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Historic Sites in South Australia

The capital city of South Australia, Adelaide, has been in the media spotlight of late thanks to a record heatwave. Ten consecutive days above 40 degrees, peaking at a lung busting 45.7 degrees (114.3F) on the 28th January. The media has been touting it as possibly becoming the first major city to succumb to climate change as its water supplies are restricted to fairly small reservoirs and supplemented by water piped in from the Murray River, which is itself in danger of collapse. This is sensationalism at its best because, despite ongoing drought conditions and its unfortunate geography, Adelaide’s residents are among the nation’s most frugal water consumers and reservoir levels are at 65 percent capacity (as at 18th February 2009). This is better than other Australian state capitals and Adelaide currently enjoys reservoir levels above five year averages (the only Australian state capital to achieve this).

For most people outside of South Australia, Adelaide is South Australia and this is a good place to start our exploration of historic South Australian sites as most visitors to the state rarely venture beyond the Adelaide city limits. South Australia was proclaimed as a British province in 1836 and Colonial William Light surveyed a number of sites for a capital, eventually settling on an area around the Torrens Valley that was flood free, arable and in close proximity to a harbour, fresh water and building materials. Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln and Encounter Bay were also considered as possible sites, with a public meeting of landholders deciding in 1837 to support Light’s recommendation.

Light was heavily influenced by the layout of the Sicilian city of Catania in planning for the city of Adelaide. Unlike the other state capitals, Adelaide was planned from the outset, avoiding the problems that arose elsewhere in Australia, small settlements built to administer a convict population and which later expanded through the pressures of a growing population in a haphazard and mostly unplanned way. His planning, which has come to be known as ‘Light’s Vision’ pictured a series of grids – central precinct surrounded by parkland and four smaller precincts, two to the north and two to the south. Wide streets and parks or bushland feature prominently in Light’s plan and the layout of the city fits in closely with the local topography. Light’s vision is evident from simply walking the streets of the central business district and surrounding parklands – it is as he originally planned. Recreational spaces were a key part of this planning and the Adelaide Oval, a world class cricket venue, is a stone’s throw from the middle of the city.

Adelaide is known as the City of Churches and for good reason – some of the oldest churches in Australia are located here and Adelaide features arguably the greatest concentration of historic church buildings of any major Australian city. Part of this is due to the tolerance extended to migrants in the early days of settlement, allowing a diverse range of religious faiths and denominations to construct places of worship. Many of these remain standing today, carefully maintained to preserve the flavour of the original architecture. On North Terrace you will find the Holy Trinity Church, the oldest church in South Australia. Its clock was brought across from England in 1836 as part of the original surveying expedition and the foundation stone laid by Governor Hindmarsh two years later. Also on North Terrace stands the second oldest church, Scots Church, renowned for its stained glass windows.

Other important historic sites are: Ayers House, occupied by Sir Henry Ayres, five times Premier of South Australia, and after whom Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) was named. The building dates back to 1846 and is now a museum. Government House, on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street (the main ‘drag’ or street), is the oldest Government House in the country, dating back to 1839. It is now the private residence of the Governor and closed to the public apart from two open days each year. Apart from the architecture, Government House also has some of the state’s most magnificent gardens. Light Square contains the grave and a memorial to the city’s designer. The Old Adelaide Gaol, in Thebarton, operated between 1841 and 1988 and has achieved notoriety as one of the state’s haunted buildings. Forty-five prisoners were executed during the course of its life as a gaol, originally in public view outside the main gate, and the ghosts of some are said to haunt its corridors and cells. It has been maintained as a tourist attraction and the braver souls among us can subject themselves through a sleep over.

A short jaunt (14km) west of Adelaide brings you to Port Adelaide, the maritime heart of South Australia. Many of the historic buildings have been preserved and visitor’s to the port city can enjoy the ornate architecture of former bank, government and hotel buildings, as well as warehouses and bond stores and wharves. The port area houses a number of museums, including the South Australian Maritime Museum and the National Railway Museum. Nearby is the suburb of Semaphore and, as the name suggests, it played a vital communications role. The tower on the hill was originally a signal station communicating information to and from ships in the gulf. Nowadays, it plays more of a leisure role, being an attractive seaside suburb with an attractive foreshore area featuring a restored tram that runs for 2km along its length and an old carousel.

South of Adelaide is the small township of Goolwa. Located at the mouth of the Murray River, Australia’s largest waterway, it was an important post for river trade upstream to Victoria and New South Wales. Goolwa was founded in the 1840s and is home to the Goolwa Maritime Museum and Gallery, celebrating early river communities and life on the Murray-Darling. The town has become a popular destination for day-trippers and has a number of historic buildings, many now in use as cafes, eateries and art/craft retailers.

Continuing the river theme, the small town of Renmark, about 250km east of Adelaide, is the centre of South Australia’s agriculture and important citrus growing area. It is also known for its wine grapes, tomatoes, vegetables, wheat, wool and nuts (mainly almonds and pistachios). The historic Renmark Hotel was the first community owned hotel in the British Empire and the bush poet and soldier, Breaker Morant, worked on nearby Paringa Station in the 1890s before achieving fame (or notoriety) in the Boer War. For the wine aficionados, Renmark is a kind of anti-Mecca, being the town where box or cask wine originated in 1965.

The town of Victor Harbor, 80km south of Adelaide, is a very pretty seaside community and a popular holiday destination for South Australians. The bay on which the town sits was discovered by Matthew Flinders during a surveying expedition from the west in 1802. Nearby he met Nicolas Baudin who was surveying the area for Napoleonic France. The two countries were at war at the time and the nearby bay was named Encounter Bay in its honour. This was later considered as a possible site for the capital of South Australia. Victor Harbor played an important part in Australia’s whaling history, with two whaling stations operating in the area between 1837 and 1872. Whale oil was South Australia’s first export product. One of these was at Granite Island which is linked to Victor Harbor by a causeway and a horse drawn tram continues to operate along its length. The Cockle Train historic railway also runs a steam locomotive service between Victor Harbor and Goolwa.

There are a number of heritage towns in South Australia, most a short distance from Adelaide and popular with day-trippers. The most popular is arguably the township of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Its early pioneers were refugees from the Silesian area of Prussia and it is the oldest surviving German settlement in Australia. It was first settled in 1839 and there are some 22 heritage listed buildings and objects in the town, including St Michael’s Lutheran Church and the Hahndorf Primary School. It has a thriving art and craft community and a good range of cafes and eateries. Hans Heysen, a prominent Australian artist, lived on a nearby property between 1912 and 1968. Other heritage towns include Gawler, Burra, Mt Torrens and Mintaro. All are worth a visit.

South Australia is home to some of the oldest rock formation on Earth. The Flinders Ranges, which begins some 200km north of Adelaide and extends a further 430km to Lake Callabonna, is comprised of sedimentary material laid down during the Cambrian Period, some 540 million years ago. The Ediacara Hills, north-west of Leigh Creek, is renowned among palaeontologists as the site of some of the oldest fossil evidence of animal life. The fossil discoveries here in 1946 led to a new geological period, the Ediacaran Period, being announced in 2004. The entire Flinders Range area is home to many important cave paintings, rock engravings and other artefacts for the Adnyamathana aboriginal people. The area is also a testament to human folly, with good rainfall prompting a push northwards for agricultural land in the 1870s. This proved to be the exception rather than the rule and if you travel north from the small town of Quorn (home of the Pichi-Richi historic railway – once used to transport copper from local mines south to Port Augusta) you will pass the ruins of deserted homesteads dotting the landscape, including the popular tourist sites of Kanyaka and Wilpena Station.

We have only touched on a tiny sample of the historic sites in South Australia and we’ll finish with one with a more recent historical flavour, Woomera. This town was established in 1947 and is named after the aboriginal device used to throw spears. The German development of the V1 and V2 rockets led to a small space race to develop long range rockets and the UK wasn’t a suitable place to conduct such tests. Woomera was established as a combined British-Australian military weapons and aerospace testing area. This included the testing of nuclear weapons at Maralinga, which is part of the Woomera Prohibited Area. It is still used for aerospace testing and was earmarked as a lauch site for Kistler Aerospace’s K-1 reusable launch vehicle (supposedly the next iteration of aerospace technology after the partially reusable space shuttle). This appears to have fallen by the wayside after financial difficulties and failure to meet key NASA milestones.