Southern Crossings — Day 7: The Dreamweavers

26 June
Awake in the morning, and then groan upon remembering I’m still in Gold Coast. Matt from the opposite bed is packing up his things: before I can say goodbye, he’s already out the door with his overly stuffed backpack. Not that I’ll ever see him again…

A lacklustre breakfast before heading off on the light rail again. Because I’ve already exhausted all the attractions that Gold Coast has to offer, I’m heading out of town. The light rail whizzes past Southport Cemetery and then Gold Coast University Hospital on its way north — meaning that passengers coming here from Brisbane and the North are treated to a lecture on the stages of death before they reach Gold Coast city centre. A most excellent omen for tourists.

At eleven I find myself at Helensvale, a station connected to Queensland’s rail system. Some people rush to get on the train on the next platform, and tomorrow I’ll be getting on that train too, heading up to Brisbane for a taste of real Queensland city life. Today, however, I’m going through the wide double doors at the other end of the station concourse and joining the queue for a bus that immediately careens off into the Queensland bush. Soon enough, it pulls up at numerous theme parks in the middle of nowhere, each bigger and crazier than the last with names like “Movieworld” and “Wet n’ Wild”, all of them with roller-coasters that reach insanely high heights. A few people get off at each of the stops, but most of them stay on the bus, patiently waiting for the jewel in the crown.

The excitement grows more palpable as we near the final stop: a lot more muttering, a lot more pointing out the window. At last, a giant red brick structure comes into view; a great many gasps from our entourage. The moment the bus door opens, they flood off the bus like pigeons escaping from their coops and disappear through the building, all in the space of about thirty seconds. I’m left standing outside, staring at this absolute monster of an entrance, and wondering where my discount tickets are.

Opened in 1981, Dreamworld was the first of what turned out to be a string of theme parks across the Gold Coast, most of which we’ve already seen on our way here. It prides itself on being Australia’s largest theme park, and they have the admission fee to match: a single ticket will set you back about AUD 90, which in Hong Kong dollars is “way too effing much”. I’ve saved a couple dozen bucks thanks to some discount vendors, but the price alone already prohibits a return visit for me. Prices aside, though, it certainly packs a lot of stuff into its grounds: there is a water park, a zoo, and five or six different zones with rides and attractions to while the whole day away. There’s even a Lego store the size of a city near the entry gates, which is surely gospel for people even nerdier than me.

I eye one of the rides suspiciously. See, I have never been a fan of roller-coasters: they might provide everyone with the thrill of a lifetime, but having your stomach turned upside-down is personally not my idea of “fun”. This one is different, however, in that it will not do a 360 at any point — so my stomach and my nerves will not be so sorely tested. Bearing in mind that I’ve just complained at length on the Internet (to no one in particular, but you know) about how little risktaking I’ve done, I take a deep breath and join the queue. It climbs up the slope slowly, as if to draw out that feeling of doom that’s growing in my stomach. Then we glide over the top, and for a split second I feel my stomach lurching forward — a few seconds later it’s all over, and I discover to my astonishment that I’ve survived my first roller-coaster ride. So astonished am I by my own audacity, in fact, that I don’t even notice myself queuing to go on a second time. This time I remember to open my eyes.

The triumph I feel at having finally conquered my first roller-coaster is tempered by my absolute refusal to risk any others. They all seem so violent, those screams coming from them so piercing. Just looking at the “Wipeout”, a ride that’s somewhere between a spit roast and a washing machine, is enough to induce the queasies in me. Settle for the bumper cars, where I mercilessly chase down a bunch of kids half my age — though it’s still me doing much of the excited screaming. Heading out from that ride, I notice a small corridor to the left that nobody seems to have noticed. It’s painted a gaudy shade of orange, and I can hear the faint trickle of water beyond. Stepping through the doorway, I find myself in a giant outdoor arena, the sort where people sit down to watch dolphins or sharks frolic in some shallow water. The map tells me that this the entrance to the waterpark, a vast parkland that’s half as big as Dreamworld itself. This place is very, very big. It is also very, very empty: on a tiny sign next to the entrance, almost invisible to any casual wanderer, I read the words “the Water World is closed between June and August for maintenance”. I picture the look on Betsy’s face when she discovers this and can’t help grinning, just a bit.

Take some time off risking my life to have lunch. Eating out in Australia is already expensive at times, but Dreamworld, being the epitome of extortion, takes this to a whole new level: a sandwich here easily sets you back AUD 10. It isn’t even a fancy sandwich — just your normal chicken and lettuce sandwich, the sort which gives you a 50/50 chance of diarrhea. However, I am a poor student, and beggars can’t be choosers, so I decide to brave it with a potato salad. Observing the people sat down in my area, there’s a huge difference between the adults and the children. While the children are like any that you might spot in a theme park — limitless energy, running around in circles, shouting and screaming at the top of their lungs — the adults are almost lethargic, poking moodily at their phones and their food. The mothers that are here together aren’t even chatting much, just idly sitting around and sighing like they’re all Romantic poets. Doesn’t seem to bode well for this place, but maybe I’m missing something…

Head to the back of the park for the afternoon. In contrast to the zones near the entrance, this part of the park is less mechanical — there’s a zoo, an Australian restaurant and even a museum about the indigenous peoples. It takes a while for all of those to register in my head, though, as I find myself face-to-face with a koala for the first time in Australia — and a CUTE fluffy koala at that too.

Yes, I know I’ve had plenty of opportunity to meet Australian animals. The Melbourne Zoo is about fifteen minutes’ walk from the University, and visiting would have been a doozy. But I’ve never actually seen them: not in the wild, nor in zoos. Only on dinner tables. (The abandon with which Australians are willing to slaughter their kangaroos never fails to amaze.) So it’s actually exciting for me to see all of these animals up close: not only do I get to see them chewing away at their afternoon tea, but they sometimes get close enough to the fence for me to see their faces, staring at me as if to ask what I’m doing in their place.

I follow the crowd into the aviary, through a narrow passageway that winds itself up and around the structure. Somewhere around the house, though I never get to see it up close, is a kookaburra, laughing away at the visitors. (Some of the children seem to be trying to outlaugh it in response.) You get a pretty good view of the entire zoo from here, and from the corner of my eye I pick out a pair of ladies, nervously feeding some sort of raccoon. Photographers (these ladies have their own photographer) snap pictures of the happy women as they tentatively stroke the animal, afraid that it will bite them any time. No reason.

A passageway from the back of the enclosures, brightly painted and open to the skies, leads to a short, flat building. This is the quietest part of the park I’ve seen so far — even the abandoned water park had loudly gushing water as background noise. Here though, there isn’t a lot of people: most tourists seem to look in for a few seconds, then pop back out the other side just as quickly. After the eyes have adjusted to the gloom, I spy the colourful snake painted on the ceiling, the intricate paintings exhibited on the walls.

I wasn’t expecting a theme park to have a small museum dedicated to the Indigenous Australians, but that’s what this place is: a place paying its respects to the people who had lived here for millennia before the European colonizers came along, an acknowledgement of what happened in the two centuries that followed. Because most of the colonizers who arrived were unbelievably racist, there was a lot of unfair treatment of the Indigenous peoples after the British moved in: denial of their culture, destruction of their sacred lands, and many other atrocities that are the subject of a less light-hearted piece. All sorts of methods to depopulate the region were used, culminating in a programme where a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and sent into white communities. It wasn’t until 2008 that the government apologized for their role in creating this “Stolen Generation”, a speech which hundreds of thousands of people watched all across Australia.

The words of the recording, both of the speech and of the history surrounding it, echo around that dark room. I’ve never really thought much about the importance of indigenous culture — I’ve always assumed that culture is something that’s constantly being shaped, redefined in both past and future. But culture’s also important for people who want to assert their identity and their rights: celebrating aspects of culture is rather like acknowledging their place in the land and its history. So learning of all that history, realizing just how important they were to the land, and bringing it to the forefront: that’s something necessary. So it’s a powerful moment, to sit there and to learn how everything ties together — and to learn how the First Nation peoples contributed so much to the country we know as Australia today.

Solemn reverie over, I exit the building and wander around a bit. For all its size, Dreamworld has little to offer in alternative infotainment beyond the zoo and the museum. Sometimes they make an effort — there’s a vintage car track where you can chase down people in diesel-engine cars (like I did), and somewhere near the Australian outback restaurant there’s a cool log ride, and in which I found myself sitting behind a gigantic Indian teenager. (Seriously, he was possibly the largest man I had ever seen, height- and lengthwise.) But as with much of Gold Coast itself, the novelty of being here wears off quickly. The idea of a paradise, where you do nothing but enjoy yourself to the max, becomes tiring, the mind eager to look for other diversions. By four o’clock, I’m already on my way back to Gold Coast — with a nice gelato in hand, because fork cold weather.

A couple of hours spent mooching in the comfort of my bed later, I meet up with Betsy, who looks mightily refreshed after a day of surfing in the neighbouring state. We both agree that there is nothing to see here in Gold Coast for the umpteenth time: she arrived here in the morning and by the afternoon was asking me how to visit the Broadwater Parklands. Discovering that — horror of horrors! — she has never been to a Nando’s, I drag her out to Cahill Avenue to visit this temple of chicken and burgers. There’s a heavy queue of people here, but once we get inside the crowd thins and we get a table all to ourselves. Across the restaurant, a gigantic Indian family — at least a dozen people, definitely more — sit and noisily guzzle their way through their burgers and salads and whatnot, the children complaining all the time about how one sibling’s hogging a condiment or how Gold Coast is a humourless desert. Tempted to agree with them on that second one, but sit and enjoy my own dinner instead. The chips are a bit soggy, but the chicken is wonderful as always.

Across the street to one last place. I’ve said multiple times in the past couple of blogposts that there isn’t anything to do in Surfers’ Paradise except surf. That isn’t completely true: you can go minigolfing around the city’s six thousand courses, or you could visit the city’s few non-beach-related attractions. Somewhere around here there’s a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum (whatever that is) and a small theme park — but neither of these are as cool as the one in the mall we’re heading into, with its high vaulted ceilings and cosy lighting. It takes a while for us to find it, but after a bit of digging, the words “Infinity Attraction” appear round the corner.

I’ve introduced the place to my friends a dozen times since coming back, but not once have I come close to explaining what the place actually is. “Mirror maze” seems too mundane a phrase for what this is, and “dark room experience” sounds vaguely like a euphemism for sex. Perhaps it’s best to say that this is a maze within different darkened rooms, but nothing I say seems to be adequate: this is just too much of a one-of-a-kind experience.

They don’t allow photography in the rooms — trade secrets, I suppose — so you’ll just have to take my word for what happens in there, no matter how implausible. To begin with, we’re given fluorescent shoe coverings and gloves to wear in the Attraction: the reasoning behind this becomes apparent as we are plunged into total darkness soon enough. Then some meditative music plays, and suddenly we find ourselves in a dimly lit hall of mirrors — no distracting illusions, just mirrors ceiling-to-floor. It’s so psychedelic, so straight out from a fantasy, that I feel like stopping to gawk at all this, get my beatings a bit, but Betsy has already found the exit and we press on. In the blink of an eye we’re heading onto a bridge, a neon-lit bridge above a dark canyon that seems to plunge into the impossible depths. Reach the end of that, take a blind right turn, and it’s pitch black once more. There’s a hiss from the walls, and then invisible air cushions suddenly inflate, leaving an almost impenetrable gap for us to pass. I hear Betsy reaching for my shoe as I wiggle through, flopping onto the other side like a limp wet fish. Help Betsy up — I can just see the outline of her shoes and hands — then we’re off again, into another of their infinite rooms.

As we pass through room after room, trying to take in every little detail, there’s only one thought passing through my mind: this is the most fun I’ve ever had here. Given my prior dismissal of Gold Coast, this might not sound like much, but this place is miles ahead of any competition. I genuinely can’t think of anything better I’ve done during the past month: not walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, not the escape room, not even sitting in a car doing a 200 km/h turn onto the highway. Perhaps it’s the impossibility of these rooms, or the dreamlike quality of the atmosphere, but I’m feeling wonder here, wonder that I’ve never felt so strongly as in Sydney or Adelaide, maybe even — God help me — Melbourne. This place is pure empty spectacle, but it’s the fleetingness of the whole thing that catapults it to a higher plane: everything seems so unreal, like they’ll disappear at any moment. You don’t know whether you’re seeing it all right, or how everything might vanish in the blink of an eye. So in this kind of place, you simply carpe noctem, let the colours flood your mind, and have the time of your life.

As we head out of the maze once and for all — framed by a series of neon squares — there’s a loud bang and a jet of vapour fires behind us. I jump a little, and Betsy lets out a little squeal. She may lead in terms of white-water rafting, skydiving and going on roller-coasters, but when it comes to getting out of mirror mazes in the dark…

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