Taking its name from the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal word ‘karangh’ meaning ‘narrow neck’, the shallow lagoons and waterways of the Coorong are home to more than 200 species of bird, including the world’s largest breeding colony of Australian Pelicans. The Coorong is also very rich with hundreds of plant species, and is a sanctuary for native wildlife, with the waters providing a haven for the famous mullet
, flounder and bream.
As this area is so prolific in wildlife and plant life, permanent habitation by the local Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people has occurred for well over 6000 years, with many archaeological treasures still visible as you stroll through the pure white dunes on one of the walking trails that cross the large dunes of the Younghusband Peninsula.
Even though the Coorong can be visited by four wheel drive, this inside section is only accessible by boat and those that take their time to explore this area will be rewarded with stunning scenery and you can even try your luck by throwing in a fishing line.
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As early as 1914, there were concerns for the importance of the Coorong and finally in 1966, the 50,000 ha Coorong National Park was declared. The declaration was very important so as to conserve the distinctive landscape, coastal dune system, lagoons, wetlands and coastal vegetation, as well as the great number of birds, animals and fish that live in or visit this area.
As a habitat for numerous species of birds and as a refuge for birds in times of drought, the Coorong is important in a National and International sense. On the 21st December 1975, the Coorong was included on the list of “Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat” On the 30th April 1981; the Coorong area was Part of an agreement between Australia
, Japan and China for the “Protection of Migratory Birds and Birds in Danger of Extinction and their Environment”.
Adding further importance of the area, the Coorong and the Lower Lakes is one of Australia
’s most significant wetlands and because of its Waterbird habitats as designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1985. Migratory birds fly from as far as Alaska, Northern China and Siberia to breed.
The Formation of the Coorong
The Coorong is a series of ancient and complex sand dunes, with the oldest being formed some 120,000 years ago. Around 80,000 years ago there was another formation, with some of these dunes still remaining on the Younghusband Peninsula today. During this time, sea levels were some 150 metres below today’s water levels. At the End of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose considerably and formed an island on top the 80,000 year old sand dunes. This rising sea level produced a lagoon behind the present line of seaward dunes. At the time there were probably many access points from the sea to the lagoon, but over time and wind and sands filled these access points creating this unique neck of land that is known today as the Coorong and the Younghusband Peninsula.
Occupying a large area of land, from Cape Jervis through to Murray Bridge and as far south as Kingston and including all the Coorong area, lived 5 Aboriginal tribal groups, all belonging to the same clan of the Ngarrindjeri people with archaeological evidence showing that they have occupied this area for over 6000 years. Unlike most other Aboriginal groups throughout Australia
, the Ngarrindjeri were not a nomadic people, as their tribal lands were very productive and supported one of the largest populations of people in southern Australia
prior to European occupation.
Seeing that the Ngarrindjeri were not nomadic, they occupied permanent settlements and had a network of defined pathways between residential groups. Clan members hunted and collected food supplies at different locations, some distance from their home camps, with hunting rights in adjacent clam territories and even had winter and summer camps. They smoked fish and meat, treated and stored vegetables and seeds, and kept fish in impoundments for later use.
Prior to European colonisation of the free state of South Australia
, at least two epidemics, believed to be smallpox swept down the Murray River from New South Wales
. The combination of these epidemics and massacres by the new settlers saw their members plummet from an estimated 3200 people in 1842 to a little over 500 people in 1874.
The first European Sea Explorers
to sail past the Murray Mouth and the Coorong area in 1802 were the English and French Explorers
, Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin, yet neither failed to note its existence. By 1810 there was an unofficial settlement on Kangaroo Island consisting of whalers, sealers and escaped convicts with Aboriginal women from Van Diemen’s Land and mainland South Australia
. Not all the women were there on their own free will, which would later be fatal for Captain Collett Barker. These sealers noted the existence of a large freshwater lake behind the coast of mainland South Australia
which was Lakes Alexandrina and Albert.
The next European to confirm the existence of this large body of fresh water was on the 9th February 1830 when Captain Charles Sturt and his party of men became the first white people to row down the Murray River. Upon entering Lake Alexandrina, Captain Sturt named this large lake after the then Princess Alexandrina, who was later to become Queen Victoria
. Sturt described the Lake as a ‘beautiful lake, which appears to be a fitting reservoir for the noble stream that had led us to it; and which was now ruffled by a breeze that swept over it’. Captain Sturt was then to become the first European to discover the Murray Mouth. When he returned to Sydney, Sturt reported the disappointing merge of the Murray with the ocean, making it totally unsuitable for a useful port entrance and kindled the interest that there may be another outlet from the Murray into St Vincent’s Gulf.
Being recalled to Sydney from King George Sound, Captain Collet Barker was asked to divert to Cape Jervis to make further exploration work of the area that Captain Sturt had discovered some fifteen months previous. Arriving at Cape Jervis on the 13 April 1831, Captain Baker set of with a small group of men to explore the area. Making a few important discoveries in the area, they returned to their schooner ‘Isabella’ and sailed for safe anchorage at Yankalilla Bay. On the 27th April, they again set off on foot across the Flueireu Peninsula and arrived at the Murray Mouth late in the afternoon of the 29th April, where they camped for the night. Next morning, Barker being the only strong swimmer out of his party of men, strapped a compass to his head and took nearly 10 minutes to swim the 200 metres of the channel. On reaching the other side of the Murray Mouth, Barker then proceeded to climb a large sand dune nearly sixty feet high. From this vantage point, he took a number of compass bearings, waved to his party of men and walked over the other side of the dune, never to be seen again by his men.
When Commissariat Officer Kent heard nothing after quite some time, he took 2 soldiers and proceeded along the shore in search of wood for a fire. About ¼ mile up the beach, there was concerns by the soldiers for the safety of Captain Barker and while conversing with Kent, heard distinct shouts or cry. The party then returned to the other group of men still waiting at the Murray Mouth, yet they had heard nothing. Evening was closing in and the party still had not seen Captain Barker for nearly 12 hours, so a large fire was lit, where the party of men gathered around it as a silent and anxious group waiting to know the fate of their Captain. To add further tensions to the anxious group, soon after lighting their large fire, a chain of small fires were lit on the same hill that Captain Barker had climbed earlier that day as well as fires on the opposite side of the channel with chanting by many aboriginal men and women which lasted all night and ended near dawn.
With the passing of 24 hours and the dismal chants all night long, the group feared the worse for their Captain and set of at a hasty pace back to the schooner, which took another 24 hours to reach. After giving the devastating news to Doctor Davis, it was agreed that they set sail at once and headed for American Harbour on Kangaroo Island to seek help from the Sealers that were living there. After negotiations were agreed on a fee for their help, some men and Aboriginal women agreed to accompany them back to the mainland to ascertain the fate of their leader. Landing in Encounter Bay, the party was joined by two friendly aboriginals from the area. The Aboriginal woman was sent forward for inelegance and returned with the grave news of the fate of Captain Barker.
From what the woman was told, it appears that after Captain Barker had waved to his men from the top of the large dune, he ventured some distance south and climbed another large dune taking more bearings. After taking the bearings and seeing no marked change in features ahead of him, he started to retrace his steps. Three Aboriginal men, named Wannangetta, Cummarringeree and Pennegoora were making their way to the beach when they crossed the tracks heading south made by Captain Barker and knew immediately that these were not made by any local person. Immediately following these tracks, they saw Barker approaching him and thought that he was a sealer looking to take women. Fearful of the strange instrument that he was carrying, they hesitated to approach him. Sensing what the outcome could be, Captain Barker tried to sooth the Aboriginal men, but knowing that they were determined to attack him, Captain Barker ran towards the beach. One of the Aboriginal men immediately threw his spear, striking Captain Barker in the hip. Not stopping him he was able to reach the breakers were he was again wounded in the shoulder by another spear. Not knowing that another spear had been launched, he turned towards the shore and was mortally wounded through his chest. At this point, the Aboriginals men rushed into the water and dragged him by his feet to the shore where they seized their spears and inflicted innumerable wounds to his body after which they threw his body out into deep water where the sea tide carried it away.
What was not reported at the time, but only came to light some fifty years later after being interviewed by the Adelaide Advertiser. One of the Sealers that helped the party of men find out what had happed to Captain Barker was a man named George Bates. Giving the interview, Bates claimed that he and another man Henry Wallen were paid £12 one shilling and sixpence for their assistance. Coming across a party of Aboriginals camped near the site where Captain Barker disappeared, Bates and Wallen waited until nightfall where they scared the party of Aboriginals away and captured a 16 year old girl. Securing and gagging the young girl, they later leant that after being speared to death, Captain Barker’s body was hidden in the scrub, at odds with other versions of events
given at the inquest of Captain Barkers Death. Wallen claimed the black girl as his property, where she was taken as an involuntary companion
back to Hog Settlement on Kangaroo Island. It was this type of behaviour by the early settlers of Kangaroo Island towards the local Ngarrindjeri people that had lead to the facilitated death of Captain Barker.
It was not until 1837 that two men, Strangways and Hutchinson discovered the narrow lake that is the Coorong and travelled upriver from the Murray Mouth to near Point Sturt, where they found “water here so pure, that we filled our kegs” and the following year, a Captain Gill having been wreck near the Murray Mouth rowed a dinghy up the Coorong. By the late 1830’s it was well documented of the large fresh water supplies in Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina and the first Overlanders to bring stock into South Australia
from New South Wales
arrived at the eastern side of the Lakes in 1839. By 1840 there was a ferry across the Murray at Wellington which offered access to the Coorong and a stock and mail route was soon in place down the Coorong. In 1856 Sir Charles Todd surveyed a telegraph line from Adelaide to Melbourne, which ran the length of the Coorong, and that same year Captain Cadell managed to sail a steamer as far down as Salt Creek in the Coorong. By 1857, a flagstaff was placed on Barkers Knoll to indicate the Murray Mouth from the sea. In 1892 Australia
’s first Oil well was drilled at Salt Creek, with reports of a black oily substance oozing from the ground. After drilling commenced, it was discovered the back oily substance was in fact decaying vegetation and not shale oil as expected. A replica of the Old Oil Rig is on display today at Salt Creek.
Saving the Fresh Water
At the time of the first discoveries of the Murray Mouth and the Fresh water lagoon of the Coorong behind the dunes that separate the sea and fresh water by Europeans it was estimated that under normal conditions, the flow out of the Murray Mouth was greater than 2,000 Megalitres of fresh water per day, thus preventing any inwards flow of salt water from the sea into the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. By the late 1870’s, the state and quality of the fresh water was becoming a Political issue due to the effects of irrigation and the large volumes of fresh water being pumped from the Murray River. In 1885, the Colonies of New South Wales
signed an agreement to share the waters of the River Murray evenly between these two Colonies without provisions for the downstream use or needs of South Australia
So concerned were the officials of the day about the flows of fresh water down the Murray, it was even debated in the South Australian Parliament in 1894. Irrigation had well and truly started to take its toll on the River quality and levels and salt water was now entering the Coorong and the fresh water lake. In 1903 the Sydney Telegraph reported that Hindmarsh Island “which used to support large herds of cattle on its succulent reed beds has turned into a saline waste” In 1930 the River Murray Commission took evidence regarding the salinity of the Lakes and the race was then on to save these large bodies of water. After years of debate, preparatory work in connection with the construction of 5 separate barrages commenced in December 1934 and in June 1935, the actual construction commenced and the whole system was finally closed up by the 5th February 1940. The main purpose of the barrages was to maintain freshness of the River Murray as far downstream as Wellington as well as preventing the ingress of salt water from the sea during times of low river levels. Another important factor in the construction of these barrages was that usually a barrage requires the structure to withstand the water pressure from one side only, but the unique Murray River Barrages were built to withstand water pressures from both sides.
With total disregard to Australia
’s longest river system, from decades of over irrigating white man did what over 8000 years of nature could not do. Since detailed records of the Murray Mouth position have been kept since the 1830’s, it has shown that the Mouth has migrated over 1.6 kilometres in position and with Hydrological and Geomorphological studies carried out, has migrated up to 6 kilometres over the last 3000 years. With movements over 14 metres in a 12 hour period, it shows that the Murray estuary is a highly dynamic area. In 1981 the Murray Mouth closed completely and within 24 hours, sand deposits were higher than the 1956 flood levels, the highest recorded flood since European settlement
. From geo-morphological records, it shows that the mouth closure is not a natural event and is the first time that it has been closed in over 8000 years. So severe was the closure, that not even the volume of water from the 1956 flood levels would have be able to clear the mouth. Since them when needed, there is a regular dredging of the Murray Mouth to keep it open and it is believed that this dredging stopped the mouth from closing over in 2003 – 2004.