Looking across thousands of cargo containers, ships and giant cranes to the islands of Moreton Bay, it is hard to imagine that this spot at the Port of Brisbane was under water 42 years ago.
It all changed in 1977 when, after much pumping and filling, 1800ha of new land was reclaimed from the river mouth to boost up Fisherman Island into the thriving Port of Brisbane, home of the state’s import/export business.
Look at it on a map and it’s easy to see there has been a bit of man-made stuff going on as it’s straight lines are made for wharves and the island is now a virtual rectangle jutting out into Moreton Bay.
Each year, 2750 ships come through Port of Brisbane, carrying or collecting all sorts of cargo – cars, cement, grain, woodchip, oil, containers and passengers. Sometimes a submarine or aircraft carrier might turn up too.
Although I had driven around the port, on the south bank of the river mouth 24km from the CBD, I couldn’t appreciate much except that there were big cranes and lots of containers.
Things took off when I heard about a café open to the public on the top floor of the Port Office.
It is quite a discovery as it has stunning views of Moreton Bay and its islands as well as the busy activities right along the wharves where huge ships are docked.
Glass panels provide engraved information to identify what’s in front of you – coal terminal, grain wharf, woodchip terminal and so on. The coffee and lunch was good too.
And then I learnt that for $10 ($8 concessions) there is a bus tour to hear the full story – and it’s fascinating.
As Peter the guide, who has worked there for so long he has an excited sense of ownership, recommends, “come and look at your own backyard”.
The facts and figures are staggering.
Firstly, there are new cars, lot and lots of them – 250,000 a year in fact – fresh from the production lines of China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europe.
Toyota is No.1 followed by Hyundai and Mazda and the average stay here is one month. They are loaded on to trucks and delivered all over Queensland as well as to northern New South Wales and the Northern Territory.
The ship, which Peter describes as “ugly but functional”, discharges 500 vehicles in eight hours, and two arrive each day.
There are 10 wharfies to a gang and four or five gangs, to drive the cars off the ship and into the holding yards. Keys are left in the vehicles, so security is strong around here.
“This big floating car park will be gone by tonight,” Peter says. There are 30,000 brand new cars in the port as he speaks.
Brisbane also has Australia’s smallest export coal terminal (Newcastle is the biggest).
Ten coal trains a day, each with two locos hauling 41 graffiti-covered carriages, come in from Ipswich and Oakey.
The black thermal steaming coal is export-only and used for electricity generation, mainly in Japan. Each carriage opens up to drop 3000 tonnes of coal an hour on to conveyor belts which take it straight to the ship’s hold.
Nearby is the woodchip terminal. Pine plantation timber from southeast Queensland and northern NSW is cut into 40ft poles to fit into containers bound for China. The offcuts go into a woodchipper and bulk loaded into ships to make cardboard in Japan.
There are round containers for oil, gas and fuel. An oil tanker that arrived full yesterday will leave tonight empty, its crude deposited at the Caltex Refinery at nearby Lytton.
The grain wharf is a temporary cruise passenger facility until the new terminal opens. Only about 40-50 cruise ships use it each year.
These are the ships that can’t get under the Gateway Bridge, are longer than 270m so they can’t turn in the river, or if two arrive the same day and there’s no room upstream at Hamilton.
For the second time since its opening in 1987, the grain terminal is importing grain.
Rather than wheat and barley going out, 100,000 tonnes of grain a month is coming in from Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria to rescue drought-stricken farmers.
Sitting in various allotments around the port are components for 123 wind turbines from Malaysia, China and Europe as AGL builds Australia’s biggest wind farm at Coopers Gap north of Dalby.
Each turbine has three 65m carbon fibre blades and it takes one cargo truck to carry each. They are hauled up the Toowoomba Range in the early hours of the morning, so it will be a while before they are all gone.
Containers take anything that won’t fit on a conveyor belt or pipeline. In one yard, three huge tyres for mining equipment stick out the top of a container.
Giant cranes in the white, red or black livery of their owners line the wharves.
The mind boggles at the logisitics that so many containers are so carefully monitored as they move around the world that even small packages will arrive at the right place.
Brisbane leads the way here too. When Patricks opened its Brisbane AutoStrad Terminal in 2007 it was the first automated container terminal in Australia.
It uses microwave radar from Finland to move its containers. They are like robots running around almost 1km of quayline.
Nearby DP World has 16 automated container stackers, two in each of eight working bays with 500m of rail line. They glide up and down rails, lifting containers between the coming and going trucks and ships.
Among all this industry, Port of Brisbane has 12ha for a roosting lake where there are viewing points for birdwatchers to observe the pelicans, ducks and migratory birds.
With 3000 employees, this is a busy world of its own.
The visitor centre and café opens 8.30am-3pm Monday to Friday on Level 7 of the Port Office, and the visitor centre at ground level has interactive displays.
On Tuesday and Wednesday at noon, Peter sets off in his bus for an hour’s tour to tell the story first hand.
Pre-book by email at [email protected] or call 3258 4888. Arrive early for coffee and cake or stay for lunch and watch Brisbane’s backyard in action.