Kangaroo Island was never on the top of our list of places we must visit, but when we were able to accompany good friends on their four day excursion we jumped at the chance and were glad we did. It followed on from our Murray River cruise and, of course, was only a short hop from Adelaide where that trip finished. I had some expectations of what we would find on the island in terms of scenery, wildlife and probably its isolation but were surprised at how it would be so historically significant.
Our home for the visit was at Penneshaw with a wonderful view across the 13.5 km Backstairs Passage to where the ferry departed at Cape Jervis near the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Day trips in our hired SUV took us to many of the most scenic and interesting spots on the island. We drove as far as Flinders Chase at the south western extremity to see the impressive Admiral’s Arch where we enjoyed the sight of a dozen young seals playing in the sheltered little cove below. On a nearby headland were the Remarkable Rocks which we imagined could have easily been the inspiration for modern sculptors.
The wildlife park was surprisingly well presented with a large variety of animals and birds and we were fortunate enough to be there when a delivery of more than a dozen wallabies arrived from a closing Hunter Valley park. After a quick overnight dash to minimise their distress, each animal was released from its hessian sack that, we were told, produced a pouch-like calming environment during their trip, before they bounded free into its new large grassy enclosure. Among the other highlights was a local gin distillery and tasting of honey ice cream produced with the nectar of the Italian Ligurian bees, now only found on our island and of course some souvenir shopping when we visited the island’s largest town of Kingscote.
Our accommodation at the small township of Penneshaw provided us with a tranquil setting only disrupted by the arrival of tourist buses on overnight tours. With several restaurants and a very friendly pub, all our simple needs for a quiet few days of unwinding were nicely met. It was helped by the fact that September is still “out of season” and the water temperatures of the Great Australian Bight (and Southern Ocean) did not encourage swimming.
We enjoyed strolling around Penneshaw and along the Hog Bay beach to the Frenchman’s Rock and the monument that commemorates the bi-centenary of Nicholas Baudin’s visit. This was the start of an understanding of the historic part the French had played in this part of the world. In our travels we came across a myriad of French place names, starting with the Fleurieu Peninsula on the mainland to points on the island including Cape Bouda, Cap du Couedic, Baudin Beach and Vivonne Bay to name a few.
After a relaxing four days on our ferry back to Cape Jervis we met two ladies (one with a place on the island), whom we assumed were academics, and who in our discussions advised us to read “Encountering Terra Australis” (The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders) by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath, John West-Sooby, as a way of learning more about the history of the region and the significance of Kangaroo Island.
I took up the challenge almost immediately on my return home and was very pleased to learn more about these two remarkable men and the part they played in our history. The book looks at the available historic documents, ship logs and reports to the respective Governments to give us a picture of their respective expeditions with the trials and tribulations, their discoveries and achievements and how history recorded them, often inappropriately.
The two men were different personalities but also had much in common. Their expeditions were very similar being primarily scientific with the French in particular including a large contingent of naturalists. They also had a goal to improve the map of this southern land and learn more about its people.
The expeditions took place during Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign, and despite the period of the Peace of Amiens (1801-3), England and France were really still at war so there were definite political and national undertones. Each had to obtain a passport from the opposing country to ensure the safe passage of their expedition.
Nicholas Baudin sailed from France in October 1800 in his ship the Geographe and accompanied by the Naturaliste. It was not a happy company because of the contrary behaviour of some of the many scientists, putting a lot of additional strain on Baudin. Following episodes that delayed the voyage Baudin reached the French island of Mauritius in March 1801 and eventually sighted Terra Australis on 27 May 1801.
Matthew Flinders left nine months later in July 1801 in the Investigator and had a smoother and more uneventful passage, especially across the Indian Ocean and reached Cape Leeuwin on 7 December 1801.
Baudin first proceeded to explore the coastline of Van Diemen’s Land, while Flinders set about mapping of the southern coast of the Australian continent. In April 1802, the two expeditions and their leaders had a very respectful meeting at Encounter Bay near present day Victor Harbour on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Flinders, who reached and named Kangaroo Island on his way eastward, advised Baudin of its safe anchorage and the possibility of replenishing supplies of meat from the numerous kangaroos he saw. Baudin was to become the first to circumnavigate and chart Kangaroo Island, whereas Flinders was later to be the first to circumnavigate the whole of Australia, and verify that New Holland and New South Wales were one continent and not two as was widely believed.
Flinders then sailed for Port Jackson arriving in May 1802 and noticed the remarkable advancements that had occurred since his first visit in 1795. After leaving Kangaroo Island Baudin called into Port Jackson in order to reprovision and carry out repairs to his ships. He spent some months there and developed a friendship with Governor King.
Finally after visiting King Island, northern Australia and Timor, Baudin set sail for home. He arrived in Mauritius on 12 August 1803 in a poor state of health and within weeks he was dead. The unhappy nature of those on his ships resulting in him not getting the credit the deserved from the successes on the expedition and his place in history has, probably until recently, been undervalued.
Flinders’ circumnavigation of the continent was completed in what was by then a “leaky, barely seaworthy vessel.” He finally left Port Jackson in September 1803 and reached Mauritius on his way back to England. Unfortunately the Amiens Peace had expired and because of technicalities over his passport together with his own obstinacy he was detained by the island’s governor for six and a half years. By the time he reached home his discoveries and successes were old news.
As indicated in the book, there was a lack of justified recognition of both explorers’ accomplishments by their respective homelands. History however has been somewhat kinder to Flinders in that the emerging nation of Australia and its people have celebrated and honoured his achievements.
Their contributions were similar and complementary in terms of the advancement of the world’s knowledge of our great southern land.