By John H. Ostdick
Photos by the author
Rapidly growing Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland, is Australia’s third-largest city
QUEENSLAND, Australia — Traveling with grown siblings, especially ones you don’t see often, can trigger some deep connections that otherwise remain paths untaken.
Experiencing places or events that are important to a person reveals much about them. With five Ostdick siblings, finding personal travel time among all the other demands of family and professional obligations is daunting. Still, in the past, I’ve managed long walks on Santa Barbara beaches with my oldest brother Ed, hiked a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and enjoyed a cool Thanksgiving camping weekend in Death Valley with brother number two Jim, and smiled broadly through a lofty float among a cadre of balloons during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with my eldest sister Pat. (Sister Diane and I have had many experiences but not a travel-specific one unless you count a teen-age bus ride to visit Pat in Oklahoma City that ended with an unfortunate jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves broken leg for Diane.) Each experience taught us things about each other we’d otherwise have missed.
For 23 years, however, I’d never found a way to visit my younger brother Mike’s Australia as his slight Texas twang slowly morphed into an Australian lilt. I was intrigued with his tales of what a vibrant and quirky life he has discovered here but I never seemed to clear the time to witness it firsthand. In November, with Australia’s summer days fast approaching, I finally take Mike up on his standing offer to serve as my wingman for a grand tour.
He fashions an ambitious itinerary of both urban and nature exploration that proves to be a bit pirate code — what you’d call guideline more than actual rule. We venture out broadly, adapting to changing weather conditions and time considerations.
In the three weeks I’m here, Brisbane and Queensland live up to their advance billing. The good-natured Australians win me over with their cheeky humor, love of live, and hearty embrace of the outdoors. I can see why my brother is happy here.
Riders enjoy a river view of Brisbane aboard one of Brisbane’s Citycats, smooth water taxis that navigate the Brisbane River through the heart of the city
We explore Brisbane from the water and on its bustling streets, and put almost 1,800 miles on his vehicle while enjoying the subtle beauty of national parks in two Central Queensland Coast regions, community nature gardens, knock-your-socks-off beaches, small towns glowing in 1950s-U.S. Midwest charm, and a museum or two thrown in for good measure. Despite our tenacity, I only get a fleeting taste of Australia’s far-flung geographic diversity — but it is savory.
My brother’s home is on the Redcliffe Peninsula, about 30 minutes from
Brisbane. The area has a sleepy, beach-town aura despite its proximity
to a sprawling metropolitan area of more than two million (Australia’s
third-largest city extends in all directions along the floodplain of
the Brisbane River valley between Moreton Bay and the City of Ipswich,
a burgeoning town with a rich historical significance and charm all
its own). We use it as base for our wanderings throughout Queensland
and New South Wales directly to the south.
Exploring the Town
We commute into the glistening inland city by vehicle and train, and tour mostly on foot and by river taxi (its downtown core and sprawling suburbs hug the Brisbane River). The intense sun and subtropical clime make for a relaxed atmosphere. Outdoor dining is prevalent, with seafood, beef and lamb, tropical fruits and regional produce popular menu items (as is the grease-heavy staple, fish and chips). We tipple our share of amber nectar — one of the Aussies’ terms for beer — in various pubs but as neither of us is heavy on the club scene, we eschew late-night hotspots.
At places like the Roma Street Parkland, adjacent to the Roma Street Transit Centre that provides long-distance train links to other parts of the country, we get an immersion into the subtropical flora of southeastern Australia. Large Easter Water Dragons stare us down from the path and beds. As we walk along the central path, which mirrors the snaking curves of the Brisbane River, we pass a group of women munching on designer cupcakes during a baby shower and a group of students giggling as they plop their feet into a fountain.
At the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, I get my first hypnotizing access to the fuzzy and pouched marsupials that are this country’s poster children. Watching captive koalas and kangaroos up close is not exactly an active sport, but both creatures have their own allure. In fact, I find myself smiling broadly while I stare at the koalas, who spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping. I snap frame after frame of them charmingly doing nothing (I’m not alone in this). Wrestling ourselves away, we move on to watching children grimace as they tentatively feed kangaroos from their hands for the first time.
Eastern Water Dragons, this one navigating a rock in the Roma Street Parkland, are a common site in Queensland
Making It Out and About
Early one Saturday we drive 45 minutes north to Eumundi, a small Sunshine Coast home to 1,700 residents and a European-style artisans and farmers market founded in 1979 to promote local goods. Today, it is a mish-mash of handicrafts and food vendors that involves more than 600 stalls and draws more than 1.6 million visitors a year on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I fumble with my camera and some stout coffee as a I spy typewriter keys that Noose-based Wearyabin.com has fashioned into jewelry and rows of colorful handmade tutus from Playtime Fairy Dresses’ Christine Carmichael. The pungent aroma of cooking German sausages floats on the breeze, mixing with the crackling sound of calamari frying. Vendors coax incredible wailing sounds out of the didgeridoo, the wind instrument of Indigenous Australians. A teenager plays a haunting violin on one of the street corners. We spend a couple of hours peeking around corners. I make a few small purchases and we move on.
We choose a weekday to spend a morning at the 100-acre Australia Zoo, the legacy of crocodile hunter and wildlife showman Steve Irwin, about 45 minutes from the Peninsula. The Irwin juggernaut certainly funded a stunning place (and has drawn a prodigious sponsor list) — the spacious and pristine grounds house 1,200 animals. As we are once again letting some koalas mesmerize us, a zoo employee asks if I’d like to pat one of the sleeping beauties on the rump. I do so, gently; the softness of his fur surprises me.
From the zoo, we drive to Caloundra, a resort town on the Sun Coast, and enjoy a beach lunch and a stroll along the boardwalk that hugs the shore. We pop into a little picturesque inland town, Buderin Village, where I find an amusing used-book store, whose owner, Christopher Badger — isn’t that just like something from Pooh — is fun to chat up. We didn’t get to meet Renee, tarot reader and astrologer who is also Badger’s wife, but materials in the shop tout her 35 years experience, London studies and worldwide clients.
Taking a Longer View
A koala does what it is best at, dozing quietly, at Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the largest of its kind in the world with more than 130 of the fuzzy marsupials, plus kangaroos, dingoes, wombats, and various other indigenous critters
A six-and-a-half hour drive northwest from Brisbane along the Burnett Highway takes us through many small towns such as Gayndah, which has an extensive memorabilia collection in a museum celebrating its claim as the oldest town in Queensland (1849), before we settle into the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park (think a very nice KOA campground set in an open meadow, with showers, communal kitchen facilities, and a pool) just outside Cania Gorge National Park.
We pick a camping site under a large shade tree, unload the truck and pitch our tents just in time to join the evening’s other campers for the daily 5 p.m. feeding of the local birds, a screeching swarm of about 100 rainbow lorikeets, Australian king parrots, sulfur-crested cockatoos and galahs (rose-breasted cockatoos). The lorikeets and parrots plop indiscriminately down on the heads (hats recommended), arms (long sleeves as well), and hands of the guests, whom a caretaker covered in squawking birds keeps provisioning with seeds. Watching children react warily at first but then more openly to the plundering birds is fascinating, but seeing grandma with three Lorikeets perched atop her noggin is priceless.
As we later retire our camp dinner plates in the gathering darkness, a wallaby almost three feet tall bounces quietly and haphazardly by on his way through the meadow, like a phantom. An owl hoots at us from the tree above. Our full days are leaving me knackered so I’m not spying much wildlife in our journeys, as most Australian critters are night creatures, and I generally sack out fairly early. Each dawn prompts a symphony of bird songs high above my head, however, of every pitch and cadence imaginable.
As we walk the next morning along a 6.5-kilometer trail amid the almost 230-foot-high Sandstone cliffs of Cania Gorge National Park, the echoing calls of sulfur-crested cockatoos or currawongs and the long piping call of Lewin’s honeyeaters entertain me. Rainbow skinks (small lizards) skim across the path through Eucalypt woodlands. Sweat plops off my brow much as it likely did from the Aboriginal people, who lived in Cania Gorge for at least 19,000 years, back to the height of the last Ice Age. Their brownish, freehand art remain on the sandstone walls here. The variety of vegetation is staggering; the park falls within a large natural region home to more than 150 different types of plant communities. During our two days here, we hike all the manageable trails we can find, and thoroughly enjoy the sights.
On our second evening at the park, a group of people traveling together conducts a beer-fueled sing-a-along around their campfire. “Flat out like a lizard [very busy drinking],” my brother observes. One caravaner who only knows one beat banging on a drum, another playing the banjo, and another leading some off-kilter vocals. Not one could scare up an audition for Australian Idol, but they certainly enjoy themselves well into the night.
Moments of Magic
A mother teaches her child the proper way to feed a kangaroo at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane
A week later, my brother slows his SUV down along the Mount Lindesay Highway in northern New South Wales, lowers all the windows, looks me in the eye, and says, “Listen.” From high above in the forest on each side of the roadway, constant, crystal-clear pings — something resembling sonar on a submarine — rain down upon us.
We cannot spot the nondescript source of these sounds, the medium-size, gray-and-black Crested Bellbird (whose only striking characteristic, besides its sound, is its fiercely orange eyes), but the moment is quiet and magical. I am struck, as I am repeatedly in my time here, by how Australia is full of wonder and charming disconnects. The highway sign greeting visitors to nearby Woodenbong says, simply, “Forest, Birds, Trees.”
An hour or so later, as we enter the northern approach to Tenterfield, we pass through a show-stopping canopy of trees, hundreds of pin oaks and liquid ambers that seem to trumpet arrival at a town of significant stature. Alas, the town may be historic — after all, Sir Henry Parkes delivered a famous speech here in 1889 that earned him credit as the country’s “Father of Federation” — but it is nowhere near as handsome as its shady front porch might indicate.
A helpful local government employee later informs us that a Tenterfield health inspector loved trees and convinced the town beautification committee in 1935 to plant them like crazy in the mostly treeless region. Since many of the trees were transplants brought by settlers from England, the newly wooded region became known as New England (today, the New England Highway is its main thoroughfare).
Among Tenterfield’s historical attractions is a cork tree that was brought from England in a jam tin in 1861 and planted here; the locals claim it is one of the largest in Australia. The locals maintain an English good luck legend associated with the species — also known as the Wishing Tree — that extends back to rituals prevalent during the Great Plague of London in 1665. At that time, people came from throughout the country to walk around the tree three times while making a wish — for better health, good fortune, or for a wife or husband. Legend has that few were disappointed if they chanted this charm:
Christine Carmichael has been selling her Playtime Fairy Dresses, hand-stiched tutus, at the local artisans’ Eumundi Market, about 45 minutes from Brisbane, since 2004
Fortune favors those who see
More in me than just a tree
Look at my cork
And three times walk
Before my girth for all to see
Later, as we return to Brisbane, I wonder if I should have walked the talk around the cork tree, and then bought a lotto ticket.
Rolling to a Close
Time and distance have made my younger brother (an increasingly relative term as we lose more of our graying hair) and I very different dudes, but for a few weeks we see those elements telescope and we fall into a comfortable routine that brings us closer again. We both better understand how the discipline of our professional training and experience and personal relationships influence the way we see the world. That insight allows us to understand each other’s quirks more fully.
Mark Twain wrote in Tom Sawyer Abroadthat “I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” I’d offer an addendum to that, suggesting that traveling with a sibling is a sure-fire way to understand what has made them who they are as an adult. It’s not always 24-hour pretty, of course, but it is effective and rewarding.
As my visit comes to a close, we drop into the Bramble Bay Bowls and Recreation Club Inc. on the Redcliffe Peninsula to check out a sport that has declined in popularity among the young but still remains a large part of the Australian culture. At three in the afternoon, a group of about 50 — mostly men in their 60s — play what is a daily set of games on the club greens. They welcome us in with great fanfare, and start peppering us with questions (the elder populace still holds Americans in high regard here, as Brisbane served as the South West Pacific headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur during World War II).
Rainbow-colored Lorikeets, abundant in the area, enjoy an evening feeding frenzy at the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park in Australia’s Bundaberg hinterland
The players trade cheeky comments among themselves, and play with varying skills levels — “it’s serious business but not too serious,” one of the most athletic players tells me between rolls, grinning broadly. “Lawn bowls” is usually played on a large, rectangular, precisely leveled and manicured lawn surface, divided into parallel playing strips known as rinks. The process of scoring is beyond me, but as I watch I appreciate the skills being exhibited and am drawn to the general jocularity.
The Club, founded in 1948 and up until the ‘90s the largest in the Brisbane area, has three regulation greens, two of which have retractable shade covers to provide relief from the intense Australian sun. A large clubhouse provides meals Monday through Sunday, 46 poker machines and, of course, a bar. The club roster lists 400 playing members, and 2,000 social ones.
One of the cheekiest members, sporting a large straw hat and bright blue trousers, tells me he wants me to meet a fellow American who works in the clubhouse. Turns out it is a standing joke, as the guy is a Canadian who the club officer always introduces as their token American. Mike and I settle in at spots next to different lawns, and yuk it up with the members. It’s a fitting, friendly end to my Queensland experience.
A father helps his daughter feed a Lorikeet at the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park, an Australian version of a KOA campground. Hundreds of birds are attracted to evening feedings at the park
SOME LINGO TIPS FOR TEXANS VISITING AUSTRALIA
The Aussies have a charming sense of language, and generally are very tolerant of Texas twangs. They use a soft r, from the British, which can be confusing at first. In general, they approach things more as a process and a journey, not just an action-result development. Australians make a conscious effort to make eye contact in even the slightest business exchange— so no matter how disgusted the grocery checker is at his or her lot in life, he or she undoubtedly will look you in the eye and greet you in a friendly matter. As tempted as you might be to say something reminds you of Texas, don’t, mate, ‘cause it’s not the same.
Here are a few words you may hear, and what they mean:
Smic: fancy, well done, slick
Chockers: full on or full (over the top)
Arvo: afternoon (remember the soft r)
Sangar (sangah): sandwich
Spat the dummy: someone who is losing it or being a total ass (baby pacifiers are called dummies here)
Esky: ice chest
“Are you right?” or “You right?” (from server): Do you want anything else?
Footie: Rugby league to union rules, where you are and where loyalty lies
Gridiron: American football (they do have some organized gridiron activities you can participate in)
Snag? : Do you want a sausage?
Wowser: person who doesn’t drink or fit in
Shrapnel: loose change (expression more common to Brisbane)
Whoop-whoop: out in the sticks or a long way away
IT’S IN THE DETAILS
A young couple enjoys the view of the sprawling Brisbane metropolitan area, home to more than 2 million residents
My other constant, and entertaining, companion during the trip is Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (Broadway Books 2001), about his experiences in Australia. Although much of the book deals with other locations in Australia, his humor and observations of the quirky Australian culture add flavor to my experience. The first time I have a local breakfast — or brekkie, in the local vernacular — I laugh out loud when my bacon (always order it crispy unless you like your pork raw) and poached eggs arrive, remembering how Bryson described the odd way bacon is sliced and served here — in long, thin, wide cuts, as if the pig was running away from the butcher when cut.
All money amounts in Australian dollars
How to Get There:
Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and New York are Qantas gateway cities from the States to Australia. The airline began offering daily non-stop service from D/FW Airport to Brisbane in July. Visit www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/texas-australia-non-stop/us/en for details.
A park train ride passes by a group of women holding a baby shower for a friend at the Roma Street Parkland in downtown Brisbane
A shuttle bus runs between the airport and the city’s Transit Centre about every half-hour till mid-evening. There are also shuttle buses to the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. The Air Train is a privately owned operation that runs to the city as well as the Gold Coast (if you pay via a go card it costs about $15 to the city; if you purchase at the terminal it runs $23).
For a river-view of Brisbane, CityCat water taxis, low-wash catamarans that minimize damage to the riverbanks, navigate the Brisbane River, which runs through the heart of the city, daily from 5:50 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. from many points along the river.
Public transportation tips: It’s less expensive to put a $20 deposit on a “go card,” as paper tickets are significantly more expensive. As a bonus, after after ten trips in a week, riders travel free. Applies to trains, ferries, and buses. Trains to the Gold Coast are regular and relatively quick but going north to the Sunshine Coast is not optimal, as they are too slow and have poor connections; get a rental car if you are headed that way. Visit http://translink.com.au/tickets-and-fares/go-card for more details.
Britz Brisbane, located between the airport and city center rents motorhomes, campervans and cars for exploration of Central Australia. Visit http://www.britz.com.au/brisbane-campervan-hire.
Two young surfers carry their boards along the boardwalk at King’s Beach in Caloundra, a beachfront community north of Brisbane
Where to Stay:
In Brisbane, the Emporium Hotel (1000 Ann Street in Fortitude Valley), offers 102 studio-style suites, and is within a relatively flat walking distance to the entertainment district (less than ¾ of a mile) and about 1 1/3 miles to Queen Street Mall. Seasonal standard room from $199 to $319. Visit www.emporiumhotel.com.au/.
In Redcliffe, Oaks Mon Komo Redcliffe (99 Marine Parade) is a good-value, resort-style hotel close to cafes, shopping, entertainment, and water and beach opportunities at Settlement’s Cove and Sutton’s Beach. Seasonal rates for a standard room from $114. Visit www.oakshotelsresorts.com/oaks-mon-komo-resort/.
Outside Cania Gorge National Park, the Cania Gorge Caravan & Tourist Park offers 23 acres of tree-shaded cabins and campsites. Only from minutes from the Park’s hiking trails, the site offers camp kitchens with tables and chairs, barbecue facilities, hot water for washing up and electrical source, a tennis court, and three swimming pools. Unpowered campsites from $30, cabins from $85. Visit www.caniagorge.com.au/.
What to Do:
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the largest koala sanctuary in the world, offers a close-up view of more than 130 of the fuzzy marsupials who live here, alongside kangaroos, dingoes, wombats and birds of all feathers. Visit www.koala.net
QUT Art Museum, located within QUT Gardens Cultural Precinct, offers six galleries that contain a nationally significant collection focused on contemporary Australian art. Free admission. Visit www.artmuseum.qut.com.
The Queen Street Mall, a pedestrian mall in the city center, is a bustling mix of brick-and-mortar and open-air retail, sidewalk café, and street performance. Visit www.queenstreetmall.com.au.
The Cape Byron Lighthouse, on the most easterly point of mainland Australia, stands 72 feet high, perched 308 feet above sea level on the crest of a windswept headland. Built in 1901, it is today a national park
Australia is divided into three time zones. Queensland is on Eastern Standard Time throughout the year, currently 16 hours ahead of Texas.
Electricity: Australia has 220-240 V; 50Hz with plugs that have angled pins.
Tipping is not common in Australia. When eating out, shopping or taking taxis, the prices are inclusive of GST.