It started raining just as I stepped out of the airport terminal and into the warm and humid Cairns afternoon. As the heavy drops fell from the menacingly grey clouds and splattered onto the warm bitumen, it filled the air with that certain aroma that is immediately noticeable but yet I can’t find the words to adequately describe. It always reminds me of being on the asphalt netball courts back in Primary School, playing cricket at lunchtime just as a sudden summer shower swept in. The rain would cause long dark splotches to appear on our sky blue school shirts until, if we were lucky enough for a teacher to be a little slow in calling us inside, the sopping shirts stuck to us fast. How times have changed, for now I bolted to the cab rank and threw my luggage into the boot of the first waiting cab while the clothes I wore were still reasonably dry. While on the ten minute ride to the resort, the rain stopped just as suddenly as it had started.
The taxi dropped me at the front of the Colonial Club Resort, where the spacious foyer and reception area were missing an entire front wall. Rather than this being due to negligence on the builder’s part, I guessed it was all to do with bringing the outdoors indoors and allowing a certain amount of natural air circulation in the hot and steamy climate of Far North Queensland. A very cool idea if you ask me (awful pun intended).
I’d never been to Cairns before and didn’t have much of an idea about what kind of place it was, so after dumping my gear in my room I was looking forward to spending the rest of the afternoon on foot exploring whatever delights came my way. But within minutes of setting off from the hotel the rain started bucketing down again. For a second I considered turning back, but in the absence of anything else interesting to do at the resort I pressed on, turning into a small street lined with lovely old Queenslanders, that distinctive style of early twentieth century weatherboard homes that so typifies this tropical state of Australia – built on stilts, often in dull yellow or light green colours and with windows protected from the sun by wooden shields. Most of the houses in the street didn’t look at their best, but somehow the flaky paint, rusting tin rooves and overgrown bushes in the front yards always seem to give Queenslanders more charm. Before I even got to the end of the street the rain stopped again. It was almost like God was playing with a giant cold water tap, repeatedly turning it on and off like a cheeky little kid playing unsupervised in a bath.
The central business district of Cairns looked just like any every other regional Australian city, but with the concentration of souvenir shops, restaurants and information booths along its streets it is clear how much this city has come to survive, make that thrive, on tourism. It’s also a very laid back and relaxed city – from the locals and bunches of tourists idly ambling along the footpaths, the casual dress code of shorts, tank-top and thongs in the pubs (by “thongs” I mean the footwear otherwise known as flip-flops or jandals), to the kid of no more than fifteen who casually asked me if I wanted to buy some weed off him as he rode past me on his bike.
Construction was on-going in beautifying the city’s frontage to Trinity Bay, with work being done to improve the walking track and parklands that stretch along the shoreline of mud flats. The main attraction seemed to be a huge lagoon-style paddling pool that had opened up only very recently, whose fountains of gushing water were proving to be a hit with the young (and not so young). Out on the bay, two lines of navigational markers made a straight course from the nearby piers out to the horizon like a set of highway guideposts, hinting that the real reason so many people visit Cairns lay out to sea. And as the afternoon dragged on an array of cruise boats of all shapes and sizes ventured along this highway of sorts, returning to the wharves to unload the day-trippers who had been out touring the attractions of the Great Barrier Reef.
As dusk approached I was out with the rest of the walkers and joggers pounding the track along the edge of the bay, walking north away from the city centre. God turned his attention away from the taps and flicked the light switch instead, darkness setting in almost instantaneously as it tends to do nearer the equator. Once at the end of the park I turned around and walked back the half hour or so to The Esplanade where I met with Steph, the first of my future tour mates, and grabbed a cheap and nasty dinner in an empty shopping centre food court.
Cairns is surrounded by steep and densely forested hills, and today I decided to tackle probably the closest one to the city, Mt Whitfield. After heading north from the resort and walking through the Centenary Lakes reserve, which was filled with numerous pairs of bush pheasants quietly poking about on the floor of the rainforest, I stumbled into the Botanical Gardens. As I was right in the shadow of the hill (despite its name it seems a little too grand to call Mt Whitfield a mountain, seeing as how it is only 364 metres high), from there I figured it would be fairly easy to find a path that led upwards to the summit. But as I walked along quiet residential streets leading up the slope, each one ended in a cul-de-sac with no walking track in sight.
The modern houses in the area were built right amongst, and sometimes completely hidden by, rainforest foliage. If this was in any other state of Australia south of the tropics I reckon these houses would be lucky to survive five years before a bushfire came through and burned everything to the ground, but the high rainfall and humidity obviously makes that much less of a risk up here.
Slightly uncertain as to where I could find a track, I walked back down to level ground to approach the hill from a slightly different direction. And then I spotted something that made me stop in my tracks. Sitting in a yard under a huge canvas sat a light plane. I knew this looked incredibly familiar but couldn’t for the life of me work out why. Perplexed, I walked around the corner and found myself at the entrance of the local base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and then I remembered how the plane under the canvas looked so familiar – I had seen photos from when the rest of my family had visited the museum here some seven years ago. I spent some time in the museum learning about the history of the RFDS, which since 1928 has been providing medical care for Australians living in remote communities and far flung cattle stations – some of whom even today can be anywhere up to a ten hour drive from the nearest town and doctor – and then of course clambered around inside the retired plane outside.
After leaving the museum behind I found myself once more in the Botanical Gardens, and from there I found what I was after. A large sign stood at the base of a long pathway of stone steps, marking out the 7.5km trail up and around Mt Whitfield. It also warned that the walk was very steep and strenuous and a high level of fitness was required to complete it. Being ten foot tall and bullet proof I gave this warning the contempt I thought it deserved, and took off at a swift pace up the steps and onto a narrow dirt path. Though it was again overcast, it was still an extremely warm afternoon and the humidity was stifling. It wasn’t long before rivulets of sweat were running off me and I had to take constant breaks to rest and re-hydrate – I guess the warning sign at the bottom wasn’t there for nothing after all.
The dense growth that crowded the track prevented any real views from the hillside, but the toil required to walk the steep rises and descents at a reasonable clip still made it a very rewarding trek. The only real downside was walking through the tropical vegetation without being able to hear the sounds of any of the birdlife due to the noise of some other big birds nearby – the constant rumblings of jet engines as planes took off and landed from Cairns Airport directly below.
Wearily I made it back to the resort in the late afternoon to find I had a room-mate, Jeremy had “crossed the ditch” that is the Tasman Sea from New Zealand and would be another of my tour mates for the next few weeks. We headed down to the outside bar and watched some of the nightly activities the resort put on – tonight was Two-Up and cane toad racing. The bloke from the hotel who explained the history and rules behind these past-times almost made me fall asleep where I stood, due to his laboriously long and overly-complex presentation. If he could talk that long about a game using two old pre-decimal coins and a race involving national pests leaping out of a circle on the ground marked with chalk, let’s just say I would hate to hear his summary of the nature of European politics in the lead-up to the outbreak World War I.
Everyone else around the plastic tables and chairs of the bar seemed to like it though, I guess because they were mostly middle aged so they had longer attention spans than me, and because they were predominately from North America, so it was something a little more different for them. One loud bloke in particular was having a great time, although he didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on (he obviously had tuned out over the six hours while the rules were meticulously explained as well), and was almost throwing away money on both his Two-Up calls and his assigned cane toads. But it really didn’t matter how much he was losing, as he’d already won a much bigger jackpot – his wife had the greatest she-mullet hairstyle I had seen for a long, long time.
During the course of the evening I met tour mates Concetta, Emma and Chantale to add to Steph and Jeremy. But other than them I hadn’t spotted anyone staying at the resort in the 18-35 age bracket in the last two days, everyone seemed middle aged or had come as a family. I found this a little odd considering this was the hotel where almost all people starting or finishing a Contiki tour in Cairns stay, and tomorrow morning my tour would be leaving from here. Not that it really mattered though, as I was sure I would meet the masses as we jumped on the bus and started our tour early the next morning.
The Contiki day sheet in the foyer had instructed us to pack only a small bag for the first four days of the tour and leave the bulk of our luggage in the resort’s store room. Jeremy and I took our gear down there only to find the room empty – we were obviously the first to deposit our cases there. We weren’t particularly early, so I could only wonder incredulously “just where are the rest of the people on this tour?”
The mystery deepened even further when we met in the lounge ready for departure. With the exceptions of Ben and Beena who were new faces, the only people sitting in the lounge were the ones I’d met the night before. Just then another guy walked in and introduced himself as Mick, our tour manager for the next 17 days. He quickly counted heads (of which there were 8) and said everyone was present so we were ready to go. I was dumb-founded. I’d originally booked to do this tour a week later but it had been cancelled due to insufficient numbers, and even now for the next two and a half weeks there’d only be 8 of us sitting in a 50 seater coach? Had the SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada cut tourism that badly? Or did the idea of spending Good Friday in a place like Rockhampton simply scare everybody off? Mick was very quick to reassure me that on our return to Cairns on Saturday night our complement would swell to 47, but to enjoy the fact that for the first few days only a few of us would be visiting the Daintree National Park and Fitzroy Island.
It was then time to meet our driver and guide for the first part of the trip. A 14 seater four-wheel drive emblazoned with “OZTours” along its sides and towing a small trailer pulled up at the front of the hotel and out jumped a slightly weathered bloke, aged about 40 and with a large wide-brimmed hat, dressed in khaki shirt and shorts and wearing big sturdy boots. He seemed like an excitable type, greeting us warmly and telling us in a pretty over-the-top way how much we were going to love the rainforest and wildlife of the Daintree. His name was Steve Irwin. OK, so I’m making that last bit up. He really introduced himself to us as Dale, but I swear every other single characteristic he possessed made him eerily like the Crocodile Hunter himself.
Now I’d hazard a guess and say that Steve Irwin is not the world’s most defensive driver. I’m making this assumption only because the short journey along the highway to Cairns’ northern outskirts to the Skyrail terminal was long enough for us all to realise that Dale was a complete psycho behind the wheel, and if he is then the Croc Hunter must be too. During this time we were played our day song for the first time – All Star by Smash Mouth, a title that obviously does not apply to the standard of Dale’s driving.
At the terminal Chantale, Concetta, Emma, Jeremy, Steph and myself boarded the gondola for a view of the rainforest from above the canopy, and at the stations in between, do a couple of short walks to experience the rainforest at ground level. While this was all certainly impressive, it was not as entertaining as watching Chantale flinch uncomfortably every time our car shuddered over a cable pylon. Once the gondola reached its termination point at the small town of Kuranda we met back up with Ben and Beena and had some time to grab an early lunch and mill about with the tourist crowds in the town’s many souvenir, art and craft and opal shops. Yawn.
Our second stop for the day was at Mossman Gorge, a chance to cool off and have a swim free from the fear of crocodiles, before we retreated back to the coast where Dale shimmied up palm trees in search of coconuts for us to later feast on. While he did this those of us standing on the ground became feasts ourselves – for an irrepressible number of mosquitoes converging on us in a blood-thirsty swarm.
Further north we drove through sugar cane and tea plantations until we got to the Daintree River. Once the punt shuttled us to the other side we were in unique territory – the only place on the planet where two World Heritage Areas meet, namely the Daintree National Park and The Great Barrier Reef. We were now in true wilderness country, where only four wheel drive vehicles are allowed to traverse the unsealed roads. They had obviously been upgraded recently though because it surprised me how smooth and well graded the gravel surfaces were. Not that our ride was smooth of course, Dale had us bouncing around in our seats like balls in a pinball machine.
It was early evening when we reached our accommodation, and due to the regular resort Contiki used being closed for renovations we were upgraded to the nearby Coconut Beach Resort. This was without doubt the most posh place I’ve ever stayed at. Set amidst the rainforest were our rooms – brand new bungalows with wooden floors, panelling and shutters and no glass, only flyscreens to protect the inside from the outside. Complementing this was the absence of a TV, radio and mobile phone signal. This was how to get away from it all and do it in style. Mind you, the Daintree rainforest can still be a dangerous place even when in the snug confines of a classy resort. Menacingly large spiders inhabited webs strung across between bungalows and there was no telling how many other ways you could die out here. Jeremy almost found this out first hand when he walked along the back of the four wheel drive just as Dale swung open the door of the trailer. Crikey, that was a close one!
The croaks of numerous tree frogs welcomed us as we made our way to dinner in the resort’s restaurant, an impressive building backing onto the pool, and just beyond, the palm tree fringed beach, lapped in the dark by the calm waters of the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean. In keeping with the quality of the resort, our included meals were set before us in very posh portions – very nice but hardly enough to even touch the sides of my stomach. I really needed a pizza. And it was over dinner where Mick and I learned that he lived in the same building in the very same apartment complex in Sydney’s Inner West that I had lived in – albeit I had moved out of there a year before he moved in. I couldn’t help but think of a couple of good pizza shops around there, and it made my empty tummy grumble.
After the snack that passed for dinner we were driven to a privately owned beach near the resort, where we lit a fire and Dale put on his barman’s hat and mixed Malibu and Passion Pop into the coconuts he’d gathered earlier in the afternoon – a sweet little concoction that proved quite popular both as a cocktail and as a lotion to stop mosquito bites itching. I’m only guessing about its second use, as one person in the group managed to spill it quite liberally on themselves, but on second thoughts that may just be the proof of its success as its first use.
In the daylight the resort’s restaurant looked even more impressive than it had the night before, and after breakfast outside by the pool it was time to get back into the four wheel drive for the bouncy short hop to a boardwalk built through rainforest and mangroves. During our time in the Daintree Dale had already shown us his wealth of local knowledge, like pointing out a small plant that when touched retreated branch by branch like a person dropping their arms to their sides. Here we were told all about the other flora and fauna that were to be found in these parts, from the saltwater crocodiles in the river to the strangler vines in the forest. Also of note was the Black Palm, the trunk of which is so strong it can withstand great amounts of force. To demonstrate this to us, Dale picked up a sizeable rock and hurled it at the tree. On impact the rock smashed into four or five pieces – the largest of which bounced off the trunk and clocked Jeremy right on the head. I’ll say it again, the Daintree rainforest can be a dangerous place. Especially if you’re Jeremy.
Lunch was by a water-hole with a waterfall backdrop and a ring of signs warning of crocodiles. It was quite an involved and tiring boulder-dash for us all to get to the base of the waterfall, but definitely well worth it when we all made it, one of the joys of being in a small group rather than a large tour party.
The northern parts of Australia are filled with deserted palm-lined beaches with white sands and turquoise waters. There’s also another thing that typifies the beaches all around here – huge warning signs erected to warn would-be bathers that for six months of the year box jellyfish and other marine stingers make it impossible to cool off in the sea without running the risk of being cooled off permanently. And even though summer had well and truly given way to autumn and the stinger season was almost over, the beach at Cape Tribulation was almost completely empty. There were still other creatures of note to see which didn’t live in the water though. In the scrub behind the beach, a rather large spider was innocently sitting in its web. But once Dale placed a small stick into the web it immediately went to release this intrusive object from its home in a wild frenzy, much like your Mum rushes to clean the carpet after you walk in the house with muddy shoes. So impressive was this zeal for housekeeping that Ben got a bigger branch and stuck it into the web to see what it would do. Again, the spider rushed to the branch and worked around it feverishly until it had dropped out of the web. I looked around to see if we could put something even bigger in the web, Jeremy’s arm for instance (after all if someone were to be injured out here it had to be him), but seeing as how he’d already started to walk some distance ahead of us along with the others, Ben and I had to abandon any more home wrecking plans and follow them.
Our final stop for the afternoon was at a creek where we could swim with the company of a shy turtle, as well as checking out Dale’s Aboriginal painting skills after he mixed some crushed rocks from the creek bed with a little water. After winding down in the pool back at the resort we went for dinner at a nearby backpackers hostel, where the meals were far more satisfying than those from the night before. After a couple of quiet drinks, some pool and a chance encounter with a green tree snake, we were back at the resort and safely tucked up in bed by 9:30pm. It’s quite possibly the earliest night a whole Contiki tour group has ever had, but it was with good reason – we’d had two very full days and tomorrow morning we had to leave the resort by 5:30am.
Dawn broke after we crossed back over the Daintree River and were making our way back to Cairns. There’s something special about watching the sun rise at the beginning of a new day, something that each time always lives on in my memory. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so few of them. What can I say, I’m just not a morning person.
4:30am ding-dong rise, the morning sun makes my sour heart pasteurise.
Mr. Milk by You Am I.
After farewelling Dale and his 4WD at the ferry terminal, Mick and the rest of us left Cairns at 8:30am for the 45 minute trip between the markers of Trinity Bay and out to Fitzroy Island. Once there, Mick warned us that we’d gone straight from the very best accommodation of the tour at Coconut Beach to the very worst accommodation here. This was undoubtedly true, the bunkhouses were a little dated and very basic, but they were brightly painted and right on the beach.
Most of our group decided to spend the morning circumnavigating the island in sea kayaks, while I was inspired by the boulder walk the day before and embarked on a journey around the shore on foot. After trudging through the white shells that made up Nudey Beach (which despite its name it was obvious there was no-one there showing off their nudey bits), I started the challenging climb among the massive rocks that marked the coastline. It was some time before the kayakers passed me, and when they did their guide paddled in to tell me that due to the incoming tide I’d be lucky to get much further than I already had. He was right of course; I probably managed to climb along for another 15 minutes before the tide and sheer rock faces made any further progress impossible. I was slightly disappointed as I was sure I didn’t have all that much further to go before I’d done the full circuit, and when I turned back I found the advancing tide continually made my return journey quite difficult as well. Eventually, after sweltering in the noon sun and receiving a number of scrapes to my arms and legs from shimmying down the sides of the giant boulders, I found my way back along Nudey Beach (still no nudey bits on show) and onto the resort. Almost satisfied with the day’s exercise, in the afternoon I tackled the steep 1.3km walking track to the island’s summit before we spent some time cooling off in the resort’s pool.
With the hordes of day trippers gone we almost had the island to ourselves, and after watching the sun set (something I’ve seen a little more often than sunrises) behind the mainland in the distance we sat down to a great buffet dinner. The lively and scintillating discussion obviously wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of crowds though, as Ben managed to nod off at the table.
After catching the morning ferry back into Cairns, we boarded the more traditional style Contiki coach and met Paul, our driver for the remainder of the tour. After getting dropped off and having a fair bit of time to kill in town over lunch it was then time to check back into the Colonial Club Resort. I had been given exactly the same room as earlier in the week, but it wasn’t long before some new and unfamiliar faces – Jimmy, Farrell and Brett – arrived to fill up the remaining beds. The crowd of new arrivals eager to start the tour continued to grow around the bar as the afternoon turned into evening and we waited for the last pieces of the tour jigsaw to arrive, those flying in from Alice Springs after completing a tour of the Northern Territory. The music was blaring and the packed coach was abuzz with nervous energy as we made our way to dinner – now this was what I had expected a few days earlier.
The Woolshed seems to be a landmark establishment with young travellers in Cairns, and for those on Contiki tours it is no different. While in The Woolshed’s restaurant phase of the night we sat down at a series of long benches, and then later, when the plates were gone and the drinks were moved, the venue turned into a packed nightclub and we had the perfect position to jump up on the benches and dance around. It was great fun, and this for me was definitely one of the best nights of the tour.
I was part of the majority of our new and enlarged group to get on the coach for the hour ride to the exclusive resort town of Port Douglas. From there we joined a few hundred other tourists on one of the most popular day trips on the Great Barrier Reef – boarding a large ferry run by the Quicksilver company bound for a pontoon situated at Agincourt Reef, right on the very edge of the continental shelf. As we walked along the wharf towards the vessel I noticed a couple of security cameras pointing at us, and we were also instructed to say our surnames to the attendants as they checked our tickets. Why on earth we had to do this I’m not sure. Perhaps it was some kind of complex counter-terrorism measure to catch out the odd Middle Eastern fugitive, quietly minding his own business on a nice day out on the Great Barrier Reef but who unwittingly lets his guard down for a moment and utters “bin Laden” instead of “Smith” or “Jones” when handing over his boarding pass.
The ninety minute trip was filled with a video presentation on the array of coral and fish we were likely to see as well as the opportunity to talk to a real life marine biologist on board. Back when I was at school it seemed every second kid wanted to be a marine biologist, it sounded like the coolest job around. But here was someone who actually grew up to be one, and whose days were now filled up answering inane questions from obnoxious little kids on holiday who all probably want to become marine biologists. Oh well, I guess it’s either work here or at Sea World.
With no land in sight in any direction, the ferry tied up to an aluminium pontoon as large as itself. From there a range of activities were possible – snorkelling, introductory scuba dives, scenic rides in a helicopter or a short trip in a semi-submersible boat. First off we lined up with the old people for the semi-submersible for a view of the reef that didn’t involve getting wet. I’d done something similar a bit further south in the Whitsundays just over ten years earlier, but there was no comparison. Out here the coral was just amazing, a whole kaleidoscope of colour. The only major colour I couldn’t see was red, but we were told that because it is the first colour in the spectrum lost underwater, the red coral appeared as being light brown.
After a buffet lunch the afternoon was spent snorkelling out off the pontoon. Despite the stinger season being almost over and the chances of getting stung low, we had still been encouraged by the tour company to put on the provided stinger suits before we went into the water. I went one better, as since we’d been back in Cairns and had all our luggage at our disposal, I’d brought my wetsuit with me. Not out of any fear of being bitten, but because no matter how warm the ocean is I’d need it to stop me from freezing within the first five minutes. So after suiting up and putting on flippers, face mask and snorkel it was time to jump off the metal platform of the pontoon and into the surprisingly deep water.
I know of one person from our tour that learned to swim before the trip just so they could do this, and I don’t think they were disappointed. The chance to swim amongst an amazing array of coral and come face to face with brightly coloured fish in their own habitat is a pretty special experience, infinitely better than any aquarium, and the further away I got from the pontoon the more incredible this underwater world seemed to become. Seemingly each coral had a different texture, from cauliflowers and undersides of mushrooms to tree branches and spindly straw. Yellow parrot fish, larger dark purple fish with luminescent green tips and small schools of tiny bright blue fish swam furtively in the shallows.
Spying a rather large hole around some coral I dived down for a closer look – and then almost jumped out of my skin as two eyes appeared in the darkness coming towards me. It must have only been a relatively small fish but it hardly mattered, my heart rate quickened and I shot back up to the surface like a bat out of hell, a quick reminder that I was the uninvited stranger around here.
Once the final siren sounded (much like in a football match), it was time to swim back to the pontoon and get back on the boat. In another curious safety procedure, we were told to stand still for five minutes while a number of Quicksilver staff did a headcount to make sure all four hundred people had arrived safely back on the boat. I wondered how accurate such a count could possibly be, but no doubt they were now legally bound to do it nonetheless. It would be slight problem leaving one or two stragglers still pottering around on the pontoon scratching their heads and wondering where everyone else had gone, or worse. In 1998 an American couple were left behind on a similar tour. Nobody realised they were missing for two days and their bodies were never found. They were experienced scuba divers but, to add more intrigue to the story, evidence was found in the days afterwards to suggest they may have been planning to commit suicide. Even now no-one really knows for sure what happened to them. So with the correct number of heads counted (or at least that’s what they announced over the loudspeaker), the ferry left the pontoon and made its way back to Port Douglas.
Once back in Cairns we had an optional dinner out, before going back to the resort bar. My day in the water wasn’t yet over though, a number of us jumping in the pool and playing an impromptu game – part water polo and part keepings off – with Marty’s shorts, which became a pretty popular game in pools along the Queensland coast.
I had to get up at 4:20am, two hours after going to bed. I don’t know why, but after two or three hours sleep I always feel ten times worse than if I’d had none at all. In the pitch black dark Chuck, Sonia, Emma and I wearily climbed onto a mini-bus which took us up into the Atherton Tablelands for our early morning activity – hot air ballooning. From the time we left Cairns to the time we pulled up in a paddock near the small town of Mareeba a guide was standing up in the bus giving non-stop commentary on what was planned for the morning, plus other tourist information on a whole range of topics. Chuck asked me whether I was taking any of this in, but with my feeble level of consciousness at that time of the morning I could only reply that no I wasn’t, it may as well have all been in Japanese for all I knew. In fact, it was all in Japanese. Looking around the full mini-bus I could count only five non-Japanese people – me, my fellow tour mates and the bus driver.
The mini-bus pulled up in the paddock alongside a number of other identical buses, and together we all got out and stood in the crisp pre-dawn air, the only illumination coming from the other end of the paddock where the flames of propane gas were inflating two balloons. Slowly the sky started to lighten, revealing the gum trees around us that had been hiding like ghosts in the slight fog. And then, for the second time in four days, I saw the sun rise.
Along with a large group of others, the four of us climbed into the basket of the last balloon to take off, and for the next half an hour we soared above scattered bushland, farms with tilled squares of brown and green, fields of sugar cane and the rooves of Mareeba. It was all very scenic, and a middle-aged man in a big, stupid floppy hat standing next to me was getting it all on video. I seemed to always be in the wrong position though, because no matter where I stood every few minutes he would shove me out of the way to get a shot of whatever I happened to be looking at. I resorted to standing as close to the centre of the compartment as I could, directly under the propane tanks, which gave the interesting sensation of feeling like my scalp and neck were getting singed each time the pilot turned on the heat. This seemed to work for a while, until the man’s wife spied a wallaby bounding across a golf course behind and far below us, and the man shoved me to the outside of the basket while he tried to capture the marsupial on tape. Now it’s not often that people annoy me so much that I feel like killing them – pedestrians who shuffle in front of me while I’m striding along Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall at lunchtime are obvious exceptions, so are people who stand on escalators in shopping centres and train stations who block me from stepping past, and let’s not even mention telemarketers – but had this bloke needlessly jostled me one more time I think I would have quite happily grabbed his legs and tipped him out of the basket. I think I’d almost be doing him a favour; it would definitely make his home video that little bit more exciting.
15km away from our starting point, the pilot expertly landed the balloon on a narrow dirt road separating two fields of sugar cane. After we all helped to deflate and pack the balloon and load the basket onto a trailer, we were driven to the location of our included champagne breakfast. We ate and drank in a large undercover area on a small farming property, the owner of which looked like the quintessential Aussie farmer – his face was rugged and weather-beaten, he had a straggly grey beard and wore a tattered old Akubra hat. Everyone got the chance to have their photo taken sitting on a bull, with the farmer also in shot giving a toothy grin, a wink and the thumbs-up sign. It was as kitsch as Australian tourism comes, and it was a huge hit with the international tourists. I, on the other hand, took the opportunity to go back for more eggs and bacon while they weren’t around.
Once back at the resort I slept soundly until mid-afternoon. As people came back from their day’s optional excursions, the most popular of the day being white-water rafting on the Tully River, I relaxed around the bar with a few others and watched some brown bandicoots idly shuffle around the resort’s grounds, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. These cute little native animals are everywhere around the Colonial Club and I thought they seemed to have such an easy and care-free existence, but that illusion was shattered when we saw a large bird swoop down and fly off with a baby bandicoot in its mouth. It seems there is more danger around here than when international guests mistakenly think they’re just large and furry rats.
We had the evening free to do whatever we chose and I was amongst a fairly large group that ate in an Irish pub before going on to The Woolshed. I wasn’t quite so impressed here second time around. Perhaps it was because we didn’t have the prime position to dance on the tables and had to settle with the dance floor. Perhaps it was because I’d been jostled in a confined space enough for one day. Or perhaps it was because I was forced to endure an awful dance-off between six blotto eighteen year old boys fighting for the title of Mr Backpacker and didn’t get the trade-off of seeing the Miss Backpacker contest, despite the constant announcements over what seemed like hours that it was happening “very soon”.
On our first real driving day on the coach we left Cairns behind and started our migration south. With everyone all in one space together for the first time we had to get up one by one and do our introductions. There seemed to be more males on this tour than on my previous ones – the girls only outnumbering us by about 2 to 1, and finally I’d managed to be on a Contiki tour that wasn’t full of Australians (not including Mick the tour manager and Paul the driver there were only 6 of us). The whole of this trip was a fascinating experience to see a part of my own country, some places I had visited before and others I hadn’t, alongside others from overseas and being able to appreciate those little cultural differences they found here. Like the fact there’s a chain of Hungry Jack’s and a chain of Burger Kings in competition even though they both look the same and both sell Whoppers. Or seeing a road-side sign saying “Budgies for sale” and being asked what a Budgie was (a Budgerigar – a small bird like a canary). Or seeing Kelly order a peanut butter and jelly sandwich only to get a dumbfounded look from the waitress. Or talking to Julia from Melbourne almost completely in Australian slang knowing full well that no-one else could understand us (“Shagger, check out the Reg Grundys – they’re completely chockers. What a Barry!”).
Before this trip I’d only ever been as far north as Townsville, and at lunch time we rolled in there. Following a quick stop at the top of Castle Hill to look out over the city and nearby Magnetic Island we were in Queensland’s largest regional city only for long enough to get something to eat. The usual array of McDonalds’ and Subways were handy, but I was after something a little more local. After walking into a fish & chip shop I found what I was after – a couple of Chiko Rolls. Chiko Rolls are a staple of Australian takeaway food and what’s in them is one of the country’s great mysteries. Though similar to a large Chinese spring roll, no-one seems to know exactly what the ingredients of a Chiko Roll are and no-one seems to care – I know I certainly don’t. All I do know is that they taste good, and that’s all that really matters.
In the mid-afternoon we arrived in Airlie Beach, the gateway to the islands of the Whitsunday Passage. This place seemed to have really changed since I was here in 1992, back then it was a busy town just on the verge of mass-development and now it is completely overrun by backpackers. Apart from the regular collection of clothing stores, ice cream parlours and tour companies offering various ways of seeing the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach’s main street seemed to be one endless stretch of pubs and nightclubs. So it should come as no surprise that I spent most of the stop here in a beer garden, sharing a cheap jug of XXXX Gold with Trudy.
With a dozen of our troupe doing a two night sailing trip around the Whitsundays, the rest of us boarded a launch from Shute Harbour out to Long Island, the closest resort island to the mainland. As the sky to the west filled with hues of orange and purple we were welcomed to the island with a chorus of squawks from a flock of white cockatoos and the raucous screeches of rainbow lorikeets. Lorikeets are incredibly good looking birds, but they can sure make an awful racket. Just like the band members of Atomic Kitten.
Tonight was the first and only night we’d be staying somewhere with another Contiki tour, this one was travelling north and would be finishing in Cairns the next day. Being their last official night of the tour there was a bit of mayhem, with a mostly British group partying very hard.
I got up at the leisurely hour of noon. Ain’t life grand? We spent the afternoon swimming and paddle-boarding around the beach in front of the resort as the tide went out, and out, and out. Had the low tide mark been any lower I think I could have almost walked from Long Island across to Airlie Beach. Then we put friendships aside as we fought out a pretty competitive game of beach volleyball. It was a tough contest, full of booming serves, long rallies and diving saves. It didn’t matter who won because the spirit of the game was the only winner on the day. Of course I’m only saying that because my team lost. But I’ll put my hand up and take the blame – my upper torso is at least six shades whiter than everybody else’s (a side effect of always wearing a wetsuit when in the water) so the sun must have reflected off my white-washed features and into my team mates’ eyes. Sorry guys.
The post-match celebrations were in the resort’s swim-up bar, and I couldn’t think of a better or more relaxing venue. It certainly disproves the theory that swimming pools and alcohol don’t mix. At the other end of the pool a group of North Americans were playing a mini-game of volleyball. With an errant smash, the ball careered towards us and spilled a jug of beer. One of the guys came over to the retrieve the ball and announced in a loud voice, “Excuse me, Canadian coming through”. Julie and Michelle, two of the Canadians from my group, immediately looked at each other and denied the fact that he could possibly be one of them. They could tell even without checking whether or not this guy had a Canadian flag badge sewn on his backpack (a true test to discern a Canadian from a pretender if there ever was one). Later I found out they were right, the guy in question was as American as Uncle Sam. But at least he had the intelligence to realise that Canadians instantly get more respect overseas than Americans, especially in a delicate situation where beer has been spilt.
Tonight there certainly seemed to be a lot more parents and children visible around the place, but maybe that’s just because they’d been scared off by the Brits the night before. There were a few activities put on, all the kids seemed to love doing the limbo and the tug-of-war. I was completely exhausted, and with the dreaded ‘Contiki Cough’ starting to take hold, I decided a very early night was in order.
The sky was incredibly overcast as the yacht we were to spend the day on slipped away from Long Island and out into the Whitsunday Passage. As it got darker the crew handed out bright yellow raincoats, and their timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Just as the last person put their raincoat on the rain started to teem down, the drops almost being big enough to drink. It continued to fall as we rounded Hamilton Island, the most densely developed resort in the Whitsundays, with its twenty storey hotels and its own airport.
Things cleared once we got to Whitsunday Island and had some time at Whitehaven Beach. As the name suggests, the sand was white and very fine, and the water was surprisingly warm – although nowhere near warm enough for me to brave it without my trusty wetsuit. With the opportunity just to kick back and relax on the beach, throw a frisbee around and kick a beach ball in a muck-around game that was sometimes Australian Football, sometimes Gaelic Football, sometimes American Football and sometimes soccer, the time soon went and we had to make our way back to the yacht for lunch.
Once back at the resort I headed for the hills and managed a quick walk along a couple of the bush tracks before darkness fell. We were then reunited with the twelve from the longer sailing trip, who certainly had some interesting anecdotes to tell over dinner about what happens when a medium size group of people are cooped up in a small yacht for 48 hours with no shower. From all accounts it would make a perfect reality TV show.
It’s a weird thing to feel like a stranger in your own country, and in the bar after dinner I felt it deeply. An Australian Football game being played in Brisbane was on the TV, and out of the hundred or so people in the bar I was one of only a handful watching it, and the only one who actually understood it and cared that the Lions won and, much more importantly, the Magpies lost. But thanks to the wonders of mobile phone technology I could at least find some solace in getting text messages from a mate from school who was also watching the game.
There were no cockatoos or lorikeets to announce our departure from Long Island – only a heavy downpour. Once back at Shute Harbour and on the coach we drove south to Mackay. There’s not much to Mackay except for sugar mills, and my most obvious memory of being here before was that the smell of refined sugar cane filled the air everywhere throughout the whole city. If you’ve never smelt this before, let me just say that this isn’t anywhere near as pleasant as it sounds.
The coach stopped at a McDonalds on the city’s outskirts for lunch. Although it was Good Friday and not much else would have been open, it still seemed a little odd to have lunch here, mostly because it was so early we had to wait for a good fifteen minutes before the breakfast menu rolled over to their regular menu. But with no towns of any note for the next 330km down to Rockhampton it was either eat at Maccas or starve.
In the mid-afternoon we stopped at Marlborough. It’s the solitary point of civilisation marked on the map between Mackay and Rockhampton, but all it seems to consist of is a single service station next to a motel. While the coach filled up with petrol from the servo, it gave everyone a chance to stock up on the end-products made from the sugar refined in Mackay. Classic Australian lollies like Snakes Alive were fast becoming firm favourites (much more tasty than the US candy counterparts according to Americans Kaydi and Theresa), Tim Tams – undoubtedly the world’s greatest chocolate biscuits – were in great demand, and so was the ice cream that was a huge hit more for its name than its rough biscuit crumb exterior – a product that has somehow survived decades of political change to still be called the Golden Gaytime.
Rockhampton calls itself the Beef Capital of Australia (a title it fights over with the town of Gympie some 470km further south) and numerous commemorative statues can be found in the city. The biggest bull of them all has become the most famous as it continually has its testicles stolen. No sooner do they get replaced then in the middle of the night someone’s out there castrating the statue with a saw and running off with a couple of balls.
Our first stop once we got to “Rocky” was at the marker signifying that the Tropic of Capricorn passed through the city. It was suggested this would be a good unofficial group photo opportunity, so we all stood around the marker while Mick took a photo each from a pile of nearly fifty cameras. This took quite a few minutes and the whole time we were assembled some locals were doing blockies (laps of the block) in an old Holden Gemini. Each time they passed the front passenger would yell something out at us, perhaps a welcome of some sort, but it was always incomprehensible. This is obviously the second most exciting thing for locals of Rockhampton to do. The first, of course, is to flog the bollocks from a statue of a bull.
We checked into our motel in the early evening and had some time to kick back and relax in our rooms before dinner. On the local TV news the lead story was about a man who had waded into Rockhampton’s Fitzroy River that morning to go fishing, drunk as a skunk, and had gone missing. There was seemingly no end to the list of exciting things to do in this place. I went outside for a while to make a couple of phone calls and came back to find the body of the missing fisherman had possibly turned up in our room – it certainly smelt like someone had died in there. Then I noticed that Marty and Mike, my roommates for the night, had thrown my shoes out of the room and into the corridor and I realised who was responsible for the awful stench. I must say they were very polite about the whole thing, but I made a promise to myself not to wear my shoes without socks for the remainder of the trip.
The optional dinner was at the Koorana Crocodile Farm, 35km out of town. While on the road in the afternoon we had watched an episode of the Crocodile Hunter on the coach to get us in the mood for some close crocodile encounters. This was the first time I had ever seen a full episode of the antics of Steve Irwin, and it was a beauty. While the Armed Forces of Australia and New Zealand were on peacekeeping duty in East Timor during the conflict following its assertion of independence from Indonesia in 2000, the Croc Hunter was not far behind them, rescuing two crocodiles from tiny cages and organising new enclosures for them to live in. There’s something strangely surreal about watching a man jump onto the back of a huge croc and pronounce his undying love for her. I can see why he’s such a huge cult figure. And why there’s a tour guide in the Daintree who has moulded himself in the Croc Hunter’s image. They must be a huge hit with the ladies.
Crocodiles themselves are also a hit with the ladies. As we got off the coach and entered Koorana’s dining hall, the reception area was lined with cabinets offering handbags and shoes for sale, surely two of the great obsessions in any woman’s life, crafted from crocodile leather. The prices seemed astronomical, but let’s face it, as a bloke I’m more likely to spend $500 on a whole lot of things other than boosting my range of wardrobe accessories.
Along the walls of the entranceway hung the usual array of appreciation certificates given by volunteer associations to all good corporate citizens, things like “This certificate is awarded to Koorana Crocodile Farm in recognition of their generous support of the Emergency Department of Rockhampton Hospital” (by donating various limbs bitten off by big salties?), and “Rockhampton Junior Swimming Club thanks Koorana Crocodile Farm for their donation to help improve the skills of young swimmers” (by putting a croc in the pool and telling the kids they’ve got 30 seconds to do a lap otherwise they’re a goner?), but one frame in particular caught my eye. It was the autograph of Russell Coight, the completely inept bushman, jackaroo and tour guide (and perhaps also a big hit with the ladies) played by Glenn Robbins in All-Aussie Adventures, the popular Australian TV show getting cheap laughs by parodying other shows like Troy Dann’s Outback Adventures and the classic Bush Tucker Man series. If Russell Coight gave this place the thumbs up then it must be good.
Entree consisted of crocodile soup and skewers of crocodile meat, which somewhat inevitably tasted much like chicken – as everything always does – although the texture was a little grittier. We all then went outside in the dark and got a taste of what it’s like to stand only metres away from these fine animal specimens, albeit with the safety of a wire fence separating us. This was our first chance to see crocodiles on the trip as we’d never managed to bump into any in the wild up in the Daintree. While getting up close and personal with a number of the farm’s inhabitants as we walked from enclosure to enclosure, the proprietor gave us a run-down on life as a croc. He explained that most people killed by crocodile attacks are those who have inadvertently gone near a female’s nest, with the protective mother prepared to go to any lengths to guard the eggs she has laid from whatever threat approaches. If, for example, the threat has managed to climb a tree the female croc is quite happy to wait at the base of the tree for up to a couple of days.
Interestingly he also had a lot of thoughts on animal poaching, and using crocodiles and their skins as an example, argued that the future of elephants and rhinos would be assured if a legally regulated market for ivory was opened. His premise was that legally farming them would drive the prices for their products down low enough to dissuade poachers from killing animals in the wild to the edge of extinction, thereby safeguarding the future of each species. Our host also took just about every opportunity he could to bag out the Crocodile Hunter, saying that anyone could wrestle a crocodile in complete safety. Because crocs are cold-blooded animals all someone has to do is put one in a cold environment. It is then unable to move, going into an almost comatose state, allowing anyone to jump on the back of the crocodile and thrash around theatrically to their heart’s content. I really did like this guy’s style.
After returning back to the dining hall for the rest of the meal, we got the chance to hold a baby crocodile. Its skin was surprisingly soft and smooth, not scaly at all as I’d imagined. There was no need for the temperature to drop below 10 degrees Celsius before playing with this little tacker, however its jaws were taped shut just in case.
Being Good Friday all the pubs were shut so there was no chance to hang out with the local yokels and experience the “Rock Vegas” nightlife, and rather than hang out by a bull statue and make off with its ‘bits’, we had to settle for a get together in one of the motel rooms where Farrell pulled out his stash of Canadian rye whiskey and Belinda got a serious case of the giggles, upsetting a few of those trying to get an early night.
Despite my cultural upbringing Vegemite is not one of my most favourite foodstuffs (as a kid I was much more into Promite). But once every so often, maybe about once a year, I get a craving for a bit of ‘Vegie on toast’ for breakfast and it goes down a treat, and this morning was one of those days. Unlike Chiko Rolls, there is no mystery as to the ingredients of the iconic thick black spread, but forget what the label says about it being a yeast extract, I’m pretty sure it’s just axle grease.
Before leaving Rockhampton in our wake we had one last place to visit, the Dreamtime Cultural Centre, where we got some understanding of Aboriginal culture. Our host was Ronny, whose work uniform was made up of polo shirt, shorts, long socks pulled up to the knees and sandals. He was dressed like every self-respecting 65 year old Australian man should. The thing was that Ronny probably wasn’t a day over 28. The poor guy probably gets taunted about when he’s getting his next set of dentures or when he’s booked in to get a hip replacement.
Things had developed at the Dreamtime Cultural Centre in the eleven years since I’d visited here. A new theatre had been built where demonstrations of didgeridoo playing and Aboriginal dance were performed. Outside in the boomerang throwing area they had built a high protective fence in one corner like you’d find at a baseball ground, plus there now existed a left-handed boomerang for us Southpaws. I remember back on my first visit having to attempt to throw a boomerang with my left hand in such a way that it would travel in the same direction and spin the same way as if I’d thrown it right-handed. At least that was the theory behind getting it to come back to me, but each time I tried it the boomerang’s trajectory was wildly unpredictable and several people were lucky to escape with their lives. Perhaps I’m part of the reason they subsequently built the protective fence for spectators.
After a brief stop in Hervey Bay, well known for its whale watching tours and even better known for the fact that Elle Macpherson’s sister Mimi runs one of the tour companies, we caught yet another ferry to yet another island. This time it was Fraser Island, the place on the East Coast you go to for four wheel drive expeditions and getting up close and personal with dingoes. Our accommodation on Fraser Island was described as eco-cabins – but I’m not exactly sure how they were more ecologically friendly than anywhere else we stayed. What I do know is that the windows of the toilet and bathroom of the eco-cabin I was in were facing right onto the deck area of the next cabin, and when we first got there the windows were open, providing the girls next door with much entertainment as they called out the names of each person using the toilets and tried to have a conversation with them. Believe me, it’s more than a little disconcerting trying to take a leak under that sort of pressure.
The fun and games continued at the Dingo Bar when our driver Paul turned up in a skirt (the ransom price to recover his kidnapped bear mascot). This place has a reputation for hosting big and messy nights for tour groups, and we were soon to find out how true this is. It was only 7:30pm and we were still having dinner when a girl from another group who looked barely 18 had to be carried away by two friends so she could have a Charlie Chuckle over the side of the deck. Ah, those wacky American teenagers. Put them in a country where the legal drinking age is lower than 21 and they comprehensively prove they can’t pace themselves.
I’d opted for a full-day four wheel drive tour to fill my Easter Sunday, but some of the others that joined me were a little unsure if bouncing around all day on rutted dirt tracks really was the most sensible way to nurse a hangover. Our driver and guide was Les, a middle aged man with a huge moustache and an ample gut concealed by his khaki uniform, who was quite willing to put the bus through its paces and watch in the rear view mirror as his passengers’ heads rolled and jerked violently from side to side. Despite all the bouncing, progress along the tracks was very slow and this gave Les plenty of time to give a running commentary on the history and environment of Fraser Island.
Over time I’ve noticed that tourists from North America tend to slip an “i” into their pronunciation of where we now were, calling it “Frasier Island” after a 1990’s US TV sit-com about a Seattle psychiatrist turned radio host. Les explained Fraser Island, or “Fraser Orrland” as he himself chose to pronounce it in his ocker Aussie accent, was named after one Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked on the island with her captain husband and a group of others in 1836. Before they were rescued Captain Fraser died, due to natural causes according to one survivor, but Mrs Fraser went on to tour England telling intrigued audiences of their terrible ordeal at the hands of a local Aboriginal tribe, her husband dieing a violent death in the process. She did this for quite some time and made a fair bit of cash out of it, until she lost all credibility when those who had heard her tell her adventures more than once complained that the stories were even more embellished than what they’d heard the first time. Perhaps she had let the art of exaggeration ruin the truth for the sake of some easy bucks. Perhaps if she’d lived 100 years later she would be the perfect person to write scripts for one of the first ever big TV sit-coms – Gilligan’s Island.
The angry grey clouds had hung low in the sky all morning, but despite this the waters of Lake Mackenzie still looked clear and inviting as we pulled up at our first stop. Just as we stood on the white silica sand and debated whether or not to have a swim, the rain began to pour down and the large numbers of people gathered around the lake hurried back to the fleet of tour buses parked nearby for some shelter. Someone in the bus next to us used their seat as an impromptu changing room. Maybe he/she (we couldn’t tell for sure what gender they were) had gotten used to people in the eco-cabin next door seeing them go to the dunny, so having people in the next bus seeing them get changed was no real drama.
During our next bus leg the rain had stopped, allowing us to do a 40 minute walk through the rainforest. As well as being the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island also has the distinction of being the only place where dense forest is able to grow on the sand. To me it all looked like every other bit of rainforest I’d seen in Queensland, until we came to a small creek where the water was so clear and the sand below it so golden that had the water not been moving it would have looked invisible.
After lunch we got off the bouncy narrow tracks and onto Fraser Island’s only designated highway at Seventy Five Mile Beach. Running the entire length of the island’s east coast, the beach is full of urban Australian middle class types taking their Toyota Landcruisers, Nissan Patrols and Holden Jackaroos off sealed roads for the very first time. And just to give them some added excitement there’s always the hazard of light planes landing and taking off along the beach too. It’s no wonder they had to station police on the island to attend to all the road rule infringements, bogged four wheel drives and traffic accidents. When they’re not investigating the deaths of tourists attacked by dingoes that is.
While there was an opportunity to take a scenic flight over the island (and freak out some of the oncoming traffic on the beach in the process) which most people did, I decided to check out the coloured sand cliffs just off the beach and have a look at the rusted wreck of the Maheno, an old freighter washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935.
As the tour concluded back at Kingfisher Bay the rain again teemed down, making it an interesting exercise trying to get around the resort area without looking like drowned rats. A karaoke competition was on at the Dingo Bar, rather comprehensively taken out by Dave our minstrel from Chicago, while a sizeable gathering had a quiet but entertaining night in in the lounge area of our cabin.
After crossing to the mainland we got back on the coach at Hervey Bay and began the longest driving day of the tour. In the late morning we had made it through the sugar cane and pineapple plantations to the Sunshine Coast and had some time in Noosa where some of us managed to fit in some time at the beach. Then it was a short drive down to Forest Glen Sanctuary where almost everyone took the opportunity to have their photo taken holding a koala. I’m pretty sure customs officials won’t allow anyone to leave Australia unless they can show photographic evidence of them holding a koala during their visit. And while I didn’t take the opportunity this time, even us locals have one or two somewhere in the depths of our photo albums.
If I could be any animal I think I’d like to be a koala – they spend four hours a day eating and the other twenty hours sleeping. About the only thing that doesn’t sound so good about their life is that baby koalas that are too young to munch on gum leaves survive by eating their mum’s poo. This is 100% true. The Sanctuary also had its share of kangaroos, emus and wombats, although this was the first wildlife park I had ever been to where kangaroos and people were separated by a fence, which made feeding and patting them not quite so easy. I was a little more impressed by the nocturnal house, where we had the chance to watch sugar gliders, small native animals I haven’t seen much of, fling themselves from branch to branch with almost suicidal impulsiveness.
With relatives living nearby to Forest Glen, I’ve travelled along the stretch of the Bruce Highway between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane many times, and today was probably one of the more entertaining with DJ Mick spinning the tunes of “Love Song Dedications”. Back in the Whitsundays Marty had come up with a game to pay homage to fellow tour mate Sven where we’d sing songs inserting “Sven” instead of any word that sounded like it. Amongst the many hits we’d come up with was Elvis Presley’s Love Me Svender, Green Day’s Sven I Come Around and the classic old number Hey Big Svender from the musical Sweet Charity. It had kept some of us entertained for days, and when DJ Mick put on our all-time favourite, It’s Raining Sven by Geri Halliwell, the aisle was Sven’s dance floor and the cheers could probably have been heard all the way from the top of the Glasshouse Mountains as we passed by them.
We stopped in the centre of Brisbane only long enough to pick up two more people. It must have been incredibly intimidating for Sam and Elli to join a 50 strong tour group for only a few days where some of the strangers had been travelling together for weeks, but to their credit they seemed to fit in pretty well. The coach turned westward, past the Castlemaine Brewery, brewers of the XXXX beer which had been a staple liquid complement on the trip (and despite my indifference to some of their products I do love one of their old advertising slogans – “I couldn’t give a XXXX about anything else”).
Darkness fell as we left Brisbane’s western suburbs and climbed inland past Toowoomba and out to Adora Downs, our farm stay for the night. Us boys took our luggage to one of the weatherboard homesteads to find it reminiscent of a World War I era hospital ward. Two lines of old beds ran along the sides of the main room and the walls were adorned with saws and other old farm implements that may well have come in handy as rudimentary surgical instruments on the battlefield. About the only thing we lacked to make the scene complete was a Florence Nightingale rushing around dishing out doses of chloroform.
The roast dinner on offer was outstanding, and then it was time to work off my bulging stomach with a bush dance. Back when I was in Primary School I hated bush dancing with a passion. Once a year they’d close off a street in the middle of Hobart and along with a number of other schools we’d be forced to Strip the Willow, “heel, toe, heel, toe” and do all the rest of the moves accompanied by a band of old farts with a name like The Bushwackers. We’d practice for weeks beforehand and, at a tender age when holding hands with the opposite sex was likely to give you “girl germs”, I always seemed to get stuck with the ‘yucky’ girls during the dances where partners didn’t change and then when dances and partners did change I never got to dance long enough with the girls I actually did like. This time however, at least 15 years since my last bush dance, I thoroughly enjoyed it. You could say it was almost like exorcising demons from my past. Surprisingly I managed to remember most of the main dances quite easily, although the Bondi Wave was a new one on me and caused a few collisions for all of us while we tried to get the hang of it. And to Claudia, my dance partner for most of the evening, if we had ever gone to the same Primary School I’m sure I would have never got to dance with you as much as I would have liked – I’d have been stuck with a ‘yucky’ girl instead.
After a breakfast that was almost as good as the dinner the night before, we retraced our journey back into the centre of Brisbane and said goodbye to Jimmy, Marty and Philip who were finishing their part of the tour. With a couple of hours to kill it seemed like too much time to do nothing but not enough to something, but it had been a few years since I’d been into the central business district of Australia’s third largest city so I was happy enough just to wander around among the skyscrapers and the snaking Brisbane River. After bumping into someone I knew from Sydney in the Queen Street Mall, and losing Jeremy and Brett in the process, I headed out through Chinatown and along to Brunswick Street in Fortitude Valley, where I’d celebrated New Years in 1999.
In the early afternoon we’d crossed the blurred line where the southern outskirts of Brisbane end and the northern outskirts of the Gold Coast begin. In an area where three of the big Gold Coast theme parks reside the coach dropped off a spirited group of seven of us for a thrill seeking adventure of our own. Amy, Belinda, Carey, Julia, Kaydi, Kelly and Yours Truly were all about to don a Biggles-style flying cap and goggles and sit in the open cockpit of a couple of old Tiger Moths while they did some aerobatics. We were weighed in and split between two pilots and two planes. My pilot Geoff was fairly old and the only time I saw him on the ground without a cigarette drooping from his mouth was when he was refuelling one of the Tiger Moths. He looked like a heart attack or stroke victim just waiting to happen.
With only one person and the pilot in the cockpit of each plane it gave us plenty of time to watch from the ground. Belinda waved to us wildly as she took off and kept doing so until she was out of sight. When the plane came back and passed over us she was waving again, and then after the plane barrel-rolled, dived and spun wildly, it came in to land and she was still waving. Everyone else’s beaming smile after they landed also told the story.
Amy and I were the last to go. The two planes took off and flew in formation towards the Broadwater and the beachfront high rises. The open cabin was full of the noise and vibration of the propeller and the whistling of the wind as we flew side by side. We’d almost reached the coast when the pilot of Amy’s plane banked sharply and flew right underneath mine.
I didn’t have much time to watch it get further away before Geoff started a series of turns and rolls that had my stomach churning. He did sharp climbs that had us rising straight in the air and then he’d completely cut the throttle; the plane would stall, in complete silence we’d begin to fall sideways and then once the nose was facing the ground the engine would roar back to life. As we plunged towards the Broadwater and suburbia around it Geoff would then bottom out and start climbing again so suddenly my throat felt like it was lodged somewhere near my pancreas.
After level flying back towards the landing strip there was time for a second round of aerobatics. As good as the rides at the theme parks Dreamworld and Movie World which were directly below us are, this gave a bigger adrenalin rush than anything they can muster. But, just like the other rides on the ground, this one had to end too – Geoff came in behind Amy’s plane and put us back on terra firma. We all climbed out and as soon as we were in the hangar Geoff lit up a death-stick. His heart attack was going to wait for another day.
Our first evening on the Gold Coast started at Jupiters Casino where as a group we collectively left there $74 worse off than when we’d arrived an hour earlier. Dinner in Surfers Paradise was of our own choosing, and it seemed most of us ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe, before going out on the town.
Now before I bag out the Gold Coast too much let me just get something straight – my most favourite ever holiday was here. It was my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary, I was seven years old and all my aunts, uncles and cousins were assembled together in one place for the first and, dare I say it, last time. It was the first time I’d been to Queensland and we went to all the big theme parks. It was a truly magical holiday.
But somehow every time I go back to the Gold Coast the magic seems to have disappeared more and more. I don’t know whether I’m just getting older and notice things more or whether the Gold Coast has been a victim of its own phenomenal success, but I find the glitz and glamour seem to be more easily scratched away to reveal the tacky and seedy. The forty-five storey apartment buildings are still being put up along the already crowded beaches, the shopping centres keep getting larger and the man-made canals of waterfrontage suburbia are continuing to mushroom, but it just doesn’t seem to hold its appeal to me anymore. It seems to be a place that people in limbo converge on in great numbers. And then there’s Schoolies Week, when Year 12 students from all over the eastern states flock to the Gold Coast every November to celebrate finishing school, which carries a pretty bad reputation with it. Even now in April it felt like a mini-Schoolies. Teenagers, no doubt on their Easter holidays, crowded around the centre of Surfers Paradise in the early hours of the morning looking drunk, bored and agitated. Older folk, dubbed ‘Toolies’, did likewise. It had an almost sinister edge to it, and even the taxi driver who took us back to our hotel glanced across nervously as we went past Cavill Avenue.
Lucifer’s got issues with Paradise so he blocked the view with miles of high-rise,
Car yards as far as the eye can see and a million teens who think they’re free.
Schoolies Week, Schoolies Week. In hell it’s always Schoolies Week.”
Schoolies Week by TISM.
Today was a welcome opportunity to sleep in before going for a surfing lesson at Burleigh Heads in the afternoon. I may have lived by the coast for my whole life, done a little bit of bodyboarding as a teenager and a fair bit of bodysurfing since then, but this was my first ever experience as a stand-up, and boy did it show. I never really appreciated how tough it is in the water being coupled with an eight and a half foot long piece of fibreglass – especially when it came to navigating through the whitewash. We were out in a smallish swell for just over an hour and I was completely exhausted. The longest I managed to spend standing on the surfboard was a hardly convincing 2 or 3 seconds, and even that was on a little tiddler wave that had already broken. But it was fun to try something new and I think that everyone else had a great time out there too.
In the bus going along the Gold Coast Highway on the way back to our hotel Emma and I played a game of “stayed there”. Every time we passed one of the hotels or motels we’d stayed during our respective visits to the Gold Coast we’d point at it and call out “stayed there”. It’s not exactly a complicated game but it’s strangely compelling nonetheless – I can’t help playing it at least in my head every time I pass through, and once we’d got back to our hotel at Mermaid Beach I added that one to my mental list for next time.
Dinner was at Dracula’s Cabaret Restaurant which, despite the rather hefty price tag, was actually well worth it. Being surrounded by skeletons and ghouls in a haunted house setting, riding a ghost train down to the restaurant level, engaging in lively banter with the actor-waiters and then getting a stage show as well as a pretty good meal, what more could you ask for in a good night out?
We then moved on to an Irish pub in the heart of Surfers Paradise. It was very large and rather empty, our sizeable group at least doubling the numbers inside. One man complained that the “kid’s club” had come in and spoiled his view, but it seemed a little lame to get angry about that seeing as how his view was comprised only of a concrete pillar and an amplifier. After Craig had a bit of a word with him he wasn’t quite so full of animosity – perhaps he’d threatened to move some of his US Armed Forces mates involved in Operation Shock and Awe away from Iraq and onto this guy’s front verandah or something. In any case it hardly mattered, the female manager announced that karaoke was about to start and then addressed our group directly: “I don’t who you are or where you’ve all come from, but please stay and keep drinking”. We responded by draining our glasses and walking out en masse, thus emptying the pub as fast as we’d filled it.
We were some 1,800km south of where we’d started in Cairns when we crossed the border out of Queensland and into New South Wales. It’s a little reminder of just how expansive Queensland is, and in terms of area it isn’t even Australia’s biggest state. As the clouds and rain closed in we stopped at the lighthouse at Cape Byron, the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. On a clear day, if you have extremely good eyesight and are extremely gullible, you can look across the Tasman Sea and see the coast of New Zealand. It was pelting down in Byron Bay during our lunch stop, limiting our ability to do much other than sit in a cafe, watch the rain and lament the inescapable fact that our journey was almost over. It was all a little depressing.
But it wasn’t all over quite yet. We arrived at Coffs Harbour in the afternoon and after a couple of drinks in the hotel bar were on our way for our final group dinner. While on the coach for the short ride into town there was much dancing in the aisles and some joker hanging like a monkey from the luggage rack, the party was ramping up for its finale.
But then Coffs Harbour is that wild kind of town anyway. For instance, Russell Crowe owns a property nearby and has filmed some of his greatest action scenes here. Forget the epic battles in Gladiator, I’m talking about the surveillance camera footage of Russell brawling outside a local nightclub in the wee small hours which was later used by the nightclub owners to try and blackmail him into giving them $200,000.
Coffs Harbour is more than just host to a Hollywood brawler – it’s most famous for the Big Banana. From the Big Merino to the Big Orange there are scores of ‘Big’ things plonked in towns all over Australia, and in fact we’d gone straight past the Big Prawn the day before and only narrowly missed sighting the Big Pineapple on the Sunshine Coast earlier in the week. It seems building a tacky, massive object out of fibreglass that you can walk through or climb to the top of which typifies the produce of the local area – and don’t forget the obligatory souvenir shop on the side – is like a powerful magnet that tourists can’t help but be gravitated to. The Big Banana is perhaps the most established and most famed of them all, built at the front of, funnily enough, a large banana plantation. And, like the obligatory koala-holding photo, I’m sure just about every Australian family has at least one photo of the kids standing in front of, inside or on top of something Big. Sadly our coach passed by the Big Banana without even the chance of a photo opportunity, and it had been a whole 13 years since the last time I had my photo taken there too, I could have done with an update for the album.
It had been a long day’s driving before we finally reached Sydney. In the couple of years I’ve lived here I’ve crossed the Harbour Bridge by train, car, bicycle and on foot, but I don’t think I had ever done so by bus. And somehow it felt very special for me as we travelled south along the ‘Coat-hanger’ into the city, accompanied by the sound of all the camera shutters aimed at the Opera House on our left hand side. We skirted Circular Quay and stopped at the Domain for our official group photo, with the instantly recognisable backdrop across Farm Cove to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge behind that. When we arrived a newly married couple were having their wedding photos taken, and the bride looked less than impressed as our group of fifty walked close by. She looked even less impressed when Concetta yelled out “You have a very sexy looking husband!”
With our last official duty done, we climbed on board the coach and listened to All Star for one final time. Outside the Travelodge where we disembarked there were outward displays of emotion and a few tears were shed. And that was just from the frustrated pedestrians trying to walk past as all our luggage had completely clogged the footpath.
We met up at a pub across the street, which was still full of war veterans who had been there for much of the afternoon. Today was Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on the beaches of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915 during World War I. It has become a public holiday marked to remember all wars Australia has fought in and around the country many dawn services and street parades of veterans take place before they retire to the pubs for a beer and a game of Two-Up. I’m sure back at a resort in Cairns tonight a man was meticulously explaining the rules of Two-Up to a group of holiday-makers with extra vigour and attention to detail just to signify the occasion.
Our journey was over and little by little our tour group got smaller as people headed to the airport or back to their hotel. About a dozen of us wandered up Oxford Street, the gay centre of Sydney, before settling on a near-empty cafe near Taylor Square to get some dinner. Now let’s not blame the person who picked the place – just because they live in Sydney doesn’t mean they know every dismal cafe to avoid. But it was a fairly disappointing way to end the trip, particularly on a street so tuned-in to cafe culture, but suffice to say this was no Golden Gaytime. The food was extremely slow to arrive and when it did it wasn’t as ordered and the toasted bread was overly-burnt. My pasta looked and tasted like I’d been given a section of a shredded Yellow Pages. As the old saying goes, these guys couldn’t have organised a piss-up in a brewery.
And so we went back to the pub by the hotel for the final farewells. I made plans to meet Sven, Sam and Elli the next day to do the spectacular Coogee to Bondi coastal walk before I too wearily made my exit and left what was remaining of the group behind. Almost everyone had a trans-continental flight ahead of them before they got back to their own beds. I only had a 15 minute cab ride.