Adelaide: The big easy
I yelped as the four-wheel-drive approached the top of what looked like a cliff and abruptly shot over the edge into a steep gully. I glanced nervously at Ben Neville, my tour guide, but he was all concentration with not a trace of fear to be seen as the vehicle plunged into an ancient ravine once used by aboriginal women for giving birth.
Then, as I strolled on the riverbank below, Ben reached into his Off-Piste 4WD Tours vehicle to pull out a table and chairs and we sat for a gourmet lunch of fresh organic chicken, crusty artisan bread and a glass of gutsy red from his parents' vineyard.
We had driven into one of South Australia's state parks, virtually untouched by modern-day progress, for a picnic lunch between vineyard visits. Then Ben took out (yes, it's true) a didgeridoo and played me a serenade, a plaintive song of sadness, an eerie sound that echoed around the valley.
I could feel it raise the hairs on the back of my neck as the sonorous dirge skimmed between reeds and shivered past sparse bush and cliffs. It seemed as if the spirits of those women who gave birth still clung to the dry, red-baked earth and welcomed the anguished cry of the music.
It was hard to believe I was sitting amid scenery formed millions of years ago. Just an hour before, I was sitting in my accommodation apartment in the McLaren Vale wine region, 45 minutes' drive from Adelaide city. This was so not what I expected Adelaide and South Australia to be.
For some reason I always thought Adelaide sounded like a favourite aunt: Safe, staid and solid. But after a week spent exploring the city and venturing out in my rental car, that image was turned on its head.
This city is passionate, cultural, foodie, sophisticated, with a little bit of madness thrown in to keep things interesting.
My central city hotel, the Majestic Roof Garden Hotel, is literally round the corner from Rundle St. This strip of road changes character at each corner: The best chain stores, the quirkiest cafes and the liveliest street entertainment; a wide pedestrian mall with a violinist playing a classical andante; a laneway bordered with high-end boutiques. Step inside to see racks of Italian shoes and handbags, hangers of leather skirts and draping dresses, and luxury sportswear.
It's bisected by historic arcades, and at one end I just leapt on a free tram and headed to the food market at the other end of the city.
Adelaide missed out on being a convict settlement, locals were quick to tell me. Instead it was built by proud people, mainly European settlers who were entrepreneurs, farmers, traders, winemakers and architects. Town planners designed a simple city centre bordered on four sides by wide avenues, North, South, East and West Terraces, with a grid of streets within. Never has a tourist had it so easy.
So I walked. I walked to the shops, to dinner, the museum, the art gallery, a grassy riverside park and to the theatre - and never did I walk for longer than 20 minutes to get anywhere. I guess that's why they call it "the 20-minute city".
When I visited, I stumbled on the city's craziest event, the Adelaide Fringe Festival, a month-long menu of comedy, dance, music, walks, tours and parties.
I was hesitant about entering the Garden of Unearthly Delights, but I followed the crowd. What could go wrong?
Over a bridge and through security, suddenly I was in a tent carnival in a park, my senses bombarded with music, calls, smells, people, stalls and bars.
Well-dressed patrons out for the night sat eating at tables, browsed at stalls and queued for shows.
I looked a bit at a loss, obviously, because suddenly a man in garish clothes and a waxed moustache shouted at me: "Roll up, roll up!" His small, striped, circus-like tent was labelled Freak Show. I smiled but didn't move.
So he started chatting to a small girl with long hair. A small girl? No, he turned and I saw that this was a miniature man less than a metre tall, with flowing locks, every limb in perfect proportion. I was amazed. Surely only in Australia can you call a dwarf a "freak" and get away with it. He was incredible, a perfect Thumbelina man.
"And he's got a hairy bum!" the ringmaster called out. Immediately the little guy spun around and whipped down his pants. True, he had the hairiest little bum I'd ever seen.
I could have eaten my way round the world within the Garden of Unearthly Delights, but my appetite could manage only two nations. I got a snack of Greek kebabs and then migrated to the South American chocolate churros. At the Mexican stall, where I hesitated over the tacos, the staff's faces were painted in multi-coloured skull masks, half-fun, half-sinister.
Once I picked up my rental car, I vowed to discover the hidden byways of South Australia. I set my GPS for the fastest route, sometimes on motorways at speeds of up to 110kmh, sometimes on tiny twisting hill roads alongside streams or through roads singed at the edges by recent bushfires.
High in the Adelaide hills I stumbled on the village of Hahndorf, settled by German countryfolk.
Just like any German alpine town, many houses are chalet-style or colonial cottages. I could have been in Bavaria: Window boxes, fudge shops, black forest gateaus, cuckoo clocks and antique stores.
Lunching on the verandah of the White House restaurant, I drank a glass of McLaren Vale red with fresh seasonal produce prepared by the delightful young chef Sophie Zervas, who fell in love with her pizza restaurant neighbour Sid Dinkoudis and turned a romance into a thriving restaurant partnership.
The ceilings of the old cottage are bowed because the curved rafters were salvaged from the sailing ship that brought its original owners from Europe.
Letting the GPS lead me, I found myself at the bustling farmers' market in Willunga and then among the vineyards of the city in the McLaren Vale, where everyone knows a place with fantastic food harvested from the local fields. And the wine . . . ah, the wine.
I couldn't resist hiring a bike in McLaren Vale township and pedalling among the vines on the town's asphalt rail trail, peeking into houses, cafes and winery gates.
But to get around the vineyards you don't want to be pedalling or driving for too long, so I returned the bike (a little stiffly) and joined Ben's Off-Piste experience.
Winemakers, bleary from lack of sleep, were overseeing the harvest. They told me they were praying that rain wouldn't swell and burst the ripe grapes. "Try this," they urged. "And this!"
If you love the big shirazes, leave them till the Barossa Valley in the north. McLaren Vale is more of a winemaking education, the home of modern wine-making, where the 30-somethings are running the show, experimenting with grape varieties. Many of the grapes are ancient European varieties, rarely seen in the antipodes.
The scale of the region reminded me of my native Hawke's Bay - friendly, geographically compact - but here the grapes were unfamiliar, exciting, often varieties I'd tasted only in Spanish and Italian wines: sangiovese, nebbiolo, tempranillo, fiano. They were all delicious.
Ben wound up the tour with a visit to his parent's cellar, cave-like beneath their 100-year-old cottage, where we sat with his mother talking life, love and wine into the night.
Back at my McLaren Vale Studio Apartments accommodation, I found a bottle of my favourite wine of the tour, the Coriole Dancing Fig shiraz mouvedre, magically waiting on the table for me.
Jetstar flies direct from Auckland to Adelaide and back on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a flight time of just under five hours. jetstar.com.
Off-Piste 4WD Tours, 0061 4 237 25409, offpistetours.com.
The Majestic Roof Garden Hotel is at 55 Frome St, Adelaide, 0061 8 8100 4400, majestichotels.com.au.
The Adelaide Fringe Festival runs February and March, adelaidefringe.com.au.
McLaren Vale Studio Apartments mvsa.com.au
Create your perfect South Australia holiday wish list at southaustralia.co.nz.
The writer travelled to South Australia with Jetstar and the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Sunday Star Times