Exploring Brisbane’s South Bank

Brisbane has long been considered the unsophisticated northern cousin of Sydney and Melbourne: an overgrown country town hiding behind a skyscraper façade. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Brisbane. However, as my kiwi cousin recently moved there, I thought I’d give it a go and see whether I could find anything that would change my opinion of the place. Somewhere I did find was South Bank: a stretch of public parkland along the southern banks of the Brisbane River.

The site was originally the meeting place of the indigenous Turrbal and Yuggera people. However, the land was unceremoniously acquired by the European settlers during the 1840s who developed it into the CBD of early Brisbane. Severe flooding in 1893 saw the city relocate to the higher ground offered on the northern bank of the river. To support the ever growing metropolis, the South Bank grew into a bustling industrial hub comprising of a river port, wharves, markets,  dance halls and theatres.

Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II saw the area fade into a shadow of its former itself. Buildings were left to deteriorate and the site became an ugly blot on the surrounding landscape. South Bank remained derelict even after the Queensland Goverment decided to build a state of the art Performing Arts Centre next to Victoria Bridge in 1977. If anything, the new building just acted to further emphasise the area’s decline.

A decision to host World Expo 88 at South Bank provided an incentive to reinvigorate the area and promote Brisbane as a forward thinking and world class city. The event was highly successful and attracted over 18 million people during its six month calendar of events. At the conclusion of the Expo, the Government had intended to sell off the land for commercial development. However, a now enamoured public lobbied to ensure that the 17 hectare area was redeveloped into public parkland.

Scattered throughout the South Bank precinct are remnants of the Expo. My absolute favourite was the Nepalese Peace Pagoda. Gifted by the Kingdom of Nepal, it is now one of Brisbane’s most treasured heritage items. It took 160 Nepalese families two years to carve the 80 tonnes of timber required for the structure. Once complete, it was shipped in pieces for its final assembly at Southbank. Even today, it is one of only three Nepalese pagodas in the world that can be found outside Nepal.

After admiring the Pagoda, we stumbled across one of the many entrances to South Bank’s Rainforest Walk. The raised board walk meanders its way through a recreated native rainforest and creek system. During summer, the lush canopy provides much needed respite from the heat. But its main purpose is to collect and filter rain water for storage in the nearby Rain Bank. I had great fun spotting native Water Dragons basking in sunny spots amongst the rocks. They are surprisingly tolerant of their frequent human visitors. My cousin and I came across one very frustrated little guy who was failing miserably at eating a whole apple. Each time he tried to take a bite of it  the apple just rolled away. We took pity on him (after taking his picture, of course) and broke the apple in half. He thought all his Christmases had come at once!

Emerging from the swathe of greenery, we was greeted by the vibrant display of magenta bougainvillea flowers that clad The Arbour. The architectural award winning structure is comprised of 443 curling pylons of galvanised steel that weave their way through the heart of parklands. Our decision to follow its lead was a good one as it lead us straight to The Collective Markets. After picking up a much needed ice tea from the aptly named Ice Tea Man, we whiled away a good hour or so browsing stalls full of quirky trinkets, local crafts and home made goodies.

Heading back towards the city, we wandered past Streets Beach: a man made, urban lagoon surrounded by white sand beaches and native palms. Despite being the middle of winter, there were a good number of local families having a splash about in the water. I’m sure it must be mayhem in the heat of summer: the lack of shade could prove to be a killer though. Rejoining the Clem Jones Promenade, the walkway along the river front, we passed The Wheel of Brisbane, a smaller and more humble version of the London Eye. To me, there didn’t seem much point in going on it: the skyline of Brisbane is considerably smaller and less expansive than that of London. Plus, the prices seemed somewhat extortionate. For a better view over the city, at the price of only a return bus fare, try the lookout at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens.

Further along the promenade, and under Victoria Bridge, is the QAGOMA: the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.  Where one gallery focuses on the traditional, the other explores all things contemporary.  Both host an ever changing calendar of exhibitions that draw on the works of the best local, national and international artists. Particular attention is given to Indigenous Australian Art, a collection which has significantly grown over the last few years due to careful and considered acquisition. The majority of works are from contemporary artists and feature bright, bold and vibrant colours in a range of mediums. It’s so incredibly reassuring to see that Australia is learning to find delight in its Aboriginal heritage. It’s definitely been a long time coming.

It surprised me no end to discover that I actually enjoyed South Bank. I was a bit worried that it would feel overly contrived and lacking in character (Wheel of Brisbane and Streets Beach, I’m looking at you). However, tucked amongst the greenery there’s all sorts of interesting things to make up for it.  Especially the Water Dragons. Even more so when they are chasing after roly-poly apples.

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