Travel: Get Down... Under
Thomas Breathnach visits Queensland's boho capital Brisbane before bumping into a neighbour in the middle of nowhere and heading off in a pink 4x4 called Priscilla
Published 12/01/2014 | 02:30
Brisbane changed my travelling tune. While newbies to a city might traditionally make a beeline to a tourist office or consult their eBook, I realised that in this age of pop-up urbanism and ever-vacillating culture scenes, there's truly only one way to procure a city's insider's guide: Ask a hipster.
After arriving in Australia's third-largest metropolis, my first lead was Winn Lane, a hole-in-the wall alleyway in the boho district of Fortitude Valley. Alongside boho bookstores and Alexa Chung boutiques, I began by hitting Flamingo Cafe, a 70s-style kitsch joint fitted with an astro-turf patio and just the antidote to the cookie-cutter CBD I was looking for. A quirky club-sambo of poached chuck and bacon jam and a side order of local tips from my server was the perfect Brissie starter.
Despite its size, A to B-ing it around Brisbane is a breeze. The compact city is wonderfully walker-friendly. It operates a similar bike rental scheme to Dublin, and the city's water-taxis are a fun way to shuttle up and down the Brisbane River. After grabbing a ferry ride from the Valley, I was soon hovered down to South Bank, the city's happening cultural precinct and all-round urban utopia.
The district features its own man-made beach, a lush rainforest park home to exotic ibis birds and swooping flying foxes and a magically ambient peace pagoda. Together with a gleaming futuristic skyline, it conjures an almost Asia-Pacific fusion vibe to this sub-tropical city.
South Bank's most captivating attraction, however, is QAGOMO, Queensland's modern art museum which rates as one of Australia's finest collections. I whiled away a couple of hours inside its mammoth mezzanines, eyeing its exhibits of indigenous contemporary art from watercolour landscapes by Torres Strait Islanders artists to vibrant Roy Lichtenstein-esque cartoon strips.
Paired with its burgeoning arts scene, Brisbane also boasts a well-stockpiled events calendar, with my own visit syncing with both the Regional Flavours Food Festival and the Queensland Music Festival.
I began at the former, taste-testing my way through the stalls and food-trucks of Little Stanley Street which were vending all manner of local fare from buffalo halloumi to kombucha blends. At the festival's Hunting Club (a garden marquee moonlighting as a boutique beer garden), I opted for a tasting paddle of local craft ciders with a delicious batch of wattleseed fried tiger prawns. Queensland tucker at its finest.
Come dusk, my Brisbane swan song led me to the Black Bear Lodge, one of the city's top music venues, lofted above the heaving clubbing strip of Brunswick Street. Upstairs off the main drag, I was met by a mellowing homage to nostalgic reverie; bearded check-shirted blokes and hillbilly-skirted sheilas lay poised around a retro Rocky Mountain bar, candlelit tables and vintage sofas.
Grabbing a brew and pulling up a pew, I soaked up the awesome scene amid a lounge of merry musos while local singer Ben Salter plucked and chimed his way through an acoustic set. And how did the patrons rate Brissie? "It's just got that friendly village vibe along with a big city buzz," said Gwen, a recent transplant from big bad Sydney.
"And we're the only city in the world where drivers have to yield right of way to birds!" piped her mate, Sara, over her vodka-soda-lime. Real-life pelican crossings? Cheers to that.
Protected urban fauna and culture vultures behind me, my next Queensland leg took me to the UNESCO-listed wilderness of Fraser Island; the world's largest sand island, four hours north of Brisbane.
After bussing through the Sunshine Coast to Hervey Bay, I made my transit to Fraser via a one-hour ferry hop from River Heads. Joined solely by an elderly Melbourne couple reliving their honeymoon heyday and a curious fur-seal piloting our route off the mainland, we skirted across the Great Sandy Strait towards one of Oz's easternmost outposts, the air of relaxation lingering more with every passing mile.
Named after the Scottish seafarer Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked here in 1836, Fraser Island has retained a consistently deserted demographic over the centuries. Today fewer than 200 residents live on the island (which covers an area larger than Leitrim), but it didn't take long to detect the diaspora.
Checking-in at the Kingfisher Bay Resort, a quick game of accent ping-pong with receptionist Corrina Long revealed, rather extraordinarily, that we were in fact East Cork neighbours, separated by a mere mile of forestry and a parish border.
After the initial Irish formalities of establishing mutual acquaintances, Corrina went on to explain that she's been living offshore for almost three years now. "When I leave the island, it's just to Hervey Bay to go shopping or stock up on supplies," she told me. "I'm very lucky to live in such a place!"
Strolling on to my eco lodge, it was easy to appreciate the island's allure. Known as Kgari -- or Paradise, to the Aborigines -- my new demesne was a fantastical lush rainforest chorusing with the calls of kookaburras and cockatoos.
Sure, the solemnity was quickly and incongruously interrupted by the blare of Will.i.am from the Dingo Bar's speakers, but I was in backpacker country, after all.
I'd signed up for a Cool Dingo Tour -- a three-day Fraser Island exploration, where I would be joined by a truckload of fellow adventure tourists hailing from Slovakia to Seoul.
The next morning, once huddled down and buckled-up aboard our pink 4X4 off-roader (named "Priscilla"), local guide Kirstey was cranking us into Fraser's almost impenetrable wilds. The tour focuses on outdoorsy surf-and-turf pursuits, and a dip and dive at the screensaver setting of Lake McKenzie was the first invigorating pit stop.
Serene hikes followed through the pristine jungles of Wanggoolba Creek and Pile Valley, until we finally navigated our way to where the Coral Sea collides with the island's eastern shore.
Being the novelty home to Australia's only beach freeway, this coastal leg made for an adrenalin-gushing ride.
Speeding along 75 Mile Beach, we diced our way between boulders, driftwood and fellow-off-roaders, occasionally being dramatically gulped by the ebb and flow of the tide.
Given the name of the tour, it also wasn't long before we spotted some of Fraser's most infamous residents.
With the news of a whale-calf washed up at Cathedral Beach, we soon encountered a plucky pair of dingoes (said to be Australia's purest sub-species) bounding out of the sand-dunes to give chase to our truck. I chased my own visit with a sightseeing flight with Air Fraser Island, local operators who offer 15-minute flight add-ons for a not too exorbitant €50.
Tucked into the shotgun seat of my eight-seater craft's rickety monocoque, we heaved off the same beach runway to panoramic Robinson Crusoe moments: lush broccoli-floret rainforests, crystal butterfly lakes and the obligatory rusting shipwreck.
As we rumbled out over the squally Pacific, looking for migrating humpbacks breaching beneath us, I could only cross fingers that we wouldn't meet a Sierra-Oscar-Sierra moment.
Paradise, however, wouldn't be the worst spot to find myself a castaway.