I could play you in a film without a script and win an Oscar.
Mission One: Sydney Sydney: the modern-day boomtown of Australia that, although not the capital, contains the first connotational references of urban Australia with its myriad of famous sights and reference points. The Opera House; Harbour Bridge; Bondi Beach; Botanical Gardens – all of these consolidating together to create a genuine heavenly feel in what could be the corner of the world: a place where nothingness lurks beyond the horizon-hunting pacific, but where simultaneously everything exists on the spot you stand upon, whether it be a pristine sandy beach or a busy harbour walkway.
Yes, I touched down in this sun-kissed tinsel town on the 7th of October and from the offset I could see that this was a place unlike any other I had set camp in previously. Leaving vapour-trail loading-bars across the skies of the world, my plane swiftly sailed in over Sydney as I peered my eyes out the window to see the neon city lit up like a Christmas tree. The size of it surprised me, and even on the next day when I was flocking around the bustling, busy streets nursing a sore neck from looking up at the towering buildings, I still couldn’t see where a person like me would fit in such a post-card perfect place. Feraris glide past the thousands of commuters waiting tentatively at traffic lights; big-city hotshot politicians share drinks on the corner of busy pedestrian squares; famous lifeguards cruise around the beach in flashy sand buggies. Hailing from Coventry, England, I had seldom seen a place of such searing spectacle – a place where sun, money and a six-pack were the vital organs of integrated Sydneysiders.
A key word amongst those is ‘money’ – it really is all I could think about during my induction into Aussie culture. My first experience of this phenomenon was when I placed my bags down at my downtown hide-out ‘Base Backpackers’ and went for my first walk around the city’s districts. Me and Liam (a Welsh character who had rocked up at the airport the same time as me) went out for a bite to eat to replenish health that had been depleted from the arduous airplane journey. It was during this walk that – like a baseball bat to the face – I abruptly realised my $5000 was small time money; there was no way this delicate amount would support copious amounts of $10 beers, $15 meals and $30-a-night hostels for half a year. Waves of troubling thoughts crashed against the shores of my mind. How would I survive this expedition? How long would I have to slave away to afford a cheeseburger? What if I ran out of money and became one of those crazy homeless men roaming deep down in Sydney’s subways supporting a cardboard sign proclaiming: “Aliens stole my home – give generously“? In the end, I took a deep breath of fresh ocean air and accepted the next 6 months was going to be an adventurous mission of rugged survival – a game that, at it’s best, would see me skydiving 14,000ft above the Great Barrier Reef, but where it’s worse would see me cooped up alone in some desolate hostel, or slaving away on a fruit-picking farm in exasperating temperatures. Still, I had to put these thoughts to the out-backs of my mind; I was officially on holiday and in the big city. I was just about to start my first week of activities and this wasn’t the time to hold back. Either way, nothing bad could happen. It was all a game I told myself.
My pilgrimage to Sydney had been supported and shepherded by a group called ‘Ozintro’; these were a bunch of hot-shot, experienced travellers who, under the guises of a daring Australian entrepreneur, constantly logged characters in to the game of Aussie travel and adventure. Sat gazing out of their 14th floor office downtown, they set out a series of activities for travellers’ first week in oz. These included: a city orientation followed by a high-speed jet boat journey around Sydney harbour; a learn-to-surf day trip to one of Australia’s only private beaches; a visit to the sharks and sting-rays of Sydney’s popular aquarium; a day-trip to the sprawling blue-mountain range nestled outside of the city; a pub-crawl on a loud and shamelessly flashy party bus; a BBQ day-trip down at the beach; and the creme de la creme – an all-you-can-eat, classy buffet in a rotating restaurant sat atop the dizzy, downtown heights of Westfield tower. I could only hope the exuberance of this eventful first week would herald in a 6-month journey of equal flamboyance. Amongst all this, Ozintro also sorted out the paperwork stuff so that I was well and truly a citizen down under; from my visa and bank account to my tax number and medicare health card – the sherpas of Ozintro had my back as I began my storyline down under.
With all this enmeshed into a week’s space, I began to orchestrate my movements into Australian life. Fortunately for me I wasn’t alone in this; there were also 37 other characters on the Ozintro program who were all operating on the same wave-length of throwing themselves in at the deep end and having as much fun as possible. This meant that after a hard day of jet-boating around the harbour or kicking back on the beach, we would all get dressed up in our creased backpacker clothes and congregate in one of the hostel dorms. Back home in my English reality I would usually come armed with a bottle of spirits and mixer; however the ever-gnawing currency exchange rates meant that said bottle of spirits would see me slamming out $60 for a standard bottle of vodka. This only meant one thing: one horrible, horrible thing. Goon.
All of us, no matter what demographic, were soon all united over the penny-saving, cheaply produced wine which was clearly made in the pits of some swamp in the out-back. A 4-litre box would set you back $12 which was impossibly cheap compared to anything else. It was basically a big bag of wine in a tacky box, and judging by the name ‘Goon’ (Australian slang for ‘pillow’), it was clearly quite comfortable to lie on – probably more so than the hostel beds. In a way, it was almost like a glitch; something that can lead to such a good time just shouldn’t be so readily accessible to cash-strapped travellers. Nonetheless no-one complained. Everyone just instead chugged back the poisonous venom of ‘Sunnyvale fruity lexia wine’.
After getting ‘gooned up’, the most common situation that played out was stumbling downstairs, out the front door of Base Backpackers and right into next door’s bar: ‘Scary Canary’. Our hostel was located pretty centrally within Sydney’s hectic city-center where bars and clubs were ubiquitous, but the easiest option it seemed was just to hit up Scary Canary every night. It was lively, close and at times pretty cheap ($2 vodkas and $4 schooners (schooners being a slightly smaller version of an English pint)). Admittedly, at times, we all got a bit carried away and were left accessing the cataclysmic damage to our newly formed Commonwealth bank accounts the next day. Still the dollar was worth the drunken scenes – scenes such as watching your normally sensible mates take part in wet t-shirt competitions, or the ever-hilarious attempts of characters trying to pull and bring someone back to a compact eight-person hostel dormitory.
It was fair to say that the money was flying out quick from every angle. $10 pints. $4 bottles of coke. $20 Chinese meals. All the nights out and delicious food had culminated together leaving characters with depleted health and money – the two key ingredients to this game down under.
One of the main reasons of this trip down under was, of course, to actually travel this vast landscape and experience a taste of Australia’s best reefs, beaches and towns. With money fast flying out the bank and into the pockets of Sydney’s pub and restaurant owners, it seemed something had to be done about putting it toward the right things. Again, this also involved a gargantuan amount of dollar. As most travellers know, the sprawling east coast is the ‘must visit’ attraction of Australia; its array of world-class beaches, sand islands and reef coastlines are synonymous with travelers. It’s one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ kinda things, you know. In such, after a heavy night out, we all headed up to the 14th floor Ozintro office and began booking our excursions and trips. It was evident the east-coast mission was going to be an expensive one as I began booking my trips, and although I wanted to save money, the plethora of activities was just too scintillating to ignore. A long story short I booked the following trips:
- Reef Experience – A snorkel and dive trip off the coast of Cairns on the outer Great Barrier Reef ($175)
- Magic Magnetic Island – a three night stay at an isolated and idyllic island, including food and snorkel hire ($114)
- Calypso – a five night stay at one of Cairns’ leading backpacker resorts, including bar tab ($80)
- Raging Thunder – a 14,000 ft Mission Beach skydive over the Great Barrier Reef ($334)
- Frasers On Rainbow – a 10 day trip around Fraser island and Whitsundays, stopping at one of top 10 beaches in the world and staying on the world’s largest sand island – includes sailing trip, tour, food, drink vouchers and the chance to drive a 4×4 across Fraser island ($655)
- Hop On – Hop Off Greyhound – a three-month bus pass up or down the entire East Coast, from location to location ($350)
It all sounded very magical when I booked all this and I was ready to explode into action. However, checking my now depleted funds, I realised that touring the East Coast now would see arrive back in Sydney with next to no dollar. Game over. Home time. I came to the decision, with the influence of three friends Nick, Luke and Lee, that the best option was to try to work ’til Christmas and then do the East Coast mid-January time – hopefully coinciding the Skydive over the Great Barrier Reef with my 21st Birthday. I was also due to visit an old friend in Adelaide over Christmas and New Year, so this acted as a healthy mission to splice things up a bit. But what to do now then? Stay in Sydney and try to get by with its affluent and expensive economy? Move somewhere else in the hope to live cheap and get a bit of work? In the end me, Lee, Luke and Nick decided to leave the interwoven high-streets and skyscrapers of Sydney and fly all the way to the other side. Perth. A 5-hour plane ride away. The West Coast. There were stories of $200,000 a year mine jobs and a bountiful amount of farm jobs too; not to mention the 1% unemployment rate (one of the joint lowest in the world). So it was, that on the 17th of October, four English boys boarded a plane in the complete opposite direction to the other 34 Ozintro travellers who had headed up north to Cairns. This was either an extremely shroud or idiotic move. Either way, a new chapter had rolled over; Sydney was gone and it was time to go West.
Mission Two: Perth
So there we stood, outside the airport terminal, with me clutching and skimming through my Lonely Planet guide and Luke incessantly browsing his iPad. Not booking a hostel before we rocked up in Perth probably wasn’t the greatest idea of this game down under, but we had to accept that and press on with the matter of trying to find one with four beds. With the numbers of most hostels at hand, me, Lee, Nick and Luke began inquiring to what lucky residence would be our hide-out for tonight and the next week. We began ringing. First hostel – no beds ’til next week. Second hostel – no beds ’til next week. Third hostel – no beds ’til next week. The situation played out dauntingly; it seemed that everywhere in Perth was fully booked ’til the end of time. Eventually we decided, with the hostels all being in one district (Northbridge for the record), that we would just get a taxi there and see what luck handed us. There it stood, dented van outside with dodgy paint-work and a general bedraggled aura of grubbiness and grease – Ozi Inn Backpackers. The hostel didn’t show up in any of the online searches or the list curated by our good friends at Lonely Planet, and it was fair to say that should have been the warning sign. Still, it had four beds spare; it seemed to be our only salvation from the cold night streets of Perth. In fairness, the hostel bared a striking ‘homely’ atmosphere; everyone there was friendly, helpful and, best of all, it was cheap and had free pancakes for breakfast. We decided that this was to be our base whilst we went out to continually look for work.
With the stories of $200,000 a year jobs and 1% unemployment figures still reverberating around my mind, I expected that walking down Northbridge’s cowboy-esque streets would result in some crazy bogan trying to throw a job at me and the others. How wrong we were. The online applications and CVs just went by the way-side and there was no farm work for miles and yonders. It seemed that no-one in the CBD wanted to hire me and why would they? Hire an English backpacker who could be gone the next week or hire a resident who was there for the long-term? Still we all carried on against the storm – we had no choice; after booking all my open-dated East Coast tours, flights and spending a bit too much in Sydney, I was left with $2000 – not a great amount when everything here was just as expensive as Sydney. A miner could probably earn that in a couple of days’ work, but to me, along with my backpack inventory, it was everything I had for these 6 months. In such we all tried to live as cheaply as possible: this involved a healthy amount of pasta dinners, free library internet and a thigh-burning amount of walking. Still the sun was out and there was a general summery atmosphere emanating throughout the sprawling town of Perth.
Although the stress of trying to find work coupled with the jet-lag was gnawing away at us, life was definitely good. There’s somewhat of an egotistic thrill of being in the most isolated city in the Western world with little money and job as you tried to carry on living. And Perth, despite what it’s residents proclaim, was actually quite a nice design. There was an ethereal, summery feel to it that rose from the banks of the twinkling Swan River all the way up to green hills of Kings Park that bared wide-screen panoramic views of the enmeshed city-center. Northbridge itself was a hive of activity creating a party-town vibe that spilled out the myriad bars and onto the surrounding metropolis. Every night the characters of Ozi Inn backpackers (mainly the hard-drinking Germans) got gooned up and paraded out onto the streets of Northbridge and its bars and clubs. It was a shame that, apart from a couple of times at the weekend and one night with my Colly associate Ari, we literally couldn’t afford to join them. Still me, Lee, Luke and Nick had heaps of fun staying in watching the horror film Hostel in a hostel and questioning what situation was worse: the horrific torture scenes of the film or the bed bugs and dead moths that seemed to be coming out of Ozi Inn’s walls.
Eventually, after extensive searching, a job up north on a farm seemed to come up. A farmer wanted a few lads to work on his farm as cattle-handlers whilst doing other stuff such as fencing. It was to mine and Nick’s despair that farmer Joe from the outback was quite adamant that a driver’s license was essential to fulfilling the job’s role adequately – something that neither of us two characters had in our inventories. In the end, Lee and Luke took the role up north at the farm and headed 12 hours-ride up into the desolate and ghostly outback to shepherd cattle on a motorbike. No signal. No cities. No goon. Me and Nick were left facing a tough time of job searching in Perth and it all culminated in a ‘we are going to die out here’ kinda feeling. Still we pressed on searching but in the end Nick decided the vast city of Perth was not for him; instead he again packed his bags and got a flight back to the flip side – Brisbane. All that was left was me – ‘cooped up alone in some dingy hostel’ seeing out my jobless days by going running and rinsing the free internet at the town library.
Ultimately, with money and health slowly depleting, I decided the game of Australia needed an intervention. I had to get a job and supplement my living expenses else I’d be dead at the side of the sun-beat road. There was a town 900km up north that I had read about; its name was Carnarvon and apparently, according to an array of websites and my good friends at ‘harvest trail’, there was a substantial amount of farm work available. Word on the Aussie streets was that, after our 30% non-residency tax, you could earn up to $600 a week picking fruit and other generic farm stuff that needed to be done. In such, this seemed to be an avenue worse pursuing – even if it was a 12 hour bus journey. So it was that me and Louise (a 4 foot ten inch Irish girl from the hostel who was also searching for work) booked our Greyhound bus ticket and set off into the outback. No signal. No cities. No goon. What awaited us in Carnarvon was unknown but the hostels did allege to set travelers up with work within five working days. Hopefully this would prove true. If not we could find ourselves in the middle of nowhere with no money and hope – lost in the outback. Still, it’s all a game right.
Mission Three: Carnarvon
After a 12-hour trudge up the Western coast of Australia, the lights of a small town began glinting on the night’s horizon as we crept out the insidious darkness of the out-back. It was quickly evident that the place that was once a small dot on an engulfing map was now a place of 3-D reality bearing the name ‘Carnarvon’. Still, the design of the place was so fragmented that it may as well have been a few colors on a map – random blotches of yellow sand and brown sticks. The whole aura of the place made me feel like I had reached the end of time and the end of the universe; there was absolutely nothing to behold except old wooden buildings, creaking rocking chairs upon patios and acres of sand mounds stretching out to sea. As I stumbled off the Greyhound bus in the centre of town and headed to my hide-out, a feel of ‘Chernobyl’ was cast over me – the place seemed dead, as if the populace had deserted the small town long ago and left its frail structures to be ravaged by the sands of time. Get to the hostel I told myself. Collect your thoughts there. It cannot be this bad….
“It’s a $10 deposit each for pillows and a blanket and you get $8 each back after taking off the $2 surcharge for each item. Also, the pest control people will be here in the morning so make sure you’re up and out the hostel by 11am. G’night.”
Admittedly, this wasn’t the greatest thing to hear following the experience of rocking up in this ghost-town after 12 mind-numbing hours. I soon felt ready to succumb to the game and just sink into the sand ’til the end of time. I gritted my teeth. I had to power on; I had to pull through.
The female owner of the hide-out did have her strong point: she promised to provide characters with frequent job offers, helping them to make a bit of money during their time in Carnarvon. As mentioned, I had read that there was a variety of seasonal work with a wealth of farms and plantations nestled on the fringes of the town – so surely this hot-shot hostel owner would hook me and my travel buddy Louise up with a bit of strong-dollar work. It was fair to say I needed it; my funds were depleting more and more with every day, with every bus-ride and with every bag of 95 cents pasta. In the end we were told to wait 3 to 5 days before it was our turn in line for a job offer. We waited and it was during this time, to our despair, that we discovered that it was another good three or four weeks ’til the fruit-picking season came into focus – namely through the sprouting opportunities that were brought on the melon and tomato season. Still, looking at my diary, this was not good enough; I would only be left with 3 weeks work until I had to head back down the coast to catch my flight to Adelaide – not enough time to replenish health and money and pull myself from the pit this out-back was digging. Could this be game over? The thought plagued my mind.
The only thing left to do was look and wait for any type of work, hoping that a spot of luck would come sailing into this town on the back of a tumbleweed. The days went slow – me and Louise spent them walking like zombies around the rustic town, occasionally popping into the supermarket to treat ourselves to some food or whatever. The only kinda interesting element to Carnarvon was the ‘one mile jetty’ – a big sand island adorning a long tram track out in the bay that seemed to be another alien planet. With its abandoned train-lines, large wooden water wells and seemingly endless shrubs, it was well and truly the most quintessential piece of rugged, out-back terrain that I had seen so far. It had a mystic element to it and it made it all the more rewarding trekking across its vast dusty tracks to reach the sun-scorched sand of the beach, where upon the sun would settle perfectly everyday on the horizon of the Indian Ocean.
Standing upon that beach and gazing out at the last glints of the sun of the day, it was fair to say I felt along way away from the rest of the Ozintro characters. They were all thousands of miles away on the other side of this gigantic Australian map. The three people I had come here with were also not with me: Nick was back on the East Coast and I had missed Luke by a matter of hours as he left Carnarvon as I entered (he had also decided to sack the farm work in and head back to the East Coast). All that was left was Lee, and his presence was unknown; apparently he was still on the cattle farm, but with no signal or internet out there in the abyss, he could be anywhere; maybe even a victim of one of these crazy backpacker murders made famous by the horror film ‘Wolf Creek’ – apparently based on a true story. Scary shit.
Anyhow I had to move on and accept that this was just a phase – a short mission of the game where the difficulty had taken a step up. At the end of the day that’s all it was to me; the thought of being stranded in the middle of no-where was just something to laugh at – a spark of gamer genius and something to overcome. All I had to do was look for a lifeline – a way to side-step this trouble and incoming storm. Yes, I needed a phone-a-friend: someone I could call to try to regain some form of stability to this roller-coaster. The train was going off the tracks and I needed a person to pull me back in the right direction. Luckily for me I had just the character in my itinerary.
Cameron Henderson was a 19-year old, Australian character that resided in the green hills of Adelaide. A lover of hip-hop, beer and ‘gurd’ times – he was an accomplice who I had liaised with for a while now. Having met him during the prequel to this adventure in the stories of ‘Grand Theft Ghana’, he was an established character in my adventures of travel and someone I had planned to visit during my storyline here. I picked up the phone from thousands of miles away and gave him a call. During this interchange we worked out the change of plan to my trip, where by I cut this quest for work out here short and headed to the hills of Adelaide early, thus giving me a solid period of 2 months to work there whilst regaining health and money. Thankfully my worries of Carnarvon swallowing me whole were gone after my communications with Henderson. In the end this plan of escape materialised and I was due to rock up in Adelaide on the 5th of November to begin a new chapter of this game down under. I had an extra life for now it seemed…
Suffice to say, I was relived; I couldn’t no longer take the stress of watching the continual rape and desecration of my Commonwealth bank account. My body armor was gone: the funds that I came here armed with were now spent or awaiting me on some East Coast excursions. I needed time to re-arm. My bank account was so bad that I just couldn’t face the act of buying another $150 bus ticket back down the coast; there was just no way I could happily book this over-priced ticket yet again. In such, I prepared to hitch-hike the whole 900km back down the coast, riding from town to town in random strangers’ cars. As irony would have it, as I was just about to leave the Carnarvon hostel and begin my hike back down the coast, some work suddenly turned up at the doorstep. ‘Typical’, I thought. I say work but it was merely a 2 day job that involved pulling some plastic up from cultivated farm land and rolling it up in nice little piles. As tedious and tiresome at it was, it paid for my bus ticket back down the coast and made me avoid becoming the latest hitch-hike murder victim in ‘Wolf Creek 2’.
And so that was it. Saved! An extra life had fortuitously found me after the tempestuous toils of traveling to Carnarvon. With a broken back from work and another 13 hour bus-ride, I headed back down the stretching Western Coast of Australia. It was time to leave the deserts and ghost-lands of the out-back; it was time to steer things back on course; it was time to head back East. The city and chapter of Adelaide now awaited and, seemingly, it was going to be my longest mission yet…
Mission Four: Adelaide
Lightning strikes danced sinisterly around the plane as it stumbled through the turbulent terror of the storm, all the while the flashes of an all-mighty purple continued to pierce the windows beside me. South Australia hadn’t seen a storm like this in years, but as luck would have it, just as I arrived into the night sky of Adelaide, the Greek God of Zeus had awaken in one hell of a mood.
Although the weather had not been as welcoming of guest as I would have hoped, I cared little as I knew a much greater one existed to greet my luggage-encumbered self at the preceding airport terminal. It had been over a year since I last seen Cameron. I recalled the design of that very occasion as I stepped wearily off the plane and into the clutches of the new Adelaide mission and all that awaited me. There we stood on the roof of his Ghanaian hide-out; looking out upon the rustic, third-world town of Cape Coast, the African air was fresh in the morning sun as we began necking “one last shot” of the deadly ‘Herb Afrik’ – a burning, sour spirit whose consumption into the body felt like one was partaking in a baptism toward the alcohol gods. The taste was particularly sour that sunny morn as I said goodbye and logged out of the times and adventure of Grand Theft Ghana. 14 months on and I now found myself on a completely different map, but with that same character coming into my storyline once again. There he stood at the arrival gate; it could have been yesterday since we did that symbolic shot upon the roof. After greetings were done and bags were collected, we headed to his car and made our way through the storm-bashed, night streets and back to his hide-out in the hills above the city. Exchanging memories and stories about the past missions of Ghana soon brought about a nostalgic, melancholic atmosphere. I soon however jolted myself back to the game – back to being on the other side of the planet, skipping university for a year and partaking in the adventurous mission of touring and surviving Australia. I had work to do and a storyline to develop.
His hide-out in the hills was somewhat of a luxurious design: the sun constantly illuminated the visceral green trees and grass around the jungle of expansive houses that lay embedded into these towering hills above the city. Creeks streamed through the surrounding landscape like snakes in grass and colourful birds fluttered constantly through the blue skies. The sprawls of Adelaide town lay below and there I camped – on the peaceful street of Kingfisher Circuit – where I began plotting the next two months of Grand Theft Australia whilst ‘living’ (not backpacking) in the hands of a pleasant Australian community. The place was good; the food was good; the weather was good; and, best of all, the family were immensely acommodating and entertaining..
“Dysfunctional” was the adjective of choice when Mary, the mother, proclaimed the main characteristic of the family. There was Cameron: the adventurous, loud 20 year-old who settled in as the high-octane, party son in the family; there was Alana: the inquisitive and troublesome teenager who toiled over her school work whilst always remaining sprite and excited; there was Mary: the fierce and hospitable Italian mother who constantly strived to create a happy family house-hold by looking after and helping everyone; there was Steven: the imperial and intelligent interior designer who drew up plans for what seemed to be all of Adelaide’s buildings; and last of all, but no means least, Sammi: the soul of the household that came in the form of a small white Maltese poodle. All in all the whole chemistry of the family was entertaining and fun, creating the feel that I was in a secretly filmed sitcom: perhaps the ‘Fresh Prince of Adelaide’ or ‘Neighbours 2’. Cosmic.
The contrast between this design and the past times of the cheap backpacker’s soon became transparent. The times of Perth’s Ozi Inn Backpacker’s and its bed bugs were now in the out-backs of my mind. This brought about an identity crisis: just what was I? A backpacker? A tourist? A visitor? A citizen!? The thought pondered my mind; the constant updates from the other Ozintro characters only amplified this search for backpacking identity. Some of them were on sailing adventures in the Whitsunday islands; some of them were driving 4x4s across the world’s largest sand island; some of them were kayaking around idyllic coastal shores. The most obvious correlation that became apparent was that all of them (apart from Lee somewhere in the Western out-back) were on the Eastern side of the map. I was very much the maverick of the group here in Adelaide as the only Ozintro character in this city. 38 of us began our storyline in Sydney and through the seven or eight main Australian cities, I was the only one residing in the South Australian city of Adelaide. Still, I had the utter blindest of faith in what I was doing; I was certain that working at first would give me something to look forward to whilst also allowing me to survive this quest down under. Hit the nitty-gritty for a couple of months, I told myself – come New Year I’ll have the travels ahead of me and the work times cast off out into the oceans of the past.
I thought about what would be a good target figure to aim for; I had already paid $1800 towards trips on the East Coast but I would need spending money for the rest of my time here – the boxes of Goon won’t purchase themselves I reminded myself. After a couple of large nights out upon arrival in Adelaide, I was left with a measly $750. I had no choice to take a big breath and prepare to earn a lot of money if I was going to avoid game-over and stay logged in to the game. I set the level at $3500: this would be the figure I would want to see branded upon my Commonwealth bank account when I looked upon my bank balance as I took the plane out of Adelaide. Let the games begin.
The work began quick it seemed, and over the first month of this mission I picked up the most random of jobs, steadily pushing my collapsed bank-account further and further up to the far off stratosphere. Feeling like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happiness, I found myself rushed off my feet at times, toiling in the heat and constantly plotting my next move. Here is a selection of these such endeavours:
Job 1 – I kicked things off with whipper-snipping the overgrown weeds of a neighbour’s house down the road; this was a relatively simple one-day job that was pleasant in the Aussie sun. $100
Job 2 – This was arguably the most bizarre and interesting mission which seen me walking around the central business district with a shoddy, badly labelled map whilst taking pictures of car park’s price/opening hours signs so that some company could collate a comparable rate of statistics for the latest car-park smartphone app. $80
Job 3 – This mission saw me cleaning windows, cars, trimming plants, clearing gutters – just some traditional house work in a neighbour’s house that spanned the course of two days. $240
Job 4 – Coming into contact with a scary and tough-as-nails Greek-Aussie farmer, I set out to a farm 80km outta town two days in a row to help him set up some fences to segregate cattle. Constantly moaning if something wasn’t done in a nanosecond, I grew weary of his sergeant-like behaviour, especially when he had me running around catching chickens at one point. $250
Job 5 – Late at night I headed to a new downtown department store to help it gain its fire safety certificate. Every last aisle and item had been covered with plastic as to protect it from the smoke test and it was my job to rip it all off again and roll it up. It what turned out to be a very short shift, I got an hourly rate of $60 an hour which I’d probably never see again. $120
Job 6 – I came again into contact with the Greek-Aussie farmer. At first I had him pegged down as an out-and-out farmer; turned out he worked for a Russian boss downtown who had him driving around town all day looking after his houses that he leased out. As his mini-apprentice I joined him in cleaning and doing up these houses at furious speeds over a sporadic period of time. $500
Initially it was fair to say I witnessed very lucrative beginnings in Adelaide where by I got up to and around the $2000 mark pretty quickly. I was also saving money as well by switching off the holiday mindset and living as cheaply as I could, whilst also not starving myself of working-holiday pleasures such as the odd night out and cinema viewing. In between working (and even during working most of the time) I was exploring the place around me; the beaches, the wine valleys, the town, the sheesha bars and the neighborhood: it all felt like a little like home – just with weather unlike any that would grace the green hills of England. Something that I certainly wouldn’t have the chance to do back home would be to travel up to the country river to enjoy a weekend living in a shack, speeding down a river on a jet boat and wake-boarding to the sounds of a booming sound-system. I mixed this up by frequently travelling down to the Glenelg district of the map and having refreshing dips in the cool ocean along with an even more refreshing ‘boost juice’- this was essential body-armour when the mercury began hitting 40 degrees Celsius plus come December time. The joys of being by the sea. Moving on and it got to a point where I was looking at the influx of cash and decided I needed to up my game. My character needed more money if it was going to enjoy the second half of the storyline and it seemed drastic measures needed to be took. I put my thinking cap on and begin plotting different forms of attack that would galvanise my backpacker’s bank account. I had heard about a thing called a ‘clinical trial’: this was a daring mission that saw normal people using their health and bodies to partake in the testing of new drugs by the medical sector. Companies sponsored research units so they could bring in the human guinea-pigs to test their new (and potentially extremely lucrative) medicinal drugs. Word on the street was that you could make thousands of dollars by leasing your blood and veins out for the interests of research. Tough times called for tough measures it seemed….
There I sat watching my fifth film of the day in ‘recreational room one’. I was camped in the East wing of the Royal Adelaide hospital gazing out the window upon the metropolis below. Scores of people flocked around the city-centre street in the sun but it all seemed a world away – about as real as the hobbits and elves that were killing orcs in the Lord of the Rings movie that was being shown to us guinea-pigs. I had decided to become a guinea-pig by ringing up the CMAX unit a couple of weeks back. Putting myself forward for a four-day trial, I found myself testing a new antibiotic that a company from San Diego were trying to patent – they just needed my health bar to confirm that it was safe to use upon the public. Initially it was fair to say I didn’t feel too good about partaking in this trial; it seemed that I was somewhat a bit worried when the doctor walked in and told us that we were to be the first human beings to test this new antibiotic. I looked to the future where they would paying $1200 tax-free money in a few days, and I focused on powering through this daring mission.
‘003’ was the subject number and identity I was given in this new dystopian world. I was part of a litter of eight characters who were assigned to complete this research task. I was no longer a human, but a number: an object for study who was segregated from the outside world so that my health bar could be monitored and my life could be regimented by the doctor-police. The doctor-police of CMAX patrolled the unit’s corridors endlessly in the quest to make sure we were all where we needed to be, that we were all eating our designated meals, that we were all in the hospital bed at the right time to have our blood taken and last of all – to make sure we hadn’t sneaked friends in or eaten/taken anything that could possibly affect the parameters of the study. It was a scary world and the days went painfully slow, with nothing to do but watch T.V and browse the internet. Of course the CMAX big brother was always watching intensely, making sure us subjects weren’t up to any tricks.
I quizzed the other subjects about why they were doing it and it was fair to say there was only one motive for this mission: money. 004 told me he did them all year around to fund his student-life. 008 told me he had just been made jobless and was doing it so that he could afford the upcoming Christmas. I had some interesting conversations with these subjects which helped pass some of the time. I also began reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and couldn’t help but feel that I had become the lunatic in the asylum. Big difference I told myself reassuringly…. Right?
Alas, the days trudged by and as the sun rose on the Monday morning, I gleefully took back my identity as a person and left CMAX and it’s needles at the hospital as I strutted home, one thousand and two hundred dollars richer. Easy.
Pressing on after that and I was well above schedule as I hit the $3000 marker. It was looking like I was going to make my target and, although I didn’t have any more work lined up, I knew I’d be able to extract something from the people, businesses and companies of Adelaide city. For a while I had wanted to partake in the Great White cage dive mission but thought it was a far off ambition with the steep costs that came with it; however it was beginning to materialise back into the picture. If I could keep getting some work over the last few weeks of Adelaide then I could complete my $3500 mission and still have money to go and do the number one bucket-list activity. Christmas was also coming up so that, whilst enjoyable, was going to deplete my funds further. I needed to get work quick.
After searching rigorously for a few days it seemed that nothing was going to come across my path; it was fair to say I got a bit worried. However, with no option other than achieve what I knew would already happen in my storyline, I switched into over-drive and made my vision turn into visibility. I began walking around the green and sunny neighbourhood of Kingfisher Circuit and Flagstaff Hill, handing out notices to all the wealthy, swimming-pool-surrounded properties. I offered to work for whatever they wanted to pay me; gardening work, house work, car washes – you name it and I would do it. I also handed out notices at the local supermarket and shops. It was desperate stuff and I had only a fool’s hope that it would work. Imagine my surprise in the following few days when I was inundated with various texts and calls of Flagstaff characters wanting me to come help them out with their properties. The majority of these fine, tax-free paying people were U.K migrants who had travelled over to the hills of Adelaide in search of a better life. Characters from Hull, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow all were happy to have me come in and help do up their properties in various ways. It was all very rewarding: mainly in terms of that ‘homely’ feel and also, of course, my fund statistics which were travelling up levels increasingly quick.
Yes, it looked like the tides were turning in my direction and it only got better when I managed to get an actual official job! Sounds exciting but it was work at a shoddy warehouse called ‘Budget Party Hire’. The missions involved driving around Adelaide setting up dance-floors, marques and pavilions at clubs, houses, function rooms, zoos and even breweries (thank you Bickfords for the all-day supply of free-drinks). Although my health bar was depleting with long days of up to 15 hours at work, my money statistics were increasing all the time with all these jobs raining down upon me. I was all for it as my time here grew thiner.
As the final days of my Adelaide storyline came to an end, it became Christmas and New Year time. A weird, mystic feeling serenaded my senses as the sun beat down at temperatures of 44 degrees and it was fair to say it was all very alien to me. A Christmas scene in technicolor sailed into my English eyes and I suddenly felt along way from home. Here I was in this game of Australia, seemingly a world away from my family and friends experiencing a life-long-lived activity now flipped on its back; almost like walking in one day and seeing a family relative as a different gender or skin colour. It was, at times, pretty sketchy with my health bar whimpering, but with the good company of the Henderson characters I had an enjoyable time with their expansive and gregarious family tree all coming together for frequent Christmas parties that retained the merry joy and fun of any back home. I was took into this family and community as one of their own and was certain I would never forget such a gracious and congenial welcoming; with the hoards of cheap hostels that awaited me, it would be a long time til I experienced a true ‘home’ again.
There I stood alone beside the street-side looking out as the sun went down upon the sparkling hills of Kingfisher Circuit; the aussie valleys were lit up with an ethereal glow and I took a deep breath of satisfaction. I had just completed my last day of work chopping up some fire wood for an English character down the road. The city of Adelaide stood imperious below as the birds sang and I reflected on the last two months in this place. It had been fun, nostalgic and incredibly tough work but I had completed what I set out to do. I had caught up with a good friend, experienced Aussie life and increased my money statistics to stand me in good stead for the remaining storyline of Grand Theft Australia. I had booked the shark-dive and got my funds to and past what I set out to achieve. $3700. Mission – well and truly – complete.
Mission Five: Port Lincoln’ shark dive
As the last few days of rigorous work in Adelaide rained down upon me, I felt exhausted mentally and physically. The constant routine of setting up marques and digging out plants in 40 plus degree temperatures had left me with low health. Still, as I flew out of Adelaide on a tiny regional plane, I couldn’t help but sit back, look out the window at the Eyre Peninsula of Southern Australia, and feel the excitement of what was to await me on the other side of the water in the town of Port Lincoln. Diving with Great White sharks had always been my number one bucket-list mission; I had always wanted to see the killing-machines up close ever since I repeatedly watched ‘Jaws’ as a kid on an old VHS. Now – having toiled incessantly to increase my money statistics – I finally had the chance. There was only three places in the world where you could dive with these creatures of the sea: Mexico, South Africa and here in Port Lincoln, Australia. Seeing as it was only a 50 minute plane ride from Adelaide, I would be a fool not to integrate this mission into my storyline.
The dive with the sharks was designed by the characters of Calypso Star Charters – these were a small company that set camp in the town’s marina where they also did tours to dive with sea-lions and huge tuna fish. They were undoubtedly running an extremely lucrative business; the dives all cost a substantial amount of money with the shark dive being top of the pile at $500. Add together the costs of the air journeys, taxis to and from the airport and the hostel (which was arguably the best hostel in Australia), the whole trip in total would cost near $1000 for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. A heavy blow that would deplete funds, but even after that was taken away, I still would have been above the target I had set out for my Adelaide mission. Yes, it definitely had to be done.
Upon arrival in Port Lincoln I was greeted what I could only describe as a ‘shed’. Of course looking at the little stretch of concrete and the small ‘arrivals’ sign above a metal exit, it was clear that this was actually the airport. Bearing in mind that Port Lincoln was home to the most millionaires per capita in Australia (namely down to the thriving giant tuna industry), it was fair to say it was not what I expected. I called a taxi, waited for it to rock up and headed into the town of Port Lincoln. About 14 hours later, I woke up in the YHA hostel; it was 6.30am and I felt like a kid on Christmas day as I hopped on the pick-up minibus and headed to the marina.
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”. The classic line from Jaws was immediately resonated when I set my eyes upon the small sail boat that was nestled in with hoards of others in the marina. It was about 10 metres long and could bare host to 40 characters at a push; not to mention the low-lying edges around the boat where one could easily slip over in the event of a rogue wave. The ultimate game-over way to go I thought to myself; probably best to avoid this at all costs. Still, it only added to the excitement as we all jumped on and headed out to sea to face the greatest predator on mother earth.
After three hours of sailing down the peninsula, riding huge rocky waves and passing pods of seals and sea-lions, we finally reached our destination: it was two remote, little islands known as the ‘Neptune Islands’. They accommodated a host of tasty treats for the sharks such as the aforementioned seals and sea-lions; in such this had led the surrounding water to become a Great White breeding ground. The beasts lurked beneath the surface, consistently monitoring the water around and between the two islands to feed on whatever they could grab. As the boat set anchor in this sinister spot, everyone on the boat went quiet and began looking for that first shady shadow to appear in the blue water. It wasn’t long before said shadow came drifting dauntingly toward the boat. A fin breached the surface of the water and it was clear that Jaws was here and hungry.
At times, the Calypso Star Charter had seen up to 10 Great Whites circling the boat. They were the only licensed boat in this part of the world to use bait to attract the sharks, using large tuna gills and fish blood to lure in and feed the predators. They set out on doing this again and by the time the water was turning red with the injection of blood, there were five Great Whites coming in close to feast upon the gills. They swam majestically and elegantly through the water before exploding in a frenzy to grab the bait on the rope. The design and power of these machines was awe-inspiring as they thrashed through the water with their large tail, splashing everyone on the outer deck of the boat. As people took turns in the cage, the sharks repeatedly slammed into the cage every time they attempted to grab the bait off the rope. Occasionally their menacing snouts rose above the water so that you could really see the sheer width of their mouths and the razor sharpness of their many teeth.
As the last group to go on, me and four other English characters waited and watched the spectacle around the boat. The screams of some of the women in the cage and a couple of characters coming out early due to fear only added to the overwhelming excitement that we all felt. Eating chicken pasta, drinking beer, sunbathing and watching Great Whites fight for food wasn’t the standard way to start a Monday morning, but I was certain there was absolutely no better way. Moving on and a few hours later the sharks were still circling and keeping us company with one huge 19ft shark turning up to get in the action. The sea-lions seemed to watch from the island rocks wondering what the hell we were doing and as I got geared up and headed down into the cage, those thoughts pondered my character’s mind too. Into the cage I go. No time to think. Now or never.
As I got my mask sorted and began breathing normally, I grabbed hold of the rail in the cage and gazed out into the mystic blue that surrounded me. The water was murky with the blood that the guys above were throwing in and I could see about 10 metres around me. I focused on the distance in front of me. The cage rattled nervously against the boat. I gazed a little further. It appeared. Snaking out of the blue, its snout first appeared before I could see the infamous black eyes in the distance. Drifting towards me, the predator looked on directly before approaching; it was only then you could appreciate the sheer size of these beasts as they got up within inches of the cage. Their huge mouths and noses cast shadows on everyone in the cage, before they exploded tearing apart the tuna gills and eating surrounding fish. A couple of times they struck the cage with an almighty crash bellowing out across the ocean. They watched on almost inquisitively at us; it seemed we were the zoo to them: the thought hit me that, for once, it was the human behind the cage and not the animal. These animals could not be mearly thrown into such a cage or enclosure; they were hunters of the deep, a testament to evolution and a showboat of what nature could conjure up.
The 45 minutes in the cage was the fastest 45 minutes of my life. Minutes felt like seconds as every emotion and sense was amplified, leaving no time for our small little heads to comprehend what was going on. It was an exhilarating experience akin to falling out of a plane for three quarters of an hour. Adrenaline exploded through the veins and a holy feeling was present as you watched such a well-designed predator muscle effortlessly through the water. I was sure I would never have another Monday like this ever again and I made sure I took in every moment – even coming out the cage and looking at these breathtaking creatures for the last time. A truly memorable experience, I felt content as we headed back to Port Lincoln where my storyline was about to press on to the East Coast.
Mission Six: Cairns
The week in Brisbane had been one that didn’t go to plan: my Ozintro companions weren’t ready to go traveling and I wasn’t ready to wait any longer. The week whistled by with a bountiful amount of nights-out and sun-bathing as it became clear that I was soon to become a lone traveler. The whole week depleted $700 – this was mainly the culmination of nice meals, ethanol and also the fact I changed my stop-over flight back home to integrate a mission in Thailand into my storyline. More of that later. Anyway I booked the plane up to Cairns to begin the East Coast mission and began preparing myself for what was to lay ahead. As I rocked up in Cairns solo, I peered my animated eyes out onto the surrounding design of the map and realised the difference in this part of Australia. It could have been a different country all together; the array of mountainous hills, thriving rainforests, bats and crocodiles that nestled in the Northern Queensland’ humidity were a completely new design considering what I had seen so far. I slapped on the body armor of sun-cream and insect repellent and made my way to the hostel. When playing this game on your own, you have to remember the tactics of traveling that lead you to meet and greet as many characters as possible. This small talk usually comes in the form of the four itinerary questions that cut a short cut into someone’s life and travels. After busting through the door of an eight-person dormitory, throwing your bags down and taking an exasperated gasp of superficial tiredness (clearly because you’re an interesting bastard who’s been hiking along some mountain ridge, surfing 40ft waves or white-water rafting down the rapids of a far-off river), you peer around the room at the other equally-awesome characters and begin to initiate the ‘big four’ – as I proclaim them.
- Question one: “What’s your name?” – The obvious, completely universal question that is usually followed by a stern handshake and a two second pause before question two…
- Question two: “Where are you from?” – By this time you would have lost your memory space for their name; that doesn’t matter as this is the answer characters tend to remember as to best relate themselves and think of all other sets of questions from.
- Question three: “Are you traveling up or down?” – This question helps establish what or what not the character has already done on their East Coast mission which will also bring about a whole other host of questions: i.e. about how you found the trips you both did, or how they found the trips which you are about to do.
- Question four: “How long you been in Australia?” – By this point you’re best friends with the person you’re talking to and the Facebook friend-request is already in the bag. By finishing on this gem you can begin to go into a deeper conversation about traveling, life-plans and goals.
And that’s that, within two minutes you’ve gone from the level of not knowing someone, to pretty much being best friends who are drinking goon and preparing to go out that very same night. Too easy, as the Aussies say. This is the tactic I set sail with into Cairns, and as I barged through the door of ‘Calypso Backpackers’, I was ready as any other heroic bastard out there. Boom. Door opened. Bag thrown down. Exasperated gasp complete. I looked around the eight-person dormitory to gaze out upon complete silence and emptiness. No one else here in this desolate space, I thought. I was wrong; I happened the miss the high-as-fuck Italian nestled in the corner clutching his joint like Gollum himself. I left him with his precious for the mean time, explored Cairns for a while and prepared myself for my Great Barrier Reef trip the following day.
The Great Barrier Reef
The last time I left a marina on a boat I was preparing to see man-eating Great Whites in a secure cage; this time was somewhat different as I hoped to see a host of all other friendlier creatures such as Nemo and turtles as I swam freely along side them. On the way there we were told how the reef was ‘world heritage listed’, ‘a wonder of the world’ and how just about it was the greatest thing since the invention of the goon box. Wait and see I thought, I’ll judge for myself. Being told that we were going to the outer reef on one of its best spots made expectations high; they continued to get higher as they told more and more stories as we sailed further out. No matter what they said, no story rang clearer in my head than one of the Ozintro characters having her finger bit off by a trigger fish – something that made me double-check what those tenacious trigger fish looked like on the poster of fish on the wall. Enough talk. Drop Anchor.
I had heard a lot about the first look down into the swarming, jungle of coral and fish: apparently it was something that stuck in your memory for a long time. As I put the snorkel on, dipped my head beneath the water and set my sights, it was fair to say it was an amazingly impressive sight. To my closest was a shoal of sparkling blue fish with yellow stripes radiating the glistening sunlight back up to the surface; beneath them was highways of thousands of other colourful and dynamic fish speeding through the coral as if it was rush hour down in the deep; below them further was a batch of sea cucumbers and shells that lay on the sandy surface embedded by a down-town skyline of coral. Fish I could never had imagine to have existed glided past me as I swam about. Fish with wobbly eyes, with a rainbow of colours across their sides, with outer body parts that looked like they were dressed up in some sort of parade, with teeth ten times too big for them, with speed and agility that left your neck twisted – all of these conglomerating together in an under-water, mystical utopia. Truly the design was award-winning; the graphics that were put together could not have been done over night. Whatever program and guys that pieced it all together, well, they needed to branch out and reconstruct other parts of the world. This was only the start I realised as I headed back onto the boat for lunch. I had two scuba-dives to complete down there in the aquatic jungle. This was where it got interesting.
As expected, I was on the edge of the boat with my scuba-gear on being told by a bunch of hot-shot dolphins how diving was just about the hardest mission since surviving the ice-age. It was pretty much a set of four instructions and common sense but the ‘elite diver’ characters made it seem that there was some sort of gracious art to it: like Da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa with a set of paint-soaked flippers. After 10 minutes of testing and talking, we were free to dip beneath to join the highways of fish below.
As soon as we got down to about six metres below the surface, a sight to behold came swimming around us. It was the number one collector’s item that the majority of characters wanted to behold on their trip: a giant sea turtle. It cruised through a shoal of fish into an opening in the lush sea-jungle; there it circled for a couple of minutes almost seemingly showing off to the under-water cameras that snapped around it. It soon got sick of the paparazzi and glided off into the serene blue, back onto the highways of fish and then down-town to the pixelated coral skyline. Not bad, I thought. After that we made our way to the skyline of coral as well. Swerving through the blocks of coral, we watched thousands of fish feeding on it whilst others lurked inside the coral compartments. Sets of red eyes peered out from the windows of the coral; the sky overhead clouded and it got a bit shadier in this part of town. As we drifted further we beheld more different fish and interactive clams that pretty much transformed when touched in the slightest. Out of no where a sting ray flew past the intersection of fish before swerving wildly and disappearing again into the neighbourhood.
That night as I went to sleep – perhaps due to the six hours on the reef or the influence of my Italian room-mate – all I could see as I closed my eyes was swarms of fish. The graphics and design were embedded in my head, imprinting on my mind and downloaded into my memory. Truly a great experience, I ticked it off the mission list and prepared to make my next move in the town of Cairns.
After my fourth day in the tropical town of Cairns, I began to learn what the rainy season was all about. As I stood aloft on the street side, I heard thunder crack on the distant horizon and echo around the valley of mountainous hills that this town nestled in. Here we damn well go I thought. Prepare yourselves ladies and gentlemen; strap yourselves in and ride this shit out. I didn’t anticipate how much damage this storm was about to do. For two weeks it left me stuck in Cairns. It was an apocalyptic scene where rain thundered down incessantly for over a week. During this time I recall the scenes of standing on my hostel balcony watching the river of rain snake its way down the street; I recall watching thousands of bats gather in the skies above Cairns screeching and howling as they battled through the sea in the sky; I recall the news reports of crocodiles being spotted in the waterlogged parts of town; and, most of all, I recall the feeling of being stranded – a feeling brought on by the roads outta town being flooded, all tours being cancelled and the fact I was stuck inside for over a week. But great adversity often beckons a light at the end of the tunnel: something to help keep you sane and pass the time. Yes, as the storm hit I found myself trudge through the rain into what would be the shelter and, ultimately, the heaviest party that my storyline would encounter.
The main reason I moved into this backpacker’s castle was the sparsely populated Calypso’s Backpackers that led to me sitting around bored some nights. Gilligan’s had a reputation as the ‘party place’; word on the coast was that it was a sprawling complex where characters gathered together to hit the adjacently-attached Gilligan’s night-club each and every night. It was fair to say it lived up to its word. I ended up being camped in this temple of goon for ten nights straight – ten nights that were a blitz to the senses, leaving me unable to function the next day as I persistently stumbled to the bus station office seeing if the road was eventually back open; every day the wise-guys would tell me “one more day sir, the road will be repaired”. Of course it was small-talk near enough most of the time.
I swear to god I nearly died in this place; my health bar stuttered consistently as three or four litres of goon shot through my system. I’m a crazy bastard, I know for sure, and this proved it. My time here coincided with my birthday and Australia Day which only propelled the binge-drinking to new atomic heights, which of course affected my money statistics in twine. Every nationality of the world was found in this hedonistic place: English, French, Swedish, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Mexican, South Korean, Never-Neverland, Narnia. At times, up to 37 people would be playing drinking games in an eight-person hostel room; we were a gang a wise-guys with no one to stop us – the U.N of partying seeking to promote world peace as they chugged back the goon and told people they had known for two minutes how much of a connection they felt with each other. It kills me when I think about. A sea of accents from hundreds of cities across the world splashing together whilst they sang the lyrics to the Grand Theft Australia soundtrack.“I’m gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pockettttt”. (Insert image of poor backpacker waving a $20 note in the air). This was what it meant to be a backpacker: here for a good time, not for a long time – perhaps best reflected by the rocky batch of rotten condoms that gathered on top of the roof below the hostel’s front balconies. Seedy bastards.
Moving on swiftly and I had another bucket-list moment on the cards during my time in Gilligans. Like the tactical genius I am when I play this game, I had lined up jumping out of a plane from 14,000ft on my 21st’ Birthday before moving onto Magnetic Island for the full moon beach party the next day. Of course, as ever, the difficulty level soared up out of nowhere like a crocodile emerging from murky waters. The storm and weather had made my genius plan fail; I was no longer able to do the skydive on my birthday (not unless I wanted to jump through a shit-storm of lightning bolts, full-on superman style) and the road was out leaving me unable to get to the full moon party. Eventually, a few days after my birthday, the clouds crumbled and the sun shone through with all its pixelated beauty. Finally. Finally it was time to jump out of a plane.
Truth be told I didn’t even think about the scare factor and the thought that I could see game-over if my parachute didn’t open; the worst that could happen was to respawn outside some hospital back in England as I logged out of Grand Theft Australia – my health bar healed with some miracle coded cure. I was so fed-up anyway of it being cancelled every day that I just felt a feeling of ‘come on, let’s get this over with’. So as I jumped into the mini-bus on the way to the airport, you can damn well imagine the look on my face: the sky had been a shining beauty all-day as they kept me waiting and waiting and waiting to go jump, and just as we drove to the airport, my old nemesis storm-cloud came flying back over Cairns like the death-star. The tension shot through the roof. Would we jump or wouldn’t we? Yes? No?
Sing hallelujah and rejoice ladies and gentlemen of the mini-bus! We are actually, after days and days of waiting, about to jump out of a plane from the pearly gates of heaven! We will sail through the clouds at 200km per hour! We will look down on the design of the land around us and laugh at gravity as it feebly attempts to pull us and beat us against the rock hard ground! We will fly! We will soar! Wait a second…… . Reality dawned on me as the plane rose above the green hills of Cairns; what the fuck am I about to do?! The guy who I was jumping out of this craft with had two teeth missing, a beer gut and a strange intense personality. Am I really putting my health and storyline in the hands of this nutter!? Wait just one second. (First couple jumps out). Wait wait wait wait! I’m not ready for this! (Second couple jumps out). Okay maybe we can just talk this through a bit more. (Third and fourth couple jumps out.) By now my feet are dangling out of the plane as I feel the cold, chilling wind splash upon my animated face. No time to think. One more push. Gone.
I can’t really describe the feeling of falling through the air: it’s a sensation that one rarely encounters. All our lives we teach ourselves to stay away from the edge, bare caution to the wind and keep away from danger. So after 21 years of following this scenario, for it to finally break, crack and dismantle – well, it leaves a feeling of total paralysis, ecstasy and sheer surrealism all in one. I free-fell for 60 seconds through the Australian air as my face became disfigured and my thoughts reverberated around my skull. I had become the rain-drop; searing to the earth-crust at deafening speeds. Out of no where a shoe flew past my head. We lost control for a second and tumbled recklessly through the sky. Eventually, to my relief, we regained a smooth, steady fall and the parachute was deployed. We drifted calmly for another few minutes as I watched the metal straps around my harness anxiously. Taking in the views of the rain-soaked rainforest hills around me, I drifted slowly to the landing area before making a smooth landing. Bucket-list mission complete. Another great experience topped off by the fact the guy in front of me had one shoe on. Clearly it was his Air Max which damn well near enough knocked me out 10,000ft in the sky. Cosmic.
Alas the road had been reopened; the storms had moved down south; and the goon had been drunk dry. It was time to move on from Cairns. My health had been depleted once more with the marathon of nights-out – not to mention my money statistics which were now off course due to the extra unplanned week in this tropical map. Still, it’s all a game: may I die or run out of money on my next mission, at least I was playing it well. It’s all a game.
Mission Seven: Magnetic Island
There’s something about an island that captures the true tranquillity of the world. A place where you are the centre and where everywhere else is the external: the sun on the horizon, the stretching sea, the blue sky above you – all of them putting everything into life-affirming perspective. There are lots of metaphoric, ambiguous sayings about islands but if you cut the shit, there’s nothing more to say than they’re a lot of fun. They’re places of escape, peace and exploration. Think Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away’; sure he went crazy but look at the adventure and story he could speak of. Think of that excessively long TV series ‘Lost’; sure they may/or may not have been dead, but think of the polar bears, black mist, shady organisations and apparitions! Crash a plane and get me to that wonderland any time.
For now the idyllic and isolated island I located myself on was a place called ‘Magnetic Island’. Although the name of the place sounds like it’s some sort of sci-fi wonderland with X-men and shit, it was just a typical tropical island that one would envisage. Using the words ‘just’ and ‘typical’ is very erroneous here; this was a place with a glorious design that would turn the heads of any well-traveled character. The map of the island was small enough to trek around via foot, but also it was big enough to make that trek an all-day adventure that led you through lush rainforest, mountainous hills, towering boulders, old WW2 bases and secluded streams of fresh rainwater. The graphics were incredibly visceral and it was immediately apparent that me and this island were going to get on very well.
I rocked up late-on to my hostel resort. It was night as I arrived and the sights of the island remained hidden to me in the darkness; noise however was still in full swing as an array of sounds pierced my ears as I arrived at my hut. Beside the sound of bats, insects and scattering lizards, I could hear a rustle from the bushes. It appeared a possum had decided to make the patio outside my room his territory as he chewed on some leaves whilst blocking my way in. Enough of this, get to bed. See you in the sunny morn possum.
My health bar had been depleted by the successive nights-out and gallons of goon that Cairns had thrown at me – this probably meant that knocking the drink on the head and doing a bit of physical activity would prove a good tactic whilst negotiating this level. Although I had made heaps of friends in Cairns with my four question tactic, it seemed it would be a different story as I shared an eight-person dormitory with me, myself and I. Not to worry I thought; at least I had no one to drag me down during the arduous walks through the hills. I prepared my inventory and grabbed a map of the island, stocked myself up with breakfast and a 1.5 litre bottle of water before heading off from the hostel in the searing morning sun.
Society these days gives no time to walking. People queue in 15-minute long drive-through queues instead of getting out and making the 10-second walk to the completely empty counter; people wait horrific amounts of time at bus stations to catch a bus with a bunch of crack-heads when they live a little down the road; people pay ludicrous amounts of petrol and taxis when they live in a small town. You get the picture. Again this phenomenon came into play in mind as I watched all the backpackers speed around the island’s six or seven roads in open-top cars for large amounts of dollar. Where’s the fun in that I pondered? Seriously. The roads limited you to a small proportion of the island and all the best bits were hidden in the trees, under the canopies and atop the hills. I felt like the smartest guy on the island as I watched them cruise down the pedestrian street as I headed into the lush, green jungle.
I’ve already mentioned the tyranny of the cyclone that ruled over all of us East Coast characters in the last week or two; now, however, the cyclone had passed on and left a never-ending blue eternity above us. The sun was well and truly at its best at this part of Grand Theft Australia as the rays burnt down at cataclysmic temperatures, surrounded by an-equally sweltering humidity that swamped every inch of your body. It was probably not a good idea to head off for an all-day trek in the hills but it had to be done. As I followed the path and headed off into the undergrowth, the scorching humidity began to hit me. The blanket of the jungle was almost like being put in a microwave; the sweat began pouring and pouring and pouring from me. Huge Golden Orb spiders cast their nets around me, birds squawked and darkness descended. A headache began frothing on my brain as I became dehydrated and tired of the gigantic climb. It was then that I reached the top. The trees and bushes began to clear, and sunlight hit my sweaty face. It was the most beautiful sight I had beheld so far here in Australia; for some reason it just hit me like a smack to the face. I stood aloft on the top of a gigantic boulder, high above the surrounding island and sandy bays; the sun illuminated the green hundreds of feet below me, which contrasted vividly against the perfect blue sky. Horseshoe Bay beach stood imperious in the distance – a distance that would soon vanish as I traveled there for a nice cool dip in the ocean. Up here I felt like Simba in the Lion King. No, I was Simba in the Lion King.
I carried on from this beautiful look-out and soon realised that I was severely dehydrated. I seriously misjudged how much water I would need in this heat and my health-bar began whimpering ominously. I needed water quick. I needed to avoid game-over. Looking at the untouched path, I wondered how long it would be ’till someone found me in the case of an emergency; there certainly wasn’t any recent footsteps I could make out in the ground. Worries in mind, the game continued to buffer as I stumbled my way through the jungle in pain. Then I heard it. It became louder and louder ’till I was certain I knew what the sound was. Waterfall.
I’ve always tried to collect and order my life’s top moments; I like to have some sort of highlight movie list I can mentally visit whenever I request. As I jumped down into the rock pool, swam in the fresh rainwater and filled up my bottle in the waterfall, I was certain I had a new highlight to the list. It was one of those ‘here and now’ moments; the crystal-clear, cold water splashing against your face and into your mouth as you gloriously consumed its heavenly goodness. My health immediately shot back up; I bathed in the waterfall pool for some time before I began the trek back to the hostel.
I suppose the sheer brilliance of this island hit me when I went up to a place called ‘Fort’s Walk’. Ideal for spotting Koalas with great views, it was a popular walk for visitors to the island. It certainly was an interesting one; a blizzard of signs accompanied the path, all of them explaining or directing people to something interesting: designs such as artillery, look-outs, radio transmitters and bunkers. It was originally a WW2 base – used a strategic look-out and protector of nearby town Townsville against enemy vessels patrolling the Pacific ocean. Now it was nearly all overgrown with the towers and bunkers being off-access to the public for safety reasons. Of course, these frivolous government worries were put to the side as I headed up to the truly interesting places. The views again were wondrous; again I found myself atop giant rocks looking out at this utopia of green and blue. It appeared I didn’t even have to worry about the walk home. I tell ya: only in Australia could you be wandering around an old WW2 base on a secluded island, bump into three Swedish girls and hitch a lift back home with them in their open-top Barbie Car. I know, I know.
As I headed back to land on the ferry, I gazed back across the bright, blue ocean and took in an overall view of the island. Magnetic Island had been a memorable level of this game down under; perhaps even my favourite map yet. Spending money had only seen $100 be depleted – this was also good news as I looked ahead to my week in Airlie Beach. The ship reached shore and it was time again to head southward.
Mission Eight: Airlie Beach/Whitsundays
Sailing around the Whitsundays is one of the most popular missions of this Australian map. Every year thousands of backpackers and tourists board one of the many boats in Abel Point Marina, Airlie Beach and set sail off to the horizon and the 74 Whitsunday islands that lay off the Queensland’ coast. In such, with it being such a popular destination, I had to wait around in Airlie Beach for six days before I could secure myself on the ‘Tongarra’ catamaran boat. I was eager to head off straight away as the sun beat down on the azure blue waters, but it seemed I would have to wait.
In the meantime I had the small town of Airlie Beach to explore – not that there was much to explore; the town was mainly one road that ran all the way from the edge of town, past the marina and then onto the main strip where all the bars, hostels and shops were situated. This was also where I situated: in another Base Backpackers once again. Yet again, I found myself in an eight-person dormitory alone. Brilliant. This sort of thing was surely unheard of in the backpacker world; usually there was never less than four characters in this size room – so how the hell had I stumbled into two empty ones in a row!? Luckily I was not to be alone for my week here. There is a weird trend of bumping into the same characters in different places on the East Coast; everyone is either traveling up or down so it makes sense to see someone from Cairns in Brisbane, Byron Bay etc.. . This very thing became apparent to me as I headed down to the lagoon for a swim. A voice called my name and I turned around; I thought I must have heard something and carried on strolling. Again the voice. This time I was certain someone called my name and I saw a blonde-haired guy who I thought I recognised. I soon realised it was ‘Patric’ – my Swedish friend and goon accomplice from Gilligans. We shared many a night-out and pre-drinks in the infamous ‘Room 101’ of Gilligans. This was something that would only be the start as we loaded up on gallons of goon and prepared to hit the clubs of Airlie like the wise-guys we are. As the sun set on Abel Point marina, I was soon to learn that there is such a thing of drinking ‘too much goon’…
And so I woke up: blood on my sheets, cuts across my eye and head, a scorching headache and a piece of paper beside me – the bold text reading: ‘Trespassing Charge – entering and/or remaining to dwell in yard’. What the fuck is going on here I thought. I had no recollection of the last 12 hours; the last thing I could recall was Patric winning severely in some dangerous drinking games. What the hell had happened in the preceding 12 hours to get me here. I checked my health bar which was running low. I cleaned up the cuts and drank some water to try and get it back up. I saw the address where I was alleged to trespass and realised it was right out my window, adjacent to my hostel block. I then changed my blood-stained clothes and went to quiz Patric about what happened the night before.
He was as much in shock as me; it appeared he had last seen me get rejected from some club for being too drunk. That was a common thing in Grand Theft Australia – bouncers always asked how much you’d had to drink before letting you in. Hell, one time in Perth I even got breathalysed before being allowed in. A real hotshot that bouncer was I tell you. Anyway, we headed to the police station to see if they could shed more light and revelations about just exactly what happened in the last 12 hours.
The police in this game are a bunch of jokers. Always I was reading reports of police brutality and shit like that. They’re the sort of hotshots who hide with a speed gun at the side of the road zapping some guys who are going 1km over the speed limit; the worst thing was you knew that they would all go back to the station at the end of the day and huddle together like a pack of emperor penguins as they patted themselves on the back. Let’s not forget the poor bastard in Sydney who got tasered to death. The police had decided that about a hundred tasers were needed to apprehend some foreign guy who had robbed a chocolate bar from a convenience store. An exploded heart and game-over for robbing a chocolate bar. Anyway, I was about to get a piece of police injustice myself. I arrived at the police station and began quizzing the officer.
I had tried to work out in my head possible scenarios to what could have happened that led me here. As I got told the story, I realised none of them were correct. Apparently I wandered off from ‘Magnums’ bar after getting turned away and somehow ended up down by the pier. This is where I got attacked by a gang of bogans. Gangs of bogans were common in this game and you always tried to avoid them; unfortunately under severe intoxication I got acquainted with these characters and paid the price. Blood on the wooden pier, it was evident that they must have stamped on my head at some point. I was lucky to avoid game-over I realised. Anyway after this attack, drunk and disorientated, I wandered into the wrong hostel block right opposite mine. Apparently the guys in the room didn’t take too kindly to a blood-soaked stranger walking in to their room. Police phoned. They arrived – cuffs on, back of the van and into the jail cell. It all made sense now – the memory of walking back to my hostel at seven in the morning. It must have been after the cops let me out. I couldn’t help but feel the bullshit emanating around the police station. Here were a bunch of guys who turned their heads to gang attacks on innocent people but would happily arrest someone who had been attacked. Like I said, a bunch of jokers.
As I headed on an hour bus outta town to attend my court case, I couldn’t help but laugh at the levels this game was throwing at my storyline. In my eyes, I was still unbeatable. As I walked into court for four minutes and explained the story and my anger, I watched them grovel in a bunch of nonsense terms before dropping the charge. I headed back to attend my sailing trip the next day. Going from court to sailing to the world’s second greatest beach. Like I said, unbeatable.
Blonde dreadlocks, tattoos across his arms, a sinister grin on his face and an eccentric aura radiating around him. Dave was his name and he was in charge of our sail trip around the Whitsundays. He was a crazy character, immediately welcoming everyone of us on board with alcoholic and sexual references. The blonde Jack Sparrow would continue in this manner for the duration of the trip.
There were 23 of us on the boat; many, like me, were solo travelers, but there were also couples and groups of friends. Again it was a mix of nationalities but the mission was universal: to drink goon, enjoy the views, snorkel the reefs and bath on the beaches. For now a storm was brewing. It had been a sunny delight all week in Airlie Beach and just as we set sail out the marina, the rain picked up and the waves rocked the boat, leading some characters to the troublesome toils of sea-sickness. I was good however; my health bar remained strong now the wounds had healed and the goon was in hand. Perhaps too much was drunk the first night, but at least there was no where to trespass on out in the middle of the ocean…
I can’t stand early mornings, especially on hang-overs. I tell you, there ain’t a thing in the world that’s damn harder than dragging yourself out of the womb of bed when you’re tired, hungover and unmotivated. I’m the guy who always ends up with the ‘early morning-er’: the person who gets up and goes like a firework. Again, I found myself in this position as everyone on the boat gleefully glided on the motor boat across to the main Whitsunday island. I reminded myself that ‘Whitehaven Beach’ remained on the other side of the tropical hill. I had heard a lot about the beach; stories had been told about how the sand was the finest in the world, that it was like talcum powder, that it never got hot, that you could brush your teeth with it, and that it squeaked when you walk on it. To me it all seemed a bit far-fetched, but I had to go and see for myself if the rumours were true.
I stumbled through the forest with my group taking in all the wildlife as we made our way to ‘Hill’s Inlet’ – the picture-perfect postcard of the Whitsunday’s that showcased its best beauty. As we arrived at the look-out, the view was glorious. I had grown accustomed to the amazing graphics these maps were offering but again I was taken aback. A giant green hill stood imperious across the inlet, looking down lovingly on the masterpiece of sea and sand before it. The sea snaked its way inland with a sleeking appearance, made all the more impressive than the glowing white sand that weaved its way to and below the surface of the water. The design was like a painting and I stood transfixed by it for a frozen moment. Eventually it was time to make our way down to the beach itself.
The blonde Jack Sparrow was in his element as we headed to the beach. Clearly this character had done this routine a million times before as he began turning on the charisma and getting everybody to pose for a variety of photos on the beach. Human pyramids, spelling out Tongarra using our bodies, mid-air photos – he just about got every one you could think of. I’m not usually one for this giddy behaviour, especially on a hangover, but I couldn’t help but join in on the animated behaviour. Especially in a place like this.
After a few minutes I began exploring the beach. As I stepped into the warm, shallow waters, I saw a bunch of sting-rays fly past me below. It seemed the water was packed with these creatures, all of which caught the attention of the masses of people and their cameras. It really did feel like the shores of heaven. The sand was as fine as the rumours said – it snaked its way majestically in and out of the azure blue. I stood in the crystal clear water as the waves crashed down on the glowing white sand; although it had been raining, the sky was now also glowing with a dense blue as the sun lit up the universe around me. Truly an epic design, I couldn’t ever say I had seen anything that even paralleled these graphics. The hangover was now dissipating with the freshness of this morning. We took our photos and headed back to the boat.
Although Whitehaven was the main attraction of the Whitsundays, there was still plenty left to do as we got back on the boat. We were still on the Great Barrier Reef after all. It made me laugh that you almost forget about things like this some times. It can become common place when you’re having too much of a good time. Anyway, we made our way to a good reef spot and went diving and snorkelling with the fishes of the Whitsundays. Although I had already viewed the “best spot” on the reef up in Cairns, it seemed that the reef here would have a few new things in place for me to take in. This included ‘George’ – the giant fish that was bigger than me, but who was the friendliest guy in the whole ocean. He swam up to me repeatedly as his scaly body rubbed against my legs. Hoards of other fish followed him around as they all tried to fight for the food that Dave was throwing off the boat. This was a design that really rounded off the whole reef experience – an underwater paradise that I would never delete from my memory.
The remainder of the Whitsunday trip soon turned into a booze-cruise; everyone was content with having such a good time that it seemed it only made sense to neck to goon and increase the peace. That it turned into with an array of drinking games on the deck of the boat. Dave soon introduced to the drinking game ‘Race Horses’, where the four aces were all given the names of sexually transmitted diseases as they raced their way across the deck. Repeated bets on Warts seemed to prove lucrative as I won more and more sips to give away. Of course, you always pick on the German characters to get them the most drunk.
As we headed back to the marina, I was certain I was at the top of my game. Weather, bogans and money issues were all crashing against the wall I had put up; I would complete this game to the end, and to the very greatest of my playing abilities. Goodbye Tongarra and the Whitsundays. It was time to go even further south.
Mission Nine: Fraser Island
The Whitsunday trip was always the trip that would precede or follow the Fraser Island trip. They were the main two main missions that travelers sought to complete as they traveled the East Coast. After a 14-hour bus ride to Rainbow Beach, I was now camped in the ‘Frasers on Rainbow’ hide-out. This was a quirky little hostel that located characters before and after their three day Fraser Island adventure. I waited in Rainbow Beach for two days before heading over to the island. I soon realised my inventory had been depleted as I checked my bags and saw that I had left some clothes in Airlie – not to mention my camera which had been destroyed by the ultra-fine sand of Whitehaven Beach that sneaked its way into the lens. Enough of that anyway. Like the Whitsundays, there was so many words and stories told about Fraser Island that you pretty much feel like you’ve visited the damn place before you step foot on its sandy shores. The words and stories that had reached my ears told of how the island was the “largest sand island in the world”, how it was home to hundreds of dingoes, how the beach was 75 miles long, that there was a rainforest that grown on sand, that there were scores of freshwater lakes, that there was a ship wreck…. you get the picture. Expectations were high as I prepared to head off with my group in the morning.
The design of the trip was an adventurous one; a group of 32 people were split into four groups of eight – eight characters who each shared a 4×4 jeep as they drove around the sand dunes of the island. Only four wheel drives were allowed on the island, anything else would just be hopeless in attempting to navigate the tricky terrain of a sand island. We packed our food, goon and selves into the jeeps and headed to the ferry, before being briefly pulled-over by the joker cops for someone apparently not wearing a seatbelt. Innocence was again protested – a sight that put a grin of contempt on my animated face as I thought back to how the cops screwed me over previously. Eventually, after monotonous small-talk with the officer, we got across to the island.
We kicked off the trip on the southern tip of the island, starting at the bottom of the 75-mile beach before making our way down the highway. I use the word highway aptly here; the beach was a linear stretch of smooth sand that acted as a giant road for all the four wheel drives, not to mention the planes that also harnessed the beach as a runway. Speed limit signs were dotted down certain sections of the beach and there were even signs that warned visitors of dingoes, sharks and strong currents. It was quickly evident that this was the most surreal road trip I had ever been on.
Our guide for this trip was a guy called ‘Jimmy’. Like the blonde Jack Sparrow from the Whitsundays, Jimmy was also a bit of a character. I swear to god I don’t know where they pull these people from. To be the leader of a tour like this and the Whitsundays, you have to be a bit eccentric and against the norm. I mean, think about it; these guys meet thousands of people every year as they repeatedly do the same trips, get drunk and avoid reality. These guys were the mavericks of society and they were almost certainly winning this game. Jimmy, in his storyline, was a surfer who had taught surfing all over the globe. Now he had found his way to this part of Australia to drive and direct groups of 32 people around an island whilst he got involved in the fun and put reality to the side. The first place he directed us to was a place called ‘Lake Mackenzie’. This was one of the most scenic freshwater lakes on the island. After an hour’s drive through the sand dunes and jungle, we reached its shore and headed in for a dip.
There ain’t nothing better than cooling off from the searing heat of the Australian’ sun; it’s a glorious feeling of refreshment when that cold water washes away the stinging sweat off your body. The past few lagoons and ocean dips in Queensland had always had warm water in so I had not felt this joyous feeling since Adelaide. It was great to feel cold again in this water; truth be told I began to miss being cold. I hadn’t worn a jumper or anything like that in the whole of my storyline and it surprised me that I missed the chill. Seriously, it’s strange the things you find you’d miss. Anyway, I continued to swim around the lake before taking back to the shore. Jimmy wasn’t content with a dip though as he front-crawled his way across the lake for 20 minutes before heading back. Back with a surprise as well. Out of nowhere he pulled two turtles out of his pocket that he caught whilst swimming. As you’d expect, this amazed all of us and the cameras were soon firing off shots at these endearing little creatures. Back on the sand, they sprinted their way across the shore and back into the ocean. You could just about picture the old master Attenborough narrating the very scene with that rugged, golden voice of his.
Moving on and we started making our way to camp. We got back in the jeep, turned up the speakers and cruised around the jungle, splashing sand in all sorts of directions. Eventually one car revved it too hard and broke down. Everyone stood in the middle of a jungle getting bitten to death by flies and watching out for dingoes and giant spiders as the sun went down. Unpredictable shit like this soon becoming predictable in this game – everything just got stranger and stranger. Always I’d be asking myself how the hell I got here: in the middle of a jungle watching out for dingoes and listening to a Disney soundtrack on an iPod. Luckily a lifeline came in the form of another, even crazier tour leader who cruised past, fixed the car and sped off at searing speeds across the sand. It looked like we were to get to camp after all. I don’t know why I expected a hotel or something like that; we were in the middle of a desolate sand island, out of reach of the surrounding world. I got out of the jeep and realised this as I looked at the small two-man tent that was to be my hide-out for the next two nights – all be it with two other people as we squeezed into the sweltering microwave of a tent. It didn’t get much better as Jimmy told us the story of a French character who had came to him with a problem in the middle of the night – the problem being, in his words: “Excuse um me, I don’t know if it is problem but there is an errr snake in my tent and it is eating a mouse whole. I know not what to do”. Glorious. Luckily I would barely remember even getting into my tent both nights, especially if my four-litre box of goon had anything to say on the matter.
The design of the camp-site immediately resonated past memories of camping at music festivals; there was the classic camp-fire that everyone sat around, tents dotted in all directions, terrible toilets and places around the camp-site to go wander and talk to strangers. After an array of drinking games, I found myself stumbling down to the beach in picture black darkness. I don’t know what I expected there (maybe dingoes, snakes and darkness) but I definitely didn’t think I would behold the sight of people dancing on the top of a four wheel drive, blasting speakers and, best of all, the whole of the Milky Way shining majestically above us. I had never seen the sky so clear; always I was camped in towns and cities with light pollution, so to see the design of the millions of stars above, well, it was a brilliant view. Even being nearly passed out due to intoxication, I still recall the graphics vividly: the colourful glow of the abstract pattern, the shooting stars that flew across the sky and even the planets of Jupiter and Mars that glowed somewhere amongst the millions of luminous lights. Dancing under the stars on the top of a jeep on a beach with a bunch of strangers was something that I could never have predicted in my storyline. I felt like the smartest wise guy on the island; a feeling that was soon gone as I learnt the next morning that I had decided to go for a midnight swim in the rapid currents of the shark-invested ocean, potentially risking a game-over situation. This was a common thing for me in past adventure Grand Theft Ghana, so I took the telling off and carried on like normal. The following day included the visit to ‘Eli Creek’- here we walked to the top and got in the stream of fresh rainwater before drifting all the way down to the ocean. It was meant to be the ultimate hangover cure but my head still felt like it had a million grenades exploding in it. Nothing can defeat the attack of the ‘goon-over’. Other activities on the island included climbing up to ‘Indian Head’ at the top of the island to behold some great views, visiting the wreck of the ‘Maheno’ – an old, rusted ship that had found its way to the 75-mile beach when it went off course 50 years ago, visiting ‘Lake Wabby’ – a freshwater lake where you could run down a giant sand dune before crashing into the lake, and of course, as ever, more goon-related activities.
As the three day trip flew by, I realised that this was to be my last true adventure before Thailand in April. After this I would have to head back down to Sydney to work for six weeks whilst I saved money for the next trip. I had already visited Brisbane and surrounds so would skip that part and head even further south back to the starting point. Money had been depleted to $1200 after this trip and I would now have to get back to the mission of money-making. That said I was content: the Fraser Island trip had even topped the Whitsundays and I was certain that the lakes, milky-ways, dingoes and sand dunes of Fraser would stay forever etched in my memory.
Mission Ten: Cronulla
24 hours. It wasn’t a long time in this game when minutes felt like seconds. However, that phenomena soon disappeared when I stepped onto my latest Greyhound bus – a bus that, this time, would take 24 hours to reach its final destination. My inventory was in disarray as well; I had a broken iPod, no working phone, no unread books and no camera to scroll through. The journey down through Queensland and New South Wales felt like a mission within itself but alas, after numerous roadhouse stops, reflection time and window staring, I finally reached the Sydney CBD and prepared myself to get back in the working game to save money for Thailand. Let the games begin. $$$ Although I had already began my journey in this famous city, my time here was to pass in another part of this gigantic map. After visiting some of the remaining Ozintro characters in the first couple of days, I boarded a train in the central station to a place called: ‘Cronulla’. This was a place I hadn’t even heard of in my first mission here; it was only when I entered the words ‘working hostel’ into a search engine when I beheld its alien name. Cronulla was a suburb that was located in the southern part of the Sydney map. I was immediately lured to its attraction with the description and reviews of the YHA working hostel that were featured on its web page. “Located by one of Sydney’s best surf beaches”; “7km of beach”; “frequent job offers”; “relaxed surfer lifestyle” – all of these words swam about in my animated head as I boarded the train in the pursuit of happiness.
A home is often described in the wrong format; people like to think that a ‘home’ is a superficial solid structure made by individual bricks and timber and in a particular place. Those people are wrong I tell you. A home is something that is completely universal: it is up in the air like a ghost; it is transparent; it is everywhere. It is not bricks and timber that make a home but experiences and people – this is something I was to realise in the following few weeks.
Immediately I felt like I was in a completely different city to the hectic, business-led streets that the CBD offered. There was a pedestrian mall that was littered with quaint, little shops and bars that laid sprawled out like a sunbather on a beach. I made my way down this and immediately found the beach: a 7km long beach of artistry that adorned line and line of huge waves against the golden sand. And then I went home. YHA Cronulla was the official name. Within the first week I realised that this was a hostel unlike any of the ones I had located in previously. The majority of hostel hide-outs across Australia were home to travelers for a few days, maybe a week at maximum; this was a culmination of the in-and-out, hectic lifestyle of characters on budgets looking to download as many experiences and sights as they can as quick as they can. However, I soon realised this hide-out in Cronulla was a separate beast. Walking around for the first few days it seemed to me that people had known each other for weeks and months; it seemed like there was a sense of order within a community – made evident by the weekly pool competitions, football games and whiteboard banter. I felt like the new kid at school originally but after a week or so I became settled in this Cronulla community as I prepared to increase my money statistics over the next five weeks. After all, my funds had now depleted to $500 and I predicted I would need to get up to $1500 by the end of March. That meant I would have to maintain my cost of living and save $1000 at the same time. Not too hard of a mission I thought, thinking back to my lucrative time in Adelaide.
The hostel operated in an astute way: the owner and boss at the top, Mike, was in regular contact with a variety of employers around the southern Sydney area (best known as ‘The Shire’) and he often had these people call in offering working missions for the characters at the YHA. These ranged from factory work, to landscaping, gardening, bar work, carpentry, electrician work, etc… . A long story short, Mike was not a bad guy to be around when on the pursuit of the almighty $. That I was and I constantly quizzed him for a week as I tried to pick up some work. My money statistics were depleting and I grew concerned of reaching game-over; however I soon managed to pick up a regular job just in time. The hours were seven to three in the afternoon and the job was ‘working’ in a metal fabrication factory. I use the word work sparingly; the majority of the time there seen me and the two Scottish lads Euan and Jordan standing about, having a laugh. I often wondered why we were there. At times there would be us three doing one man’s job. Still, I didn’t complain; not while the money was coming in and we were finishing in the mid afternoon, leaving enough time to enjoy the sunshine and beach straight after work every day. Although I was working, I still felt the sense of holiday – perhaps this was what ‘working-holiday’ actually meant I pondered.
Of course money isn’t and wasn’t everything in this game. There was still heaps of time to party and enjoy myself in this Cronulla community, especially with the characters in the YHA Cronulla that shared the same mindset as me. Soon after settling in I found the sense of community myself as I liaised with a whole host of characters, mainly of the British and German design. Of course there were others – Canadian, French, Irish, Italian, even Australian – but like most of the backpacking community it seemed the Germans and British made up the majority of the population. This is best perhaps realised by the frequent football games down the oval which seen the British vs the Germans – a sight of sheer brilliance involving unfit backpackers running around with a bottle of beer, barefoot whilst playing football and shouting insults.
Our gang was soon set in stone with a whole mix of characters. From the English boys Gizzy, Dexter, Matt, Haydn and Mark to the Scottish lads Neil, Euan and Jordan, to the Germans to the French to the Canadians. There really were too many consistent characters to name. The place really did feel like a student house; everything from the alcohol-packed fridges, to the FIFA competitions, to the drug-filled courtyard, the BBQs, to the constant gossip etc…. . Of course the pubs and club (yes, singular not plural) of Cronulla were constant hot-spots for all of us to get loaded up on alcohol. Well, because of money-saving, most drinking took place in the hostel in the form of goon drinking games and consistent crates of beer being seen to. There really was a terrific atmosphere in this place. There was even real conversations taking place I kid you not. Yes, unlike the old generic small-talk formula I mentioned previously, people actually got to know each other so long that you could talk about other things apart from “what’s your name? – how long you been in Australia? – where you going next?”. It was strange at first but I soon welcomed it. It actually felt like a home and although I was working, this atmosphere and group of people, coupled with searing sun and 7km long beaches, lead to an extremely enjoyable time – perhaps my favourite of my whole trip.
As the weeks whistled by I began to strengthen my bank account in preparation for the final Thailand mission. Although I had once had -65 cents in my account due to being paid a day late, I had now gotten up to the $1000 mark and things were looking good. People came and went in the hostel of course, but the atmosphere still remained the same. I seldom visited the busy city-centre, only to visit characters whom I had met previously on my travels, and I soon felt like Cronulla was the ‘home’ I spoke of. In theory I was the other side of the world from ‘home’ but that was looking at it in the superficial structure way I mentioned previously. The quality of lifestyle here, the beach, the people, the laid-back atmosphere, the constant swapping of jobs between the backpackers, well – it all created an aura: a place where I really could have stayed forever. As the final couple of weeks came flying at me like a unstoppable steam-train, I reminded myself that my time in this country was coming to an end. After six months of adventure I was preparing to head into Thailand for one last mission of partying. I felt like I needed to make the most of it; I did this by visiting the beach as often as possible, visiting the Blue Mountain national park just outside Sydney, and of course, partying with people in the hostel as much as I could and as work would allow me. Missing a few days of work due to being hungover and sick had made my funds come in behind schedule – I had $1300 by the end of my last working day – $200 below what I needed. Still, if I run out of money on a Thai island then who cares? I’ll be on a Thai island. It’s all a game right.
The sun set beautifully on the Cronulla marina as we ate some cheap sausages during our backpacker BBQ. The plane was due to leave in a few hours and I got up and said goodbye to the YHA Cronulla characters. And to Australia. My storyline here had been award-winning; I had had twists and turns, ups and downs, adventures and quests, and most of all – plenty of memories to store. The sun set on an epic six months as I left Cronulla with gritted teeth. I really could have stayed here forever it felt like but alas reality was calling. I was sure I had found a home and I was sure that this wasn’t the last I would see of this Aussie lifestyle. Till then Australia, it’s Grand Theft Thailand. I love ya.
Mission Eleven: Koh Phi Phi
There he sits beside the bar: smug, sinister and menacing – the 40 year-old business man is consuming a large bottle of ‘Chang’ as he flicks a cigarette simultaneously into an ash tray. Of course, he’s not alone. Perhaps he told his wife he was on a business trip; perhaps he was supposed to be visiting relatives; or perhaps, most likely, he lives alone and is out here on an escape. Either way, none of that shit matters to him right now as he incessantly strokes the leg of his Thai bride that sits dutifully beside him, accepting every drink he buys her. Welcome to Thailand. Where rules are as hard to come by as a sense of normality. Where fire soars, sun shines and buckets get filled with alcohol. The hedonistic paradise of many a backpacker or – like our friend sat at the bar – those who are in the midst of a mid-life crisis. I suppose I had come to this place knowing what to expect.
The Thailand map was one of the most popular environments of backpackers in recent years; the sense of party, adventure and paradise islands that serenaded the Asian country had led many a character to come armed with their Thai Baht currency. Even though the prices were severely inflated to tourists, it still felt ‘cheap’ to an extent for many. You couldn’t blame all the would-be Indiana Jones for coming over here to live the adventure. I suppose I now was one of them: took in by the rumours, I was now just another backpacker on a Thai island. I suppose I better do this shit right hey. I had spent two days in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur to be exact, and whilst there I seen the sights and rested before coming to hit the buckets and beaches of Thailand. I flew up to Phuket; I wasn’t too interested in staying there (I stayed there for a day and a half) but I was however interested in getting across to the island superstar ‘Koh Phi Phi’. The island had constantly been bigged up by most backpackers that I had met. “The place where the the film ‘The Beach’ was filmed”; “a place that’s beautiful by day and manic by night”; “a place you won’t want to leave”. The backpacker myths were again circulating in my animated head as I headed across the sea from Phuket on the busy ferry. I had pretty much decided that all the rumours were true and that God himself was gonna carry my bags off the ferry and give me a lift to the beach house. “Welcome to heaven” or some corny words like that he would utter as the sun beat down. We’ll see anyway. The ferry pulled in.
Immediately apparent was the rising limestone cliffs that shot high out of the water; they were nestled with green trees and bushes and stood imperious above me as I arrived. It was that sort of Jurassic Park shit – you know, the scene where they are flying in on the helicopter with that emphatic orchestral score bellowing out from the speakers. I was impressed but not as impressed as I was as I made my way to the main beach. My guest house – ‘Blanco Beach Bar’ – was situated right on the beach near the top. I couldn’t believe my luck when I seen the view. The main beach wasn’t that great in terms of the lack of sand and occasional piece of litter, but that really didn’t matter with the landscape that sat ahead of it. Out there was an enormous bay of sparkling water that was nestled in between two enormous pieces of headland, both in perfect positions to allow a small view of the horizon-hunting ocean to peer in as the sun set upon its glistening water. Not a bad spot for a holiday I thought as I sat down my bags and collapsed in the hammock. And fell asleep. During the sunset. Dreaming of past adventures.
When I woke up I swear to god I thought I was in a different place altogether. The sun had long set and night time was well and truly upon us. I shook my head from my dazed state and gazed down the beach. The once peaceful design and visuals had now transformed into a neon-lit, fiery thunderstorm of ethanol-led antics. For as long as I could see there were fire shows going on – the sort of shows that seen Thai guys throwing fire-lit sticks tens of metres in the air before catching it, or where they did the hula hoop whilst on fire, or where they jumped a skipping rope that was again, yep you guessed it – on fire. I went and took a shower and prepared to head out into the hedonistic, sandy playground.
Nights-out in Cronulla weren’t as frequent as I’d hoped. With the object of money-saving and the ever expensive Aussie beers, I went out one or two times a week. Now I was in a different game altogether; the difference in prices was overwhelming at first and I kept thinking about how little minutes I had to work for a bottle of beer. I always did that. Seriously have you ever looked at the amount of infrastructure, business, construction and man-made objects in the world and think about how little you contribute to the world you live in? I did that shit all the time. Every time I ate out, crossed a road, used a lift, stayed under a roof or drank a beer. Sure I put some metal things on a furnace line but I was definitely taking way more out of this world than I was putting in. Enough of that anyway.
Anyway I preceded in drinking these beers in Koh Phi Phi but soon discovered ‘buckets’. I don’t know whose idea it was to pour a shit load of whisky, red bull and coke into a sand bucket but what a character he or she must have been. And then to charge $4 for it. Like I said, what a character. Let the party commence. I had never gone out on my own but my first night here I hadn’t met anybody but thought: “fuck it”. What followed was ultimately one of the best nights-out I had had during my storyline – just don’t ask me the names of any of the guys and gals I partied with. After that I met a bunch of English characters who were staying in the same room as me. Andy, Holly, Daisy and Amali were the names and I usually drank with some of them before stumbling down the beach looking for a decent and lively bar/club. The most popular one seemed to be a place called ‘Slinkys’. God knows how long the place would last in Australia; I reckon it would have been shut down on the opening night. The amount of alcohol consumed here could probably only be described by the sand itself. Of course it couldn’t speak but if it could it would probably say: “Hey guys, give me a fucking break. I’ve spent the last 6 hours being scorched from fire and stampeded on by a herd of house music-loving animals who repeatedly spill their buckets of booze on me. Go climb up the pole or something.” By pole I of course mean the 13ft wooden device that shot out of the sand in the centre of the ‘dance-floor’, so to speak. After 1 or 2 buckets it always felt like a good idea to become King Kong and scale the damn thing. I won’t lie and say I didn’t get up there a few times dancing like madman as some drunken characters below mindlessly pointed and danced in twine. You did feel like a man of importance up there. It was just getting down that was the bastard.
I suppose the award for best dismount goes to the drunken German guy who decided to do a back-flip off the thing whilst off his head on Sangsum whisky. The most amazing thing is that he actually landed on two feet; well, perhaps even more amazing is the fact he landed on two feet and STILL managed to knock himself unconscious with the impact of brain against skull. His health bar was definitely running low. But so was everyone else’s here. It’s funny waking up the following day and seeing who is walking around with a bandage or cut. Backpackers in Thailand seemed to be constantly under threat from injuries and even game-over. Whether falling off poorly maintained scooters, cutting themselves on coral, drinking themselves into a coma or – like the poor guy at the New Year’s Eve party on Koh Phangan – getting shot. You had to keep your wits about you it seemed with such design issues. So yeah, maybe the pole weren’t too great of an idea. Of course when in such a beautiful place, it would be rude not to actually check out the scenery around the place as well as getting drunk. That I did as I booked a half day snorkelling trip to the other separate island just across the water. We did all the usual stuff – you know: visited the monkeys at monkey beach, went snorkelling in some pristine spots and sailed into Maya Bay, aka ‘The Beach’. I had always loved the film so I was unbelievably excited to visit the set that was meant to be the ultimate paradise. A secluded bay of clear water and golden sand that was hidden from the world. Although it had absolutely beautiful graphics, it was a shame the design of ‘secluded paradise’ was not to be. The place was littered with tourists all getting their Leonardo Di Caprio snaps. It sort of defeated the purpose of the film with so many people there but I had to remind myself I was one of the tourist gang. Yes Ryan, you are part of the tourist gang – I told myself with gritted teeth.
And so the week came sailing past as rapid as it felt like when you were a small kid on holiday. I was only meant to stay for three days originally but the greatness of the place extended that to a week’s holiday – a move that depleted $350 from my money statistics. Still, I had a great time.
Time is a funny thing; ultimately time is relative as some old, grey-bearded character once said. Seriously time does fly when you’re having fun because you’re living in the impulse zone of your head where you don’t have time to take things like time and length in. I definitely had lived in the impulse zone here I told myself. Constant partying and sunbathing and sleeping. What more could a person ask for? I spent the last day renting out a kayak and going around the gigantic bay. It was the best way to say goodbye to such a postcard perfect place. Next up was Bangkok. It was Thai new year, aka ‘Songkran’ – a five day long water fight I had heard about. Here we go. Strap yourself in.
Mission Twelve: Bangkok
I rocked up in Bangkok in the extreme early morning as the sun was barely letting its pixels shine through. I had been traveling on an over-night bus from the south of Thailand. The bus journey wasn’t actually too bad; compared to the rides in Australia, the experience was pleasant with good air conditioning and plenty of leg-room allowing a solid sleep to take place. Now it was coming to 6am and I had to find my hostel, which straight away was a bit of a problem as its name and location had been deleted from memory – never a good thing when every wise-guy taxi driver for miles was trying to rip you off. I had to accept I was temporarily beaten and hop on to a tuk-tuk. “To the nearest internet cafe” I said and off we shot down the city roads. Eventually, after printing a couple of maps and arguing over prices, I reached the hostel. Too early to check in clearly. Sleep in the reception it is.
The reason why I was here was of course to celebrate Songkran festival. I had never even heard of the damn thing ’till some German girl was banging on about in my hostel in Kuala Lumpur. She had pretty much proclaimed it was the most mental thing since King Jong Un. Stories were told of gigantic water fights, elephants squirting water, constant partying day-in day-out and it was fair to say it sounded like something worth checking out. And what better place to experience it than in the centre of Bangkok – the supposedly mental city full of lady-boys, seedy clubs, ping pong shows, temples, monkeys and those four madmen outta ‘The Hangover 2’. I was certain that the coming storyline here was going to top anything a Hollywood blockbuster could pull together, especially if my Super Soaker 3000 had anything to say about the matter. If only I knew how true that was to become.
Songkran was celebrated over different lengths of time across the whole country; places down south would celebrate for one or two days, and places like Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the north of the map would celebrate over a five-day period. It looked like this was to become a marathon here in Bangkok as I rested for a day before the festival started. I was camped in my hide-out near a place called ‘Victory Monument’ – a place that was a little outta the way from the alleged hectic, hot-spot of ‘Khoa-San Road’. Bangkok was a huge city, home to nearly nine million characters, but it was well known amongst the backpacking gang that Khoa-San Road was the place to be for night-life, and in this instance: Thai New Year. I was booked into my Victory Monument 4 star hostel for a couple of days just to see how mental the place was actually to become; only then would I decide that life could actually exist in the war-zone of the Khoa-San Road area. I was with Max – a Dutch friend from the hostel – and I was also due to meet Andy, a friend from Koh Phi Phi, and Nati, another friend from Kuala Lumpur. I jumped on a tuk-tuk and headed into the battle-zone with these accomplices. Day one of Songkran had arrived.
———————————————————————————————————————————————————– My eyes are closed in the shock of the icy cold water that snakes its way down my shaking back. The last thing I saw were five guys with guns to the right of me, but it wasn’t them that unleashed this hit upon me; it had to be the old lady to the left with the buckets of water beside her on the table. When I finally open my eyes I gaze an apocalyptic sight: hundreds of people, Thai and tourist, marching down the road toward me with their high-pressure pumped super-soakers. Thank god my money is a waterproof wallet; if it survived the army in front of me, there’s no way it would survive this smirking bastard above me on the balcony who is about to blast me down with that high-power hose. I pull out my water gun and attempt to fend off the Thai girl who is shooting me right in the eye. And the German guy to the right. And the English wise-guy in front of me. Max, Nati and Andy are right behind me as we make our way through the bustling crowd and into the shelter of the bar. Safe at last. Time for a beer. Welcome to Songkran. A time where nipping across the road to grab something to eat will leave you and your food looking like passengers from the Titantic. A time where your neck will be twisted and your head aching from the amount of insane shit going on around you. A time where the roof of a TV news truck is used as a dance-floor by the hundreds of people it tries to drive through. It was only the first day and I was exhausted. Me, Andy, Max and Nati were patrolling the Khoa-San Road area in intervals – intervals that involved an hour of water-fighting before stocking up on another beer. Ultimately the day turned into a surreal pub-crawl; it seemed that beer was the only fuel that could keep us marching through the armies of thousands. Besides, the more drunk you got, the less chilling the icy water became as you were shot at. House music was also bellowing out from the speakers all around and so it would be rude not to get amongst it with a drunken dance and water-fight.
This game of travel was certainly putting some interesting levels in front of me. I had never seen anything of this design; it was a sight so surreal I pretty much accepted whoever put this celebration together was off their face on copious amounts of drugs. Of course, I was told there was an actually reason for the mass, city-wide water-fight. Apparently it was to cleanse you of your bad luck and give you new fortune for the coming year that lay ahead. Obviously this was complete rubbish considering that, on average, 300 characters met game-over every year during Songkran – a statistic put in place by the amount of traffic accidents that take place in the war-zones. Seriously, when is it ever a good idea to throw a bucket of icy water in the face of a guy speeding past on a scooter? 3000 were also injured on average. Like I said, war-zone. I suppose I was lucky not to become one of these statistics when me and Max sped home back to Victory Monument on a tuk-tuk. There we were drunkly cruising home from the pub-crawl when two other tuk-tuks pull up along side us. We look to the left. We look to the right. It appeared we weren’t out the battle yet. On both tuk-tuks were a bunch of tourists, all armed to the teeth with large water guns and a look of menace. Within a couple of seconds war had broke out again as a high-speed shoot-out took place down the city highway. Standing and clinging onto the roofs, characters on all tuk-tuks used the last of their ammunition as they sprayed everyone they could – including the focused driver of course. After running outta ammunition I was forced to sit there and take a soaking from both sides. Just wait ’till tomorrow I told myself.
After a couple of days, Max and Andy left the war to hop on a plane to Australia. Nati was still in the game and staying just off Khoa-San road, right in the heart of the battle in an Indian restaurant and guest-house. I made a decision to move into the heart of the war-zone for the last three days of Songkran. The only way to get to the Indian guest-house ‘Rainbow’ was to travel early morning, before the water-hungry army of thousands came pounding the pavements once more. After all, I had met many a character who had arrived late on only to see all their bags and belongings drenched to the core – not to mention the passport of my Swedish friend Philip. Luckily, for me, I arrived so early that I was barely sprayed at all.
The remainder of Songkran seen the days become write-offs. At some points I swear to god I felt imprisoned in the guest-house; there was many a time I would find myself on the balcony staring at the mayhem beneath as I tried to build up the energy to run across the battlefield and into ‘7/11’ so that I could get a bottle of water or something to maintain my health bar. I always ate at the expensive but delicious Indian restaurant below to avoid stepping out into the war. I could feel my health and money statistics simultaneously depleting during this part of the game. I only had $500 toward the second half of Thai new year and I predicted that I was gonna cut this Thailand mission extremely fine on the funds that I had. Still, it’s all a game. And besides, the clubs of Bangkok were calling us. Enough of the water-fighting; it’s time to get back on the bucket and beer scene.
Staying at the guest-house, me and Nati had added a few more accomplices to our contact list. This included: the two English boys Jonathan and Gregory, and the three Swedish guys Philip, Filip and Victor. Oh and also some Aussie guy who managed to achieve getting slapped by three separate women on a single night-out. Too easy. We spent the last two nights hitting the clubs and bars of Khoa-San road, loading up on buckets and seeing what happened. It was nice to escape the streets and the water, and even better causing mayhem in clubs with the notorious Swedish ‘rape dance’, which pretty much involved a bunch of lads circling a female as they put arms around shoulders and jumped up and down shouting “rape!”. It was an interesting way to get attention to say the least. Not safe on the streets; not safe in the clubs. Those poor girls.
Finally the festival had come to an end. The police cars had moved in to shepherd everybody out and the roads were now filled with a bunch of government workers who proceeded in sweeping and litter-picking the torn streets. It had been the craziest and longest party I had ever seen and I was now spent. Health and money running low, I decided to book some travel back down south to the island of ‘Koh Samui’. I had nine days left of my storyline in this game of travel and I had elected to get back to the beach and relax. England’s cold weather was awaiting and it would seem foolish not to make the most of these glorious sunshine graphics whilst recovering my health. If only I had known the amount of anarchy that lay ahead…
Mission Thirteen: Koh Samui
By now the end of my storyline was approaching and it was fair to say that it was showing. My health was in tatters as well as my money statistics. I really was gonna have to toughen up to complete this final mission here in the gulf of Thailand. With nine days left I had $400, which was cutting it close to say the least, especially now I was back in the tourist hotspot of ‘Chaweng Beach’, Koh Samui. The most notable thing was the amount of weight I had lost here in Thailand; my waist line had been depleting with every day as I found myself unable to eat due to the strong humidity and my delicate stomach. I was maintaining my health bar with fruit smoothies – about the only thing that would settle in my stomach without coming storming back up. Still, I wasn’t gonna let this factor become pivotal in the final mission here. It was time to enjoy myself, without alcohol….
Of course I’m not gonna dance around the truth and lead you down a false path. Compared to Koh Phi Phi and Bangkok (both of which involved copious amounts of alcohol), Koh Samui stood high above them in the alcohol department. I kept telling myself that I came here for a nice, relaxing beach holiday before logging out of this game of travel. And for the first few hours that was fine. There I was lying in the sparkling, crystal-clear water of Chaweng Beach before heading back to the hostel. I walked out the front door to go get something to eat. Outta no where came ‘Jacob’ – a 20 year-old German character who had the most direct backpacker greeting I had encountered in my whole seven months. He ran up beside me flicking a cigarette away as he reached my side. “Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? I have just arrived and am looking to meet people, okay. So firstly, what is your name?” With the classic list of questions fired off in quick succession, there we were heading to get dinner and “a few drinks”. It’s amazing to think of my reality in England where by a similar situation would see someone running off feeling threatened or shouting abuse at the inquisitive stranger. Life really shouldn’t be that hard and pessimistic should it? Every character out there is potentially an accomplice who can enter your storyline. Backpacking solo had made me wonder what turned us all so pessimistic and tentative toward everyone else. Who knows. Who cares. It’s time for a beer.
Tourist maps in Thailand seemed to operate along the same wave length: i.e. stick as many bars, clubs, McDonalds, KFCs and ATMs in as close proximity as possible, preferably somewhere near a beach with a load of fire. As me and Jacob headed down the main road, it seemed that this area was not present. Worry grew. How foolish; how foolish of us not to realise that this beach was actually about ten times bigger than we had thought. No wonder every taxi driver was trying to pull us into their taxi along the way. Not to mention sell us some drugs. They would repeatedly shout: “Taxi! Or ‘something’ for you?”. ‘Something’ of course being marijuana or cocaine. You know the wise guys would sell you the shit and then you’d walk ten metres before a police officer came around the corner searching you. The level of corruption here was infamous and so it was best to avoid these sketchy taxi driver characters. Anyway, after a 25 minute stroll we finally found the classic tourist party zone.
Being on a tighter budget than past times, I elected to buy beer from the supermarket before heading into the neon-wilderness of the main strip. I recall purchasing one large beer for under $1 – to which the Thai girl serving me behind the counter laughed at whilst repeatedly pointing at me and pretending to do some puke action. Clearly this drink was quite infamous amongst the Thai people and so it should have been. Easily the worst drink I had had during my travel (yes even worse than Goon), the following few hours were a blur off this stuff. 10% beer is never a good idea, especially when you have had only one meal in the past 24 hours. In the end, me and Jacob got split up which led to me walking back to the hostel alone late at night. Normally I would feel under threat from bogans, muggers and just general idiots. But there was something else that insidiously prowled these dark streets late at night – something so terrifying, so disturbing and so menacing that it would leave the toughest character in a fury of fear. Ladyboys.
I’ve never done my history lesson and figured out why ladyboys were so frequent in the Thailand character design. I hadn’t seen many so far (maybe a few in Bangkok) but it seemed Koh Samui was crawling with the creatures of the night. There were ladyboy shows all around you on the streets. There were ladyboys patrolling the main road consistently on scooters. There were ladyboys you couldn’t see but you could bet they could damn well see you. And some of them you never known were there; take the one I met in Koh Phi Phi for example: female cheek bones, female voice, no Adam’s apple, short height and every design that a female would have. I only realised she was a man when a British character came and told me, before he walked off with her with his hand around her waist. Whatever floats your boat I suppose. Anyway, the problem about walking home late at night by yourself is that these creatures automatically assumed you were off your face on buckets. Don’t get me wrong, I was way gone most of the time, but I always made sure to maintain my alertness toward these ladyboys. Not only would they try and pull you into toilets offering “suki suki”, but they would also try to touch you up or worse – try and pick pocket you without your drunk self noticing. Eventually I managed to muster a plan of pretending to be a drunken mess falling for their offer; “back to mine” I would say as I hopped on their motorbikes and got a free lift home before legging it around the corner and into the safety of my hostel room. Too easy.
The week carried on in a similar process: wake up at 1pm, go down to the beach ’till evening time, come back and grab dinner, load up on some alcohol, and head off out into the ethanol jungle. Jacob was now outta action due to falling off his motorbike. A fast turn around the corner had left his health bar and money decimated as he sat in expensive bandages unable to move. It looked like the poor guy was facing game-over as he planned his trip back home to Germany. Luckily for me I had met a few more characters to go party with – this included the northern Englander TJ, Cambridge boy Toby, Kiwi girl Jonelle and some very familiar Swedish guys.
The backpacking route makes a very large world an extremely small one. People went the same places when traveling around the Thailand map and this led to people consistently bumping into one and other. I had already bumped into my Aussie friend Carla during the second night here, and now I had bumped into the three Swedish guys from Bangkok. There I was partying in the Green Mango club when I turn around and bump into Philip – my Songkran accomplice from Rainbow Guest-house. He was also with the other two blonde Swedish guys Filip and Victor. Everything came together and we had our old gang back ready to hit the bars, buckets and clubs of Chaweng Beach.
The rest of my time here was a blur. I think back and recall being consistently drunk. Maybe we played some football at the local football stadium at some point but I can’t be sure. My health and money statistics were in pieces toward the end of the week here. Excessive drinking, partying and Mcdonald’s meals had left me on my last legs. Even if everything around me was a blur, the end of the game was now and truly in sight. I decided that I couldn’t take much more partying here and booked a ferry to ‘Koh Tao’ – a more peaceful, laid-back and less busy island located a few hours up north in the gulf of Thailand. There shouldn’t be many people there I thought; everyone is heading to ‘Koh Phangan’ for the full moon party – a party I couldn’t make without missing my flight, not that my health and money statistics could accommodate it anyway. North to Koh Tao it is. I need a final break.
I swear to god I’d love to tell you about the exact details of the beautiful island of Koh Tao. I could tell you about the vivid graphics of the western sunset; I could tell you about the unearthly clarity of the surrounding water; I could tell you about the laid-back atmosphere of the main beach that sat in the shadow of the rising green hills above; I could tell you about the dramatic lightning storms on the night’s horizon. In the end, and this being the end, it doesn’t matter. This trip had been going, and had gone, unbelievably perfect. Everything had become another reality as I put myself through this game of travel. Things almost too good to be true, but they had taken place. I guess that’s the game of life.
So in Australia when the sun goes down, and the sharks have retreated to the black ocean, and the night-club signs flicker with an aura of menace, and the out-back wind screams under the star-studded sky, and the goon bag has been drunk dry, and the waves crash against the silenced beach, well, I will always remember the game I played when I was 21.
Life is truly a game, and if ever I found myself worrying about money or health or possessions, or anything else of that ilk, I will turn back to when I had nothing but everything, playing the world by nose and following the scent of the wind. One day when I’m old, I will pull the storyline out, and discuss when I was arrested, discuss when I fell out of a plane, discuss when I touched a great white whilst tipsy, discuss when I got fucked up repeatedly with a bunch of strangers, discuss when my back was against the wall and I had to work a 15-hour day to survive, and, more than anything, I will reminisce about the games we played when we were young.
Oh, the games we play when we are young.