We have some pretty weird place names in South Australia. Some are fun, some macabre, some interesting, and some make you giggle like a 10-year-old boy! Many are Aboriginal words and very few of us know the sometimes strange meanings.
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This was a really fun list for me to compile. Even as a born and bred South Australian, I had not realised how many of our place names originate from the local Aboriginal languages.
Many are corrupted forms of the words used in the local languages, and many could have come from more than one source, especially if the place name was home to different Aboriginal people.
Let’s take a look at some of them, and try to work out where these names come from and what they mean.
- Coffin Bay
Named by explorer Matthew Flinders after his friend Sir Isaac Coffin, a British naval officer – so it wasn’t a place to bury dead people after all!
- Lake Bumbunga
Derived from an Aboriginal word meaning “rainwater soak” or “waterhole.” It can be found near the town of Lochiel and is one of the best pink lakes in SA.
- Hummock Hill
Named after the distinctive hill formations found in the area. Today this hill in Whyalla is a popular lookout.
- Dismal Swamp
Reflects the area’s dense and swampy landscape, giving it a somewhat gloomy feel. Dismal Swamp can be found just north of Mount Gambier – but it doesn’t sound like an inviting place to go.
- Mount Remarkable
Named by Matthew Flinders for its prominent and remarkable appearance. I guess that’s fair – it is quite distinctive when driving towards Melrose.
- Iron Knob
Named due to the iron-rich hills resembling large knobs or hillocks. I can hear all the smutty jokes from here!
Thought to be named after a local Aboriginal man called King Poojeri. Or maybe Poochera Hill was named after him and the town was named after the hill.
Named after a town in Cornwall, England, by early settlers. Or it’s an Aboriginal word meaning “unknown” – which seems appropriate since no one seems to know which it is.
- Streaky Bay
Named by explorer Matthew Flinders for the streaks of foam created by strong winds blowing across the bay’s shallow waters. Kinda like streaky bay-con!
- Wirrabara (Pronounced Wir-ab-ra)
This comes from the corruption of some Kaurna and Nukunu words, loosely meaning gum trees and running water, or perhaps gum trees and honey water.
- Hallelujah Hills
Formally named in 2000 after the Hallelujah Hills pastoral property that took up much of the site. How that got its name who knows? Perhaps it inspired exclamations of “Hallelujah. It’s now primarily a conservation park.
- Middleback Range
Locally called Middleback for generations because it is halfway between the Spencer Gulf and Lake Gairdner. It was officially named in 2013. Now wouldn’t Piggyback Range have been much more fun?
- Quorn (Pronounced “Kworn”)
Quorn was an early railway town named after Quorndon in Leicestershire, England. Apparently, a secretary to the Governor at the time saw a likeness between the two areas. Clearly, he had an issue with his eyesight!
- Pygery (Pronounced Pie-gery)
The town’s name is said to be derived from the Aboriginal word “paitjariti” meaning “fighting place”. So it has nothing to do with either pies or pigs!
I think this is just a made-up word, with proof because one early settler said it was an Aboriginal word that meant “water everywhere” and a Professor of the same era said it means “place where the hail fell”. I think it was the result of a drunken night trying to come up with the hardest word to repeat after a few beers.
- Stinky Creek
I can’t find an exact answer here, but I’d be fairly confident thinking perhaps this creek didn’t smell so good.
- Pichi Richi
Comes from the Aboriginal word pitjiritji which refers to a native narcotic used to stun emus and is chewed by many tribes
- Tiddy Widdy Beach
Named for the nearby Tiddy Widdy Well where the Kaurna and Narangga people met. It is said to mean “bartering place”
- Happy Valley
Was named by one of the first settlers to South Australia who made this his home. Nothing weird, it’s just a nice name.
- Secret Rocks
Named for the intriguing rock formations that were seemingly hidden away, waiting to be discovered. Spoiler: they’re not a secret!
- Venus Bay
Named after the HMS Venus, a ship that explored the Australian coastline in the 1800s
- Beetaloo Valley
Yet another Aboriginal word, this one is the name of the creek in the area.
I don’t know how this name came about because there aren’t a lot of hills in the area, and they are not particularly red!
- Marble Range
Marble Range was named for all the marble that was found in the area – except it was later discovered that it isn’t marble, but quartz. Whoops!
Comes from Cockaleekie, a Scottish soup of cock boiled with leeks!
An Aboriginal word for “pine trees” – although I would not have connected the settlement of Pimba with pine trees!
- Unyungganha Hill
I hate to think what inspired this name – it means “rotting dead person hill”
Another corrupted Aboriginal word. It comes from maitpulanggu, which means lookout place upon a cliff
- Noahs Ark
This is a hill in the northern Flinders Ranges. Did they find a large wooden boat at the top?
Named after the native plant Pelargonium australe, sometimes known as the wild geranium.
Named after a prominent English military man Sir John Clayton Cowell, not the bovine creatures.
- Darke Peak
This hill is named for John Charles Darke, a surveyor for the South Australian government. He is buried at the foot of it after being killed by local Aboriginals. Dark indeed!
- Smoky Bay
Named by Matthew Flinders because ‘there was so dense a haze that the true horizon could not be distinguished from several false ones and we had six or seven different latitudes from as many observations.’
Derived from the Aboriginal ngarang-wari – which basically means cold cave. I believe it!
No white lions here, it’s actually a corruption of the Aboriginal kimbar, meaning bark house.
- Booleroo Centre
Booleroo comes from another Aboriginal word, but there seems to be some disagreement as to exactly what it means. Maybe it means “plenty”, or perhaps “soft mud and clay” or even “a camping area”. Who knows
It’s not known what this means, but it is the Aboriginal name for a local waterhole
I would not expect there to be snow here, and that is because this was named after Thomas Snow, a secretary to the Governor of the time.
Taken from an Aboriginal word that means an area of adjoining people, where a different language was spoken. It is also said to imply a place of strife, or enemies country.
- Manna Hill
This one is said to be biblical, with “manna” being food supplied to the Israelites. It’s said that the original station here was renowned amongst the shearers as having “really good tucker”.
Apparently, this Aboriginal word means “a strayer”. Did they hear “Australia” said with a really strong Aussie accent? I’m not sure
- Beer Town
I have no idea where this comes from and it doesn’t exist anymore (it’s part of Brighton) but what a name!
- Backstairs Passage
Named by Matthew Flinders for being a private entrance to both the Spencer and St Vincents Gulf!
Derives from the Aboriginal word ku-bawi, meaning ‘ghost water’.
Half of the readers just cringed at the thought of this name, but no, there wasn’t a bad accident, it was named after Sir John Cockburn, a Premier of South Australia.
The Aboriginal name for this area was wadla-waru, meaning wallaby urine. This was too long for stencilling on wool bales by farmers, so it got shortened to Wallaroo.
- Wudinna (Pronounced Wood-na)
Comes from the name given to it by the local Barngarla people – although they tend to call it Woodina
This could come from one of four different Aboriginal words that mean either “frog”, “wild dog”, “a foreign ship” or “muddy waterhole”.
This was the Aboriginal name for the area, said to mean “dwellers in the open forest”.
Comes from the Aboriginal word kauwira which refers to large grubs found in the area. Appealing!
- Coober Pedy
I was told by a local that it means “white man’s hole”. Google tells me it means “white man in a hole”. Either way, it’s right.
- Port Victoria
I was thinking this was named after Queen Victoria, but it wasn’t, at least not directly. It was named after the schooner “Victoria” which the first surveyors of the area were sailing in.
This could come from the Aboriginal word tantangola, which is the name of a nearby camp and a dwarf from local myths.
Honestly, who decides on these names? This one comes from the Aboriginal word konangalpun, meaning place of mice excreta!
It is suggested that this comes from nakkare, a game forbidden to boys and young men during the ceremonies for introduction to manhood
There are two possible meanings for Yunta – in one nearby dialect, it is the word for a bullroarer, a type of weapon. In another dialect, it means the female genital organs
- Outer Harbor
This one may seem fairly self-explanatory, but the strange thing here is the spelling of Harbor. Originally it did contain the “u” that is to be expected in Australian English, but in 1913 it was changed, along with Victor Harbor, and the “u” was removed. There is conjecture as to exactly why this happened, but it is believed to be some sort of recognition of the Old English way of spelling, not the US way.
The Aboriginal word for Magpie water.
This sounds like there could be a good story, but no, just named after the local landowner.
This word means “the yellow blossom of the mulga”.
- Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill
Officially the longest place name in Australia, this hill is located in the APY lands and the name means “where the devil urinates”!
- Foul Bay
Apparently, this bay was named by Matthew Flinders when he couldn’t find a place to set anchor. It put him in a foul mood, and he decided to curse it forever with this horrible name.
- Kingston SE
Yes, its full name includes that SE on the end. This is to differentiate it from the other place in South Australia called Kingston. That one became Kingston-on-Murray. To make it fair, both changed their official names.
This may come from Aboriginal words meaning “stone” or “surface water”, but I prefer the theory that is comes from the word kuttakutta which means “little night hawks”.
- Eagle on the Hill
From 1853 when the local publican of the Anderson Hotel kept a live eagle perched on a pole where he had a view over the surrounding area. The colloquial “Eagle on the Hill” stuck.
Haha – maybe someone had a lisp when this was named! Actually, it’s the local Aboriginal word for grass.
Not a type of weapon, this Aboriginal word means ‘plenty’.
- Kuitpo (pronounced Ky-poh)
Another Aboriginal word, kaijepo which means grass place.
I’m not exactly sure what this name means, but this is a swamp where local Aboriginal stories claim it to be the home of two monsters that lure children into the water and eat them! It’s near Murray Bridge if you want to avoid the area.
From the Aboriginal word tjowila, which means a ‘place of spirits or ghosts’ and suggests that the spot was a burial place.
How many place names do you know that only have two letters in the name?
- Square Mile
I couldn’t find much information on this one – I wonder if it was only a square mile?
Another corrupted Aboriginal word. It should have been marlu, meaning kangaroo in the local dialect.
The Aboriginal word for “giving”.
This Aboriginal word means centre of the eye, and the name is because of a nearby hill with a rock hole on top of it.
This means bubbling or boiling water. Strange for a place in the middle of dry Eyre Peninsula.
- Kangaroo Island
This is a fairly obvious one – Matthew Flinders named it Kangaroo Island in thanks for the abundant feast they had when they first landed there. I like the Aboriginal name though – Karta means “useless place”.
This comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “yellow pipe clay water”. What were they up to?
- Punchs Rest
This was the name of Samuel Parry’s favourite horse. Whether the settlement or the horse came first is not recorded.
Was named after Bute Island in Scotland, but the name probably originally came from either an Old Irish word bot meaning ‘beacon fire’ or the Swedish word bod meaning ‘hut’.
- Ki Ki
Named after a nearby hill the Aboriginal people call Kai Kai, a sacred ceremonial place of the Ngarkat people.
Named after one of the early settlers, Sir John Colton
- Nowhere Else
An inspector was looking for a newly built hut and stated to his companions “If it’s not over this hill, it’s nowhere else”. The name stuck and the area became Nowhere Else.
A corruption of the Aboriginal word poomong, the name for the local tea tree in the area.
This was traditionally Border Town, only changing to a single word in 1979. Ironically, it’s not on the border as you would expect, it’s more than 20km away.
- Mount Damper
Local legend has it that the early exploration team of the area led by JC Darke sat at the foot of this small hill and cooked damper. Truth or legend? It doesn’t matter now, then name has stuck.
This most Australian of town names was given by the Governor at the time who liked to name towns after family or friends – but it’s not known exactly who he named this one after.
Is said to be a corruption of the word koorungal meaning “laughing jackass”!
A corruption of the Aboriginal word kuman, meaning sheep washing place.
Not an Aboriginal word! This one was named by Governor Jervois after his daughter, Lucy Caroline.
Thought to be named after the city of the same name in California, which comes from a Native American word meaning “crown of the valley”
You might think there is nothing here, but this is the Aboriginal word for camp
Named after Boyle Travers Finniss who came to South Australia as Assistant Surveyor to Colonel William Light.
This Aboriginal word means water soaks. If you have been to Nunjikompita (I have!) water is not something that comes to mind.
This means “place of thunder”, not because of thunder overhead, but because there are lots of caves, which echo due to the evil spirits who live down there.
This means the “place for swans”.
This was a descriptive word given to places where there were large clumps of native pines growing in sandy soils. It just happened to stick in this area and a settlement grew up using it too.
- Cadbury Spring
Unfortunately, there is not a river of chocolate here, but rather a local family were the Cadbury’s
- Deadhorse Creek
Named by the first settler to build a house near the creek, because yes, there was a dead horse on the banks. I think I would have chosen another spot!
Named after the nearby pastoral company who in turn took its name from an Aboriginal hut on the property. No one seems to know what the word means, but it sounds pretty cool.
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