“A friend from Sydney told me 2 days in Adelaide would be enough,” I tell my airbnb host as we sip coffee in her semi-detached 1880s bungalow.
“Your friend’s a snob,” says Melanie, a New Zealander, who’s made the capital of South Australia her home
“It may have been true ten years ago, “ she reflects. “But we’ve grown up now. There’s the festival, a vibrant cultural scene and it’s a great base from where to visit the Barossa wine region, Tasmania to the South and Perth to the north.”
Perth is 2700 kilometers north of Adelaide across a desert. Tasmania is 1500 kilometers south over an ocean. Australians have a different perspective on distance. For my 2-day trip out of the city I’m visiting Kangaroo Island, a mere 200 kilometers down the coast.
I defy the 35 degree heat, walk down The Parade lined with boutique shops and bohemian restaurants, through the Botanical Gardens
and past the handsome Victorian buildings along North Terrace – the university, South Australian Museum, Art Gallery of South Australia and Parliament House, all reflected in the glass-fronted tower blocks opposite. I take a left turn – the grid system makes it easy to navigate the city – and stop off at the popular Central Market for a plate of Korean kimchi before the coach ride.
As we drive out of Adelaide, squat bungalows give way to bush. Forests of tall gum trees, that shed their bark not leaves, are followed by soft, undulating ochre hills peppered with flocks of sheep. Above us a clear blue sky and, to our right, an azure sea. Heads turn as an odd kangaroo hops into the frame wetting our appetite for what lies ahead,
After a forty-minute ferry ride the Sealink bus transports locals and tourists alike. I strike up a conversation with Pam who, after her second marriage break-up, lives half her time on the island and half on the mainland.
“So what brings you to Australia?” she asks.
“Partly research and for a bit of a holiday too?
“Research?” she asks.
“I’m looking at how migration is represented in museums.”
You’d think this might kill any conversation but far from it. Out comes Pam’s family history.
“One of my ancestors was sent out from Ireland in the 1850s after fighting the British over land rights and the woman he married, a maid back in Dublin, stole a piece of corduroy. Terrible injustice,” she adds.
“I read that Australians like to keep their convict ancestry a secret.”
“ I’m proud of it,” she grins. “But it’s only a tenth. Most of my ancestors were involved in the gold rush.”
She points out of the window to the harbour below as we draw up to her wooden house with a large terrace overlooking the bay.
“I often stroll along the beach with my detector looking for gold. It must be in the blood.”
I am last off the bus and a private function at a sub-standard hotel means a trip into the village for second-rate fish and chips. I booked too late to get into the swanky hotel by the penguin colony.
The next morning I wait at a eucalyptus farm to join a coach that has set off at dawn from Adelaide. I buy oil that promises to solve all ailments and watch a juddery black and white film. It’s about how the family developed eucalyptus farming when sheep rearing became uneconomic. As I drink coffee I recognize the grey haired man playing with his grandchild opposite me. He is the strapping young man, a little more weathered that, minutes ago, I watched hacking away at the bush before electricity came to the island.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“I’m glad you British sent us out here,” he teases.
I look up. Another convict story? A child migrant sent to labour on Fairbridge Farm in the outback?
“Here’s your coach,” he says, lifting his grandchild onto his lap.
There is one seat left at the back squashed between a young American woman determined to sit by the window and her husband who needs to sit in the middle for his legs. No easy conversation here.
Our first stop is the sea lions. I troop out with fifty fellow tourists, sleepy from their early morning drive, down towards the sea.
We watch equally drowsy sea lions, basking on the beach. But the sea lions have more of an excuse. They have swum 110 kilometers out to sea shelf for 3 days and made 1000 dives to the bottom of the ocean for food. A young pup howls but there is no response. Mum must still be out there searching for his dinner.
Two other pups nuzzle noses, honk and amuse us with fore play before we lumber back for lunch.
In the early afternoon we search for koala bears slumbering in the nooks and crannies of towering eucalyptus trees.
“Why don’t they fall off,” asks a young boy. His father shrugs his shoulder.
Perhaps they are the drop bears, I muse. Killer koalas that attack tourists with non-Australian accents. That is unless you wear vegemite behind your ears or forks on your head. A hoax, no doubt, but one, wrapped up in an academic article and sent to me from a university, had me fooled for days.
We travel to the Remarkable Rocks overlooking the ocean– a mini Uluru but not so significant to Aborigines who either abandoned this island or never lived here.
It was escaped convicts who settled. They established a lucrative sealskin business to clothe women in Europe until legislation was introduced to stop extinction of the seals. They are not the only animals who’ve suffered here. Thousands of koalas died in recent bush fires that swept through the
island. We can still see the charred, skeletal remains of the eucalyptus trunks hovering over new growth in Flinders Park.
Our last stop is at the very southern tip of the island. We stop by a lighthouse, now defunct, and climb down hundreds of steps to craggy cliffs below.
New Zealand fur-seals are more fun than sea lions. They squeal and slither across the rocks, dive in or get swept into the sea, clamber back and the whole process starts again.
At the foot of the cliffs we strain our necks under Admirals Arch. Charcoal shards, shaped like crumbling icicles, hang down from the roof that frames the coastline. It’s spectacular and lovely.
The sun sets as the ferry takes us back to the mainland and we drive back to Adelaide. The Sydneysider was wrong. Adelaide, the gateway to South Australia, has far more to offer than a 2-day stop over.