On the Fringe of Adelaide

In her role as Logistics Manager in the Australian Air Force, earlier this year Tina was sent to Adelaide to do her bit to help coordinate Covid relief. It was her third time away from us for an extended period in the last year, and the first time they’d sent her to South Australia. In much the same way we’d done in Melbourne last year, me and the boys used her absence as an excuse to hop in a plane and fly somewhere new.

Kalymnos Pastries
Capuccino and bougatsa, Kalymnos Pastries

Not that I’m counting, but SA would make it 5 of 6 in terms of Australian states I’d visited, leaving just Tasmania. Is Tasmania really a state though? I mean, if the tide goes back out again, it’d revert to being part of Victoria, the way they used to think of it before Flinders and Bass proved it was an island. So, if you don’t count Tasmania, then this trip would make it a full house for me, stateswise. Again, not that I’m just totting up numbers for their own sake or anything. And in case you’re wondering about the two remaining jigsaw pieces, ACT (Canberra, basically), and Northern Territory: well, we visited Parliament House and the Australian War memorial in Canberra on our big road trip to the Snowy Mountains two years ago, and likewise, even longer ago, spent several enjoyable hours sampling the local culture in the departures area of Darwin International Airport in transit to Bali. Full house! Again, not counting or anything.

Lucia's Pizza & Spaghetti Bar
At Lucia’s

On the map, the Torrens River looks more imposing as it cuts through Adelaide’s western inner suburbs than it actually is. Of two candidate Airbnbs I’d chosen one right on the Karrawirra Parri, as the river is also known, confusing the riparian greenery on either side of it as seen from a satellite with the actual river itself. I mean it was still good to be right on the river, the very same one that flows to the city, separating the main business centre from its botanical gardens, zoo, cricket oval, and tourist goodies we were there to see.

Between us on our first morning and the goal – Adelaide city – was a Greek pastry shop. You can take the woman out of Greece, you can even take Greece out of the woman, but you can’t … take bougatsa out of Greece’s … no, out of breakfast… umm … Here listen: we went to a Greek place called Kalymnos Pastries and had the same type of excellent fare, bougatsa, we used to have in Freddo’s at the Lithakia crossroads in Zakynthos.

The German Cake Shop
Fancy Bavarian pasties on a Sunday morning in Hanhdorf

With only two-and-a-half days to spend here, me and the boys had come strictly as tourists. Tina had already been in Adelaide a good two weeks and would have another three or so weeks after us. Tourism for us often starts with a city’s museum: how can you get the measure of a place if you don’t know what happened there?

The South Australian Museum has one of the most valuable known specimens of opal in the world – the Fire of Australia – which was downright hallucinogenic to behold. It also has Martian meteorites, really old fossils from the Ediacaran Hills (the Ediacaran Period is the first geological period named after anywhere in the southern hemisphere!), and Nathan the stuffed lion, who reminded me of Jaron Lanier. It has a lot of memorabilia of explorer (and onetime Chair of the Board of Governors of the museum) Douglas Mawson, although, as a dog-having family we were somewhat disappointed to find out he and his team ate their pets when the going got tough, and we moved swiftly on to the giant squid exhibit, or as Mawson would probably have called it, “large kalamari.”

“Make sure you go to the Central Market”, a colleague had told me. Since Adelaide’s grid system (called “Light’s vision”) is as regular as something you’d make in Sim City, in order to get to Central Market we just caught a tram to Victoria Square, slap bang in the middle of the grid, and from there just followed our noses. At Lucia’s Pizza & Spaghetti Bar we crowded around a tiny table whose instability was ill-suited to beer-drinking and ate spaghetti bolognese just like Mama has been making since ’57. Mama Lucia’s uomo was sent to SA as a prisoner of war and liked it so much that he came back after the war, much about the same time as Tina’s parents emigrated here too.

Navigating the (virtual) Murray river
Alexander navigating the Murray

Haigh’s “We Start with the Bean” Chocolates‘ flagship store is on the corner – Beehive Corner – at the top of Rundle Mall. It’s a real honey trap for visitors to Adelaide, so we made a beeline for it after lunch to check out their curated collections of frogs and truffles. After the bean, the grape. We had a “flight” (I refuse not to use quote marks with that word) of wine varietals at a building, Treasury 1860, whose historical credentials were reinforced by the names of the streets on whose intersection it lay – King William and Flinders, at a spoken word event called “How to Drink Wine like a Wanker”. Yes, without particularly meaning to we’d come to Adelaide during the Fringe.

Unfortunately for us, what that meant was that later on, when a certain, regrettable crankiness had set in amongst our party (ok, just me), what with all the walking around and the hunger of the hour, Rundle St, which was where all the epicurean action was, was jammers. Especially down near the Garden of Unearthly Delights and Gluttony, parks with enticing names but long, long queues. The only gluttony in evidence, as far as I could see, was that for punishment.

Over the course of many trips, I have found, but funnily enough never seem quite to have learnt, that this one aspect of family travel – rapidly and efficiently compromising, at the most exhausting and critical time of the day, on a place to eat in – is the hardest to pull off. Especially with kids. So you need a plan B. We didn’t have a plan B. We’d just never imagined it being so bloody busy. It was as if this was our first trip together. In the end we just gave up walking back and forth trying to get into any parks or fancy outdoor restaurants and – oh, how it pains one to write it! – had burritos in a Guzman y Gomez, far from the action, and whose staff probably didn’t know the Fringe from the fridge.

One of the things I insisted we see when we’d planned this South Australian jaunt was one of the icons of Australia: the mighty Murray river, the country’s longest. All that Barossa Valley winery tours stuff you’re supposed to do – well, I could take it or leave it. And anyway Tina had already done a tour by the time we got there. She knows it’s wasted on me. The Murray, on the other hand, whose tributaries include five of the next six longest rivers of Australia, was something I did want to see.

The old pump
Old dry dock pumping station

At the eastern end of the Great Australian Bight the Murray finally drains out of Australia into Long Bay, passing within fifty kilometres of Adelaide. To get to it, we drove over the foodie hotspot that is the Adelaide Hills and stopped in a small town called Hahndorf. Settled by Prussian refugees two hundred years ago, some of the shops in Hahndorf reminded me of one of my favourite Queensland oddities, the German Cuckoo Clock Nest on Tamborine Mountain, which nicely plugs the gaping horological gap in the Queensland market by offering Regensburg Grandfather Clocks for just $19,990.00. Thankfully, nothing so ruinously expensive tempted us here this Sunday morning, but we did succumb to morning Bavarian pastries in the homely and wunderbar German Cake Shop.

Due east then we drove, past Mount Barker, over dreary flatlands until we reached the town of Murray Bridge. As far as seeing the river in question goes, one would think this would be sufficient. The bridge was built in 1879 to connect Adelaide to Melbourne. But having crossed it and come back again we decided to take the advice of our guide books and meander upriver a bit to the (also) historic old town of Mannum, smaller than Murray Bridge but more geared to river-related tourism, it seemed.

Sunday’s museum was a little smaller than Saturday’s, but the river on which it lay far exceeded in girth and length the Torrens. Mannum’s Dock Museum of River History had some good old-time riverboat stories. Like modern-day service stations, in the old days there were places skippers knew they could pull in at and stock up on wood for their thirsty engines. If there was no-one in attendance, they were naturally supposed to make their way to the nearby shed to pay or at least leave payment tucked under a stone. Alas, some dishonest types would occasionally do a runner down the Murray. So the fuelies ( I expect they used to call them that) would occasionally slip a disincentive, in the form of a stick of dynamite, into a hollowed out log in the middle of their woodpiles. Payment ensured that the offending logs would be duly removed. That kept the bastards honest.

There was a dry dock just outside the museum, and luckily for us there were a couple of hands working them that afternoon. Cockatoos kept a steady rain of discarded gum twigs falling on us as we got a tour of the small workshop where the old steam engines that used to pump the water out of the dry docks were kept. Marvellous things, old steam engines. Beautiful, too. It’s good these days to be reminded of the sheer physicality of engines – their smelliness, greasiness, noisiness, and their power. But above all, it’s their elegance that impresses me the most. Every part of them has a job to do and is absolutely maximised to do that job.

Adelaide is sheltered by sea to the east and by its Hills to the west, but is wide open to attack from the north. We tacked north-west on our voyage back from the Murray to get around the distractions, in the form of so many wineries, of the Barossa Valley. After a restorative flat white in the town of Tanunda we swept down the far side of the hills and continued through the town of Gawler, cutting through Port Adelaide, which we’d loved to have stopped in but the hour was late. We had a rendezvous with a sundowner and a pizza in Henley Beach. From our table at Stella, we watched kids play volleyball on the sand and stared at the setting sun right down the line of the Jetty.

National Wine Centre
I love Dalkey and those fancy wine dispensers they have at places like this

Now, I’m a bit of an ignoramus when it comes to wine. I enthusiastically consume goon, or “cask wine”, as oenophiles call it. But even I couldn’t let a three-dayer in Adelaide pass without a quick stop by The National Wine Centre which we went to (sans the lads, of course, who had found Adelaide’s Warhammer shop) on our last morning. Maybe I’d finally learn something about viticulture.

The thing I learned was they now have these amazing dispensers. They’re the blue labels at the head of the upright bottles in the photo above. You press the amount you want ($4, $8…) and the dispenser sorts you out. They’re great for people, like me, who enjoy poor taste: there’s no sommelier to raise an eyebrow at my every question and choice of wine at one of these tastings. “Yeah they have those everywhere,” Tina said, sipping a well-behaved Langmeil Shiraz. Oh. Eventually I gave up pretending I knew what I was doing and just enjoyed whatever wine Tina picked out: red, white, or “rosé”. You mean pink.

It was time to leave Tina behind. We got an Uber back to Keswickstan (the barracks in the inner suburb of Keswick where she was stationed) to drop her off, before continuing on to the airport. Once Alexander and Eoin were comfortably befacemasked and beheadphoned in the departure area, I moseyed over to the bar for a glass of something from the Barossa. We were still in Adelaide, after all.