History of Onkaparinga

For thousands of years, the Onkaparinga River slowly carved its way through the surrounding foothills, creating spectacular gorges and fertile wetlands. Around it, the land remained relatively unchanged, sparsely populated by the original inhabitants of the region—the Kaurna Aboriginal people. The name ‘Onkaparinga' comes from ‘Ngangkiparinga', an indigenous word meaning ‘The Women's River'.

All this changed with the coming of the first British explorers, surveyors and settlers during the mid-1830s. In December 1836, South Australia was proclaimed a colony and, by the end of 1838, its population had grown to over 5000. These early pioneers rapidly spread out from the original Adelaide settlement, purchasing and developing land across the region. Consequently, the City of Onkaparinga boasts a number of historic townships dating back to the earliest years of white settlement.

The first exploratory expedition in South Australia took place in 1837. It finished in an area the Aborigines referred to as ‘The place of green trees'. The township of Willunga was established on this site two years later. Shortly afterwards, high-quality slate was discovered there and a slate mining industry quickly sprang up. The legacy of this is still evident today in some of Willunga's roofs, footpaths, water tanks and bridges.

The McLaren Vale township was surveyed in 1839 and settled by farmers from Devonshire, England. Originally, McLaren Vale developed as two separate villages—Gloucester and Bellevue—which eventually merged. The original inhabitants were more interested in growing cereal crops than grapes. Such was their success, a number of flour mills were set up in the district; however, after a mass exodus of labour to the Victorian gold fields in 1850, other agricultural industries were trialled such as wine, dried fruit and almonds.

Agriculture was also the primary focus in the Noarlunga district, with considerable clearing of native vegetation occurring from 1840. The township of Old Noarlunga served as a business centre for the region from which produce could be transported down river to Port Noarlunga.

One of South Australia's worst maritime disasters occurred in 1888 when a cargo ship named ‘The Star of Greece' was driven ashore at Port Willunga during a severe storm. Few of the crew survived. Many are buried in the historic Aldinga cemetery. The remains of the ship's iron skeleton are still visible at low tide and prove a popular dive site. Storm damage also destroyed the port facilities at Port Willunga in 1915. Today, all that remains of this structure are a series of weather-beaten pylons sticking up from the sand like an ancient monument.

In time, Adelaide's suburbs gradually spread south along the coast, with residential housing taking the place of farmland. Considerable rural areas remain, however, with almonds and grapes being among the most successful crops grown. In recent years, a number of commercial olive plantations have also been established, being ideally suited both to the climate and our changing palates. On 1 July 1997, the City of Onkaparinga was formed out of the former Cities of Happy Valley and Noarlunga and part of the District Council of Willunga, creating the largest council in South Australia.