Reflections on a tropical Brisbane

My childhood home: the tangled overgrown garden setting of the Brisbane Queenslander

I love flying into Brisbane. After 22 years living away from my home town, I still get a thrill returning, as I did again late last week.

It’s not that Brisbane is better than Sydney or Melbourne — or Cairns, my ‘new’ home of over 20 years. It’s not better or worse than anywhere. It’s just the place that most resonates with me. I think this resonance is more than simply the memories I have of growing up here — although they surely count for something. But I have memories of other places too and those places do not feel the same. Brisbane is a place with which I feel a deep affinity despite its drawbacks. Its elements have given rise to my world view. And these elements, to me, are the spirit of the tropics.

Based on its latitude south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Brisbane is a subtropical city. However with the changing climate, my colleague Steve Turton points out that the boundary between the tropics and subtropics has shifted south. Brisbane is increasingly becoming a truly tropical city.

Absent the science, Brisbane has always felt tropical to me. Since my move north to Cairns and my intermittent experiences in Singapore I realise that my impressions of place growing up fell somewhat short of the reality of tropical life. But not short enough for me to forego my identity as a person of the tropics.

Amidst the bird life at a picnic at JC Slaughter Falls: 10km from the CBD

On this trip I ran the newly re-opened Riverwalk from New Farm to the CBD. At a snail’s pace, it took just 15 minutes in the late afternoon sun to reach the bars and restaurants of the Eagle St pier. Along the way I was reminded of the things that stood out to me as signposts of this place and in a way, of me.

Brisbane CBD

The shiny new Riverwalk replaced the previous one swept away by the Brisbane floods. I’d never used the old one but I had a fair bit of experience of the Brisbane River during my life. My grandparents had lived on the river at Chelmer. They endured the ‘74 floods but apart from that major disruption to my childhood experiences of the river, the riverbank was a fabulous place to play.

As an adult in the early 1990s, I lived on the river at New Farm. At that time I was rowing out of the old Commercial Rowing Club shed at South Brisbane, where the State Library now stands. Without a Riverwalk, I would either catch the ferry to work or walk on top of the cliffs between New Farm and the city.

House perched atop a cliff, between New Farm and the City

I am familiar with the view of the city from down on the river bank. There is a lot to discover at that level and all is revealed on the Riverwalk itself, if you’re of a mind to see it.

View of the city and Story Bridge over disused wharves.

Declarations of Brisbane’s ‘world city’ status following the G20 perhaps mask what I think is a more authentic picture. Like so many tropical cities, Brisbane has a visible colonial past. The shiny towers of the CBD dwarf the low-set sandstone buildings of the early days.

River-level basement window of Customs House — now a restaurant in CBD Brisbane

With colonisation comes the experience common to much of the tropical world: dispossession. The Aboriginal tent embassy at Musgrave Park in West End is a reminder of this. It is to our shame that there are familiar faces fronting protests about land rights and deaths in custody over 30 years after the protests of the Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

On this one afternoon, I saw a small, very small, portion of the pieces that make up my Brisbane. They loom large as the building blocks of the imaginary of the tropics that have informed my world-view, though there are many, many more. These fragments point to a rich reservoir of juxtaposition — of old and new, of shiny and decrepit, of dark and light. I remain convinced though that if we are to take the positive imaginary of the tropics we must also accept and resolve its burdens.

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