"Australia 1999" story # 7


North Stradbroke Island, Queensland
March 20, 1999

My first long trip was scheduled for this week, made affordable by my semester as a nomad. I was excited to be backpacking around North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane. I planned to walk and snorkel the length of 17-Mile Beach (17 miles), and then walk an inland trail past lakes of different colors, such as Blue Lake (which is blue), Green Lake (which is green), and Brown Lake (which is purple ... no, wait, brown!). The creativity evidenced in the naming of these landmarks suggested the island's inhabitants would be pretty dull and I'd be hanging out mostly by myself.
     I left town on Tuesday, following Outdoor Ed. class. Rob lent me a bright pink sleeping bag for my excursion. Wisconsinite Jeff and German Kai saw the bag and ridiculed me throughout class. "What a rugged man you are!" they said. "Going for a weekend in the wild with a pink sleeping bag!?" I exchanged it for a purple one, which wasn't much better, and was on my way.
     I caught a bus to Brisbane, Australia's third-largest city, where I had to stay the night. I decided to hang out in the city 'til morning, rather than spend a hefty $14 on a place to sleep. I saw my first IMAX movie: The Wild Serenghetti, which starred thousands of racing wildebeests. Considering the status of these animals in the African food chain, I think the rolling herds were really a subliminal advertisement for the theater's Jujubes.
     Then, I hung out near the Victoria Bridge. Rows of small, oak trees outlined the murky Brisbane River, lit up to look magical. I came upon a thin, tree-climbing mammal with huge eyes. My first thought was: Cool, a bushrat! But, I've learned since that (duh?) it was an opossum. How stupid of me that, of all the animals I'd seen in Australia - kangaroos, koalas, parrotfish, geckos, blue-tongued lizards, emus, dingos, wobbegongs, and loggerhead turtles - the first one I incorrectly identified was the first one native to my own country? And, what on earth is a bushrat anyway!?
     So, I climbed some trees after the bushrat, trying to grab him by the tail. I hung upside down a few times, but I wasn't agile enough to keep the bushrat from jumping from oak to oak. Whether he was going to give me rabies or not, I wanted to catch him. I started shaking the tree he was in, when a lady walked by and saw me. She gave me the most disgusted, repulsed sneer I'd ever seen, like I was the most wretched creature on earth and her upper lip and facial features were blown away from my hideousness. So, I asked her, "Excuse me, do you know what time it is?" She said nothing and kept walking. How unmannered!
     I figured it was time to visit the casino, where I stayed the rest of the night and lost $125. I returned to the Victoria Bridge, to retrieve my toothbrush from below a tree I'd climbed earlier, and sat down to a pancake breakfast. I considered my well-planned finances.

What a sucker would spend, under the foolish disallusion that he couldn't go one measly night without sleep: $14 for a hostel
What Justin would spend: $0 for a hostel (to stay awake all night - only $9 for IMAX, $125 at the casino, and $5 on pancakes)

"Ha, ha, I'd beat the system!" I remarked, as I just about fell asleep in my breakfast.
     A train took me to Cleveland on the coast, and a ferry powered me to North Stradbroke Island. I was dropped off at Dunwich, on the island's bushy west side. I went to the one visible beach, mucky and hard, and slept. When I woke, the tide had gone out. To snorkel, it was necessary for me to walk 200 yards on muck, then wade for another 200 yards until the water reached a depth greater than 1 foot. I wondered if this beach was called The Crappiest Beach Ever. That's what I would've called it. When the water became deep, it also became dark and green, and I couldn't see anything. Flustered, I turned around, having accomplished nothing, and a half-hour later I was back to shore.
     I rode the bus to the island's east end. Main Beach sat at the island's northern edge, curving into 17-Mile Beach. I sunk comfortably in the sand as if I were walking on marshmallows. The ocean was the color of a bright, cloudless sky, but the crazy waves created turmoil, flinging themselves in every direction. I enjoyed a chaotic body-surf and waited for night to fall.
     I unrolled my purple sleeping bag at the beach's edge, near some trees. The marshmallow sand made a soft bed, especially compared to Kim's floor. But the sleep wasn't great, because a light rain kept waking me. Also, my small backpack didn't hold all my goods. My belongings were scattered about the beach in different hiding spots, and I kept having to get up to waterproof different items. No hostel for me, ha ha!
     I woke bright and early, but I was so tired that light stung my eyes. I consented defeat, went to the Straddie Hostel, and, for the first time since Darwin, actually paid for a night's accomodation. Ooh, I hate paying for housing! The hostel owner practically had to pry the $15 from my penny-pinching teeth.
     I slept a sleep worthy of a king's ransom in gold! Rejuvenated, I checked out one of the island's north beaches.
     I didn't know the name of where I was going, but I would've called it Secluded Paradise. A long set of wooden stairs led through a festive hill of green: bushes, hanging plants, and palms. At the bottom, my personal beach became flat and damp. Dying waves stretched for the forest. A pier of rocks lied at the beach's west end, and more large rocks breached the water's surface amid haywire, white waves. The turquoise shallows blended subtly into a milky aqua color, followed in turn by the magnificent blue depths - the blue so perfect that any man caught looking to the horizon would be trapped for hours with nothing to think of but his fondest, childhood dreams.
     After sinking into thoughts about being the pope, while married to my long, curly haired kidnergarten crush, Jessica Herringa, I went for a snorkel. Wearing my flippers and mask, I swam out for five minutes. Foam from waves clouded the water, though, leaving nothing to be seen. I turned to go back to shore. I paddled my flippers, but made no progress. I was fighting a rip-tide, I realized. So, I paddled harder. Still no progress. I wasn't fighting just any rip-tide; I was fighting the Mother of all rip-tides. I was in trouble.
     For ten minutes, I paddled. Then, when the waves crashing over my head allowed me clear sight to the beach, I noticed a group of about twenty Japanese tourists. Great, I thought, they should help me. Ten minutes more passed, but no one on shore did anything. I was obviously caught in a rip-tide, the idiots! I wasn't swinging my arms and flippers around in the same place by magic! Another ten minutes went by, and the tour-group did nothing but watch my battle with the ocean. And then, suddenly, they were gone. The Japanese had apparently taken pictures of me dying and then left, perhaps hoping the photos could go in their scrapbook to accompany the later newspaper article, "Bloodthirsty Sea Sweeps Boy to Asia - Diner in Sushi Restaurant Makes Discovery."
     I'd heard people theorize that you should either swim alongside a rip-tide or let it take you out to sea. I tried swimming alongside the current, but it didn't get any weaker. I stopped my paddling for a second to see where I'd go. Looking at the big rocks bulging from the deep ocean, my panicking mind could only imagine how many 10-foot sharks made their homes and meals there. When the current failed to carry me out quickly, I was happy to abandon that plan.
     So, those two theories no longer have me as their advocate. I was getting pretty tired. I tried not to think about death, but if I would've, I would've surely thought: "I'm a goner!" Forty strenuous minutes had gone by when a lucky, strong wave threw me over a rock. I couldn't hold on. But, then, a second big wave lifted me onto some further rocks. I held on for dear life. I was able to walk back to shore on these rocks, quite surprised to be alive.
     After scaling the wooden steps, I was absolutely exhausted. So exhausted, in fact, that for the first time ever ...
     I hitchhiked ...
     Young Angus, a black-haired surfer in an orange van, drove me the 1/20 of a mile that I only needed to go to reach my hostel. Walking even 1/20 of a mile was out of the question - my arms felt like Plato. I told Angus of my heart-pumping encounter. He laughed, and I thanked him for the ride.
     I hit my bed and was asleep in seconds.
     When I woke, I felt like I'd been born again. Angus had been so friendly. Mike, the 30- something guy who lived in my hostel and was writing a book about sailing around the world, was also laidback and nice. The Japanese tourists who'd left me to die ... not so nice.
     But, my eyes were opened to hitchhiking. Life had to be enjoyed, because it could pass from me any day - which would be okay, as long as I'd actually lived. Angus was having a good time and enjoyed helping people out. Mike, though he had few material possessions, had some great stories to tell and no regrets.
     Nearly dying hadn't shown me not to seek adventure. It had shown me that's what I needed more of. Life on the edge. My heart racing.
     I went to the northeastern beach of the island and searched for the shell nearest to the edge. North Stradbroke, being the easternmost point of all of Australia, would inevitably possess the country's easternmost shell. I found it - white and thick, a bowl-shape, with deep scratches on it - and pocketed it, as a memento of the day I'd nearly died.
     Finally, I learned the name of the beach I'd been swimming at. And, as names on the uncreative island tend to go, the beach's name had been fittingly earned. The name: Deadman's Beach. Couldn't have named it better myself. I took one final walk on the island, the scenic Gorge Walk, where I reached some cliffs that marked the real easternmost point of Australia. Two guys took my pictures there.
     "Don't get too close to the edge," they said. "Why, three tourists have died between here and Deadman's Beach in the past six months."
     Of all the island's landmarks, I found it odd that the one location whose name is least- publicized is the location that you'd least like to discover the name of on your own. Blue Lake, Green Lake, 17-Mile Beach - don't the islanders think we could figure out their names on our own!? But, Deadman's Beach ... they don't see any reason to label that on any map.
     I thanked the guys for my picture, departed from the Gorge Walk, and hitchhiked to catch my ferry off the island. North Stradbroke. Doooon't EVER go there!

later, (whew! - still here) Justin

Brisbane (1): -$125
Semester to Date: -$195

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