How Boy Swallows Universe became a tourist magnet

It’s the debut novel every Aussie journalist wishes they could write. Preferably without having to live through the darker autobiographical elements, but definitely in terms of its success.

Not only was Boy Swallows Universe a massive, well-deserved hit for journo Trent Dalton when it came out in 2018, the screen adaption is currently No.1 in the local Netflix charts, and lounging very comfortably inside the top 10 for the US and UK markets. 

But its biggest accomplishment? Well, clearly that’s the 48-hour Brisbane tour freshly launched by Tourism and Events Queensland, exploring the locales that feature in the book and series. 

It’s not a new phenomenon. There are New York tours based around glitzy scenes from Succession; you can hop in a traditional London taxi to be chauffeured around locations used in The Crown, and so on. 

Boy Swallows Universe, on the other hand, is set in 1980s Brisbane, which was a murky and colourful time in that neck of the woods.

The fictional story of young Eli Bell, steeped in actual trauma from Dalton’s early years, it’s an exhilarating ride, rich with nostalgia, emotion, crime and mystery. 

Identifying this as an opportunity was a smart move on the part of TEQ. Far from being put off by the city’s relationship with drugs, violence and all the trimmings, it has demonstrated its awareness that a smidge of seediness can be quite the honey trap.

Brisbane’s famous Queenslander bungalows are reaching an international audience. Photo: Netflix

Dalton agrees. “People have always been fascinated with the dark side of history,” he says, speaking to The New Daily. “I sure as hell am.”

One of the plot’s central locations is Boggo Road Gaol, the notorious high-security prison from which Eli’s babysitter and Trent’s in real life – once escaped.

“It fascinated me in 1986 and it fascinates me still. I consider it one of the most important buildings because of the dark history it holds,” he says.

“The stories of Brisbane can still be seen through the graffiti on the cell walls. Stories of migration and segregation and racism and almost medieval cruelty inside the prison. Stories of love. Blokes scribbling messages to women they’ll never see again. And countless nods to one of the worst periods of governmental and police corruption through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

“They’re always talking about knocking down what’s left of Boggo, and it would be a tragedy, because Brisbane has so few buildings left that speak to the darkness that’s at the very foundation of our big, bright sunshine city.”

Of course, the very fact the city has moved on from its grimy past is crucial to this whole campaign.

Holidaymakers tend not to be keen on a level of grit that might render their travel insurance void. By contrast, in the heady 1980s when Brisbane really was in its underworld era, this is how Queensland marketed its tourism:

So, back in present day, what can fans expect from the tour?

In the words of Patricia O’Callaghan, CEO of TEQ: “Hopefully the novel and the Netflix series will spark a curiosity for visitors to go beyond the obvious charms of the city and tap into inner-city experiences and multicultural neighbourhoods.”

Rather than a bookable tour, it’s a DIY itinerary of suggestions. Visitors can pick and choose, navigating it in their own time – ideally in a Holden Kingswood with The Church and Midnight Oil in the tape deck, for maximum authenticity. 

To help visitors delve deeper into Brisbane’s sinister past, local expert Jack Sim works with Crime Tours Australia offering walking tours packed with tales of illegal brothels, rooftop casinos and law enforcement scandals.

He’s also an expert on Boggo Road Gaol, and the ‘South Brisbane Cemetery Crime Tour’ tells the stories of the many prisoners who were executed at the prison gallows, as you wander past their graves. The former prison is closed to visitors, due to construction next door, but tours inside are scheduled to resume soon.

Brisbane City Hall

Brisbane City Hall becomes eerie after dark. Photo: Getty

Elsewhere in the tour’s suggestions is the heritage-listed clock tower at Brisbane City Hall – the setting for a particularly tense scene in Boy Swallows Universe.

Then there’s the Tivoli, a live music venue that has been around since 1917 and was used as a backdrop in the series. So too Redcliffe Jetty, where character ‘Slim’ Halliday daydreams about casting a line. 

Closest to Dalton’s heart is Darra, the suburb where Eli’s family live. The area’s Vietnamese roots remain, and the tour includes three eateries worth trying: Kim Khanh, Van Vietnamese and Que Huong Restaurant. “The restaurants of Darra have become sacred spaces to me,” Dalton says.

Boy Swallows Universe Netflix

The Bell family heads out for a meal in Darra. Photo: Netflix

“I love the idea of people driving around Brisbane and seeing it through the eyes of Eli Bell,” he says. “That kid had a different way of seeing the world. A rose-coloured lens, maybe, but a hope-coloured lens, too.

“If you squint your eyes when you drive through glorious Darra at sunset, there’s no reason whatsoever that you couldn’t convince yourself you’re in 1985. It’s time travel.”

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