Adelaide's again on the brink of Mad March – that crazy time of year when the cultured and the curious flock to the South Australian capital to indulge their passion for music, theatre, books, wacky cabaret, circus and comedy. While they study the programs for Adelaide Fringe, WOMADelaide, Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Writers' Week, motorsport fans are all revved up for the Adelaide 500 supercar extravaganza (March 1-4), an event that this year includes track work – so to speak – from Cold Chisel, Robbie Williams and Live.
I whirled around Adelaide last year during one of its madder March weekends – the one when WOMADelaide squeezes itself into a city already thrumming with crowds flowing to and from the down'n'dirty Fringe and the more highbrow Adelaide Festival.
During the sprawling Fringe (it runs from February 16-March 18 this year), Rundle Park becomes a rabbit hole known as the Garden of Unearthly Delights. One block from this otherworldly fairyland is the Majestic Roof Garden Hotel. Shuttling between the two, I overhear comedian Wil Anderson, snappy in a leather jacket, telling a companion he's been coming here for decades (he returns for 2018, too, with shows from March 1-11).
In and around the garden's ghostly gums gussied up with fairylights, the Fringe's charming DIY aesthetic is on full display. Performers spruik their own shows (their spiel can often be the clincher on what to do next). Tickets are cheap – the price of a few beers or a cocktail – but you can entertain yourself for nix by roaming the garden, soaking up the atmosphere that includes roving characters dressed as pirates, princesses or whatever. Shows range from family-friendly to full-frontal (it wouldn't be the Fringe without nudity). Previous years, audiences have gaped at the naked trapeze-swinging Wau Wau Sisters and the boundary-pushing "obscene beauty queen" Betty Grumble. This year's out-there fare includes Blanc de Blanc, the Bubble Show for Adults Only and a carpenter who paints portraits sans brush.
Pop next door to another part of the green belt encircling Adelaide's heart – Botanic Park – and there's an equally dramatic setting for WOMADelaide. World music-lovers wander the grounds that include century-old Moreton Bay figs and a creek to find stages ranging from cosy to massive. At dusk, grey-headed flying foxes wheel across the sky, squawking up a storm, adding to the drama. Last year's highlights included the Manganiyar Classroom, a theatrical spin on an Indian children's choir, and Australian trio the Waifs. This year's program (March 9-12) includes Thievery Corporation, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Tex, Don and Charlie, and the Avalanches. The best part of WOMADelaide, though, is that you can become enchanted by an act you've never heard of before.
These festivals can also draw you to unexpected places. The Fringe pops up with events all over the state, including Mount Gambier and Port Augusta. Last year the Adelaide Festival transplanted Kate Grenville's The Secret River – a very Sydney story – to a quarry on the city's north-eastern outskirts where the cliffs glowed blood-red in the setting sun. A cool breeze pushed through the rough-hewn amphitheatre, rattling the tenacious trees clinging to the cliff face, their rippling shadows forming a mesmerising backdrop.
I compliment its director, Neil Armfield, when I see him at one of the festival's long lunches next to the River Torrens, where diners are tucking into platters of Goolwa pipis and mullet crowned with samphire. Armfield is also the Adelaide Festival's co-artistic director so he's preoccupied by matters large and small, such as the pop-up venue's steaminesss and bustles off to find out why the fans aren't cooling things down. My lunch neighbours are two Wollongong women heading to the quarry that night; I advise them to dress warm. Perhaps it's Adelaide madness but they plan to do something rad and sneak a hotel blanket to wear as a stole.
This year's Adelaide Festival (March 2-18) includes more of those riverside long lunches as well as far-flung performances. One that stands out will take place at several venues including Kangaroo Island. Nick Steur's Freeze! involves watching the Dutchman stacking stones at gravity-defying angles. And if anyone says you've got rocks in your head for going to see it, just blame it on festival fever.
There are frequent flights to Adelaide from other capitals; carriers include Qantas and Virgin Australia. From the airport, catch a bus or taxi into the city centre. See qantas.com and virginaustralia.com.
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.