I travelled to Brisbane last week for the launch of Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, which features an excerpted chapter from my current manuscript, How to Be Australian.
Despite living in Australia for eight years, this was my first time in Brisbane, the traditional land of the Turrbal people. I’ve visited all the other capital cities, so Brisbane had a lot to live up to. My first impression, with its yellowish river, walking bridges, and Southbank tourist hot spot, was ‘huh, Discount Melbourne’. But is Brisbane more than that?
One thing Brisbane has to offer is Wheel of Brisbane. It’s not the Wheel of Brisbane, just Wheel of Brisbane. This made me think that it’s a Queensland version of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but all the prizes are cane toads.
Brisbane is also home to the world’s longest running science experiment. The pitch drop experiment uses bitumen (aka asphalt) to demonstrate the liquidity of a compound most people would consider a solid (few other liquids can be shattered with a hammer). The experiment is effectively an hourglass filled with bitumen instead of sand, and drops have been falling from the top compartment in the bottom since 1930, at a rate of about one drop every nine years. Thrilling!
As Atlas Obscura points out, this experiment not only outlived its creator, but will likely still be around when all of us are dead and buried.
I was hoping to visit the pitch drop experiment in person, but I was quite unwell in Brisbane (this is where I’m at with my chronic fatigue: well enough to travel, too sick to enjoy myself). No worries though: you can watch the pitch drop LIVE ON WEBCAM.
Tens of thousands of people have tuned in since the pitch drop went live. This digital connectivity is a far cry from life in Brisbane just over a century ago, when the flood of 1893 destroyed the Victoria Bridge, leaving no means of communication between North and South Brisbane. It’s a good thing the pitch drop experiment wasn’t happening then, that’s all I can say. There would have been riots.
My Brisbane explorations also included the Queensland Museum. In fact, this was the first place I visited, because I arrived in the city under a roasting noon sun and needed to find somewhere cool, quiet and dimly lit.
I was expecting to learn some Queensland facts and maybe see some taxidermied snakes. I was not expecting to see the most brutally violent museum display I’ve ever encountered in my life, but of course I did, because this is Australia.
(Maybe skip the next photo if you’re not into mummified animal remains.)
The display was in a single case. It stood alone from the main fauna exhibition, as if the curators knew it didn’t quite belong, but didn’t know where else to put it. It was at waist height, if you’re measuring by my waist, the waist of a fully grown adult woman. Which means it was at exactly eye level for the average child.
The case contained a dried-out goanna that had attempted to shove an entire echidna in its mouth, spines and all. The spines lodged in the goanna’s mouth and throat and ‘unable to swallow or disgorge, this unfortunate lizard choked to death. Locked together, predator and prey died, then mummified beneath the desert sun.’
The display’s sign concluded with the line, ‘This curious exhibit was acquired and displayed by the Queensland Museum prior to 1912.’
‘Curious’ isn’t the adjective I would have chosen. But then again, I’m not Australian. (Well, I am. Legally.)
What’s especially sad about this exhibit is that it memorialises the worst mistake that goanna ever made. Maybe up until the day he decided to cram an entire echidna is his mouth, he had a reputation among the local reptile community as being quite clever. I’d hate to have that time I put petrol in a diesel engine memorialised in a museum for well over a century.
I’d also like to meet the naturalist who chanced upon the mummified carcasses and thought, ‘That belongs in a museum!’
Much like all of Australia, Brisbane definitely has unique things to offer. Which is why I love this crazy country so, so much.
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