Chapter one: GOOLWA THE GHOST TOWN

“Though most men are contented only to see a river as it runs by them,” wrote Sir William Temple, “yet he that would know the nature of the water… must find out its source…”

Equally he must seek out its end, for when a great river at last approaches the sea it is most truly itself.

Here are gathered together all the streams, trickles, tributaries and back—waters of which it is formed, from the far—off source to the sea.

The Murray River, which cuts off a wedge—shaped slice of the Australian continent in its south-eastern corner, ends at Goolwa Beach in South Australia. The last and widest section is called the Goolwa Channel.  Here one of the oldest and most interesting towns on the whole length of the river grew up in the paddle—steamer days.

Goolawa or Gulwa was the local aborigines‘ word for “elbow”.  They bestowed it on the last great bend of the Murray, where the river holds Hindmarsh Island in the crook of its arm. After this it turns and cuts a way through the barrier of sandhills to the sea.

Along the beach great heaps of empty cockleshells can be found in the sandhills, and digging reveals further layers beneath the sand, with the charcoal of old campfires. For this was a gathering place of the tribes, a place for meeting and feasting for thousands of years before the white man came.

Sometimes the wind uncovers a skeleton. Sometimes the glance of a smoky dark eye, a creamy complexion, or thin brown legs proclaim the aboriginal ancestry of a local inhabitant.   Otherwise little trace remains of this once handsome and numerous race, who wove seaweed cloaks and made garments of kangaroo skin and built shelters to keep the cold. south-west winds away.

Like the blackfeller* with his stories and traditions the river-boats and their captains have disappeared from Goolwa.

(*After much thought I have used the word “blackfeller” in my book, as I love its liquid poetic lilt, rather than the harsh-sounding ‘aborigine’.  In no way is it meant to be offensive, as I have the deepest respect and affection for these people.)

The old graving-dock has been towed upriver to Mannum.  The beat of hammers and anvils at Graham’s foundry is heard no more; the slips where many steamers and barges were built are gone, and the last paddle-steamer settles deeper in the mud.  She is the sternwheeler Captain Sturt, which helped to build the first locks on the Murray and the series of barrages at the mouth to keep the salt sea out of the river and the lakes. Her bottom is filled with cement, and she didn’t even move in the great flood of 1956.   Her owners simply moved to the top deck and let the water flow through.  Where once the boats unloaded at the bustling wharf, all is deserted except for the young Australians – “New”, “Old” and “Oldest” — who swing from the idle cranes and drop into the water about the sunken wreck of the Renmark.  The Invincible hides away among a jumble of launches

and houseboats.  The William Randell and the Cadell, named after the two rivals who were first to navigate the Murray by steam, lie side by side on the bottom with the old Melbourne barge. The chunk-chunk-chunk of paddles, the gentle chuff of steam, and the shrill thrilling whistle of paddlewheelers departing for Morgan and Mildura, Wentworth and Wilcannia and Bourke, are heard no more. Goolwa has become a ghost town.

The imposing courthouse and gaol have little use these days. The Signal Station at the mouth, built in the days when George Johnston took cargoes regularly from the river to the sea, has crumbled away with disuse.  Though sometimes, with mistaken zeal, it is whitewashed, the local limestone weathers to a mellow gold when left alone.  The old stone walls fronting the houses on Admiralty Terrace, the magnificent round—roofed stables which sheltered the horses that pulled the train to Port Elliot, the charming home built for Mr Jones, Superintendent of the railway — all blend with the sunburnt grasses and the blue—green river as though they had grown there like trees. ,

Just as the murmur of history sounds under the somnolent everyday calm of Goolwa township, the voice of the sea is an ever-present undertone. When the “bald sou’easter” beats up the channel, rippling the surface into choppy waves, the never-quiet surf is lashed to a menacing roar as it beats on the open coast beyond, out of sight behind the sandhills.

So it sounded when Captain Charles Sturt crossed those sandhills, the first white man to do so. That was in 1830, a hundred and thirty-five years ago.

“Our situation was one of peculiar excitement and interest. To our right the thunder of the heavy surf, that almost shook the ground beneath us, broke with increasing roar upon our ears; to our left the voice of the natives echoed through the brush… “

That night the moon was nearly full, silvering the wide reach of river. It was such a lovely night that Sturt, who had intended leaving at dawn to cross the sandhills to the coast rather than drag the boat over the intervening mud-flats, called the others at three a.m.  With McLeay and Frazer he crossed row after row of sandhills. The tide was in, and they had an uncomfortable walk in the soft sand for seven miles before they came to the narrow mouth of the Murray.   They reached it just as dawn was breaking, and stared with dismay at that inhospitable coastline, with its curving rows of foam like the bands of white lace edging a shawl.

“The mouth of the channel,” wrote Sturt sadly, “is defended by a double line of breakers, amidst which it would be dangerous to venture except in calm and summer weather; and the line of foam is unbroken from one end of Encounter Bay to the other.  Thus were our fears of the impracticability and inutility of the channel of communication between the lake and the ocean confirmed.”

Indeed this is one of the grandest, loneliest sights in the world, akin to the terrible peaks of the Himalayas.  Standing alone on the Ninety-Mile Beach one has the feeling of General Bruce regarding Nanga Parbat: “It gave one a feeling of impossibility; it gave one also a feeling that one wasn’t there, and that if one wasn’t there, it didn’t matter…”

The whole fury of the Southern Ocean, unbroken by any land between here and the Antarctic, beats upon this shallow sandy coast.  It can make little mark upon it, and “the league-long rollers” pound in vain.  A cold white spume drifts inland, shrouding the sandhills in perpetual mist.  After days of southerlies the foam becomes solid, scudding along the sand like soap-suds.

Occasionally with a north wind the thunder of the surf is subdued, but not the massive swell. Captain Johnston, the “River Murray spaniel”, a man of great strength and a remarkable swimmer, is one of the few men who have gone overboard into the breakers at the river’s mouth and lived to tell the tale — he and the man he saved, the master of the Eureka barge.

Many others were drowned, including Captain Blenkinsop and Judge Jeffcott, who had gone through in a small boat to prove that the mouth was navigable and Goolwa an ideal site for the capital of South Australia.  Many steamers and barges went aground there, but many others made the passage safely. George Johnston took the “Melbourne” steamer in and out on a. regular run round to Port Adelaide, nearly a hundred years ago.   On Admiralty Terrace, Goolwa, high above the river bank, stands the stone-walled house built by Younghusband of the River Murray Navigation Co. ; and “Cockenzie”, the big house built by Captain Johnston for his wife Lizzie.  Between them was a lookout, where watch could be kept for steamers coming through the Mouth, and a cannon was

kept for signalling.  Up would go the flag on the signal station, and out would go Lizzie Johnston to fire her gun to announce the arrival of the Melbourne by way of the channel Sturt declared unnavigable. How proud she was of her man!

He plied hack and forth in his ungainly-looking steamers, side-wheelers with high, topheavy superstructures and very shallow draught.  He brought out from Scotland the finest of them all, the Queen of the South, which was to prove that the Mouth was safe in all weathers.  Alas! the ‘Queen of the South’ grounded on one side of the channel; a grand piano was thrown overboard and washed up, an unlikely wreck on Goolwa Beach, and George Johnston lost the bonus promised him by the Government.

Francis Cadell too lost his famous Melbourne and once was nearly drowned in the river entrance he was first to open up to trade. For it was he who brought the Johnstons and the Ritchies and the other Scottish skippers out from Cockenzie, to build cottages in the style of their home town so that Goolwa was given the name of “Little Scotland”.   Almost all the houses in those days were solidly and attractively built of the local limestone with brick coigns -as were the Institute, Landseer’s flour mill and the big Customs shed.

In those days Goode’s store in the main street was the largest in the Colony; there were three hotels, three churches, two breweries, three boat-building slips, a sawmill and a foundry.  A train ran to Victor Harbour four times a day.

The river alongside the wharf was jammed with steamers,  the Customs shed overflowed with wool and wheat and hides, the town was bursting with life and activity.

In the 1860’s Abraham Graham built at least twelve vessels, (with iron hulls that later had to be sheathed in river gum, which becomes harder than iron under water) and supplied engines for nine of them.  Today no trace remains of the foundry except the old beam engine which used to haul the steamers up onto the slip.  It stands today near Sturt’s Landing, by the children’s playground. The rest of the machinery from the foundry went upriver long since to the pumping stations of the irrigation settlements, to help turn the Murray water into the gold of sultanas and oranges.

Graham’s Castle*(*now acquired by University for adult education), which he built with profits from the foundry, still stands on the high land looking towards the open sea. It has foot-thick walls, towers and battlements and secret rooms, and a well-authenticated ghost.

No steamers come off the slip these days, to be launched with champagne and tricolour silk, for it’s many a year since Goolwa people bid godspeed to a steamer built from stem to stern by Goolwa men.    Landseer’s flour mill is a pathetic ruin, but many of the old buildings remain.  The public buildings of Victorian period and the Cockenzie-style cottages give the town its quaintly old-fashioned air.

Let us hope no modern “motel” of concrete and glass will displace the ancient Goolwa Hotel, with the figurehead of the wrecked “Mozambique” — her face and buxom figure kept in repair with a yearly coat of paint — perched upon the roof.  Inside, the cedar bannisters and the cedar chairs came from the same Windjammer.

TILL about ten years ago Thomas Goode’s wooden hut still stood beside his store though you’d never notice it unless you knew it was there, with its shingles peeping from under the iron roof.

Adam Johnstone’s house, built from the hull of a boat with planks that are slightly curved, is still standing.   Sir George Ritchie added an imposing front and called the house “Port Seton”.  He mounted a gun at the stone gateposts, and on the roof the signal-gun that once belonged to George Johnston.   (Port Seton was later owned by Mr. Dodd, of the pleasure launch “Rose”.)

The wide sweep of cloud-reflecting waters, the flotillas of swans and pelicans, the shags drying their wings in the sun, are much the same as when Sturt came this way, for from here to the Mouth has been proclaimed a sanctuary for birds.  Much of the past remains. The surf thundering on the bar still sounds the same, and the far wild cry of the swans going over from the sanctuary to the Lakes.  Goolwa, liquid-sounding name given by its first inhabitants to the river’s last bend, has developed enormously in recent years, but its heart remains essentially unchanged today – one of the few historic towns in Australia to have kept its individuality and its charm.

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