Brisbane is a fairly typical Australian city. It's a pleasant place that doesn't quite have the sophistication of Melbourne or the physical beauty of Sydney, but it does have better weather, and that makes a huge difference. I found Brisbane to be incredible and quite engrossing, but for different reasons; having just arrived back from Tahiti, I hadn't seen a shopping mall for so long that simply walking round the Myer Centre off Queen Street in the city centre sent me into spasms. Large Big Mac meals for just A$4.95! Endless clothes shops! Camping stores that stretched for miles! Rows and rows of current CDs in the record shops! Concert tickets! Supermarkets! Coffee-flavoured milk! People! People! People! It's no understatement to say that I spent a few days wandering around Brisbane with my mouth open, just window shopping and easing myself back into western civilisation; little things like businessmen with mobile phones, roads with three lanes and cheap, copious Coca Cola were, after four months on Zeke, mind-bogglingly amazing. I felt like Dick Whittington on his first visit to London, and it was a hoot.
As with other Australian cities, Brisbane is relatively young: it was founded in 1824 as a penal colony. It tends to be regarded as a bit backward by the larger cities to the south, which might have something to do with a 1965 photograph I saw of the city; there wasn't one skyscraper on the skyline, which says a lot when you compare it to the blue and gold glass of the ultra-modern, ultra-shiny phallic symbols that define the centre of modern Brisbane. Beneath the heights of the office blocks lives a city that's as modern and prosperous as any city in Australia, a fact that I really noticed after places like Papeete and Amanu. By the time I came to leave Brisbane, the novelty of western luxuries had worn off, but as far as I was concerned, Brisbane wasn't backward at all – quite the opposite, in fact.
When they heard that I was flying back to Auastralia, Dave and Dorothy, our neighbours on the Papeete quay, had kindly given me the contact details of their son and daughter, Gavin and Jenine, who lived in Brisbane. So as soon as I landed, I negotiated the public transport system to arrive at Gavin and Jenine's house just in time for tea. Jenine shot through a couple of days after I arrived – she flew out to Papeete to join her parents on Kabloona for the rest of the year – which left Gavin and his two Japanese flat mates, Kumiko and Tumomi, to explore the area with. Gavin spoke fluent Japanese and was off to Japan for a year at university in September, so they were all fascinating company, but because Tumomi's English was on a par with my French, a lot of the conversations lapsed back into Japanese, a language in which I have yet to learn 'yes', 'no' and 'two beers please' (these three phrases forming the basis for the Englishman Abroad's Fluency Certificate). However, their hospitality was second to none, and the amazing Japanese cooking they produced – noodles, stir-fries, chicken dishes, the works – were up to restaurant standard, and I don't exaggerate. Gavin was the first to admit that although he had spent his first two years at the University of Queensland living off macaroni cheese and Big Macs, he was quite a convert to the healthy and absorbing range of Japanese dishes the three of them managed to rustle up. It all made pie and chips look rather primitive (although pie and chips is still a favourite... I don't see that ever changing).
My only expedition out of Brisbane during my week-long stay was with Gavin, Kumiko, and Gavin's previous landlord John, an elderly Aussie bloke who treated driving with the casual disdain of someone who learned to drive when the roads were still empty. John turned out to be a really pleasant bloke, and the four of us took the ferry over to North Stradbroke Island for a day's exploration, combining some sightseeing with a delivery John had to make to a friend of his.
Stradbroke Island, or Straddie as it's affectionately known1, is a long sand island to the east of Brisbane, just one of the many sand islands off the coast of Queensland (the most famous of which is Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world2). We met Donald, John's friend, who struck me as an interesting type. He had lived in Dunwich, Straddie's main town, for as long as you'd care to remember, and the slow, pleasant lifestyle fitted in with his slightly ponderous nature. Nursing a shock of white hair and a beer belly to make you proud, he was obviously light years away from city life, despite the presence of Brisbane only a few kilometres away on the mainland (which he kept referring to as 'out west'). When John asked him which number his house was on Flinders Avenue – we'd driven past his house a couple of times before spotting Donald on his veranda – he replied, 'I dunno, didn't know I was supposed to have a number,' which didn't surprise me one bit.
Straddie was very pleasant. We lunched in a pub with stunning sea views, walked on the beaches, and explored the Brown Lake and the Blue Lake, the latter involving a short 2.6km walk to the lake itself. This little jaunt only served to whet my appetite; it's been so long since I've done a decent bushwalk that it left me chomping at the bit. Apart from a short walk on Tahiti to Sandfly Falls, and a little bit of exploring in the Gambiers, the last bushwalk I did was the Tongariro Northern Circuit, and that was an awfully long time ago. Innocent little Blue Lake gave me the impetus to explore Queensland by foot, which would turn out to be a great decision.
Other highlights of Brisbane included a night on the town with Gavin, where I rediscovered the delights of drinking in pubs; a visit to Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, the biggest shopping mall in Brisbane, which was a freaky experience after so long away from the worlds of affordable fashion, massive K-Marts and bargains, bargains, bargains; the purchase of a replacement for my poor old bush hat, whose shape and texture was battered so badly by the passage to Polynesia that I had to bury it at sea; a 13-cannon salute on the South Bank in the city, which I happened to be passing at the right time, receiving a free pair of ear plugs as part of the bargain; the Brisbane museum, which was being refurbished when I visited it, something that seems to happen to most museums I wander into, as if they know I'm coming; and a visit to the doctor3 to get some cream for a bout of body-wide eczema that I'd developed on the Pacific, where I discovered that the doctor was himself a yachtie, and wanted to talk about it at length while patients waited outside for their turn.
Brisbane's botanic gardens are also worth a mention. My first attempt at a visit got rained off – I cowered in the covered shopping mall in the city centre instead of braving the astonishingly fierce downpour that suddenly arrived out of the blue – but when it cleared I finally got to see the famed Brisbane gardens. They're tucked into a corner of the Brisbane River4, and manage to squeeze some pleasant parkland and mangrove swamps into a compact and skyscraper-lined little spot. However, when put alongside Perth's Kings Park, or even Adelaide's more botanical collection, Brisbane's garden comes out as just another park, albeit pleasant. I've seen a lot of gardens now, and in order of preference with my favourite first, here's my summary of Botanic Gardens I Have Known (I didn't have time to visit Canberra's gardens, and Hobart don't have a botanic garden as such, just a park – though it is lovely):
Actually, there was one more thing I did in Brisbane: I discovered an HMV store and spent hours browsing. I'm totally out of touch with the music scene, as demonstrated by the number of new albums and band splits that occurred while I was pitching and rolling in Zeke. As I discovered new albums from the likes of Radiohead, Ride, Madder Rose, Erasure, U2 and countless others, I was caught in a quandary. I couldn't buy anything, due not only to budgetary restraints but also to the fact that I don't have a CD player or Walkman, but I wanted to; the temptation to jack in this travelling lark and go back to England – to my music collection, to Melody Maker and the NME, to the London music scene – came back and, although I never seriously entertain a return for just one reason, it happens every time I hit a record store. Reading some of the issues of Melody Maker that Gavin had bought over the past few weeks, I made the sad discovery that Jeff Buckley had died by walking into a river, especially sad because his album Grace was one of the soundtracks to my exploration of New Zealand. The splits of Belly and Soundgarden were equally distressing, but some things just aren't meant to last, I guess.
Despite the temptation of the music scene, I decided that if I didn't get out of Brisbane soon, I never would, so I booked a coach ticket to Cairns, some 1930km north of Brisbane, and home to some of the most famous diving spots on the Great Barrier Reef (after all, diving the reef is the main object of my visit to Queensland). So after a week of city life I said my goodbyes to my kind hosts and boarded a bus for Cairns, a 28-hour journey to the north along the coast that would take me back into the tropics.
1 Here's a tip for visitors who want to learn how to speak Australian (or 'Strine' as the language is called). All you have to do is shorten words to one syllable, and add 'ie' to the end. Hence Straddie, Brizzie, barbie, stubbie, footie, cozzie (for swimming costume), and lots of other timeless favourites. There are exceptions, such as bottle-o for bottle shop (as in, 'I'm off dahn the bottle-o for a slab of VB') and 'snags' for 'sausages', but as a general guide, the 'ie' rule is invaluable for those wanting to blend in.
2 Of course it's the largest sand island in the world – this is Australia, after all, where everything's the biggest and best in the world. I've mentioned the Australian obsession with large-scale models before – all those big bananas, large lobsters and so on – and Queensland has, as one of its landmark tourists spots, a huge pineapple which you can climb for a view of the surrounding countryside. It's all a bit weird, really, though it's probably nothing more than good old penis envy. Bless 'em.
3 Actually, the doctor was very good, and prescribed me lots of antibiotic and dodgy-stomach pills for when I go to Asia. He also said that for stays of ten months in malaria areas, they don't recommend that you take malaria pills, because the pills are so toxic that they'll do you more harm than good over such a long time (pills are only recommended for shorter visits). His advice: avoid getting bitten by wrapping up at dawn and dusk, carrying a mosquito net, and using insect repellent.
4 Interestingly, Brisbane is the only city in Australia whose river has the same name as the city. Perth is on the Swan River, Adelaide on the Torrens River, Canberra on Lake Burley Griffin (formed by the Molonglo River), Melbourne on the Yarra River, Sydney on the Parramatta River, Hobart on the Derwent River, and Darwin is on the coast and doesn't have a river. How unusual it seems to have Brisbane on the Brisbane River, after all that variety.