Castles, Swamps and Big Metal Beasts
by Chalky MacLaan
Squinting, my eyes being assaulted by the flying dust, we fought the wind across the drawbridge. The battlements towered high above as we entered the gates, my children by my side.
Ahead of us was a staircase and we ascended, following its upward curve. My third born was struggling, whining, trying to pull away from my grasp. I held tight, lest her tiny body be swept away on the hot North wind.
Reaching the safety of the tower, I looked out at the godforsaken surroundings. Westward lay the churning grey water. To the south, the mangroves grew like a fungus around the edge of a bay. In the east, the light shimmered on the salt pans and I could see the causeway which we had just traversed. In the north loomed a great wall of brown. I had to turn away as another strong gust blew more grit into my face.
Gesturing, my firstborn entreated me to follow her to the edge of the tower. From the eastern battlements, two great metallic snakes made their way down to the ground. “Can I go on the slide now, Dad?” she pleaded.
So began our ‘Daddy Day Out’ at St Kilda, South Australia.
Because of family work arrangements, I am often tasked with looking after my three children for whole days by myself. I don’t like hanging around at home, so I often take them on a ‘Daddy Day Out’ to ward off cabin fever. In the recent holidays, a number of factors meant that I had many excursions to plan. The excursions have to be cheap and engaging for all of the kids (aged six, four and two).
Amongst my childhood memories, one place that I remember especially fondly is St Kilda. If my brother and I had been particularly well behaved and if my dad was not too grumpy, we would sometimes stop there for a few hours on our way back from Adelaide to our home in the country.
St Kilda lies between mangrove swamps; an unpleasant part of the Adelaide coastline; and some very stinky salt lakes. It is dry, dusty and completely flat. However, what it lacks in beauty is made up in bucket loads by three child friendly attractions: a mangrove trail, a tram museum and a massive ‘old school’ adventure playground.
St Kilda was named, not after a Saint, as there has never been a saint by that name (Buchanan, 1983) (see this clip from Qi for more details [from 11:30 to 12:03]), but after a part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, which, like ours, has abundant bird life (Gunton, 1986).
St Kilda is an isolated community of 250 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007) and is served by one road, which passes over the salt flats. These salt flats are currently Australia’s only source of soda ash (Taylor, 2003), a very interesting product with many uses. Just beyond the salt pans is Adelaide’s sewerage treatment works whose miasma wafts steadily towards the town.
We arrived at the playground early to beat the crowds and chose the castle as our first port of call.
I soon discovered that the one parent to three children ratio was not ideal as each child wanted to do something different. I wanted to keep them in sight because despite many of the best equipment being removed over the years for safety reasons, it really is still an ‘old school’ playground: in one part of the castle there is a ladder that descends at least ten metres into the earth. My two year old thought that this ladder was fascinating and my time was spent keeping her away from the shaft.
After distracting her with slippery dip rides, I rounded up the others and headed for the pirate ship: three levels of splintery, wooden goodness, perched on the edge of the grey, sludgy bay.
A quick descent from the top level to the bottom was enough for the kids and they were soon running toward the flying foxes, the smaller of which was available. Never in my life have I been able to go on the flying fox here. The line was always huge and populated with bullies.
Each child had a fly before we set off to tackle Slide Mountain: The most exciting, fabulous, amazing piece of playground magic in the entire world. Spiralling down into its centre were two speedy slides. As a child, I spend hours deep in its echoing caverns.
As we approached the mountain, we paused, trying to contain our excitement. Ducking my head, we entered a tunnel reminiscent of a Wild West mine. After a zig and a zag, we emerged into a maze, its curving wooden walls no match for this cheater. Finding the gaps, we edged through, trying to find the magic portal.
We came face to face with the portal and to my disappointment, it was all boarded up. We scrambled up the rocks and looked to the top of the hill. The slides were blocked off too. My head starting to pulse with rage, I charged off towards the little wooden bridge that would take us across to the other part of the playground, but when we reached its edge, it was also blocked off.
Frustrated and with my youngest getting more bored by the minute, I resigned myself to the fact that they would probably get more enjoyment from the fairly standard, modern equipment designed for the younger ones. Ironically, they did. My eldest, however, decided to run off and try some of the more unusual equipment.
While standing near a small plastic slide, incrementally offering hand holding services to the two year old, I had some time to reflect. Opened in 1982 (Taylor, 2003), the St Kilda Adventure Playground was originally full of every piece of exciting, thrilling and downright dangerous equipment you could imagine. Feeling the unnatural concave curve in my front teeth, I remembered the thrill of climbing onto the metal giraffe: you sat three metres up in the air and it would rock so violently that if you weren’t careful you’d bang your chin. Those were the days! It really wasn’t the same anymore.
When I finally felt like my eye sockets did not have room for any more dust, I scooped up my offspring to move on to the mangroves.
We collected the electronic boardwalk access card from the local bait shop and set off for the self-guided boardwalk, my two year strapped, secured and safe in the pram.
We sped through the unmanned interpretive centre and out towards the mangroves. The first part of the walk took us over the low, flat samphire marsh. The green and pink expanse of this edible succulent was surrounded by pristine pools of still, saline water.
Despite the noise emanating from my rambunctious progeny, we started to hear the chirping of birds. Apparently, the mangroves are home to over two hundred species of birds (Waanders, 2004).
As we approached the mangroves, the dirt track was replaced by a narrow wooden boardwalk which quickly rose a metre in the air so we could view the mangroves from above. Mercifully, this section of the walk had a hand rail.
The wind still blowing strong, we descended into the mangroves. They enveloped us, their leaves blocking the wind and creating an eerie atmosphere. The heat and the moisture from the swamp gave the impression that we had just entered the tropics.
A little further up the winding trail, we entered the finger forest. Mangroves grow in the soil beneath the swamp, but send roots up to above the waterline. Because of the tidal variance, when we visited, these roots protruded significantly from the water, making it look like hundreds of fingers were emerging from the mud.
Number two child was quite amazed and was not watching where he was going. “Stop!” I cried, but instead, he turned his head, still walking towards the lip at the edge of the boardwalk. As his toe caught the edge, I stumbled forward, trying to scramble past the pram to catch hold of him. I realised, to my horror, that there was no way I would reach him in time.
He started to fall out towards the swamp, hundreds of spikey fingers waiting to catch his little body. He propellered his arms, flapping about like a startled chicken. After what seemed like hours, he managed to regain his balance and stepped back from the edge. Not knowing whether to scream, snicker or scold him, I took a deep breath and reminded him to look where he was going.
After posing for a few pictures and hiding in a couple of bird hides, we reached the lookout. Toddler was unstrapped and we made our way to the top. We had made it to the edge of the mangroves and could now see waters of the bay.
Before setting off on the four hundred metre walk back to the car, we peered through the mesh that blocked the onward stretch of path. The boardwalk, covered in seaweed and rotting in the darkness of the dense foliage could be seen disappearing into the distance. Once, this had been a loop path, but that half is now closed. I wondered why.
Walking back to the car, second born was vibrating with excitement. The most exciting part of the day had arrived: it was time to visit the tram museum.
From 1878 to 1958, Adelaide had a very large tram and trolleybus network. All but one of these lines were ripped up when the glorious car era arrived (State Transport Authority, 1978). Thankfully, many of Adelaide’s historical trams and trolleybuses have been preserved at the Adelaide Tramway Museum near St Kilda. The museum regularly runs tram rides along a two kilometre track to the playground and back. For each round trip, they usually run a different historic tram.
We paid our entrance fees to the dour lady in the office and headed for the trolleybus shed. Trolleybuses are electric buses that get their power from overhead wires. They are very strange looking creatures and the little ’ns enjoyed running laps, in through the front doors and out through the novel rear doors.
While perusing the vehicles, I realised how so often, things come full circle. Adelaide once had a fleet of double decker trolley buses which were diverted to Adelaide from Japanese occupied China during World War Two (Adelaide Tramway Museum, 2008). They disappeared well before I was born. To me, double decker buses were always exotic machines from magical London, even though they were once common here. Later this year, the government is once again introducing double decker buses to Adelaide’s streets. This little transport nerd is wetting his pants!
After some convincing, I was able to get the littlest away from the buses and move to the other sheds, where we were able to explore many different trams from various eras and
We took our seats in the historic tram that was slated for the first run of the day. It is always a bit unnerving waiting in a stationary tram as they make absolutely no noise. We chose our seats in the open section, where there were no doors; it’s more fun that way (I can hear all the mums fall sideways off their seats).
As we waited, I took the opportunity to admire the detail and artistry that went into the décor of these old trams. They even have colourful leadlight windows!
When the tram started rolling, we were the only passengers. I strapped the little one in a ‘daddy seatbelt’ (on my lap, my arms as restraints) so she didn’t go tumbling out of the door. The old tram rattled down the track at quite a speed. That, combined with the wind, meant that I was very glad we had left the hats in the car.
At the other end, we watched the solemn pole swapping ceremony. The electric poles on old trams must always trail behind; so, at a terminus, the driver must pull one pole down using a rope and raise the other. Modern pantographs have eliminated the need for this quaint practice.
After collecting a few passengers from the playground, we set back across the salt lakes. As we clattered along, the breeze ruffled my youngest daughter’s silky blonde hair as she snuggled into me, her eyelids growing heavy.
Returning to the car, I shut the doors and we were finally free from the dust, wind and heat.
P = Pram accessibility
0-4, 5-12, 13-17, 18+ = star rating (out of 5) for these age groups
Adelaide Tramway Museum, 2008. Adelaide Tram Muesum At St. Kilda South Australia – Things to see and do. [Online]
Available at: http://www.trammuseumadelaide.com.au/01_things.html
[Accessed 8 May 2014].
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007. “St Kilda (State Suburb)”. 2006 Census QuickStats. [Online]
Available at: http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2006/quickstat/SSC42626
[Accessed 28 February 2008].
Buchanan, M., 1983. St Kilda: a Photographic Album. s.l.:W. Blackwood.
Gunton, E., 1986. Tracing Our Towns, Stories of Same Named Places in South Australia and the United Kingdom. South Australia: Self Published.
State Transport Authority, 1978. Transit in Adelaide : the story of the development of street public transportation in Adelaide from horse trams to the present bus and tram system. Adelaide, South Australia: State Transport Authority (South Australia).
Taylor, E., 2003. The History and Development of ST KILDA South Australia. Salisbury, South Australia: Lions Club of Salisbury.
Waanders, P., 2004. A birdwatching guide to South Australia: St Kilda tidal flats and mangroves. [Online]
Available at: http://members.dodo.com.au/~peteriw/birdingsa/sites-6.htm
[Accessed 21 January 2007].
Wikipedia, 2014. St Kilda, Scotland. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Kilda,_Scotland
[Accessed 11 May 2014].
Wikipedia, 2014. St Kilda, South Australia. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Kilda,_South_Australia
[Accessed 11 May 2014].
This week, I decided to try my hand at travel writing. I love writing and travel, therefore this genre seemed like the perfect fit.
I am considering starting another blog dedicated solely to writing about my Daddy Days Out. I frequently have people ask me how I know what to do around Adelaide with my children each week. So, this week’s blog was an opportunity for me to test out this idea. Writing this piece was enjoyable, so I think I will write the other blog. I’ll let you know the link when it is set up.
I hope you can forgive me interpreting my writing brief in a flexible way – I am a man and I was on a boardwalk, which I think is close enough to a wharf… maybe?