Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

Article about Yorke Peninsula, a few hours north of Adelaide. Feature supports Odyssey Traveller, an Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers. Part of a collection of articles on South Australia, Aboriginal Australia and Australia in general.

27 Jan 22 · 10 mins read

History of Yorke Peninsula

South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula region offers 700 kilometres of spectacular coastal scenery, pristine white beaches, and azure seas, contrasting starkly with the mallee landscape behind. One of South Australia’s most accessible seaside holiday escapes, the leg-shaped peninsula is located just an hour’s drive west from Adelaide, surrounded by Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent.

The traditional owners of Yorke Peninsula are the Narungga, a nomadic people who practiced fire-stick farming, and were admired by European settlers for their facility for fishing and aquaculture. Like the Eyre Peninsula, Yorke was first charted by Flinders and Baudin as they navigated the South Australian coast.

The peninsula is well known for its historic copper mining, its northern end known as the Copper Coast, as well as its fertile soil, producing high yields of grain crops such as barley and wheat. Other key resources from the region are salt, limestone, and gypsum, while the fishing and tourism industries also play a significant part in the economy. The region’s most populous town is Kadina.

This article explores the history and economic development of Yorke Peninsula as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 15-day Tour of the Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas. This tour is designed for mature and senior travellers, travelling as a couple or single traveller, to discover the hidden gems of South Australia.

Moonta Bay pier view at sunset, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

Narungga Aboriginal People

The traditional owners of Yorke Peninsula are the people of the Narungga nation, made up of four clans: the Kurnara in the north of the peninsula, Windera in the east, Wari in the west and Dilpa in the south. For thousands of years before European settlement, the nation occupied country extending from Port Broughton in the north to the Hummock Ranges in the east. Their neighbours were the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and the Nukunu people to the north, with whom the Narungga often met for trade and ceremony.

The Narungga led a peaceful existence, moving among their many campsites, places of abundant fresh water and food. These included camps at Moonta Bay, Tiddy Widdy beach, Point Pearce, Point Yorke and many more. Here, they lived off plants, such as roots, seeds, and a huge variety of fruit, while hunting kangaroos, emus, possums, bandicoots, lizards, wombats, bettongs, and other animals.

They were also skilful fishers, with butterfish, salmon, mullet, and snapper making up a large part of their diet. Shellfish were also an important part, with people collecting periwinkles and warreners from the reefs at low tide or diving into deeper water for abalone. Crabs and crayfish were also occasionally collected.

The Narungga actively managed and preserved their lands. Fires were used to clear old grasses and promote fresh growth of vegetation. Fresh waterholes were covered with large stones or branches to keep water clean. And walking paths were maintained through the thick mallee forest as a means to link places and people throughout the peninsula.

Traditional Aboriginal fire management, often called ‘cultural burning’, is the practice of regularly using fire to burn vegetation and manage the environment

The Dreaming was central to the Narungga people’s spirituality and way of life. Stories of the dreamtime are found across the peninsula, with particular locations relating to exploits of various creator beings. Budera, Ngarna the powerful club thrower, Curlew the Owl, Bulgawan the wicked old woman and Madjitju the bat man are some examples of Narungga ancestral beings from the dreamtime.

Ceremonies were also important. These were held for various reasons such as to settle disagreements, for initiation, marriage, trade, or to share stories and experiences. Large reoccurring meetings would be held at various places such as Bubladowie Waterhole (Pupuldawi) and Weavers Lagoon.

Following European settlement, in 1867 the Narungga population were moved to a Protestant mission established at Point Pearce. A small Aboriginal community is still located here today.

European Settlement

Yorke Peninsular and its neighbouring waters – Spencer and St Vincent Gulfs – were discovered by Europeans in 1802. They were the last major features of the Australian coastline to be discovered, done so by Captain Matthew Flinders.

Flinders first reached the south-eastern tip of Eyre Peninsular in March 1802, before turning northwards and exploring the western side of Spencer Gulf. He then returned down the western side of Yorke Peninsular, charting Investigator Strait and sailing northwards along the eastern shores of St Vincint Gulf. Finally, he returned down the western side of the Gulf to complete the exploration of the Peninsula at Troubridge Point.

Flinders gave a favourable report of the peninsular, with hills covered in grass and several clumps of trees scattered over them giving the land a pleasing appearance. He named the peninsula after Charles Phillip Yorke (later Lord Hardwicke), one of the first Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who honoured Flinders’ voyage with their patronage.

By 1846, pastoral development had begun on Yorke Peninsula, following the occupation of good grazing lands of the Northern Areas. Charles Parrington selected the first Peninsula run for Alfred Weaver who was granted an Occupation Licence for 60 sq miles ‘at the Oyster Fishery’ (Stansbury).

The first pastoral leases followed in 1851. This was a better deal for squatters, with terms of 14 years (enough to give them security) and rent set at just 10 shillings a square mile. Pastoral leases in the north and south included ‘Moorowie’, ‘Ynoo’, ‘Pareora’, ‘Yarraroo’, ‘Werocatta’ and ‘Hummocks and Barunga’ sheep stations.

Yorke Peninsula farmland

Mining History

Historically, copper has played a vital role in Yorke Peninsula’s development, with discoveries in the late 1850s and early 1860s populating the area. The first major copper discovery in the region was in December 1859, discovered by Shepard James Boor on the pastoral lease of Walter Watson Hughes and John Duncan. Hughes secured mining leases over the discovery, which was named the Wallaroo Mine, and in conjunction with Elder, Stirling and Co. (later Elder, Smith and Co.) formed the Wallaroo Mining and Smelting Company.

Fifteen months later, a second large copper find was made at Moonta by the Shepard Patrick Ryan. The discovery was made in a patch of dense scrub, in earth burrowed out of a wombat hole, again on a property of Walter Watson Hughes. Hearing of the discovery, Hughes surveyed the site and was able to secure mining leases over the area, forming the Tipara Mining Association (later renamed the Moonta Mining Company). Operations began in late 1861,

The rich Moonta orebodies, or lodes, consisted of pegmatitic and quartzose veins filling fractures within a sequence of ancient volcanic rocks known as Moonta Porphyry. Five major lodes were discovered and worked within the mine area. The principal ore minerals in the Moonta lodes were chalcopyrite and bornite (copper sulphides) in a matrix of quartz, feldspar, and biotite. Concentrates averaged 20% copper.

In the first 20 months the Moonta Mining Company produced 8,000 tons of ore averaging nearly 25% copper and paid £64,000 in dividends. In 1976, it became the first Australian mining company to pay over £1 million in dividends.

Hughes Engine House, Moonta Mines, Yorke Peninsula, Australia

The Wallaroo Mining and Smelting Company was slower to make profits. Development costs ran up to £80,000 before the company began to pay its way. Nevertheless, by 1869, it had achieved an annual production of 26,000 tons of ore dressed. It then reached its peak between 1870 and 1875, with up to 1,000 men and boys employed.

The towns of Wallaroo (1861), Kadina (1861) and Moonta (1863) were established as a direct result of the copper mining. The three towns form a triangle, now commonly called the Copper Triangle on the Copper Coast. At the peak of mining, the Copper Coast was the most populous region in provincial South Australia. The mining district in total contained 30,000 at its peak in 1875, with Moonta’s population peaking at 12,000, making it the largest town in South Australia after only Adelaide.

In 1890, the Moonta and Wallaroo companies were amalgamated to become the largest industrial operation in South Australia. During the new company’s 33 years of existence, it employed an average of 1900 people, peaking at 2700 in 1906.

The mine enjoyed a boom period up to an including the First World War, with increased demands for copper. However, copper prices fell dramatically following the war, and the company struggled to reduce production costs, only continuing as a marginal operation. Several shortages of coal due to coal strikes in the eastern states worsened the matter, and closure soon became inevitable. In November 1923, the company went into voluntary liquidation after more than 60 years of the mines.

In total, about 3.5 million tons ore were produced from the mines, averaging 9% copper. The Moonta lodes themselves produced about 2.75 million tons of 14% ore. The mines had produced a total output of fine copper worth over £20 million.

Sporadic copper mining and explorations have continued since, with notable recent discoveries of copper and gold at Willamulka and near Ardrossan. Historically, Gypsum was also mined at Inneston and Stenhouse Bay, while One Stell’s dolomite mine at Adrossan and limestone quarries at Wardang Island and Klein’s Point have also been significant.

Featuring Map the Miner, also known as Map Kernow or the Son of Cornwall as it greets visitors to historic Kapunda, South Australia.

Farming History

Farming is today the chief industry in Yorke Peninsula. However, it was originally slow to take off. Only in 1860, when the first successful crop of wheat grown, was a real interest in agriculture ignited. Then with the passing of the Strangways Act early in 1869, providing for the sale of farmlands only on credit in specified areas, agricultural development was given a major boost.

A little over 300 acres of crop was reaped in 1870, with good returns, averaging a little over ten bushels to the acre. That started a rush of farmers form the older wheat-sick districts of the Adelaide Plains, the Barossa Valley, and the southern districts to try their luck on Yorke Peninsula. The agricultural settlement was a success, with crop production growing to 180,000 acres by 1884, becoming a viable business.

The success lay in the fact that Yorke Peninsula farmers had by that time learnt to work the mallee lands. Charles Mullens had discovered that by knocking down and burning the growth of the mallee trees, it was possible to work the mallee lands. Scrub rollers were also improved by William Fowler, allowing a horse team to travel over already rolled scrub.

The use of the stump jump plough was also significant, invented and then manufactured by Richard Smith and his apprentice brother, Clarance, at Ashburton in Yorke Peninsula from 1876. These tools enabled land to be brought into cultivation despite the presence of stumps and rocks, circumventing the laborious and backbreaking task of clearing mallee stumps from farmland.

South Australian wheat field in Yorke Peninsula

Despite the initial success, however, draught and seasonal vagaries in the 1880s and ‘90s were problematic for the farmers. The general trend of yields was downwards during this time, with an occasional better harvest but never that which reached earlier levels. To make matters worse, wheat prices followed the same downward trend, reaching a low of about two shillings per bushel in the mid-1890s. At this point, yields were also at their lowest ebb.

A few farmers believed that loss of fertility was the main cause of poor yields. This led Professor Lowrie to experiment with superphosphate in fertility trials at Roseworthy College in 1890, with promising results. As such, Joe Parsons of Curramulka drilled seeds and phosphate together in the same hole in 1892, with other farmers soon following suit and experiencing successful results. By 1896 they were averaging 4.5 to 5 bushels to the acre, while the rest of the peninsula averaged only two. This was the turning point: only once in 1914 were the yields ever again below two bushels.

Agriculture was further boosted in 1901 with the introduction of Prior barley (a superior type of malting barley) at Edithburgh. This caught on in popularity, creating a movement which made Yorke Peninsula world famous as a producer of malting barley – still known today as the ‘Barley Capital of the world’. It also gave the district a fallow, wheat, and barley rotation, materially adding to the peninsula’s prosperity.

In present times, agriculture remains the stable industry of Yorke Peninsula. The general trend has been of increased production and higher yields, with only minor setbacks due to seasonal vagaries and market fluctuations. In recent years, there have also been moves to producing high quality grains and legumes. In addition, grapes are also grown at Maitland.

Other Industries

Other key industries in the economy of Yorke Peninsula include salt, fishing, and tourism.

The process of harvesting salt from the sea at Price and other sites has long provided employment and economic benefits. Salt production began at Lake Fowler in 1864, growing to an export industry of 30,000 tons by 1898. From here, it continued to increase, reaching a peak of about 57,000 tons in 1918, and the industry continued successfully till the Depression when the market declined.

Nevertheless, salt production continued at Edithburgh at about 10,000 tons a year, with most of it going to New Zealand. This was until the country commenced its own production around 1950. The Edithburgh factory finally closed down its operations in 1970. Since then, salt production by solar evaporation of sea water at Price has taken over as the peninsula’s main source. Output there averages more than 170,000 tons a year.

white salt mountains on blue background, with the pink lagoon in front of them due to the salt concentration

Fishing too is an important industry – the oldest industry in fact connected with Yorke Peninsula. Even before the first squatters arrived, Oyster Bay (now Stansbury) was established as the source of oysters for Adelaide tables. By the 1920s, Moonta Bay was to said to have the largest fishing industry in South Australia, with 370 people engaged there.

The coastal towns now all have sizeable fishing fleets, with major ports at Port Broughton, Tickera, Wallaroo, Moonta Bay, Port Victoria, Pondalowie Bay, Marion Bay and Edithburgh. Most fish caught commercially on Yorke Peninsula go straight to the Adelaide market. In order of importance, they are whiting, salmon, blue crabs, garfish, schnapper, and snook.

The peninsula has also grown to be a popular tourist attraction. Since the end of World War II, the tourist trade has boomed with active caravan parks and camping grounds, motels, and shack sites at the most popular sandy beaches. A mild climate, scenic attractions, safe sandy beaches for young children, good fishing, swimming and surfing, good sporting facilities, and accommodation amongst friendly people, all make Yorke Peninsula a pleasant and popular resort.

Moonta Bay beach view at sunset, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

Tour of Yorke Peninsula

Join Odyssey Traveller on our 15-day Tour of Eyre & Yorke Peninsulas, and the Gawler Ranges. Beginning and ending in Adelaide, this tour of South Australia takes us on a roughly circular route to the west of the city. We first head north to Port Augusta, before exploring the Gawler Ranges, which protect the Eyre Peninsula from the arid heat of the desert to the north. This Australian tour then explores the Eyre Peninsula, a broad triangle shaped peninsula on the western side of the Spencer Gulf, protruding into the Southern Ocean. Finally, the last few days of our Australia tour explores South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, a boot-shaped peninsula surrounded by the Spencer Gulf to the west and the Gulf St Vincent to the east.

This, like all Odyssey Traveller small group tours, is limited to 15 people.

Odyssey Traveller’s Australian tours are small group outback tours for seniors, designed for mature travellers who want an in-depth and authentic experience of their chosen destination. Since 1983, we have specialised in bringing Australian travellers to the world: now, our goal is to let you again rediscover your own country. We don’t just go from tourist stop to tourist stop, but aim to get off the beaten path, bringing to life some of the less-explored regions on your chosen Outback Australia tour. We want you to see Australia through new eyes as you travel, learning about geology, Aboriginal culture, native wildlife and local history as you pass through the ‘Wild West’ landscapes of Southern Australia .

For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

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