Surfers, but not Paradise (CONTAINS VIDEO)
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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As the most easterly point of Australia, Byron Bay is the first part of the country to see the sunrise. I'm not sure if this is really all that much to brag about, firstly because somewhere like Sydney probably only has to wait a few seconds longer, and also because most sane people are still asleep when all this rising is going on. That usually includes us but, for some odd reason, we decide to go on a 'Sunrise Tour'.
Our other activity for the day is a surfing lesson. The other four people in our dorm room - two English girls, a young English bloke and a quiet French guy - are coincidentally also doing the same lesson with us. A beat-up old van comes barrelling down the alley next to the hostel and comes to a screeching halt just in front of us. The driver is a tall, lanky guy with straggly blond hair and a goofy smile. "Yo, surfer dudes!" he calls out, giving us that little finger/index finger surfer salute, "jump in". His name is Al and he is your stereotypical Aussie surfer. He drives at a leisurely pace and keeps us entertained with his heavy drinking stories, existential/drug-influenced views on the modern world and liberal use of Australian colloquialisms.
The brochure advertised a four-hour lesson, including a 20-minute drive to a secluded beach. However, by the time we have stopped for petrol, paid the head guy (driving another van), arrived at the beach, unloaded the surfboards, waited around, put on our wetsuits, waited around some more while the instructors chatted, carried our boards down to the water, waited while the instructors decided to go to another beach, and carried our boards to the other beach, it is about two hours in.
The instructors - Al, the head guy, Karl, who looks like Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber, and some 80 year-old guy named Eric - seem like they have never done this before as they are so disorganised and unsure of what to do. Eric gives us some on-beach instruction on how to stand up on the board and then we finally get in the water. The beach they take us to, actually more of an inlet, has virtually no waves at all, which makes it rather difficult to surf. We do get the odd small wave that would carry us slowly towards the shore but it only takes a few minutes to master these little ones. So, the next 45 minutes or so entails a lot of floating around on our boards waiting for the next swell and overhearing the instructors swapping surfing stories.
Suddenly the Dumb & Dumber guy says "right, that's it" and we start to paddle back to the shore. Surfing is certainly fun and I can imagine the rush you get from catching a big wave, but I don't think this was the best lesson we could have received. There was way too much faffing around, the waves were crap and we didn't really get a lot of instruction. Accordingly, I wouldn't recommend the "Kool Katz" surfing school for the surfing side of things.
We could easily have stayed another day in Byron, as the relaxed attitude, well-appointed hostel, nice beaches and variety of activities is definitely appealing. However, we are off to Surfers Paradise tonight. Now, don't be fooled by the name. While there may be plenty of surf there, it sounds anything like Paradise, especially at this time of year. As luck would have it, we are hitting Surfers at the exact same time as 40,000 17 and 18 year-old high schoolers who just finished their exams last week. These 'schoolies', as they are known, use their week of holidays to descend en masse on Surfers Paradise and basically get completely drunk every night. An almost equivalent number of slightly older kids, who had such a great time here in previous years, swarm here as well. These older ones, known as 'toolies', are generally the more troublesome group.
Surfers Paradise is kind of like the Las Vegas of Australia, without the bizarre themed casinos. High-rise hotels and holiday apartments tower over the streets, while hte palm trees, wide streets and convertibles give the place a kid of Malibu kitsch. From the safety of the bus that brings us into town at around 9pm, everything seems manageable enough. However, once we get off, pile on our backpacks and start walking towards the hostel, we realise we may have bitten off more than we can chew. The bus station is in the centre of town, which is also where the 40,000 schoolies and innumerable toolies have started their relentless waves of mayhem. It feels like some futuristic apocalyptic sci-fi film where the world has been taken over by anarchic drunken teenagers who have all had parts of their brains removed. The streets are just a sea of young idiots who whoop and yell, smash glasses on the street, stop traffic, pee everywhere, all while believing their are the coolest cats out there. Ah, those were the days . . .
Anyway, my bright idea is to walk to the hostel, as the receptionist had told me it is only 20 minutes away. After 20 minutes of ploughing our way through gaggles of schoolies, it becomes clear that we are still miles away from the hostel. In addition, the hostel's reception closes at 10pm, and it is now 9:40 so, reluctantly, we hail a cab that gets us there at 9:55.
I had hoped that the distance from the city centre would mean we would be away from most of the schoolies. This proves correct but instead we are at the part of town that all the older drunken idiots have come to in order to escape the schoolies as well. The hostel is located on a nice marina called Marina Mirage, an upmarket wharf area that, during the day, attracts well-to-do sailing folks and Japanese tourists for cruises. During the evening, the 20-something drongos take over and loud bands play at the waterside taverns to entertain them. Now, I'm as keen as the next guy to go out and hear a good band and have a couple of beers on a Saturday night but, at this specific moement in time, with a heavy backpack, the shouts of schoolies ringing in my ears and two minutes to check in to the hostel before being locked out for the night, I am not in the best of humour.
The hotel, 'The British Arms', was the only place in Surfers that was not fully booked tonight. That fact alone should have raised alarm bells - if it's not good enough for brain-dead teenage yobbos then there may be something wrong with it. We make it just as the reception is about to close and Jane and I are in separate dorms, so we split up. My six-bed dorm smells strongly like old socks and BO and all of my dorm-mates are currently all out on the piss. This hostel, unlike most of the others we have stayed in so far, does not seem to attract the multicultural travelling clientele. Instead it is almost exclusively Australian toolies or English soccer hooligan-types. I would later notice that one particular group of English lager-louts never leaves the hostel, rather they just sloth around in the common room watching movies like 'Deuce Bigalow' and anything with Adam Sandler in it, burp and fart without excusing themselves and swear and yell and bang things at all hours.
The kitchen is a complete pigsty because no one does their dishes and everything smells like either BO or alcohol or, in some cases, both. It is times like this when you question whether you should be staying in hostels. They can be awesome places, such as in Byron Bay, with great facilities, a fun atmosphere and interesting people. Or you can get hostels like this.
The upshot of all this is that the night is long and unpleasant.
Where I stayed