While most residents and visitors enjoy a temporary connection with our river that snakes through the heart of Brisbane city – perhaps as a picnic spot, a kayak course, on a daily commute or even a party cruise – others are bound to it in very different ways as these locals show.
Shannon Ruska, Toorabul and Yuggera elder, Traditional Owner, storyteller
When he gathers with family and friends by the Brisbane River to celebrate they make music, dance, swim and fish, catching freshwater mullet “as long as your arm”, hunt for witchetty grubs in the gum trees and use river rocks and river water to cook freshly caught fish and food wrapped in paperbark or lemon myrtle leaf – although these days they often use banana leaves or alfoil. “We move with the times,” Ruska says with a laugh.
Ruska says he couldn’t live anywhere else but the land of his ancestors. “I did move up to Mackay once but I moved back because this is my home both physically and spiritually. I can’t go away for more than a month before I need to be on Brisbane soil again.”
While the social gatherings by the river are a great get-together for the tribe they are also an opportunity to pass on traditions and keep their language alive, which Ruska has also been sharing with a much wider audience for the last 25 years as a storyteller for his people and, more recently, as managing director of corporate event company Tribal Experiences. He estimates he has shared the story of Brisbane River and his homeland through music, dance and storytelling to at least 15 million people around the world.
Sharing the stories of the Dreamtime
One of his favourite stories to tell from the Dreamtime and one that is featured at almost all of the cultural events performed by Tribal Experiences here and overseas is about the creation of Maiwar (Brisbane River). According to tribal lore the story of the river begins with a battle between land creatures led by Yowogurra (a goanna) and water creatures led by Gowonda (a dolphin) which carves dry gullies into the landscape and, years later when Kaboora-gan (the rainbow serpent) wriggles her way into a tight gully and gets stuck, she calls upon her brothers, Yaro (the rain) and Ngalan (the clouds) to help free her.
“When Moogera (the big storm) comes down Kaboora-gan is able to slither free and the gully is opened up to become Brisbane River, which became our life source,” says Ruska.
Significant places to the Toorabul and Yuggera people along the river include Kangaroo Point Cliffs, where battle terms were once negotiated by tribal leaders, and City Botanic Gardens, where tribal women once gathered to welcome new life into the world at their birthing place.
For Ruska and his mob their celebrations at spots along the river, from Fisherman Island to Colleges Crossing at Chuwar, are a time-out from the city to reconnect with culture.
“At the fast pace we live in modern society it’s easy to lose touch. It’s important to keep our ancestors’ ways as you learn a lot from the old ways, no matter what culture you come from.”
Jonathan Sri, houseboat owner
Living on a houseboat wasn’t something Jonathan Sri, 31, ever imagined he’d do but, tired of renting in the city, the high-profile Greens councillor decided to buy a boat and make it his home instead. Two years later, he has no plans of moving anytime soon. The 30ft bay cruiser he and his partner Anna share is moored in a tranquil tributary of the Brisbane River where the water is calm, but the sand flies come out in force.
“It’s a trade off,” he says. The cabin is just five metres long by four metres wide with a small but well-equipped kitchen, compost toilet, shower cubicle, dining table and a bed that doubles as a couch where they can watch their little TV. Books are stacked on shelves filling every available space on the boat. “It’s really cosy,” Sri says. “It’s very compact inside but then we have a bit of extra space on the roof and on the deck. It makes you think a lot about material possessions and how much you really need to live a comfortable life.”
While he admits boat life isn’t for everyone, Sri says there is a strong sense of community among river dwellers. “We all keep an eye out for each other,” he says.
A simpler style of living
Learning how to live sustainably and practise what he preaches was another big reason for deciding to live on a houseboat.
“It’s been cool to live a lower impact, smaller footprint life living off rainwater and solar panels and composting all our waste. We have to be conscious of our waste and the impact we’re having because it’s a really sensitive environmental corridor,” he says.
Sri, who donates just over half his pay to charity and advocacy groups because “politicians are paid too much” and therefore “lose touch with the people they represent” is more than happy with his humble abode, purchased for $35,000, and about as close to nature as you can get in the middle of the city.
“It’s a really beautiful and relaxing spot to live. We wake up each day and we’re surrounded by a lot of wildlife, we see fish jumping in the afternoons and different waterbirds moving along the corridor. I think a lot of people don’t realise how many of Brisbane River’s tributaries are still in quite good condition considering how much abuse they’ve been subjected to. We see all sorts of beautiful birds from tiny little bright blue kingfishers to giant pelicans that splash when they land on the water near the boat. Brisbane’s waterways are a big part of what makes this city special. It’s quite magical,” he says.
Damian Hayes, water police officer
Sergeant Damian Hayes, 50, has seen people do some pretty silly things on the river in his time. Many of them, unsurprisingly, while under the influence of alcohol, jumping off small bridges into the water for fun or swimming from one side to the other for kicks.
“People in the water are by far our biggest risk. It happens more regularly than you’d think. Just with the level of intoxication, they don’t weigh up the risks,” he says. And clearly they haven’t seen the shark warning signs!
A former detective, Hayes moved to the water police two-and-half-years-ago. Generally it’s a specialist option available to police officers who have served for at least five years and can apply through a merit-based process.
Although he grew up in the country, he’s always felt at home on the water, riding boats and water-skiing at inland dams from a young age. It’s a hobby he now shares with his wife and two daughters.
A love of the water
“My association with the water has never wavered. If it’s a nice day we get in the boat and go up to Caloundra and have lunch then head back to Bribie. Living near the water allows me to do that a lot more. It’s how I spend time with my family and time with colleagues at work – I’m just attracted to the water and always have been,” he says.
Every day on the job is different, from checking and maintaining their boats, patrolling the Brisbane River and waterways up and down the coast, enforcing marine laws, conducting search and rescue operations or working with partner agencies. And by night, the river is at its most dangerous. “Once the sun goes down the risk level is elevated. There could be obstacles in the water, back scatter, unlit vessels, floating debris, sand banks – you haven’t got the benefit of sight,” he says.
When 500,000 people flock to the riverside to watch low flying military aircraft, tonnes of fireworks and stunning laser light shows at Sunsuper Riverfire, the grand finale to Brisbane Festival in September every year, Sergeant Hayes and his colleagues prepare for their busiest night of the year. On the night, river traffic also swells with more than 100 private and commercial boats carrying partying passengers to view the fireworks and celebrations.
“A lot of vessels don’t travel the Brisbane River any other day of the year bar that one night for Riverfire. There are literally hundreds of them that don’t have that same level of boating knowledge or experience,” he says. “We send out people through the day in our boats and try and get a good start to the event and have people in the right places and the right exclusion zone set up for the fireworks barges. It’s a busy night,” he says.
Keith Stratford, fisherman
Camping trips with his dad and brother at South Stradbroke Island, pumping yabbies and catching bream, fill Keith Stratford’s childhood memories and now he shares his passion with others as a columnist for Bush ‘n Beach Fishing Magazine. He’s been fishing since he was about four years old and is passing on everything he knows to his two young children aged four and eight.
Although Stratford, 38, fished almost every day before he had kids, he still gets out several times a week. On any given morning he’ll likely be found zigzagging up and down the river to some of his favourite spots around the Port of Brisbane, Fisherman Island and “pretty much anywhere between the Gateway and the mouth of the river – it’s where a lot of the fish congregate and you get different species at different times of year.”
Lure fishing (which uses artificial bait resembling the type of food different fish like to eat) is his sport of choice. “Once you work it out you start catching a lot more fish, and good quality fish too. It’s a very active way to fish. You’re not just sitting there waiting for fish to come to you, you go hunting for fish,” he says.
For the love of fishing
Depending on the time of year, he catches mulloway, threadfin salmon, snapper, flathead, estuary cod and javelin fish out of the river and takes it home to cook for dinner. Sharks often follow his boat around and bite the fish in half as he’s pulling them in, but he’s not bothered by them. “There’s lots of them out there, big too, they’re pretty smart,” he says.
While he’s happy to fish on the beach with his wife while the kids play and build sandcastles, he prefers being out on the boat with them. “It gets you to places you can’t get to by foot and allows you to cover a lot of different areas,” he says.
“There’s no stress out there, it’s just relaxed and it’s always fun. Even when you’re not catching fish it’s still fun. There’s no point getting cranky when you’re out on the water, there could be worse places to be,” he says.