Exploring Australia's sunshine state

Eva Mackevic

Slowing down and exploring Queensland, Australia’s holiday haven showed a land of unlimited culture and nature

In Brisbane, even if you go out on your own, you’re never alone for very long. Someone will come up to you within 15 minutes and invite you to join their group.” I’m chatting with Lauren over a beer in the laidback Botanical Bar and Kitchen on James Street. She’s a Canadian expat who moved to Brisbane two years ago—and the living proof of what she just said: I met her just moments ago, when I stopped by the bar on my evening stroll back to the hotel.

It’s my first night in Brisbane on my very first trip to Australia and I can’t help but buzz with excitement; the sultry day has turned into a delightfully balmy evening—the kind that’s perfect for exploring this bustling city.

As I soon find out, the friendliness of the locals permeates Brisbane’s entire city culture. Wherever you go, you’re met with an chirpy “G’day, mate”, genuine interest in who you are and an anecdote or two that’ll almost certainly lead to an interesting conversation and, who knows, maybe even a new friend.

"Even if you go out on your own, you won't be alone for very long—someone will invite you to join them"

The next morning, we feast on a breakfast of crushed avocado on sourdough and delicious coffee—Aussie specialities that started a craze back in the UK—at the cosy café Gauge in South Brisbane. It’s only 8am on a Saturday morning but the café’s already full of visitors, filling the room with relaxed chatter over the hissing and whistling of the coffee machines. We’re getting ready for our first stop, Lone Pine—the world’s first and largest koala sanctuary, and home to 100 species of Australian animals.

Amused by brush-turkeys and geckos roaming back and forth as if they’re pigeons, we make our way to the koalas. The bristly little marsupials aren’t really interested in the tourists snapping pictures, captivated by their cuteness. They lounge around in the sun, chewing on eucalyptus leaves without a care in the world.

The kangaroos, freely hopping around the grounds, turn out to be much more sociable creatures. 
I approach one of them with a handful of snacks, expecting it to be shy, but instead it grasps my wrist with both arms and quickly, but politely, inhales the food. A child standing next to me looks like this is the best thing they’ve seen in their whole life, so I hand them my sachet of snacks and go off in search of the emus and dingoes.

 

Exploring the city

The “Queenslander” is a classic piece of Australian architecture

If you wanrt to explore the city properly, there’s no better way than travelling by bike. We meet our guide, Leith—a bubbly young Brisbanian who swapped his career as an engineer for leading bicycle tours—at the South Bank’s Wheel of Brisbane (the Aussie equivalent of the London Eye).

"Floating above ground on stilts, Queenslanders look like something out of a Wes Anderson film"

After ensuring our seats are properly adjusted, helmets fastened and layers of sunscreen applied, we set off along the snaky Brisbane river. As we tour the inner city, we cross over the majestic Story Bridge, pass the Kangaroo Point Cliffs, heaving with early-morning rock climbers, and roll through the City Botanic Gardens in the freshening shade of grand, ancient trees.

As we cruise down to the quieter, charming suburb of New Farm, we pass numerous “Queenslanders”—the city’s iconic colourful timber houses built in the 1920s. Floating above ground on stilts, with their incredibly high ceilings and extensive, plant-covered verandas, they look like something out of a Wes Anderson film.

Later that day, we head to Mt Coot-tha, the highest peak in Brisbane, for lunch at the Summit Restaurant, where we enjoy an elaborate three-course meal while admiring the spectacular panoramic views of the city. I sample the famous local delicacy I’ve been hearing about: grilled Moreton Bay Bugs. I’m sceptical when a plate of bizarre, insect-like crustaceans arrives in front of me, but the taste more than makes up for their peculiar appearance; sweet and fresh in flavour, creamy and tender in texture, they’re nothing short of the finest lobster meat.

Moreton Bay Bugs

Lunch is followed by a trip to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA)—a beautifully designed, airy space with a heavy focus on Aboriginal culture and Asian contemporary art. After a day of intense sightseeing, I take my time wandering through the gallery, admiring the arresting ceremonial headdresses and thought-provoking photographs, noting down the names of unheard-of artists to look up when I get home.

 

The Gold Coast

Carrara Stadium

A popular destination with surfers and sightseers alike, the Gold Coast is a laidback holiday destination, boasting beautiful long beaches, where you can dig your feet in the squishy warm sand or take a swim in the clean, bluish-green ocean.

Between April 4–15, the city will host the 2018 Commonwealth Games, welcoming athletes from 70 Commonwealth nations. The excitement of the locals is palpable: countdown clocks are scattered across the coastline alongside art installations, karaoke stations and music acts, and the first question anyone asks is: “Will you be staying for the Games?”

It’s easy to see why. As we visit a few of the venues where the sports will be held, I quietly begin to scheme ways of extending my stay here, swept up in the excitement. From the glistening swimming pool of the Optus Aquatic Centre to the sheer grandeur of the Carrara Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place, everyone is doing their best to make sure that the Gold Coast is the perfect host.

 

Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre

The Yugambeh dancers of the Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre

It's our next stop that I’ve been anticipating the most: the Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre. As I know little about Aboriginal culture or its current state in Australia, I’m eager to learn about it straight from the source. Run by the local Aboriginal community, the centre strives to preserve and share their traditions. We’re welcomed by a group of charismatic Yugambeh people who tell us about their culture, as well as the issues Aboriginal people face in Australia today.

“Our parents and grandparents weren’t allowed to speak the language, dance or dress up, because they would get punished. So now we’re celebrating our culture and making sure that our children know who they are. It’s important for people around the world to know their identity—a lot of social issues stem from not knowing who you are,” explains Luther, our guide.

"Our parents weren't allowed to speak the language or dance because they would get punished"

They then perform a series of ceremonial dances and songs, wearing traditional body paint and costumes. Every dance, they tell us, is related to a particular ritual such as hunting birds or fishing. The trance-like sounds of the didgeridoo, rhythmic stomping and mesmerising moves transport us to a whole different world, steeped in ancient mystery.

As we say our goodbyes, Luther puts some white ochre—traditional clay earth pigment—on our hands to “bring us blessings and ask their ancestors’ spirits to look after us as we travel through their country.” It’s a moving moment and we leave the centre in high spirits.

For our final day we head off to Tamborine Mountain in the hinterland. We drive up the steep, twisty mountain road, feeling the air turn crisper and cooler as we climb. We pass more beautiful Queenslanders, tucked away 
in remote corners of the mountain, many of them on steeply-sloped terrain.

When we finally reach our destination, Tamborine National Park, the entrance doesn’t look like much; a sign pointing to a dark, narrow gap in the trees. But once we step inside, we find ourselves in the middle of a real rainforest. The hot, humid air fills our lungs as we make our way down the narrow path with lorikeets and eastern whipbirds chirping high above our heads.

Our guide, Graham, points out peculiar trees (like the dangerous gympie gympie tree with tiny stinging hairs that feel “like hot acid”), the burrows of poisonous trapdoor spiders and the spellbinding glow worms. But the real treat is waiting for us right at the end of the bushwalk as we reach a breath-taking waterfall drowning out the noisy lorikeets and our own chatter. We freeze and stand there in silence with nothing but the soothing sound of rushing water around us, oblivious to the speeding world outside.