Is Adelaide paradise on earth?

A few years ago, Nobel laureate JM Coetzee read out the following tribute to Adelaide, after receiving the keys to the city in 2004:

It was March, it was hot, but there were shaded walks to be had along the Torrens River, where black swans glided serenely.
What kind of place is this, I asked myself – is this paradise on earth?
 What does one have to do to live here?
 Does one have to die first?

Is Adelaide as Coetzee describes, “paradise on earth”? Parts of it are lovely. Today, on the last day of March, I walked along the Torrens. It was the refreshingly cool of morning and the swans were performing their ablutions rather than gliding along serenely, but it’s close enough.  This is what it looks like (yes, those are construction cranes in the background, which lend a certain edgy urban air to such a bucolic scene):

Adelaide river

Here I am with the famous black swans:

Me and black swans

Here is the University of Adelaide in the background, where Coetzee is a professor of literature and has leant his name to a centre for creative practice:

Uni Adelaide and Torrens

Chris pronounced Adelaide “very nice”. The word I would use is “pleasant”. The parks, museums and gardens are pleasantness exemplified, filled with lush lawns, liquid birdsong and vistas of swans and rowers. Half close your eyes and you could be in Oxford (there are a couple of dreaming spires, courtesy of Adelaide’s many churches), but with better weather. Oh, there’s none of the grandness of Sydney’s Harbour of Melbourne’s great architecture; Adelaide’s charms are more restrained and all the more irresistible for that. Granted, I spent most of the day in the nicest part of the city. It’s easier to love things when you only see them from their best possible angle.

Adelaide’s weather is positively Melburnian, changing countless times today. While it rained, we sought sanctuary in the South Australian Museum, the most visited natural history museum in Australia and despite the scruffiness of some of the stuffed animals – most of them sourced from the local zoo – I loved it (the skeleton of a sperm whale and the life size, four storey model of a giant squid are its most noteworthy features).

The Migration Museum was also free, and also worth visiting, a fascinating overview of the history of migration to South Australia. The driest of Australia’s states was established with high ideals in 1834 – no convicts, no established church and the native peoples to be well-treated. The latter was more meaningful in theory than in practice, and the museum was careful to emphasise the injustices of colonialism and the anger of the Aborigines before launching into a history of the arrival of the English, the White Australia policy and Multiculturalism.

(I’ll post some more extensive reflections on how Australia handles its past when I have more time – suffice to say that an awareness of the injustices against this continent’s original inhabitants is ever-present, at least officially.)

The weather cleared up beautifully, and we spent the afternoon in the Botanic Gardens, which turned out to be my favourite out of the three Australian cities I’ve visited. It’s a popular wedding venue; we spotted at least three separate events while we were there. The Deadhouse – originally a morgue for the local lunatic asylum – was disappointly unexceptional, but gardens offer plenty of secret paths and languid stretches of lawn for family picnics.

Lunch was a delicious carb nightmare: turkey focaccia with brie and cranberry from the Fibonacci café at the botanic gardens, which I felt guilty about enjoying. All the sandwiches I’ve had in Australia have been excellent (if gobsmackingly expensive once you convert to Rand) and Adelaide is known for its very good food.

Later, we headed up to Port Adelaide, noting along the way how the seaside suburbs of the area bear a striking resemblance to Milnerton. Port Adelaide proved something of a disappointment, so we settled on Henley as a venue for sundowners. Chris last saw a sunset over the ocean five years ago when he lived in Cape Town, and he was determined to see one again.

Sunset pier

We walked along the pier, buffeted by the wind, then returned to the car, feeling invigorated by the salt air and the prospect of sleep (which eludes me still; it is after 11pm and I am trying to churn out blog posts before I fall too far behind).

So once again, the question: is Adelaide paradise on earth, as JM Coetzee suggested? Not quite. But as cities go, it definitely has its appeal. I’m heading to the Adelaide Hills tomorrow to visit one of the world’s great cool climate wine regions a mere 20 minutes drive away.  It is said to be very beautiful and a delight for lovers of food, wine and history, so I’m looking forward to it. “Paradise” may be too strong a word, but Adelaide may seduce me further yet.


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