When English explorer Matthew Flinders unexpectedly sighted Frenchman Nicolas Baudin’s vessel at sea near the South Australian coastline on the 8th April 1802, both men were probably a little wary. As far as they knew, Britain and France were still at war. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) were a series of sweeping military conflicts stemming from the French Revolution. They pitted France (under Napoleon) against Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, Russia and several other monarchies, eventually taking on a global dimension. What Flinders and Baudin were not aware of was that a month earlier the Treaty of Amiens had been signed effectively ending hostilities between their two countries.
Sailing to the bottom of the world must surely make wars seem inconsequential and so Flinders boarded Baudin’s ship and the two explorers met peacefully with Flinders sharing maps and other information with the Frenchman. The voyagers were charting the Australian coastline for their respective countries and both men were undoubtedly excited and curious to see and hear what the other may have discovered. Flinders named the area where they met Encounter Bay and both sailing ships continued their passage. What they didn’t discover was the mouth of the mighty Murray River. You have to wonder how two famed explorers managed to miss the Australian equivalent of the Nile. They were after all, supremely experienced and they had sailed a long way.
We’ve been led to believe that the state of the Murray River today is due to incompetent water management, and I’ve no doubt that in some areas of the Murray-Darling Basin that is true. Yet there is more to this story. Aboriginal legends tell how Ngurunderi walked across Tapawal (the mouth of the Murray) in the Dreamtime. Extensive research concluded that the Murray was also filled with sand when Flinders and Baudin met, excusing them from missing our greatest river. Nearly thirty years later Charles Sturt’s diaries noted the same situation. For Flinders and Baudin, as with most things in life, timing was everything.