Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I've never been punctual with holiday memoirs. But three-plus weeks chained to a Melbourne desk is good motivation to sketch some thoughts on my fortnight in the Whitsundays and Townsville/Magnetic Island.

North Queensland is where frontier meets tourism. An economy that revolves round monied city-slickers is run by men who have spent their lives on farms or boats. My Airlie Beach hosts have lost four dogs on their property over the years: one to a snake, one to a poisonous tick and two to feral dogs, which tried to grab a third pet under Rosalind's nose as she sat with it on the porch. She herself has twice been bitten by paralysis ticks, while in the month before my arrival Magnetic Island saw two near-fatal encounters with a death adder and a jellyfish respectively. You have to don a stinger suit just to get in the water - saltwater that is, since the fresh stuff has crocodiles in it.

The greatest health threat is the ferocious sun. The locals are deep-tanned, no soap opera buff but a tough, leathery quality. Tour guides claim without humour that their soft-skinned charges are the best insect repellant, and a fortnight of watching mosquitoes and march flies pick out Europeans inclines one to believe them. In those two weeks I witnessed two cases of heatstroke, and went so brown myself that dad nearly drove past me at the airport. The Townsville ferry terminal runs ads on loop exhorting you to stay in shade between 10 and 3.

It's a great place to be aware of human frailty before nature, whether you're swimming against a current on the endless Reef or halfway through a bushwalk in 30 degree heat. You get a sense of nature encoraching on humanity rather than the other way round; island resorts have wallabies bounding down their lanes in the middle of the morning, while the regional metropolis recently had to remove a crocodile from its beachfront. The rhythm of daily life, human or otherwise, is dictated by the merciless sun. Townsville, a city of a 150,000, is practically a ghosttown before 5pm. This languid pace carries into the hours of darkness, when the heat retreats but the humidity stays; Townsville's main shopping street is deserted before eight on a weeknight. Half the bus routes don't run on Sundays.

If it's starting to sound like a poor holiday destination, be assured that North Queensland pays in spades for the discomfort. Jump into the ocean almost anywhere and there's coral, with everything from clownfish to turtles swimming in front of your nose. An hour's hiking may take you through a half-dozen types of forest, with a postcard view of green islands and blue sea round every corner. It's a place that rewards the adventurous, with a cast of colourful characters to boot. The New Zealander who led our kayak tour did water safety for Lord of the Rings and Baywatch. The first mate on our yacht claimed to have worked in every Irish pub in Amsterdam. The closest thing Airlie has to a museum belongs to a guy who hauls 15-foot sharks onto motorboats for a living.

There's a whole culture in motion on the Queensland coast, comprised of 20-somethings from across the First World following the backpacker route down from Cairns or up towards it. Most are on a 12-month working holiday visa or the nearest thing they could get to one. Many are travelling alone, but the trail is so well defined that familiar faces drift in and out of an existence marked by communal transport and zero-privacy resorts. Over two weeks I managed to chat with English, Irish, French, Germans, Swiss, Swedes, Belgians, Mexicans, Norwegians, Canadians, Japanese, Koreans and (most common) Kiwis. The hospitality industry sometimes seems run by foreigners, for foreigners: boat crews, waiters and desk jockeys speak in a kaleidescope of accents.

All in all, the Deep North makes a great trip for the energetic, and for those keen to glimpse what a wide and fascinating continent this really is. Don't take my word for it though, have a look for yourself (travel link below), or on flickr.

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