The Gold Coast - Not just what it says on the tin

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Pacific Pines

Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Sunday, March 4, 2012

Every guidebook I've come across offers it's readers a grave caution about the blackened heart of the Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise. They warn of a garish, bling vacuum that swallows your morals and bleeds your wallet dry. The Rough Guide condemns it as a 'brash and glib place' where the 'party mood is rammed down your throat.' It is a landscape composed of high rise theme-parks, designer shops and nightclubs where the smallest hint of blossoming culture or class is swiftly and efficiently exterminated. In fact, most books describe the place in terms usually reserved for rapists.

Ashamedly, I had digested this polemic without much question. For me, the guidebooks had acquired an almost gospel like status throughout my trip. Their commandments were to be treated with respect. Nope, Surfers Paradise was not going to be my cup of tea and I did not expect to enjoy myself.

I had timed my passage through Surfers to coincide with my boyfriend Ben being there. Ben's Uncle David had come out to Australia twenty odd years ago. Here he met a pretty young Australian named Carol. They married, had two little boys, Sam and Billy, and pitched up in The Gold Coast, making the agreeably named suburb of Pacific Pines their home. Ben had been out to stay with them before, four years ago, and he had returned now to catch up with his growing cousins and chase the last bit of summer sun before we met up again in a couple of weeks and settled in Sydney for the autumn to work.

I had got the early bus from Brisbane to squeeze the most out of our day and met Ben at the station at just before 9am. We immediately headed for Surfers beachfront, in search of a hefty breakfast to set us up for the day. The shops were already open and cafe-owners, shopkeepers and excursion operators were lingering around outside, plastering up offers, adverts and promotions to try and lure fresh and disconcerted tourists into their lairs.

Despite these efforts, the promenade was surprisingly quiet. Those who were there seemed to be either work-men, or joggers clad in designer sports-wear - one of whom we accosted into taking our photo in front of the famous Surfers Paradise sign. This was harder than we anticipated. The passing traffic kept on obscuring us from view and the runner we had stopped was obviously getting distressed about the possibility of cooling down while she repeatedly tried to get a good snap. After a bit of awkwardness we got there in the end and as the lady bounced off Ben deigned to inform me that he had heard taking a photo in this spot is notoriously difficult.

The sands of the Gold Coast extend for an almost unbroken 40km - unfurling like a yellow ribbon caught in the wind. Settlements queue in an orderly line along the curve of this ribbon, so getting around often involves simply driving in a straight line. After breakfast we headed for Ben's favourite spot on the Gold Coast, Burleigh Heads. Burleigh Heads is a fifteen minute drive from Surfers and comparatively a sleepy little place. The Beach is peaceful and occupied exclusively by locals and surfers. From this vantage point, at the end of a huge stretch of sand, you can gaze down the coast and admire the Surfers skyline in the distance.

Surfers Paradise has earned its name for a reason, and we sat on the sand lazing in the morning sun and scanning the powerful sea. As we watched the waves crash against the beach, it dawned on me that these were the first waves I had seen in Australia. Further up the coast The Great Barrier Reef halts waves in their tracks so they feebly flop to the shore. However, the Reef doesn't stretch down to the Gold Coast. It doesn't catch the waves and so the shore receives their full force. If you stand in the sea it is hard to stay on your feet for much longer then a minute. The waves smash against your body, shaking you awake. After an hour on the beach we retreated to a bar and drank in the atmosphere along with some extravagant beverages. 

In the afternoon we headed into suburbia and back to Ben's uncle's house. It was exciting to see a side of Australia I wouldn't normally have access to and I was taken aback by just how lovely the neighbourhoods are. Once you escape the grid of skyscrapers, the terrain changes dramatically, becoming much greener and more rugged. The Chambers' house sits in a cluster of tawny roofs framed by lolling green hills. The driveway to their house is runs up a steep slope and the whole set-up put me in mind of the opening credits of The OC. It's a community with a very wholesome feel and a great place for children to roam.

After having a dip in the Chambers' pool, we set off to pick Ben's cousins up from school. Their school was extremely impressive. It sprawled out over spotless acres of land and was constructed from clean and attractive looking materials. The sports facilities would be happily received by professional athletes and the children exiting the school gates were all energy and smiles. There wasn't a hoodie or scowl in sight. Once again I was reminded of the type of schools you see in sitcoms about rich American teenagers.

The general Australian population are much more tech savvy than the Brits. Every pupil in the boys’ school owns their own ipad to work on (and the boys were glued to theirs for the entire journey home). QR codes (those funny little squares with wiggly black patterns inside them) that dare you to scan them with your phone are everywhere. My Dad works in packaging and has been bigging up the benefits of QR Codes to the dinosaurs at the packaging society for years - receiving for his troubles looks of utter bafflement. Out here, QR Codes bounce off the walls. You find them on cereal packets, in magazines, on adverts in pub toilets. Aussie’s go crazy for them.

Whilst in Surfers we set up our Australian bank accounts. The elderly assistant explained to us that with the bank’s mobile phone app we could transfer money immediately to anybody we were friends on Facebook with – we didn’t even need their bank details. We were amazed firstly that this lady knew what Facebook Friends were and secondly by what perfect sense it all made. In Australia, technology as a novelty and also as a means of enhancing people’s lives is warmly embraced.

The boys’ lives revolve around sport and outdoor pursuits and they were both competing in the state swimming championships that evening. Me and Ben went along to watch for a bit and on the journey there Carol explained that often when making trips to competitions they have to pass between states from Queensland into New South Wales - consequently crossing time zones. I was impressed by this and wondered about all the confusion it must inevitably cause. Australia is one of a handful of places in the world where you can travel between two different time zones within the same country. Just when you start to forget, you are reminded abruptly of the sheer magnitude of the place.

The swimming competition was being held in the outdoor competition pool at the best school in the neighbourhood. The place oozed luxury and opulence. It specializes in sport and cherry-picks the best sports-people from the state with juicy scholarships.

The competition was a real eye-opener. Hundreds of cheering parents stood around the pool, erupting with pride. The race rules and schedule were run with military precision: touch sensitive pads recorded swimmers’ times down to the millisecond and immediate disqualification was the sentence for a false start. It's little wonder Aussie's excel at the Olympics.

After the boys' race we headed back down to Surfers to experience it at twilight. Ben’s uncle had lent him his Audi and driving around the streets in it made it easy to feel that you were part of the Australian dream. As we neared the city’s throbbing core, a policewoman controlling the traffic gestured for us to pull over. We immediately and instinctively both started shitting ourselves. Had Ben been doing something wrong? Was he speeding? Did we have the correct insurance? Was he going to land his Uncle in it? Were we going to be deported? Ben was so nervous that he managed to stall the car whilst trying to turn which added threefold to our air of suspicion. The policewoman sauntered over to the car and asked us who the car belonged to and how long we had been in Australia. Ben answered while I sat in solemn silence. She then requested to look in the boot. Ben got out and revealed to her its contents - some shopping bags and a mouldy sports kit. The policewoman didn’t try to hide her disappointment and Ben shakily returned to his seat. She eyed us up and down and after an excruciating pause told us that the reason we’d been pulled was because the passenger (me) was wearing her seatbelt incorrectly – slightly tucked under my right arm. It is normally a three hundred dollar fine but she said she’d let us off this once. She told us to be on our way and then disappeared off as quickly as she’d come. As we caught our breath and lifted our stomachs back up I wondered about the real reason we’d been pulled over. I suspected it was not so much for my incorrect seatbelt but more for the fact that Ben was a young lad in vest which showed his nipples cruising around Surfers in a pristine Audi.

Surfers by night is very pretty. It embraces artificiality whole-heartedly, so everything is high-end and designed to appeal to the senses. Palm Trees line the streets and each trunk is wrapped with dainty fairy lights. The displays in the shop windows are extravagant yet tasteful - everywhere and everybody makes an effort. It is a city of lights and there is a vibe similar to that of Miami or Dubai, but Surfers seems a cleaner, less tacky and much more innocent place. Additionally and contrary to all the warnings, I didn't see any raucous revellers producing out of both ends on the pavements.

All of the restaurants are slick, but not all are chains, and we found a pleasant little Mexican next to a glistening fountain. As we were eating the infamous Meter Maids trotted past shaking a money tin and waving personalised calenders. The Meter Maids were introduced in1965 to help counteract the bad publicity arising from the introduction of parking metres around Surfers Paradise. Funded by local business owners, the idea was that they patrolled the streets, adorned in skimpy gold bikinis, and when they discovered a metre that was about to expire they fed a few coins into the metre to save the owner from a hefty fine. The PR stunt worked and tourists flocked to the Gold Coast to catch a glimpse of these young slips in jazzy swimwear. Nowadays, I doubt they still perform their original duties (they charged us $5 for a photograph), but have become as idiosyncratic of the region as its skyline. 

You don't have to throw money at Surfers to enjoy the place, although there are plenty of attractions on offer. We were enticed into the interactive CSI exhibit (very reasonably priced at $20). Here we were given lab coats and given a crime scene to analyse. We then had to compare fingerprints, match up DNA and create different chemical reactions in a quest to solve the crime. Although the experience was set up to ensure that you solved the crime correctly, it was great fun and a real novel idea.

We strolled along the beach front, where the night markets were being held, and browsed the array of fun products on offer. Dotted along the beach front are a war memorial and statues celebrating local heroes (mainly life-guards or sportsmen) from times gone by. These are attractive and lovingly maintained and we spent some time reading the stories behind the statues. Music was playing from somewhere and the backdrop of the sun setting over the sea made for a very happy atmosphere.

In Oz I have noticed that rumours and reputations, not matter how accurate, seem to take on a life of their own, gorging on themselves and swelling like toads. This was at least the third occasion on my trip so far that my expectations had been completely skewed. There is so much more to The Gold Coast than Surfers Paradise and there’s so much more to Surfers Paradise than its reputation. It's a shame that the majority of backpackers, with limited access to transport, will probably not see outside of its linear boundaries. 
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