Adelaide: A Boring City?

To be clear from the start, I do not think Adelaide is a boring city, but I kept hearing this from locals. On my second day, I went into the Glenelg  (a suburb of Adelaide where I was staying) tourist information center and asked the attendant what sights I should see during my 12 days in the city. He thought long and hard before responding:

“Maybe the Barossa Valley if you like wine and Kangaroo Island.”

“What else?” I probed.

“There’s really not that much to see around Adelaide.”

It was hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of Adelaide’s charms. As I do like my wine, I booked a day tour to the Barossa Valley. I looked at Kangaroo Island, with its minimum $300 for a day trip, to see what it has to offer. It is a protected nature reserve about an 1.5 hour drive from Adelaide then a 45 minute ferry ride, home to kangaroos, koalas and sea lions. Cute as kangaroos are, I’d already seen hundreds of them. I’d spotted wild koalas in Otway Park just a few weeks before and I had visited a large, loud, smelly herd of sea lions on the Skeleton Coast in Namibia a few years prior. There are hiking trails on the island but I prefer to hike on a flat beach rather than a rocky, hilly path in the middle of the forest. Kangaroo Island was out.

However, Barossa was in. One of 4 wine areas around Adelaide, it is world famous for its shiraz red wines. I signed up for a tour. Mindful of how inebriated I got on the Swan River tour a few weeks before, I decided to play it smart and restrain myself. I ate an hardy breakfast before joining the  group. There were 19 of us – a semi-retired couple from Bellevue, a husband and wife from Whitehorse, 3 Brits, a young American couple, Cathy from Hong Kong and the rest Australians. It was a good group but decidedly less interested in getting hammered than the Swan River group.

Our driver regaled us with stories about Adelaide during the hour and a half ride to the first winery. First, and foremost (and repeated often by various Adelaideans) was Adelaide was unique amongst Australian states insofar as it was not founded by convicts. Instead, free citizens of Britain voluntarily came looking for land, mostly city dwellers with limited education (this will be important later on) and German Lutherans fleeing religious prosecution back home (this too will also become important). The two groups mixed, built churches (lots of them), drank tea (plenty of it) and, from the Germans, brought over wine clippings which formed the basis of the vineyards around Adelaide.

Our bus driver then exclaimed that Adelaide was boring! Too many churches and tea houses. There wasn’t a lot to do in the area, except pray, sip tea and have the occasional glass of wine. This was starting to sound, well….boring…..until he mentioned that Adelaide was known as the serial murder capital of the world. Maybe there was something interesting here after all…

Returning to the wine tour, it was far more restrained than that of Swan River. We only visited 4 wineries with 4-6 tastings each, all much smaller than the ounce per taste in Perth. Moreover, there were spittoons so one didn’t need to drink the wine. It was all so civilized and no one got drunk. My highlight was trying the local specialty, a bubbly Pinot Noir served cold on X-Mas morning. The Aussies regard it as a treat; I thought it tasted like cherry juice and most of mine ended in the spittoon.

Our guide provided a never ending commentary about Adelaide. In addition to it being the serial murder capital of the world, it was also the first state to allow women the vote, the first to have an aboriginal governor, the first to have a telegraph joined to London, the first to tolerate homosexuality and the first to decriminalize marijuana.

With 9 more days following the wine tour, I tried to find something interesting to do. I went to the CBD, which looked remarkably like the other CBD’s I had visited in Melbourne and Perth – modern, clean, broad sidewalks, skyscrapers with familiar names, a pretty pedestrian way with crazy sculptures, a botanical garden nearby, a convention centre, a zoo and a central market offering fresh fruit and vegetables. It was all sounding like something I had seen before in other Australian towns although the art differed:

So I looked for something different. Glenelg (the name is a palindrome) where I stayed has a beach where I went walking two or three times a day. The shore was lined with million dollar houses and just a few hundred metres away was the major airport. I walked along the beach, waiting for the airplanes to land or take off – which they did regularly, creating great plane spotting opportunities but probably did little for the house values of the nearby mansions.

Plane spotting at Glenelg

Along the Esplanade were advertisements for free driverless car rides. I had never been in one, so I signed up to ride in Olli, who was doing test runs along the Esplanade to work out some bugs. Olli was designed for short trips; perhaps in airports or transporting mobile impaired passengers from their houses to bus stops. Some problems had already been discovered – Olli was programmed to stop at blind spots, but as Olli identified light posts as blind spots, he stopped a lot. This has since been corrected.

Our ride today had 8 passengers and a non-driving driver (for safety in case Olli messed up). Olli started down the path, quite slowly. He turned at the roundabouts and waited patiently for pedestrians to get out of the way. He had a horn feature, but in another of those bugs that was fixed, he honked at every pedestrian regardless of whether they were in his path. It has since been disabled.


Olli had some unique features. If you asked him loudly, in a proper Australian accent, to “please tell a joke”, he, or rather a lady’s voice, obliged. The non-driver asked (my accent was incomprehensible to Olli):

“Olli, please tell us a joke?”

“What does a snake use for support?”

“A cobra.”

How is that for a little driverless humour?

As I may have mentioned, Adelaide was not a very exciting a place, so my thoughts turned back to the serial murder capital of Australia moniker. To be sure, there had been a lot of murders in the city, but it had really gained fame due to a three part TV documentary titled City of Evil, which is easily viewed on YouTube. So I did. Turns out it is not the quantity of the murders in Adelaide, but the quality of the murders, which the commentators kept referring to as bizarre. Headless torsos, mangled parts, burnt ashes etc. There’s the mystery of the Beaumont children, who in 1966 took the bus to Glenelg beach and were never seen again. Or the serial killer, Bevan von Einem, who rescued a homosexual being chased by some nutters (who were also police detectives) who had already killed his companion, and received police congratulations before his murderous tendencies were discovered. In one of the most truly strange analysis, the documentary attributes the gruesome killings to the results of Adelaide’s gene pool, which was either uneducated lower class Brits eager to escape the hierarchal British class system or German Lutherans used to disobeying mainstream society. How these factors led to genetically disposed serial killers is not well explained, but I am not making it up. Watch the series.

Risking being murdered in a twisted, macabre way, I continued with my daily or three times daily walks along the beach. Holdfast Bay was a beautiful beach, with the planes overhead and a leash free zone for dogs before 10:00AM. Hundreds of dogs converged, sniffing each other out, some racing into the water, others gingerly tapping a paw into the surf before deciding to take the plunge. But my favourite experience occurred one evening as I was leaving the beach and crossing the bridge over the marina to my hotel. There, frolicking in the harbour, were two dolphins. They did whatever it is dolphins do – play, dive, swim, jump out of the water, just not pose for great photos – for 15 minutes – before heading back to the sea.

Two dolphins in Holdfast Bay

Adelaide may be boring, but give me dolphins, planes and serial murders any day and I am happy.