It is not mighty nor majestic or grand, but to me, South Australia’s Onkaparinga River is home.
As dawn breaks slowly, I hear the gentle crash of waves behind the sandhills as the soft, pale peach light gradually illuminates the calm water of the river in front of me. Voices belonging to a Surf Lifesavers group break the quiet as they launch their surf boat and ready themselves for rowing practice. Their chatter increases as they become aware of a solitary fur seal floating in front of them. His flipper raised skyward almost in salute of their early morning commitment.
A lone surfer carrying his board hurries across the wooden boardwalk over the shallow river, the sound of waves drawing him toward the ocean on the other side. Flip, plap, flip, plap, his bare feet echo across the weathered timbers as his leg rope swings to and fro.
Place of the Women’s River
The Onkaparinga River is a narrow river emanating from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, traversing fifty five-miles to the Gulf of St Vincent at Port Noarlunga South.
The Kaurna Aboriginal people are the traditional landowners around this estuary for at least 40,000 years before Europeans’ arrival. When translated, the aboriginal word, ‘Onkaparinga’ means ‘place of the women’s river.’ Marine life was plentiful in the Onkaparinga estuary, where the Kaurna people would spend the summer months. They moved further inland as the weather cooled and their diet changed to edible flora and fauna.
With the arrival of the first Europeans in the early 1800s, the aboriginal people had to confront a new culture after not having any contact with the world beyond their own. The Australian Aboriginals remain one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating back 60,000 years in some areas of the country. Common sense prevailed after the English Surveyors chose to name the river ‘Field River’ but later reverted to the Kaurna name.
A Big Job for a Little River
While being the second major river within our state’s capital city of Adelaide, it is far from being a raging torrent. However, South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent, so we South Aussies welcome any body of water. With the construction of weirs and reservoirs upstream, this discreet little river provides 40 percent of the water supply to Adelaide’s 1.4 million residents.
Between the River and the Sea
I’m fortunate to live on the stretch of river less than half a mile from where the Onkaparinga meets the sea. This section is tidal, so we usually enjoy crystal clear saltwater. On the other side of the river lies sandhills and a short walk to the open ocean. We get the best of both worlds here.
A boardwalk across the river provides beach access and an avenue for anglers to try their luck in the estuary waters. The river’s relatively shallow, calm water makes it a popular area for kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, and swimming. Dogs love it, too, as they are allowed off the leash here with their owners choosing this location for their regular walks.
An Aquatic Paradise
Just across the river, the Southport Surf Lifesaving Clubhouse nestles within the dunes. Access is via the boardwalk. Southport Beach voted as the ‘eighth-best beach in Australia,’ is an excellent surfing beach for board riders and body surfers. Criteria used to judge the best beach included international suitability, beach safety, engagement with authentic Aussie locals, and how likely one would recommend the beach to a friend. Live music and inexpensive meals feature at the Club on Sunday afternoons during summer in this aquatic paradise.
Seal of Approval for the Lifesavers
The Lifesavers out for rowing practice in their fourteen-foot surf boat pass under me on the boardwalk. The crew is under the command of the ‘sweep’ who stands aft steering with a long sweep oar over the transom. Famous throughout Australia as a symbol of the surf lifesaving movement, the surf boat has evolved over the years to suit the coastal beaches. These guys are headed for the river’s mouth and then into the surf on the other side.
The fur seal has lost interest in the surf boat and is now depicting total relaxation; floating, rolling over, and wallowing in the incoming tide. Fur Seals are native to South Australia and are very inquisitive. They are known to travel widely and visit all areas of the South Australian coast, but this one seems to love our river as much as we do.
Exploring my Backyard
I continue my early morning walk and cross over the boardwalk, past the Surf Club, and onto the beach. Feathery, cotton candy pink clouds drift slowly across the gulf in a now brightening sky as fishers gaze expectantly at their lines cast into the sea.
It is a twenty-minute walk along the beach to the suburb of Port Noarlunga. Port Noarlunga is 20 miles south of Adelaide. A heritage-listed reef lies just off the end of the jetty. The reef provides a unique natural marine reserve, perfect for scuba divers. The village offers excellent food options with restaurants overlooking the sea, casual cafes for coffee and breakfast, a bakery, and exciting shopping.
Coffee is Calling
Seated at an outside table at a cafe, I soak up the early morning sun on my back as I order a cappuccino. The aroma of bacon cooking teases me, and I fight the temptation for more than coffee.
After my coffee fix, I return home via a path beside the river. A nearby adventure playground, a fort-like construction with mazes, towers, and high walls, enthralls children for hours. Black Swans coast serenely on the river, their long necks probing the river bed for weeds and algae to feed their vegetarian diet. Two Australian Pelicans soar above me, their eight feet wingspan holding them aloft with ease.
Cyclists call out “good morning” as they ride along the formed path they share with joggers and walkers. A group of six people joke and laugh as they paddle in the bright orange and yellow kayaks they’ve hired for the morning.
When you go
Sleep—Coast Motel and Apartments offer fifteen self-contained studio apartments, all with an ocean view, located adjacent to the Onkaparinga River’s mouth. Walk down the timber steps to the beach or watch the sunset over the ocean with a glass of local McLaren Vale wine. Search booking sites for many other nearby accommodation options.
Play—Kayaks and Stand-Up Paddleboards can be hired at Easy Kayaks, 22 Wearing Street, Port Noarlunga.
Jubilee Park Playground is the best playground South of Adelaide and provides fun for all ages.
Sip—The McLaren Vale wine region is just 8 miles away. It is Australia’s premier wine region with world-class wines and food on offer.
Eat—My favorite restaurant is Hortas with great sea views plus contemporary Australian and Portuguese inspired dishes. Check out Ampika’s Kitchen for Thai cuisine and the Keg & Barrel Steakhouse & Grill.
The Onkaparinga is not a worldly river. It is not mighty nor majestic or grand. But it brings pleasure, exercise, fresh air, a sense of community, and a way of life for me and many others. Where else would I rather be?
About Marie Kimber—Marie completed Great Escape Publishing’s Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop via live stream in 2019. Her first submitted article following that was not only published in a global online magazine, GoNOMAD, but was also named in their Top 10 Stories for 2019. She was also published in Travel Post Monthly early in 2020. In April 2020, she began co-authoring an inspirational book entitled Change is Not a Scary Word.