Exploring Brisbane's river

Late afternoon at the Brisbane River
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

This east-coast capital hugs its watery thoroughfare and goes with the flow.

As our ferry cruises along the Brisbane River on a sunny springtime morning, the sights of the city’s eastern suburbs flick past on the riverbanks. 

On one side, there are the ships at the wharf at Teneriffe, which was a major submarine base during World War II. Across the water, gardens at the back of old Queenslanders run down to the water.

Behind the bigger, newer houses, boats bob gently at private moorings. 

Further along at New Farm there are old factories and industrial buildings now mostly converted to apartments, and then the green space of the suburb’s eponymous park and the red-brick facade of the Brisbane Powerhouse, a 1920s power station that’s now an arts venue. Then there’s the Riverwalk, a walkway raised above the river that was swept away in the 2011 floods but has since been restored, and the distinctive form of the Story Bridge, Australia’s longest cantilever bridge and one of the great symbols of this city. 

Today the river is a calm, murky brown, and it seems hard to imagine that on occasion — notably in 1974 and 2011 — its waters have broken their banks and inundated the city, causing considerable damage, destruction and even death.

Brisbane was, rather unusually, named for its river rather than the other way around, and the waterway is at the heart of the city geographically, defining the suburbs and streets enveloped by its meandering curves, drawing residents and visitors to it for recreation and transportation.

Getting around by ferry is an ideal way to take it all in if you’re unhurried and on holiday. 

Today I disembark at North Quay and head into the city. But later, I’ll return to the river, past the woman wearing fairy wings and blowing bubbles by the bridge, and head over to South Bank, where the brutalist buildings of the Queensland Cultural Centre — including the Queensland Museum, the State Library and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre — stand stark against the blue sky.

This area is a justifiably popular attraction — the Sciencentre and the celebrated Gallery of Modern Art are also here — but I head south, pausing to photograph the Wheel of Brisbane ferris wheel, standing nearly 60m tall. The sunny morning has become a warm afternoon and everyone seems to be out and about, walking their dogs and riding bikes, strolling along the broad pathway and sitting on the river wall, their feet dangling over the water. I pass the Nepal Peace Pagoda, one of only three to be found outside Nepal, and the Rainforest Walk and the white sands of the man-made Streets Beach, where children splash and squeal in the clear shallows. 

Further along, people laze in the sunshine at the restaurants and parks. I stop to explore the Epicurious Garden, where volunteers grow everything from cassava and custard apples to eggplants, capsicums and kale, and to peer through the fence at the boats and nautical oddities at the Queensland Maritime Museum. Continuing on towards the honey-coloured Kangaroo Point Cliffs, I find public art spread throughout parkland: among them Christopher Trotter’s Biomechanical Pelicans, made from scrap metal and perched on a rusting pylon in the river, and the 13 brightly coloured, stylised figures in Peter D. Cole’s Man and Matter series framing the views back to the city. 

A few days later, I get a different view of the river, dodging ferries and pleasure craft while paddling a kayak on a tour with Riverlife. Mangroves on one side, the skyscrapers of the city across the water on the other. From this angle, I’m noticing different things entirely: the man rowing out to a moored yacht, the rusting and rotting remains of an old ship, the houseboats with pot plants on their decks. We paddle under the Story Bridge, and I see the traffic passing high above us. 

There are reminders of the river’s early European history along this stretch, too: the remains of the South Brisbane coal wharves and dry dock, both built in the late 1800s, their remnants now incorporated into the maritime museum. Then 

there are the Kangaroo Point Naval Stores, which were built in the 1880s in response to fears that Australia could be vulnerable to attack from the Russian Empire, after its navy was spotted in the Pacific. Only one of them remains, and
it’s now Riverlife’s headquarters.

Then there are the cliffs themselves, which were previously steep, rocky
slopes before they were quarried for stone after the Moreton Bay Penal Colony was established across the
river in the 1820s. The stone, known as “Brisbane tuff”, was used for churches, houses, schools and
even kerbs and drains around the city and its suburbs. Today the cliffs are
heritage listed and popular with rock climbers and abseilers. 

But I’m happy to be in my kayak, paddling slowly, watching as the rocks are lit golden by the setting sun as dusk falls over the river.

fact file

Brisbane’s ferry services include the free CityHoppers, which connect various inner-city stops. For journey planning and timetables, the free MyTransLink app is useful with information on buses, trains and trams. brisbaneferries.com.au and translink.com.au.

In addition to kayak tours and hire, Riverlife offers abseiling, rock climbing, stand-up paddleboarding, bike and rollerblade hire, outdoor laser tag, segway tours and more. riverlife.com.au.

For more on visiting Brisbane, see visitbrisbane.com.au.

I stayed at Choice Hotels’ The Kingsford, an affordable boutique hotel in Hamilton, a 10-minute drive from the airport, 15 minutes from the city and across the road from the Portside Wharf cruise terminal, along with the brand-new Rydges Fortitude Valley, which is also reasonably priced and is across the road from the Royal International Convention Centre and
Brisbane Showgrounds precinct, and the five-star Sofitel Brisbane Central, which has a very convenient CBD location next to the Central train station. choicehotels.com.au, rydges.com and sofitelbrisbane.com.au.

Various airlines fly direct between Perth and Brisbane, and Airtrain offers an efficient rail link from the airport to the city in 23 minutes, and on to the Gold Coast. 

Book online seven or more days in advance and the return adult fare of $33 is discounted to $28.05. airtrain.com.au.

X-Winging it

“Who has ever got excited about bollards,” Scott asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “No, me neither,” he admits.

But, as Scott points out, when you’re standing aboard a mini-segway as we are, bollards become not just an everyday piece of infrastructure but an obstacle course on which you can test your skills. 

Scott is an instructor and guide with X-Wing Mini Segway Tours on Brisbane’s South Bank, where he’ll be leading us on a tour this morning. His enthusiasm for his job is infectious — even for a segway sceptic such as myself — and he seems determined to make sure we have a good time. “We’re smile merchants,” he tells the group with gusto.

We get off to a good start, despite my misgivings. Scott and his colleagues are patient teachers and I find the mini-segways easier to manoeuvre than I’d expected. It’s all about gently leaning forward and back to adjust my speed, and soon enough I feel confident enough to progress at a steady pace.

We set off along the river, our segways whirring and music drifting back through the group from Scott’s stereo. Concentrating too hard to feel silly, we weave in and out of the people walking, jogging and riding bikes. 

There’s one moment when I nearly come unstuck but Scott calmly circles back to help and, by the time we pause outside the Queensland Maritime Museum, I’m no longer feeling nervous. As we cross a bridge over to the Queensland University of Technology campus — where we encounter the improvised obstacle course — and the botanic gardens, I’d even say I’m getting the hang of it.

In fact, when our hour’s up, I have to admit I’ve had a lot of fun — bollards and all. 


Gemma Nisbet visited Brisbane courtesy of Airtain and Choice Hotels, and was a guest of Riverlife.