Brisbane: The River City of Oz

Getting to Australia was straightforward, but tedious. I stayed overnight in Los Angeles and took advantage of having a late flight to spend the day in Santa Monica. That gave me a chance to shop for a new travel alarm clock (having forgotten to pack mine) and a cheap (remaindered) three-in-one mystery collection. The overseas flights (to Auckland and on to Brisbane) were routine and there were no hassles with immigration or customs. I'd booked a single room at Durham Villa Backpackers on Highgate Hill and had a minor complication when the airport coach service couldn't find the place. They consulted maps and decided it wasn't really in their service area but they'd take me anyway, as they had already sold me a ticket. At any rate, I got there and found a comfortable, quiet, and convenient place to stay for AUD 30 a night. Ordinarily, that would mean a high recommendation, but the place was in the process of being sold and I can't speak for how it will be under the new owner. Incidentally, most of the other people staying there were either workers (e.g. British couples on work visas) or foreigners studying Engish. Which may explain why the airport coach driver was unfamiliar with it.

The CBD, the South Bank Parklands, and the Queensland Museum

My strategy for conquering jet lag is to keep moving until early evening on my first day. So I set out to walk around Brisbane. I crossed the Brisbane River, walked up to the Central Business District (CBD), and stopped in a bookstore, where I found a book of Brisbane walks. I used that as a guide in my meandering. The CBD has a large number of 19th century buildings, with City Hall on King George Square being one of the more attractive.

King George Square, showing city hall

The square itself is pleasant, with fountains, flocks of ibis, and four very modernistic sculptures representing Agaememnon. Brisbane also had a series of cows on parade. I never succeeded in learning whether they were the Chicago ones on loan or a home grown version, but the signs indicated that they benefited the Leukemia Society.

My meandering eventually took me back to the south side of the Brisbane River, where I strolled through the South Bank Parklands. This stretch of land includes a number of cultural facilities, as well as a pleasant rainforest walk and a Nepalese pagoda.

Nepalese pagoda

I felt energetic enough to tackle the Queensland Museum, which is also in the South Bank area. This is one of those "a bit of everything" museums. The lowest level focuses on dinosaurs and fossils, including Tasmanian tigers. There's another room of fossils upstairs, along with a room on whales and whaling, and a room of general nostaligia (e.g. old music boxes). The best exhibits were one of Aboriginal artifacts (spears, boomerangs, woven baskets, etc.) and a large section on Melanesian culture. The latter had a lot of material on Papua New Guinea, as well as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. That proved to be a fascinating reminder of how attractive I find the artwork of that region. There was also a lengthy video about a cultural center in the Fly River region, emphasizing the conflicts between local traditions and Christianity. The museum also had a special exhibit about the Vietnam war, which came across as a rather simplistic view of Australian versus American involvement in Southeast Asia. Finally, there were the usual natural history cases, full of taxidermied animals and birds and mounted butterflies and insects. All in all, the museum was worth a couple of hours.


The Royal Queensland Show was going on and, since one of my personal travel rules is to attend local festivals whenever possible, I went. The show is known as Ekka, though I was never able to find out exactly what the word means. (I suspect that it's an abbreviation for "exhibition." One of the hallmarks of Australian English is compulsive abbreviation.) It's sponsored by the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland (RNA for short) and is, essentially, a state fair. The dominant exhibits were livestock related. Given that the showgrounds are within sight of the city skyscrapers, it's a bit odd seeing stud bulls advertised and displayed. My favorite livestock exhibits involved fiber animals. Not only were there lots of sheep, but there were mohair goats, llamas and alpacas. The merino sheep are, of course, particularly associated with Australia and are truly odd. I suspect that three quarters of their weight must be in wool. The fiber shed included a recitation by bush poets and a sheep shearing demonstration, as well as weaving and spinning demonstrations.

The horse breeds exhibit included a parade with the riders wearing "suitable" clothes for the breeds. That meant a harem girl costume for the Arabian and American Indian attire for the Appaloosas. Fortunately, they don't put dairy cattle on parade. Other livestock exhibits included dairy goats (cute), pigs (cleaner than dairy cattle) and deer. There's no sentiment with the latter; Bambi is, quite simply, meat. There was also a living history area, with demonstrators discussing farm implements of the past. I ignored the animal nursery, but did walk briefly through the poultry barn. That included caged birds, too - pigeons, finches and budgerigars. The soft-feathered chickens, which are very very fluffy, struck me as being particularly strange. To round things out, there was also a dog show. No cats, however, and definitely no rabbits, which are illegal to keep as pets in Queensland.

A "healthy living" exhibt had various organic and new age products. Fruits and vegetables were arranged to make pictures, exhibiting the show theme ("the year of the Outback"), but I'd have preferred more tastings. The horticulture pavilion had a fair number of native plants and a large aquarium area. There were the usual sort of commercial exhibits and government displays. The tourism exhibit was focused on camping in Queensland, while the only item of interest in the police exhibit was a section on unsolved murders within the state.

"Quilts Across Queensland" was particularly enjoyable. It also illustrated the rural emphasis, as many of the quilt designs had farming themes. In the creative art and craft area, the painting and photography didn't interest me much. But there was a nice mix of needlework, including bobbin lace and tatting. The embroidery section had a surprisingly large amount of blackwork.

There was also plenty of entertainment. Cirque du Ciel featured impressive aerialists, while the log rolling and tree climbing show (pitting an American versus and Australian) was surprisingly amusing. A lot of people seemed to enjoy a hypnotism show, but I always find the whole idea somewhat unsettling. The "Deadly Australians" exhibit, however, was fascinating. I like snakes but, even so, I find the Western taipan really scary. The snake handler said that one drop of its venom will coagulate several gallons of blood within ten minutes. And they can strike without warning. I'll stick to our polite American snakes that have the decency of rattling to scare you off! Other entertainment included what they called a "sideshow" but I'd call a carnival midway. That is, there were rides and various games, but not exhibits of oddities. The strangest performances were at the woodchop arena. Men compete at things like underhand sawing and the two man axe relay. The other uniquely Australian exhibit was the Show Bag pavilion. This is a huge area filled with big bags of assorted odds and ends - mostly toys and candies. I suppose the prices are viewed as great bargains, as most of the people present seemed to buy several bags.

The mix of the familiar and the uniquely Australian made the show well worth the AUD 18 admission. (For comparison, the exchange rate was roughly 1 AUD = 0.56 USD.) I suppose one could get the same insight into local culture by talking to enough people, but it's far easier to just see for one's self how Australians still think of themselves as farmers and ranchers, despite increasing urbanization. (Bear in mind, though, that Americans are hardly immune to this. The Los Angeles County Fair has its share of sheep and goats.) At any rate, my personal rule about going to local festivals certainly proved its worth.

Aboriginal Culture Tour

I ran into a mysterious public holiday, which apparently had something to do with giving people time off to attend the Ekka. For a change I'd had some forethought and booked a tour for that day. The tour I chose was one that focused on aboriginal culture. The other people along for the afternoon were a British couple with a teenage son and an elderly couple from New Zealand. Our first stop was Mount Coot-tha, just outside Brisbane. There's a view of the city from a lookout, so one can appreciate how sprawling Brisbane is. Our guide, Jamal, talked about the traditional boundaries between aboriginal tribes. He was from the Balundjam people, who lived further south, while the Yangari were the local people of Brisbane. By the way, the term "Murri" is the one that aboriginal people in northeastern Australia use for themselves. Jamal also talked about the missions and their impact on destroying native languages and culture.

Then we drove to the Roma Street Parklands, a nice (and quite new - opened in June 2002) public park, where Jamal explained how the Murri used various native plants. The only one that particularly stuck in my mind was the Australian grass tree, the long stems of which were used for spear hilts. The bark can also be made into an adhesive resin when burned. Various other plants he pointed out as havigng either edible fruits or medicinal leaves.

We went on to Musgrave Park in South Brisbane, where a cultural center is being built. We looked at various artifacts, then had a late lunch while watching a video about painting. The lunch included various fruits, green salad, bread, and kangaroo. The latter was quite tasty, though rather tough in texture. I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to have it again, but I wouldn't object too strongly. After eating we attempted boomerang tosses, which I was rather hopeless at. Not surprisingly, the teenager was the best at it. He was also quite good on the didgeridoo. Overall, I'd say the tour was fairly interesting, but I felt a bit lectured to at times during it. I did come away feeling like I understood a lot more about Murri culture than I had when I started - and a lot more than most white Australians do.

The Quest For Kina

My final day in Brisbane was occupied with errand running. I checked email, did laundry and bought a few odds and ends (e.g. batteries, mosquito repellant). But most of my time was taken up with the quest for kina.

Kina are the currency of Papua New Guinea and the brochure from Trans Niugini Tours strongly recommended obtaining them in Australia, as banking hours at the Port Moresby airport are irregular at best. The catch is that relatively few banks in Brisbane sell kina and most of those who claim to sell kina don't actually have any for sale. I can't prove that I went to every single bank in the CBD but I must have come close. One bank had a couple of hundred kina left since somebody else had just cleaned out most of their supply. The next seven or eight either had never heard of kina, had never heard of Papua New Guinea, or had never heard of money. One or two clerks saw fit to warn me about headhunters. Eventually, one place had some kina that might have been on hold for another client. I talked them into calling to check and it turned out that the other person had been scared off by headhunters or by the difficulty of obtaining kina or both. So I managed to change what I hoped would be enough money to buy the necessities of PNG travel. At least I'd be able to keep myself supplied with bottled water and South Pacific lager, and still buy a penis gourd or two. Actually, I spent most of the next two weeks convinced I had changed too much money and that I wouldn't be able to find anywhere to change it back. The truth (as truth so often does) lay in between.

Back to Last Chapter | Back to PNG Index | On to Next Chapter | Xenophilia Home

Copyright 2002 Miriam H. Nadel

last updated 23 September 2002
Send comments to