Bridges of Brisbane

I’m with my grandson Angus on a CityCat ferry, heading downstream from its UQ terminus to photograph the bridges of central Brisbane as evening comes down over the river. The muddy old Brisbane River, MAIWAR in Turrball language, is at its most beautiful.

High above us as we waited at the ferry wharf was the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, opened in 2006 to link Yeronga to the University of Queensland. Carrying only buses, cyclists and pedestrians and known to everyone as the Green Bridge, its four tall towers are visible from kilometres away.

Eleanor Schonell (Green) Bridge

On board the CityCat we’ve moved through the cabin to the bow, holding the rail as its powerful engines send the boat surging down the river and round its slow curves, past the university sports fields and old, timber houses high on the opposite banks.

Go-Between, Merivale and William Jolly Bridges, looking downstream

Coming down the Milton Reach towards the CBD, the wind in our hair, we can see three bridges at once.

Closest to us is the graceful white span of the Go-Between Bridge, opened in 2010 to connects West End to the Inner-City Bypass at Milton.

Approaches to the Go-Between Bridge from under the Coronation Drive overpass

Beyond the Go-Between Bridge is the coat-hanger arch of the Merivale Bridge, the railway bridge which connects South Brisbane Station to the north side of the river, crossing Melbourne Street behind the old Hotel Terminus, where you might once have spent the night after getting off the Sydney train at South Brisbane Station. Until the bridge opened in 1978, to catch a train onwards to Cairns or Cunnamulla or Longreach, you’d have needed to cross the river to Roma Street Station, probably via the William Jolly road bridge, known to most as Grey Street Bridge.

Opening in 1932 to link South Brisbane to the CBD at Roma Street, Grey Street Bridge, with its graceful cream art deco arches, is one of Brisbane’s best-loved bridges and the most celebrated by artists.

The Grey Street Bridge, Vida Lahey. Bridge under construction. artrecord.com
Grey Street arrangement Jon Molvig. Museum of Brisbane

From under the Grey Street Bridge, around the bend of the river at Kurilpa Point, the spectacular Kurilpa pedestrian bridge comes into view, with its many white masts like drinking straws or a sailing ship’s spars.

Kurilpa Bridge, from under Grey Street Bridge

Opened in 2009, it joins Kurilpa Point (from the Turrball word for place of the water rats) to the CBD at Tank Street.

Kurilpa Bridge. australiandesignreview.com

Now we’re approaching the slim, elegant span of Victoria Bridge, opened in 1969.

Victoria Bridge

As a teenager, I used to cross the old Victoria Bridge by tram, and it made me nervous to see the sign limiting the number of trams per span of the bridge. Instead of two or three, there were often five or six going each way.

“Out with the old, in with the new… The Victoria Bridges in December 1969”. reddit.com

Now Victoria Bridge carries only buses, cycles and pedestrians across the river between South Brisbane and the top of Queen Street. It’s beautiful this evening, lit up with colours that are reflected in the timeless ripples and eddies of the river.

Downstream from Victoria Bridge our CityCat negotiates an obstacle course of construction barges. A spectacular footbridge, the Neville Bonner Bridge, is due for completion in 2022, linking South Bank Parklands to the ambitious Queens Wharf development with its hotel and apartments, casino, shops and parks. Let’s hope tourism dollars will return to Brisbane soon to pay for it.

Image of how the Neville Bonner Bridge and the new Queens Wharf development are expected to look. queenswharfbrisbane.com.au

 The Goodwill Bridge, opened in 2001 to carry cyclists and pedestrians from South Bank to Gardens Point, is next, with a stylish design and a little coffee bar on one of its viewing platforms.

Goodwill Bridge, with the Captain Cook Bridge in the background.

I love how it looks it in the evening light, looking back to the CBD buildings and the lights of Victoria Bridge.

Goodwill Bridge, looking upstream.

At Gardens Point the clean line of Captain Cook Bridge links the Pacific Motorway to the Riverside Expressway. Opened in 1973, in the time of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when modernisation was everything and cars were king, the bridge has no pedestrian or cycle access. We travel under it and watch joggers and evening pedestrians in the riverside parkland, and climbers spread-eagled under the lights on Kangaroo Point Cliffs.

A CityCat coming towards the Captain Cook Bridge, with the Kangaroo Point Cliffs in the background.

Ahead the tall, lit-up buildings of Petrie Bight come into view, and on the next bend the Story Bridge.

Petrie Bight buildings and the Story Bridge

The heritage-listed Story Bridge is the most iconic of Brisbane bridges. A massive steel structure, it was built as part of public works programs during the Great Depression and opened in 1940. (See my story Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge.)

Sunset fades from the sky and the lights of the bridge and the high-rises shine on the water.  Howard Smith Wharves, with hotel, restaurants and bars are bright and noisy, slide by.

Under the Story Bridge. On the roof of a hotel at Howard Smith Wharves, people relax beside a pool.

The bridge is high above us as we steady our cameras against the movement of the speeding ferry.

Under the bridge at evening

The Story Bridge looks magnificent reflected in our wake.

Looking back at the Story Bridge and the lights of Howard Smith Wharves

At the next CityCat stop, Mowbray Park, we disembark to catch another ferry back upstream.

To see more of Brisbane’s bridges, Angus and I might take a cruise upriver one day, under the bridges at Indooroopilly and Jindalee.

The utilitarian-designed Centenary Bridge, opened in 1964, carries the busy Centenary Highway between Fig Tree Pocket and Jindalee.

Centenary Bridge, looking from Jindalee to Fig Tree Pocket

From under the bridge, shady walkways lead downstream past mighty riverside eucalypts and fig trees, the treasures of Brisbane’s riverside parks.

At Indooroopilly, on a deep bend of the river, there are four bridges: the road bridge, two rail bridges and a cycle and pedestrian bridge.

Under the Indooroopilly bridges

I lived at Indooroopilly with my family (see my story Gully of Leeches) when there were just two bridges. I used to ride my bike to school across the white, art deco Walter Taylor road bridge, under its towers and past the tollbooth. The northern tower of the bridge famously included an apartment, where washing was sometimes strung to dry high above the traffic.

Walter Taylor Bridge, commonly known as the Indooroopilly Bridge. queenslanddecoproject,com

Until it opened in 1936, the only bridge at Indooroopilly was the Albert Railway Bridge carrying the Ipswich Line. Another rail bridge was opened in 1957, and in 1998 a pedestrian and cycle bridge on the downstream side.

If we’d stayed on the downstream CityCat, Angus and I would have come within sight of the twin Gateway Bridges, officially named after Sir Leo Hielscher, lit up dramatically and arching high above the river.

Fishing, upstream from the Gateway Bridges

Opened in 1986 and 2010, the upstream bridge takes northbound traffic, while the downstream one carries southbound traffic as well as a cycle and pedestrian path.

Under the Gateway Bridges

Con and I walked one winter’s day from beneath the southern end of the bridge, up to the top. From the viewing platform there, we could see down to the river mouth and Moreton Bay. It was a long slog to the top of the bridge, but not too steep, as it was built to carry heavily laden semi-trailers.

Other cycle and pedestrian bridgesare in the planning stages, to link Saint Lucia and Toowong to West End, and Kangaroo Point to the City Botanic Gardens.

I can remember when old Maiwar was treated with little respect, as a flood-prone dumping-ground that people crossed in a hurry in cars, buses and trams. Now it has been reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists and ferries, and its banks and its bridges are sources of pleasure and pride for Brisbanites.

How would you like to be

Down by the Seine with me

Oh what I’d give for a moment or two

Under the bridges of Paris with you…

(Eartha Kitt 1953)

The Seine in Paris has 37 bridges, but crossing approximately thirty-five kilometres of the river in Brisbane there are just sixteen. The Brisbane River is wider than the Seine, and not as easily bridged, or tamed; and the bridges of Brisbane are not as classically elegant as the bridges of Paris, made famous by Eartha Kitt in her sexy version of this famous song.

But I love our Brisbane bridges.

All are spectacular; some are iconic; and old Maiwar flowing beneath them is beautiful.

Looking upstream from the Centenary Bridge

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

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