Having grown rapidly to around two million residents in recent years, BRISBANE is by far the largest city in Queensland, its fortunes booming. However, despite having many of the trappings of a business and trade centre – urban sprawl, high-rise buildings, slow-moving traffic, crowded streets – there’s little of the pushiness that usually accompanies them. To urbanites used to a more aggressive approach, the atmosphere is slow, but to others the languid pace is a welcome change and reflects relaxed rather than regressive attitudes.
Brisbane is an attractive enough place, with the typical features of any Australian city of a comparable age and size – a historic precinct, museums, botanic gardens and a glut of good cafés, restaurants and music venues – it just lacks the funky beach settlements. It’s a fairly easy place to find casual, short-term employment, however, and the healthy, unpredictable social scene tempts many travellers to spend longer here than they had planned. As for exploring further afield, you’ll find empty beaches and surf on North Stradbroke Island and dolphins around Moreton Island – both easy to reach from the city.
In 1823, responding to political pressure to shift the “worst type of felons” away from Sydney, the New South Wales government sent Surveyor General John Oxley north to find a suitable site for a new prison colony. Sailing into Moreton Bay, he was shown a previously unknown river by three shipwrecked convicts who had been living with Aborigines. He explored it briefly, named it “Brisbane” after the governor, and the next year established a convict settlement at Redcliffe on the coast. This was immediately abandoned in favour of better anchorage further upstream, and by the end of 1824 today’s city centre had become the site of Brisbane Town.
Twenty years on, a land shortage down south persuaded the government to move out the convicts and free up the Moreton Bay area to settlers. Immigrants on government-assisted passages poured in and Brisbane began to shape up as a busy port – an unattractive, awkward town of rutted streets and wooden shacks. As the largest regional settlement of the times, Brisbane was the obvious choice as capital of the new state of Queensland on its formation in 1859, though the city’s first substantial buildings were constructed only in the late 1860s, after fire had destroyed the original centre and state bankruptcy was averted by Queensland’s first gold strikes at Gympie. Even so, development was slow and uneven: new townships were founded around the centre at Fortitude Valley, Kangaroo Point and Breakfast Creek, gradually merging into a city.
After World War II, when General Douglas MacArthur used Brisbane as his headquarters to coordinate attacks on Japanese forces based throughout the Pacific, Brisbane stagnated, earning a reputation as a dull, underdeveloped backwater – not least thanks to the Bjelke-Petersen regime.
Since his time, escalating development has impressed upon the city’s skyline and for the past decade Brisbane has boasted the country’s highest internal migration figures and a quarter of the national population growth, resulting in booming house prices and the redevelopment of the dilapidated Brisbane River foreshore into upmarket apartments, many of which had to be evacuated when the river burst its banks in January 2011.Read More
John Oxley recorded that the Brisbane Aborigines were friendly; in the early days, they even rounded up and returned runaways from the settlement. In his orders to Oxley on how to deal with the indigenous peoples, Governor Brisbane admitted, though in a roundabout way, that the land belonged to them: “All uncivilized people have wants … when treated justly they acquire many comforts by their union with the more civilized. This justifies our occupation of their lands.”
But future governors were not so liberal, and things had soured long before the first squatters moved into the Brisbane area and began leaving out “gifts” of poisoned flour and calling in the Native Mounted Police to disperse local Aborigines – a euphemism for exterminating them. In the later part of the nineteenth century, survivors from these early days were dispossessed by the Protection Act (in force until the 1970s), which saw them rounded up and relocated onto special reserves away from traditional lands.
A trace of Brisbane’s Aboriginal past is found at the Nudgee Bora Ring about 12km north of the centre at Nudgee Waterhole Reserve, at the junction of Nudgee and Childs roads. Last used in 1860, two low mounds where boys were initiated form little more than an icon today, and you’ll probably feel that it’s not worth the trip. More rewarding are the several Aboriginal walking trails at Mount Coot-tha; the City Hall information desk has leaflets on these which explain traditional uses of the area.
The Brisbane River
The Brisbane River
The sluggish, meandering Brisbane River is, at four hundred million years old, one of the world’s most ancient waterways. It flows from above Lake Wivenhoe – 55km inland – past farmland, into quiet suburbs and through the city before emptying 150km downstream into Moreton Bay. Once an essential trade and transport link with the rest of Australia and the world, it now seems to do little but separate the main part of the city from South Brisbane; though it’s superficially active around the city centre, with ferries and dredgers keeping it navigable, most of the old wharves and shipyards now lie derelict or buried under parkland.
If the locals seem to have forgotten the river, it has a habit of reasserting its presence through flooding. In February 1893 cyclonic rains swelled the flow through downtown Brisbane, carrying off Victoria Bridge and scores of buildings: eyewitness accounts stated that “debris of all descriptions – whole houses, trees, cattle and homes – went floating past”. This has since been repeated many times, notably in January 1974 when rains from Cyclone Wanda completely swamped the centre, swelling the river to a width of 3km at one stage. Despite reminders of this in brass plaques marking the depths of the worst floods at Naldham House Polo Club (at 1 Eagle St), the construction of the Lake Wivenhoe dam, completed in 1984, gave property developers (and their insurers) the confidence to build some of Brisbane’s poshest homes beside the river, notably at Yeronga, Graceville and Chelmer, southwest of the centre. However, the dam couldn’t contain the sheer volume of rain that fell in January 2011 and the river burst its banks once again, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Disastrous though this was, renovation work proceeded speedily and most buildings and services had reopened within a few weeks.
Drinks for women: the Regatta Hotel
Drinks for women: the Regatta Hotel
Though Australian pubs still tend towards being all-male enclaves, women were once legally barred to “protect” them from the corrupting influence of foul language. On April 11, 1965, Merle Thornton (mother of the actress Sigrid Thornton) and her friend Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the footrail of the Regatta Hotel bar at Toowong in protest; the movement they inspired led to the granting of “the right to drink alongside men” in the mid-1970s. The grand, pink-and-white colonial hotel, now a trendy place for a drink after work on Fridays, is on the west bank of the river along Coronation Drive, about 2km from the city centre towards St Lucia – catch the City Cat ferry to Regatta.