Southern Crossings — Day 8: Alone Again, Naturally

27 June
Wednesday morning finds the two of us back in Southport’s shopping centre, listlessly looking for our breakfasts. It’s been a long night for the both of us and the mere thought of going long distances is already exhausting. Rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we faintly hear from across the entire restaurant somebody calling out our numbers. The energy from last night has long since evaporated — not even a chocolate shake seems to do anything to lift our spirits. On the tram, the graveyards and hospitals slide by, panoramas that remain sterile and out of reach behind layers of glass and Perspex. Everything is a blur. Everything is inaccessible. Everything about Gold Coast makes this travel journal a chore to write.

Bid farewell to Betsy at Helensvale — it’s her turn to visit the extravagantly bedecked vacuum that is Dreamworld today — and head downstairs to the rail platforms. Helensvale station proper is not terribly exciting: it’s sparse, minimal and everything exciting is way up there in the station concourse. Although it was built back in the 90s, its status as “gateway to the Gold Coast” was hastily foisted upon it only six months ago, and compared to the other parts Helensvale Rail looks positively shabby. But then again, all this negativity might only be because the next train doesn’t arrive for 26 minutes and there’s absolutely NOTHING TO DO HERE. A lot of travel is waiting. I do not want to wait in Helensvale.

Eventually it gets so boring that I get on a train heading the opposite way and hop one stop down the line to Nerang, simply for the sake of being on the move. That restlessness which I felt back in Sydney, that’s coming back, and being stuck in Queensland suburbia doesn’t sit well with that. You just want to move, go to more exciting places. Unfortunately, I picked Nerang, so within ten minutes of arriving I’m off again — this time in the right direction. The train speeds through fields and shrubland that gradually turns into the outskirts of Brisbane. From what I can see, it’s not a great first impression: the stations are all rundown and slightly unkempt, the houses in between them all in need of a bit of work. Some of them even look dilapidated. It might be the dirt on the windows, but surely train maintenance is not to blame for the general state of the city?

By the time I arrive in Brisbane, capital of Queensland, the sunny weather of Gold Coast has transformed into depressingly grey clouds, a blanket across the sky. Step off the train at Roma Street station, a strange mishmash of modern and ancient architecture, red brick and white concrete. Sometimes they clash together in the most visceral of ways: faded brick tiles abruptly stop in the middle of the corridor, continued by a wall of brightly painted concrete murals. You can always tell a city’s character from its railway stations: Sydney Central gave off an air of confidence and elegance, Southern Cross in Melbourne is stylish and looks to the future and the stars. Here in Brisbane? You get a whole synaesthetic experience in a railway station.

As I exit into the streets of Brisbane, it begins to rain. Not torrential, as the sky would appear to threaten: just little droplets, the type of light rain where opening an umbrella makes you look stupid, yet not opening one makes you wet. There’s a stiff breeze blowing from somewhere: not fun when you’ve got a miniscule umbrella and the rain is drizzling down. It’s not a happy trudge up to the hostel, a stumpy old building halfway up a hill that at first glance looks more like a used-car dealership than a place that can comfortably fit three or four hundred souls in it. Check in slightly reluctantly.

It’s too early to have lunch — the smell of toast from this morning is still fresh on my hands — so I decide to have a bit of a walk after settling in. Turn away from the hill and head toward the city centre. Brisbane is a complicated city: built around the river that gives the city its name, it weaves and bends around the river’s many curves. This means two things: the city has a staggering amount of space, and navigation is nigh impossible. The first thing I see is the William Jolly Bridge, a large steel bridge that they’ve somehow wrapped in white concrete. A few signs the size of a small bar of soap inform me of who he was (it’s slightly disappointing to discover that he was Lord Mayor of Brisbane, and not a comedian or a clown); more jarring, though, are the signs reminding people not to jump from this bridge.

At the other end of the bridge, on the south bank of the river (in a precinct they’ve imaginatively named South Bank) is Brisbane’s cultural district: a collection of museums, town halls and libraries. Usually these are good: if you ever find yourself stuck for places to go to in Australia, or just need a break from being a tourist, the State Library and Museums are always a dependable refuge. But going into them now seems premature, an admission of surrender — like “there’s nothing left to discover already”. I turn around, and head back into the city to do a bit more digging.

At this point I begin to get peckish. After the money-spending struggle of Sydney, I’m much more cautious about restaurants. Sadly Brisbane CBD is not the place to be doing this: every restaurant seems filled with businesspeople, in shirts and ties and skirts, all professional and expensive. Me in my anorak… well, I wouldn’t belong in any of those places. A food court halfway along Roma Street itself looks like it’ll have me, but upon entry I discover that they’re shutting for the afternoon — apparently siestas are a thing here. A hundred kilometres south in Gold Coast, Betsy announces over the phone that she’s already tired of Dreamworld and is now at a shopping outlet.

Three o’clock, Queensland Art Gallery. Over lunch in a tatty corner of Roma Street station — one of the best phởs I’ve had in Australia, a briefly refreshing mix of lemon and chicken — I’ve convinced myself that it’s no good, that the day has turned bad enough that visiting that cultural district I turned my back on only two hours ago is the only that can lift the day out of abject misery. Fortunately, the Art Gallery is not a bad place to start: built in the late 1970s as part of a major infrastructure push in the city, it collects the traditional art of Queensland in a building that’s squat but easy to walk through. Although the décor of faded beige tilings and hard plastic floors suggest governmental offices, splashes of style can still be found here and there — like the entrance, a magnificent glass-encased walkway that lets a little light in, or the walkway that allows the visitor to hop across the pool in the central atrium. Shot from an angle, it looks like walking on water.

As for the exhibits themselves, they offer plenty of room for reflection despite being few in number. As with the Dreamworld exhibits, the gallery here emphasizes the indigenous experience, with most of the art devoted to depictions of Aboriginal Australian life and, later, images of a drab and dully-paletted Brisbane. The diversity of their collection of Indigenous art is interesting: there are the traditional paintings and sketches, but then there’s also shields, collages, clothes, vases all sharing gallery space. There’s even a pinball machine decorated with boomerangs. I’ll spare you my pretentious pontificating on the variance of art form, other than to say it’s extremely well put-together: you do learn a lot more about Aboriginal art here than you do in a theme park.

My favourite thing in this gallery, however, has nothing to do with deep reflections: instead it’s a large flashy installation in the central atrium, where a series of metallic balls bob gently on the pool mentioned above, even blanketing the water in some places. The small sign next to the pool — what is it with Queensland and unnoticeable signs? — does not give any context: for all purposes it’s just a lot of hollow metal spheres on some water. But people are stopping to watch, stopping to take pictures. That’s what great art does: bring them together, make people talk about it. Never mind that we don’t know what it’s for, we can discuss that later. But for me, this thing is great and quirky enough as it is.

Four thirty arrives, and I move across to the adjacent State Library. The rain has still not let up after five hours, and in the green glass of the atrium I see it fall pathetically on the ground far below, an irritating dust that seems to resist thickening into rivulets purely out of spite. Inside the Library everything is cool and calm. Readers mill about, minding their own business. A friend from Hong Kong texts me a long string of messages: pull out the laptop (yeah, for some stupid reason I brought my laptop out on a long walk around Brisbane) and start typing responses, simply because it just feels like a way to connect to somebody.

The sedate environment slowly gets to me: the yellow light an opiate dulling the senses. I finish typing, but my legs and my brain refuse to move from the comfy chair I find myself in. What would happen if I just stayed here, hidden in a corner? Would the librarians eventually find my skeleton wrapped in slivers of skin, a testament to lonely students in cities where they don’t belong? Or would the wretched rain get to me first and wash away every piece of me first? There’s a rhapsody of strange thoughts coursing through my mind, though I know it’s for a much banal reason: the rain out there is seriously proving to be an obstacle.

Eventually the chimes sound. “The library is closing, thank you for visiting us and we look forward to seeing you soon.” Not that there seems to be a wide audience for this announcement: there’s not a single person as I walk through the labyrinth of rooms and into the night. I don’t mean to be that old person that rants against everything, but it strikes me that if there’s a place that deserves to be open till eight or ten or even midnight, it’s a state library: a sanctuary for all those who look for knowledge or a place to collect their thoughts; a place to discover the world while still ensconced in a safe place. But definitions of introversion have moved on, and librarians deserve a break. I walk out into the night, into the rains.

It’s very dark outside. Rubbish, I hear you cry, a night is inherently dark — but this one seems to defy expectations. I have said that the library was empty as I vacated the premises: this continues as I walk down the walkway, through Brisbane’s busy central bus interchange, and onto Victoria Bridge. All the while, I pass through passages that are deserted and dimly lit: what little light there is hums unconvincingly, as if on the verge of breaking. There are loads of rain-streaked vehicles whizzing around, but the night seems eerily dim and unpopulated. Perhaps the Brisbanites share my hatred for drizzling rain? Or perhaps I’m expecting too much out of a Wednesday evening. But still: this feels wrong. I’m supposed to be in Australia’s third-largest city, not a set from “The Walking Dead”.

Cross the bridge, and a livelier side begins to assert itself. Brisbane appears as two cities at once: even though the predominant sound in Brisbane Square is still the roar of motor engines, a faint hustle and bustle begins to be heard as I step away from the river. In contrast to the stylish sterility of Southbank, the Northbank (is that a thing?) is unabashedly upmarket and lively. Stump grumpily past the Treasury Building on my way inland, taking a moment to note the mishmash of people walking in to gamble — then as now, the Treasury is used for money transactions. Odd to think that a government building can be used so unashamedly for pleasure, but then again Brisbane is a place of strangeness.

Then onto the Queen Street Mall, the heart of consumerism in Queensland. This is where the magic is supposed to happen: bright lights, architecture that relies much more on iron and glass than brick and mortar. Even on a Wednesday evening, in the middle of the week, this place is bustling with tourists and youngsters alike: everyone around me is laughing or staring at wonder at the colourful shops and darkened facades that come from all walks of history. There’s even a bit of Melbourne or Adelaide in this place: round the corner I find the historic Brisbane Arcade, a slim passageway exquisitely designed with shiny tiled floors and exposed pediments and balconies where you can see everything. Most of the shops are shut and everything is quiet, but it’s still drawing people to walk and stare.

Over dinner at a certain American fast food chain (the Big Macs here are notably larger than their Hong Kong counterparts), I try to observe the people gathered in there. The parallels with Dreamworld continue: there are only really two groups of people in here, sitting in different corners of the restaurant. Near the entry way, there’s a bunch of enthusiastic teenagers, probably just off from their classes at uni, bouncing around and joking with each other. Closer to the window, overlooking the street, the air is less jovial: older people (just slightly older, but what a difference seven or ten years makes!) sit there alone, munching on their burgers and fries, adopting a look that’s almost funereal. It’s almost as if there are delineated zones for “the enthusiastic” and “the morose” customer — and my glum look means I’m probably in the wrong one.

One last attempt to liven up the day. While walking through Southbank earlier, I came across their Riverwalk, a fancy name for a pedestrian-and-cycling path that they’ve built right next to the river far below. (Only when you’re on the bridges walking across to the other side do you realize just how hilly Brisbane is: there seems to be a huge drop down between the river and anything more than twenty feet away from the banks.) A walk on the river always helps to calm the nerves: granted, I’m not expecting much from the slowly-flowing, almost stagnant water of the Brisbane River, but surely it should at least prove more poetic than grimy, almost empty city streets? In the dark, however, it is immensely hard to find a way down to the Riverside. Every road I find leading down to the river seems to end with a HUGE highway overpass, a honking great concrete hydra that seems determined to stop any casual walker from walking down to the river.

After a couple of tries, I give up and walk along the streets next door instead. There’s no view of the River to speak of here: only squat, grey buildings that conveniently line up with one another, unchanging and dull. A Cantonese-speaking couple passes me on the street, laughing and joking about church affairs. Just like people back in Melbourne —

— and for a moment, I wish I am there instead of here. I wish I was back in cold, windswept Melbourne, having fun with friends and ducking into familiar street cafes and museums instead of trudging down a wet and cold side-street, the rain and sweat fogging up my glasses. I want rid of this dull and badly-constructed city, to be back in a place where there are people willing to smile at me. I want to be able to be in a place where I can get where I want with just a few minutes on the tram, instead of being stuck in the city with the shittiest transport I’ve seen in all my travels around this country. But then I walk a couple more steps, and the reality sinks in: like it or not, I still have two days to kill in Brisbane. Stalking past the William Jolly Bridge for the umpteenth time today, the rain still doggedly falling as if God Himself is depressed at the state of Brisbane, I console myself by thinking that if my time here is worse than that in Gold Coast, well, I only have to stand this place for another two days. Melbourne awaits at the end.

Back in the hostel, I huddle under the blankets and write myself a short story. The lights go off, the clock strikes one, two and three. My brain tells me that it’s late, that everything is jumbled in my mind and I’m not thinking right, but I just can’t bring myself to shut it off and go back to sleep. I feel like I’ve got too much to write. Plus, the World Cup’s still raging down the hallway — tonight it’s Sweden vs. Mexico, and from what I can hear, there seem to be a LOT of excitable Swedes in the living room.

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