Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drumming at The Loo With A View

I thought we were going out for dinner. Turns out we were also going to become part of the Mooloolaba street theatre scene.

It started with a magazine assignment: a dozen fun and unexpected things to do with kids this summer. A few months ago we had stumbled across a drum circle that meets on the beach in Mooloolaba, a town about half an hour south of here, so I decided to include that in the article. After tracking down the leader (which took a week, and involved speaking to every drummer on the Sunshine Coast before finally connecting with a guy named Krusey), I had the piece. Talking to him about the drumming made me want to go back and see it again, so we decided we'd go this Wednesday night.

Not far from where the drum circle meets, there's a fabulous hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant. It's one of these places that is jam-packed even on a Wednesday night, where people mill around on the street waiting for their takeaway orders while people inside sit at rickety tables and eat off mis-matched crockery. Sharon hadn't been there, so we decided to have dinner before the drumming. Jackie (Sharon's teaching partner) and her family joined us, so we made a little party of it.

Naturally we'd forgotten to book a table, so we ended up getting takeaway. Josh, Jackie's son, had brought his djembe drum along, so while we waited the kids took turns performing on the street. Josh even put his hat out, but nobody seemed to think their talents were worthy of a coin.

With bags of massaman curry, pad thai, fried cashews and vegetables, and prawn chips under our arms, we strolled over to the barbecue area to feast. The beach at Mooloolaba is a real gathering place, and a lot of fun at night. There are lights on the sand, so you can watch people playing beach volleyball and footy while the younger children play on the playgrounds. There's a large balcony beside the toilet block (a complex known as The Loo With A View), where the drummers meet, while below them on the sand the local fire-twirling group practice their skills. At another table, a parcour practitioner was doing handstands and other tricks.

Before long, everyone in our group was taking part in some element of the scene. Ana borrowed the camera and went to take photos of the fire twirlers. After chatting with them for a few minutes, she handed the camera back to me so she could learn how to toss firesticks around. Sharon, Jackie, Kadek and Josh joined the drum circle. Isaiah went to chat to the parcour runner, and soon he was trying his hand at that. Charlotte and Indi, meanwhile, ran back and forth between the playground and the beach, while I just wandered around photographing the whole thing.

It was a great evening -- casual, fun, spontaneous, unexpected. Photos here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The biggest show in Coolum

I'm not sure what it was that made me suspect the Coolum School Carnival wasn't your typical school 'fete', but it may have been the day Charlotte and Isaiah asked if they would be able to buy armbands for the rides. Thirty dollar armbands.

School carnivals aren't really part of the culture at our kids' school in Bracebridge, but I've certainly been to a few as a reporter. They're all pretty much the same -- face painting, a couple of games, a bake table, another table selling second-hand books and third-hand rubbish, maybe a barbecue. After photographing a few dozen of them, I could almost predict the shots. (It became so predictable, in fact, that as an editor I used to forbid my reporters from shooting face painting, demanding that they at least try to get me something I hadn't seen before.)

But rides? Real carnival rides assembled by pierced and tatooed, dope-smoking, trailer-living carnies? Nope, never seen that at a school carnival. Not even at a school as large as Coolum State School, which has over 1000 students going up to grade seven.

As the carnival got closer, it became even more apparent that this was a rather large event in the school calendar. The teachers are all expected to run an activity or a stall at the Friday night carnival. Sharon, ever the mischief-maker, noted that staying at school until 9:00 at night on a Friday isn't really in the union contract and wondered what would happen if a teacher refused. She may has well have asked what would happen if she sparked up a joint in a staff meeting. "Oh, you really wouldn't want to do that," she was told. "There would be trouble."

We briefly considered making some of that trouble when we got a letter from the Governor of Queensland. There was a reception for teachers at Government House in Brisbane, and visiting Canadian teachers were invited to attend. Only two problems: it was on the same night as the Coolum carnival, and children weren't welcome. It was really the last issue that clinched it for us, since we really couldn't see what we would do with the kids while we drove to Brisbane and back. Besides, by this point Isaiah and Charlotte had been whipped into a frenzy of excitement about the carnival and it would have been too cruel to tell them they couldn't go. On top of that, when we really thought about it, we decided we were actually more interested in seeing what all this carnival excitment was about than seeing the inside of Government House.

The big carnival day was a couple of weeks ago (I've fallen a bit behind in my blogging). And it is indeed an impressive event. I'd say it's on the same scale as a smallish fall fair -- not as big as the one in Bracebridge, but still quite a show for something that's run entirely by teachers, parents and conscripted students. There were games (a dunk tank, a plate-smash-ball-throw booth, mini golfing, etc.). Another half dozen booths were selling food, and there were tons of prizes being raffled. Sharon ran the petting zoo. And yes, there was face painting. The rides were big and impressive -- with equally big and impressive lineups -- and they seemed to have a better class of carnies than most, with nary a facial tattoo in sight.

There were also a few uniquely Aussie attractions, including showbags. These are sample bags filled with various kinds of candy, or "lollies" as they call them here. I've been told they started out as sample bags given out, or sold at low cost, by retailers and manufacturers, but the whole thing has grown to astonishing proportions since then. At the big fairs they have hundreds of different kinds of showbags, containing everything from hair products to clothing, and costing anything from a couple of bucks to twenty or more dollars. At the Royal Melbourne show a couple of years ago there was a $999 showbag that contained goods valued at over $2,000, including vouchers for three nights accommodation and dinner. When the big Brisbane fair, the Ecca, takes place in August, the daily paper publishes a special insert listing all the showbags and their contents. There's an online list from this year's show here. The premise, apparently, is that by buying the bag you are getting greater value for your money than you would if you bought everything separately. I'm not sure that's true of all bags, but the kids certainly seemed happy with their six dollar showbags full of sour candies.

The carnival draws thousands of visitors -- not just students and their families but loads of people from the community. They come for the rides and the games, and at the end of the evening they stick around to watch a very impressive fireworks display. And, in the process, they raise tens of thousands of dollars for the school. Final figures aren't in yet, but since many of the goods are donated, the profit margin is impressive.

People kept asking Sharon if we have anything like it in Canada. Her stock answer was "No, we just pay higher taxes." And the event certainly is partly about making money. But it's also really interesting to see how this event can reiterate the school's position as a community site, drawing back people who haven't been to the place since they graduated.I hear the reception at Government House was lovely, and I would have liked to see the place. But I think we made the right decision by staying in Coolum for the evening.

Photos of the fun are here.

Photos of Fraser

If you're on Facebook, you may have seen these photos on my profile. If you're not, and you want to get some idea of what Fraser Island looks like, follow this link.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The most beautiful place in Australia?

There are many beautiful places in Australia, and in the past ten months or so we’ve seen a lot of them. The Great Ocean Road, the rainforest of the Wet Tropics, the Whitsunday Islands, Great Keppel Island, the Blue Mountains, the Misty Mountains, Port Arthur, the Great Barrier Reef – they are all stunning and memorable. But I think the most beautiful place we’ve seen so far may well be Lake Mackenzie on Fraser Island. And we very nearly didn’t go there.

Fraser Island is located just off the coast about 40 kms north of here. At more than 100 kms long by 30 kms wide, it is the largest sand island in the world. It’s listed as one of the must-sees on this part of the coast, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. So why not go?

Well, it’s partly because we thought we may have already seen much of what Fraser has to offer. Descriptions of the island emphasize the long, pristine beaches, the lush rainforest, and the crystalline freshwater lakes.  Sounds lovely, but also very familiar: we’re living just a few minutes walk from a long, pristine beach; the hinterland around here is full of stunning rainforest walks; crystalline lakes are a bit harder to find in Australia, but as people who live an hour's drive from Georgian Bay, we have had just a bit of experience in that regard. At this point in our journey, with just two months to go, we’re having to make some serious choices about what to see and where to go. Skipping a trip to Fraser seemed like an easy choice.

And yet, it kept nagging at us. The place is listed as a world heritage site, after all. And there are some elements of Fraser that we haven’t experienced, such as driving on the beach (the beaches there are designated as highways) and seeing dingos in the wild. In the end – with a very strong nudge from the staff at Sharon’s school – we decided to go.

Going to Fraser isn't as simple as just scooting up the road. Fraser Island is an enormous sand dune, after all, and conventional vehicles simply aren’t allowed on the barges that go to the island. You can hire your own 4x4, or you can take a guided tour aboard special buses. We’re not usually fans of guided tours, but the horror stories of novice drivers getting their jeeps bogged in deep sand convinced us that we should let someone else do the driving.

We weren’t very far into the trip before I decided we’d made the right decision. Travelling from Noosa, we drove up the beach on the mainland for about 30 kms, then took an inland track to reach Rainbow Beach, where we would catch the barge to the island. As the bus heaved and pitched through the soft sand of the inland track, and squeezed past oncoming cars on a path that seemed barely wide enough for one, I was glad I was able to just sit back and enjoy it.

Once we reached the barge landing site, I was even more pleased. The barges that run to the island may look like typical ferries, but they don’t bother with niceties like docks: because the whole region is sand, they just pull up right on the beach rather like a D-Day landing craft. Getting the bus to the barge meant running an obstacle course, the driver gunning his engine while navigating between a handful of utes and trucks that were bogged axle deep in the soft sand. His running travel commentary suddenly stopped, replaced with a tense hissing sound as his headset picked up his heavy, concentrated breathing.

A five minute barge ride and we were on Fraser, where we skirted through another cluster of bogged vehicles before roaring down the beach. Looking out the bus window at a couple busily shovelling sand out from under their wheels, it wasn’t hard to picture myself in the same boat.

Turning inland to another incredibly tortuous track, the driver explained that the island is unusually difficult to drive on these days. Rain acts like a grader, packing the sand down and smoothing it out. Fraser hasn’t had a decent rain in months, so driving the sand roads is like driving through sugar. Sugar with metre deep holes that set the bus swaying in a sometimes quite alarming fashion. At one point we even saw another off-road tour bus getting bogged, something that would no doubt help shorten the career of its driver.

Thousands of people come to Fraser each year to camp on the beaches or stay in one of the resorts. Doing a daytrip meant we had to settle for just a couple of quick highlights: we would walk a rainforest track beside a creek, and we would swim at Lake Mackenzie.

The rainforest track was lovely. Water slowly percolates through the island's sand, taking about a century to go from the high lakes to the creeks. Because of that, drought has little effect on the island's water table. Even though it hasn't rained in weeks, the forest was lush and green. The creek water, being so completely filtered by the sand, is absolutely clear -- in photos you really can't tell that there's water in the creek at all.

That same water, when sitting in a lake many metres deep, turns out to be the most stunning rich blue. Lake Mackenzie is that blue, an unbelievable, breathtaking sight. Even though the lakeshore was crowded with a hundred or so visitors, it still managed to feel like a pristine hideaway, a place so perfect that it could not possibly be real.

Swimming in that lake was an absolute joy. It reminded me very much of swimming at Bruce National Park in Ontario, except that the water was about 23 degrees.

We could have stayed there all day, all week if we were allowed. There's no camping allowed at Lake Mackenzie, which no doubt helps preserve the water quality. But both Sharon and I said that, one day, we will come back to Fraser Island. And next time we'll drive our own 4x4, soft sand or not, just so we can camp on the beach and return to Lake Mackenzie to swim there every day.

Oh, and the famous Fraser Island dingos? Didn't see a one on the island. But we did see one trotting through the ditch on the outskirts of Rainbow Beach. Looked rather like a stray dog to me, which I suppose is really what they are.

(As for photos, Sharon's got a bunch on her Facebook page. I'll have to see if I can figure out a way to link to them for people who aren't on Facebook. Stay tuned.)