That place called ‘Down Under’ … yes, even years later, Australia is unforgettable

Wallabies in Australia.

Becky and Kevin S. Giles found a few wallaby friends in Queensland, Australia.

(I wrote this for Australian newspapers after our visit in 2002 to renew friendships made when we lived in Brisbane. It’s worth repeating for anyone interested in a journey Down Under.)

By Kevin S. Giles

The conversations go something like this:

“I heard you went somewhere exotic on your vacation?”

I grin, because I can hardly stop myself from sharing one of those dreaded “you know what I did?” travelogues.

“Yes, I went to Australia.”

“That’s so cool!” comes the reply. “I’ve always wanted to go there. I hear it’s a really great place.” And then comes the puzzled question: “Where exactly did you go?”

“We went to Brisbane,” I say, explaining where to find it on the map. Because of the Summer Olympics, Australia is a more familiar place to north-country Americans accustomed to snow and ice most of the year. Brisbane, I explain, is northward along the coast. It helps to mention Steve Irwin. Like it or not, his crocodile shenanigans make Queensland a better-known place.

“What made you want to go there?”

“Well, I used to live in Brisbane….”

I confess. I should have returned sooner to this pearl of the Pacific. Twenty-six years is a long time to wait for a trip lasting 26 hours. I’ve always loved Brisbane, and I’m proud to have lived there. It’s seems like a miracle, looking backwards, that Becky and I lived there for a year and a half with little more than what we could squeeze in three suitcases.

I suspect we have accumulated a bit more baggage since. With three children, two sons-in-law and three grandchildren, we’ve been a bit busy. That’s why to me the span of the ocean loomed larger than the span of the mind. Returning to Australia was a dream, and dreams sometimes get ground beneath the heavy feet of home, work and family.

Visiting Australia

Becky Giles in Australia with son-in-law Jim and daughter Harmony.

We arrived in Brisbane on a Qantas flight on a winter morning in June. Becky and I looked eagerly from the plane at the ports, the islands, the gum trees and the city unfolding before us. This time we had brought our middle daughter, Harmony, and her husband Jim; she would be interning in pharmacy at Princess Alexandria Hospital and he in large animal nutrition at the state testing labs in Moorooka, a suburb.

The sun, low in the sky, deceived us. To me it felt like late afternoon. In our winter, which is opposite on the calendar, a low sun means frigid days. The leaves fall off and the grass turns brown before the snow comes.

The first change I noticed was the modem new airport. I vaguely remember, when returning to America in 1976, standing along a wire fence, watching people walk on the tarmac to board airplanes. The airport wasn’t much of a place then.

Neither were Queensland’s highways. It’s always a thrill to ride on the left side, different from what Americans do, but I found the roads in Brisbane in the 1970s to be much like a carnival ride, swerving to and fro. We left our stomachs on every turn. People who spent a leisurely weekend on the Sunshine Coast paid for their fun Sunday afternoons in the asphalt-bubbling traffic jams that accumulated inbound to the city, north of Redcliffe.

Much of my trouble on the roads began behind the wheel of my Holden sedan. Learning to work a column shift with my left hand required more coordination than I expected, and I took care not to drive in the right (or from your perspective, the wrong) lanes.

When friends in America ask me if Brisbane and the surrounding areas had changed much in 26 years, I tell them it was like seeing a “Back to the Future” movie. It all looked the same but not quite, if you know what I mean, and we had to look twice, or three times, to remember how it was.

I recall our Australian friends and colleagues, in the 1970s, referring to Brisbane “as a big country town that doesn’t know it’s a city.” If that was an accurate reading then, the new assessment is that Brisbane has aged gracefully and happily. It hasn’t lost its old country charm or its proclivity toward good will. We still found kind, warm people. They just move faster, or at least more efficiently, and for better or worse their city looks more like American cities.

The new freeways winding around and through Brisbane are as fine as any you would find in America (but with a population of 280 million we wear them out faster than we build them). And those intersection roundabouts in Queensland, which at first seemed a driver’s nightmare, eventually impressed us as an advanced means of moving traffic and reducing accidents.

The city train system would put many American cities to shame; of what we saw it’s clean, orderly and on time, and travelers will appreciate its reach to most major neighborhoods of Brisbane. Here in the Twin Cities of about 3 million residents we’re just now getting our first light-rail trains. The single line will serve only a sliver of our metro area, once traversed by electric streetcars, but it’s a start.

In the mid-70s, when I worked as a reporter and sub-editor at The Courier-Mail, I rode a train from where we lived in Yeronga to South Brisbane. Because the train didn’t cross the river, I walked across the Victoria Bridge to North Quay, where 1 boarded a bus to Bowen Hills.

By the way, in those early days no reasonable person would tarry in South Brisbane, a dangerous place, after dark. That blighted riverfront’s transformation to an arts and entertainment center is nothing short of phenomenal.

Our admiration this winter for transportation wasn’t limited to trains and buses. The City Cat, surely one of the finest ideas anywhere, is both fun and useful. Boarding a “river taxi” makes sense in a growing cosmopolitan port city.

Queen Street, decades ago, was a haven for automobiles. Exhaust stuck to the air like syrup on humid summer afternoons. Crossing the street was perilous because some drivers enjoyed scaring the daylights out of anyone who didn’t beat the light. It was a busy, industrious place, but nothing as friendly and interactive as today’s pedestrian mall.

I suppose it was inevitable that Brisbane would fall to the waves of American fast food restaurants and other brand businesses. Queensland’s suburban strip development, which in America has ruined many downtowns, grew with shocking speed since we lived there.

Here, that type of development is a response to changing lifestyles: more people on the go, fewer people eating family dinners at home, more single-parent families needing convenience and quicker access, more people with more disposable income.

I suspect the same is true in Queensland, although many prices seemed excessively high by our standards (A$20 for a paperback book?).

Some streets in Brisbane look American enough to be interchangeable. On closer inspection one could find the familiar chemist (known in America as a “pharmacist”) and the casket (here you bury the dead in them). Those marvelous little fish and chips shops still beckon, but you have to look harder beneath all the big glitzy brand-name signs.

Queenslanders have more shopping choices, but for the visiting American the strip development diminishes the local flavor. We remember a Brisbane that was strictly its own personality. I doubt the change afoot has compromised its character, but worldwide corporate expansion does have its way of neutralizing international identities.

Some other disturbing discoveries:

Is the Gold Coast going to collapse from over-development? In the mid-70s, a handful of high-rise buildings stood at Surfers Paradise. This time I counted more than 100 of them. They look freakish against those gorgeous white sand beaches and the pure blue sea beyond. Thankfully the people on the beach are looking outward. You’ve got to applaud what the folks at Byron Bay, New South Wales, have done to restrict development. The scenery, not the buildings, commands the view.

Sunshine Coast development, although less garish than its southern partner, has grown to startling limits. Property parcels have chewed their way into virgin oceanfront. At Peregian Beach, neighborhood streets and scores of houses surround what had been a somewhat obscure holiday flat where we stayed during Christmas 1975.

Being a fan of the ocean, I would see it no other way. Queensland has some of the world’s best beaches. Many Americans couldn’t imagine the remarkable beauty of the coasts north and south of Brisbane. They’re worth preserving.

Curt and Laura in Australia

Friends and fellow Montanans Curt (left) and Laura Hodge (at right) lived in Australia the same time we did.

If my commentary on development offends you, forgive me. I don’t want to come off like a cocky Yank. Americans have pioneered runaway development. Here, our lust for it is ruining many of our lakes, rivers, ocean fronts and mountain wilderness. We build everywhere. I wouldn’t want Queensland to fall to the same misery. Queensland feels like home, and I feel a stake in the violation of its beauty.

Still, the pleasures abound. We consumed them eagerly over 16 days in late June and early July. Yes, I regretted a thousand times that I had waited so long to return to Australia, the land Down Under. It’s a legendary, romantic place, you know.

Popular culture has made Australia bigger than life: The Thornbirds, Olivia Newton-John, the Bee Gees, Mel Gibson, Paul Hogan, Men at Work and so on and so on. It’s indeed a country famous for its celebrities, but we find the simpler pleasures are the best.

There’s nothing like lunch on the veranda of a country pub, or a walk on a golden beach at sunset, or watching a kangaroo, or spending a little more money because the exchange rate is good.

And what’s better than cheering for Queensland in the State of Origin match, supplementing our excitement with glasses of cold grog?

A visit to Queensland wouldn’t be nearly as special without our friends, most of whom we haven’t seen for many years. We’ve known Karen and Greg Hill since 1974 when Karen befriended my wife Becky when they taught at Kingston School. Lyn Butler of Alexandra Hills (now Lyn Packer) was Becky’s co-teacher at the same school.

It’s a rich life, to keep this connection across the sea.

Our American friends are right. Indeed, Australia is an exotic place.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)


2 thoughts on “That place called ‘Down Under’ … yes, even years later, Australia is unforgettable

  1. A great read! You have to meet my daughter, Lynae. In the mid1980s she went to Queensland as an exchange student.

Comments are closed.