I’d been to Queensland twice before – once in 1988 as part of a family jaunt around Australia, and the second time in 1991 in one of those Gold Coast holidays people take when they’re feeling masochistic. My brother lives in Brisbane now, so I decided to pay him a visit in the spring of 2010.
My 1988 visit to Brisbane revolved around World Expo ’88, where the former dock land on the south bank of the Brisbane River had been transformed into exactly the sort of magical land that a World Expo should be. It contained an eclectic mix of buildings, showcasing what the participating countries of the world felt was important to show off.
The New Zealand pavillion at Expo ’88 was highly regarded, and featured a faux native forest, seats that looked like mini sheep, and paua-esque cladding on the outside. Yet when the pavilion was brought back to New Zealand for retirement and opened to the public out by Auckland Airport, the magic was gone. It had somehow become a tacky tourist disaster.
Expo ’88 had left me with a whole lot of memories but no way of revisiting them. Once the expo was over, the entire site was dismantled, and the area has been impressively redeveloped into South Bank Parklands.
There are a couple of remnants of the expo, though – the Skyneedle was bought by a local celebrity hairdresser and moved to his HQ a few blocks away, and the Nepal Peace Pagoda still stands, complete with a mini shrine of Expo ’88 memorabilia.
But remaining as only a fuzzy memory is the Knight Rider car, the cheeky Canadian AV presentation titled “Not Another Government Movie” and the annoying guy at the Australia Post pavilion who told me I couldn’t sit down on the floor, even though I’d been on my feet all day and my legs were aching.
But the South Bank site has bold new attractions to lure in the visitor. I was drawn in by the Wheel of Brisbane, like a scaled-down version of the London Eye. I figured that it would help me get oriented with the city, and its name sounded a bit like “wheel of fortune”, which gave it a slight exotic carnival (and/or TV game show) flavour. I paid the $15 admission fee and boarded.
As the wheel rotated around, a recording described sites of Brisbane. The wheel isn’t all that high and there aren’t all that many things to be seen from its location, so the choice of scenic sites were a little sparse. Oh look, another bridge.
Things got really surreal when the “Inspector Gadget” theme suddenly started to play. I tried to guess what this might signify. Could it be that a famous Australian inventor had a workshop nearby? No, the connection was that the 2003 straight-to-video film “Inspector Gadget 2” was filmed in Brisbane, including a scene on a nearby bridge. I don’t think anyone’s in a hurry to nickname the town Brizzywood.
Ignoring the commentary and looking down on the ground, I could see some drama involving an ambulance. It turned out that a toddler in a pram had rolled into the river, but fortunately had been rescued by a passerby. This was probably the most interesting thing I saw from the Wheel of Brisbane.
Back on flat land, I went for a wander along the river and came across the beach. Because Brisbane River isn’t really swimmable, there is a fake beach to enjoy at the river’s edge.
Lush white sands, palm trees, clear waters – it’s everything a dream beach ought to have, only with skyscrapers providing the slightly less idyllic backdrop. It feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Dubai – a giant fake beach because it’s too hard making the real beach nice.
I couldn’t reconcile the 1988 South Bank of my memory with the one I experienced in October 2010. But that seems perfect – the one thing that world expos and world fairs are good at doing is creating weird memories in their young visitors. So I’ll keep my old memory of the plastic raincoats, the foot-massager machines and the nice lady in the England pavilion, and I’ll add some new memories of the Wheel of Tourism, the Little Dubai Beach and the quite nice Nutella crepes I had at a cafe along the river.