A river runs through it: Walking the length of Brisbane’s most important natural asset

Brisbane author and dedicated walker Simon Cleary set out to walk the entire length of the Brisbane River and he shares that journey in his latest book.


Jun 18, 2024, updated Jun 18, 2024
Brisbane author Simon Cleary pictured during his epic walk of the entire 344km length of the Brisbane River

Brisbane author Simon Cleary pictured during his epic walk of the entire 344km length of the Brisbane River

When Simon Cleary set out to walk the entire length of the Brisbane River he faced a slight conundrum. The acclaimed Brisbane author wasn’t sure where to start – at the source or the sea?

“Pretty early on I needed to decide which way to walk the river,” Cleary says. “Would I do it from the mouth to the source or the other way around? As I was reading about the different European explorers, their way was always going from the mouth of rivers, trying to penetrate the country and get inland. Instinctively I didn’t want to do that.

“I wanted to go with the river’s flow, not against it. I wanted to follow where the river led me  – to listen, to observe, hopefully to learn.”

And so, after deciding that and 18 months of planning Cleary set out on May 1, 2022 to walk the 344kms from the river’s source to where it dissipates into Moreton Bay.

“It was autumn, the snakes had begun to hibernate and there shouldn’t be any rain,” he says. “Turns out there was an awful lot of it.”

We are sitting by the Brisbane River at the GOMA Bistro on a sunny winter morning chatting about the book that is the result of his epic trek. Everything is Water, published by UQP, is in the vein of classics such as Eric Newby’s Slowly Down the Ganges and the work of Bruce Chatwin, among others. It is a stunning achievement that is part travelogue but also quite scientific interrogating the geography, ecology, the flora and fauna glimpsed along the way and it’s also meditative,  philosophical and historical.

Cleary honours European explorers but is candid about the effects of settlement on First Nations people. He doesn’t pull any punches when reflecting on the brutality of early colonial life (Captain Patrick Logan, commandant of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement comes to mind) but in the end he gives credit where credit is due and is hugely respectful of the local tribes along the way and he feels, as much as he can, a connection to the land.

It took four weeks to complete the walk and a map in the front of the book traces the journey from the edge of the Great Dividing Range upriver of Avoca Vale to the mouth of the river. Many of the places and towns along the way are unfamiliar to us although perhaps they shouldn’t be. This is our hinterland although we barely know it and most of us have never been to any of these places although they are within easy reach on a day trip.

But we have Simon Cleary discovering them for us (and himself) and his narrative is both entertaining and edifying.

The walk enabled him to discover the places he visited “psychologically, spiritually and culturally”.

Cleary has done some serious walking in Australia and overseas including in the Himalayas and Japan. He was inspired by the classic Japanese travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the poet Matsuo Basho, published in 1702.

“Basho was an inspiration,” Cleary admits. “There’s a beautiful passage in his writing where he gets to a particular mountain landscape and he understands he cannot write poetry about it because it is too sacred to be written about. That brought to mind the relationships between First Nations people and some landscapes.”

Cleary’s ambitious journey, with various companions along the way (including Dominic, one of his two sons) explores the ways rivers connect landscapes, ecologies, histories, communities and myth.

The journey threatened to be cut short by one of the wettest autumn months on record but he pressed on and the flooding along the way only added to the drama and serves to highlight the dynamic nature of the river and how nature has its own way of putting us back in our place.

InQueensland in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Cleary, a barrister, wasn’t, however, putting himself through the privations of early explorers such as John Oxley and others. He had his phone with him, after all, and a battery pack charger. His phone allowed him to dictate notes along the way and record material for later use and he also kept a detailed written travel journal.

His narrative is amazingly detailed and he takes us with him giving us the elemental facts and minutiae of each day’s walking which gives him license to digress along various historical, scientific  and philosophical byways and tributaries. He has thoroughly researched the river and its history (he has a barrister’s eye for detail) and that research added to the physical experience and makes his text all the richer and more engaging.

Growing up in Toowoomba on the edge of the Great Diving range Cleary recalls playing in creeks that ultimately fed the Brisbane River and perhaps those experiences were the beginnings of this book. It’s a lifetime’s work really. Cleary has always been interested in place and history as his previous books, all novels (The Comfort of Figs, Closer to Stone and The War Artist) attest to.

He has made the leap to non-fiction (of the narrative variety) with aplomb and gives us a book that is personal, profound and inspirational.

And one full of interesting character he meets along the way and is sometimes joined by as he walks. His first companion over several days was Professor Steven Kenway of the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology within the faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology at UQ. His companions are chosen well and he meets many locals, “river people” along the way.

Cleary’s wife Alisa is there to see him off and also there to meet him when the journey finally ends at the Manly boat harbour after traversing the final leg into Moreton Bay in a friend’s boat. But the journey is not really over. It continues between the covers of this extraordinary book.

Everything is Water by Simon Cleary, University of Queensland Press, $34.99.

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InQueensland.
All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy