A day full of anxieties, surprises and pleasures big and little.
We land on time, at 0700 Brisbane time, on a lovely day that is just breaking. We are all a little groggy, but it’s not too bad. We get our luggage, haul it to a restaurant in the main hall of the international terminal, and look for food.
It is then that, while hunting food and above all coffee, Lisa discovers the meaning of “flat white.” It is basically a latte (proper definition here), and at Starbucks prices, too – a good AU$ 5.00 a pop. At first, we think that it’s expensive because it’s in the airport, but we soon begin to realize that a flat white costs about that much – and more – everywhere. Maybe it is pricey because it is a third-wave coffee, or something hoity-toity like that.
While Lisa receives enlightenment at the hands of the Aussie barista, I break out the computer and start poking around. I have unexpected trouble signing on to the free airport WiFi net, but finally manage it. This is a problem that will dog me at most free WiFi sites throughout the trip. Much later, I begin to suspect that it’s because Australia pretty much runs on XP and Vista whereas I have Windows 7, but it’s probably just my stupidity.
Why the Internet? Simple. I need to check a few things, above all the status of our reservation with the Jucy campervan folks.About Jucy… It’s a fairly new New Zealand-based company, with four locations in Australia, several in New Zealand, and even a few on the U.S. West Coast. It is a little pricier than most others, but for us, the pluses were decisive. (If, that is, you can get over the loud paint job and graphics, which could get you picketed, harassed, beaten up or even arrested wherever Holy Clitocentric Dogma had forced a foothold.)
In any case, the pluses. Jucy provides new vehicles (2010 and newer), whereas other companies’ vehicles are significantly older. All Jucy vehicles have automatic transmissions: a real advantage for a most Americans. Others overwhelmingly offer stick shifts – no problem for me, but Lisa doesn’t drive a stick. And finally, Jucy offers unlimited mileage (or kilometrage, if you will). Other companies may give you 5,000-or-so free kilometers (km), but after that, they charge per km.
Problem. I had reserved too late, and the Condo we wanted is not available. To make things worse, the Brisbane Jucy stable has nothing at all due to some kind of artsy-fartsy shindig going on. They best they can do is a slightly smaller vehicle, the Grande, three days hence, on the 27th. The only positive thing about the situation is that the Grande is almost half the price of the Condo.
So I grind my teeth, curse at myself a bit for having been a slowpoke, and reserve the Grande for the 27th, opting for the AU$ 625.00 “no worries” insurance. In the meanwhile, we will rent a small sedan and do some local running around.
Back on line, then, reserve a small Nissan for three days, then walk over to the rental counters about 50 feet hence and triumphantly announce that I have a reservation. I sign the paperwork, we get the contract and an orientation map of Brisbane, and off we go to find the car.
The moment of truth arriveth. I am behind the wheel, in the Nissan’s right seat. I am properly buckled in, the engine is running, and my heart is pounding. The last time I had driven on the right was in 1988 whilst on COMSECONDFLT staff. The USS MOUNT WHITNEY (LCC-20), in which the staff was embarked, had called in Portsmouth, UK, at the conclusion of some exercise or another. A few of the intel guys, including two quasi-
famous Roteños, namely Jeff Holloway and I, took a drive into Cornwall with myself behind the wheel, scattering frightened natives and livestock far and wide more effectively than the famous Pirates of Penzance ever could.
But I stray. I control my breathing, carefully shift into drive with my left hand, turn on the wipers – oops, the other smart stalk, dummy! – turn off the wipers and turn on the turn signal, and slo-o-wly ease out of the parking slot, making sure that I end up on the wrong (I mean right!) side of the road. A few turns around the parking lot, and then out we go into the real world of Oz.
Being devilishly clever, we had used the Internet to locate a tourist information center in the middle of Brisbane, and then we had asked the rental agent for directions. “Yeah, no worries,” he had said (or words to that effect), “just take a left on Moreton, join up with the M7 motorway and it’ll take you right where you want to go.”
Fortified by his confidence, we proceed to take a left on Moreton, and within two minutes, we are hopelessly lost. It seems that, in comparison with American cities, Brisbane suffers from a serious dearth of street signs, road signs and other aids to confused people’s navigation. This, on top of the fact that I was so occupied by mumbling to myself about staying on the “right” side of the road, and then actually doing it, that I couldn’t offer any help to Lisa the Navigatrix.
Almost an hour later, we finally find ourselves in a place that was actually on the orientation map. If I remember correctly, it was Wavell Heights (named in honor of Field Marshal Wavell of World War Two fame, I presume), which is somewhat west-nor’-west of the airport. and about as far from downtown Brisbane as the airport itself. Maybe farther.
By degrees, and with not a little sweating, we manage a generally southwesterly course long enough to arrive in the very, very busy downtown Brisbane. So far, I had managed to keep the car where it was supposed to be, i.e. on the wrong – I mean right – side of the road, but I was not yet comfortable with the perspective from the right-hand seat. This finally prompts Lisa to tell me, with slightly bared teeth, that she was feeling really really uncomfortable because I keep her side of the car much too close to things like walls and parked cars on the left. I begin to hug the center line a little more closely, whereupon my own pucker factor skyrockets, but I would do anything, anything for my best belovèd, bared teeth or no…
Downtown Brisbane – that is, the triangle of land in the bend of the Brisbane River where the skyscrapers are and most streets have royal names like William, Ann, Margaret, Elisabeth and so on – compares favorably to any world metropolis. It is impressive, beautiful and super-confusing, with one-way streets randomly going this way and that without so much as a by-your-leave.
We drive around a while, looking for parking while I try not to crash. There are underground garages here and there, advertising parking for AU$20, 25 or 30, and we finally decide on one that is reasonably close to the Information Centre. But it is not until we have the car ensconced and we are staring at the nice yellow machine that happily takes cash and credit cards as payment, that we realize that the advertised price is for the half-hour!
Slightly dazed, Lisa consults a nice lady who had just pulled in herself. The lady smiles sympathetically and confirms our worst fears. We ask the nice machine to give us a parking ticket, I place it on the dashboard, and we sortie into the busy world of weekday Brisbane, making for the Queen Street Mall (i.e. pedestrian zone) where the Information Center is located.
The Visitor Centre is (wo)manned by a bunch of sprightly old ladies who make a welcome fuss over us. They keep us there for a good half hour, giving us armfuls of brochures and flyers, suggesting this tour or that, and calling here and there on our behalf. When we ask about parking that would not break the bank, they commiserate, and tell us a very useful secret. If we go to the south side by way of the Victoria Bridge – just there at the end of Queen Street! – we will and up on Melbourne Street. We should then take a left onto Grey and there, lo and behold, will be the Queensland Performing Arts Centre or QPAC, with huge parking garages that will cost us less than AU$ 20 for the whole day. On the river bank itself is the South Brisbane Parklands, formerly the location of World Expo 88, which is now a fashionable and attractive place to visit that offers a lot to see and do. Moreover, there is also another information centre there that offers free walking tours. The good ladies discuss amongst each other who is on duty there today, and come to the agreement that the guide on call today is easily enough persuaded. They call for us, and indeed muscle us in into the early afternoon tour.
Quite overwhelmed, we thank the good ladies, leave the information centre, walk about a little, get a quick bite to eat, shoot a photo or two and return to the garage. We lay out AU$ 60 (!) to bail out the car and apply ourselves to the task of navigating the one-way maze of downtown to reach the Victoria Bridge.
By this time, Lisa has the measure of the area, and we get to the bridge and across it without trouble. As the good ladies had predicted, we find ourselves on Melbourne Street; then Grey Street appears, we turn left and there loom the QPAC buildings. We enter one of the garages, park , sigh with relief and return to street level.
Digression: by this time, I’m sure we have about the cleanest windshield in Australia, since I keep hitting the wiper stalk instead of the one for the turn signal. But at least we haven’t killed anyone yet, nor have we heard a “stupid Yank, watch where yer goin’!” I take full credit for that (if little else).
DAY 4, PART 2 follows.