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The Tale of a Riverfire Fangirl

I’m not the sort of person that camps out waiting for the Apple store to open so I can buy the latest iPhone. I used to go to midnight movies but now I tend to value my sleep too much. However, there is still one thing that you could say brings out my inner fangirl: Riverfire.

White Fireworks at Riverfire 2009

Brisbane celebrating being Brisbane at Riverfire 2009.

Riverfire is arguably the biggest night of the year in Brisbane, a night where hundreds of thousands of people line the banks of the Brisbane River to watch a 20 minute (30 minutes in previous years) spectacle of fireworks, lasers, and the occasional RAAF jet fighter roaring past. It very much dwarfs the city’s celebrations on New Year’s — we leave that to Sydney.

So what exactly is Riverfire celebrating? The fact that Brisbane is…Brisbane. It’s now the big finale for the three weeks of performances and displays around the city (including the Santos City of Lights laser light show) that make up the Brisbane Festival.

As a photographer who really enjoys taking night photos — especially cityscapes that include bridges — it’s no surprise that my first Riverfire, in 2009, was spent on the cliffs at Wilson’s Outlook in New Farm with a hardy group of photographers I’d met through Flickr. I’d read that I needed to arrive early to ensure I’d have an unobscured view of the Story Bridge, the bridge that features in nearly every photo in this post. Arriving at 8.30am afforded me this view of the show:

Riverfire 2009

One of my favourites from Riverfire 2009.

I was so close to the fireworks that I could feel their heat on my face. My eardrums tried to burst as two RAAF F111s performed a dump and burn along the stretch of river just in front of us. Most importantly, I didn’t have to fight the hoards that descend on South Bank (where there is arguably more entertainment, but in my opinion, not nearly as good a view).

After that, I was hooked. Every year, I’ve found a new excuse to go.

In 2010, I had a new camera that didn’t have mandatory noise reduction (a feature in my old Pentax that had caused me to miss a number of shots the previous year). Plus, I wanted to bring some friends along to watch with me — a few of which I taught the basics of fireworks photography to, which helped them to get some fantastic shots of their own. Plus, the F111s were going to perform their last ever dump and burn. How could I miss that?

The Last Dump and Burn

The final F111 dump and burn at Riverfire.

The fact that the fireworks weren’t the most impressive ones in my dump and burn shot was made better by the fact that I captured other shots like these:

The Colours of Riverfire 2010

The colours of Riverfire 2010.

Starburst of Fire

A starburst of fire — something I only saw in Riverfire 2010.

In 2011, I wasn’t in the country. So, in 2012, my excuse was that I hadn’t seen it in 2011. Plus, I had even more friends that wanted to take their own photos of the show. So I found myself once again arriving at my familiar stretch of grass on the cliffs of New Farm, staring out at the Story Bridge for an entire day and counting down the hours until the show began.

My friends joined me early in the day, so time flew by and before I knew it the Air Force’s new F18 Super Hornets were dropping flares over the bridge to begin the show.

F18 Flares

Flares being dropped from an F18 Super Hornet.

Unfortunately, since 2010, the city of Brisbane has deemed it necessary to install extra gate barriers for Riverfire. Apparently the standard fence is safe for children to play near for 364 days of the year, but on the 365th, we have to stay at least a meter away from it. This means that most photos end up with at least part of the original fence in them, and in my rush to get everyone else’s cameras set up and directing latecomers to our site via telephone, I paid too much attention to cropping the fence out and not enough to the fact that I’d cropped out the end of the bridge. My final photos looked like this one, which I would have been much happier with if it was slightly zoomed out.

The Big Finale

The big finale of Riverfire 2012.

Armed with the excuse that I wasn’t happy with last year’s photos, I got up and dragged my tired feet over to the same spot on the Saturday morning just gone. The weather wasn’t at all conducive to a good day — in fact, a thunderstorm had woken me up in the first place. For five hours, a dull English drizzle kept me huddled, in a jumper and fleece pants, under my slightly anemic-looking gazebo, which couldn’t be properly pitched because I was worried the wind might take it flying over the cliffs and into the construction site below.

Around 1pm, everything changed. The clouds pulled away, eventually evaporating entirely. The crowds began to descend, no longer scared away by the rain. Kids ran around playing and eating swirly potato fries on a stick. Groups of friends found park benches and started a long afternoon of drinking. My friends arrived, giving me some much needed company after a long morning of having to ask people to watch my stuff while I left to get food or use the toilet.

Crowds at Riverfire 2013

People lining the cliffs at Wilson’s Outlook just before sunset.

Throughout the afternoon, the RAAF put on displays with its jetfighters and helicopters. Watching the F18s fly up the river, so low that you think they may crash into the bridge before banking at the last minute and seemingly just missing it, is a sight that will never get old.

F18 Super Hornet Flyover

One of the Super Hornets flies low and fast down the Brisbane River.

Just as cool as the F18s, at least in my books, was the fact that the space station transited across the sky just before the fireworks began. A tiny dot that many people mistook for a plane started streaking towards us around 6.45pm and went virtually straight over our heads. It’s not often that you know that it’s actually the ISS you’re seeing!

Finally, at exactly 7.04pm, the F18s performed their last flyover and the fireworks began. A big centerpiece of the show this year was the fact that the Story Bridge has had LED lights installed, meaning they can change colour in time with the music, like this:

Rainbow Story Bridge

It’s a double rainbow?

Even though they paid a lot of attention to getting the lights just right, they still didn’t skimp on the fireworks:

Riverfire 2013

Fireworks early in the 2013 show.

Fireworks and Smoke

Fireworks trying to shine through the clouds of smoke.

My favourite part of the show, as usual, was the waterfall of fire coming off the Story Bridge. I hope you’ll forgive a bit of Photoshop, as I blended the waterfall & fireworks with a blue sky photo taken 30 minutes before the show began. It helped to take the emphasis off the ever-present smoke and put it on just how amazing it felt to be there to watch the show.

Riverfire Waterfall

The waterfall, fireworks, and blue hour — my favourite parts of the Riverfire show.

So as a self-professed fangirl, you’ll find me at the same place at the same time next year, right? Actually, probably not. I feel like I’ve well and truly done this viewpoint, so I may look for another lookout to stake out…or I may watch it from afar, relaxing with a cider and knowing that another excited photographer has taken my little stretch of grass. We’ll see!

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