Queensland’s famous islands of sand

Continuing the chapter-by-chapter previews

Chapter 4 – Sandy Islands

Brisbane – Sunshine Coast – Ipswich

I stayed at the Palace Backpackers, formerly the Salvation Army People’s Palace. My room was spartan, comprising a single bed, chair, hook behind the door and an intimidating overhead fan of propeller proportions. It had a solitary confinement feel to it, but the heritage-listed building was magnificent, wrapping around the corner of Ann and Edward Streets, with great city views from its three levels of white wrought-iron balconies.                            Leaving my heritage cell, I walked along Edward Street to the Brisbane River, where a wide path led through the city’s original Botanic Gardens, a wide, restful strip comprising lawns, rainforest patches, formal gardens, ponds and century-old trees. I knew these popular gardens well, having once lived in Brisbane.
My destination was a mangrove forest near Captain Cook Bridge, where the plants had taken root after the 1974 flood left a massive silt load in the river. A solid boardwalk through the forest was built by unskilled labour and relied, according to a notice, on the suction of the mud and a floating foundation for support as it wound through skinny trunks of the lichen-encrusted trees. Two white ibis were hunting for worms and crustaceans among the rotting mangrove leaves.
Further upstream, I crossed the Goodwill Bridge – a concrete span with seats, viewing platforms and a midpoint kiosk – to South Bank. The joggers were mainly women, the bikers mainly men, including a sprinkling of older chaps with paunches bursting the seams of their colourful corsets. Couples, stroller pushers, a few dogs and one writer completed the scene.
South Bank is where Brisbane hosted the 1988 World Expo, a six-month World’s Fair that formed part of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. The site was then transformed into a community park and it now boasts a palm-shrouded beach, patrolled swimming area, patches of rainforest, markets, restaurants and a few Expo remnants such as the Nepalese Peace Pagoda, A Creation of Peace, Love, Fertility and Harmony.
The newest attraction is the Brisbane Wheel, a Down-Under version of the London Eye. I was admiring it when a gaggle of gasping schoolboys in blue t-shirts streamed past, maybe 14-year-olds. Was it a cross-country race or a boarding school’s weekend detention? Some older boys were taking photos; I read Churchie on their shirts, the nickname of a local private school. They told me it was a fun run; I said that wasn’t obvious from the runners’ expressions. They then explained it was a charity run in aid of the Mater Hospital; that was more appropriate – at least the boys were suffering for a good cause.
A rivercat docked at South Bank jetty. On impulse I hopped aboard, standing up front, the wind in my hair – a great way to see the city. The sleek blue and white ferry slipped downstream, crisscrossing the river from jetty to jetty, before reaching the main city wharf.
We motored past the colonnaded Customs House – dwarfed by concrete and glass – then under the Story Bridge (with a party of bridge climbers) and out to Bretts Wharf terminus, with several stops on the way. The high-priced riverside real estate ranged from the interesting to the appalling. Some trees and shrubs softened the excesses, but they diminish expensive views, so are ‘pruned’. I stayed on board till we reached the upstream university terminus, then returned to South Bank. The two-hour public transport cruise had cost me $5.20 – now that’s value for money.
Roma Street Parkland has been built since I lived here. Erected on an old railway site, the 16 ha park is marketed as the world’s largest subtropical garden in a city centre. I wandered along Foxtail Avenue, the trees bejewelled with orangey red seed clusters. Once confined to remote Cape Melville National Park in Cape York – from where the ancestors of these foxtail palms would have been stolen – the species is now widely grown.
I crossed Fern Gully Bridge, with long views over lakes and pandanus clumps to the city; witnessed a brief, frantic struggle between a small dragon and an even smaller skink, the skink still wriggling as it disappeared down the dragon’s throat; and took a zigzag boardwalk across a waterlily pond, disturbing a mother and her six ducklings. The park’s barbeque and play areas, artworks and amphitheatre create a delightful space to escape the city.
The city’s natural greenery was soft and relaxing, but in Queen Street Mall it was greenery of another sort. Wearing shades from olive to emerald – soccer jerseys, hats, hair, ribbons – the Irish diaspora was out in force. It was St Patrick’s Day and the lilting accents would soon take on a different tone. The hostel receptionist, an English girl, told me ‘There’s none so patriotic as the overseas Irish’. That night a long, green-speckled queue spilled out from Mick O’Malley’s pub. The party extended to my hostel, where an Irish lad reminded everyone of his heritage by travelling up and down in the antiquated lift, blowing a loud horn – green of course!
Aided by a pill, I drifted off to sleep around midnight, to be woken a few hours later by a sad leprechaun outside my door, strumming a guitar and singing a maudlin lament. While he could hold a tune, his friends were more booze than brogue. Exhausted, I slept until the city’s rumbling street sweepers showed no mercy for those who had suffered at the hands, and voices, of the homesick Irish.

Happy travelling!