Brisbane, 28th - 30th September
Our time in Gold Coast is coming to an end and with long goodbyes, we break free from our hostess from Varna. We wish her all the best and head to the next host which in some strangely unexplainable coincidence is also Varna born. This meetup, however, has been awaited with great impatience and some anxiety - after all, we will be meeting a celebrity.
Her first book inspired me to travel far and wide. The second one was a base point for planning this trip. After “East in Eden” (translated in English) and “West of Eden” (respectively about New Zealand and Australia) we will meet Isabella Shopova in her current heaven - the sunny Brisbane. And not only are we going to meet her, but she volunteered to have us stay at her flat. She doesn’t know who we are or where we come from, but the sofa is available to us if we want it ...
Not that we insist on being cheeky, however, there is no campsite in the area and with accommodation prices being higher than planned lately, we can only accept. Though with us also comes our food desperate for the fridge and our laundry ready to jump in a washing machine. In for a penny, in for a pound!
Isabella welcomes us with hugs and takes to her apartment. I immediately find myself with a copy of her new book “South of the Mind”, with an autograph. I haven’t yet told her, however, I completely devoured the book on our journey to Uluru. And after that annoyed everyone daring to come close with facts about the Antarctic and details of her incredible month at the Bulgarian base. Her view that we, Bulgarians, have no clue what goes on beyond the 60th parallel, is so accurate. Not that we know that much about New Zealand or Australia either - we are blessed to have her to enlighten us.
But let’s return to the here and now … Once we scatter our things all over the living room we go out looking for lunch, but more importantly - to see Brisbane. Fortunately for us, Isabella is coming too - after more than 10 years around and in Brisbane, I don’t know if we could have had a better tour guide and her central location is perfect as a starting point.
We tell stories of our adventures, but also focus on the biodiversity of Australia with the many animals surrounding us while the water dragons and ibis birds are eavesdropping. You can easily tell that for Isabella Brisbane has fully become her place, her home. Most people here live in the outskirts of the city, where she started off too. But nowadays she is immersed in the heart of it. As she said herself: “The city is just left for me and the uni students”.
She takes us through the centre, on the bridge (Victoria) towards the Queensland museum and takes us to lunch at the State Library. After that we walk on the designer bridge (Kurilpa), go around the station (Roma Street Station) and into a beautiful park (Roma Street Parkland), through the Botanical gardens and a quick visit to the Technological University (to play videogames on the interactive screens) and then down by the river towards Story Bridge.
Brisbane is the youngest metropolis on the continent and is considered to still be growing and developing … like every other teenager. You can tell - old buildings can hardly be seen, only a well-prepared tour guide can show them to you. Everything that is surrounding you has been built recently, in the last hundred or so years, for the new needs of the world, with the new architectural knowledge, with the new material and building techniques. The art on the streets is modern, the parklands - growing …
As Isabella explains there is something very specific that separates Brisbane from its predecessors (like Sydney and Melbourne) - the work ethics of the locals. South of here, people operate at London and New York pace - haste, business priorities and workaholism - making money above everything else. Here, however, things are far from it. In Brisbane, priority number one is the personal life, the family, the experiences outside the office. Work is only a tool to ensure you get the freedom to pay attention to the important things in life. Doesn’t sound bad, does it?
That is why the city is wide, colourful and alive. The moment you leave the CBD (Central Business District) the businesses are truly left behind. If you step on Victoria Bridge (on the Northeastern end) you see in front of yourself entertainment - parks, museums, galleries, a Ferris wheel, colourful banners, and all that with the background of blue skies and white fluffy clouds. And that is typical for many spots around the centre of the state capital.
And today that love of freedom is displaying itself in its strongest suit. As it turns out, completely accidentally we have arrived in Brisbane on the best possible day. On their biggest holiday - Riverfire. The end of the Brisbane Festival is marked by the release of 11 tons of fireworks from the bridge above the river. And just half a million people have gathered to watch.
According to Isabella no Australian city can compare to Sydney when it comes to New Years fireworks, and therefore no one tries to (New Year is celebrated almost exclusively only in Sydney on the entire continent - everyone else goes to bed early). That doesn’t mean, however, that the other cities don’t want to show their firework designs too, so they just come up with their own occasions. We didn’t know about this one and we’re extremely happy we’ve arrived on time. Also, today we only have to wait till 8 pm, not midnight.
We get down to the river banks with Isabella and are astonished! Not by the numbers of people that have gathered but by their preparations. Picnic blankets and chairs, wine and appetisers - everything magazine-worthy. Glasses with prosecco, charcuterie boards of meats, cheeses, fruit, arranged as if by a French chef from Provance! Chequered blankets warm up their legs and the conversation is strengthened by the views. Well, there is something to learn from the Australians - if they don’t know how to take full advantage of picnic occasions, I don’t know who can!
That level of prepared - we are not, and therefore, just sit in a bar by the river for a beer. We’ve walked a long way through Brisbane, we can allow our feet a bit of rest. As we check the event schedule for today (and Nic is at the bar, ordering), the crowd gets loud and everyone is looking to the South. Before we realise what is going on, close to the water with the suitable growl, a fighter jet flies by - EA-18G Growler. But Nic is still ordering and all that’s left for him is just the roar. But we will not despair - in an hour and a half, the plane will be coming back!
The day continues to roll through and about an hour before the beginning of the show Isabella leaves us to continue the walk on our own. She has seen this many a time from different angles and important work is waiting for her at home. We assure her we can find our way back - with Google’s help few things are impossible nowadays … and we split up.
We have enough time to get some dinner but before that, we will wait to see the second part of today’s programme - the second flyover above the river. Just as loudly as the first one the second plane surprised us with a few loops in the air - for the pictures. It is the first year that the Brisbane council has decided to save themselves the ecological arguments (which in Isabella’s words have been going on for years) and the fire jet does not burn fuel behind itself. In the past they have literally released fuel and set it on fire behind the jet to leave a fire trace - probably where the name of the event comes from - Riverfire. Looking at pictures from previous years it looks like quite an impressive sight but we will enjoy it without it just as much.
We pass all the Brisbaners and visitors sitting on the railings and go for some dinner following Happy Cow’s instructions (the app we use to find vegan restaurants). We find a small place with unbelievable burgers and beer next to it. What more could we ask for on a great day like today? Afterwards, we position ourselves for the fireworks - on the hill on the Eastern side of the bridge. It is not the typical viewpoint for the event but there are plenty of people around so we don’t feel cheated. While we wait for eight o’clock we observe the people on the balconies opposite us and we can’t help but think - firstly, how much a night in those hotels tonight would be and secondly, how many friends do you suddenly get dear to as the day comes close and you own one of these apartments. The perfect view is secured!
And then it starts! And doesn’t stop for a whole 20 minutes! I don’t know if it is possible to describe a firework show with words and honestly I don’t insist on attempting it. But one can be told - the feeling … Amazing, mind-blowing, exciting, beautiful, bright, colourful, fun, recharging and …! I am cold but I can only be thankful to the Universe for bringing us here on this exact day. It is an absolutely unforgettable experience through the city’s icon - Story Bridge (which we would talk about in a few paragraphs, you will see why!)
The feeling is New-Year-like - the crowds are ready for a party! Surrounded by hundreds of people we head back to Isabella’s. As people say, the night is still young. Therefore, we should spend it wisely - by putting in a wash (one of three loads). And our hostess continues to tell us about South America and whether that adventure would become a book too (according to the latest information, it possibly will be!). There are exciting things planned for tomorrow, though, so we don’t stay up too late!
Supposedly we get up on time as we have to be in a special place at 10:15 am. But we have obviously taken it slower than needed as we end up running nervously. We cross the centre on a similar route to yesterday’s and get out at the same place we had beers before the fireworks yesterday. This is a ferry dock so we stand and wait patiently.
Important information about the Brisbane river - do not swim in it. Not that the muddy brown waters would tempt you towards such undertakings, but the river is home to many sharks and they would easily take advantage of lost tourists. Don’t be one of them next time you visit Brisbane!
We cross the river on the empty ferry and find ourselves under the base of Story Bridge. After a bit more running we belatedly enter the office of Story Bridge Adventure Climb. Yep! That’s where we’re going and what we will be doing! I am so very excited! Last night we observed it from afar, today we will see it very closely.
Constructed in 1920 the bridge Story is emblematic for the Brisbane silhouette, the longest cantilever bridge in Australia - 777 m from end to end and 80 meters above the river. I had the wrong romantic idea that the name of the bridge is a literal one and is connected to a special fairytale. Alas, it just carries the name of its architect - John Story. The adventure to walk to the top of it has been happening over 14 years now and is one that can be had on just 3 bridges across the world, all of them in the Land Down Under - Story Bridge, Brisbane; Harbour Bridge, Sydney; Auckland Harbour Bridge, New Zealand. I feel special!
We get registered, pay extra for pictures (as it is forbidden to take up any items on ourselves other than sunglasses) and we get arranged to sit in front of a screen. A video is played to instruct us on safety rules after which the girl, taking us up, repeats them. We are given unattractive overalls, the sunglasses are tied to our backs not to fly off and we are strapped into the belts with a quick lesson on how to use the carabiner that will be connecting us to the safety ropes.
We get organised in a line and just now they decide to ask if anyone is scared of heights. I am! And after all these safety instructions I am getting worried about where I will be going. As we say in Bulgarian - the bear might be scared, I am not! The girl sets us off, first on the underbridge and then we start the climb. She stops from time to time to turn our attention to details on the bridge or the building we are passing. We are the first group for the day and therefore the first one to see the bridge after the pyromaniacs last night - let’s see what the consequences are. As it turns out it is immaculate and there are hardly signs of last night’s effects - other than a few cardboard disks here and there, one of which Nic takes as a keepsake.
On our way up we carefully pass a nest of local Brisbane-based magpies. We are quickly told that the nest has once already been taken down from this spot and will, unfortunately, have to be done again. It is completely normal for these birds to attack people once the eggs have been laid which for a tourist attraction at a certain height isn’t the most suitable thing. She takes a picture of the settlers to show to the boss and we continue.
The weather today is incredible - sunny with a slight breeze; even the guide explains that it’s been a while since she has led a tour in such great conditions. And so we reach the top with wind in our hair. On this platform, we are 80 meters above the river and 50 above the bridge. But, honestly, you can’t get nervous or scared even for a second. Everything is so well secured that I cannot imagine what could go wrong. It is probably more dangerous to walk in the city centre than to be up here.
One by one we all pose for a picture at the well-established spots as she continues the storytelling. She points out the neighbouring bridges (Victoria and Sir Leo Hielscher (Gateway) Bridges), the local mountains (Glass House), the reason the south side of the bridge has a turn (Kangaroo Point - the local pub, why would they take it down for just some bridge), the tallest skyscraper in the CBD (Brisbane Sky Tower - 270.5m) and more. She even talks about the engineering precision on Story Bridge as the two sides connected with no gap whatsoever, whereas the newly built 60 years later (Sir Leo Hielscher Bridges) still had to account for a final gap. After that we descend to the centre of the bridge, cross over to the other side and walk back up, stopping a few times for photos. Overall it is such a nice experience that we feel it is way too short. I want to stay up here for longer and observe Brisbane with the breeze in my hair. But that’s not how it works …
We get back down, take off the equipment, look through the pictures and leave. Again looking for lunch, though this time we get lost. Well, not really, but it takes us such a long time to find something nice and vegan that we feel lost in Brisbane. Later on, this causes strong feelings of travelling overwhelm. It is tiring to know that wherever you go it is an unknown place and you are a stranger to it. You don’t know how to find your way, especially when you can’t find bread and wine on a Sunday. As if something is screaming at you that you don't belong: “Your place isn’t here!”. We start to miss those places that we know, the ones we recognise so well. The places we call home...
And at the same time, it isn’t that difficult on us - with constant Internet access we can always find our way around, even if not in the most effective way. We can always call home to remind ourselves of the feeling of belonging. What if we had travelled 30 years ago? Never mind … after all, we are here and we have zero intention of giving up. We just need to move on without giving it too much thought. “Home is where the people you love are”, isn’t that what people say? Well, Nic is always an arm’s length away!
After lunch, we cross once more the ceremonial bridge and we’re at the museum - this time we’re going in. We roam and look - dinosaurs, fossils, birds, reptiles, mammals and what not. Purposefully I skip the spiders, I don't need that negativity in my life. We carefully look at the snakes to recognise ours from the hike, and the sign confirms the first discoveries - Eastern Brown snake. We also observe the only living creatures in the museum - massive (horrible) cockroaches and stick insects (those that merge with branches and leaves).
Once we are done with all free exhibits in the museum, meaning we are too tired to keep walking, we move next door - the Queensland State Library and find a desk. We focus once more on productive activities with a view towards the river and the CBD on the other side.
You probably notice something interesting in this last paragraph - free museums and libraries for everybody. This is standard practice, often used in England too, but here it is incredibly strongly pronounced and describes Australia’s riches fully. And I don’t mean the natural riches or something similar - I mean the literal amounts of money they have at their disposal. There is no state institution of tourist interest that a fee or membership is required for - museums, art galleries, libraries, botanical gardens, parliamentary buildings and ANZAC memorials (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). Rulers don’t know what to do with so much state money in the treasury so they just invest it in their people. Naturally, you can find paid tours as well, but they are only for guest exhibitions, the permanent ones are always free. Oh, and some National parks are paid for too. Фor the amount of travelling we did, anything free is the perfect bonus (especially when running away from the heat).
Tonight we are alone in the flat and therefore take advantage of everything we haven’t had for a while - second and third washing load, oven, dishwasher, bathroom and plugs next to the bed. We are setting off again tomorrow so now is the time to remember the nice things from civilisation.
The programme for today includes a few things but only one deserves a story - Lone Pinе Koala Sanctuary. I won’t hide it at all - this was our biggest disappointment perhaps for the full 6-month trip. The reasons to be honest on this subject are two - first, I don’t see a reason to present every moment of the trip as an incredibly positive experience, when it wasn’t. Second, my personal opinion on animal exploitation (for example zoos and circuses) doesn’t allow me to hide bad practices.
After the koala hospital in Port Macquarie, I was prepared to be stunned by the way the koalas live in Lone Pine. Instead, we just paid for a ticket to a standard zoo, exploiting wild animals. Animals such as bats and parrots closed in small, dirty cages. And they live perfectly out in the open - we see it with our own eyes daily. A huge number of koala enclosures, all of them “lined up” to be used for pictures with tourists. As if the animal has no better things to do but to be cuddled by hundreds of humans a day.
I would completely understand the need for cages if every single one of these animals was injured to a point of no survival in the wild. But unlike the koala hospital, here we see no reason for the animals to be enclosed. Let’s be honest - if the motives were truly selfless, then the marketing strategies would have been completely different. Cuddling would not have been allowed and every sign would have said how attentive they are and what special care every single animal receives. I might not understand zoology, but marketing is a clear topic.
Kangaroos, dingo, eagles, lizards, wombats, platypuses, emus, cassowaries and so many others, closed off without a specific reason, exactly as it would be in any other zoo. We left disappointed, a bit upset and with great desire to spread far and wide that this is not a place worth visiting (when your values do not include animal exploitation).
The day didn’t get much better after losing three hours returning to Gold Coast for something we forgot on the AirBnB after which continuing North of Brisbane. In the evening even a storm catches up with us, luckily we realised on time. We fold away the tent, move to sleep on the bed inside the car without getting unnecessarily wet. Sleeping down here isn’t the nicest thing but in situations like this, it is a great salvation.
We are grateful to Isabela for taking us in even without knowing us. It is a great honour for us to say we know her personally and even have slept on her sofa. We thank her for the private tour around Brisbane, for the washing machine and most of all, for the unstoppable inspiration to travel and discover. We hope we are succeeding in passing it forward!
Vassya (and Nic)