Chapter Fifteen: CROSSING THE BAR

“A moderate north-easterly had been blowing for a whole day and a night*    The breakers had not lost all their violence, but their roar was muffled.  A moderate swell was coming in, which grew stronger as I cleared the Mouth and approached the barrier of surf.

“I had just decided to hoist sail when the raft was gently picked up by a huge wave which had suddenly materialised, it was lifted up about 15 feet, and I could see a whole cavalcade of breakers coming in just in front…

“This was not what I had bargained for and I decided to turn back.   But the first breaker approached rapidly. Once again I felt myself lifted, not so gently this time.  The bow drums left the water to point skywards, then dived down again into the trough.  Another and another roller – then a fourth one on the verge of breaking.

“Suddenly, as though struck by a giant’s fist, the raft was tossed backwards about 20 feet, landing with a shuddering crash.   The motor raced ferociously as the propeller came clear of the water.  “Up and down, up and down.., then we were picked up by an enormous wave, so long and smooth that on top it was like being back in the Coorong.   At last I was in deep water, the sea heaving in a long, steady swell;   but there was a big lump knotted in my stomach.”

This vivid description is by a young German migrant, Max Weaver, ..ho is supposed to be the only man to have gone through the Mouth in a raft.   This was in 1962. His engine-powered raft was made of six 44-gallon drums and was almost unsinkable.  “Afterwards”, he wrote, “I was suddenly aware of the loudness of the surf.   Looking back, I found it hard to believe I had just passed through it. “Two miles from shore, it was easy to understand how Flinders had missed the opening. It had  disappeared from view, as if the sandhills had joined up, closing the gap.”  No wonder Sturt found the surf alarming, A few months ago a fishing boat broke down in the entrance. Someone on
shore managed to get a line to it and pull it in to the bank of the channel. An anchor was thrown out to hold it. But while the fisherman and the lad who was assisting him were fussing over rescuing their gear, the anchor pulled out of the sand and the boat was whirled away and overturned. Both were drowned.

The Bar has not lost its fearsome reputation with the years. Even George Johnston realised that the Mouth needed to be made safer.    He joined a deputation to Parliament back in ’74 to ask for a canal to be cut through the sandhills, and various plans have cropped up ever since. By now the pattern of interstate haulage by motor trucks, which can go right to the wharf at Port Adelaide, is established  Goolwa has only followed the same path as Echuca and Morgan and all the other once-busy ports.    The railways now operate at a loss just as the paddle-steamers did at the end; but at a loss just as the paddle-steamers did at the end, but the railways are Government subsidised and the steamers were not.  Yet the argument for and against still goes on. Letters and articles appear in the Riverlander outlining schemes for “unlocking the River”.   And the surf still thunders on the
bar. The Goolwa Barrage works brought life back to the old town in the late thirties’, and after they were completed a tourist road was built round past the bird sanctuary to the first barrage.

The others are more inaccessible:   Tauwitchere, Ewe Island, Boundary Creek, and Mundoo.    Permission has to be obtained from the Engineering and Water Supply Department to drive over them, to see the clear salt water lapping side, and the milky river waters on the other.    The water is calm, for the barrages are well upriver from the sea.  The River Murray Development League took up the question of a canal recently in 1959*   Questions were asked in Parliament on the possibility of a canal being constructed.   Mr Playford the Premier, replied!

“A satisfactory Port would cost, I am told, about fifteen million pounds… Therefore I cannot give the Hon. Member any hope that the project would be proceeded with.

“The Port… would not he used to any extent and the expense would not be justified…”

In 1874 the Government made much the same reply to a deputation of river skippers and Goolwa business men, when the estimate of the Chief Engineer (Mr Mais) was only £355,000.   Even so this seemed a monstrous sum to Thomas Goode and his supporters, who had spoken lightly of cutting a new entrance through the sandhills for an outlay of something near £4,000.  Feelings ran high at the time, but once again the vexed question of the Mouth was allowed to subside like the surf in a northerly wind.  In the Government Report on the Murray Mouth of 1901, it is thus described:

“The entrance of the Murray is at the head of Encounter Bay, open to the perennial swells of the Southern Ocean, undiminished by any island or headland shelter,

“Many observations of the height of the waves have been taken.    On the finest day when there is no break on the Bar the height is 3 or 4 feet.    Ordinarily the waves break on the 4-fathom line, and are from 6 to 8 feet high.  “Although the sea is very confused it never breaks in the deep channel inside the Bar.  “In the heaviest storms, which occur five or six times a year, the seas break in 30 feet of water in waves 18 to 20 feet high.

“The Bar is composed of sand, shells, and small stones. The first Government survey team to chart the shifting sands of the Murray Mouth was led by Captain B. Douglas,
Harbourmaster at Port Adelaide, with Mr Nation of Port Elliot and several seamen, in 1857.  They went in through the mouth in the paddle steamer “Blanche” quite safely.   Mr Nation then went with the whaleboat and four oarsmen to sound the channel out towards the Bar.  They were coming back when a roller suddenly filled the boat.
Mr Nation and three of the men swam to shore, but the fourth man, David Brown, was never seen again.   Shipwreck, groundings on the Bar, drownings… The melancholy toll still rises, while Goolwa drowses in the sun, safe on its calm estuary,  “the world forgetting, by the world forgot.”

The brave little railway with its seven horses, battling away to keep the river busy and the paddlewheels turning, is remembered today by a single passenger truck preserved in a glass case in Goolwa’s main street. The old “Cadell” steamer, built by George Johnston and named after his boyhood hero, the laird’s son, was a landmark for many years as she lay listing on the edge of the channel. Then one day she slipped into deep water and was gone. One by one the old river skippers too, have slipped away alone and crossed the Bar.  The last Goolwa skipper, Captain Dave Ritchie, son of the Jamie Ritchie who came out in Cadell’s “Lioness” from Cockenzie, is dead.   He lived to be 88.   The four Ritchie brothers were all river men, all over six feet tall, and all lived to be 79: Dave Ritchie, and Adam Johnstone’s youngest daughter, and Sam Shetliff’s granddaughter – Andrew and Amelia Willcock’s only child – all gathered at the Institute to remember the past at the recent Back to Goolwa celebrations. There was a display of books and photographs and river charts and models of steamers, and even the silver water-bottle carried by Captain Sturt, the first white man to voyage down the river.

Dave Ritchie, tall and handsome with his white hair and pointed silver beard, said the last requiem over the once-busy port of Goolwa. “Perhaps to some of you,” he said, “Goolwa is just a ghost-town, a has-been, a place of the past and no future… We can’t put the boats back on the river, or cargoes back on the wharf, and all of you are the losers.   The loss of the River trade is Australia’s loss, and she should never have let it go.

“This town is very dear to us who live here, even as a failure,” he said, and paused to steady his voice. “Perhaps if she’d been a success, the bustling New Orleans they promised us, we wouldn’t love the place so much: it’s easier to love a failure than a success. °Thankyou all for coming here today, to recapture with us before they are lost forever, the rich memories of the River’s past.”

go to back cover and copyright

go to the introduction by Dr Leslie McLeay