South Australia tries hard to attract tourists, but perhaps its finest assets aren’t promoted enough because of not being able to see the trees for the forest.
The SA Tourism Commission spent $6 million on selling our city and some regions with an advertisement themed Adelaide. Breathe featuring an astronaut character floating around to the music of INXS.
It was designed to make us feel better and send a message that Adelaide was not just a destination for festivals, the arts and music, but good wine, food and beaches.
The southern Fleurieu doesn’t seem to feature in this space oddity, but never mind. For a smidgeon of the cost we can erect a huge sign on Adelaide Road heading to Victor Harbor highlighting an image of our horse-drawn tram on the causeway to Granite Island, and with a few simple words tell the universe what really is special about our state – it’s heritage.
We’re different because you won’t find something like the splendor of our stone buildings and Victorian-era architecture in Queensland, or be consumed anywhere else by the stunning beauty like the gateway to the Coorong National Park and lagoon ecosystem.
And if we really want to take on the world, our southern Fleurieu region has paddle steamers meeting steam engine trains at Goolwa – only Mississippi, USA can also boast of this feature – that roll along Australia’s first-ever railway line to Port Elliot, and then pull into the Victor Harbor station where you can jump on the only horse drawn tram in the world that operates all-year round.
Amazing, isn’t it? We say deserving of world prominence, but perhaps many of us are like those assembled on Platform 1 at the Adelaide Space Station: ‘ho hum’ we say. But not Adrian Cox, 46, a coordinator and one of eight drivers of the horse-drawn tram operated by the Victor Harbor Council.
He started here 12 years ago as a cabinetmaker working on the trams, and for the past two years driving the horses, which he regards as one of the great jobs imaginable. “I meet people from all over the world every day and experience our history,” he said.
“A lot of tourists are blown away with the size of the Clydesdales, and then I realise that many have never really been close to a horse before. I talk to people who live here and I’m amazed they have never been on the tram, and incredibly a few have never been to Granite Island. Even people who walk across here every day admit they don’t think about the history of this place, and what it really meant to this state in our early days.”
As so meticulously recorded in The Story of Victor Harbor by Allan Strempel and John Tolley (1965), and in-part in Victor Harbor… from Pioneer Port to Seaside Resort by Michael Page (1987), this Encounter Bay region owes it adventurous beginnings to the meeting by chance of Capt Matthew Flinders in his Investigator and Frenchman Capt Nicholas Baudin in Geographe on April 8, 1802.
It was whaler Capt John William Dundas Blenkinsop, who in 1837 shipped 200 tons of whale oil, which constituted the first commodity exported from SA.
The original jetty was built in the shape of a hockey stick 1864, and extended to Granite Island in 1875. Work commenced in 1867 on the screwpile jetty, also a rare and remarkable construction named so because holes 4-6 feet in diameter were blasted into the limestone and piles were screwed 6-9ft into the rock.
In 1879 work started on Australia’s first-ever breakwater – 192,000 tons of monster granite over 100 yards shifted within the island mainly by quarry cranes, and completed in 1882.
Of course, times changed and the whaling ceased, but fortunately in 1894 the SA Railways had the vision to see the value and beauty of Granite Island and commenced the passenger service across the causeway using horse-drawn trams.
Now, 120 years later, and following an interruption with a seemingly ridiculous tractor train from 1956-86, the horse-drawn trams are back to their full glory when the first-ever tram, a double-decker known as No.7, carried 37 people.
On a busy tourist-season day Adrian can work anywhere from 6.30am-9pm, but like the casual staff of 10, there are no complaints. “It’s not every job that you can be surrounded by heritage and operate something so special that you cannot find around the world,” he said.
“Copenhagen is renowned for its horse-drawn trams in Douglas Bay, but they only operate a few months of the year, and there’s one in Bendigo that is just once or twice a year. We have 11 horses, with a normal working team of eight, all cared for and managed by Richard van Dijk.
“The tourists love the Clydesdales, and are amazed at their strength. They are very strong, but I can budge one of these trams by myself, and they glide on the tracks easily with momentum. The horses are enormous fun to work with, and everyone here treats them as if they are your workmates.
“There is no doubt the horses love the exercise, and those who pull the tram live longer than those who just stand around in a paddock. They are looked after very well.”
On this particular day Carmen, a 24-year-old mare, was in work, but sadly she is close to retirement. Like so many Clydesdales and draught horses from all backgrounds, her white face and pink skin has succumbed to skin cancers despite being protected from the sun by shade cloth.
There are two new Clydesdales being groomed to roll the tourists back and forth over the causeway, and like dear Carmen, and many others before her, they will draw admiration from the tourists. We just hope in the process that we, as a community, don’t take this all for granted.
Historic references to timelines and significant events are featured on Granite Island, including special acknowledgement to the original owners, the Ngarrindjeri people of southern South Australia, and Adrian hopes that people read them to perhaps better appreciate where we have come from.
This includes the encounter of Flinders and Baudin 11 miles south-east of the Murray Mouth, which once again will be celebrated at Warland Reserve on April 8. Maybe it’s a time to think how different things could have been, including going by the original name of Flinders’ Investigator – Xenophon – had they not met.
And along this journey may we also take a look at Australia’s first-ever causeway and remember that four men died during its construction, one from a falling boulder and three by explosion while preparing a shot for blasting.
There is no monument in their honour recording this fact; certainly no mention of their names. May be our politician Nick Xenophon can investigate. CL