How Flinders Chase National Park was established

Flinders Chase National Park & Cape du Couedic are steeped in history

Kangaroo Island was initially mapped by explorer Matthew Flinders in 1802, closely followed by French explorer Nicolas Baudin. They found Kangaroo Island—named for its large population of kangaroos—to be densely vegetated, with an abundance of fur seals and whales in its seas. Although Indigenous people inhabited the island before Flinders and Baudin arrived, they are believed to have left around 2,000-4,000 years before. Once the island was on the map, however, runaways from sealing and whaling ships soon moved in, followed by the first official settlers in 1836.

Early Days of Flinders Chase Pastoral Lease

The history of Flinders Chase National Park is fascinating! Before it became a park, the western end of the island was a pastoral lease, although the difficult terrain and lack of fertile cropping soil was problematic for the early settlers. The unique flora and fauna in the area was of interest to naturalists and botanists, however, but habitat destruction and hunting meant protection was needed to prevent extinction of vulnerable species.

In 1880, the Taylor brothers took up the Flinders Chase lease and built the original Rocky River Homestead. 13 years later local farmer Charlie May, his wife Annie and five children moved from Kingscote to the remote Rocky River area. They lived in the homestead and built a second stone house in 1905. Mays cottage and Postman’s cottage, two of the original cottages which are now State heritage-listed, remain today and are now available for holiday rental.

Winding Road (Cape Du Couedic Road)

The Iconic Cape du Couedic Road

The Cape du Couedic Road into Flinders Chase National Park is well known. Photos of it are frequently shared across social media, showing its undulating terrain, unique vegetation and spectacular vistas.

Before the road existed, it took days to travel through the dense vegetation, waterways and swampy terrain—often with bullock teams carrying vital supplies—to reach the remote Cape du Couedic.

The first mention of a road was in 1876, when a party of surveyors took five days to get from Kingscote to Cape Borda, a distance of 89 kilometres. A rough dirt track was marked along this route.

In 1898, Charlie May and his sons cut a track from the Rocky River Homestead to West Bay, then through to Cape Borda Lighthouse, allowing mail deliveries to the island’s western end.

Construction of Cape du Couedic Lighthouse

Cape du Couedic, a headland on the south-west tip of Kangaroo island, was named after French naval officer Charles Louis Chevalier du Couëdic de Kergoualer, by the Baudin expedition.

Cape du Couedic’s history is one of grim tales of shipwrecks and despair. Malaysian survivors aboard the Brig Emily Smith barely made it to shore, and a further 30 passengers perished in the Loch Sloy shipwreck.

In 1902, the South Australian Government erected two small galvanized iron marine survival huts at Cape du Couedic and West Bay, containing essential supplies of food, water and clothing for use in emergencies.

The loss of two ships off the cape convinced the Marine Board of South Australia to expedite the plan to build a lighthouse here. The Cape du Couedic Lighthouse was constructed from 1906-1909, the 15th on South Australia's coast.

The lighthouse tower was built from 2,000 pieces of local stone, and the builders made limestone kilns to burn lime for the concrete. All other building materials were shipped in. Three four-roomed cottages were also built of local stone for the head lighthouse-keeper and his two assistants.

Between 1906-1909, Charlie May supplied the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse staff with vegetables, fruit and meat. On 8 September 1909 he sold the property lease and moved to Cygnet River. The land was later sold to the Fauna and Flora Board.

Establishment of Flinders Chase National Park

A campaign by the Field Naturalists Section of the Flora and Fauna Protection Committee of the Royal Society of South Australia commenced in 1892 to protect kangaroos that were threatened by extinction. More rigorous campaigning followed to protect the unique Australian native flora species on the western end of the island.

A 1908 map drawn up by the naturalists shows the entire western end of Kangaroo Island as a proposed conservation reserve. Even then, this draft Flinders Chase National Park map indicates the value of the unique ecosystem at the island’s western end.

After 27 years, the campaigners were eventually successful. One of the oldest national parks in Australia, Flinders Chase National Park was named after Matthew Flinders, and was officially established as a protection area for Australian native flora and fauna in 1919.

Flinders Chase National Park and Cape du Couedic Today

After Flinders Chase National Park was established, the government purchased a large tract of land around Rocky River Station in 1923. They added it to the park and appointed a full-time park ranger. As it happened, they chose Charlie May, who returned to Flinders Chase after a 14-year absence to work for the Flora and Fauna Board.

In the following years, some endangered native animal species were brought from the mainland to the national park, where they flourished. These included Mallee fowl, Cape Barren geese, koalas, rat kangaroos, stump tail lizards and platypus.

Records kept by a local historian indicate that tourists first arrived in the park in 1936, probably by horse and cart. Later, there’s mention of tour buses bringing visitors to the park, operated by Linnett’s from American River and Dixon’s from Kingscote. Barbecue lunches were provided by the third park ranger, George Lonzar, and his wife Joyce. During George’s time as park ranger from 1950 until the early 1980s, visitor numbers increased from about 2,000 to 25,000 per year.

In 1996-97 the Cape du Couedic road was sealed. This marked the beginning of a major influx of visitors who came to appreciate the beauty and remoteness of this extraordinary national park.

Over the years the park has been impacted by bushfires, and the 2019-20 Flinders Chase National Park bushfire was the largest in the island’s recorded history. Fortunately the park is regenerating, and continues to thrive.

Inside Weirs Cove Ruin
Ruin at Weirs Cove

Discover historical landmarks in Flinders Chase National Park