Rapid Bay, the little town with a big history
“At thirty minutes p.m. [we] came to an anchor in ten fathoms, a beautiful little valley in view. At two, I went on shore, and was enchanted with the appearance of the whole. A fine stream of fresh water ran through the middle of the valley into the sea, and the soil was rich beyond expectation; my hopes were now raised to a pitch I cannot describe.”
Having penned this glowing review in his journal, Surveyor-General of South Australia, Colonel William Light, established a temporary settlement on mainland SA (Kangaroo Island had already been settled by sealers). It was September, 1836, and the place was Rapid Bay, named after his ship, the ‘Rapid’.
Light had been tasked with finding a suitable location for the capital of the new colony and he was so enamoured with Rapid Bay that it briefly made the shortlist.
Of course history tells us that he eventually parked at Holdfast Bay and, after an unpleasant battle with Governor Hindmarsh and his supporters, who were angling for the capital to be nearer a sea port (like Port Adelaide), the city of Adelaide was founded.
Rapid Bay continued as a rallying point for ships heading into Gulf St. Vincent, and it was also the birthplace of the first European child born on mainland SA. John Rapid Hoare was delivered on the 7th November, 1836.
Following the relocation of the whole colonial shebang to Glenelg, there was little continuing development at Rapid Bay, until BHP opened a limestone quarry and constructed a substantial loading jetty in the early 1940s. The company also established a small township for workers.
BHP sold the mining lease to Adelaide Brighton Cement in 1981 who continued to use the jetty until 1991, when road transport replaced shipping.
The jetty fell into disrepair and safety concerns saw it closed in 2004.
As it was a popular fishing spot this decision proved disappointing for locals and regular visitors. It’s also considered to be one of the country’s best dive sites.
In response the government built a shorter jetty that includes steps to a platform where divers can prepare to swim across to the original structure where the real action is.
The T-section at the end of the old jetty is a hangout for huge schools of fish and the alien-esque leafy seadragon. The pylons are encrusted with colourful sponges and soft corals.
The township has only a handful of residents, but during the summer school holidays and on long weekends the population swells as those-in-the-know head for the local campground, which is dramatically situated at the base of mighty coastal bluffs.
The gritty and pebbly beach owes much of its composition to the quarry tailings that spill onto the shoreline just south of the jetties. The extent of these tailings is not really evident unless seen from the air, or from further out to sea. A quick look on Google Maps will reveal all.
Rapid Bay has played a major role in South Australia’s history and, if it weren’t for the charms of Adelaide’s fertile plains, it may well have become our capital...though perhaps, like Port Lincoln and Encounter Bay, it was never seriously in the running.
But William Light’s first impressions of this ‘beautiful little valley’ still hold true. If it were located on the eastern seaboard rather than tucked away on the far south coast of Fleurieu Peninsula, there’s little doubt that Rapid Bay would be a major tourist destination.
Nuts and Bolts
- There are no shops at Rapid Bay; the nearest supplies are at the Delamere general store, 6km away.
- Rapid Bay campground operates on a first in first served basis. There are no bookings. The campground manager drops by to collect fees.
- Public facilities at the campground include toilets, a shelter with tables, barbecues and a playground.
- A monument near the entrance to the campground includes a replica of the rock inscribed with William Light's initials.
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