Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge

A Canadian poet came to Brisbane for a poetry festival. She wanted to know what sounds are unique to this place. I began to think about the familiar, iconic sounds of Brisbane.

Many are bird calls.

There is the familiar “whoop, whoop, whoop” of a pheasant coucal calling from a gully; the sound of the common koel, the “storm bird” that visits South East Queensland every summer and calls endlessly for a mate – “ko-el, ko-el, ko-el…”; the musical tweets and burbles of the red-eyed figbird.

Green figbird en.wikipedia.org

This is a city of creeks and parks, bushland, and many varieties of fig trees, both native and exotic; and wherever there are fig trees, there are figbirds, noisily getting on with their lives.

There is another Brisbane sound familiar to many of us: the distinctive “c’thunk, c’thunk, c’thunk” of cars crossing the expansion joints of the Story Bridge. According to writer Simon Cleary in his 2008 novel “The Comfort of Figs”, it’s more of a “thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump” sound. Due to resurfacing in the last few years the sound has changed; but anyone who has spent time on or under the iconic bridge will remember it.

I know the sound well, because I’ve climbed the Story Bridge.

A student at the time, I was in a bushwalking club, and although it was illegal, climbing the bridge was an annual club tradition.

We went up at night, inside the steep, angled box girders leading to the northern shoulder of the bridge. It was quite easy and safe, funnelling up inside the steel girder and round the elbow. The scary part was climbing out of the girder and crawling, in the dark, up a narrow, unprotected, two-metre-long ladder over the void. The ladder leads to a trapdoor on to the walkway that runs along the top of the bridge superstructure.

That little ladder , high on the bridge

Once we were on the walkway, all we needed was a head for heights.

We went from one tower of the bridge to the other, upstream and downstream sides, high above the traffic and the city lights. It was exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the trapdoor and the narrow ladder back down into the girders, my legs were rubbery, and the ladder was even more frightening.

A couple of weeks later, some of us did it again, just for the heck of it.

Last week I walked across the bridge with Con. He (having heard about it many times) asked me where we went up, and I showed him, and pointed out the tiny ladder high above.

The lower ends of those girders, where they meet the bridge deck, are enclosed with steel mesh now. If I climbed the bridge again, and I’d like to, I’d pay for the safe, supervised and tethered experience, entering by an enclosed stairway where the southern slope meets the decking.

Staircases on the southern slope

In “The Comfort of Figs”, Cleary describes, vividly and in detail, the construction of the Story Bridge; and the book, of course, is also about fig trees.

Many of the sprawling, shady fig trees so plentiful in Brisbane’s parks are weeping figs, an Asian variety. There are fewer of the enormous, iconic Moreton Bay figs, tall and wide with great buttress roots reaching out around them. Ironically, considering the name, they are more popular in the parks of the southern states. I’ve seen them in Warrnambool and even in Adelaide.

Next to a motel at Swan Hill in north-west Victoria, there’s a Moreton Bay fig tree claimed to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and known as the Burke and Wills tree. It was planted in 1860, when Burke and Wills camped nearby on their hopeless expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Stressed by drought, it has been heavily pruned to help it survive. I think it would be happier growing back here where it belongs.

Swan Hill’s Burke and Wills Moreton Bay fig, before pruning tripadvisor.com.au

Brisbane’s McCaskie Park, in Blamey Street, Kelvin Grove, is a fig tree arboretum, I’ve discovered. Many are weeping figs, exotic trees from Asia, matching the row of magnificent specimens along Kelvin Grove Road.

Weeping fig trees on Kelvin Grove Road, Brisbane

There is also an old Moreton Bay fig, with typical huge buttress roots and thick, sprawling branches, some of which have been lopped. In 1996, this tree was under threat of destruction because of planned road works nearby. In spite of its size, and because of lobbying by the local community, it was transplanted to its present spot. 

Moreton Bay fig tree in McCaskie Park, Kelvin Grove

Moreton Bay fig trees can be identified by their leaves – larger than other fig leaves, green on top and brown underneath. A fine example grows in a place of honour in the City Botanic Gardens, facing Old Government House. Planted in the 1800s, it is listed by the National Trust for its beauty and its historical significance.

Robbie, the young man whose search for his father’s story forms the heart of “The Comfort of Figs”, loves Moreton Bay fig trees. Propagating them under his house, he takes a kind of comfort in using them subversively. Robbie works for Parks and Gardens, but also has a mission of his own: to plant Moreton Bay figs in camphor laurel trees.

My grandparents once lived on Laurel Avenue, Chelmer – a street famous for its fine old camphor laurels.

Laurel Avenue, Chelmer, with camphor laurels in fresh, spring foliage homehound.com.au

They are majestic trees, but invasive. Listed among the top ten weed species of South East Queensland, these exotics aggressively populate bushland areas and gardens, replacing blue gums and other koala food trees, and their seeds are toxic to birds.

Camphor laurels grow all along Brisbane’s Bulimba Creek, and while they are attractive trees and create lovely shady spots along the creek, only a few paper barks and gum trees manage to survive amongst them.

Sprawling camphor laurels dominate Bulimba Creek

There are also camphor laurels all over the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

“My grandfather planted most of them,” says Con, with a touch of pride, plus a large slice of exaggeration. His grandfather owned a dairy farm outside Mullumbimby, and planted the camphor laurels for shade and for their timber. They thrived like cane toads. There are so many now that removal would be impossible, and would leave the countryside bare.

Early every morning, before starting work, Robbie drives to Laurel Avenue, Chelmer. He chooses a camphor laurel and parks under it, climbs on top of his car and plants a little Moreton Bay fig tree in a fork of the tree, hoping it will grow and send its roots down to the ground below.

These are strangler figs that can engulf whole trees and anything else that stands in their path, then grow into mighty trees themselves. Who knows? This might be a way to solve the camphor laurel problem.

I could have told the visiting poet of many iconic Brisbane sounds. Fruit bats squalling in a mango tree. City Cats growling up the river. Hail stones on an iron roof. The chattering of rainbow lorikeets settling down for the night in a eucalyptus tree.

She may have been confused, though, if I’d mentioned the Story Bridge. We know it was named after J.D. Story, a prominent Queensland public servant, and think nothing of it, but to a stranger it must seem odd.

Story Bridge? These people must really enjoy a quality narrative…”

Not every place in the world can grow a Moreton Bay fig tree.

And Brisbane is the only city with an enormous bridge honouring our love of a good yarn.

Bridge climbers these days kangaroopoint.com.au

Willy Wagtails

The farmhouse has sugarcane fields on three sides and a cane train track opposite. As we turn off the old Bruce Highway, our son Joe opens the gate and the dog runs barking to greet us.

Later, we stand in the yard and talk, watching evening fall over the mountains as our grandsons have a final play on the swings. A cane train rumbles by. Flocks of starlings swoop down and settle on the grass, then fly off to the power lines. The air is full of birdcalls and the whooshing sound of the breeze in the cane fields, as constant as waves on a beach.

One birdcall is insistent – the chatter of willy wagtails. Above the front door is a tiny, round nest, with three pointed beaks sticking over its rim. The wagtails have babies. The parents are chattering to warn off potential threats.

Like everyone else in Queensland, I’ve known birds all my life – pelicans, crows, magpies, pee-wees and rainbow lorikeets – but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to take an interest. Bird-watching is one of those hobbies, like family history, that comes upon us as we have leisure to take notice of the smaller, less urgent things in life.

Years ago, I bought a Simpson and Day bird book, now stained and worn. Swamp hens and crested pigeons, honeyeaters and wattlebirds, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters, spangled drongos and the common koel: now we know them all, by sight and by their calls.

One of my favourites, and one of the prettiest, quirkiest and most commonly-seen, is the crested pigeon, that stripy, colourful bird with pink feet and a jaunty crest of feathers on its head that walks around making soft whoops, and when disturbed takes off with a creaking, metallic sound in its wings.

IMG_20190312_161559_resized_20190312_042723766
Willy wagtail and crested pigeon, raku ware by Linda Bates, Cadaghi Pottery, NQ

The Simpson and Day has become our travel log, reminding us that in Halls Gap we saw a spotted pardalote, and when walking out to Nobby’s Head, Newcastle, we came across a flock of ruddy turnstones, pecking among pebbles on the shoreline.fullsizeoutput_40df

We see interesting birds everywhere on our regular road trips. Everywhere, that is, except in those temperate climate towns that have filled their parks and gardens with exotic trees – liquidambers, oaks, poplars, willows, plane trees – and cleared out all the eucalypts. They’re beautiful in autumn, those foreign trees, but our native birds don’t like them. In those towns, sparrows and Indian mynahs are often the only birds to be seen.

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Plane trees in the park, Coonabarabran, NSW

Now, waking up on our first morning, I listen to the hissing whistle of old friends – tiny, beautiful, blue and yellow sunbirds.

sunbird Cinnyris_jugularis_(male)_-Singapore_Botanic_Gardens-8
Olive-backed sunbird en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive-backed_sunbird

I also hear unfamiliar calls – bell-like whistles and cheeps. Con and I take a stroll down the cane train track and spot, perched on long fronds of grass, the birds making those mysterious sounds – beautiful little fellows with orange chests and black and white stripes. Chestnut-breasted mannikins.

We’re excited, but Joe snorts in disgust.

He regards bird watching as an old people’s habit, involving irritating language and sudden halts to stare at the sky or peer into the undergrowth, mutterings about crested shrike-tits, or white-browed babblers.

“Hear that che-che-che?” I ask Joe. “That’s a crimson finch!”

He grunts and returns to his on-line news stream.

I could tell him about a chiming wedgebill we heard in a car park at Shark Bay, Western Australia. It said, “Why did you get drunk?” just as the bird book told us it would. Joe wouldn’t want to know.

He can’t help liking the willy-wagtails, though, being a new parent himself. Mother and father bird are on duty all day long, bringing insects back to the nest to feed those three wide-open little beaks, and angrily hunting away anyone or anything that comes near the nest.

A couple of days later they move their three fuzzy babies out of the nest and into a shrub near the front fence. Next morning, in spite of all the protection and feeding, there are only two babies to be seen; and the next day, just one. The predators of the cane fields have been busy.

In the evening, we take a walk again, down the headland between the cane fields. A pigeon flies over, and Con turns his binoculars to the sky. “It’s a bronzewing!” he says with pleasure.

From deep in a scrub-filled gully, we hear the familiar, dying-away “Woop woop woop woop woop” of a pheasant coucal.

I’ll send Joe a bird book of his own. He won’t use it, but we grandparents will, whenever we visit. And we’ll show our little grandsons some of the interesting and beautiful creatures that surround us everywhere in Australia, whether we notice them or not.

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