Regions/Regionalism, meaning extensive and distinctive areas and human attachments to them, these are words to conjure with in the South Australian experience. Notwithstanding Aboriginal attachment to some six linguistic areas pre-colonisation, Europeans initially conceived of one region (province). But clearly there were at least two, the accommodating south and a vast arid north, where ‘no roads go by’; and southern variations were equally obvious. In 1839 Robert Gouger gazetted four southern regions, picturesquely termed Eyria, Yorke’s [sic] Peninsula, Sturtia and Bonneia. Thus, several understandings have been sustained since the 1830s: of South Australia itself as a region (surprisingly durable due to states’ rights rhetoric); of a fierce duality, secured by surveyor George Goyder’s famous line (1866); and an evolving pattern of regions, based on history and geography.

Commonsense suggests that understandings change over time. By definition, most regions lack well-defined boundaries. Early regional development in South Australia reflected the spread of settlement beyond the Adelaide plain, the first modern region and always the most densely populated, over the Adelaide Hills towards the Murray Region, down the Fleurieu Peninsula to Kangaroo Island, and into the Mid North (including the Barossa Valley); also, through special surveys and spot settlements, in the majestic Flinders Ranges and Far North, along the remote ‘West Coast’ (Eyre Peninsula) and the fertile South East. Mineral discoveries provided another nineteenth-century dynamic, at the head of Yorke Peninsula (‘the Copper Triangle’), and Spencer Gulf (‘the Iron Triangle’).

Rainfall proved the limiting factor. Many failed ‘on the margins of the good earth’ (Meinig, 1988) with flow-on effects, notably the early twentieth-century movement of small farmers from the Far North to inner Eyre Peninsula. Other potential regions awaited technological and scientific developments; by the 1950s irrigation and trace elements had transformed the Murraylands. But formidable climatic challenges remained in the Far North, the despair of explorers, unredeemed by acquisition of the Northern Territory (1863–1911), and dubbed by geographer JW Gregory ‘The Dead Heart’ (1906). Now mostly under native title, with scattered mining and national defence establishments, tourism glosses the vastness, and Uluru has displaced Lake Eyre in the iconography.

Many have sought to focus the resultant kaleidoscopes. In addition to public servants and surveyors, boosters, chroniclers, historical geographers and a plethora of government agencies have all contributed. Geographers have been the most significant. From Archibald Grenfell Price’s South Australians and their Environment (1921) to the sesquicentennial Atlas of South Australia with its ten regional maps (Griffin and McCaskill, 1986) and the new mapping of ethnicity (Hugo, 1986), they emphasised first physical then sociological factors. Seemingly, no significant occasion – exhibitions, congresses, centenary celebrations – passed without the production of geographical works illustrating strong if variably defined regions, for example the innovative South Australia from the Air (Williams, 1969).

Charles Fenner was outstanding. His An Intermediate Geography of South Australia (1922, numerous editions) and the still valuable South Australia: A Geographical Study (1931) shaped the understandings of generations of South Australian school children. Consolidating several north–south lines of demarcation, Fenner identified eight ‘natural’ divisions. His physiographic approach no longer satisfies (e.g. Manuel, 1995), and successors have highlighted new urban regions (Peel, 1995). Somewhat belatedly, historians have added new, non-regionalised perspectives, notably John Hirst in Adelaide and the Country (1973).

The enumeration of regions has varied markedly. Price identified four, Fenner eight, Manuel nine. The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (1996) area classification offers eight, including one for off-shore and migratory persons. The South Australian Tourism Commission identifies eleven regions. Are regions in the eye of the beholder? Certainly by now regional definition depends on varying purposes and perspectives. Yet tallies will inevitably vary. Even the Great Victoria Desert is now appreciated (Mark Shephard, The Great Victoria Desert, 1995). Meanwhile, popular perceptions sustain the validity of regional categories; and as native title hearings will surely reveal, there is more to regionalism than a local patriotism.

The old regionalism was consolidated by imaginative writers. The literary history of South Australia is incomplete (Depasquale, 1978). However, works of Adam Lindsay Gordon (the South East), Catherine Helen Spence (Adelaide), Patrick Eiffe and Colin Thiele (the Mid North), Catherine Martin, Katie Langloh Parker (Catherine Stow) and Myrtle Rose White (the Far North) and the Jindyworobak poet Rex Ingamells (born Orroroo) represent a substantial inheritance, recently reinforced by the film-makers, as, for example, in Breaker Morant, Sunday Too Far Away and Gallipoli.

New, more nuanced approaches have been called for. The 1986 Sesquicentenary laid the foundations. Some contours may be discerned in the writings of the coming generation (for example, Fenwick, 2000).

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