Bridges not too far
An enjoyable ramble along the Brisbane River
EVEN on a steaming hot day, the Brisbane River flows cool and breezy through Queensland’s capital. To my left, skyscrapers shade the city’s heritage buildings: genteel Parliament House, resting on the river’s edge; Customs House with its turquoise-patina dome; the Edwardian-Baroque Treasury and Land Administration buildings constructed from sandstone and rebirthed (somewhat disconcertingly) as a casino and hotel complex.
It’s only the Botanic Garden and Southbank Parklands that give any hint of the city’s primordial existence, but still these green spaces are clipped and tamed and tell little of the Aborigines who inhabited this waterway before the white people came. The wind picks up as we round Kangaroo Point, setting maps aflutter. It was at this spot — then still wild with mangroves and inhabited by the Turrbal and Jagera people — where a hapless British sailor was said to have found himself marooned with a bottle of rum, a plug of tobacco and sixpence.
“But he did very well for himself,” says the cruiseboat commentator, “for he went on to start a shipping company.”
Now we are passing beneath the fabled Story Bridge, the cantilevered, heritage-listed handiwork of John Bradfield, who engineered Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge. You can map the city’s history through its bridges, the commentator says; whenever there was an economic downturn Brisbane decided to build a bridge. Sixteen now span the Brisbane River, which starts its long voyage in the Great Dividing Range, threads its way into the range’s foothills and through the suburbs of Brisbane and is finally expelled into the ocean at Moreton Bay.
It’s a languorous journey from here all the way down to the ocean, but the river’s broad and gentle curves are misleading, for at every turn a mighty blast of wind is delivered, almost knocking this upright sightseer from her feet. Humbug Reach is the most ferocious of all; it was here, as they finally turned into the home stretch, where settlers sailing upstream to their new home of Brisbane would encounter battering winds. Their descriptions of the mistral were polite enough not to extend beyond the term “humbug”, and thus the reach was named.
The shore is lined now with smart apartment blocks and, peering out from behind, warehouses and woolsheds, sugar refineries and electricity depots too precious to be condemned. They’ve been reimagined instead as trendy unit blocks and, in a marriage between old and new, still bear their original names.
Suspended above the water close to the shoreline is the new Riverwalk, a thoroughfare built to replace the floating walkway destroyed in the 2011 floods. From here, cyclists and pedestrians making their way from New Farm all the way into the CBD might rest a moment against the balustrades or on one of the shaded benches and scan the coffee-brown water for sharks. For this part of the river is a nursery for bull sharks; locals often see them jumping out of the water, the commentator says, and one particularly energetic bull shark was once observed flinging itself, unwittingly to be sure, all the way up into the air and right over a CityCat passenger ferry.
Now we’re at Breakfast Creek, where the first party of settlers stopped for breakfast on its way upriver almost two centuries ago. They’d go on to find a freshwater creek and set up a colony where the CBD now stands. Bull sharks and floods couldn’t keep them away.
Brisbane River and city skyline