Up the Mighty Murray! – Episode 1: All aboard at Goolwa




Episode 1    All aboard at Goolwa


At Goolwa in the Great Southern Football League



        Map of the Murray River             Goolwa and the Lower Lakes


Goolwa, located near the mouth of the River Murray, was once dreamt of as ‘the New Orleans of South Australia’. It became Australia’s first inland port with a local shipyard industry building paddle steamers and barges. The paddle steamers, with their barges in tow, ranged over thousands of kilometres of inland waterways from Bourke on the Darling River, up and down the Murray to Albury and from as far up as Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee River all the way downstream to Encounter Bay in South Australia. During the 1880s about 25 000 bales of wool passed through the thriving port each year, but faster road and rail transport eventually overtook the river trade. 


In the local Ngarrindjeri language Goolwa means ‘elbow’, the shape of the last great bend in the river as it passes around Hindmarsh Island. It is our embarkation port on Up the Mighty Murray! Our steamer (and logo for the journey), the ‘PS Footballer’, flies the colours of both the Upper Murray and the Lower Murray flags. The flags, dating from c1850, are coloured dark blue for the waters typical of the Murray upstream of the Darling and lighter blue for the waters downstream in South Australia. The four major inland rivers – Murray, Darling, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee – are represented by the blue bars on the flags. The three white bars represent the states of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. The Union Jack and the Cross of St George, with five white stars – one for each colony,  complete the assembly.



The Lower Murray flag


Drought and flood, recurring Australian climatic themes, have always controlled the rhythm of life of the inland river environments. Bountiful rains, soon followed by seemingly endless runs of dry years bring fluctuations in river water levels that influence the health of ecosystems and shape rural prosperity. Of historical significance to this River Murray story, river heights and flows are also fundamental to the ease of navigation. 


We have just witnessed one of the big wets, in some places in the Murray-Darling Basin on  par with the ‘granddaddy’ of living memory – 1956. Fresh in everyone’s memory and still causing dislocation, the 2022-23 floods have only recently started to subside in the South Australian end of the system. The floods have left a trail of destruction to river communities causing loss of livestock, property and livelihood on a scale not seen for half a century or more. The impacts of the floods will be a recurring issue throughout our journey in 2023.


The Lower Lakes in South Australia, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, hold the river’s final flow before the waters enter the sea at the Murray’s mouth. Barrages installed in the 1930s protect the lakes and the river from the entry of sea water. In early 2023 the lakes had not seen higher water levels and the Murray has not recorded higher peak discharges near Goolwa since 1956. The much needed flush to the lower Murray certainly arrived.


At the mouth of the Murray dredges are constantly engaged in what seems a futile endeavour of clearing sand from the estuary only to see it washed back into the sea from the dunes before soon being returned to the mouth by currents. However, without sand pumping the entrance would soon close, bringing ecological damage to the Coorong and the Lower Lakes.


Sand dredge at the mouth of the Murray


Visitors to the site can revel in the natural beauty of the coastline, dunes and lagoons which form the vital pelican breeding wetland habitat of the Coorong. From the river mouth the coastline arcs away to the horizon bordering one the narrowest and longest national parks in Australia.


Paddlesteamers and the industries that accompanied them, such as shipbuilding, milling and brewing,  gave life to the town of Goolwa. In the fifty years after 1853 thirty seven paddlesteamers and twenty three barges were built at Goolwa. By 1854 railways arrived on the scene with the construction of the Goolwa to Port Elliot line, the first railway in Australia with iron rails. Horse drawn passenger and freight services were extended to Victor Harbor ten years later. When the railway from Morgan to Adelaide opened in 1878 the role of Goolwa as a river port started to diminish.


In 1853 the PS Mary Ann and the PS Lady Augusta were the first river steamers to depart Goolwa on a run up the river to Swan Hill. Later en route it became a race, as captains William Randell and Francis Cadell battled for the 4000 pounds prize money offered by the South Australian government to encourage river transport. Cadell narrowly prevailed but the real story of the ‘race’ was that the Murray was shown to be navigable to Swan Hill and beyond, allowing river trade on the Murray and Darling to take off.


The seasoned riverboat captains of days long past were wary of the rough conditions on Lake Alexandrina, and frequently stopped overnight on the south western-side of the lake at Clayton Bay before making the potentially hazardous crossing to Wellington. Australia’s only inland lighthouse, the Point Malcolm Lighthouse strategically located at the narrows between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, helped guide the paddle steamers on their way to and from the lakes. 


Point Malcolm Lighthouse, near Narrung


In the 1990s a bridge was constructed at a sweeping bend in the river across to Hindmarsh Island replacing the Goolwa Ferry and facilitating a marina development. The construction of the bridge was riddled with controversy with one group of Ngarrindjeri women claiming the island was special to them as ‘secret women’s business’. Another group of local indigenous women disagreed and it took a Royal Commission to investigate the disputed facts before the bridge could be built. The marina development has also come under criticism from environmentalists with water diversion from the Murray at the top of their concerns.


The old and the new at Goolwa

 The river barge ‘Dart’ beneath the Hindmarsh Island Bridge 


Standing as an imposing ribbon of concrete high above the slow moving waters of the Murray, the Hindmarsh Island Bridge looks out of scale amidst the subdued and serene landscape below. There is a plaque set into the first pylon, on the Goolwa side of the bridge, that speaks of the Murray River’s place among the many Sri Chinmoy Peace symbolic landmarks around the world, including Mt Fuji, Niagara Falls, the Victoria Falls and Lake Balkal. Each one is dedicated as a “Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossom”, powerfully reminding us of nature’s peace and tranquility. Sri Chinmoy was an Indian spiritual leader who took his teachings and meditation practices to western countries in the 1960s. An active runner, he organised marathons and was an advocate of athleticism. The inscription concludes with the words: “in this spirit, may the gentle waters of the Murray River carry our common aspiration for peace throughout the length of this ancient land.”



A day at the footy in The Great Southern Football League



The Great Southern Football League (GSFL) covers the Fleurieu Peninsula region incorporating a mixture of beach communities, rural towns, sea and river ports and premium wine growing districts. It is one of South Australia’s strongest country competitions and is zoned to the South Adelaide Football Club. Ten clubs currently participate in the league (see map above). Foundation clubs included Victor Harbor, Goolwa, Hindmarsh Valley, Port Elliot and Encounter Bay.  Victor Harbor remains the most successful club in the league with 24 premierships. Reigning premiers McLaren Districts won their second flag in the competition in 2022. 


In 2023 the GSFL celebrates its 100 year anniversary. And what a way to celebrate with 42 footballers inducted into the inaugural GSFL Hall of Fame. Among them, Ryan Griffen (Western Bulldogs, GWS) from Goolwa-Port Elliot and Greg Whittlesea (Hawthorn, Sturt and Glenelg ) originally from Yankalilla. After his AFL career Ryan Griffen returned in 2019 to play with his hometown club alongside his brothers Trent and Travis.


Current AFL players from the GSFL


Three players on current AFL lists hail from the Great Southern Football League. Fleurieu Peninsula club Victor Harbor boasts Nathan Kreuger (Collingwood), McLaren Vale club Willunga is the home of Arlo Draper (Collingwood), while Langhorne Creek produced Matty Roberts (Sydney).


Match of the round: GSFL Opening Round 2023

Goolwa-Port Elliot v Yankalilla

At Goolwa Oval

Saturday 15 April 2023



Magpies      v      Tigers


An Australian Football club was formed at Goolwa in 1878. At that time, the paddle steamer era of river transport was at its zenith and Goolwa was a thriving river port. Football at Port Elliot commenced in 1881. The Goolwa FC won six premierships (1925,1932, 1953 and three in a row between 1975 and 1977). Like Goolwa, Port Elliot was a founding club of the Great Southern Football Association in 1923. Port Elliot enjoyed great success before WWII taking out nine premierships, including five in a row between 1935 and 1939. The Bloods won two further flags (1962 and 1973) prior to merging with near neighbours and fierce rivals the Goolwa Magpies in 2001.The Magpies serve the communities of Goolwa, Middleton and Port Elliot. 


It was a lean season for the club in 2022 with 18 losses and not a single win, but strong recruiting in the off season sees the club looking to make a turnaround this year. Big things are expected of new playing coach Reece Slape from SANFL club South Adelaide.  The Goolwa Oval Recreation Precinct boasts a new electronic scoreboard ready to light up for the 2023 season.


Goolwa Oval


The Yankalilla Tigers were established in 1889 and initially played in the Fleurieu Football Association. In 1935 they joined the Great Southern Football Association. Yankalilla moved to the Southern Football League in 1956 and remained until the end of the 1967 season when they transferred back to the Great Southern Football League where they have remained since. The Tigers have seven premierships to their name, but are without a flag since 1985. In 2022 Yankalilla also struggled, winning only two games for the season. Another AFL player originally from Yankalilla is Kym Koster (Footscray, Adelaide).


The last time they met: Round 15 2022Yankalilla 17.19 (121) d. Goolwa-Port Elliot 8.11 (59)


The match


Weather: Temperature 19 C, windy with showers


The Goolwa-Port Elliot ‘Magpies’ started season 2023 on a good note with a 14 point win over the Yankalilla Tigers. It was the Magpies’ first victory since round 18 2021 and ended the year-long drought that set in last season. 



Goolwa-Port Elliot 2.3 2.5 5.8 7.10 (52)

Yankalilla 1.1 2.8 3.11 4.14 (38)



Goolwa-Port Elliot: F. Hayden 2, T. Fergusson 2, R. Carnelly, J. Hughes, T. Griffen

Yankalilla: T. Athanathos, S. Biddle, J. Tyllis, B. Fitzgerald



Goolwa-Port Elliot: R. Carnelly, J. Fry, J. Hughes, J. Heintze, J. Bottroff

Yankalilla: J. Kay, L. Bartlett, S.Biddle, B. Fitzgerald, S. Crawford


Around the GSFL grounds


Langhorne Creek 17.7 (109) defeated Encounter Bay 11.6 (72) at Langhorne Creek


McLaren Districts 10.9 (69) defeated Mount Compass 7.8 (50) at Mount Compass


Strathalbyn 9.9 (63)  defeated Myponga-Sellicks 7.11 (53) at Myponga


Willunga 13.13 (91) defeated Victor Harbor 8.8 (56) in a night game at Victor Harbor


Meanwhile, just up the M2 from the Fleurieu Peninsula, all 18 AFL clubs were in Adelaide for a weekend of football South Australian style as ‘Gather Round’ captured the nation’s Australian Football attention.



A step back in time …


In 1952 the powerful Victor Harbor club were gunning for their seventh consecutive GSFL flag. Standing in their way were premiership aspirants Goolwa and Yankalilla who met in the First Semi-Final played at the Victor Oval. The Victor Harbor Times (22 August 1952) takes up the story:


Yankalilla wins First Semi-Final


“Showing tons of courage and finishing more strongly than their opponents, Yanks won their way into the preliminary final by downing Goolwa by seven points at the Victor Oval last Saturday, in what proved to be one of the most thrilling matches seen here for a long time. With the scores almost level for the greater part of the match, the winner was always well hidden, but when Goolwa raced to a near four goal lead early in the last quarter it certainly looked as though they had the game in their safe-keeping. Not to be denied however, Yanks rallied and with a mighty effort slammed on five quick goals and turned what appeared certain defeat into a thrilling victory. Played in ideal weather conditions, the match was greatly appreciated by the large crowd present. Although finished for the season, Goolwa went out with colours flying, and accepted defeat like real sportsmen should.”




In the ‘52 Preliminary Final Yankalilla met Mount Compass and notched a thrilling one point victory earning the right to take on the all conquering boys from Victor Harbor in the grand final. In front of a record crowd of 1314 people at Victor Harbor, the ‘blue and whites’ ran out winners by 29 points over the Tigers and with that annexed their seventh successive premiership. The club to end Victor Harbor’s great run of flags was Goolwa in 1953.


Next episode: To Murray Bridge in the River Murray Football League



Read the prologue to this series and Peter Clark’s previous series Here.



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  1. Riverina Rocket says

    Brilliant work PC.
    What an amazing history.
    You make it so interesting and bring the match to life!

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    There’s got to be a book at the end of this! Well done PC!

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Well played Peter. I love your mix of geography, history and footy.

  4. Peter Clark says

    Thanks for your comments Rocket, Col and Swish. I am thoroughly enjoying learning about country footy South Australian style.

  5. A great start to your series, Peter.
    Just love it!

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