Months of anticipation.
The countdown: weeks, days, hours, fractions.
Friday 21 October. Checking international arrivals at KL. Surprisingly, almost-welling tears in the knowledge that Malaysia Airlines MH135 from LHR has landed safely.
Checking the departure board. They're at the gate. Take-off on time. The last leg.
We're at Brisbane's International terminal early, of course. It's strangely but delightfully quiet. Touch-down bang on time. Joy. Where shall we stand? What if they turn that way as they come out? Are those people off the KL flight? 30 minutes later our visitors appear. Shrieks of delight. At last my daughters are part of my Australian experience.
They feel the heat, smell the foreignness. My friend drives. I keep turning to them in the back. Look at the lights of the CBD; this is the Gateway Bridge. Do you remember it from years ago? It's twice the size it was. We're in Bulimba already. This is Oxford Street – it's always buzzing, but it is Friday evening. At the house. Cries of approval. Cases in rooms. Food on the plane was awful: Muma's rice salad. Hardly any sleep: early nights all round.
An early wake-up for me, as always. They are under my roof at last. Contentment. They meet us for breakfast down by ferry terminal on our return from Powerhouse Farmers' Market. Certain amount of disbelief as they wave from a table as we get off the Cat. This arvo, the 'Introduction to Brisbane' CityCat ride – Apollo Road to University of Queensland and back to Bulimba. It's sunny and warm and the city looks very fine. This is the Powerhouse, Floating Walkway, Story Bridge, Customs House, Riverside, the CBD, Kangaroo Point cliffs, Botanic Gardens, Captain Cook Bridge, Pelican sculpture, Goodwill Bridge, Maritime Museum, Casino, Brisbane Square Library, 'Tensegrity' (Kurilpa) Bridge, 'McDonald's' (William Jolly) Bridge, Go Between Bridge... And an invitation into the ferry master's wheelhouse for a couple of stops to learn how to dock a high-speed catamaran on the fast-flowing Brisbane River. Later, the first barbie for the girls.
Sunday in both senses – Queensland weather on its best behaviour. It's cute little furry animal time and we're off to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
None of us is happy with 'animals for tourists'. Only one koala in a real tree, and lots of resigned roos in an enclosure, being prodded and photographed by giggling-but-sometimes-squealing, mainly Asian visitors. And a kookaburra in a cage puts all heaven in a rage. We decline to cuddle a koala, and take small consolation from the fact that the $120 entrance fee (for four) might somehow help koala conservation. An almighty storm in the evening. The girls marvel at the rain battering and entering a closed window; I quiver at each lightning flash, always a source of amusement for others.
At 5am on Monday morning, a disturbed 'yachtie' moors his boat by Eagle Street ferry terminal, with a bath boat (City Ferry) to either side, and threatens to blow up his boat. If this was the Old Country, the river would have been closed and the riverbank evacuated within a wide radius. But we are in Australia. As our Cat passes within 100 metres of the incident, albeit more slowly than usual, everyone cranes and gawps and some take pictures (of very little). Our first shopping expedition is not thwarted. The great search for Havaianas (below, on Wategos beach). Once located at City Beach, which colour, what size? Must have a horizontal stripe through the sole. Oh, and the boatie? The seige ends after 16 hours when the man sets fire to his boat, bayonets himself in the stomach and jumps into the river having also been hit by 'non-lethal rounds' fired by police.
Tuesday is Byron-day. Manic packing. Deadline: have to be at Gold Coast Airport to meet a midday flight from Melbourne. Down the Pacific Highway into New South Wales, back into Queensland, then finally into NSW - how to confuse a mobile phone. We're early. Much excitement about the sisters and brother reunion and long-been friends together again. Same as it ever was. Pack into the car for the final 35 minutes' drive. Sibling catch-up in the back – 13 months' worth. Lush green pastures and pointy peaks, and then we're turning off the highway. As ever, straight to look out over Belongil. Rather more than cotton-wool clouds but still sunny. We have rented a house at the back of Clarkes Beach, on the edge of Arakwal National Park. Roomy, quiet, feels as if we live here. Everyone slots into their comfort zones.
A wonderful night's sleep – no barking dogs, no excessive ute acceleration, no snoring. Oh, the joy of waking to a glorious sunny morning in Byron. Even a whipbird whip-cracking close by. Breakfast at Twisted Sista as good as it ever was. Then retail therapy for girls and the gym for the boy. A picnic lunch and sunbaking on Wategos. (Does anyone not feel good on Wategos, looking out over that sun-kissed sweep of ocean?) A black cloud on the northern horizon is heading up Brisbane way but all's well in Byronworld. A beer at the Beach Hotel before supper at Fresh on Jonson.
Time to be more adventurous. I can't come to Byron and just gaze adoringly at Wategos every time. Drive over the top to Bangalow for the morning. Green main thoroughfare with cute, irresistible shops full of indulgences. Otherwise much the same routine... bit more retail in Byron, beers at the Beach... Ah, it's been a while since I've heard brother's and sisters' banter and bickering: normal service has resumed.
Early-morning walk on Clarkes for me: mood-enhancer. Sadly, our last breakie at Sista's. And a final retail moment - at the bead shop. My LBF (long-been friend) is going to make us girls necklaces. We eagerly place bead allsorts into our collecting trays. Tea at the Balcony. Once more unto Wategos. Us girls are paddling and my son is swimming when there is an Amityville moment. The police clear everyone out of the water. A shark's been spotted from a low-flying plane. My son has never moved so fast. Speculatory huddles along the water's edge. Suddenly there's a huge shadow beneath the surface: a humpback. We'd seen 'blows' near the horizon and now there are two in the Bay. No shark in evidence - tinge of disappointment.
Farewell to Byron. Heat and congestion, fortunately not northbound, on the way back to the city. No vacancies in this house tonight. Hamburger special order at our favourite local restaurant.
Tooings and froings for a couple of days: my dear LBF departs for Melbourne on Saturday; my son's girlfriend arrives from Melbourne on Monday. And in between – swimming at the smart July-opened Colmslie pool, just up the road, another barbie, and visits to South Bank, 'the heart of Brisbane's cultural, lifestyle and entertainment precinct'...
...and Coochiemudlow Island, the most easily accessible (seven minutes by passenger ferry) of the Moreton Bay islands and less than an hour from Brisbane. A curious little place, strangely other-worldly; not so much Southeast Queensland as outback-by-the-sea. 'Interesting' locals as well as punters. Pleasant Melaleuca and Casuarina woodland; narrow, fine-sanded little beaches that remind me of those bordering Scottish lochs. Not a user-friendly name, however, from the Aboriginal word for red rocks. Inevitably, and fortunately for once, it's affectionately shortened to Coochie (Coochie Coo?).
It's Tuesday of week two and a bigger-trip day. More frantic packing and squabbles over who sits where in the car. Late getaway. Very warm and sunny already as we head for the Sunshine Coast. Rainbow Beach is either at the northern end of the aforementioned, or at the start of the Fraser Coast, or on the Cooloola Coast, depending on which travel site you read. Turn off the Bruce Highway at Gympie. Rainbow is almost 80k away, on the Inskip Peninsula, but it feels more beautifully isolated than that, especially once you're on the roller-coaster road through the Great Sandy National Park.
Rainbow reminds me of Byron but scaled down and without the hype. My son has scanty memories of a place with nothing there during his travels in a camper. In fact there are two supermarkets, two bakeries, a post office, ice cream parlour, numerous cafes, clothes and gift shops, a backpacker and student travel agent, various types of accommodation, surf club, pub (hotel) , fish and chip shop and more places to eat than we could get through in five days. But no bank. Take plenty of cash if you don't want to pay fees at ATMs.
There are wonderful beaches, surf, coloured sands and intriguing sand features, lagoons, a lighthouse, long treks or short walks. Many people just pass through on their way to Fraser Island but Rainbow Beach merits a little longer and closer attention to detail (see also Rainbow's magic, November 2010).
And so back to Brisbane, some of those who had sunbaked with tender skin, and the one who had body surfed with bruised ribs.
The last week was bound to fly by. The days must not be whiled away but put to good exploratory use. We do the real touristy bit on my son's last day before his return to Melbourne – the Wheel of Brisbane. This offers three, faster revolutions in half the time than on the London Eye for example, but the views of the river and the CBD make it worthwhile. All the way from West End we speculate about how much the experience will cost. By the time we approach the ticket office, we're up to $400 for four. It's $15 a head – almost feels like a bargain.
We do the National Park thing on Wednesday. Springbrook, about an hour south of Brisbane is beautiful and desolate in the dire weather that closes in as we climb 900 metres above the Gold Coast and prevents us from seeing the mother of all views (Best of All Lookout). We are in the clouds as we head along Repeater Station Road (!). We do see pademelons hop across our path, however.
Denied our Springbrook lookouts, we descend to the Numinbah Valley and Natural Bridge. This valley is stunningly beautiful – lush and almost alpine. (Next time I'll stop and take photographs.) Natural Bridge is reputed to be a splendid basalt arch carved by Cave Creek beneath the Springbrook plateau's western cliffs. But the dramas that have punctuated my daughters' visit are not done yet. As we attempt to turn off the Nerang-Murwillumbah Road to observe this natural wonder, we are stopped by a friendly-but-firm security guard. The Steven Spielberg '$150 million dinosaur blockbuster' Terra Nova is being filmed at the Bridge today and public access is not allowed. A sign 20k back down the road would have been helpful: we've been heading towards New South Wales for the last half-hour. We volunteer to be extras but he's heard that one before, so we harumph back to Brisbane.
The last full day is beach day and the Sunshine State has to pull out all the stops to live up to its reputation. A girl's gotta go back to Blighty from Oz with a bit of colour. A glorious start gives way to pretty serious cloud as we set out and the girls look up ominously. 'It will be better on the coast,' I assure them, 'Trust me.' They clearly don't. We're off to Woorim on Bribie Island which is the nearest, what I call 'proper' beach to Brisbane (see also Fast forward, July 2010). Which means no mangroves, pale sand, hint of surf.
The beach is not as clean or as big as I remember. The tide's right in and there's a dune stabilisation programme fencing off the back. Then the Bogun family arrive to fish. First, they park right next to us in the massive, almost deserted car park; and then they make camp, on a beach stretching out of sight with only a handful of sharers, just 20 metres from where we're sitting. They have a large dog that they tie up to a dune-stabilising stake. It barks loudly and incessantly. They release it and it then proceeds to run into the sea every time one of the men casts his line, barking loudly and incessantly. I could happily kill it within ten minutes; I can hear dogs barking incessantly from my lounge room back in Bulimba. Mrs Bogun is not wearing enough clothes and a muffin-top spills over her shorts. She squeals each time she catches a tiddler and she seems to be getting closer. I don't think she's all there. I dearly wish she wasn't. We pick up our towels and walk. The sun comes out; the tide goes out; the day is rescued.
Just as longed-for visits come to pass, so must they end. We finish with a flourish: it had to be shopping, didn't it? And where better than Paddington – that's Paddington in Brisbane, not Paddington in Sydney. This is where workers lived, then students dossed, and gentrification has inevitably followed. Renovated Queenslanders sit on seriously up-and-downey lanes with enviable views. We head for Latrobe Terrace, where high fashion mixes with vintage and you can browse upmarket homeware and fabric shops, bookshops and antiques before eating healthily in cafes and coffee shops. We could have easily broken the bank: serious restraint was called for, and for hours longer than intended.
A final walk along the Brisbane River at sunset; the last supper at The Jetty.
By kind permission of Olivia Forsey
Cases in the boot; the last of many recent trips to the airport. Keep smiling; deep breaths; don't think. Slow-moving check-in queue. Goodbyes. A few tears. Quiet house on our return. Midnight and they're still here in Brisbane but not with us: for some reason, that's the really difficult bit.