Bruce Elder gets a lesson in Yorke Peninsula's maritime history that is all but forgotten.
My fascination with South Australia's Yorke Peninsula was first piqued at Mariehamn in the Aland Islands, between Sweden and Finland. I was crossing by ferry from Stockholm to Turku and decided to break the journey in Mariehamn, a quaint Baltic town.
The island's key tourist attraction is a maritime museum that houses the Pommern, a four-mast sailing vessel. Built in Glasgow by a German shipping company and launched in 1903, it was bought by Gustaf Erikson of Mariehamn in 1923. The Pommern is beautifully preserved and maintained and, below decks, the museum uses an old television set to broadcast recordings of accounts from "old salts" who sailed aboard.
One Finnish sailor reminisced: "I met a girl at a dance in Wallaroo ... we danced all night and then I sailed back to Europe ... when I went back to South Australia I went to the dance again but she wasn't there."
Wallaroo? I had been there some years earlier, but this tiny port on the Yorke Peninsula had left no lasting impression. More importantly, how had a sailor from the Aland Islands washed up on the harsh coastline of South Australia? I found an explanation in Eric Newby's The Last Grain Race, an account of his time as an 18-year-old deckhand on the Moshulu as it sailed from Ireland to Australia and back to Europe in 1938-39.
Newby, a great 20th-century travel writer, explained the Aland connection: "Captain Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn, 'Ploddy Gustav' as he was known more or less affectionately ... was in 1938 the owner of the largest fleet of square-rigged, deep-water sailing vessels in the world.
"There were still, in 1938, 13 vessels entirely propelled by sail, engaged in carrying grain from South Australia to Europe by way of Cape Horn ... The survival of big sailing ships in this trade was due to several favourable circumstances. Grain was not dependent on season, neither was it perishable. In the primitive ports of the Spencer Gulf, where the grain was brought down from the backblocks in sacks, steamers found it difficult to load a cargo in an economical time ... But a sailing ship run with utmost economy and a low-paid crew could take [just] six weeks to load her cargo of 4000 tons of grain".
These days, a grain terminal can load 5000 tonnes an hour but such mechanisation made the Yorke Peninsula's history no less intriguing. I had to visit.
Two excellent museums - one at Port Victoria, the other at Wallaroo - record the gulf's sailing ship history. "They didn't live very long. They were strong but life was very hard," the Wallaroo Heritage and Nautical Museum's Colin Boase says of the men who lifted and carried wheat. It was stored in three-bushel bags, which weighed 81.6 kilograms. Before 1909 the bags weighed four bushels, or 109 kilograms.
"They had to be physically moved seven times," Boase says.
"The wheat was bagged on the farm and lifted onto the back of a cart and brought into town. The bags were unloaded, weighed and recorded sin a wheat agent's yard.
"The stacks, which were often up to 50,000 bags, were 23 bags high. The bags were then loaded onto horse-drawn rail trolleys and taken to the end of the jetty. They were unloaded and sent down a chute and loaded onto ketches.
"The ketches went out to the windjammers waiting offshore because it was too shallow at the end of the jetty. They were loaded into the ship's hold for the journey to Europe via Cape Horn."
Locals would invite sailors ashore for home-cooked meals and dances held in local halls. At one of those dances, that anonymous sailor, forever captured on video at Mariehamn, met and danced with a young woman. It's still possible to experience a little of the adventure and romance of this historic time. For starters, the Sea SA Car and Passenger Ferry crosses the Spencer Gulf, from Wallaroo to Lucky Bay near Cowell, twice a day. It's hardly a windjammer in force-nine gale conditions, but it's nonetheless a great crossing. Look back and you'll see Wallaroo's grain silos on the horizon.
Wallaroo's museum has an extensive collection. Its volunteers still recollect the visitors, the grain stacks on main streets and the harsh primitiveness of the region. As Newby writes: "Port Victoria ... seen from offshore was an idea more than a place, for the heat of the sun was enormous, destroying the substance of the land itself, which swam in mirage ... .
"To reach the town we used to row past the white loading-ketches rocking at their moorings, to the wooden jetty and go up past some iron storage shed into the main street of Port Victoria ... On either side was a facade of single-storeyed iron-roofed buildings so impermanent in appearance that I never overcame my surprise when passing through the doors of the post office, the secretive-looking hotel, or Kneebone's Cafe, at not finding myself at the back of a film lot facing open country that extended to the horizon in every direction except to the west, where the waters of the gulf lay."
That "iron storage shed" at Port Victoria is now the Port Victoria Museum, run by Stan Squire. It has a fine collection of photographs and memorabilia and Squire brings maritime and port history alive with tales of adventure, bravery and youthful foolhardiness.
Getting there The Yorke Peninsula is west of Adelaide, Wallaroo is 156 kilometres from Adelaide and Port Victoria is 189 kilometres. Distance between the ports is 75 kilometres via Maitland and Moonta.
The Sea SA car and passenger ferry travels daily between Wallaroo and Lucky Bay. See seasa.com.au.
Wallaroo Heritage and Nautical Museum, Jetty Road, Wallaroo, is open daily, 10am-4pm. See wallaroocommunity.org.
Port Victoria Maritime Museum, on the pier, is open from 2-4pm Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays between October and Easter. See community.history.sa.gov.au.
Villa Martini, 2745 Maitland Road, Moonta, is a self-contained stay with rooms from $140 a night. Phone (08) 8825 2315; see southaustralia.com.
Emaroo, 8 Randolph Street, Port Hughes, is a gracious modern house near the jetty. Rooms from $200 a night. Phone 0418 862 260; see porthughesaccommodation.com.au.
Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of South Australian Tourism and Yorke Peninsula Tourism.