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Conned by Australia: the Sunshine Coast’s months of grey

I’m an actually an interloper here. What am I doing on these pages? To the true believer, the hard-core traveller, I’m a fraud, an inauthentic simulacrum, for I am a tourist. There’s something about that word that invites a sneer. We pursue the superficial delights rather than experience the cultures we pass through.

No one loves a tourist. But economies need us, and especially New Zealand’s. Tourism is our second-largest source of revenue, after dairy exports. For some reason, young people are loading themselves with debt in order to study tourism at our tertiary institutes. And for what? A low-paying job with the promise of glamour?

But I needed a break, and at the age of five, the boy was finally old enough to enjoy some of the lower-end adrenalin thrills offered on Australia’s Gold Coast. Plus, there was the promise of sun. I was in such desperate need of it following a rain-drenched Wellington winter. Every year, I’d endure another summer of drizzle and modest temperatures, but this year I decided to dial up the heat and crisp my skin beneath the Aussie ozone hole.

The relationship between New Zealand and Australia is akin to that between Canada and the United States. Australia is big and loud. It’s flashy and loves showing off. Kiwis like to think of themselves as more refined, and certainly more modest. When they remember to think of us at all, Australians simply see us as the nation they continually thrash at sport. They cross the Tasman Sea – aka “The Ditch” – to use our ski fields and buy any company that shows a modicum of success.

Because Australians are so in love with their sport, their V8 cars and their apartments with harbour views, some New Zealanders think we have more culture, but that’s patently absurd. We can count the number of Nobel Laureates in Literature on no hands. A New Zealander has won the Booker Prize exactly once. Australians can reel off writers and public intellectuals like like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally and Patrick White as their own, while we have no one of comparable international stature. When it comes to art galleries and museums, Australia’s cup is overflowing, while we have the national theme park known as Te Papa.

One thousand New Zealanders per month leave for a new life in Australia. For many, it is their promised land, and has replaced America as the new Eden. The United States, although still eminently the richest and most powerful nation, seems to be winding down, its economy struggling, its politics gridlocked, and its faith in its own exceptionalism diminished.

All the energy, the can-do attitude and chutzpah is alive in Australia. Blessed with an abundance of largely untapped natural resources just waiting to be mined, its future looks bright despite the uncertainty in the world economy. The Australian dollar has overtaken its US equivalent, and that is not just due to what lies below the soil’s surface, or that an increasingly large part of its trade is with Asian nations rather than the financially weaker US and Europe. Its banks are inherently conservative, and were largely untouched by the world-wide economic collapse of ’07.

New Zealand has been able to ride on Australia’s banking coat-tails since since it owns almost all of our banks. The exception is Kiwibank, a government-owned institution created as a concession by the Labour Party to a lone independent MP who helped them clinch a closely fought election. The previous government bank, The Bank of New Zealand, is now owned by the National Bank of Australia.

So I surrendered to the Aussie siren call, and booked my flights to Brisbane. For accommodation I selected the Turtle Beach Resort on the Gold Coast, a family-friendly concession to the boy, and I loaded up on theme park tickets. This was going to be fun, dammit.

I don’t believe in signs or portents, but the queues through Brisbane customs were the longest and slowest that I have experienced. But surely, one simply endures such inconveniences because the payoff on the other side is worth it.

Then I turned on my phone, and fired up the weather app. My heart sank. Rain was predicted for most of the 10 days of the visit. I mentioned this during idle chit chat while booking the shuttle bus to our digs. The friendly lady behind the counter looked at me like I was mad. “What did you expect?” she asked. “It’s January.”

So it was at this point that I learned that the Gold Coast has a rainy season. And the Sunshine Coast does too. The brochure photos had a lied to us. And we had been sucked in because the Australian naming conventions are usually so literal. The Great Barrier reef is a great barrier reef. The Snowy River is a snowy river. If they name something The Sunshine Coast I expect sunshine, and if they call something The Gold Coast then I interpret this as their one concession to metaphor since Sunshine was already taken.

But at least it was sunny that day. We arrived at the resort exhausted. We’d been up since 3am in order to catch the flights, and after customs and the shuttle trip the boy was more than a little tired and fed up. But Turtle Beach Resort is just the right kind of place for a dad and his five year old. It has four pools, a cinema, a pizza joint and mini golf. It also has a kids’ programme called Turtle Club.

The holiday plan itself was simple. Two thirds of the time was to be spent at the theme parks with the remaining time to be divided between the beach and the resorts. However, my contingency preparations never considered that we’d have thunder storms for half our time there.

So we managed to make it to each of the parks just once. White Water World proved to be the boy’s favourite, although Sea World was to be a good opening gambit, as it has many family-friendly attractions. Movie World and Dream World would probably suit older children who could take advantage of the exciting rides, although they do offer something for everyone.

The main problem was the weather. Movie World was shut for only the second time in 20 years. I would have figured that the thunder and lightning would have simple added to the thrills, although the queuing would have been less fun. We never made it to the beach, as the weather was that bad.

If I could offer one piece of wisdom, it would be to hire a car for the length of the stay. Although there is a shuttle bus service between the resort and the theme parks, you’re not able to arrive or leave when you want, and Turtle Beach is the start of the journey in the morning, and last stop at night. It feels like you have to stop at every hotel on the Queensland coast on the way to your destination. If the conditions are inclement, having a car handy means you can get out and about as there isn’t much to do in the resort’s vicinity.

Because of the weather, all I can say is “thank you, thank you, Turtle Club.” When the storms were raging I needed something to keep the boy sane, and the club offers a range of activities. It’s run by some excellent qualified teachers who really know how to engage the kids. I’m more than happy to hunker down with a book for a few hours, but most boys of five aren’t. Without the club, I think the boy would have felt just as ripped-off by the Australian holiday as I did. But he loved it, which almost justified the expense.

And that’s why being a tourist will never be as satisfying as being a traveller. I wanted cheap thrills and sun, to slide across the Queensland veneer without having to peer at what was underneath it. And I was cheated by the Tourism Australia’s promises of sun-filled fun. Surely that was false advertising. Where do I get my money back?

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