South Australia’s controversial Goyder Line, a rubbery boundary beyond which agriculture was deemed not viable, today provides a challenging journey across rugged, dry landscapes and through small, historic settlements.

Story By Ian Glover

In 1857 the Deputy Surveyor-General for South Australia George Woodroffe Goyder was sent north to check on some geographical discoveries made by Benjamin Babbage, the Government Assayer. Unseasonable rains and a correspondingly lush countryside led Goyder to contradict pessimistic assessments made by both Babbage and Edward John Eyre, creating a rush of leasehold applications in the new Promised Land.
Before long, other explorers and disappointed, desperate pioneers were sending back gloomy reports of aridity, barrenness and the futility of continuing, and in 1864, Goyder was sent back to reassess the prospects.
As a result of this trip in 1866 Goyder controversially redefined South Australia’s recommended limit of northern agricultural expansion. ‘Goyder’s Line of Rainfall’, as it was called, marked out the limit of reliable versus unreliable annual rainfall; a perimeter beyond which crops shouldn’t be grown, where the land should be left to pastoralists. It coincided with the southernmost limits of saltbush country, but did not meet with universal accord. Some who disagreed with him even went to the extent of renaming it ‘Goyder’s Line of Foolery’.
Tracing of the Goyder Line today is not easy. Firstly, roads do not always follow the Line, making it necessary to weave in and out, leaving and returning many times. Secondly, there’s still no universal agreement as to where the Line actually runs. People living in the region often say it runs five, 10, or 15 kilometres to the northwest. (Though there’s no evidence from stock and station agents to support the view, many people fear that being on the wrong side of the Line will lessen property values.) Thirdly, many people believe that the Line is steadily shifting to contract the area of arable land. Our route traces the Eastern Goyder Line, ignoring the Line from Ceduna across the Eyre Peninsula to Spencer Gulf.
Goyder Regional Council community-asset manager Mike Fretwell has spent years researching the location of the Line, and believes the shift to the west in the Burra area is in the magnitude of one kilometre every two years; a figure confirmed by South Australia’s Department of Sustainability. But on the other hand, climate change extremists insist the Line should be now just north of Clare, hundreds of kilometres south of the original demarcation.
It all begins in Moonta, now a tourist/fishing village on the Copper Coast, but in its 1870s mining heyday, the second largest town in South Australia, with a population of 12,000. Miners – mainly Cornish – proved the Aboriginal-derived name meaning ‘impenetrable scrub’ was misleading when it came to getting precious metal out of the ground. The original company claimed the honour of being the first Australian mining enterprise to pay shareholders over one million pounds in dividends.

This story excerpt is from Issue #55

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2007