Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Posted on December 1st, 2004

Being that October/November marks the end of university and the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer time, teenagers from all over Australia flock to various beach locales to binge drink, add to their melanoma collection and puke at least twice a day, all with delirious abandon. In Australia, this event is called “schoolies.” Normally, aside from staying out of puking range and occasionally dodging the advances of babbling drunk, half naked teenager girls (I know you thinking “Yeah right Leif, don't hurt yourself trying to get away from the half-naked girls” but my taste for half naked, promiscuous girls is only exceeded by my repulsion of vomit, hence no chance), this type of thing wouldn’t put me out too much if it weren’t for the fact that it directly resulted in there being exactly zero budget airplane seats available between Sydney and Cairns. I had decided to start my full Oz tour in the north and then proceed south along the coast, stop in Sydney for a quick break and then continue down to Melbourne. The nearest I could get myself to Cairns by plane without paying an unreasonable sum was Mackay, a mid-sized town with questionable tourist appeal. On the map, Mackay looked to be in striking distance of Cairns, but as I have learned repeatedly before and during my stay in Oz, the scale of maps is almost painfully misleading. Australia is nearly as large as the U.S., after all. I was more than a little dismayed to learn that after shelling out US$100 for the plane ticket to Mackay, I was still facing a 12 hour, US$77 bus ride to finally reach Cairns. Sigh. So, it was with this knowledge festering inside me that I trained from one side of Sydney to the other to board a plane and fly to Mackay.

Queensland has a reputation throughout the rest of Oz as being full of stubborn nutters. My first lesson in their state-wide rebellion against their southerly neighbors in New South Wales was to snub their noses at Daylight Savings Time. Thus, despite flying directly north, during summer months, one has to set their clocks back one hour upon arrival in Queensland.

After four days of cool gloom in Sydney, I was mildly pleased to arrive in warm, humid, tropical Mackay. It was almost like landing in Hawaii. There were even palm trees. The only way to get into town from Mackay airport is by taxi. The outwardly gay and interested driver tried to convince me to visit one of his club hangouts during my stay. It was a Wednesday, I was light years behind on my journal and generally not interested in unlocking the highlights of Mackay’s gay community. The driver left me at the Mackay chapter of Australia’s Youth Hostels Association (YHA) with a wink and a “see you later.”

I had not stayed in a hostel dorm room since the four days I weathered in Athens, during the dead heat of September, in a five person room with zero circulation, directly above a screaming five point intersection and briefly occupied by a naked and filthy Frenchman who slept all day, did his meager laundry in the shower (using my soap I later learned) and then ran off without paying the bill. The Larrikin Lodge was a fantastic antithesis to that experience. Family run, quiet, friendly, homey and remarkably clean. The residents were all mega-budget travelers, self-catering all of their meals in the Larrikin’s ample kitchen and sitting around chatting at night, before retiring to bed en mass at 10:30. It’s funny how you walk in the door of a hostel and you immediately sense “party hostel” or “mellow home” or “eccentric hub” and adjust your daily schedule, conduct and tolerance to weird behavior accordingly.

On that note, Larrikin had its own, non-threatening, yet unsettling eccentric, Dave. Dave was an Aussie of indeterminate origin who seemed to be permanently living in the hostel. Dave was as big as Shaquille O’Neal, with eyes that were sunken half way into his skull and hairier than Sasquatch. It was difficult to ignore his natural fur coat as he never once donned a shirt during the entirety of my two day stay. He was friendly and quiet, but definitely odd and sheltered. My main interaction with Dave occurred on my second night. He stood in the bathroom and openly stared at me in a puzzled stupor as I flossed my teeth. Once I had finished he asked “That a better way to clean them then?” Turns out Dave had never seen anyone floss before. He was less captivated, but still curious about my contact lenses, having heard of them but never witnessing their application in person. I imagined that Dave might be one of those Crocodile Dundee types that had only just recently arrived in civilization for the first time to seek his fortune and was still getting the hang of certain urban concepts, like waist-up apparel and, god willing, full-body electrolysis.

As I had predicted, Mackay was indeed a well-marketed tourist destination lacking in actual worthwhile tourist attractions. The town itself was little more than just a town, although it was curiously packed with hotels/motels and over-priced restaurants. I ate cheaper in downtown Sydney for crying out loud. The streets were wide and the storefronts all had giant sidewalk overhangs to protect shoppers from the relentless, beating sun. The streets roared with traffic during the day, but were utterly abandoned at night, making my walks to and from dinner a little Twilight Zone-esque. This sensation was enhanced by the nightly insanity swarm of lorikeets that would get mysteriously riled up at dusk and torment the main street area for an hour with their spine grinding, deafening chattering. From what I could ascertain, Mackay’s main draw was the rainforest/jungle day tours, that all hinted at, but never guaranteed the possibility of seeing a duck-bill platypus. These were advertised quite heavily and instilled a certain amount of intrigue in me, but I decided to pass in favor of being massively productive with outstanding writing projects and organizing travel for the coming week. I knew rain forest tours would be available all over Queensland, thus I didn’t need to rush out and take one immediately. Mackay also had what seemed to be a decent park/botanical garden/orchid house. I actually walked across the city in the mid-day heat to see this attraction, for want of a distraction of any kind, only to be foiled in my effort by the befuddling “trading hours” (opening and closing times) of the orchid house. It was open from 10:00AM to 11:00AM and 2:00PM to 2:30PM. That was it. Bizarre. I seem to remember that it might have been open for a whooping three or four hours on Saturdays, but I was too confounded by the measly weekday hours to take note of the specifics.

I belatedly celebrated Thanksgiving in Mackay. It wasn’t until about 3:00 in the afternoon that I realized that it was Thanksgiving Day. This realization might not have hit me for days if I didn’t happen to wander through the hostel TV room during an Conan O’Brian rerun featuring a champion turkey caller. I hovered there briefly, thinking that the turkey caller was an especially desperate and uninspired guest choice until my brain slowing got to pointing and clicking and I made the connection. I considered having a small, turkey fueled celebration to mark the occasion, but it turned out that I was the only American in the hostel that day and then I remembered that I don’t particularly crave turkey. Well, not enough to go to the store and cook some up for myself. I celebrated by eating beef and vegetable in curry at an over-priced Thai restaurant.

Travel Pet Peeve of the Day: I have had it up to my thick, alarmingly dexterous tongue with the travelers who feel the need to correct everyone on points of terminology, particularly the trivial ones that are purposefully misspoken with the universal understanding that everyone knows the inaccuracy. I’m speaking of the habit that travelers have of referring to people from the U.S. as “Americans.” Anyone who has ever traveled abroad knows that this is simply a commonly used moniker that allows for national identification without saying “citizen of the United States of America” or “United States of American” or some other such ugliness. There isn’t a single soul out there that thinks when someone says “American” that they are referring to the citizens of every country in North, South and Central America. The manner in which this term is utilized is a universally agreed upon given. Yet it never fails, at least once a night some pompous twit, usually a Canadian, feels the urge to interject into the conversation with something along the lines of “Well, you know, technically were all ‘Americans.’” Now I have nothing against Canadians, in fact I find that I spend much of my time since November 3rd wishing that I was a Canadian, but why do some of these wonderful people feel the need to burden the rest of us with their mastery of the obvious? A middle-aged wife from Toronto contributed this kernel of wisdom to the conversation in the hostel TV room on my second night in Mackay and it took everything thing I had to keep from reaching over and flicking her in the nose.

I left Mackay after two pleasant but uneventful nights.

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