Just a couple of weeks ago I would have deemed it madness to wake before eight. But as it happens, I have managed to get myself on some very early flights in the past fortnight — and so it is that I find myself on a train to Southern Cross at six in the morning, trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes, grumpily wondering what possessed me to agree to such an early departure. As the train pulls out of my local station, I suddenly remember that I forgot to put the mushrooms from dinner last night back in the fridge, leaving them to rot in the tepid warmth of my room. At least they’re in an airtight container.
Meet Betsy on the bus to the airport. It’s just her and me this time: Amy’s leaving Australia on Friday (and her purse has been stretched thin by Sydne). Neither of us are particularly in the mood for talking, though my hatred for awkward silences means that I occasionally point out an interesting bridge that we’re passing over. It’s so early in the morning that it’s STILL dark outside when we arrive at Tullamarine Airport. The sky only remembers to turn blue after we’ve checked in our bags and gone through security once more.
At this point that an announcement comes over the speakers. As my ears get adjusted to the static, the garbled voice resolves itself into bad news: our flight has been delayed for more than two hours. Head off to that purveyor of gourmet breakfasts known as McDonalds for solace. As Betsy haggles for our McMuffins, I look interestedly on the condiments rack. “Have you had Vegemite before, Betsy?” She looks up, shakes her head, and I immediately grab a small packet of black viscous paste.
Despite having the same appearance and consistency as crude oil, Vegemite is the holy grail of a visit to Australia. It’s so famous that it gets mentioned in songs and lampooned in comedy sketches. It is an essential part of Australia and Australians, and I have seen people at my hostel who practically paint their toast black with it. (This strikes me as a singularly self-destructive act.) Both of us are Vegemite virgins, however, so we roll up our sleeves and engage in some culinary experimentation. There’s a five-second pause, and then the full saltiness of this yeast extract hits us. We pull a face at the same time, and agree that further experiments in the realm of taste are to be postponed indefinitely.
The flight over to Gold Coast Airport is extremely uneventful, and also very dull because we are held up in the plane for another half an hour while some things happen on the runway ahead. Just in front of me is a baby who seems to have infinite capacity for tears and shouting, so I bury myself in words and music. As well as “The Riddle of the Sands” I’ve packed a couple more books, but by the time we’re in the air, I’ve finished everything but the Childers.
The first thing that strikes me about Queensland is the humidity. For all its deficiencies and caprices, Melburnian weather always seems to be pleasantly dry whenever I venture outdoors — not throat-parching, just enough to make walking in the streets a pleasant experience. Here at Gold Coast Coolangatta Airport though, a blast of hot air assaults the visitor once they step off the plane. Even in the middle of winter, the interior of the airport still feels warm and sticky. My weather app tells me that it’s 20°C. Instantly regret packing so many thick woolly trousers.
Before I head into the decadence of Gold Coast, though, there’s one place I need to sweat through. Betsy, who’s obviously done more research than I have, tells me about a place just 10 minutes’ ride away from the airport, where Queensland and New South Wales meet on a promontory jutting out into the ocean. Its name? “Point Danger”, says Betsy. I squint suspiciously at her. “You’re making this up, right?”
A short bus ride takes us into the town of Coolangatta, a nondescript town/suburb that sits quietly on the New South Wales border. It’s twinned with the town of Tweed Heads in the latter state — quite literally, as they sit side by side with each other, and share a lot of the same amenities. In summer, you can go back an hour in time simply by crossing the street because Queensland doesn’t observe daylight saving time like NSW does. As for where you can do that — well that is an easily answered question, because border monuments stand every fifty metres or so and they’re VERY unsubtle. They seem to have grabbed their special status and run wild with it.
We hike to the top of Point Danger, perched at the top of a very steep road that straddles the border. It’s a strenuous walk uphill, but then the road suddenly levels out and we’re left standing on a flat, smooth platform, gazing at a pristine white structure that stands tall on the border, its jagged edges concealing its status as the Point Danger lighthouse. Apparently this place got its name from the dangerous reefs that lie just offshore, and which we can see some people playing around in the distance. We’re not so bothered with swimming, however — the fact that this place is where Queensland morphs into New South Wales is the main attraction for Betsy and me, and we set to work taking pictures of ourselves in two different places at once. I’m particularly proud of the one where I place my duffel bag on the other side of the border. As I click on the shutter, I goofily proclaim to Betsy that “I’ve left my luggage in another state”. She almost doesn’t bother rolling her eyes.
Two o’clock. Having said my goodbyes to Betsy, who’s going off to surf in nearby Byron Bay, I’m now in the heart of Gold Coast, watching the streets roll by on the impressive G:link light rail. Opened just four years ago, it’s effortlessly cool and quiet, sauntering up the main streets, impossibly suave in its yellow livery. There was a smattering of rain as we left the terminus at Broadbeach, but that’s long since cleared up and now the skies are a delightful mix of clouds and blueness. Occasionally the odd skyscraper cuts through, modern yet somewhat drab in their uniformity — most of them were built in the past couple of decades. Despite being mostly desert and bush, Queensland seems eager to tell the rest of the country that it can keep up with them, no sweat.
However, my mind is on other things at this moment, because this is the first time I’ve ever gone solo on a trip. I’ve been alone in foreign cities, of course — London, Melbourne, a bit of Berlin. On all of those previous trips, however, I always had a friend in the same building, or at least in the same city, who was kind enough to fly to my side the moment I screamed for it. This time, though, the nearest help is in another state, braving the waves and having the time of her life. So it’s up to me to fix my own problems, to get through the ups and downs of this touristy business. It’s not exactly scary: what bad things can happen to me, really, in one of the safest countries in the world? But there is a slight unease, that nagging feeling that something could go wrong. It’s not strong, at least this time. Banish it to the back of the mind for now.
Alight in a quiet suburb, the stop right opposite my hostel. The receptionist is an impossibly chirpy woman, slightly older than me, who rattles off all the information about my room in about fifteen seconds and then looks at me as if expecting a response. I simply nod, pay the rate, and trudge up a dangerously rickety flight of steps to my room. The place is miraculously clean, and I begin to wonder whether all those stories I’d heard of hostels being like garbage dumps is an exaggeration. Reading the place up on the hostel wifi later, I later discover that the main reason it’s so clean is that it’s only been open for three weeks, and this being the opposite of tourist season there aren’t a lot of people crowding into its rooms.
It might be simply because the light is off and the room is gloomy, but my six-person room seems particularly empty. Maybe they’re all off surfing? As my social anxiety is in remission, I shake hands and exchange a few words with a roommate, an Englishman called Matt. He seems slightly older than me, one of those lucky Westerners who can just go off by themselves for a fortnight or a month to recharge. He doesn’t seem to have much to do: he seems content to sit on his bed, and play around on his laptop. Occasionally he reaches into his bulging backpack, but as he tells me, “I’ve seen everything there is, really”.
Walk down to the beach at the awesomely named Surfers’ Paradise for lunch and a bit of a walkabout. (This day seems to be chock-full with bombastic place names — perhaps it’s a Queensland specialty?) At the gate to the beach, where the name of the suburb is proudly emblazoned on a metallic banner, a faded surfboard sign advertises the Commonwealth Games, held here to great success a few months ago. Beyond that: mile upon mile of sea and sand, stretching farther than the eye can see, a vast expanse of deep turquoise and light beige that contrast so fine. Easy on the eyes too: the Sun is hidden from view behind the seafront skyscrapers and the elongated shadows they make provide the beach with much-needed shade. What’s even more striking, though, is just how soft the sand is: Bondi, Brighton, Discovery Bay have all got really fine sand, always perfect to dig your feet into, but they have nothing on Surfers’ Paradise: treading on this feels like walking on air, and it’s so soft that every step I take leaves an imprint on the sands. It’s fluffy. No other beach has fluffy sand. I spend fifteen minutes just tromping round the beach, excitedly leaving footprints that follow no rhyme or reason. I love Melbourne, but if only they had THIS kind of sand there…
Once the excitement of that wears off though, it gradually dawns on me that there is absolutely nothing to do here in Gold Coast. Yes this place is famed for its beach-based activities, but if you’re a nerd with no interest in either, then the whole experience falls apart. A small crowd mills around the entry gate, but I’ve only taken ten steps and it might be the Moon for all I know. I try the waters with my toe and it’s cold, almost shockingly so: small wonder that there’s only one person’s braving the waves on this chilly June afternoon. Even the seagulls are standing way upshore, and you know how cold the ocean has to be when even the seabirds are avoiding it. Gusts of wind blow in from the Pacific, sudden icy gusts that almost blow my book from my hands (“The Riddle of the Sands”, bien sur). It’s all rather depressing and sad to see this place empty, a statement of unrealized potential, but then again I did come at the worst time of the year.
Desperate to find something to do, I decide that I shall visit the neighbouring suburb of Main Beach. Gold Coast isn’t really a “city” in the traditional sense: instead it’s a cluster of islands around the Nerang River that over time have been developed to suit the rich people living here. One of these islands was reclaimed to become Main Beach, and with its palm frond-shaped islands and lagoons, it looks very much like paradise — surely any place which gives its islands interesting shapes must also be interesting itself? Wrong: there is nothing here, nothing apart from a row of apartment blocks that line the strips of land making up the island’s unique shape (and it’s more of a razor than a palm frond). The only consolations are a deserted children’s playground — always welcome, anytime, anywhere — and a sunset to last the ages.
I’ve been to many places before and since, but I’ve yet to find one that really beats this one. I sit there for a while, watching the wispy fragments of clouds roll by, the sky a dazzling array of colours that defy description. I don’t sit there for long, though — at my feet is the rising tide, which contains an alarming amount of trash in it. Plus, I need the loo, and the sound of lapping water’s not helping things.
Eventually I realize that the best thing to do is to return to my hostel. It’s warm, cosy, and there’s not going to be a lot of people around. This last assumption is thoroughly shattered, however, when I open the door to my room and see almost all the beds occupied. Everybody is lazing around in bed, typing away at their laptops or snoozing away the afternoon despite the light in the room being as bright as a dying star. On my thin mattress, I switch on BBC Radio 4, and the dulcet tones of Jack Dee float to me from halfway across the globe, a reminder of more exciting possibilities.
Seven o’clock. Alight at a completely deserted Southport, three more stops up the line. Gold Coast may have been disappointing so far, but I’m not giving hope just yet — if only the city would play along. This place, formerly a major port for Queensland, is supposedly the city’s central business district, yet I and another commuter seem to be the only living souls around. Looking down the main street of what is marked “Chinatown” on my map, I see it festooned with Chinese lanterns, but the street below it is so empty, it’s almost agonizing to watch. There’s only one restaurant around here that seems even interested in doing business: a mixian store with humongous servings, the sort where they slaughter the whole pig and throw in everything edible. It’s so spicy that I have to blow my nose with every bite, but apart from that it’s actually not bad — and after an afternoon of disappointments, a mediocre dinner is a relief.
Sitting at my table and dabbing away the tears when nobody’s looking, I feel the ennui creeping through my bones. It’s long past time to admit defeat: for all its pretty names and pristine beaches, there is precious little that is interesting in Gold Coast. It’s just beaches, countless beaches, unending sand and sea: that and the golf courses make up about 90% of the attractions here. All rich people stuff — you don’t get a lot of museums, parks, fairgrounds and that kind of thing here. The shopping mall directly opposite the restaurant is purely functional, the sort where you go to get groceries and then piss off home immediately — you wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon there, talk with your friends in one of their bland restaurants. It’s a place built for those who can afford to spend their days in an endless summer, those who dislike the hoi polloi. But for a commoner like me, there’s not much to enjoy here, regardless of season. I’m not angry about that, it’s not my business — but it’s just not great for a self-proclaimed international city.
Looking for something to do, I exit the deserted mall through the back door and into the Broadwater Parklands, a vast park that lines the Southport coast. There are so many amenities lying around: skateboard tracks, cycling paths, a gigantic paddling pool. There are even multiple hills just jutting out of the ground, perfect picnic spots for the people of Gold Coast (if they decide one day that they’re common enough to do that). All of these might be heavily utilized during the day, but at half past eight on a Monday night in June? This place might as well be No Man’s Land. And I love it.
There is something about a desolate parkland that is simply enchanting. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you have absolutely everything to yourself, or maybe it’s just that everything is supersized here — in any case, it’s a wonderful place to let your hair down and run wild. The flying fox in the middle of the playground stretches for more than a few yards: I climb on it over and over again, desperate to try out different ways flying through the air. Same goes with the miniature cycleway: it’s probably VERY irresponsible to slam into the other vehicles like that, but there’s nobody here to say otherwise so who cares? It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in Queensland, and all it took was a few rudimentary playground facilities. Proof that you don’t really need a lot of money to have fun in a foreign land.
The end of the night finds me back at my local light rail station, sitting on a bench and watching the night sky while peeling a couple of clementines. A tram occasionally passes by, but no one ever gets off. Quiet perfection. Then an automated announcement, cold and deadpan, comes out of the loudspeakers: “passengers are reminded that eating on trams is forbidden”. I slowly finish the clementine, wrap up my peelings, and lob it lazily into the trashcan next to me. I’m making the most of my time here, all robotic voices be damned.