Southern Crossings — Day 9: Going Places

28 June
Matt the ubiquitous Englishman has once again woken me by announcing his permanent disappearance from my life: I wake at half past eight to the sound of him hoisting up his backpack. I turn my head just in time to see his lanky frame go through the door before it slams shut once more. Amazingly this does not wake up my ten fellow bunkmates, who are on various levels of consciousness and probably used to this sort of loud exit.

With breakfast over by ten (why do hostels always presume that everyone’s an early bird?) I head back over the William Jolly Bridge, ready for another day of dramatic adventure. Mercifully, the rain from yesterday has cleared up and there ain’t a cloud in sight — just Brisbanites and tourists walking around, enjoying the breeze on their faces. Halfway across the Bridge, the Sun comes out, and Brisbane is almost unrecognizable: gone is the miserable fug of yesterday’s dull cityscape, replaced by a clean and clear view of the two riverbanks. Slightly faded and crumbling, yes — but still a massive improvement from yesterday’s nadir.

At the Queensland Museum ten minutes later, I look interestedly at the info boards strewn across the entryway. Like most museums across Australia, they have a board announcing today’s special exhibitions, rather like how a restaurant would proclaim theire dish of the day. Today they have an actual mummy and other artefacts “straight from the British Museum”, as well as the opening of an interactive thing called “SparkLab” which welcomes both kiddies AND their parents. I’m a stickler for that kind of thing, so I buy tickets for the interactive exhibit while shamelessly ignoring the mummy. I’ve been to the British Museum three times anyway, there’s no need to see more of what is basically just a fancily-embalmed Egyptian corpse.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been in far too many museums over the previous month, but somehow I find myself paying more attention to the design of this place more than the contents itself. The contents of the museum are varied like you’d expect — some stuff on the climate of Queensland, some planes connected to Qantas’ origins in Queensland (its name is an acronym of “Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services”), some remarkably taxidermized animals which the children, excitedly running around, are repeatedly jeopardizing. I know you all want to see those, so I’ll get those out of the way first.

But my gaze is drawn towards the architecture itself: opened here in the 80s as part of the adjacent Cultural Centre, it’s been renovated and mended many times in its history, so that parts of it seems like it was opened yesterday, while others are showing the building’s age. There’s a bit near the foyer where the wooden floorboards turn abruptly into plastic tiling: perhaps it’s intentional, but far more likely that different styles have ruled the place throughout the years and it’s just resulted in this strange mismatch. It’s not exactly distracting, but it is surprising to see such a blatant disregard in stylistic unity — if this had been Hong Kong, we’d have demolished the whole building rather than leave such a jarring quirk untouched.

I’m woken from my architectural musings by Betsy, who announces her long-awaited arrival in Brisbane on the phone. Breathe a sigh of relief: not that I’m needy or anything, but you know, it’d be nice to see somebody who speaks Cantonese and doesn’t remind me of home (Melbourne or Hong Kong) too much. We agree to meet up for lunch, just as my eye catches sight of an outdoors playground from a museum window extravagantly named “Playasaurus Place”, where a T-Rex towers over children excitedly scramble to and fro from object to object. And for the first time since arriving in Brisbane, I feel like maybe, just maybe, we could be in the same happy world.

Meet up with her in downtown Brisbane, under a street full of grey, anonymous buildings. This appears to be the city’s financial district: every building seems to stretch up so incredibly high, so I’m genuinely astonished when Betsy leads me to this roadside metal shack selling handmade burgers — well I say “shack”, but it’s really more of a large box that might be mistaken for a newspaper stand. I walked past this spot last night as well, but the things you miss in the dark. Anyway, back to lunch: thin slices of pork tucked between a fluffy bun and a healthy dollop of salad and sauce. The sauce is the most fantastic thing about the whole thing: a mayonnaise yellow, it flows everywhere, forcing infinite variations on the way it is eaten. The burger is — otherwise — fine.

After lunch, we split up. While she waits for entry to the austere Queensland Parliament, I stride off across the city’s Botanic Gardens, described evocatively by Google Maps as “a riverside oasis for plants and recreation”. No mention of the people, and it’s not exactly clear what kind of recreation they are referring to either. It’s quite small and slipshod for a city’s botanic garden: very well taken care of, but shockingly sparse. What little there is seems to be there for show, more greenhouse than arbour. It only gets interesting near the back entrance, as the trees grow dense and a winding path leads through what might very well be a proverbial dark wood from a children’s book. (On a plaque near the back entrance, I read the words “the majority of plants have been transferred to the Toowong Gardens”. A whole forest’s worth of flowers?) Then down the riverbank and stride across the Goodwill Bridge, another of Brisbane’s wonderful river crossings — except this one is easily the freakiest of them all. Not only does it have this strange War-of-the-Worlds type tripod thing sticking out halfway, it’s also wonderfully modern compared to everything around it. The fact that the cyclists get the central pathway, shunting pedestrians to the side, only makes this bridge the more weird and wonderful.

As the afternoon stretches on, I find myself back at the South Bank precinct and the State Library. Now that I’m not focusing so much on how wretched I am, I have time to admire the building itself: unlike its counterparts in New South Wales or Victoria, Queensland’s State Library is thoroughly modern and sleek, its green glassy façade and its airy portals to the world an overt statement of how it moves ahead with the times. It looks much more like a modern library inside as well, none of that wooden panelling and domed structures you see in Sydney or Melbourne. Here everything is the face of fashionable modernity: couches, powerbanks and amusingly-shaped tables line the main reading rooms.

Up in the higher floors of the library, an exhibit discusses the concept of “home” — the physical and mental spaces behind it, the language that comes into play when we discuss it, and the inevitable conclusion that we all really share a common home. It’s lushly decorated (dare I say “homely”?) and nicely confusing to wander around — even though it’s small, barely more than a couple of rooms, you learn a lot in those rooms, and the interactive input called for at various points of the exhibit doesn’t feel perfunctory or forced. It just flows together as a natural progression of thought very nicely. And I like my museums when they’re not taxing.

Half past four finds me strolling along the banks of the Brisbane and past a Ferris wheel (was that even here yesterday?) to the South Bank Parklands. Formerly the site of Brisbane’s 1988 World Expo, they had a honking great piece of vacant land lying around after everyone had gone home. Instead of using it to build houses or showing the pavilions off as monuments to posterity (or is it stupidity?), they’ve built a nice park on the site. And a beach. On the river.

Yes, you read that right. Halfway along the riverbank, proudly exposed to the elements and the tall buildings opposite, is an open-air beach filled with real sand and surfboards. There are lifeguards on patrol and palm trees near the water, and both look much smarter than most of the other beaches I’ve been in around Australia. Yes there are bits where the illusion breaks a bit — the “parental supervision” warning signs, for instance, or the exaggeratedly large showerheads near the shallow end. And yet none of this takes away from the idea that this is a WORKING BEACH, by a RIVER. This thing, this completely artificial creation, should not even exist according to logic. But the children are having fun, building sandcastles and splashing around the water while their carers lazily eat ice-creams (in the middle of winter!) on a bench upshore. A light shower — really just a few flecks of rain — begins to fall, but the kids don’t even bat an eyelid. They continue to shout and laugh as a couple of seabirds look on, utterly confused by every bit of the surroundings.

The rain passes, and I continue ambling around the parklands. The beach is only the first in a string of delightful surprises as I comb the place: over the next hour and a half I encounter gazebos, forest walkways, Ferris wheels, a concert stage that has fake snow flying everywhere, gardens growing everything from carrots to coffee, and even a promenade fully covered by vegetation. This place truly has everything and the kitchen sink in it. Halfway down my third walkaround of the place, I discover a huge sculpture/installation on the riverbank: a metal birdcage, its bars razor thin, surrounds something that looks like a cross between a volcano and a toadstool — except no volcano has ever been that pink, and no toadstool can ever be as comfy as this velvet-covered cushion. I flop down on it, see the blue skies and the clouds right above me — and in that split second, I decide that I quite like Brisbane after all.

As the day fades, I find myself with a dilemma. Betsy tells me that she’s currently exploring some bits north of Brisbane, but she’ll be back in town in half an hour. Faced with so much time to kill, and having learnt exactly nothing from my Sydney bridge walk, I decide that I will not be taking a bus there like any sane person would. Instead, I shall walk the entire way to the next river crossing, the poetically-named “Story Bridge”, which in turn will take me straight across to the evocative “Fortitude Valley”. (Seriously, Queensland is terrific at naming places.) A voice in my head screams at me to take the bus, but Brisbane catches me off-guard — tells me I can’t give up all of these sights for a bit of comfort.

By now the night is falling fast, and the lights in the skyscrapers opposite are beginning to turn on one by one. The number of visitors past Goodwill Bridge dwindle sharply, and pretty soon all that’s left is me and the sound of water burbling gently on the rocks. Lights are few and far between on the riverbank: what illumination there is barely enough for me to figure which path will keep my feet dry. Occasionally a pier looms into view, a great orange metal box with glaring white lights and absolutely no clientele. But pass them, and in a few steps they feel like a strange mirage in the middle of nowhere. It’s just me on this road, except for a few points when a cyclist bears down on me, bells a-blazing, and then disappearing into the night, never to be seen again.

To my right, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point shoot up into the skies, lit by spotlights of white and purple. I’ve read that you can actually climb up the cliffs during the day, and indeed as my eyes adjust to the gloom I can spot people hoisting themselves up the rockfaces, like the Dutch do with their furniture. It’s not just the odd enthusiast too — there are at least seven or eight lines of climbers, all grunting with the effort, their shadows flickering and morphing on the rocks in front. People run to and fro, figuring out which route to take, checking out their equipment — it’s an astonishingly pretty sight, mysterious and romantic all at once. Why do these people risk their lives to do all this in the dark? What can they be plotting? Have I chanced upon some secret mission? That shadow running right in front of the purple haze of the spotlight, maybe that has a story to tell… maybe it’s time I had a bit of a lie down… to my left, Brisbane glows in the dark, a bustling city of people and pinpricks of light.

Not far to Fortitude Valley now. My legs are screaming bloody murder, but somehow I make it to the Story Bridge. Hoist myself up onto this gargantuan structure and start walking across. For all of its evocative properties, the Story Bridge is really just another bridge: constructed with an iron framework and named (to my disappointment) after a public servant, its sole use is to send cars and pedestrians across Brisbane to and from the suburbs. The bridge is noisy as hell, an agony to walk over, and has enough exhaust fumes to make you wish you were in a public toilet. In effect, it’s rather like walking through the Sydney Harbour Bridge once more.

And just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I absolutely love the place. Besides the white lights that make the bridge brighter than the Sun on Judgment Day, they’ve also placed at regular intervals coloured lights along the Bridge, and I watch as they weakly glow pink and red and blue, a valiant and if I’m honest rather touching attempt to provide the bridge with a bit of colour. But what really does it for me is the framework. Have you seen gone through the iron skeleton of a bridge at night? If you haven’t, you’re missing out on a lot: you can see the girth of the bridge beams around you, you can see them reaching into the sky. But what you can’t see is how they connect, how they intertwine with each other to hold up the entire structure. You can only guess at the mystery of what goes on in the heavens above: how far above us does it reach? The fuzziness of the top of the bridge is a romantic enigma of girth: its aura of mystery is precisely what makes it so very powerful, and call me a sucker for unfathomable things (and bridges), but it’s the sort of place where you fall in love with architecture once again.

Meet up again with Betsy in Brisbane’s Chinatown, a brightly lit pedestrianized road that’s somehow already desolate at half past seven, and enter a Thai restaurant. In the grand tradition of interchangeable Asian expertise, the waitress, an elderly matron who seems to deliver a deafening riposte to the kitchen every twenty seconds, speaks fluent Cantonese (or rather, barks fluent Cantonese at us). I’ve completely forgotten about the food — the thing about Asian food, for me run-of-the-mill and easily available, is that so much of it passes through my mind and straight into oblivion — but I do remember the treacly Thai milk tea that they served. I can still see the streaks of white that the milk is forming in the tea, and a small sip is enough to cause tooth decay a hundred times over — but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a forking good drink.

We walk home through the night. We don’t talk much, Betsy and I, except to point out a couple of interesting things that we (mostly I) want to look at: the back of Brisbane Central station, an old courthouse, the Kurilpa Bridge at night. (I’ve said enough about bridges in this journal, so let me just simply say that the Kurilpa is the best bridge in Brisbane, fullstop.) There’s really not much to say when it comes to Brisbane, and neither do I have much in common to talk about with Betsy. Perhaps it’s just because we’re from different areas of study — she’s an accounting major, as far removed from Romantic poets as I am from the double-entry system — but I still feel like talking more with her as we walk upriver, sharing the streets and the empty night.

Then again, perhaps that’s the thing about friends you’ve known for a long time: out of the three that went to Sydney, Betsy’s the only one I knew before arriving in Australia, and we took a lot of our first steps around Melbourne together — exploring the city centre, the Docklands and whatnot at the same time. Eight months in, extra conversation seems awkward, an unnecessary attempt to look for stuff to talk about. So it is that I find myself unable to say in words what my longest Australian friendship shows — but we both know that it means a lot.

Before I turn in for the night, there is one last thing I need to do. Leaving my room, I walk upstairs. Shadows flicker across the stairway wall, but I’m more disturbed by the abysmal mural on it. It’s supposed to be artistic or something, but this just looks like some artist’s hastily commissioned nightmare. In contrast to my bustling room, Betsy’s all-woman dorm is quiet and dimly-lit, most of the inhabitants already asleep. She creeps out and motions for me to be quiet.

“See you tomorrow?” I ask, returning her adapter plug.

“Maybe,” she says, retreating into the gloom. I turn away from her room just as another door to the roof opens and a burst of noise comes from without, echoing down the steps. For a fleeting moment I glimpse the rough brickwork of the terrace, the people crowded within it chattering and laughing, and beyond all that the darkness of the pitch-black night sky. Then it shuts, and I make my way downstairs.

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