the option of catching a horse drawn tram across to Granite Island during this time. This business started in 1894 and is apparently one of the two remaining in the world still operating. Each Clydesdale works a three hour shift dragging these replica trams built in 1986, using roller bearings to make it easy for the horse to drag the 4.8 tonne tram.
It was a slow but beautiful ride out to Granite Island. A strict timeline for our visit was not the best option for ageing tourists but we realised we could have spent significant time here given the Kaiki Walk around the island. The coastlines of Southern Australia from Bass Strait to South Australia are home to the Little Penguin and Granite Island is no exception. There are many burrows around the island and the penguins spend their day fishing and return to the Island at dusk. The only problem is that scientists are concerned that the surviving numbers here are getting quite low. The island is also apparently a great place for whale watching in the season which probably attracts more income to Victor Harbor than the days when South Australia’s first industry (Whaling!) operated from here. It is curious to contemplate that the ‘essential’ products of whaling (whale oil for lamps and whale bones for ladies’ corsets) have gone the same way as trains and paddle steamers as technological change makes redundant the once ‘important’ industries’ that kept our citizens employed. One of the current essential industries for Victor Harbor in the new millennium is as a destination for High School graduates that flock here annually during ‘schoolies’ week.
We made it back to our bus by the skin of our teeth from Granite Island for the trip back up Fleurieu Peninsula to Adelaide. It was the usual attractive drive, particularly through the town of Wilunga which began mining slate in the 1840s and constructing some of the local substantial buildings with it. It is clearly a well-promoted town and has been part of the Cycle event, Tour Down Under, as well celebrating a number of festivals during the year.
Our last stop of the day’s trip was at a small winery in McLaren Vale called Graham Stevens Wines. Not being a great wine drinker, I entered into the spirit of the visit just to be companionable. Instead, I found Graham Stevens to be as personable and informative as our bus-driver had told us while driving to the winery. It was a very pleasant half an hour of wine tasting and conversation with Graham and it was a great experience to meet this salt of the earth winemaker!