Victor Harbor, South Australia: Travel guide and things to do

Located 83 km south of Adelaide, Victor Harbor is a thriving modern holiday destination which was once the main port of the South Australian coast and the access point for all goods travelling up and down the Murray River.

Prior to European settlement the local Aborigines called the area around Victor Harbor, 'wirramulla'. It was in this area, as early as 8 April, 1802, that Matthew Flinders commanding the 'Investigator' and Nicholas Baudin, the French explorer in 'Le Geographe', came across each other. It was on the basis of this unlikely event that Flinders named the stretch of coastline Encounter Bay. A plaque commemorating this event is located on 'The Bluff' at the southern end of Encounter Bay.

The area of South Australia which now stretches from Lake Alexandrina and the mouth of the Murray River around through Goolwa to Port Elliot and Victor Harbor developed as a unified whole. By 1829 Captain Charles Sturt had made his historic journey down the Murray River and there was a feeling that a settlement should be established near the mouth of the river so that the inland could be opened up.

In 1837 Colonel William Light, responding to this interest, inspected the area around the mouth of the Murray and concluded that the land was poor and the mouth of the river was probably not navigable. The following year Sturt endorsed Light's view that the mouth of the Murray could not be made safe for navigation. Light's assessment almost certainly little more than pure self-interest. There were suggestions at the time that Victor Harbour would make an ideal harbour for the whole South Australian colony. Colonel Light was so convinced that Adelaide was the ideal spot that he looked at Victor Harbor and dismissed it.

This inevitably led to the establishment of Adelaide on Gulf St Vincent but there was still a body of support for the utilisation of the Murray River and a number of proposals (most involving safer harbours and moving goods overland to points further up the river) were suggested.

Eventually a decision was made that Goolwa would become the last point for shipping on the Murray River (it was located on the last bend before the river entered the sea) and there was a debate as to whether Victor Harbor or Port Elliot would be the ocean port. It was eventually decided that Port Elliot was the best location but this was probably based on its proximity to Goolwa and the belief that a canal could be constructed between the two locations. In 1851 it was agreed to build a railway between Port Elliot and Goolwa at a cost of $20,000. It ended up costing $31,000 and wasn't completed until 1854. It was, by any conventional measure, a bit of a disaster. It rarely made a profit and the trains carrying the goods travelled at about 10 km/h and had to be unloaded before the goods could be moved to the ships because the waters at Port Elliot were too shallow and the jetty was not long enough. Add to this the problem of rocks off the shore and the constant battering the area receives from the Southern Ocean and it is easy to understand how, after a decade, the major port activities were moved to Victor Harbor.

Prior to its role as the premier port on the Fleurieu Peninsula, Victor Harbor had already established itself as a major location for the whalers and sealers who plied the waters of the Southern Ocean. By 1837 there was a whaling station on Granite Island and by 1838 Victor Harbour (it had been named by a Captain R. Crozier after the HMS Victor which surveyed the harbour at this time) was already recognised as a port.

The first European settlers moved into the area in 1839. Some lived on the mainland and worked at the local whaling stations. Others took up land and started grazing sheep and cattle. The town was already established, albeit as a rather unimportant little port, when in 1864, after seven ships had sunk off Port Elliot, it was decided to extend the horsedrawn railway from Goolwa to Victor Harbor and use the harbour as the main access point for goods travelling up and down the Murray River. By the 1880s some 25 000 bales of wool from all over western New South Wales and Queensland were being shipped down the Murray, travelling by train from Goolwa to Victor Harbor, and finally travelling to destinations all around the world.

This trade came to an abrupt halt in the 1890s when the railway lines were established and the river traffic died. Today the town is one of the most popular destinations on the Fleurieu Peninsula with families taking the horsedrawn carriage trips out to Granite Island, swimming on the beach, and enjoy the usual array of activities offered by a typical seaside resort town.

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Things to see

The Horsedrawn Tram to Granite Island
Victor Harbor's most popular attraction is the horsedrawn tram service which travels along the causeway (it was constructed between 1878-82) which links Victor Harbor with Granite Island. As a sign nearby explains: 'The Victor Harbor tramway which runs across to Granite Island from 10.00 a.m. daily is Australia's only horse drawn tram service. It was first established in 1896. Discontinued in 1954 and recommenced in June, 1986. The District Council of Victor Harbor owns 6 Clydesdale horses. There are 8 tapered roller bearings beneath each tram and it takes a pull of approximately 50 kilograms to pull a loaded tram. Similar horses regularly pulled many hundreds of kilograms all day long in days gone by. Our horses normally work for a total of 2 hours a day every second day. Their diet is controlled to maintain peak condition. They are under regular veterinary supervision and are stabled at Henderson Road, Victor Harbor. A living tribute to the Heavy Horse.'

Granite Island Penguin Walk
Penguin walks are held on Granite Island every evening at dusk. Trained guides accompany small groups of walkers along the foreshore of the island to see the Fairy Penguins arrive home safely after a busy day at sea. Bookings can be made either at the Granite Island Shop or by phoning (08) 8552 7555.

The Bluff
This 100 metre high granite outcrop, also known as Rosetta Head, is the site for the memorial plaque to the meeting of Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders. Located to west of the town (continue along Franklin Parade to the end) it offers excellent views over Encounter Bay and, when the whales are in the area, it is a popular vantage point.

The Cockle Train
The steam train, a reminder of the origins of the town and the whole region, only runs during the school holidays but it runs three times a day from Goolwa to Victor Harbor stopping at Port Elliot. Details: (08) 8391 1223

National Trust Museum
The Victor Harbor National Trust Museum, sometimes referred to as the Encounter Coast Discovery Centre, is located in the beautiful Old Customs and Station Master's House at 2 Flinders Parade. It contains considerable memorabilia connected with the early history of the town and the Fleurieu Peninsula. It also has a good walking map which will take visitors around the major historic buildings in town. For details of opening times contact (08) 8552 5388.

Historic Walk
There is a good brochure available which outlines most of the historic buildings of significance in Victor Harbor. Titled 'Victor Harbor' it includes the Customs House (1865), the sites of the early whaling stations, the beautiful St Augustine's Church of England (1869) on Burke Street and Reads Wool Mill (1868) in Flinders Parade.

South Australian Whale Centre
Located at Railway Terrace, this is an indoor display which deals specifically with whales, dolphins, seals and penguins. It is open daily 9.00 a.m. - 5.00 p.m. For more information contact (08) 8552 5644.

Newland Memorial Congregational Church
One of the town's most unusual buildings is the Newland Memorial Congregational Church, built in 1927. It is named in honour of the Reverend Ridgeway Newland who arrived with 34 settlers in July 1839. He was central to the early development of the town. The church is located on the roundabout on the road out of Victor Harbor on the road to Yankalilla.

Greenhills Adventure Park
A typical place to entertain the kids while on holiday. Located on Waggon Rd on the edge of Victor Harbor it has a maze, water slides, go-karts and similar activities. It is open daily 9.00 a.m. - 5.30 p.m. For more details contact (08) 8552 5999

Urimbirra Wildlife Park
Located on the main Adelaide Road about 5 km outside Victor Harbor this park is home to more than 70 species of Australian animals and birds. It is open daily 10 am - 5 pm. Contact (08) 8554 6554 for more details.

Waitpinga Beach
Located some 14 km west of Victor Harbor the attraction here is the kangaroos which graze on the hills in the late afternoon and early morning. For surfers the beach happens to be excellent with large waves rolling in off the Southern Ocean.

Tourist Information

Tourist Information Centre
10 Railway Tce
Victor Harbor SA 5211
Telephone: (08) 8552 5738
Facsimile: (08) 8552 5476

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