Into and Out of Adelaide
Melbourne and Sydney have it out for each other. Melbourne claims to be Australia’s cultural and athletic heart. Sydney claims to be just about everything else. Sydney’s got the looks, Melbourne’s got the soul. Sydney is the movie, Melbourne is the novel. Pay a compliment about one to a local of the other, and at best you’ll get reluctant agreement. “But we have…” they’ll start. Canberra, Australia’s capital, is a product of this rivalry. During Australia’s federation years, neither Melbourne nor Sydney would cede the power inherent in being capital, so a middle ground was found—literally since Canberra was built to fall between the two. Despite the home team bluster, put-downs, and endless ribbing, what Melburnians and Sydneysiders do agree on is this: Adelaide is absolutely, positively, 100% not worth visiting.
Naturally, I had to see it.
I settled in Melbourne in June 2017. The travel bug that had been feeding itself off my hippocampus since November had about sucked itself dead. What I wanted were familiarity and a temporary home. I found this in a two-story apartment I shared with a brash and loud Aussie bloke with a propensity for womanizing and a chronic need for alcohol (the latter is a dominant trait on the Aussie genome).
Two weeks into settling, I acquired a job working for a law firm on 101 Collins Street. Our office was on a high floor overlooking the Yarra River and Federation Square. This was a great vantage for a foreigner. I came to learn Melbourne’s sprawl in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. How it spread out like Los Angeles, the distant towns on the Mornington Peninsula, cargo ships following the green lights built across the bay like signals on an aircraft carrier. Best were the times I could track the various, erratic weather spots Melbourne is known for. (What I’ve had happen to me before is I’ve been standing on the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe, baking in cataclysmic heat, and then I’m smacked by cold air, a wind gust visible down the street goes past me and takes with it 25 Fahrenheit degrees in thirty seconds.)
Our practice group was an Inglourious Basterds of legal castaways with few of the same talents. People between careers, post-layoff, or like me, expats on work-holiday visas. There were Canadians, Brits, Americans, a Scottish girl, a Texan. The Australians were mostly from New South Wales or Victoria. They goaded me into revealing my Aussie accent, which they agreed was horrible. They also enjoyed that I pronounced the town “Bendigo” as “Ben-dingo” and “echidna (eh-kid-na)” as “echeedna”. The shoe, I realized, was thoroughly on the other foot.
My supervisors were the ebullient and sanguine Veronica, and the amiable and sartorial Scott. She from Adelaide. He from Melbourne. They sat next to each other, and depending on their moods and workloads, they could grind on one another like tectonic plates. It was surely banter, but one thing certain to make Scott indignant was a compliment to Adelaide. “Why would anyone go?” He’d say. “Why would you even grow up there?” He’d ask Veronica. “Okay, okay, it’s not Melbourne, we know, but it’s a nice city.” Veronica called it Radelaide. Scott huffed.
By December, my travel bug was re-affixed and active. I secretly went to Veronica while Scott was out of the room and asked if she could provide any Adelaide recommendations. When Scott returned, Veronica yelled out, “Hey Antonio, why don’t you tell Scott where you are going next weekend?”
Scott, vexed, stuttered at my answer, “Why, just why? I don’t understand. You’ll see how disappointed you’ll be.”
Later that week I was in the Gold Coast—a trip I can sum up with these words: hot, beach, fake boobs, Australian Miami—at a rental car office dropping keys off on my way to catch my Adelaide flight. The employee asked where I was off to, and I told him.
“For how long?”
His eyebrows went up, “Three days? Mate, you only need an afternoon.”
Another employee was passing through the office during the exchange. As he opened the door to leave he said, “An afternoon? Mate, just look at a brochure.”
Poor Adelaide. Maybe it’s jabs like these that have made Adelaideans the wholesome, kind people they are, having recognized that humility is a necessity to avoid further torment. There is a hint of this character in their accents, which are Australia’s finest: a crisp, endearingly earnest lilt. Adelaide expats timidly disclose their hometown, but when I tell them how fantastic I think their city is, they beam at me, like I’ve whispered the secret they hold from the mean outside world: that they love their southern city very, very much.
My hypothesis for why Adelaide is teased is that because Adelaide, unlike Victoria and New South Wales, was founded as a free colony. They’re a bit proud about it, and the other Aussies are just exhibiting latent jealousy. Never mind that one of the fathers of this colony, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was himself a former convict. (This is, after all, Australia.)¹
Adelaide is planned, a city on paper before a single stone was set. Colonel William Light is the visionary responsible. He laid the city on a grid and girded it with a figure eight of botanical gardens and open space. His insistence that 2,000 acres of parkland be preserved in perpetuity was a novelty in urban planning, as British cities back then had a nasty habit of being overbuilt, overcrowded, and the setting to Dickens’ novels.
Light’s Vision, as Adelaide was called, began its life in 1834 on the River Torrens near an escarpment of hills. The Kaurna tribe had called the territory home, but spats with European diseases had withered their numbers to near nothing. Modern building entrance plaques offer essentially a head nod to this history, stating that they acknowledge the Kaurna as the land’s traditional owners. Not that any Aboriginal territorial claims have stalled expansion. The city houses 1.3 million people, though it feels like much less. Credit the abundant green and open spaces.
This is what I went to, disembarking from my Jetstar flight via a tarmac staircase. Outside the terminal, I jogged to a city bus that appeared prepared to zoom off. A bus attendant near the entrance saw me just as the doors were closing. He knocked the glass to get the driver to open them again and hurried me to come along. “I can’t make it,” I said, “I need to buy a ticket from the machine since I don’t have cash on me. Thank you though.”
Without hesitating, he said, “It’s alright mate, just hop on.” He turned to the driver, “The Yank doesn’t have a ticket so go easy on him.”
The driver said to me, “No drama, when you get off just do me a favor and get yourself a ticket. It’ll help your conscience and my job. Ha ha!”
Off the bus in downtown, a heavy rainstorm delayed my going anywhere. I bought a ticket and tore it up then found shelter under a covered area on a building’s steps. The rain fell harder. A 70-year-old lady with short kept hair and wearing rose lipstick joined me in the cramped space. She gripped a tartan umbrella and kept peeking around one of the building’s stone columns to see if her bus was arriving. She gave my empty hands a glance, “Don’t you have an umbrella?”
“No, I’m not one to be properly prepared for anything.”
“Oh, you’re American. What are you doing in Adelaide?”
“Everyone told me I should visit.”
“That’s so sweet of them. Most Americans wouldn’t come this far. A stop in Sydney or Melbourne is good enough for them. Will you be here long?”
“Only a few days.”
“And then back to America?”
“No, no. I’m traveling the world.”
“It’s very interesting in America right now, maybe a good time to travel. Your mother must worry about you a lot. If you were my son I’d be very worried all the time.”
“I don’t carry an umbrella but other than that I don’t do anything stupid. She doesn’t have much to worry about.”
“So long as you stay safe. And you call her. You call your mother, it will help her sleep at night. My bus is here. I hope you enjoy Adelaide.”
Chances are that Adelaide will not rise to be a global city in the order of Sydney or Melbourne, but I tell you that’s the wonder of it. Let me explain this way: You visit Sydney. It’s 5pm and you’re beginning to get hungry. You crave pizza. Really good pizza: a Neapolitan style pie cooked in a wood oven. You want charr on the dough and a fairly good wine at a fair price. Maybe burrata is on the menu. You need a place within walking distance. You Google. Thirty options come up, so to narrow it down you read top ten lists. Thrillist, Timeout, Broadsheet, TripAdvisor, some random local foodie blog. An hour later, you’re A Beautiful Mind-ing your pizza search, you have sixty-two computer tabs open, a map, you’ve circled locations, you cross-reference the No.1 choice from this The Best Pizza in Sydney list with that Never-Visit-This-Place review by a guy named Willem on Yelp. You find the place, it has a gold medal for “Locals Love This” and you check its location on Google maps and find it’s a $30 cab ride away, or 55 minutes by metro with two transfers.
In Adelaide, you go to Pizza e Mozzarella Bar. I say that because it is, almost literally, the only option in this category.
Adelaide simplifies. It has condensed into a street what other cities have across a district. Peel St. is about a cricket pitch long yet possesses all the bars you need for a throw-up-on-your-shoes crawl and enough chalk-drawn menu boards to satisfy all the hipsters in Williamsburg for whatever culinary hankering their gentrifying has worked up. Adelaide has diverse Thai, exquisite Vietnamese, superb gelati, divine tea-smoked Peking duck, with local dishes on par with those in Melbourne or Sydney. Perhaps the highest end options aren’t as refined or as glam, but the options are good. There’s maybe one, two, tops three, of each option. For a tourist overwhelmed by choice, Adelaide is a dream: it gives you none.
Lack of choice is dangerous, of course. If establishments don’t adhere to a high standard knowing that you’re stuck with them, you might as well venture to San Bernardino and save yourself the airfare. But on the flip side, mediocrity cannot hide in Adelaide. The few choices make those that are there conspicuous. The pie put before me at Pizza e Mozzarella was better than many of those I’ve had in New York City.
After said evening of gorging on baked gluten topped with solidified dairy fat and flavored tomato pulp, I went to a wine bar that was dangerously near to my hostel. It had ceramic bowls filled with scalped citrus and one of those earlier-described chalkboards covered with exquisite penmanship and daily specials. There were five seats at the actual bar. An inebriated Canadian girl occupied one of them, her torso heaped over the marble counter while talking to the Mauritian bartender who had put her in that condition. She wore flat-front black pants and a black turtleneck. Her ankles and hands were the only part of her body that was visible. These were covered in tattoos. She’d just come from work.
“I’ve been shucking oysters all day. That’s what I did today. I’m a fast oyster shucker. I won a competition in Canada. No more wine Marcus.” Marcus topped up her glass. “Thank you,” she saluted him.
“Adelaide,” she told me, “Is filled with firsts. First place gin. Did you know that? The best gin in the world is made in Adelaide. First place coffee. Or we make the best coffee. They don’t grow coffee in Adelaide. First place in beaches. Everyone is all, ‘Oh, Bondi, Bondi.’ Have you ever been to Bondi man? Bondi sucks. It’s overcrowded, it’s a scene. The beaches here are open and friendly to everyone and you can go into the water and not be dodging people.”
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“Let me tell you something,” she said, “I’ll never live anywhere else. This is paradise. Marcus, tell him this is the best city.”
Marcus nodded, “It’s true.”
“Do you know what I did to stay here? I dated an Aussie and paid so much money. Seven. Thousand. Dollars. To let the Australian government look at every aspect of my personal life.”
“You and your partner went the spousal visa route?” I asked.
“That’s right. I printed out my entire text conversation with my boyfriend, put it in a binder. I have binders with utility bills, holiday receipts. Other people have photo albums. I have bill binders. Someone at the immigration department probably knows every detail of my life. And all this just for me to stay in Adelaide. Marcus, no more wine.” Marcus pours a glass. “Thank you, Marcus. Marcus you are the best. You,” she said to me, “Should come back to him tomorrow. I can’t. More oysters tomorrow. I won an oyster shucking competition in Canada. Three times. Champion oysters.”
After three days I had to be on my way as the drop off date for my car rental was approaching and there was plenty more to see between Adelaide and Melbourne. I stopped first for a pastry in the nearby hill town of Hahndorf. Residents retained the German character of its founding, so now its cafes and beer halls are forever beholden to serving strudels and schnitzel.
Going east on the Princes freeway, I passed out of the lumpy Mount Lofty Ranges into the flatter, semi-arid silt land that abuts the Murray River. The grass here is pompous gold. While there is green, it’s relegated to great trees and crop lines underneath the nozzles of vast irrigation pipes that span the air above fields like brooding arachnids. Driving is big business in these parts, as the Princes Highway links Adelaide to Melbourne. Pigs, chickens, crops, hay, dairy, all the foodstuffs, pass over it. Semis pass with a concussive shutter and then smelt into ripples on the road behind. Towns come about every few dozen kilometers, silos on the horizon, then livestock fields, then tractor dealerships. At gas stations, you pump your own gas then go inside to pay. Just tell a clerk your number and he rings you up, no credit card to secure the transaction. A businessman who made his millions owning gas stations in Illinois said to me regarding this trustful practice: “Madness.”
My stop for the night would be the Grampians, a national park that possesses rock formations that Australians call mountains. Melburnians insisted that I visit; they love the Grampians. I think the affection comes from living in a country that lacks altitude. When flat land is such a commodity, every hill deserves special recognition. For example, there’s a 727-meter peak (note: 727 just makes the cut-off for the geological definition of a mountain) that Australians call “Mount Lofty.”
With its paper flat surrounding, Grampians I saw from an hour away. These are sandstone mountains, rearing slantwise from the earth, arrayed like leaned tiles or the ridges on the back of some scaled viper. Roads scare off nearby and wrap around the park. Two bear forward. One goes in like a tendril vine upon a trellis at a place called Roses Gap. When I arrived at my hostel it was sunset and there was hardly a decimal point drop in temperature. The mountains are a fun climb though: think the steady incline you can make on a treadmill but add in bush scenery and lizards.
And again on the road, out of Rose’s pass, out of the Grampians, back into flat acreage. Agricultural fields were neat and trim. Roads were being repaved, so my car filled with the scent of acrid tar. Yet there was a fantastic—if not carcinogenic—aspect to this: summer; clouds abolished; the sun gleamed with swelling, triumphant pride; all the road crew teams had broad hats and rolled up sleeves; my car arm was as red as a Christmas candle; a flock of cockatoos whipped overhead; granddad trees held close underneath them dark and cool shade; windmill tops were over hills; at sunset, kangaroos filled the fields, joeys hopped with mammas, jacks cooed bachelorettes with tugs of the tails; towns were like little engravings that belonged hung on a grandmother’s kitchen wall. I realized this is an American fantasy, one that Americans think belongs to our country. A country made by roads and the people between them, a country where small-town main street is not just an abstraction but a place that possesses agency and more economic and cultural clout than Wall Street or Madison Avenue. This America exists, but not in the Midwest. I passed one town in mid-afternoon and saw a barber shop with a revolving pole above the front door. The lone male barber sat in a high, black leather chair. His hair was greased to be aside a part, and he sat with a daily creased over his knee, reading below the fold. I knew this scene. It’s a postcard I saw or a vignette from a story a Baby Boomer told me.
The Great Ocean Road
If you guessed that the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand on the streets of Sarajevo in 1914 has nothing to do with Australia’s most photogenic road, then you guessed wrong. 416,000 Aussies enlisted for the Great War, and those that returned came back needing work. Like any socialism-is-on-the-horizon country, theirs decided to draw up plans for a relatively superfluous construction project just for them. The creation was not without utility: it’d connect isolated coastal towns and be an artery for the logging industry. The architects also envisioned that the road would become a monumental tourist attraction. This was a correct prediction, albeit an easy one: there may be no driving route on Earth more beautiful.
The Great Ocean Road is 151 miles and the world’s largest war memorial. I wanted to drive none of it at night, which is why I stopped at Warrnambool before the undertaking. My hostel had taken its design cues from a rural Iowa Elk Lodge. It had a small bar with a glass-door fridge behind it filled with cans of beer for $5, which in Australia is near to being free. I grabbed a few and settled at a table in a massive banquet room. No one was there except for the owner, who was reclined watching TV in the corner and would be so reclined until 11pm. I wrote until my quiet was ruined by a busload of foreign kids back from a day trying to sell cable packages door-to-door. Then a British girl began to talk to me with a familiarity that made me think we’d met. We hadn’t. She was incredibly young, 17, and had no idea who Clive Owen or Jude Law was, so I decided to preserve my attention span and go to bed and read.
I began the Great Ocean Road from its traditional terminus, and that first day turned out to be the best. Torquay is the typical start and an objectively spectacular introduction. From there, the road loops irregular, following neatly above the meeting line of water and land. The ocean is there, out your side and front windows, an opulent blue drape. Whereas, where I began, I wondered when the “Ocean” part would come into play. The road is inland, and shrubs the height of my car blocked visibility on either side. What made this day my favorite is what lay behind the southern shrubs.
I parked whenever I could and took long walks. Flies lived there in loud, abysmal hordes. I’ve never had a fly go up my nose before, but there I had five do just that. They didn’t care a mite for being slapped (or snorted out). They’d take the blow, fall on the ground, spin on their back a bit, right themselves, and fly off.
I heard the ocean before I saw it. Heat frazzled the horizon, which I could see, a rare white countervail to the blue density of sky. Then cliffs. Then sea. South to Antartica. There were no clouds, but permeation of a different sort: underwater rock, whose various depths cast onto the ocean surface the sort of mottled chiaroscuro that clouds would. Still at sea, abandoned, were parts of old Australia, Terra Australis, spliced from the mainland. Water moves relentlessly against this walled southern coast. It navigates towards the weakest joints of rock and fells them. The resultant formations are iconic: London Bridge, the Twelve Apostles, the Grotto. Word spread and the names stuck.
It is both sad and curious when these formations collapse. We know that no geological feature is everlasting, yet we give names and try to stick by them even when the feature is gone. A trunkless rock in New Zealand is still Elephant Rock. A noseless face in New Hampshire is still the Old Man in the Mountain. A bridge-less bridge in Australia is still—among some—the London Bridge. What’s more curious is once a formation changes, plaques go up to explain why it bears no resemblance to the names they carry. How much must be lost before naming is done anew?
This quirk is an insight, signifying what I’m not certain of. But as you stand to look at the Twelve Apostles, you know that, eventually, they will fall too. And the ocean will continue forward, so who knows which apostles will remain to take their place.
¹ Australian convicts jokes never go out of style. A personal favorite to reserve for passport control: Officer asks, “Any criminal record?” You answer, “No, is one still required?” Had Australia not been England’s final, major penal colony, it’s unlikely convict jokes would have stuck around. One thing to consider is this: that January 26, 1788, celebrated each year as Australia day, is the day the First Fleet raised its flag in Sydney Cove, thus establishing Australia’s first penal colony. This date is conspicuously close to May 12, 1784, the date you will no doubt remember as being the date the Treaty of Paris became effective. The Treaty of Paris, of course, you will remember, formally ended the American Revolution and acknowledged the United States as a free and sovereign nation. Prior to 1784, Great Britain had sent their convicts to America. Once that was closed off, they needed a new landing spot. So, ergo, Australians. (50,000 convicts made it to America, whereas Australia was the destination for 162,000.)