Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Magnetic Island, Queensland, Australia

Posted on December 3rd, 2004


I before I start bitching, I have to say that travel in Oz is easier and safer than in any other country I have ever visited. Tourism people are friendly and will fall over themselves to help you out. Buses are met by hostel vans, tours pick you up at your door and hostel clerks will book any transportation, service or tour that you might need. The only irksome arrangement I have encountered are the Greyhound bus rules. Greyhound Australia insists on making us suffer through a back-to-school-style assigned seat routine which seems to be designed to give the driver a small slice of power with which he will rule heavy handedly. The drivers seem to get the greatest delight out of forcing people to double up, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and sweating all over each other throughout half the bus, leaving rest of the bus completely empty. If, say, you want some elbow room while you furiously type, brilliant and insightful travel observations and move to an empty row of seats to accomplish this, you will be loudly and publicly bullied into getting back into your assigned seat. If you ask why you can’t sit in an empty seat until His Holiness, Master Bus Driver assigns it to a new subject, he will tell you that the seat will soon be occupied and that for the sake of his ingenious seating plan you should not mess with the order. But of course 10 hours will go by and no one will ever be assigned that seat. Meanwhile you are typing with your elbows pinned to you abdomen and acquiring the B.O. of the unwashed, talkative, disturbingly eccentric Bohemian backpacker next to you.

Magnetic Island did not treat me well. It was one long series of minor, but mounting disappointments. I had booked myself at Maggie’s Beach House, a VIP approved hostel. The VIP book said “Ferry pick-up (most).” The last words from the woman I spoke to on the phone when I booked the bed were “See you at the ferry!” Well, there was no one from Maggie’s at the ferry. Six other Maggie residents and myself had to buy $3 bus tickets to get to the hostel, which was conveniently located miles away, almost on the opposite side of the island, on Horseshoe Bay. We were met by a sour, curt, alcohol-pickled women with bad teeth at the reception desk that checked us in with all the charm of an East German border guard and sent us off through the detention center that was Maggie’s dorm floor. Maggie’s did not offer free coffee. Maggie’s did not have electrical outlets in the rooms (a huge issue for someone who travel with a sack of gadgets that need to be recharged every third day). Maggie’s did not do complimentary bus bookings. Maggie’s did not have soap in the bathrooms! (Red alert! Recovering germophobe red alert! With immediate effect you will only touch questionable surfaces with your shoe-clad feet! This rule includes shaking the hands of new male acquaintances!). Maggie’s didn’t really do much of anything beyond the bare minimum, unless money was involved. Maggie’s was very good at taking money. They charged six dollars for a one-use packet of laundry soap. They charged four dollars for a munchkin-sized, prison-issue dinner plate. They charged six dollars per hour for their sporadic functioning, snail-paced Internet service. They sold a variety of food, drink and necessities for wildly inflated prices. (I later learned that this was a Magnetic Island standard. Knowing that we were all trapped there, those profiteering twits cranked up the prices to Quickie-Mart standards across the board.) Essentially, while Maggie’s wasn’t a shithole, it wasn’t very pleasant. The only real perk at Maggie’s, and admittedly this was a rather large perk, was that the dorm rooms were air conditioned. This was the answer to my godless prayers after sweating myself to sleep for four nights in a row, suffering under that raging sunburn and heat rash from the Reef tour.

I did the first of many hostel laundry loads of my new journey and, after a session of furious journal catch-up work, allowed myself to be lured out to a bar on the other side of the island with my three adorable Irish roommates and a gaggle of good-natured and endearing Canadians. We were promised a ripping beach-side bar atmosphere, but found a mellow, oh-hum mood comprised of several, wide-spread, anti-social groups of travelers. We managed to enjoy ourselves despite this and much later, after 50 minutes of waiting and two phone calls, succeeded in rousing the island’s only night-taxi into actually doing some work by bringing us back to the hostel. This experience was enriched by a satisfying bit of subplot drama.

No matter where in the world you go, there’s always going to be a smattering of “Ugly Travelers.” Ugly Travelers are not necessarily unattractive, but their personalities, intentions and all around presence makes you want to jam a plastic bag over their heads and cinch it off at the neck with a bungee cord. Regrettably, Ugly Travelers are almost always Americans, but in this instance it was a Canadian. Maggie’s resident Ugly Traveler was Greg from Edmonton. Greg was gifted with good looks and hair which, after expensive highlights and an eternity of daily primping, was worthy of Backpacker GQ. Greg had gone through the trouble of flying half way around the world to fulfill three main travel objectives; get drunk, pay a king’s ransom in cover charges to get into all of the “celebrity nightclubs” people told him about and fucking anything that moved. Greg’s idea of a cultural experience was to insult and alienate everyone of all nationalities that wasn’t like him. On this night, Greg followed us around, wearing down our nerves with every utterance and intermittently laughing maniacally at us, while informing us how stupid we were for not being exactly like him. We rid ourselves of Greg when the taxi (finally) arrived to take us back to the hostel. Greg disappeared a minute before the taxi was expected and didn’t tell anyone where he was going, though it was a safe bet that he was taking one last tour of the bar to make sure that there weren’t any girls that he hadn’t already annoyed or offended who might be cajoled into drunken sex on the beach. We got in the cab, looked around, didn’t see Greg and told the possibly drunk driver to floor it. Apparently Greg got himself home much later and wanted to kick our asses, but for all his many endowments, Greg was not a particularly big guy, so when he was confront by one of the Canadians, a strapping cop, he changed his tune with a stunning quickness. Greg didn’t ever dare speak to me about it, though this may have been that he was so drunk much of the time, that he probably didn’t recognize me.

Early the next morning, while being careful not to spend one more dime within the confines of Maggie “The Grifter’s” Beach House, even if it meant spending more somewhere else, I set out on a scenic walk through Magnetic Island, in the hopes of changing my overall attitude of the place. I departed reasonably early so I could be back in the comfort of my air conditioned room before the punishing mid-day sun hit its peak.

Magnetic Island is a 52 square kilometer reef island, so named because Captain Cook thought that the mineral components of the island caused his compass to go screwy when he sailed past in 1770. I wanted to take the two hour “Fort Walk” which wound through several World War II era American and Australian military ruins, but things went awry almost immediately when I followed a poorly worded sign that appeared to lead to the beginning of the Fort Walk, but instead drew me into an endless, steep, confounding, mountain trek that only led me from one beach to another, without ever hinting at the direction of the Fort Walk. While I was never quite sure where I was or in what direction I was heading, I was very pleased with the scenery that the unmarked, crazy-eight hill paths of Magnetic Island provided. Boulders as big as houses littered the hills and valleys, while vistas of the deep blue sea and distant shores were visible in just about any direction. Meanwhile my brain was slowly baking in the rising sun like an Idaho potato.

After two and a half hours of lurching through circling, rock paths without a sliver of protection from the sun, I was starting to feel unwell, to put lightly. Eventually I left the walking path and headed to one of the beaches for a sit under the cool shade of a giant tree and to seek the directional assistance of a rotund Aussie woman. I was particularly interested to know if there was a chance I might ever find civilization again, preferably with access to drinking water. The water I had brought was nearly depleted and warmer than boiled piss. The kind woman whipped up a hand-drawn map to illustrate that I was miles from the Fort Walk and further yet from my air conditioned room in Horseshoe Bay. I thanked her for the help, fanned myself with my newly acquired “Sydney” hat for another moment and then returned to the path.

After nearly an hour of negotiating a roasting hot, unsealed road that was half-reclaimed by nature, I found myself simultaneously standing at the island’s main perimeter road and at the beginning of the Fort Walk. I had a decision to make. Head for home or labor on to through the Fort Walk. I was starting to feel mildly delirious from the sun and I only has a splash of water left, but I had put so much time and energy into trying to find the goddamn Fort Walk and I knew that this was my only chance to see it (I had already made desperate plans to flee the island, early the next morning), so I decided to be an idiot and bulldoze through the 90 minute, round-trip hike.

There was a spirit crushing amount of uphill walking and not a lick of shade to be enjoyed the entire way. As I neared the top, I knocked back the last of my water, thinking that I could get myself back down the mountain and refresh myself simultaneously if I simply threw myself of the cliff into ocean. Problem solved.

Looking out at a gun turret, from inside a bunker.

Lookout tower.

View from inside the lookout tower.

I staggered around the predictably disappointing Fort sites – admittedly, very little thrills me when I’m in the throes of heat exhaustion - taking pictures when I remembered and contemplating the exact body temperature where brain juice boils. Once I felt that I had devoted a respectable amount of admiration to the site, I started back down the mountain. I tottered most of the way down with my eyes closed, causing me to relive a similar sun-baked, longer-than-expected walk that I took on the island of Santorini in September. I was so lost in that hallucination that I nearly wobbled past two Germans that were standing idly and enjoying the fruits of fresh water well that was off one side of the path. I was too zombiefied to even kick myself in the ass for walking past the life-saving well on my way up. I downed two bottles of water, before considering that the water might not be potable, but the two Germans were still standing, so I put down another bottle and made my way back to the road.

By the time I fell into my heavenly air conditioned room I had been walking for five hours, the last two of which under maximum intensity sun. I had seen enough of Magnetic Island. I showered, drank a milk tanker worth of water and sat in a stupor until I was able to gather the wits for an early dinner.

Early the next morning I bid adieu to the acerbic desk woman and escaped from the island four hours earlier than necessary.

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