History of the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia

Fleurieu Peninsula is part of a small group tour of Adelaide for mature and senior travellers seeking to travel as a couple or as a solo traveller. The Peninsula is historically important, click through to learn... It is also where you will find Mclaren Vale.

5 May 20 · 5 mins read

History of the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia

Home to the McLaren Vale Wine Region, stunning beaches, and beautiful landscapes, the Fleurieu Peninsula nonetheless remains a hidden gem, laid-back and uncommercialised when compared to similar areas on the east coast. And while few Australians (outside of South Australia) know of the Fleurieu Peninsula, even fewer know about its important role in Australian history; as the paths of explorers mapping the Australian continent saw this one peninsula play an important role in several different geographical discoveries.


The history of the Fleurieu Peninsula begins many thousands of years before European settlement, and is documented in the rich oral traditions of the Peramangk, Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna people.

McLaren Vale, on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

In 1802, the Fleurieu Peninsula was home to one of the most important meetings in Australian history. That year, two rival ships had been given the task of circumnavigating the Australian continent: for the French, Nicolas Baudin, commander of the Géographe, and for the English, Matthew Flinders, commander of the Investigator. On 8 April, 1802, the two ships (Baudin travelling west and Flinders east) met at a spot on the Fleurieu Peninsula – now named Encounter Bay in honour of the event. Though France and England were at war in Europe, Flinders and Baudin regarded each other as fellow scientists and met to exchange information on the flora and fauna of the Australian continent. Together, they worked to chart the final few miles of the Australian coast.

Baudin had named the peninsula in honour of Charles Pierre Claret, comte de Fleurieu, a fellow explorer. The name came into offical usage in 1911, following a campaign by Count Alphonse de Fleurieu, a great-nephew of Charles de Fleurieu, who sought to have places that were discovered but not named by Flinders given the proposed names from Baudin’s expedition.

In subsequent years, the Fleurieu Peninsula would be at the heart of yet another exploration milestone. As settlers headed into the interior of New South Wales, they encountered a number of rivers that flowed westward, rather than in the expected eastward direction. The destination of the westward-flowing rivers became a riddle that fascinated the settlers, and many set out to discover what they assumed was an inland sea.

The man who solved the riddle was the explorer Charles Sturt (who was the mentor of John McDouall Stuart). In 1828, on an expedition ordered by Sir Ralph Darling, Sturt discovered the Darling River heading south through western New South Wales.

In 1829, Sturt set out once again, following the Murrumbidgee river west, anticipating that it would meet the Darling River. Encountering difficulties on land, he switched to a whaleboat. Though the boat encountered difficulties, on January 14, 1830, the boat made a sudden shift, and ‘we were hurried into a broad and noble river’ (Sturt’s diary, 1833). He was on the Murray River, 770 miles from its mouth. Sturt’s crew passed the point where the Murray met the Darling, and after a few weeks travel in a north-westerly direction, Sturt’s boat turned to the south.

On 9 February, Sturt reached the end of the Murray River at Lake Alexandrina on the Fleurieu Peninsula, only a few miles away from where Flinders and Baudin had met.

The mouth of the Murray River, near the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Soon afterwards, the Fleurieu Peninsula was settled from the new colony of South Australia. On September 8, 1836, Colonel William Light (who later planned the city of Adelaide) made his first landfall on South Australia at Rapid Bay on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Today, the landing is marked by a boulder inscribed by Colonel Light.

The first European inhabitants of the area were fishermen, whalers and sealers. However, the land soon opened up to more permanent settlers. Ridgway William Newland, a Congregationalist clergyman from England led a party of settlers to Encounter Bay in July 1839. At the same time, the first wineries were being established in the McLaren Vale by immigrants from Dorset.

The proximity of the area to the Murray River meant that the region thrived throughout the 19th century. In 1851, Sir Henry Fox Young, the Governor of South Australia, was concerned that his colony was struggling in comparison with the thriving Victoria. He decided to secure for South Australia a stake in inland trade by setting aside 4000 pounds as a reward to be offered to the first two boats to navigate from the mouth of the Murray River to the Darling. Though neither of the two first attempts – led (separately) by William Richard Randell and Captain Francis Cadell – reached the Darling, they both succeeded in reaching a significant distance inland, and received the reward. The Murray-Darling Basin could thus be steam-navigated, meaning that stores could easily reach those inland, while pastoralists could get their wool away to local and world markets even quicker.

During this period, the town of Goolwa, the last port on the Murray River before it reached the sea, prospered. Australia’s oldest steel-railed railway – known as the ‘Cockle Train’ was built in 1887 to link Goolwa with the seaside towns of Victor Harbor and Point Elliot. The train still operates today as a scenic railway. Goolwa, a charming town with old sandstone buildings dating back to the 1850s, offers the opportunity to take a Murray River Cruise in PS Oscar W, a 100-year old paddle steamer.

The Fleurieu Peninsula also offers a number of other attractions. The pristine beaches and wildlife sanctuary of Kangaroo Island is visible from the coast here, and easily accessible by 45-minute ferry from Cape Jarvis. The Fleurieu Peninsula also offers stunning sandy beaches overlooked by desert cliffs, many of which remain virtually untouched. And of course, a trip down the peninsula requires a stop off in the McLaren Vale for a wine tasting or lunch in one of the region’s many fantastic restaurants.

Odyssey Traveller makes a day trip through the Fleurieu Peninsula as part of our tour of Adelaide. We spend eight nights in hotel accommodation in Adelaide. Delving into the city‘s history and culture, we explore the city centre on a walking tour, visiting the North Terrace, Botanic Garden, historic gaol, and the Art Gallery of South Australia. We also explore the historic buildings and museums of Port Adelaide.

Our Adelaide tour also includes a number of day trips to the surrounding region. We explore the German settlement of the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills, enjoy a river cruise down the Murray, and visit the pristine wilderness of Kangaroo Island.

The Adelaide region is internationally renowned for the quality of its food and wine, and our tour gives you plenty of opportunities to feast – including a visit to the Central Market and Chinatown in Adelaide’s CBD, and a wine tasting and lunch at a local restaurant in both the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Vale.

If you’re interested in visting Adelaide and South Australia, why not join our Adelaide city tour? Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who seek an authentic experience of their destination. We move in small groups of around 6-12 guests, and are led by an expert tour guide. If that appeals to you, click here for more information.

Fleurieu Peninsula
Beautiful beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Adelaide and South Australia:

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