The Goolwa History Cruise

The history of South Australia is arguably the most interesting of all the Australian states.

Possibly unique in the entire modern world, our  experiment of ‘systematic colonisation’ has more twists & turns than the mighty Murray river itself.  Yet  just like the river itself, so much of our history lies hidden just below the surface waiting to be discovered.

The Goolwa History Cruise reveals our fascinating SA history, in particular on Goolwa and the river-trade, and it quickly shows that our history is always shaped by one common factor – water.

Did you know?

The registered name of the ‘second’ paddle-steamer on the river is the ‘Lady Agusta’ – though everyone knows her as the ‘Lady Augusta’.  Another curious fact is that South Australia’s first Governor (John Hindmarsh) and first surveyor (William Light) were both commanders of the same ocean steamer, the SS Nile!

South Australia is often referred to as ‘the driest state on the driest inhabited continent’, so in a country of ‘drought &* flooding rain’ water was, is and will continue to be a major influence in our state’s story.

With naval & political decisions made as far back as 1494 shaping our state, the southern coastline of ‘New Holland’ was the last great’habitable’ continental mystery, and was therefore the last opportunity to be claimed.  An international ‘race’ to chart our coastline between England & France in 1802 and the ‘discovery’ of the Murray river in 1829-30, both with direct connections with Goolwa, were the two great moments of early Australian exploration that led to ‘The New British Province of South Australia’.

Did you know?

The very first maps of Australia were all French! Our east & west borders are thought to have been determined by the first navigators to chart our coastline, yet neither of Australia’s two ‘vertical’ borders are straight meridians, with our border with Victoria still one of great debate.

Goolwa – the New Orleans of the Land of the Golden Fleece

The history of Goolwa is a great insight as to the most common reason why ‘vision’ rarely translates into reality – people.

The story of the Murray river trade is one of opportunity, both realised and then lost, and a sombre real-world example of how good ideas can easily be ‘de-railed’. As the first industry operating across colony borders, it is also a great example of the complexities and hurdles created by our system of state governments.

Did you know?

The lack of infrastructure in early SA, like the low tide at Port Adelaide (known as Port Misery), was very frustrating.  And even as early as 1853 William Randall, the very first paddle-steamer captain, talked of ‘red tape & humbugism’.  I wonder how much has really changed since then!

The Port of Goolwa

The first registered port on the river, her glory days were short but the story of Goolwa is quite remarkable.

  • even her name is unusual, as it is one of the very few towns that has an aboriginal (Ngarrindjeri) name.
  • she is the 10th oldest town in SA, and for 12 years it was the ONLY river port moving people & goods up & down the river.
  • the railway (and rail is another story in itself) line now known as the Cockle Train, connecting Goolwa with Pt Elliot (and then extended to Pt Victor) is recognised as Australia’s first public railway.

A major port and a hive of ship-building activity, Goolwa’s early success can still be seen today by the number of grand stone buildings in her streets. The single termination of over 6,500km’s of inland rivers, Goolwa was the birthplace of the Murray river trade, the spark that developed the entire south coast and the origin for the commercial expansion of the entire Murray-Darling Basin.

Did you know?

Although the defaut measure for marine navigation is the nautical mile (1.85km), the river navigators used the statuate mile (1.61km), the same as used for road transport. And up until 2008, officially the longest river in Australia was the Darling!

On 'The Goolwa History Cruise' you will discover:

  • how and why Australia was discovered and first colonised;
  • our unique and ancient river geography – especially regarding the Lower Lakes and the Murray Mouth;
  • how South Australia was created and the reasons for our borders;
  • the chain of events that lead to Adelaide being controversially located where it is;
  • the ‘known’ story of the original inhabitants – the Ngarrindjeri tribes;
  • the business & political influences regarding water in Australia;
  • the unique Australian design of our river boats;
  • the rise & fall of the river-trade

I also give the history of the Hindmarsh Island bridge: it’s 7-year legal battle to be built and a ‘neutral’ opinion on one of the most controversial buildings in South Australia.

Did you know?

Most likely as a response to the 1976 Tasman Bridge disaster in Hobart, this bridge is designed to not collapse even if one of the nine main concrete piers is destroyed!

From a roomy, safe & stable Australian boat you will see:

  • the safe and unique waters of the Lower Lakes;
  • several different examples of paddle-boats;
  • the European structures that dominate our waterways;
  • the myriad of boats & houses of the largest marina in the southern Hemisphere – the Coorong Quays;
  • the shipyards that were the heart and soul of Goolwa’s industry;
  • historic shipwrecks that marked the demise of the river trade

And of course you will see the local birdlife; pelicans, swans, coots and even perhaps some of our newest returning residents – the Australasian seal.

Did you know?

Each of the 18 Ngarrindjeri tribes have a ngaitye (totem) from local wildlife, These creatures are greatly respected, for the Tanganarin (the Goolwa tribe) it is the pelican.

Cruise Information

We cruise through the safe & protected waters of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island.

  • each cruise is a two hours long;
  • each cruise has a MAXIMUM of 4 persons per cruise;
  • BYO food & drinks are welcome (please refer to our FAQ)
  • pets are allowed – conditions apply (please refer to our FAQ)

As it is always cooler on the water, it is always advisable to bring a jumper and/or waterproof jacket.

Cruise Schedule

Leaving form the historic Goolwa Wharf, we have three standard cruise departures each day. Depending on wind conditions or low pool levels (and passenger mobility) we may depart form the Coorong Quays marina.

  • depart 10:00am
  • depart 12:30pm (coincides with the Cockle train to & from Victor Harbor)
  • depart: 3:00pm

Other cruise times are available on request.

Cruise Cost

We are offering a special discount for cruises booked over the History Festival!

  • $60 $50 per passenger
  • any person over 12 months is a passenger
  • the minimum booking is for TWO passengers. .

For single passengers, please just call and I will record your details on a ‘waiting’ list, so when a matching cruise becomes available I will call you back to see if that suits.

How to Book

You can easily book your cruise in many different ways.

  • online (credit card)
  • by phone (pay on the day by cash or EFTPOS)
  • through Goolwa or Victor visitor centres (cash, EFTPOS or credit card)

We cruise under almost all weather conditions, as even on very windy days (where it can look rough under the bridge) the waters of the Coorong Quays are protected and safe. If it is raining heavily we will try to reschedule the cruise to later in the day, however in the worst case scenario (heavy rain has set in) we will simply cancel the cruise and either reschedule to another day or gladly give you a refund.

Getting here

For those who are thinking of combining some historic visits with other towns or regions, we have provided some different local drives that you can use to coincide with ‘The Goolwa History Cruise’.

Adelaide – Goolwa (Mt Compass)

The most direct route to the South Coast, and an easier drive now that the Southern Expressway is a proper two-direction highway!

A nice optional detour is the wine region of McLaren Vale, and headng through Willunga you can return to the main Victor Harbor road via the old Willunga Hill road – a favourite route (though tough for the cyclists!) for the tour Down Under.


If you decide to visit via Victor Harbor, the 12:30pm cruise departure means you can catch the Cockle Train from Victor, enjoy your cruise and catch the return train from Goolwa back to Victor.




Adelaide – Goolwa (Strathalbyn)

An alternative easy drive directly to Goolwa is through another historic town, Strathalbyn.

A nice recent historical detour is the ‘old’ Mt Barker road via ‘Eagle on the Hill’.  The major road into Adelaide before the Heyson tunnels were opened in 2000, this route was notorious for the number of trucking accidents at ‘Devil’s Elbow’.

Another option is to turn off the SE Freeway at Stirling (instead of Mt Barker) and drive a lovely scenic hills route through many old towns (Echunga, Macclesfield) to Strathalbyn.  In early times this route to Melbourne took you to Milang and then across the lakes by steamers to Meningie.

From Strathalbyn it is a nice easy open drive to Goolwa.

Victor Harbor – Goolwa

The road from Victor Harbor to Goolwa is an easy drive, however if you have the time drop into Pt Elliot and head to Freeman lookout – the original name of Pt Elliot was Freeman’s Nob.  Looking down into the lovely little bay you can still the remnants of the jetty that was the first junction connection the river and the ocean trade. 

From this viewpoint you get to look east and west across Encounter Bay and get the visual understanding of where the two great explorers met (Flinder’s & Baudin) and how the challenges for shipping shaped many of the state’s major early decisions.

Goolwa – Meadows

The southern stretch of the first proper road between Adelaide and the Goolwa  (via Unley, Clarendon, Meadows, and Bull’s Creek – 2 Jul 1861 – Advertiser), travel across old bridges and through the wonderful scenic valley of Bull’s Creek to Meadows.  If you have the time take a quick detour into the Cox Creek Conservation park – here you can see the native vegation before Europeans arrived, and get a real understanding as to the difficulty of overland travel at the time of early settlement.

Meadows – Adelaide (Clarendon)

The historic route back into Adelaide is aother beautiful scenic drive through Kangarilla & Clarendon before winding it’s way the through Coromandel Valley, then Belair and into Adelaide via Unley.

Many of the roads were established for Cobb & Co. mail routes, however the final extension from Bull Creek to Adelaide was delayed for many years because much of the land was privately owned (so had to be ‘re-purchased’ by the Central Roads Board!)  and the expenditure was always going to be controversial – because there always other routes & settlers who wanted the investment on roads spent in their region.


Meadows- Adelaide (Hahndorf)

By heading to Echunga you can then also take the road to the historic town of Hahndorf.

From here you can take the SE Freeway directly back to Adelaide, or take another historic Adelaide Hill’s route by heading from Hahndorf to Balhannah and returning to Adelaide along Greenhill Road, which is one the four roads that border the Adelaide CBD parklands.