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.
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 Schank. She 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.
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)
And look back over whence they’ve come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
COMMERCIAL SUMMARY FOR ENGLAND.
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.