Queensland: The other side of Brisbane

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald hangs out in a city that he usually passes through, and gets a different perspective

The artificial beach is topped up with 70 tonnes of local sand every year to ensure it is in pristine condition.
The artificial beach is topped up with 70 tonnes of local sand every year to ensure it is in pristine condition.

FIFO, the cousins call it. Fly in, Fly out, usually applied to mine workers who skyhop hundreds of kilometres to remote Outback sites for their weeks-on shifts, then back to the Big Smoke for their time off.

For most of its 188 years, Brisbane could have been called Australia's Fly in, Fly out city.

For many travellers the only reason to go there was the airport, and there was no better reason to stay: the Gold Coast, or the Sunshine Coast, or half a dozen other coasts beckoned.

Like many Kiwis I have rellies in Queensland, passed through Brisbane on my way to visit them often enough, and always got the first plane out to the Capricorn Coast.

When I did feel the urge to stay for a night, it was around the downtown area, close to the stations or the Queen St mall. It summed up, still does, the old Brisbane: hot, concrete, mirror-class, cheap, dusty. Not too much to go to because there wasn't too much going on.

Last week I saw another side of Brisbane. Stayed on the South Bank. Strolled the parklands, lunched at riverside cafes, ogled the galleries and museums. And this time I liked what I saw.

Brisbane has been created and re-created by irresistible forces: floods that have drowned or washed away successive editions of the city. 1893. 1974. 2011. Each time it's come back, just a little bit better.

Catalyst for the South Bank experiment, however, was something that Aucklanders can only dream of. By the 1970s the riverbank docks were too small, the water too shallow, the wharves hemmed by the growing city, to handle container ships. They moved the port several miles closer to the sea.

Which left several hundred acres of waterfront land, smack-dab in the middle of the city, to play with. And that is pretty much what, in an inspired and inspirational piece of urban regeneration, they did. It's been so successful that this week it's revealed there will be a further redevelopment alongside the parklands at the Goodwill Bridge.

First, Brisbane tore down the derelict warehouses and turned the site over to the 1988 Expo where hundreds of countries hawked their trade and tourism delights to the world, or those of the world who could be bothered coming to the Big Country Town that was 80s' Brisbane.

When the world's fair moved on, the state government wanted to turn the site over to commercial use. Brisbane rebelled. Chastened politicians created a stand-apart body to find and make the best use of the site. The South Bank Corporation would last 25 years (time's just about up) and operate at slightly more than arm's length from the city and state officials and interest groups.

Brisbane's best friend is its climate - apart from those floods and a couple of searing summer months - and the international planners have played to it. Rule 1 was that the waterfront would be no-rise to low-rise to preserve views.

From the promenade they kept their perspective with a lush rainforest walkway, weaving around secret clearings that double as picnic spots or different-sized, different-purpose concert and performance venues. They fringed that with a 1km-long steel arbour drenched in purple bougainvillea, and then allowed an open-air soundshell seating 2000 and clusters of terraced cafes.

Star of the showpiece is the famous artificial beach, five Olympic swimming pools in size, with its sand, palm, rocky creeks and subtropical trees. On this school holiday morning the pools - from paddling to almost Bondi-size - are thronged with Speedo-wearing locals.

But wait, there's more, because those far-sighted planners decreed that the blocks surrounding the parklands become the home for public buildings, creating a gigantic civic centre.

Over the years it's become home to the huge convention centre that somehow seems to draw millions of participants and win international awards despite the apparent inconvenience of not being attached to a casino; the maritime museum; a cultural enclave of the performing arts, museum and science centres, the state library, Griffith University's music, opera and film schools; the arts college and an institute of technology.

The art gallery is rapidly attaining the cred - and visitor numbers - attached to more-established institutions in Sydney and Melbourne by staging Australia-exclusive exhibitions of great masters.

The architecturally and artistically stunning GOMA is next-door, but I've promised not to write about that because Colin Mathura-Jeffree is featuring it in our Explore Your Passion series.

If you do feel the need to cross over to the other side, the red, council-owned CityHoppper ferries are free. Our party did that, to try another council enterprise, the bike hire service modelled on Paris' famous Vélib' system. After a less-than-gutbusting pedal around the Botanic Gardens to one of Brisbane's hidden secrets - see below - then back across the Goodwill Bridge (pedestrians, cyclists only) to the parklands.

As we settled in for a three-rosé lunch on the shaded terrace of Cove restaurant, grassy banks fringing the river (where signs advise, almost demand, that it's perfectly acceptable to adults to enjoy a picnic with a glass of wine or beer in a public park), the five women agreed that Brisbane has become a good destination for a girls' weekend.

The only male at the table, I suggested they should check Colin's suggestions for fashion and boutique shopping over the bridge in Fortitude Valley.

Then I sat back, sipped wine and took in the view. Strollers. Joggers. Cyclists. Office workers who'd taken the free ferry from the CBD lunching. Families picnicking. All able to get on to, and use, appreciate their downtown waterfront in a way that Aucklanders can't. And the high-rises were on the other side of the river.


Don't miss ...

Carnival-coloured fish glide, giant turtles paddle, and gigantic whales dominate their underwater world at the Virtual Reef at Queensland University of Technology in downtown Brisbane. You don't have to be a student or a Ph D to thrill to this multimedia, so-lifelike-you-can-almost-feel-the-scales model of the Great Barrier Reef and its unique inhabitants.

Open to the public inside The Cube - that's the uni's new $230 million science and engineering centre on its garden campus next to historic Old Government House - it's a two-storey-high, 14m long wall of movie, touch-screen and new sound technology where anyone and everyone can learn about fish and marine mammals, corals and other ocean life. In some ways it's better than a trip to the real reef - the jellyfish don't sting and the puffer fish aren't poisonous!

Nearby the Flood Wall tells the story of the 2011 Brisbane floods, showing how high water covered much of the city. More touch-screen technology allows visitors to see how events unfolded, how the city and residents were affected and how the Mud Army rose to the challenge to help get Brisbane back on its feet. See: thecube.qut.edu.au

Ewan McDonald travelled with Emirates and Tourism and Events Queensland. Emirates provides a daily A380 service between Auckland and Brisbane.

Find out more at Australia.com

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