South Australia, the driest state of the driest continent, is split into two distinct halves. The long-settled southern part, watered by the Murray River, with Adelaide as its cosmopolitan centre, has a Mediterranean climate, is tremendously fertile and has been thoroughly tamed. The northern half is arid and depopulated, and as you head further north the temperature heats up to such an extreme that by the time you get to Coober Pedy, people are living underground to escape the searing summer temperatures.

Some of the highlights of southeastern South Australia lie within three hours’ drive of Adelaide. Food and especially wine are among the area’s chief pleasures: this is prime grape-growing and winemaking country. As well as vineyards the Fleurieu Peninsula, just south of Adelaide, has a string of fine beaches, while nearby Kangaroo Island is a wonderful place to see Australian wildlife at its unfettered best. Facing Adelaide across the Investigator Strait, the Yorke Peninsula is primarily an agricultural area, preserving a copper-mining history and offering excellent fishing. The superb wineries of the Barossa Valley, originally settled by German immigrants in the nineteenth century, are only an hour from Adelaide on the Stuart Highway, the main road to Sydney. Following the southeast coast along the Princes Highway, you can head towards Melbourne via the extensive coastal Coorong lagoon system and enjoyable seaside towns such as Robe, before exiting the state at Mount Gambier, with its deep-blue crater lakes. The inland trawl via the Dukes Highway is faster but less interesting. Heading north from Adelaide, there are old copper-mining towns to explore at Kapunda and Burra, the area known as the mid-north, which also encompasses the Clare Valley, another wonderful wine centre, famous for its Rieslings.

In contrast with the gentle and cultured southeast, the remainder of South Australia – with the exception of the relatively refined Eyre Peninsula and its scenic west coast – is unremittingly harsh desert, a naked country of vast horizons, salt lakes, glazed gibber plains and ancient mountain ranges. Although it’s tempting to scud over the forbidding distances quickly, you’ll miss the essence of this introspective and subtle landscape by hurrying. For every predictable, monotonous highway there’s a dirt alternative, which may be physically draining but gets you closer to this precarious environment. The folded red rocks of the central Flinders Ranges and Coober Pedy’s postapocalyptic scenery are on most agendas and could be worked into a sizeable circuit. Making the most of the journey is what counts here though – the fabled routes to Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Innamincka are still real adventures.

Rail and road routes converge in Adelaide before the long cross-country hauls west to Perth via Port Augusta on the Indian Pacific train, or north to Alice Springs and Darwin on the Ghan – two of Australia’s great train journeys.

Brief history

The coast of South Australia was first explored by the Dutch in 1627. In 1792 the French explorer Bruni d’Entrecasteaux sailed along the Great Australian Bight before heading to southern Tasmania, and in 1802 the Englishman Matthew Flinders thoroughly charted the coast. The most important expedition, though – and the one that led to the foundation of a colony here – was Captain Charles Sturt’s 1830 navigation of the Murray River, from its source in New South Wales to its mouth in South Australia. In 1836, Governor John Hindmarsh landed at Holdfast Bay – now the Adelaide beachside suburb of Glenelg – with the first settlers, and the next year Colonel William Light planned the spacious, attractive city of Adelaide, with broad streets and plenty of parks and squares.

Early problems caused by the harsh, dry climate and financial incompetence (the colony went bankrupt in 1841) were eased by the discovery of substantial reserves of copper. The population of Adelaide boomed over the following decades, while the state’s tradition of civil and religious libertarianism that was guaranteed to the early settlers continued; in 1894, South Australia’s women were the first in the world to be permitted to stand for parliament and the third in the world to gain the vote (after the Isle of Man and New Zealand).The depressions and recessions of the interwar period hit South Australia hard, but the situation eased following World War II when new immigrants arrived, boosting industry and injecting fresh life into the state.

South Australia had an important, though controversial role during the early years of the Cold War. In 1947 an Anglo-Australian project founded the Woomera rocket range, site of British-run atomic bomb tests in 1950. The Woomera area later became part of the US space programme, and in 1947 launched Australia’s first satellite.

Aboriginal South Australia

When European settlers arrived in 1836, South Australia was home to as many as fifty distinct Aboriginal groups, with a population estimated at fifteen thousand. Three distinct cultural regions existed: the Western Desert, the Central Lakes, and the Murray and southeast region. It was the people of the comparatively well-watered southeast who felt the full impact of white settlement, and those who survived were shunted onto missions controlled by the government. Some Aboriginal people have clung tenaciously to their way of life in the Western Desert, where they have gained title to some of their land, but most now live south of Port Augusta, many in Adelaide.

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