Shipwrecked in Port MacDonnell, SA – Day 13 of Road Trip March 2020

Wednesday 18th March 2020

When we’d called into the Port MacDonnell tourist office the afternoon before, the bubbly lady there had given us many options of what we could do today, in addition to exploring the museums and galleries in the town itself.

Turns out we had driven straight past the turn-off to the Little Blue Lake, a water-filled sink-hole which is a smaller cousin to the more famous lake a little further north at Mount Gambier. We had visited that one on our honeymoon thirty-four years before.

See the source image

Mount Gambier Blue Lake, Source: Wikipedia

Or we could have explored more of the caves and sinkholes of the underground freshwater system forcing up through the limestone at places such as Ewans Ponds or Picanninie Ponds Conservation Parks. Or we could have taken an energetic hike up and around the rim of the volcanic cone of Mount SchankShe said that some people returned to the office saying they couldn’t find it, which had us baffled, as it was visible for miles around on our drive the day before. It rises approximately 100m (330 feet) above the flat, brown, pastoral landscape. These items of interest make up a small portion of the Kanawinka Geotrail, a volcanic precinct of more than sixty sites which stretches across two states.

Being people who worked with the sea and ships, and being that we were on the “Shipwreck Coast“,  we opted to follow the trail of the wreck of the “SS Admella“.

Buckle in, this tragic historical event is quite a tale.

Built in Glasgow in 1857, and named after her trading ports of Adelaide, Melbourne and Launceston, this three-masted, iron-hulled steamer / sailing ship left Port Adelaide on 5th August 1859, with, by most accounts, 84 passengers, 29 crew, 6 horses, including racehorses, 93 tons of copper, flour for the goldfields, and other general merchandise, bound for Melbourne. Many of the women and children were on their way to the goldfields to rejoin their men.

The SS Admella was considered the fastest and most luxurious ship on that run at the time, and her lifeboats were of the latest design.

rs Replica of SS Admella at Port MacDonnell SA

Model of SS Admella on display at Port MacDonnell Maritime Museum

In a swell, one of the racehorses fell over, and in the course of getting it back on its feet, the ship changed course slightly. This may have contributed to the captain confusing his position. At 4am the next morning, believing he was well out to sea, his ship was swept by a strong current onto the reef at Carpenter Rocks. The ship keeled, and lay broadside to heavy seas, its starboard side riding high. Two lifeboats were smashed, the other cast adrift. Within fifteen minutes, the SS Admella broke into three, along the lines of the rivets on the watertight bulkheads – one of its safety features. Survivors were left clinging to debris, or what remained of the aft section.

Although “relatively” close to shore, their efforts to reach land or attract attention by firing rockets were fruitless. Even a sister ship passed them without detecting their plight. On the second evening, after hours of battling breakers to reach shore in a make-shift raft, two sailors, Knapman and Leach (a veteran of the Crimean War), stagger ashore. They stumble off in the direction of the Cape Northumberland lighthouse 20 miles (32klm) away, across rough terrain. At dawn, they spy it in the distance.

(note: not all the lighthouses on the above map existed at this time)

rs Cape Northumberland Lighthouse

A distant view of the current Cape Northumberland Lighthouse.

And look back over whence they’ve come.

rs rocky coastline of Port MacDonnell

Part of the coastline near Port MacDonnell SA

There is a lighthouse and lighthouse keeper, but no lifeboat, crew, rockets or telegraph line. The closest lifeboat is in Portland (Victoria). You can see from the above map how distant that was, and appreciate the time required to go for it in those days of horse and cart. The nearest telegraph communication was in Mount Gambier. Germein, the head keeper, arranges for a small boat to be carted to the wreck site, then sets off for the telegraph station. After falling off his horse, that role is taken on by a local pastoralist. Germein returns to port, finds one of the ship’s lifeboats has washed ashore, and insists it can be repaired with whatever is at hand. The story goes on, over numerous days, numerous improvisations, numerous rescue attempts, and numerous mishaps. I have found this well-researched article if you would like to read the detail.

After eight catastrophic days in rough seas with little food and no water, all the while in sight of land, there were twenty-four survivors, ten of them passengers. The only female survivor was Bridget Ledwith. She later married and had nine children.

The wreck of the SS Admella is still considered one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history. Tourists can follow the story by driving to the various points along the trail and reading more at the explanatory boards. Bill and I had gone to a number of them, when we realised that we had not re-fuelled before setting out. So we returned to Port MacDonnell, to pick up the story in the Maritime Museum there.

Camel Rock Port MacDonnell SA

Camel Rock near Port MacDonnell, South Australia

The museum is in two halves, one part about the history of Port MacDonnell, and the other about the sea and the ships it has claimed in these waters. For people like us, it needs a good two or more hours, so, while it may sound trite after such a heart-breaking story, we interspersed our visit with a special lunch (stand-by GP Cox).

The reason that Port MacDonnell – the southernmost point of South Australia – was on our itinerary was because we had seen a news article reporting that their lobster trade had been crippled due to the outbreak of coronavirus in China, its biggest export market. I am not sure whether this will play for overseas readers, but here is a link to what caught our attention. Remember that back in February, we were still thinking the virus was centred in China, or limited to those Australians who were attempting to return from there. By the time of this visit – 18th March – accommodation providers were just beginning to deal with cancellations as Australian tourists threw their travel plans out the window. Our hostess with the fabulous three-bedroom house was grateful for our two-night booking.


rs Packing lobster at Port MacDonnell SA

On display at the Port MacDonnell Maritime Museum – the beginning of commercial trade for the local Southern Rock Lobster

Anyway  . . . we decided to support the local fishermen and spend the kid’s inheritance on a fresh lobster lunch. The local variety is the Southern Rock Lobster Jasus Edwardsii. It is distinctively red, has no pincers, and its flesh is sweet and tender. Australians would often call it crayfish. We tried to buy ours directly from the Five-Star Seafood business mentioned in the article, but it was closed when we visited, so we went around to the Periwinkle Cafe.

rs Lobster Lunch Port MacDonnell SA

Eating lobster at Periwinkle Cafe, Port MacDonnell, South Australia

Then back to the museum.

The museum details around thirty shipwrecks on this part of the coast. At the Marconi display, I had a go a tapping out a message in morse code. Good thing no one’s lives were dependant on my effort.

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One of the things that struck me is how much salvage and re-use the early inhabitants undertook. Not only what they could of the cargo, but many houses up and down this coast use timber, doors, fittings, handles, and so on, retrieved from the wrecks. It demonstrates how isolated they were, and how such materials would have been highly sought-after. I wonder how much actually made it to markets such as this:

South Australian Register, Adelaide, SA. Sat 17 Sep 1859, page 6


On the 5th inst. there was an unusually large attendance at the mart of Messrs. Green, Purr, and Luxmoore, in consequence of its being the day fixed for the sale of the wreck of the Admella. The copper offered, consisting of 1,032 ingots, stamped ‘ Kapunda,’ and 226 cakes marked with a red cross, together about 53 tons, sold for £620 ; 201 pigs of lead, £16 ; remainder of cargo, £10 10s., and the hull for £200. Total.£816 10s.

After having our fill of the museum, we strolled around the jetty and township, before returning for a wonderful chill-out evening at the house (me dining on the rest of the chicken al-funghi from the pub the night before). It was a luxury to spread ourselves out as we planned the next day over a good bottle of red.

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28 thoughts on “Shipwrecked in Port MacDonnell, SA – Day 13 of Road Trip March 2020

    • Thank you Dina. The lobster was very tasty. Not something I could afford to eat every day, but it was great to have it so fresh. We have seen so much good artwork in the towns as we travelled around on this trip. Did you see the posts with the murals painted on the grain silos?


  1. I adore the murals on the sides of the buildings in your photos; it feels like I could walk right into the scene. Shipwreck stories abound on the North Carolina coast in the U.S.A., and I find greatness in the tales of those who took on the epic task of manning lifesaving stations. It’s a pity the SS Admella did not have those services in a timely manner, and incredible that some were able to survive the ordeal. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aren’t those mural artists talented? How they can see what they are doing on such a large canvas begs the imagination.
      If social isolation continues, I may get to blogging about the trip we did on the Pacific 101 and all the shipwrecks along the Oregon coast! I can imagine North Carolina is similar.
      My brother-in-law was on surf boats, and that gives you some idea of the skill involved in getting them through the breakers, and then, to try to pull alongside a shattered hull in pitching seas and transfer people to your boat. Even with the lifeboats, not all of the weakened survivors made it shore. Some drowned at the last hurdle. So sad.

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  2. Pingback: Port MacDonnell to Port Fairy – Day 14 of Road Trip March 2020 | The Reluctant Retiree

  3. It is always lovely to go on road trips with you, Gwen. This one being no exception. So glad that things turned out well for you, and that you didn’t visit the Barossa Valley as you originally planned. This virus has caught everyone off-guard. I gather that you are back home and living the solitary life like the rest of us. Stay healthy and sane!

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    • I’m having lovely time at home Jolandi. The apartment is spring-cleaned (in autumn), the garage is all sorted and I even washed its metal mesh double door! The last of the items that I inherited from my brother’s accumulation have been sorted. (I found two faded photographs of me as a 14 year old – reminding me that I was chubby even then, sighhhh). And as you see, I have almost caught up on blogging this trip.
      I’ve also caught up on your Taste of Freedom blogs. For some reason I have to search them out through Facebook but I get there in the end. I find the whole journey fascinating and hope that one day Bill and I will be able to visit you there!


      • I’m so glad to hear that you are having a lovely time at home, Gwen. I am very impressed with what you’ve managed to achieve. I wish I could muster up the same amount of energy. I’m sure you must be quite relieved that you’ve sorted through the last of the items you inherited from your brother. These tasks can be tough. Well, those photographs clearly prove that it doesn’t help to fight against our DNA. Sigh.

        I definitely hope that you and Bill would be able to visit us in Portugal one day. I was hoping to make the move there permanently in May, but with the uncertainty of this pandemic we have no idea how long it will take to catch up on all the official stuff.

        In the meantime, take care of yourself. x

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Maybe it’s because I have always lived near to the coast, but I find tales of shipwrecks both utterly fascinating as well as tragic and poignant. Amazing for a woman to have survived particularly in the kind of clothes they had to wear in the 19th century.
    That lobster looked very tasty. All kinds of industry worldwide have been hit by the lockdowns. There’s a ‘people’s lives versus the economy’ debate in the UK surfacing as the big money people are getting scared. That is not for their lives, but for their investments. Last night one of the better BBC journalists, Emily Maitlis, summed up the current reality beautifully. Short, just over one minute – truth to power.

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    • I understand the shipwreck thing. It’s the same with me, given it was my working career. It seems macabre to be so fascinated, until you realise that at heart you are empathising with the fear and desperation these people went through; and hoping that something is learnt from each disaster. In this case, the dangers of drinking seawater, for example. And that subsequently a trained boat crew and equipment was installed at Port MacDonnell.
      I applaud the presentation by Emily Maitlis, and for the tone in which she delivered it. No yelling, and no deliberately pausing to over-emphasise or over-dramatise a word. Just straight, factual and to the point.
      Our economy is taking a battering, but our conservative government has finally set aside its obsession with surpluses, and I don’t think with their current support announcements that the big money people can dare to put self-interest first. But it does seem to me, as a casual distant observer, that too much time was lost initially for the UK with their dithering over health versus wealth priorities. Perhaps our government watched and learned.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank goodness you have a government that has been able to take advantage of the later arrival of the virus and also a government with the ability to LEARN from other countries’ experiences. Good news, according to the FT journalist I follow on Twitter along with Norway, Australia is doing really well, you’ve flattened the curve sooner than most with your early lockdown. It certainly seems your government watched and learned.
        Emily Maitlis was great and our health and care workers are also trying very hard to mitigate this disaster. I cannot write publicly what I feel about this government – let’s say it is not positive.

        Liked by 1 person

        • We have 61 deaths to date, which while that may compare well to other countries, is 61 too many for the families involved. And there is a sleeper in that hundreds from the Ruby Princess were allowed to return to their home countries and their health is not included in our statistics.
          But we did have the advantage of that slower spread. At first, it was just among those returning from China, Iran and the US. No time to get complacent yet though.


          • From the guy at the FT crunching all the big numbers your early lockdown seems to have taken your death rates of the steep part of the curve a lot early than most of the rest of developed world – should mean, with luck, you have less of a terrible time. Can’ t believe I just typed that – less of a terrible time. All a bit grim indeed as your old auntie would say.

            Liked by 1 person

          • When the AIDS epidemic struck, we had ads featuring the Grim Reaper in a bowling alley, knocking down pins at random. People needed reminding that it wasn’t just the obvious at risk. It’s a bit reminiscent of those days. Dear Auntie Myra – I do so miss her!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, we had amazingly doom-laden ads here too. I clearly remember the Tombstone/Iceberg one even now. Apparently it was made deliberately to terrify us. I don’t know about your part of the world, but over here Brits seeing the footage of Italy was enough to terrify most people and folk, particularly the elderly, began to withdraw from normal life even before the official lockdown.

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          • Our initial footage concentrated on China, and the delay, then scramble, to get our citizens back. Then they were sent into quarantine – in similar places to where we had previously sent our asylum seekers, such as Christmas Island – and their “whinges” grabbed a lot of the headlines e.g. slow internet, doohh; and cockroaches. I know you’ll probably cringe at that thought, but cockroaches are a part of life in a humid climate, it doesn’t signify the place is filthy. Not that we want to entertain them to dinner, mind you. I lived in a boarding house where we christened our two residents Bib and Bub (they probably weren’t the same roach. You know the old ethnic stereotypes – they all looked the same to us.) . . . (tell your daughter that was another internet joke 🙂 )
            . . . And then Italy began to dominate.
            We were sad for them, and my neighbour was devastated that her family reunion in Lombardy would be impacted. But even when we returned from our road trip, she was still hoping it would be over by May and they would still all meet up there. Even now I don’t know whether she has cancelled her booking as I haven’t spoken to her for a while.
            As I’ve commented several times in posts, at that stage, we were still “alert, but not alarmed”.
            However, given we live in a “retirement village” (most of us prefer to say lifestyle resort), the operators were already taking a cautious approach, so much of what is now official policy had already been implemented here. The St Pats party on 17th March had been cancelled, for example, and the restaurant closed.


          • You mention cockroaches – not sure how that population is coping in London at the moment as their main food sources, bars and restaurants, are all closed, but in normal times every food outlet in central London would normally have an RMC. That’s a rats, mice and cockroaches contract with a pest control company. I once temped for a Pest Co, and was taken by surprise to find cockroaches are pretty much everywhere.
            I am so pleased your management moved speedily and ahead of the curve. Sadly, here in the UK many of the retirement complexes carried on as normal with many people coming and going before proper procedures were introduced. Government here reactive and behind the curve at every stage. 🙁

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, as much as I would like to take that sightseeing trip, your posts are the next best thing to being there.
    Back in Signal Battalion, some of the men use to talk to each other in Morse code. Boy were they good.

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