Our trip to Australia had its first stop in Brisbane, the capital and largest city in the northern state of Queensland. Brisbane is the third-largest city in Australia after Sydney and Melbourne, boasting a population of roughly 2.5 million at the time of writing. Before we could enjoy our time in Brisbane, however, we had to make it there first, and that would require a lot of time spent on planes. We were leaving from our home in the Washington DC region of the United States, and it was going to take three different flights to reach Brisbane. The initial afternoon flight lasted a little over five hours and crossed over the continental USA, landing in the evening at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This is a notoriously crowded and poorly-run airport, and sure enough LAX was living up to its reputation, with our subsequent flight delayed for over an hour due to a gate mixup on the part of the airport staff. We didn't leave until after midnight local time, which was the middle of the night relative to the Eastern time zone at our home. This was the big trans-Pacific flight and it lasted for 14 hours. Although that's a long time to spend on a flight, we were both able to sleep on the plane and get at least some rest along the way. These big flights have also become a lot easier to stomach thanks to improved technology; every seat now has its own video screen and there were about 150 different movies to pick between on our flight. If you have to sit in a seat for that long, it certainly helps to have some options.
We had left on a Saturday afternoon local time. Due to the bizarre nature of passing through more than a dozen time zones and crossing the International Date Line, it was already Monday morning by the time that we arrived in Australia. We landed in Sydney and then had a third and final flight north to Brisbane. We ended up missing our original flight because of the delays in taking off from Los Angeles, although fortunately we were able to get a replacement flight only a few hours later. Out of our first three flights, two of them had been delayed and the third had needed to be rescheduled entirely. It was an ominous start to our air travel and we would not have much luck when it came to flights on this trip.
We arrived in Brisbane on a Monday afternoon feeling tired and jet lagged from our flights. The first thing to do was pick up our rental car at the airport and drive to our hotel so that we could drop off our bags. We ran into another obstacle here: there were no GPS machines available to rent along with the car, and as expected neither of our phones were able to connect to the Internet in Australia. Fortunately Liz was able to drive us to our hotel in downtown Brisbane and I was able to navigate us there using the ancient technology known as a paper map. All of that orienteering practice with the scouts long ago came in handy here. This particular hotel was a bit cramped but compensated by having an excellent location in Brisbane's CBD ("Central Business District", an abbreviation not used in the United States but common in Australia). The view from our hotel window overlooked the Queens Gardens and a casino in a historic old building, sweeping above them to provide views of the Brisbane River and the museum district of South Bank Parklands on the opposite bank. We'd be heading there the next day for a closer look.
The two of us wanted to get out and explore a little bit of the surrounding area before the sun went down for the night. Our hotel turned out to be located in a major shopping area in Brisbane's CBD, only a block away from a pedestrian walking area known as Queen Street Mall. There were all sorts of shops and restaurants here, ranging from fast food to upscale dining. (By the way, note the presence of "Hungry Jack's" on that sign above, the local Australian subsidiary of Burger King. Apparently the name "Burger King" was already trademarked in Australia and therefore all of their fast food stores use this name instead.) There was a sizable shopping mall on this street named the Myer Centre where we picked up some quick food as a snack. We were both surprised at how many different types of Asian food were available and at the widespread use of Chinese writing alongside English on signs and storefronts. Brisbane is a rapidly growing city and the biggest source of immigration has come from China and southeast Asia. Liz also wisely used this time to pick up an Australia sim card for her mobile phone, which we would use to stay connected to the Internet and navigate via Google Maps for the rest of the trip.
These pictures were taken from King George Square and feature one of the most recognizable symbols of Brisbane in the form of City Hall. As the name suggests, this building houses the municipal government for the city, and the clock tower at the center was the tallest structure in the city for decades and became a landmark associated with Brisbane in the popular imagination. We saw the image of the city hall on Brisbane shirts sold to tourists, for example. Brisbane City Hall was originally built in 1930 and the architectural style employed was Italian Renaissance. Today the clock tower has been dwarfed by modern skyscrapers that surround the square, and this place represented the older, smaller Anglocentric version of the city which was rapidly being replaced by a newer and more international outlook.
We were too tired to do a lot of walking through Brisbane on this first day of arrival. My suggestion was to take a ride on the public transportation system of ferries that run along the Brisbane River. Known as the "CityCat" service locally, these small boats travel up and down the river essentially using it as a nautical version of a rail line. We hopped onto one of the ferries at North Quay and found that it was heading upriver to the west, taking us into some of the upscale suburbs of Brisbane. The sun was beginning to set and we were able to get some wonderful views of the city skyline from the water. (Note the cranes constructing more skyscrapers in these images - Brisbane was very much in the process of still growing and expanding when we visited.) We eventually ended up at the end of the line for the CityCat service, near the University of Queensland campus where there were a series of crew teams rowing along the river. The weather was beautiful outside and it was a lovely day to be on the water.
This was the two of us at the back end of the boat, trying very hard not to look jet lagged!
After reaching a stopping point near the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, the CityCat ferry turned around and headed downriver back towards the center of Brisbane. The sun was dropping below the horizon by this point and we had a fresh glimpse of the Brisbane CBD in the glow of an early twilight. This time we continued past our original embarkation point, running along the South Bank Parkland and getting a good glimpse of the Wheel of Brisbane before turning near Kangaroo Point past the city's botanical gardens. Now that the sun was down, it was actually starting to get a bit chilly outside. Even though Brisbane sits at roughly the equivalent latitude as Miami, Florida and has a similar climate, this was a reminder that it was still winter.
We exited the CityCat boat at the Riverside Ferry Terminal near the old customs house building. That was the stone structure with the green-roofed dome that had been overshadowed by all of the new skyscrapers around it. This waterfront area was a prime location for Brisbane's nightlife, with lots of bars and restaurants looking out over the river. It was also home to Story Bridge, another one of the most famous symbols of the city of Brisbane, which dates back to 1940. We did not end up crossing Story Bridge on our trip since we didn't visit Kangaroo Point, but we did see little models of Story Bridge popping up in a lot of tourist souvenir shops despite its somewhat utilitarian appearance. We ate dinner this evening in one of the bars along the riverfront, and since it was a Monday night, I was able to take advantage of a wings special they were having. It was surprisingly crowded for a weeknight with almost every seat in the place full. The last image was the view from our hotel window at night, with the casino below lit up in a truly garish green-and-orange color combination. No clue what they were going for there.
We awoke to another bright and clear day the next morning. After eating breakfast, I had the fun experience of driving a car on the left side of the road for the first time as we made the trip to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. This animal reserve located in the western suburbs of Brisbane opened in 1927 and it was the first koala sanctuary to be established in the world. Lone Pine was also the largest koala sanctuary at the time of our visit, with more than 130 koalas living at the animal shelter. We had reserved spots on the morning ranger tour of Lone Pine, something that I'd encourage anyone reading to do if they're interested in visiting. Fair warning though: there were only six people allowed on the tour and the slots filled up long in advance. A guide took our small group around to see some of the koalas as they were waking up for the morning in their little habitats. The koalas were not located within cages, instead sitting out in the open air on short eucalyptus tree branches. Most of them still seemed to be sleeping, which was no surprise as koalas sleep for about 20 hours each day. Liz also managed to capture a list of the koalas who would be taking photos with visitors that day, including which ones had the "day off" from work.
After this introduction to the koalas, we were treated to the main event of the tour: the chance to hold one of the koalas for ourselves. There are strict laws in Australia about who can hold a koala, as the animals are highly sensitive and can suffer a heart attack and die from strangers picking them up. Lone Pine is one of the very few places allowed to have visitors handle their koalas, largely because they are old enough to be grandfathered around the current retrictions. The Lone Pine staff explained that we needed to make a cupping motion with our hands and not to make any sudden movements, then passed over the koalas. Liz was the first one to get the chance to hold a koala, and this may have been the happiest expression that I've ever seen on her face. Our koala's name was Feeny and he was still in training with regards to being handled by humans, limited to only 10 minutes per day of contact. Admit it - these pictures are absolutely adorable!
I was up next and I didn't really know what to expect when the staff passed Feeny over to me. Koalas latch on to people in pretty much the same way that they grab trees, which is to say that he locked the little claws on his feet onto my arms and then wrapped one hand around my shoulder. Their natural grabbing motion is basically a big hug. Once thing that I never thought about ahead of time: koalas have a natural musky odor to them, but fortunately it's not an unpleasant smell, just kind of "earthy" for lack of a better term. I also didn't know that they have two thumbs on their hands, which is really weird but again makes sense for an animal that lives its whole life up in the trees. Feeny was already a pro when it came to taking pictures and these were some of the best snapshots that we took on the whole vacation. The little guy was absurdly cute.
Feeny wasn't the only koala posing with the tourists this morning at Lone Pine. There were three different picture spots located next to one another and a series of different koalas coming out to pose with the visitors. Each one is limited to a maximum of 30 minutes of human contact daily for safety reasons, and the koalas will make it clear that sometimes they aren't interested in pictures for that day. We saw the Lone Pine staff bring out one koala only to immediately return him back to his habitat because he wasn't feeling in the mood that day. This is a major reason why it's important to come early in the day for anyone who wants to hold a koala, as sometimes all of the koalas have used up their time for the day by noon and there are none left for additional photos. The koalas definitely had their own distinctive appearances as well; compare the koala with darker fur above to the lighter fur on Feeny. This was one of the other subspecies of koala, although I can't remember which type.
After having our picture taken with a koala, we finished up the tour by visiting several of the largest koala habitats up close. We were allowed to walk inside these habitats and stand right underneath the trees where the animals were snoozing away the morning. The guide explained that the koalas will often clump up together at night and form "cuddle trains" (acutal words used) of as many as half a dozen animals. Koalas tend to be lethargic animals because their diet of eucalyptus leaves contains very little nutritional value. This leaves them without much in the way of energy and forces them to spend most of their time sleeping. Koalas have little in the way of natural predators but haven't fared well with some of the species introduced to Australia, particularly dogs. They were an endangered animal and were frequently hunted by humans before greater environmental awareness in the second half of the 20th century caused their numbers to rebound. Their extreme cuteness and being a national symbol of Australia certainly helped in that regard.
There were more than just koalas at Lone Pine, however. The animal sanctuary also had a large open field containing kangaroos, wallabies, and emu that could be fed by the public. We purchased a feed bag for $2 and headed inside to spend some time with the kangaroos. There were dozens and dozens of them inside, with what had to be close to a hundred animals in total. Kangaroos are essentially Australia's marsupial version of deer and they were not in the least bit dangerous to humans. Indeed, there were plenty of young children and even toddlers walking up to the roos without any sense of fear. I was immediately struck by the strange way that the kangaroos were laying down on the ground, with their head propped up on one elbow. I've never seen any animal other than a human do that, and it was slighly eerie how humanlike these animals could seem.
With this many kangaroos hopping about (yes, they really do hop to move around!) there was no trouble finding an animal to come over and eat some of our food. The first such customer was an Eastern Grey Kangaroo, a docile customer who was happy to eat some food pellets right out of Liz's hand. There was a whole herd of them nearby looking on and debating whether it was worth the effort to get up and beg for more food. When I was feeding the animal, I was surprised to see how big the claws were on its hands and feet. Representations of kangaroos in popular media usually skip out on those claws since they look pretty nasty up close. The initial kangaroo was soon shoved out of the picture by a much larger Red Kangaroo, and this one was likely a male since it was noticeably more muscular. The red kangaroo looked a bit like a boxer, as if it was going to start throwing some punches if we didn't hand over our food. With that said, the animal was still kind enough to let me pat its head and neck so long as I kept the treats coming.
Over at the end of the kangaroo enclosure, we spotted some of the emus that inhabited the field as well as our first wallabies. There were two types of wallabies here: the little Red-Necked Wallaby and the even smaller Swamp Wallaby. These animals pictured above were swamp wallabies hanging out with some red kangaroos, with the wallabies easy to distinguish due to their much smaller size. The wallabies were also notably more shy than the kangaroos, likely because they had to fear a lot more potential predators. There were a couple of kids acting like idiots by chasing after the wallabies, sending the animals into a hopping frenzy as they tried to escape to safety. Seriously, that was a real jerk thing to do - leave the little critters alone.
Here's a picture of me petting an emu along with Liz feeding a couple of red-necked wallabies. I'd remarked on a number of different occasions that I don't like or trust birds very much, one of the reasons why I never feel much guilt when it comes to eating chicken. Birds are basically living dinosaurs with feathers, and this is even easier to see on a large bird like this emu. While it obviously didn't have the same aggressive instincts or deadly claws, this emu looked way too close to a velociraptor sporting feathers (which the raptors probably had in real life anyway). I do not trust these animals. The wallabies were much cuter, and we even figured out that the two wallabies near the fence were mothers that had their joeys sitting in their pouches. If you look closely, you can see the face of a baby wallaby poking out from one pouch and the legs of another baby wallaby sticking out from the other. I can see why the "joey facing the wrong way" isn't an image that gets shared a lot; the backwards-facing legs sticking out of the pouch was a bit of a creepy scene.
The staff at Lone Pine put on a series of animal shows throughout the day, and we managed to see two of them. We saw the ending portion of a show about large birds, catching this owl as it was tossed a mouse and devoured the dead creature in a series of quite bites. (That image of the mouse legs and tail disappearing into the bird's beak left me somewhat queasy.) Then there was a hawk that came flying in from off screen to eat a small morsel of its own, followed by a question and answer session from the park staff. This was a very short show even if we did miss the beginning of it. Liz managed to snap an image of the owl throwing out an annoyed stare afterwards when one of the rangers was answering questions. I swear that this picture needs to be used in an Internet meme somewhere.
Then we went to see a nearby dog show about sheep herding. Wool production remains a major industry in Australia and various kinds of sheepdogs are used to herd the animals in the vast expanses of Australia's interior. A good sheepdog can fetch a price in the hundreds of dollars and do the herding work of four or five people even factoring in the use of modern technology. The dog that took part in this demonstration was a breed known as a kelpie, one that was created in Australia specifically for herding purposes that would also be able to live in the extreme heat of the Outback. This particular kelpie was named Flirt and she had no trouble herding a group of about a dozen sheep through a series of gates before plunging into a trough of water afterwards. Liz and I are both dog lovers and greatly enjoyed this show even though it was again very short at about ten minutes in duration. Flirt was a very good girl!
We wrapped up out time at Lone Pine by taking a few last pictures of the koalas, in this case a mother koala and her joey who were out together. The baby koalas cling to their mothers in adorable fashion and basically look like living stuffed animals. It's no wonder why the animals have been so popular with young kids ever since they were first discovered. Lone Pine was one of our absolute favorite places on the whole trip to Australia, and essentially validated the entire Brisbane portion of our vacation by itself. Although it's relatively small in terms of size, Lone Pine was the best place that we visited in terms of getting up close and personal with some of the unique wildlife found only in Australia. And while it might not be cheap to pay for the koala handling experience, it was absolutely worth it for us. There was pretty much nowhere else in the whole world where we would have had the chance to pick up and hold a koala like that. These were pictures and memories that would last for a lifetime.
There was still more sightseeing to do in the Brisbane area, however. We left Lone Pine and drove back to the Brisbane CBD, this time crossing over the river to explore the South Bank Parklands. This side of the river was historically a rather seedy area home to industry and run-down entertainment venues. It was redeveloped in the early 1990s as part of a civic renewal campaign, transformed into an outdoor promenade of green park spaces and public swimming pools. We ate lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants running on the streets adjacent to the park area, then walked through the sandy area known as Streets Beach. Despite the winter season, there were plenty of people sunning themselves or wading through the shallow waters on the beach. It was a beautiful day to be outside and the views across the river at the downtown heart of Brisbane were picture-perfect. This is one of the most popular attractions in Brisbane and millions of people visit each year.
We had been seeing this big wheel ever since we arrived in Brisbane, and South Bank Parklands was the place where it was located. Officially named the Wheel of Brisbane, this 60 meter / 200 foot structure was built in 2008 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Queensland. There was no one else present and we were able to climb aboard the wheel immediately without waiting in line. (It helped that this was a Tuesday afternoon in late winter.) I think that normally passengers rotate around the wheel once or twice before exiting, but since no one else was standing in line, the wheel operators actually sent us on six full rotations before stopping to let us off. It started to become kind of a joke for us after about the fourth time we went completely around the big wheel.
These were some of the views from atop the Wheel of Brisbane. While the height wasn't as tall as some of the other big ferris wheels that we've visited, this particular trip benefitted from having such clear weather. We could see the whole downtown part of Brisbane as well as the distant peaks of the Great Dividing Range off in the west. It was a unique experience having an entire ferris wheel to ourselves!
After finishing all of those rotations around the wheel, we continued walking north along the riverfront until we reached the unusual green-colored architecture of the State Library of Queensland building. This library was mostly intended for researchers, but it did have a few exhibits open to the public that we checked out. There was a very good feature up on the top floor about the Australian South Sea Islanders, a group of peoples from the islands of the Pacific who had been brought to Australia in the 19th century to work in agricultural production in near-slavery conditions. I had never heard about this group before and their many struggles to become equal members of Australian society. Down on the first floor was another exhibit about an aboriginal-language radio station that had been active in Brisbane for the last two decades, and this was tied to a larger display about some of the different aboriginal languages throughout Australia. Liz and I both love libraries and we enjoyed having a chance to spend an hour poking around in this one.
The South Bank Parklands area contains a number of different museums and other public buildings. Aside from the State Library of Queensland, it also held the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and the building that we were visiting here, the Queensland Museum and Scientarium. This structure contained a medium-sized natural history museum, mostly focused on different types of animals that lived in the area, either in the modern world or in the distant past. There were dinosaur bones on display here along with a bunch of extinct marsupials that grew to gigantic sizes. The museum made extensive use of taxidermy for many of the modern specimens on display, something that Liz doesn't particularly enjoy. There were also cultural artifacts on display in certain parts of the museum, with the most noteworthy item coming in the form of a very rare German tank named "Mephisto" captured during World War I. The Germans viewed tanks as a novelty item at the time and built very few of them for use in the Great War, with this vehicle captured and brought back to Australia by an enterprising Anzac squadron.
We spotted these letters spelling out the name of the city while we were in the process of walking back to our rental car. They were located right next to the outdoor area where the temporary Night Noodle Festival was being set up (something that both of us really wish we could have sampled!) and Liz posed for a picture in front of the display. I was reminded of the famous "Amsterdam" letters located in front of the Rijksmuseum in the Dutch capital city.
We had one more activity scheduled for this evening. Before setting out on our trip, Liz had suggested that each of us should plan a secret activity for the other person without letting them know what it was ahead of time. Liz had been teasing me about her surprise activity throughout the day, and I had no idea what it was going to be. I was even more confused as we drove out of downtown Brisbane into the southern suburbs and then into an industrial area. Where in the world were we going? It turned out that Liz had secretly booked a helicopter ride over the city for the two of us! Neither of us had ever ridden in a helicopter previously and this would be an exciting new experience. We met our pilot and were given a celebratory glass of champagne, then shown to the waiting helicopter outside. We were given headsets with radios and instructed to use them for communication, then boarded the tiny little chopper. The sun was about to set outside and we would have just enough time to get a fly-by of the city before the sky went dark.
The first thing that I noticed about riding in a helicopter was the movement type. Helicopters achieve lift by means of their rotating propellors, which is completely different from how a plane achieves lift by having air pass underneath and support its wings. Getting off the ground by moving directly upwards was a novel experience, a little bit like being in an elevator with no walls or ceiling. I immediately blurted out "wow, it's like flying inside a drone!" and that was very much true, since drones operate on the same principle. We rose up above the little airport in the Archerfield suburb and starting heading north towards downtown Brisbane. We passed directly overhead the meandering curves of the Brisbane River, spotting a golf course and then the athletics fields of the University of Queensland. There was an Aussie football field down there, easily identifiable by its oval shape and the triple goals at each end.
It only took five minutes to reach the Brisbane CBD, much faster than the half hour drive we'd needed to reach the airfield. We came up from the south and flew right past the South Bank Parkland that Liz and I had visited earlier in the day, following the line of Kangaroo Point and crossing the river at Story Bridge before continuing on in a loop to the north around the tallest buildings. As best I could tell, we were flying at about 200-250 meters altitude (roughly 700-800 feet), a little bit above the tallest buildings in Brisbane. This was low enough that we had fantastic views of everything below, easily able to see individual people and cars passing by on the streets. It was like a much better version of the views from the top of the Wheel of Brisbane earlier in the day.
Within a few minutes we had completed the circuit around Brisbane's CBD and were speeding south again back towards the landing field. Along the way we were treated to a dazzling sunset over the mountains in the west, with the sun just emerging from the clouds to bid farewell to the day. One of the other things that I should mention is the noise associated with the helicopter: it was incredibly loud while the vehicle was in motion. Liz was sitting right next to me and I couldn't hear her at all without the radio headset, which was of course why we were wearing them. I hadn't known that helicopters were quite that loud while they were up in the air. Our pilot also thought it would be fun to lean us way over to the side at a 45 degree angle, something that Liz enjoyed and I didn't particularly care for. Even though this ended up being a short flight at about 15 minutes duration, we had a great time overall and it helped cement our time in Brisbane. We didn't know much about this city before visiting and the various attractions that we'd been seeing were a pleasant surprise.
We had one more day in Brisbane, with a planned whale watching trip at Moreton Bay in the morning before flying in the evening to our next destination in Cairns. Unfortunately, the whale watching trip ended up getting canceled due to high surf and that essentially killed most of this third day of the vacation. (The whale tour operators had tried to get in touch with me to let us know ahead of time about the cancellation, only my phone didn't work in Australia and I'd been unable to log into my email the night before at the hotel.) This was a real bummer since we could have gone somewhere else and made better use of this time if we'd known about it, and obviously the whale watching excursion would have been fantastic. In any case, we did the best we could to make use of this time, although the first thing that we went to see was a local pelican feeding... which then was also canceled because the pelicans refused to show up. Uh, I guess it wasn't our day. We did get a nice lunch at a seafood restaurant along the waterfront, followed by stopping to visit a local brewery named the Horny Wombat, which was all kinds of awesome. Not the ideal day but it could have been worse.
We had a lovely time in Brisbane and would highly recommend the city to other travelers. Visiting at any time other than the Australian winter would open up the chance to go swimming or sunbathing, and we found that the city was still a great place to visit even when that wasn't an option. This is an up-and-coming city with a lot of development taking place, and Brisbane will likely look very different in a decade or two. Between the views from the river, the animal sanctuary at Lone Pine, the museums and restaurants along South Bank Parkway, and our final helicopter ride, it had been a busy couple of days.