Topless Tarts and Kookaburra Queens

South-East Queensland Revisited

It had been several years since I was last in South East Queensland – one of my favourite corners of the world – but my recent two or three weeks there were enough to remind me of the diversity and fun the area offers, from the towering high-rise buildings on the Gold Coast to the quiet streets of Noosa where scrub turkeys share the footpaths with ice-cream-eating barefoot visitors.

After a rather disappointing Singapore Airlines flight into Brisbane, I collected a car and headed north to Noosa, where I stayed at Noosa Cove Retreat, a gay naturist guest house. My room opened directly onto a small and rather chilly swimming pool, and apart from the owners whom I saw once or twice, I did not bump into any other guests, although I was told the place was fully booked. Perhaps the others were not swimmers and perhaps they came and went by another entrance – whatever the case, it was an idyllic place for a restful stay with lots of naked sunning by the pool.

JacarandaIt was jacaranda time in Noosa – and indeed most of SE Queensland – when these glorious trees lined entire avenues and whose purple flowers made overhead canopies and whose petals fell to provide colourful carpets for pedestrians and cars alike. When I was young the jacaranda was not so much a thing of beauty as a thing of dread, as its appearance in October and November meant the December end-of-year examinations were just around the corner.

Although the surrounding areas of Noosa town continue to grow at a great pace, the town centre, based on the shops and restaurants and beach near Hastings Street, seem to have changed very little over the years. Everything is low-rise, (buildings are not permitted to be taller than the local trees), pedestrians have the right of way (grudgingly yielded by passing traffic), there are no traffic lights, and life is pretty slow and comfortable. The local population – locals and visitors – seem family-based, with a surprising number of silver surfers and trim bodied younger people training for the Noosa Triathlon (ap.ironman.com/triathlon/events/asiapac/multisports/noosa) that was to happen shortly after my visit.

AUS Noosa 15 boutique.smallThe high street shops alternate between trendy clothing boutiques with top labels and locally made garments, bars, restaurants, ice cream shops and some more bars and boutiques. Some of the best views of the beach and its surfers can be had from the deck of the Surf Lifesaving Club, perched right on the edge of the beach at its eastern end.

Around the point a few hundred metres away is an even prettier small beach – Little Cove – which was always much quieter than Main Beach, but even quieter was Alexandria Bay. This famous stretch of sand is in the Noosa National Park and has been a favourite – if not legal – sunning place for nudists for many years, but the day I went there to perfect that all-over tan it was windy and cool and virtually deserted. Surprisingly, for a State that derives a vast amount of its income from tourism and its beaches, Queensland offers no legal naturist beaches. Queensland and Tasmania have something in common after all!

There were no naked bodies at the Noosa International Sevens Rugby Festival, either, although a feature race did attract about forty “Superheroes” dressed as Spiderman, Wonderwoman, Captain America and Chicken Little. Perhaps it would have been better if they were nude.

AUS Noosa 15 Sevens Rugby.smallThe Noosa Sevens carnival (noosainternationalsevens.com.au) is not in the same league as Hong Kong’s famous Sevens Festival – to be held in April 2016 – but it attracted about forty teams from all over Queensland as well as from Samoa, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Fiji. In the Grand Final the NZ Development team defeated Global Tabadamu 20:10. The games were entertaining, the crowd almost equally so, and there were lots of traditional Queensland delicacies for sale – XXXX beer, meat pies and sizzling sausages …

Food is very important, too, at the equally famous Eumundi Market (known as far away as South Eumundi), where car parking is big business. I suspect that revenue raised at the car parks on market days – Wednesdays and Saturdays – is a significant budget line in the accounts of this little country town. My $5.00 parking ticket number was 397855. I am sure that the numbering did not start at zero the day I visited, but it certainly felt as if that could be so judging by the huge number of parked cars.

AUS Eumundi 15 Market Aboriginal artist.smallThe market sells everything from original Aboriginal artworks, hand-painted didgeridoos and boomerangs, fresh ginger beer, henna tattoos, home-made cookies, candies and candles, potted shrubs, leather handbags, picture frames covered in sea shells, incense, garden sculptures, psychic readings – and Spanish paella, Turkish pide, bratwurst and currywurst sausages, Indonesian sates, Dutch poffertjes and topless tarts …

I got a little excited when I saw a huge sign advertising TOPLESS TARTS. Thinking that this might be a good photographic opportunity – local women with no shirts on – Las Vegas meets sleepy Queensland – I rushed up to the stall with my trigger finger twitching on the camera and zoom lens ready to zoom in on bare breasts, and was disappointed to find everyone fully clothed and aproned, selling a strange type of pastry – small gluten-free tarts or pies which did not have lids … AUS Eumundi 15 Market Topless Tarts.small

Into every life must fall a little disappointment, and I now realise that in my excitement I had already forgiven the women the spelling mistake in their sign …

After all that excitement, my time at the Gold Coast came almost as a disappointment, but as I had several business meetings to attend to, as well as some sightseeing, I suppose it was good that my blood pressure could be lowered and my beating heart could be stilled for a little while.

Queenslanders seem to enjoy personalised number plates on their cars. I saw BCK FXR on a chiropodist’s car, RENDR and ROOF3R on builders’ trucks, FEE 09 and KEV 17 on other cars. An obscenely ugly big Hummer had number plates that read, not very cleverly, ARNIE S – or it might have been ARNIE 5 … Another car – a standard SUV, had a three-letter number plate – BEC or LIS or ANN or something – and featured in stick-figure graphics on one side of the rear windscreen a family group of mum, a son, a daughter and a dog … but no dad. On the other side of the windscreen was a stick-figure graphic of a man – with a lurid red “X” superimposed. I suppose those little plastic stick-on figures tell a sad story of separation or divorce – or perhaps a victorious story of separation and divorce?

When I was very young my parents took my brothers and me to the area now known as the fabled Gold Coast where were amazed at how silly some people could be. A large luxury hotel – I think it was the Broadbeach International Hotel – was being built in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but desolate sand dunes and spiky clumps of grass to keep it company. Today that hotel has been completely hidden or even buried by the numerous luxury hotels, apartment buildings and shopping malls that stretch uninterrupted along the beach from Southport at the northern end to Coolangatta at the southern end. There is a new light rail or tram service that links some of these interlinked cities and riding it from one end to the other is a pleasant way to see developments.

As university students my friends and I would occasionally go to “the Coast” for a day’s swimming and illegal beer drinking: the legal age for buying a beer in those days was 21 and we were all about eighteen or nineteen. Ironically, a year or so later Australia decided to go “All the way with LBJ” and to commit troops to the war in Vietnam. I was then twenty and was eligible for national army service. I was called up and trained how to kill people and was given an assortment of lethal weapons to do so … but legally I was still too young to enter a pub to buy a beer.

However, a favourite pub for university students (and many many others) was the Surfers Paradise Hotel, whose beer garden was a popular hangout. I know where the pub used to be, but on this visit I had to hunt around for some time, mentally stripping away new pedestrian zones and high-rise buildings and was finally able to locate the entrance – which itself was vaguely recognisable and remembered.

The beaches in this area are well maintained, getting an early-morning grooming every day, but the sheer glass cliffs of new high-rise buildings such as the huge seventy-eight Q1 tower (q1.com.au) cast shadows over the beach as the afternoon sun sinks behind them, giving a much earlier sundown than used to be the case. Still, with sun cancers on the increase, an early sundown may be a good thing. Also with an earlier sundown comes the time for a visit to the excellent beach-front markets with lots of goodies I have not seen at other markets, or a “sundowner” at the Surfers Paradise Hotel even before 6.00 pm as the sun has long passed over the yardarm.

And so to Brisbane where I stayed in a small Air BnB apartment on the Brisbane River – once just a muddy puddle inconveniently slicing the city in half, but now a thriving waterway with the amazing City Cats speeding up- and down-stream linking the city with outer suburbs in a most delightful way (to misquote Mary Poppins). Sitting on the open deck with sea or river breezes in your face must be a much more enjoyable way of going to work than sitting squashed in a smelly suburban train or bus.AUS Brisbane 15 River Cat small

For a more leisurely appreciation of the river, visitors can board one of the Kookaburra Queens (and I resist all temptations to make a joke out of their title) for a meal and a show on a paddle steamer as it chugs along offering excellent views of the city’s growing skyscape.

The city has changed so much since I lived there in university and teachers’ college days, and much of the change is the result of the World Expo held there in 1988. Vast areas of the river’s south bank were transformed and continue to be exciting areas full of pubs, theatres, galleries, restaurants and even a huge lagoon and “beach” area. In the heart of the city large pedestrian zones and gardens have been opened and the superb 1901 Treasury Buildings have been given a new lease on life by being converted into a casino – full of Chinese gamblers when I looked in.

Brisbane has its share of jacarandas but there are also memorable Moreton Bay figs (ficus macrophylia) in the excellent Botanical Gardens (brisbane.qld.gov.au/facilities-recreation/parks-venues/parks/brisbane-botanic-gardens) and at the end of Alice Street. The Gardens, too, have new boardwalks that seem to go for miles, winding along the river edge, through wetlands and mangroves.   Brisbane has become very pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly and is now a really lovely smallish city (population a bit over two million) rather than the sleepy country town it was just fifty years ago.

And then it was time to return to Bangkok, with its 14,000,000 people in the greater Bangkok Metropolitan area, but two or three weeks of visiting favourite old haunts in South East Queensland was a delightful way to recall and refresh old friendships and memories.

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  •  Journey:  October 2015
  • Text and photographs (excluding jacarandas) : © Christopher Hall 2015
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