Detours: Dock, stock and barrel

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2008, 12:00am

As two seahorses dance flirtatiously around each other, Tracy Warland explains that one is a 'pregnant male', incubating eggs laid by the female. Warland and her husband moved their seahorse farm from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Port Adelaide about a year ago. It's Port Adelaide's newest attraction and a sign of the area's revival.

As I walk around, I spot other signs of rejuvenation. Old stone warehouses conceal sleek designer flats, etchings line the pavements and new residential buildings are emerging along the waterfront.

The focus of Port Adelaide's revitalisation is Newport Quays, a A$1.5 billion (HK$10.3 billion) residential and commercial development planned for the waterfront that promises to complement the area's existing historic buildings, old warehouses, bond stores, wharves and hotels.

Port Adelaide was officially proclaimed a harbour on January 6, 1837. The first European settlers landed at the mouth of a man-made inlet near some sandhills at what is now the junction of Webb Street and Causeway Road. Goods had to be floated ashore through mosquito-infested swamps to reach dry land. It was a wretched place known as Port Misery before city officials named it Port Adelaide in May 1837.

The visitor information centre, a well-preserved building from 1860, originally accommodated a customs office, police station and courthouse. Closer to the harbour is a Victorian colonial pile that was also once a courthouse and stately bluestone buildings that used to be the Customs House and the Port Adelaide Institute buildings.

Port Adelaide's first bridge is marked by a plaque on the footpath one block from the river. It once crossed a tidal inlet over marshy swampland. At the waterfront, next to a striking red lighthouse, is the Boer War Memorial, dedicated to the soldiers in the South Australian Infantry who sailed off to fight in South Africa in October 1899.

The tall ship One & All is moored there with the steam tug Yelta, which makes dolphin-spotting trips around the mangroves, estuarine waters and wetlands.

Port Adelaide's 19th-century workers were a thirsty lot, and during its heyday the port had as many as 40 hotels. These days, a pub crawl can take you through history. Guzzle a cold beer at the Railway Hotel, opened to serve patrons of the Adelaide railway.

The Port Admiral Hotel, on Black Diamond Corner, is Port Adelaide's oldest building, and the Port Dock Brewery Hotel was a well-patronised bordello. Then there's the Royal Arms Hotel, once a classy place with telephones and baths in every room, and a ship's captains' writing room. The area next to the hotel was known as Little Jerusalem because it was home to many Jewish families.

There are railway, aviation and military vehicle museums, and the South Australian Maritime Museum, with historic treasures and exhibits documenting the history of the port.

But the brightest jewels of all are the volunteer tour guides. Passionate about keeping South Australia's first state heritage area alive with historic tales and personal memories of the port's historic maritime era, they ensure a colourful guided tour of the town.