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, 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.