Chasing Horizons #35: From Brissie to Byron – Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

From Brissie to Byron

Brisbane skyline

Brisbane skyline

As I made my way through the southern region of Queensland I came to realise that my adventuring in Australia had just about come to an end. I had a flight out of Sydney on Thursday, 28 November, and that was less than a week away.

The McCafferty’s bus was traveling south on the Bruce Highway. After a couple of hours, we were on the Sunshine Coast. Despite its name, there was no Florida-style high-rise development to be seen. Instead of a concrete jungle and neon strips, I saw fine beaches good for surfing and fishing. However, the area has been well developed with some style. We drove into the popular Noosa Heads, which is fashionable, modern, and busy. The place seemed like a real surfer’s Mecca and holiday makers packed the pavement cafes and restaurants. As we continued south, the coastline was heavily developed with tasteful holiday complexes. Maroochydore is another main town that has sprawled as a result of tourism. It is the sort of place the average family would come to spend a long weekend with the wife and 2¼ children.

I would have liked to have stayed to check out the scene but had to push on to nearby Brisbane. As usual with any approach into any of Australia’s big cities, the drive through the northern suburbs seemed endless. Then all of a sudden the Brisbane skyline popped up over a rise and we soon drove into the city centre and the main transit centre on Roma Street. I found a room at the only hostel in Brisbane’s CBD. Palace Backpackers is a busy place in the Heritage-listed, former Salvation Army headquarters. They offer the added bonus of free pickups from the transit centre. Similarly, there is only one good backpackers bar in Brisbane and that is Down Under and located in the basement of the Palace. It was Friday night so I pocked my head in to find the place was livening up with beer raffles and some out-of-town Queenslanders, dressed as cowboys, performing some wild country and western dancing.

Because of the time restriction, I really didn’t have the time to do my visit to Brisbane real justice. With only the morning available before I had to catch my next bus, I set out bright and early with my trusty guide book to discover the city centre on foot. There weren’t many people about when I found the main shopping thoroughfare on Queen Street. It is pedestrianized and I felt some of the modern d�cor rather looks like building scaffolding. The fa�ades of the old buildings have retained their original names from the Victorian era long disappeared, Charlton Hotel, Telegraph House and York Hotel. Inside the Regent theatre, the booking hall is decked out in pink marble, mirrors and thick carpets. It echoed the days when movie houses where designed as temples to the glamour of the silver screen. Today the d�cor competes with James Bond and Harry Potter posters.

St. Stephens Cathedral

St. Stephens Cathedral

As I walked, a pattern emerged in Brisbane’s Street names: east-west are all British queens, north-south are named after kings. At Elizabeth Street, I come to the twin gothic spires of St. Stephens Cathedral, which was contrastingly set against a background of modern, mirrored-glass office blocks. A block behind the cathedral I came upon the wharf alongside the Brisbane River. At the Riverside Centre I caught the large sleek, dark blue City Cat. Brisbane is very much a river city and many commuters use this form of transport to get to work. However, today it was still early (and also Saturday) so there was very few people about. The catamaran was fast and it efficiently zipped around the loop in the river. The short trip offered perfect views of Brisbane’s high-rise skyline. Back on terra firma I headed for the City Hall with its tall clock tower and viewing platform. This old building has now been somewhat dwarfed by the encroaching skyscrapers but there is a lift that visitors can ride to the top. Synonymous with friendly Aussie hospitality, a broken ticket machine didn’t mean that I was unable to take the lift, the guard just let me on for free. I arrived on the viewing platform at precisely 10 o’clock and when the large bells alongside chimed the hour it was deafening. Nevertheless, the views from the top still had great views and gave a good idea of the layout of the city. I descended once more to ground level and found I still had some time to visit the grand old Post Office with its beautiful fa�ade, the classic Greek Shrine of Remembrance where I was happy to find another horse and rider memorial to the South African War. Finally, a block away from the hostel was the Victorian styled Central Train Station.

City Hall clock tower

City Hall clock tower

Brisbane is unjustly viewed by their southern cousins as a bit of a “hicksville” or an overblown country town. Well, if there was any truth in that judgment it certainly is not like that now. I found the city to be lively, cosmopolitan and cultured. I don’t even understand where it gets its Bris-Vegas tag from.

At one o’clock, I caught a bus which headed south out of Brisbane onto the Pacific Highway. In no time we arrived at the Gold Coast. After traveling through some non-descript suburbs which I couldn’t quite make out if they belonged to either Brisbane or the Gold Coast I realized we were in Southport. This is the oldest and original town in the area and set alongside the Broadwater, a stretch of flat water sheltered from the sea by t”he Spit”, seen to the east covered with waterside complexes.

The region has come a long way in the last eighty years. Aborigines knew the Gold Coast Area as Kurrungul, a term referring to the abundance of hardwood, which gave an endless supply of boomerangs. In the early 1920’s a businessman from Brisbane built a small hotel at a little hideaway called Elston. In the 1930’s the towns’ forefathers wanted to jazz up the place a bit to attract more visitors. They realized the town needed a new, trendier sounding name. In what can only be termed a major bit of PR genius, they took the name from the new hotel. Of course, the hotel’s name was Surfers Paradise and the Surfers Paradise beachside resort is now the most commercialized and fastest growing area in Australia. The old hotel has long since been swallowed up by a shopping mall and the whole seafront is packed chock-a-block with high-rise hotels and apartments. To me there was very much an American influence throughout the whole town.

Our bus crossed a long bridge onto the Esplanade and we were in Surfers Paradise, albeit only briefly. It all looked modern, vibrant and spangled. The streets and malls were pristine clean. I thought it all a bit crass and tacky; hordes roamed the beaches in designer swimwear. The place looked dripping in money, I feared to step off the bus in case it might cost me a fortune.

As we moved further south down the southern Gold Coast gradually things started looking less expensive and more normal. What I mean was that the building were of an older style and could do with a lick of paint, much more normal in my view. At Coolangatta I caught sight of the Point Danger lighthouse and Tweed Heads over the state border. Point Danger was named by Captain Cook when he passed here in 1770.

I crossed the border into the sixth and last State I would visit on this trip to Australia (OK, the Northern Territory is not a state but who’s being picky?). Welcome to New South Wales. Abruptly the urban, built up area ceased and the journey took us through spectacular forested mountains. The population in this area are big into their alternative lifestyles and you would need to be on the “wacky backy” to live in some of the rural towns we passed through, Murwillumbah-Barrinbar-Mullumbimby and the misspelt Bangalow.

The bus soon deposited me in Byron Bay with its endless surf shops and clothing boutiques. This definitely looked like a surfing Mecca and hippie hangout. A meeting place for alternative cultures and popular holiday spot. Thankfully, it has been spared the big money developments that had taken over the coastline further north. Still there was bumper-to-bumper traffic along the main road and the place was packed with young holidaymakers.

Cape Byron lighthouse

Cape Byron lighthouse

I took a dorm bed at the Cape Byron Lodge after running around between the Byron Bay Lodge and Cape Byron Hostel. The names are so similar that it’s bound to cause confusion but I had to find the correct place as this was the last part of my Peter Pan package.

I had arrived early enough so without wasting any time I headed straight back out to take in the town. There is definitely a hippie feel to Byron Bay. I couldn’t hear myself think for the air thick with the smell of burning incense and the jangling of wind chimes. Nevertheless, the beach was superb even if a bit windy, an elderly Aboriginal man had set up on the grass with traditional artefacts, dead animals and wafting smoke. He commanded quite a following, which included a number of non-aborigines. I took refreshment at the Beach hotel, a large venue overlooking the bay. It played loud music and had big screens, broadcasting the latest cricket test, it was packed.

One thing I love about the Australian backpack scene is how hard the travel industry works to whip-up a good time. It an obviously draws in the punters but they are not afraid to waiver the cover charge or give away complimentary meals or drinks. It a win-win situation all round. That evening I found myself at the Top Hat Bar, a place that had shades of the Woolshed in Cairns. I met up with Mark, a Dutch fellow I had bumped into a number of times travelling down the East Coast. A pleasant evening was had.

Cape Byron

The most easterly point of the Australian mainland

I had the whole of the following day to explore Byron and its surroundings. I borrowed a bicycle from my hostel for free. I rode out to Cape Byron to wander around its picturesque lighthouse. Capt. Cook gave Byron its name after the famous poet’s grandfather, himself an accomplished seafarer who travelled around the world in the 1760’s. The Cape is the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. I rode right up to the lighthouse built in 1901. It is one of the most powerful in the Southern Hemisphere and also houses a small, informative museum. A walking track extends out to the cape and afforded panoramic views. To the south was sheltered by the point and I could spot novice surfers, looking like seals in the clear blue sea, catching medium sized waves as they broke around the corner.

Back in town, I had some time to do some souvenir shopping. My eight year old daughter had asked me to get her an incense burner. Man, is she growing up fast, and a hippie in the making I think.

I was catching an early evening bus, my last in Australia, out of Byron Bay. I had a beer, while I waited at the quaint Railway Friendly Bar. A memorable singer/guitarist was playing there and she was good, singing songs about beach culture and the surfer’s lifestyle.