Hungry in Brisbane

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com (not taken in Brisbane)

Twice in the last month, I have been approached by people asking me if I could spare them a little money because they were hungry. One was a woman at the shops just down the hill from where I live in the inner city. The other was in the Brisbane Arcade in the city. I was looking in a shop window when I heard a voice say, “Excuse me.” I turned to see a very thin man. He apologised profusely, saying he didn’t want to be rude but he was really hungry. I asked him if there was anything in particular that he wanted. 

“I dunno,” he replied. “Maybe just some chips?” 

I had no cash on me (who does these days?) but said I’d go to the ATM and get him some. As we walked, he asked me how I went in the recent flood. “Fine,” I told him. We are high up. What about you?” I asked, adding, “you’re on the street?”

“Yeah, I’m on the street,” he replied, but told me the place where he and a lot of people often sleep, over near Lang Park stadium, had flooded, so they had to find somewhere else.  Then he said, “You know, sometimes people come and throw petrol on homeless people and set them on fire. Nobody hears about it.” No we don’t.

I have lived, albeit briefly, in a third-world/developing/majority world country (choose your preferred term); Brisbane is far from being that, and yet, thousands in this city (5813 according to the 2016 census) are homeless and some of them are hungry.

BUT, there are a lot of people out there doing their best to help. I volunteer once a month with Rosies Friends on the Street . They go out every day and night to connect with those who just need a place to go and have a cup tea and a chat. They also offer snacks, toiletries and blankets, and can connect patrons, as they are always called, to other services if needed. Sometimes Orange Sky Laundry and Showers set up nearby. Patrons can put on a load of washing, have a shower, a cup of tea, and a chat. Micah Projects run a “Street to Home” van to give people a safe lift to wherever they happen to be staying, assuming they have anywhere. A nurse from Micah often comes to help Rosies patrons with any health concerns.  There are Fishers of Men who offer hot meals, Valley Hearts in Fortitude Valley, and in West End, Food Not Bombs set up every Friday night in Bunyapa Park and offer hot food, salads, bread, and a chat. 

Of course, anyone can go along to these places and get a free meal. No one checks your homelessness credentials or asks you to explain why you’re there. And the food, especially at Food Not Bombs, is good. 

There are a lot of reasons why people become homeless and not all of them are easily solved, but Finland has successfully implemented a “Zero Homelessness” strategy, so why not Brisbane?

Flooding in West End

Hoogley St, West End, Saturday February 26

A once-in-one-hundred-year-flood has occurred in Brisbane just eleven years after the last one, although a West End resident I spoke to said the water didn’t come into their property this time. Still, in the low-lying areas of West End there are piles of sodden belongings out on the footpaths and people who have lost everything are calling for help on social media. And the Bureau of Meteorology says the rain isn’t over yet. As if we needed any more historical events to live through.

Brisbane City Council workers cleaning up

The sound of trucks pumping water from the basement carparks of so many high-rise apartment blocks can be heard across West End today, and the foetid smell of so much river mud and debris fills the air. Some shops are still closed, some places are still without electricity, public transport has been suspended, and a general atmosphere of shock and disruption prevails. Down by the river, everywhere you look, people are picking up things, shovelling mud, or just standing around in a state of disbelief, looking at upended pontoons and large things still floating rapidly downstream. On one corner a couple discussed Ukraine and the possibility of nuclear war. Bloody hell people! One disaster at a time please! Whatever happened to Covid?

Before and after at the South Brisbane Sailing Club

At the South Brisbane sailing club, where anyone can go and learn to sail, all boating activities have been suspended and the boats sit out on the traffic island while they hold working bees to get the clubhouse cleaned up.

Before and after at the end of Forbes Street

Along from the Sailing Club, the reclining seats that line the river bank at the end of Forbes St. and the picnic areas are coated in grass and debris, surrounded by silt and boggy grass. “Be careful of snakes,” one resident warns me.

Hoogley St today

The flood water has receded now, but the anguish of those whose homes were flooded, probably not for the first time, is just beginning. Some don’t have insurance because it has become too expensive. Brisbane always has and always will flood.

Kangaroo Point

If you can avoid getting bowled over by cyclists and joggers, it’s a pleasant walk along the cliffs at Kangaroo Point, especially in the early morning or at sunset. Some people choose to abseil down the cliffs, but there are also stairs. The road runs to a dead end at the base of the cliffs and there are car-parking spaces along the way.

The path runs along the river, opening out at several points onto green lawns with picnic tables and barbecues. In one section there is a large tiled area. The tiles are laid in such a way as to form a maze, but it’s not exactly a challenge since you can just look across and see where the path leads without actually moving. You could use it like a labyrinth and do a walking meditation, but I have also seen people dancing on it too.

At Riverlife Adventure Centre you can hire kayaks, water bikes, rollerblades and other fun things. They also run rock-climbing, abseiling, and tours on and off the river. They can even organise your wedding or a picnic.

If you keep walking until you pass under the Story Bridge you’ll find a small sandy beach. Steps lead down to the beach and it’s a great place for your dog to have a frolic (except you should never let your dog off-leash except in special off-leash areas should you? Absolutely not). It might be tempting to get your kit off and go for a lovely swim in that brown water, but alas, this being Australia, the Brisbane River is full of hungry predators. Bull Sharks live in the river and they will probably eat you, and your little off-leash dog too.

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

On top of the cliffs is Joey’s a restaurant with arguably the best views in Brisbane. It boasts “180o views spanning Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens and City Skyline”. The seating is undercover but not enclosed, so if it’s a cold windy day it can be uncomfortable, but it’s a lovely place for coffee on a Sunday morning. Down on the river itself is Medley cafe. It’s open seven days a week from 7am, currently serving dinner Thursday to Saturday, with live music every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon.

Kangaroo Point was the site of a gruesome murder back in 1848. The dismembered body of Robert Cox was found on the river bank on March 26. William Fyfe was hanged for the murder, but local butcher Patrick Mayne made a deathbed confession in 1865. But the Mayne story is long, involving madness, nuns, and stained-glass windows, so I’ll save it for another time.

West End Markets

The market held in the Brisbane suburb of West End every Saturday morning is like a mini folk festival without the alcohol and cold showers. There is always music playing somewhere and you’re sure to see something interesting, like the man who has his cat on a lead and carries it on his shoulder, people practising acrobatics or tightrope walking, or someone blowing giant bubbles for the kids who chase them around trying to pop them.

The markets are held in Davies Park along the river. Parking can be tricky but it’s easily accessible from the bike path that runs along the river or by bus along Montague road.

There are plenty of fruit and vegetable stalls and prices are usually much cheaper than those in the supermarket. Those run by the growers often specialise in a particular thing like tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, honey, or mushrooms. There are a couple of meat vendors who also sell fish, flower stalls, coffee beans, spices, homemade ginger beer, greek sweets, and cakes. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a vegan, you will be well-catered for here and at several places in West End; it’s a vegan kind of place.

Holey Doughy sell freshly-made doughnuts and holes

You’ll also find jewellery and clothing stalls, natural beauty products, baby things and plants. There is also a very popular massage tent. Most stalls now take card, but if you need cash there is an ATM.

Once you’ve finished your shopping, grab a bite to eat at one of the food stalls: potato rosti, Hungarian langos, Tibetan momos, German bratwurst, French baguettes and cheese, crèpes, curry puffs, Thai rice and noodles, and felafel to name a few. There are a couple of coffee stalls, including the Gypsy Vardo cart who also do several types of chai, and iced tea stalls.

Then juggling all that, find a spot to sit under the huge Moreton Bay fig trees and listen to one of the musical acts that play every week. I recommend taking a rug to sit on. There’ll be lots of dogs on leads and small children. Just the one cat so far. The park is next to a soccer field so you can kick a ball around or throw a frisbie.

It’s a much nicer (and cheaper) way to do your grocery shopping, but also a relaxing way to spend a Saturday morning. And like most folk festivals it’s a groovy scene man.

Southbank Parklands

If I were going to choose a place to stay in Brisbane that was centrally located but in a pleasant area, I would choose a hotel near Southbank. In fact, when I lived just outside of Brisbane that’s what my family and I did one year; we booked into the Mantra for a week. From here we could stroll to restaurants and cafes, swim at Southbank pool (for free!) or walk up to the Southbank Cinemas on the corner and catch a movie.

At the Western end is the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), Museum, State Library, and Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). So during the day you can view the latest exhibitions and at night see a play, go to the ballet, or a performance by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Or you can just sit and play the piano in the walkway under QPAC.

Nepalese Peace Pagoda and my dog, Maggie

The Nepalese Peace Pagoda is one of the few remaining structures left from the World Exposition held in 1988. Before Expo ’88, the Southbank area was a seedy industrial area. It was transformed into a six-month-long party venue that brought the world to Brisbane, showing it that it was cool to stay out after 8pm.

The pagoda is surrounded by a rainforest through which a rocky stream flows and you can sit in the shade, breathe the cool air, listen to the water flowing, and pretend you’re miles away from the city. Except you’re not, so either keep your eyes closed or squint.

Barbecue area

When you’re done basking in the serenity, you can fire up the barbecue at the covered picnic area next to the rainforest. Tables and chairs are provided here, or you can loll about on the wide grassed area and get sunburnt.

Bush Stone Curlews

If it’s Spring, watch out for the Bush Stone Curlews. If you get near their nest or offspring, these long-legged birds will lower their heads and start goose-stepping in your direction. They won’t do you any harm, but their mournful cry and the creepy way they stare at you will psych you out. Also watch out for the Plovers, who make their nest on the ground and will dive bomb you if you get near it. Oh and of course the Magpies; they will swoop if you happen to get near the tree where they are nesting, which you will. Just wear a hat and sunnies, which is advisable in Queensland wherever you are. Harmless but probably more annoying are the Ibises, otherwise known as Bin Chickens. They’ll hang around wanting your food. Don’t feed them or they’ll just become more annoying. In the warmer months it is also possible you will also see the odd snake, but don’t let that worry you.

Southbank Pool

If it’s hot you can then go to the beach. Southbank beach has everything you expect on an Australian beach, except for waves and salt water. The first section is a standard pool, with a ramp and railing providing easy access for those who need it. The middle section is the sandy beach and is divided into shallow and deep sections. Then there is the section for little kids: wading pools and shallow streams, water features that rain water down, or tip it from buckets, and gismos to allow kids to create dams or turn water wheels. All of these are patrolled by lifesavers, dressed in yellow and red, from 7am to midnight. After that you’re on your own.

Snaking its way through Southbank is the arbor covered with bougainvillea, a beautiful plant with vicious thorns that creates a colourful shady path the length of the parklands. This will take you to other picnic areas, including one on its own island. Don’t be startled by the water dragons sunning themselves on the rocks by the water; they are harmless and will disappear into the water if you get too close.

There is also an edible garden growing fruits, vegetables and herbs. You can eat this garden but there are rules, so don’t just hoe in.

The path along the river leads to the Riverside Green where music plays on Sunday afternoons and people sit and drink alcohol; however, you must be over 18 and have food to go with your drinks, so get your ID sorted and make sure you pack a bag of chips. If you prefer to eat and drink in a more refined manner, there are several excellent restaurants at this end.

NB: On the days when people most want to get drunk, i.e. Australia Day (aka Invasion Day, January 26) and New Years Eve, you’re not allowed to drink in the public spaces and the police can (and most likely will) issue on-the-spot fines. Typical.

At the tail end of Southbank is the Maritime Museum where you can see the tiny, pink yacht that Jessica Watson sailed around the world in 2009-10, the youngest person to do so at age 16.

If you need to go to hospital, keep staggering towards the Mater or Queensland Children’s hospitals, but if you’re feeling well you can keep walking along the south bank of the river, under the Captain Cook Bridge to the cliffs of Kangaroo Point and beyond, or cross the Goodwill Bridge to the Brisbane Botanical Gardens and city central.

Brisbane City Council offers free classes at Southbank, including yoga, tai chi, Zumba, and dancing, after which you can undo all your good work by having a beer at the Plough Inn, which has been in operation since 1864 (really old for Australia), a chocolate fondue at Max Brenner’s, or a Happy Pop.

For more info on Southbank go here.