The Chowilla Old Coach Road
offers travellers an opportunity to visit an area that is very rich in Aboriginal and European History. 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 Renmark.
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 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.
Aboriginal occupation of this area goes back some 12,000 years. The Maraura Tribe invaded down to Chowilla and Ral Ral between 1831 and 1836. This invaded territory became known as “The Land of Thieves” by other tribes in the area. This Maraura Tribe consisted of at least five hordes and families, the Condelkoo, Bodkorlie, Moattilloo, Bullaire and the Tooparlie.
There is some uncertainty regarding the interpretation of the Aboriginal meaning of Chowilla, but it is commonly accepted that Chowilla means “A place of Spirits or Ghosts”, based on the facts that the Aboriginal Burial grounds on Chowilla were reputedly haunted.
There are some very fine Aboriginal canoe trees along the Chowilla Creek area and for the modern today explorers
who have the time to look, will be rewarded with some fines examples.
Renmark derives its name from the local Aboriginal name, meaning ‘Red Mud’. Although there were other white settlers in the area, the Chaffey Brothers are honoured as the founders of Renmark. Canadian born brothers, George and William Chaffey were invited to Australia
to create an irrigation colony at Mildura. From delays due to political disputes, an agreement was signed for the establishment of an irrigation colony at Renmark on the 14th February 1887, and today, Renmark is Australia
’s oldest irrigation settlement.
Initially Renmark was a prohibition settlement, but on the 3rd March 1897 a liquor licence was granted to the Renmark Hotel and it became the first community owned hotel in the Commonwealth and was administered by a trust.
Chowilla Station today occupies approximately 93,000 hectors. The original lease for Chowilla and Bookmark Station was taken up by a Mr W Finke in 1859. Mr. Richard Holland in 1864 took up the Bookmark leases for his three stepsons, John, William and Robert Robertson, the leases extended from Spring-cart Gully, between Berri and Renmark, to over the border in New South Wales
and up to the present day Danggali Conservation Park. The Brothers Traded as Robertson Brothers, who ran sheep, cattle and bred thoroughbred horses. As the partnership prospered, the Robertson Brothers acquired land in Queensland
and on the Warburton River, north of Lake Eyre
In preparation of his marriage to Adelaide Harvey of Blanchetown, Robert Robertson had a Mr William Knowles built today’s Chowilla Homestead in 1876. In 1887, William was brought out of the partnership and in 1896; John and Robert decided to split the Bookmark lease into Chowilla and Calperum Stations. The stations were split on carrying capacity, being regarded as equal, John took Calperum Station and Robert took Chowilla Station.
Robert and Adelaide had 6 children, four of whom (William, Douglas, Della and Cassie) and their parents formed the Robertson Chowilla Pty Ltd in 1919. In 1997 the William Robertson family, together with 2 outside shareholders, brought out the rest of the family.
Today Chowilla Station is a Crown Lease (pastoral type) and is administered under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, which includes all areas of the Chowilla Regional Reserve and Chowilla Game Reserve.
By the mid 1860’s, a coach and mail service route was established between Wentworth in New South Wales
and Blanchetown in South Australia
. In 1871, on the edge of Lake Littra on the “Old Sydney Road”, or also known as the “River Road to the Goldfields”, a new Cottage was built for the Sheep Inspector. The original Sheep inspectors hut was erected by Henry Glenie, the first sheep Inspector to be appointed in the Chowilla area, near the present Chowilla Homestead after he was promoted to Sub Inspector, and instructed to proceed to Chowilla Station on the Boundary of South Australia
and New South Wales
after an outbreak of Scab in 1863 at Kulkine Station in Victoria
. Scab was a highly contagious disease that reduced the quality of the meat, wool and general health of sheep and was very costly to eradicate.
Henry Glenie built the hut himself at a cost of £148.9.0d and was constructed of bush timber and thatched with reeds from the river bank. Due to severe flooding in 1870, the original cottage was damaged beyond repair and a new building and safer sight had to be found. With the number of sheep crossing into South Australia
via Littra declining in the early 1880’s, the Littra Office closed on the 2nd July 1882 and the then Inspector, Alexander MacLeod who had been Inspector at Chowilla since June 1876, opened his office in Gawler on the 8th July 1882. The Police stationed at Overland Corner then took over the role as Stock Inspectors. Scab has not been recorded in South Australia
since 1869 and Australia
’s last known outbreak was in Western Australia
in the 1890’s.
Just north of the Littra Sheep Inspectors Hutt, is the brick cairn erected in 1868 by Charles Todd, South Australian Government Observer and Superintendent of Telegraphs. This cairn was to mark the correct position of South Australia
’s border with New South Wales
. Todd set up a temporary observatory near this site and by astronomical observations and accurate time signals over the nearby telegraph line between Adelaide and Sydney, calculated the position of the 141st Meridian
of Longitude, the proclaimed boundary between the colonies of South Australia
and New South Wales
. An incorrect fixing of the meridian
in 1839, confirmed in the 1847-1850 border survey from the coast to the Murray River that the border was up to 3.2 kilometres west of the correct position.
Charles Todd met with George Smalley, New South Wales
Government Astronomer, and accepted the determination and had the Obelisk erected beside the Wentworth Road to mark the boundary.
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 Cottage. 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.
Located in the Little Gums Campground you will locate an abandoned camp site on the banks of Chowilla Creek. This is no normal abandoned campsite, but the hallowed site of the late Ron Gilbertson of Adelaide.
Ron Gilbertson lived and worked in Adelaide and every now and then when he wanted to get away from it all, he would head for his special little camp on the banks of Chowilla Creek. Over the years, Ron built up his special camp, with bits and pieces that he either brought up from Adelaide, or things that he picked up along the way.
Ron built a chimney from local stone, fashioned a crude tin flue, added an old wood fired stove, a couple of Kero fridges, a wire framed bed ,small esky, basic cooking utensils, fishing gear and this was his home away from home. When ever Ron's made those special trips, he would return to his camp and would always find it the way that he left it. Over the years, locals, station people, friends and fellow fisherman would make it a habit of calling on him for a simple chat and to say g’day. If they called and Ron was not there, they would leave a short note for him to read.
On one of his visits in 1980, Ron planted a small tree at his camp. The tree that he planted was not a local to the area, but was a small humble Cedar Tree. Because of the areas very low rainfall, no one thought that the tree would survive. A special bond between this small cedar tee and the camp developed and passing people would water the tree if Ron was not there and slowly this small tree began to grow.
Ron passed away on the 11th June 1987 and after he was cremated his wife brought his ashes back to the place that he loved so much and sprinkled them around the small cedar tree and his much loved camp. Returning in 1988 to pay her respects, Vera found Ron's camp still in tact, the way that it was left 12 months previously and the small cedar tree still thriving. Not having any paper on her, Vera wrote a small note on a tissue and placed it in a biscuit tin in the fridge with the humble words “This is Ron's resting place – please water the tree"
Vera did not make it back until 3 years later and to her amazement, the camp was still intact and had not been vandalized, the cedar tree still thriving and over 300 notes and letter left inside the fridges. The notes were simple, but the most touching reads, “Ron Gilbertson was my father. This is a very special place. Thank you to everyone who has written, and especially watered the tree. Ashes scatted here – died 11.6.87. Husband of Vera, father of Craig”
Over the years the cedar tree slowly suffered and died. Today a new tree has been planted, but this time a local native to the area and is growing well. So when you drop in and see this very special camp, leave a note in the fridge and please water the tree.