With a long weekend to spend in Victor Harbor on the south coast of South Australia, we took the opportunity to explore the Coorong National Park and Younghusband Peninsula. This half-day cruise leaves from the main wharf in Goolwa, a fascinating historical township near the mouth of the Murray River.
I'm cruising this section of the National Park on the Spirit of the Coorong, a comfortable small catamaran-type boat run by Spirit Australia Cruises. It's a sunny 30-degree day with a cool breeze drifting up the river, and after our group of 30 has boarded, we depart promptly at 1pm. After safety formalities are out of the way, Captain Bain Pedler carefully manoeuvres the boat away from the wharf. We slide under handsome Hindmarsh Bridge and briefly up the river, learning how Goolwa was once a major port for shipping wool. Bain's entertaining commentary explains how the relics of barges we can see lying along the river banks, most of them unrecognisable, were left on their moorings once the railway took over decades ago. Our vessel executes an easy U-turn and we head towards our destination for today - the mouth of the Murray River at the Southern ocean. Accompanying us for the tour is guide, Nathan Bird, who's quick to dispense cups of tea and coffee, a lunch platter of cold meats and salad, plus keep us entertained with snippets of historical and factual data about the history, flora and fauna of the region.
It's a windless day and I needn't have worried about the possibility of sea-sickness. The cruise is gentle, and the passing scenery of sand dunes and birdlife that can be seen out the windows is enthralling - a 'David Attenborough' moment. The Coorong is a 140 km long lagoon system and the last section of the Murray River before it escapes into the Ocean. It was declared a National Park in 1966, and the entire lower lakes and Coorong is protected under the international RAMSAR Convention as a Wetland of International Significance. It is a haven for birdlife, unique flora, and Aboriginal history and its tranquil ambience is a spectacular experience.
We approach our first loch, Goolwa barrage, seamlessly. This dam-like system which prevents the seawater from polluting the fresh water of the lakes, was implemented between 1935 - 1940. At only 20-feet across, we drop a half-metre to the salty side. (lochs higher up the Murray are larger and the boat rises 3 metres each time). New Zealand Fur seals drape themselves over the wooden pylons and cormorants spread their wings to dry out in the warm Autumn sun. Our small catamaran-like vessel holds about 30 of us, and it's a gentle putter over shallow sheltered waters. We pass Hindmarsh Island, the largest in the system, and named after the first governor of South Australia, John Hindmarsh. A handsome bridge links it to the mainland.
Slowing down as we pass Bird Island, the impressive size of the native Australian Pelicans is obvious as they tower over grey-and-white Cape Barron geese, black swans, Royal spoonbills, and a variety of ducks and cormorants. "The Australian Native Pelican is the biggest in the world and is too big to dive from great heights, so they just swim around on the surface and scoop through the water with their massive beaks", Bain our captain continues explaining. "Dredging began in 2002 to help remove a build-up of silt after the 2002 drought. It was supposed to take 9 months, but 9 years later they're still doing it. All the sand in front of us is washed in from the ocean, making Hindmarsh Island bigger each year, then it's pumped through pipes back to the beach. It's controversial, but it keeps the tides moving", says Bain.
The name 'Goolwa' (home to the movie, Storm Boy) was taken from an Aboriginal word meaning 'bend' or 'elbow'. It was first settled in 1841 and proclaimed a river port on 10 Sept 1857. It was once the main South Australian port for shipping wool, around 25,000 bales per year, and the second largest ship-building centre on the Murray. It's also the only proclaimed fresh water port in the Southern Hemisphere. The area had a significant pastoral industry, Hindmarsh and Mondu Islands still maintain some dairy industry today, but Ewe Island was too low-lying to be satisfactory grazing land for sheep or cattle.
We off-load at Barker's Knoll, the official start of the Murray River. The 800-metre walk takes us about 10 minutes to cross huge sand dunes to see the beach and Southern Ocean. "Don't wander off", says Nathan Bird, our guide today. "If you get lost, we won't be back until Thursday. At least wait until I give you the bush tucker talk, that way you might at least survive", he chuckles. When I enquire about the lack of fresh water being a problem, he crouches, digs deep into the sand for a few seconds and shows how fresh water is held just below the surface and how the indigenous people survived here.
The Ngarrindjeri people weren't nomadic, rather, they built low-lying shelters amongst the dunes here and relocated just short distances in accordance with the season or weather patterns. Nathan shows us how to recognise the coastal pigface, seaberry saltbush used as a laxative, wild rosemary which they used as an insect repellent, and samphire – now a trendy staple in upper class restaurants – all indigenous bush tucker foods.
Nathan, our guide, explains the Coorong lakes system
The 150 kilometres of coastline in front of us is just 3000 kms from Antarctica. The swell is not huge, but I certainly wouldn't risk a surf on this unpatrolled patch of natural beauty. The water temperature is surprisingly temperate and it's not long before Nathan is gathering pippis by doing the 'cockle shuffle'. "Plant your two feet deep in the wet sand and do the twist", he says. 3 ½ cm across the widest point is the legal limit, so no cheating", he laughs.
passing a remote camping spot on the Coorong Lakes
Back on the boat we pass a cluster of ramshackle houses; "It was once a former fishing village, but most houses have been washed away before the barrages controlled the tidal flow. The villages here provided most of Adelaide's fish trade, mainly pippi's and cockles", our Captain's commentary continues. A few remaining houses provide accommodation for the last of the fishermen – the ones who have the final tenure on these properties. Further along at Godfrey's Landing a school group waves to us; the only site with toilet block facilities and where camping is allowed.
Previously, Nathan our guide, was leading diving-with-sharks tours at Port Lincoln. "I've been away from South Australia for ten years. I've just come back and am really appreciating what we have here. It's good to have areas like this, to get kids out in nature and off their computers. I just love nature", he says with a smile.
vast kilometres of untouched beach where the Murray meets the sea
A full-day Adventure Cruise (6 hours) operates Sunday and Wednesday (Oct - May) and departs at 10am. Adults $110 p.p. and children 5 - 15 $76 p.p. Our half-day Coorong Discovery cruise departed at 1pm (3.5 hours), operates Monday and Thursday (Oct - May), Thursday only (June - Sept), and Saturdays (Oct - Apr). Adults $95 p.p., children $69 p.p. For more information and bookings, click here.