My arrival in, and subsequent exploration of, Brisbane these past few weeks has left one thought rattling around in my head: never has the phrase “urban jungle” been more appropriate.
Everywhere you look here, it’s as if the wilderness of Queensland is battling to take the city back: lush tree canopies explode over flower-strewn sidewalks, massive spiders dangle on thick webs stretched taut between traffic signs, the screeches of rainbow lorikeets drown out the whir of city busses, and lush, shrubby undergrowth breaks through sidewalks, creeps up over fences, and floods the space between buildings. It’s as if the rainforests of northeast Australia have decided, defiant and petulant like an angry toddler, that they will not go to their room. Thus, miniature tropical paradises flourish within the cramped streets of downtown while, once given the space to do so (like in the suburbs towards the west), wild Australia takes over the cityscape, turning backyards into bush and civilization into a shared existence between Aussies and some of Queensland’s most celebrated wildlife.
I spend my first two weeks here in Brisbane in an Airbnb in Highgate Hill, a Brisbane suburb just a short bus ride from downtown and no more than a ten minute walk from the University of Queensland (my intellectual stomping grounds for the next several months). The Airbnb — home until I find an apartment — is gorgeous: it’s an old nunnery that’s been converted into a handful of stacked apartments with worn wooden floors and wide open windows, a big kitchen, and, of course my lovely host Chris.
The weeks here fly by unexpectedly fast — a blur of delicious coffee and home-cooked meals and lazy exploration. I develop a routine pretty quickly: wake up, maybe go for a run, cook breakfast, explore Brisbane and run errands (with lunch thrown in there somewhere), go for a run if I didn’t in the morning, take a cold shower (because it’s much too hot for anything else), cook dinner and chat animatedly with Chris about the most depressing of the world’s current events, and either watch Netflix or binge-read new books until I can keep my eyes open no longer. Not a bad way to live, eh?
The city of Brisbane itself reminds me a bit of Los Angeles in the way it’s designed. Much like LA it’s a big-name city with dozens of more important (i.e. more exciting) little neighborhoods squeezed underneath it. The Brisbane River (clever name, right?) divides the city, winding like a snake through the urban sprawl and creating convenient barriers between several of the aforementioned neighborhoods and creating a mess of public transport thanks to the limited number of bridges.
The Central Business District (CBD for short) is utterly useless: it’s swarming with tourists, dominated by chain-brand stores, overpriced at nearly every eatery, and overall just depressingly overrated when compared to the more exciting, more welcoming South Bank just across the river.
South Bank, though also touristy, has a fun artsy vibe thanks to the museums and performance venues than line its edge. It has a man-made “beach” (a public pool that has sand, sort of like the ones at water parks) and an endless supply of bars, cafes, and nice restaurants. It’s bordered (and partially invaded) by the Botanical Gardens to the northeast across the river, faces CBD to the north, falls into to Kangaroo Point (a great place to work out and/or rock climb) to the southeast, and backs up to West End to the southwest, making it just about perfect place to spend a day exploring thanks to all of those things being within walking distance.
Meanwhile, West End is the stomping ground of Brisbane’s younger, trendier crowds. Relaxed, fashionably dressed millennials stroll through the the cramped streets and crowd into trendy brunch places, specialty stores, cute, hipster-y cafes and loud, open-air bars. Nearly all of the most amazing (ahem, while still being reasonably priced and not overrun by tourists) restaurants I’ve found thus far in Brisbane are in West End, so to say I’m a fan is a bit of an understatement — especially since it’s also home to the most amazing farmer’s market I’ve ever seen in my life. Such a statement seems like another overenthusiastic Ailish-ism, but trust me: this farmer’s market is heaven-on-earth once you discover how blasphemously expensive the produce is at the supermarket (I mean really, A$19.99/kg for Bell Peppers?!).
St. Lucia, where UQ is located, is sleepy and calm — at least for now. Only time will tell if it has much more to offer than the university itself, but in the meantime it’s where I’ll be doing my apartment hunting and overall seems nice enough.
The great University of Queensland gets its own paragraph because it’s basically its own neighborhood. It’s located within St Lucia, sure, but with 282 acres of land and it’s very own bridge across the river that’s closed to cars (as is its campus), it quite frankly could be its own separate city. Though only 56 acres larger than USC’s main campus, it feels like it’s on a different planet. Similar to the rest of Brisbane, wild Australia has taken up residence here. In fact, my favorite running route takes me through campus at dusk because that’s when the wildlife wakes up, starting with the birds (rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, ibis, and the like) and ending with the bats (technically called flying foxes, but such a name is confusing if you aren’t well-versed enough in chiropterology to know these guys are one of the largest species of fruit bat in the world). The campus is mostly green space: enormous gum and jacaranda trees rain leaves and flowers onto nearly every inch of the grounds, sprawling sports fields hug campus along the river’s edge, lush grassy hills roll into the university’s three “lakes,” and UQ’s iconic “Great Court” dominates the center of campus. Classes don’t start until late February, so I haven’t seen much of the interior of campus, but with outdoor spaces like these, I don’t feel the need to.
There are countless more little neighborhoods (including Paddington — a suburb area whose one cafe I visited had a small-town, hipster sort of vibe), but few in which I’ve spent enough time to properly or accurately judge. Actually, for that matter, I’ve only been here a few weeks, so all of these judgements could be completely and entirely wrong altogether. Should someone insist that I am 100% misguided in my opinions, however, it’ll give me an excuse to explore this lovely city in even greater detail than before (and with someone as a guide!), so for now, I suppose I’ll be sticking to my guns and updating things as I go.
First impressions aside, though, I have to say that I am absolutely stoked to be here. I have a lot more to learn (beyond just where the best cafes are and whether CBD is really that overrated…such as, oh I don’t know, where to find my UQ classes?), and loads more to explore, but in the meantime I am living the dream. To be quite honest, USC better watch out: with UQ set in a place like this, they’ll be lucky if I ever come home at all.