The Old Coach Road offers travellers an opportunity to visit an area that is very rich in Aboriginal and European History. More importantly, it follows the first tracks put down to bring greatly needed stock into the New Colony of South Australia
in 1838 by Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney. The back drop to this area is Australia
’s largest River, The Murray. Important then and still today, the Murray and its backwaters offers people the chance to camp and to enjoy the peace and solitude of the Riverland, yet within easy reach of all major centres.
Anyone that loves water activities, do not leave home without your canoe or kayak. These tranquil waters offer some of the best and safest waters to paddle where you can guarantee that you will be the only person on the water. From large red sand dunes, forests of large River Red Gums, through to dense lignum scrublands of the backwaters and billabongs, the Old Coach Road offers everything that you would expect from an outback trip.
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The most important factor in this area is the Murray and its wetlands. Much of the area on the South Australian side of the border is covered in the Chowilla Game Reserve
, which in turn is part of the Chowilla Regional Reserve
, which is part of the greater Riverland Biosphere Reserve, which is registered under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere program.
In early 1993, the 18400 hector Chowilla Game Reserve
and the 75600 hector Chowilla Regional Reserve
were constituted as Wetlands of International Importance. The Environmental Values of these floodplains are unique to this section of the Murray Basin, as it is substantially undeveloped and it is the only section of country approaching “Wilderness” status along the lower part of the Murray River
. The Conservation values of Chowilla as shown by the rare and endangered species found there and are recognized by its listings as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. Australia
has 40 sites of approximately 4.5 million hectors. Worldwide, there are over 30 million hectors of wetlands in approximately 60 countries. Australia
was the first Nation to become a Party of the Ramsar Convention.
Over 200 species of birds have been recorded in the area, with around 20 species classified as rare, vulnerable or endangered, including the critically endangered black eared miner. The most common mammals in the area are the Red Kangaroo and the Western Grey
Kangaroo. The Grey
Kangaroo is more sedentary and does not move as widely as the Red Kangaroo. Small mammals also include the Common and Fat-tailed Dunnarts, Southern Ningaui and the small Little Pied Bat and the Greater Long-eared Bat. Around 45 reptile spiced have been recorded, including goannas, dragons, skinks, geckoes, snakes and tortoises.
On the 3rd April, 1838 when the new Colony of South Australia
was just a mere 16 months old, Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney arrived in Adelaide
with a herd of 335 head of cattle, becoming the first of “The Overlanders”, with the first stock ever to be taken overland from New South Wales
. Prior to this, all livestock that was brought into South Australia
was by ship, either from Tasmania
or the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Heading off into uncharted country and guided only to what lay ahead with maps that were produced by Captain Charles Sturt and Major Thomas Mitchell
, Hawdon and Bonney and a team of nine men set an initial course to follow Mitchell
’s River Yarrane (the Loddon).By doing so, they hoped to have water for the cattle in a smaller River, and thus avoid contact with Aboriginal people along the Murray, who were reported as hostile. Being January, the Yarrane was almost dry; so they were forced to retreat to the Murray and its reliable source of water. By the 1st March 1838, the party reached the junction of the Murray and the Darling Rivers and the site of today’s town of Wentworth
. Three days later, they discovered a lake….about thirty or forty miles
in circumference and named it Lake Victoria
in honour of Queen Victoria
. Also in the vicinity they came across the Rufus River, named by Captain Charles Sturt, the first white man to discover the outlet in 1830 from Lake Victoria
, after his friend, McLeahy’s Red hair.
Continuing to follow the Murray further west, they made a few more important discoveries and within a month, were dining with the Governor of South Australia
at a Public Dinner to celebrate the safe arrival of the first herd of cattle to be overlanded from New South Wales
. The contacts reported with the aboriginal along the way were peaceful and both sides exchanged goods, the aboriginals exchanging nets and weapons in return for tomahawks and pieces of clothing. The way was now set for a safe and reliable overland track to bring the much needed stock into the new Colony of South Australia
, but the peaceful meetings with the local aboriginal people would soon change and would culminate in a bitter battle in 1841.
The Rufus River is the outlet from Lake Victoria
to the Murray River
. While crossing livestock at this point the overlanders had their parties separated and at their weakest. On Sunday 20th June 1841, Overlanders Miller and Langhorne and their party of 9 men had just crossed their provisions and drays over the Rufus when they were surrounded by over 500 Aboriginals. Reloading the drays, the Aboriginals rushed forward and commenced throwing waddies. The Overlanders only had 6 muskets with them and 2 would not go off. The Aboriginals then soon began throwing spears and the whites then commenced firing at the Aboriginals. The battle lasted for about twenty minutes, with the resulting death of 5 Aboriginals and 4 Overlanders.
On the 31st July 1841, a relief party of 29 Europeans and 3 Aboriginals were sent from Adelaide
for the purpose of a safe escort of another party of Overlanders led by William Robinson who had left Gundagai
on the 1st July 1841 and that were due at the Rufus soon with over 6000 sheep, 500 mixed cattle, horses and drays. On the 26th August and near the Rufus, Robinson’s part was attacked by a group of up to 300 Aboriginals. Robinson’s well armed group of 25 men beat off the attack with the death of 15 Aboriginals. By the 27th August, the relief party of Police and volunteers had arrived at the “crossing”. Dr Matthew Moorhouse, Protector of Aborigines with the help of 3 Aboriginal Interpreters, tried earnest attempts to placate the situation, but the local Aboriginals would have none of it. While stock was being crossed over the Rufus, the Aboriginals, again in the many hundred advanced towards the group. Fearing that there would be great casualties and all the whites would be murdered, the relief party opened fire on the Aboriginal when they were at a distance of 100 yards. The official death count for the 2 days conflict with the Aboriginals was 35, but more may have died from wounds received from the gunfire. It was this conflict that made Australian History and is now known today as “The Rufus River Massacre”.
Also of importance to Lake Victoria
, is that it was also used by the RAAF’s 2 Operational Training Units as a training ground during World War 11. 6 fatalities resulted from these activities and to this day, 2 Airman and their aircraft remain missing in the lake bed of Lake Victoria
Town of Wentworth
The present day town of Wentworth
lies at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. European occupation of this area dates back to the 1840’s and has had many names including Hawdon’s Ford, the Darling Junction and McLeod’s Crossing. The arrival of the Paddle Steamer era brought a new importance to this area and in 1857, Surveyor General Barney considered it time to establish a proper township and the town site was approved in 1859 and named after the New South Wales
explorer and politician William Charles Wentworth
on the 21 June 1859. Wentworth
was fast to become the busiest inland port in New South Wales
and during 1895; there were 485 paddle steamers that past through the Customs House, with a record of 31 steamers in 1 week.
Helping to keep this Riverboat era alive, various local community groups from the Wentworth
area have banded together and have been restoring the PS Ruby that is located in Fotherby Park
. Many thousands of volunteer hours have given the Ruby a new hull and the steam engine is now operational. Surviving various events
over the past 100 years let us all hope that she will see yet another 100 years, if at a more leisurely pace.
In Fotherby Park
, you will see a life size statue of the last true Riverland identity, “Possum”. David James Jones was a mystery man and turned his back on society in 1928 to live almost entirely off the land as a recluse along the banks of the Murray River
, mainly between Wentworth
. Who was this man and what did he do? There were many rumours about this mystery man, he had murdered his wife and family, was wanted by the Police and hiding out in the bush. The rumours were many and varied. They were all wrong and very far from the truth, as Jim, as he would like to be called, was a quiet and caring man.
In August 1954, Detective Max Jones was transferred from Adelaide
Criminal Investigation Branch to Renmark
. On his first full day off of work, Max took his family for a drive and followed the Old Coach Road to the Old Scab Inspectors House. Taking his children for a walk to the creek, he spotted a well built man dressed in khaki. When this mystery man spotted Max and his family, he quickly turned away and walked into the creek. Max called out to this man, but Possum ignored his calls and swam across the creek and then disappeared into the bushes on the other side, without looking back.
Being a Detective, Max became very suspicious of this man and over many years of Detective work, found out the true story of this man from the South Island of New Zealand. It was not until October 1959 that Max finally came face to face with Possum. A special bond developed between these two men, and Max had many contacts with Possum over the years. Sadly Possums body was found by woodcutters in August 1982 on the Victorian side of the Murray near Lock 8. At the age of 81 and after 54 years of travelling the Murray country, Possum died the way he liked to be, alone and by him self and was buried in a private cemetery
on a nearby station, under a Box Gum. So ended an era of the Riverland’s last true Legend, and today, locals still talk of “Possum” and the stories that created this true Legend.