The first thing I heard traveling south on the M-1 from Brisbane International to Burleigh was the hayseed American twang of George Walker warbling “After Midnight.” Lightweight Nashville country pop seems to go over well on the Gold Coast. Seventy miles to the Goldy and there’s a Queensland cop on my tail.
The apple-tart intonation of a BBC-trained Australian presenter reads off the late-afternoon headlines: PM John Howard is in Jakarta to discuss the sovereignty claims of Aceh and West Papua with Indonesia’s new president Madame Megawati Sukarnoputri. 79,000 jobs lost last month. The IRA cease-fire is breaking down…again. Australian sixties rock idol Digger Revelle is arrested for growing marijuana in his back yard. Diving pigs and the “Man From Snowy River” extravaganza are the hot ticket at the Brisbane Ekka this week. And heroin trials are still being furiously debated for the “injecting drug-use community” at King’s Cross.
The sun here is biblically bright, relentless, ultimately fatal. I squint into the burnt umber south. Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” plays in nostalgic counterpoint to the eight lanes of postmodern Queensland concrete that has sprung up since my last trip here three years ago. Been years since I’ve heard that fizzy late-70s chestnut. I find myself singing the catchy pop refrain in a broken, long-disused high register and bopping my head in rhythm. I pass a bouquet of plastic memorial roses strapped to a motorway signpost to Logan City. The M-1 takes its toll in more ways than one.
Hey, I’ve got air conditioning.
Driving through Surfers Paradise in the cool lengthening shadows of an endless stretch of high-rise escarpments that confronts the western Pacific like a line of stern riot police. This is the hivemind of Queensland—dense, disconnected, unapologetically garish and commercialized.
Passing busloads of Korean tourists debarking for a smoke and romp on the beach at Narrowneck. The surf is tiny: 1-2 feet and a lovely aquamarine. I strain to see if anything is happening at the Nazz, the world’s first artificial surfing reef. A small bump; a few bodyboarders wallowed in the shore – but nothing to waste a postcard over.
Narrowneck was named because it was the narrowest portion of a barrier sand island that later became Surfers Paradise. During big cyclonic swells it was regularly breached to the back bay. This wasn’t a problem until development of Surfers Paradise in the 1930s that put many houses in peril of being swept away during big storms. Because of this the Gold Coast City Council erected seawalls that had limited success. In the late 1990s the Council decided to put in an artificial reef to dissipate large swells, accumulate sand, and provide recreational surfing habitat for wave-starved Gold Coasters. They hired a Kiwi firm to design it and in 2000 it was built, or stacked, from giant blue plastic sandbags that were dropped in the shallow offshore waters.
Almost immediately, the reef started producing hollow surfable waves and the new “locals’ dubbed it “The Nazz”. But within months the bags settled in the soft sand and now it only breaks on rare occasion. Fingers were pointed in both directions over the Tasman Sea, but in the meantime the algae growth on the bags attracted a healthy food chain, which in turn has attracted fishermen. And it appears to be holding the sand as designed. The Gold Coast City Council says it will keep working on the reef until they get it right. (2010 Update…they’re still working…)
I slip on the soundtrack to Buena Vista Social Club. The melancholy Cuban beats are strangely apropos to Surfers’ ambiance; Surfer’s being the antipodean doppelganger to the lurid hedonism of Florida’s Miami Beach. Both, ultimately, are economies built on a thin crumbling base of sand.
Surfers Paradise, founded as a resort in 1917, was originally named “Umbigumbi” by the aborigines. It means “valley of the mosquito”named after the pungent back bay behind the long barrier sand island that later became the Gold Coast’s most famous stretch of beach.
It was here on the Gold Coast, along a 35-km stretch series of legendary rivermouths and groynes that stretch from North Straddie to the Tweed River, that some of Australia’s greatest surfers were spawned. Rabbit, PT, Bruce Lee, and the tragically brilliant MP. Fitz the Elder, although originally from Narrabeen, came to world prominence at Kirra in 1968.
Burleigh, Currumbin, Kirra, Snappers, Duranbah—These were strange, resonant names that I recited like Catholic chants in my early surfing days in the late 70s. I pored over Surfer magazines for endless hours tracing the contours of these green otherworldly waves. Someday, I vowed. Someday…
Heading south on the Gold Coast Hwy to Burleigh. A fast-forward cultural scan of postmodern fragmentation. Garish naïve neon. “Miami Beach”, “El Camino Motel”, Mandarin Court”, “Captain Cook”, “Sushi Train”, “Mardi Gras”, “Le Mans”, “Tandoori Place”. The Gold Coast suffers from, or enjoys, a beautifully schizophrenic lack of identity
I pulled into the Burleigh carpark at dusk. A million unseen budgies screeched in the Norfolk pines, their droppings giving my sani-kleen rent-a-car a bit of real Australian character
Burleigh’s flat. So’s Kirra.
“The Dream Police they live inside of my head; The Dream Police, they come to me in my bed.”
…Next up, Ch. 3…Extra Credit Assignment: compare and contrast Australian and American culture,