SA Life

Get CityMag in your inbox. Subscribe
December 15, 2014

Moments in time #8 – The river that wasn’t

Our city has a history. Sure, it’s not especially long or hugely interesting history – but it has its moments. These are them.

  • Words and pictures: Owen Lindsay

Imagine that one morning a Parisian awoke to discover that some mysterious cosmic calamity had befallen their city, and that overnight the Eiffel Tower had vanished.

Now go back to the previous sentence and replace ‘a Parisian’ with ‘an Adelaidean’, and ‘Eiffel Tower’ with ‘River Torrens’ (you can leave the ‘mysterious cosmic calamity’ bit). You are now no longer reading speculative fiction – for this strange, shameful event actually took place.

The vanishing of the River Torrens took place in the year 2009, which was known to locals at the time as the Year of the Swine Influenza. It was a simpler age for Adelaideans back then: no one had yet heard of ‘pulled pork’ or ‘sliders’, a litre of Iced Coffee cost only $3.30, Peel Street was used mostly as a urinal, and all around the country a man named Kevin Rudd was charming the hearts of millions.


But the innocence of our fair cityfolk would soon meet a violent end. At some point during an evening in mid-February 2009, the gates used to dam the Torrens Lake flung spontaneously open, and the precious water that formed Adelaide’s glittering centrepiece was released downstream and into the hungry maw of greedy Father Ocean.

In place of the typically immaculate, crystalline waters of the Torrens, Adelaide’s heart was now constituted by a rancid mudflat. The city’s chief newspaper of the time, known as The Advertiser, tactfully described the site as a ‘stinking mud hole’. Hundreds of kilograms of rubbish, accumulated due to generations of Adelaideans disrespecting Bazza the Bunyip’s general message, had to be wrenched from the putrid bog. Your correspondent, who personally visited the sorry ex-river and then travelled forward in time to write this article for you, can attest to the fact that the once-mighty waterway now resembled the septic tank at a dysentery ward.

So how did the river vanish? The official explanation was that an electronic “glitch” had caused the weir gate on the western end of Torrens Lake to “open by itself” and release the 400 million litres of water. Some observers, however, noted the convenient timing of the lake’s expulsion: mere hours before the gate’s accidental opening, sections of the river had tested positive for toxic blue-green algae, aka river bubonic plague. An alternate theory that we would like to take this opportunity to introduce is that the river gate is haunted by spooky ghosts.

In any case, it took several months before the lake had refilled to capacity – which meant that all visitors to Adelaide during the March festival season were greeted by a sludgy cavity that smelled like a giant foot.

The fact is that the Torrens has a proud history of disgusting visitors to our city. Celebrated author and haver of ridiculous surname Anthony Trollope, for instance, wrote in his 1873 Australia and New Zealand, Volume II, that “Anything in the guise of a river more ugly than the Torrens it would be impossible either to see or describe”. Now imagine if he had seen it without water.

Share —