The Secret Life of the Gold Coast: Penguin, 2004

I wrote this book in 2003. A mix of travel and sociology coupled to a cautionary tale of life with a pregnant phone sex worker and her schizophrenic drug dealer boyfriend, it somehow wound up in the true crime section of bookstores. Why? I still ask myself the question. It’s no longer in print which is a blessing, because I hate the title; I wanted The Town That Lifestyle Built, but was told it was boring. Since those naive early days I have learned many lessons about navigating the politics of the viper’s nest known as the publishing industry.



Inside, the apartment was like the set of a Beckett play: no furniture, no television, no light globes in their sockets, not a single object that might indicate this was a place of human habitation. The only visible source of life: a tiny electrical heater, an old-fashioned silver model, sitting in the middle of the room issuing a low, sinister buzzing noise; from its single glowing element a grubby orange blush crept out to coat the bare, grey surfaces of a room where the curtains were drawn and everything else was dark.

My friend, a journalist had arrived to interview a young woman, a heroin addict who, after having injected a large amount of the drug, had drifted off into an opiate slumber on a windowsill eight storeys above the ground. A few minutes later the girl rolled over and fell straight out the window with nothing but concrete paving to break her fall. Thanks to the effects of the drug, she hit the ground as slack as a dead cat and walked out of hospital an hour later with barely a scratch. It was the kind of story the magazine was looking for these days.

The addict’s boyfriend led the journalist and the photographer into the kitchen. There were no utensils or food, just a giant pile of clothes, like a termite mound, standing in front of the refrigerator. In the manner of a mountaineer negotiating a precipice, the journalist shuffled past the clothes and was left to stand outside the bedroom door, waiting. From within she could hear the boyfriend attempting to rouse the sleeping girl. He soon re-appeared, alone, apologising, before disappearing to try again.

After a matter of some minutes the girl appeared, groggy and listless, her eyes heavy, her jaw set in a slackened death mask. Before the journalist had had a chance to introduce herself, the girl fell over. The boyfriend picked her up off the floor and shook her with urgent reminders that this was the journalist from the women’s magazine – the one that had come to do the story – the one who had come to pay her. The boyfriend was keen to reassure the journalist that everything would be all right.

After the second collapse the journalist disappeared out the door and into the sunshine to call her editors and propose that this story be canned. They agreed and the journalist, trailed by the photographer, made her way across the lawn towards the waiting car. The sight of her leaving was enough to wake the girl from her stupor; she began to scream, staggering her way to the front gate. “You fucking bitch!”

The boyfriend, too, became aggressive, making a lunge for the journalist and forcing the photographer to intervene. The journalist made a run for the car. Together she and the photographer locked the doors and sped away. In the rear vision mirror they could see the pair running after them with a disjointed junky-jog shaking their fists and screaming obscenities, like unhappy zombies hungry for a meal of brains.

The journalist’s name was Liz and she relayed this story to me as we drove. It had happened some months earlier but it had made a big impression upon her, as it did now on me. “Up there is where the girl fell out of the building,” she told me, pointing to the cluster of towers in the distance. It was my first visit to the Gold Coast and I was seeing the city from what I was to later learn was its most spectacular vantage – the southward approach across the Southport Bridge, the bridge that traverses the Broadwater, the mouth of the Nerang River, and connects the north and south of the city. All around us stood buildings; they seemed to run forever into the blue haze as we sped along the highway. Tall, white and crystalline they gathered in arbitrary fungal clumps, as though having sprouted in the last rain.

“That palm tree is fake,” said Liz. “It’s actually a radio antenna.” I looked up. Beneath the foliage hung loaf-shaped transmitters like deformed coconuts. The Broadwater sparkled to our left. Across the expanse a little wooden church floated, its pointed spire rocking gently in the wake of a boat shaped like a duck cutting a white gash through the blue.

Further we drove. I wound down the window and felt the breeze against my face. The buildings grew in density; there was The Aegean, The Marrakesh, The St Tropez, The Biarritz, The Phoenician, Xanadu. The names seemed to spring direct from the subconscious, the triggers of a psychiatric test: “I want you to tell me your associations with the following words: Kasbah, Atlantis, Copacabana, Monte Carlo…” The variety and absurdity of their manufacture was endless: a post-modern extravaganza complete with hot pink pyramids and mock classical pillars in baby blue; a soaring devil-horned tower in emerald glass; a spiky, lop-sided structure bristling in Bavarian turrets; a jagged art deco monolith; white Mediterranean domes that left purple circles on the retina; a swimming pool in the form of an Aztec temple. Standing at the edge of the ocean the buildings turned their outlandish ornament to the sea, often revealing on their western aspects little more than soaring blank walls, giving the highway spectator the sense of an actor behind the proscenium. Here these buildings stood to face… what? Arriving armies? Or the inevitable future when sea levels would rise and flood the city, leaving in their wake nothing more than the teetering spires of a thousand ruined civilizations artfully reproduced in fiberglass?

And it was big, huge in fact: the sixth largest city in the country and its growth outstripped all else. Yet who even thought of it as a city? A city was a place with a subway, a natural history museum and a park downtown with a bronze statue of the founding father staring benevolently through wire pince-nez. Who had founded this place? Nobody. No one had written a declaration or found gold in a creek or dumped a boatload of criminals or spied a strip of trees off the port bow and cried ‘Land!’ Yet, despite this, half a million people, as though victims of the same subliminal message spliced into one evening’s soap opera, had picked themselves up and moved here, most in the last twenty years. I might not have believed it had not all around me stood the evidence: hundreds of towers stretching in every direction, new ones rising up every day, miles upon miles of piles upon piles of little boxes, all of them with little balconies on which to stand clutching a cocktail while staring out at the ocean. What had all these people come to find and – perhaps more importantly – had they found it?

Here, surely, was the city of the future – if only because it had no past. But the future was not 1984 or Metropolis, it was not some dank dystopia of rain and reinforced concrete; the future was bright, full of light and absurdity and a message that here on earth man was building paradise: Paradise Sands, Paradise Gardens, Paradise Island, Paradise, Paradise, Paradise…

“In Paradise”

By the time of my first visit to the Gold Coast, my life had stagnated to such a point that to the casual observer it may have been mistaken for a particularly earnest Polish film: which is to say, slow, joyless and poorly funded. My previous book (my first), a biography of a well-known Perth eccentric, had met with legal problems and, after almost eighteen months of work and indecision, been shelved by the publishers. My disappointment and frustration were acute, and now depression, that ever-looming threat, had drawn its veil across my countenance.

My mental state was possibly not helped by a life of inveterate transience. Since starting my previous book I had been more or less continually on the road. By taking advantage of Australia’s newly competitive airline industry and the generosity of friends, I had managed, for more than two years, to exist without any permanent abode. Partially this was a nominal gesture lending some thin veneer of legitimacy to my new-found ambition as a travel writer, but mostly it was just another form of procrastination. By the time I arrived on the Gold Coast, therefore, I was thoroughly lost; my misery had become a cocoon, layered and hard to the point that is seemed it might be with me forever. So when I headed over the bridge for the first time it seemed quite a happy co-incidence that I had arrived in the city of the lost; a city where seemingly everyone had come from somewhere else and where “running away” was a box you ticked on the emigration form. My arrival also coincided neatly with some new revelations about the nature of travel.

“Why are you traveling?” a confused African villager once asked me – a man who had never ventured further than his neighbouring hamlet. I said it was to see the world. “No,” came the bewildered reply, “why are you traveling?” At the time I might have said something like, “To better know the world.” But now, after several more journeys and a little more thought on the subject, I have come to understand that the only reason I travel is to better know myself.

That travel is a fundamentally selfish act was a disturbing but inescapable conclusion; with a white face and a Visa card there are very few problems that cannot be solved; and as you are airlifted to safety and the locals left to be massacred in some gruesome medieval pogrom, so slips away the illusion that you were ever anything more than a tourist. The heart of darkness is a luxury for those who can reasonably expect to live beyond their fifth birthday. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to the “fake”, the “inauthentic”: Tijuana, Kuta Beach, Sun City, Ibiza; like prostitution, the transaction here is transparent. The idea that these places represent a fundamental cheapening of the travel “experience”; that they are debased and shabby product of the naïve tourist yearning for a pre-conceived notion of their destination, seems to me not merely a rather touching statement of the obvious, but an exoneration of all those “travelers” who have hacked their way into the jungle full of a misguided atavistic enthusiasm for the “primitive”, the “simple”, the “other” and found only their own egos.

That one could love Venice but not Las Vegas’ Venetian (a hotel and life-sized fiberglass replica of the Doge’s Palace and its surrounds in which one can experience the thrill of floating in an imported gondola down a canal smelling strongly of chlorine) when the two were virtually indistinguishable, right down to the number of crass Americans and sneering Euro-trash perched on iron lawn chairs at expensive outdoor restaurants, was beyond me. How much more “real” than its new world simulacrum is a Venice shored-up by pneumatic pumps and in which the only residents own hotels?

For the seeker of “authentic” experience the tourist city is nothing but an imagining, a mirage, an inconvenient hallucination on the way to something more sustaining, more authentic. People talk about Mikonos as if it wasn’t Greece, about Pattaya, as if it wasn’t Thailand. “That’s not the real Africa,” the dedicated “traveller” (never “backpacker” or “tourist”) will tell you, as though what was “African” – or “Greek” or “Thai”, for that matter – was something external, something that might be pointed to or eaten or photographed (always for the benefit of the traveller), rather than something that came from within; as though the man selling T-shirts outside Planet Hollywood in Kuta Beach had less right to be Balinese than the Hindu priest at the volcano shrine.

On a more immediate level The Gold Coast seemed to offer the ideal subject for a book in which I could combine my love of the grotesque with a diet of two-for-one tequila slammers. If I was tired of worthy travel then it was time to write a gloriously worthless book; something light and disposable; something middle-aged ladies could buy at the train station without embarrassment. It has always been my secret ambition to be a second-rung chat show guest; the emergency guy they ring when this month’s Hollywood ingénue is in rehab – Peter Ustinov or Stephen Fry. After the disaster of my first book I had become as hungry for success as I was for diversion. No more youth hostels full of fragrant Germans in lycra trousers telling boring stories about crawling across China! On the Gold Coast there were Meter Maids who had scratched one another’s eyes out in a vicious bikini-clad turf war; developers who had owned whole governments and Japanese Surfers who walked all day with a board under their arm but couldn’t swim a stroke. Whether these things were any more than clichés hardly seemed to matter: as we drove over the bridge I might as well have been a lucky contestant from a 1986 episode of Perfect Match off on a romantic, all expenses paid holiday to the sunny Gold Coast. And this city and I had a compatibility rating of 93%.

Consistent with my new philosophy of indulgent middle-class travel, there seemed no better way to familiarise myself with my intended home than to take, as so many millions had before me, a discount package holiday to Surfers Paradise. I scanned the brochure at the travel agency in Sydney. A thousand towers with a thousand names lay before me in a brimming cornucopia of swimming pools, spa baths, water views, ensuite bathrooms and room service massages. Unfortunately my budget and my fantasy had yet to meet any sort of consensus, and when I had told the travel agent that I would take the cheapest deal on offer, she looked genuinely disappointed.

My Hotel was on Orchid Avenue, a nightclub row of strip clubs and cavernous, pounding meat markets in the centre of Surfers Paradise. Orchid Avenue is the kind of place where the producers of reality TV shows go to find couples who want to test their fidelity by having topless models smear in them in chocolate sauce. My hotel shared a foyer with a strip club and had clearly taken some decorating tips from its neighbour. The entrance hall looked like a brothel, complete with pink cursive neon sign (some of the letters broken) flashing “Reception”. At night the cats in the alley below sounded disconcertingly like screaming children and for some time I simply sat in my room in the dark watching the people in the tower block opposite, or staring at the handle of the giant glowing guitar that rose from the Hard Rock Café over the roof tops, listening to the screams and feeling lonely. My vision of swingin’ debauchery had been somewhat deflated by the mediocrity of my hotel room and the unseasonably empty bars downstairs.

The business of finding a base on the Gold Coast was one that had occupied me now for three frantic days. At the time of my arrival it had seemed impossible that among the seemingly endless piles of little boxes that there might not have been one for me. But now I knew that the market was tight. The approach of summer had ruined my chances and I had grown weary of the supercilious looks I was receiving from real estate agents who clearly regarded me as little better than a vagrant. I stared at the big guitar outside. The walls were closing in. I needed to go for a walk.

From Orchid Avenue I wandered to the sea, along the beach and then to Cavill Avenue. Cavill Av (pronounced phonetically, as in “have”), as it is known to the locals, is the centre of Surfers Paradise. Prior to 1933, the area was known as Elston but after lobbying by a group of locals lead by hotelier Jim Cavill, was named for Cavill’s pub, The Surfer’s Paradise hotel. (The apostrophe was dropped in the 1950s when the Gold Coast began a campaign to market itself as an international destination. Tourists apparently have an aversion to punctuation.) Cavill Av runs from Marine Parade (the road parallel to the beach) to the Nerang River in the west, the two roads forming a disjointed shantytown of takeaway joints, souvenir shops, nightclubs and shopping malls. (On the beach sits a yellow shopping centre that had once been a waterslide; the developers retained the framework of the slide and simply built around it, connecting the building to the beach by a pedestrian overpass designed merely, it would seem, to add insult to injury and create what might be the single ugliest structure in Australia.)

In recompense to its general dowdiness, Surfers Paradise has a certain ratty plebian charm, an English seaside naughtiness of novelty beer hats, wet t-shirt competitions and trick pens with naked ladies; a charm that belies any substance to the moniker of “Australia’s Vegas”. Comparisons of the Gold Coast to Las Vegas are as perplexing as they are frequently cited, credible surely only in the minds of those who have never actually seen that cosmic explosion in the desert. The timid, decorous kitsch of Surfers Paradise resembles not in the least, certainly in any physical sense, the infinite grotesqueries of Vegas, a city whose scale and sensual might would defy the descriptive powers of any great writer in history, living or dead, chained to a desk and threatened with the execution of a loved one.

Yet any beguiling dagginess Surfers may have once possessed was now in the process of being ruthlessly expunged. In the wake of its most recent population explosion, the Gold Coast was adopting, holus-bolus, the vernacular of international capitalism. Where once stood the Chevron Hotel – the first modern luxury hotel on the Gold Coast and an institution that marked the beginning of what we know as Surfers Paradise – now grew The Chevron Renaissance; a monolithic trinity of skyscrapers – one sixty storeys – teeming with Starbucks outlets and Irish theme pubs. It wasn’t any more attractive than the old Surfers – The Renaissance had more in common with Puff Daddy’s beach house in Malibu than it did with the principles of Brunelleschi – it was just newer and bigger; the kind of thing local councilors talked about as “setting new standards of international excellence”.

Walking from Surfers Paradise to Broadbeach one is continually reminded that as an instrument of urban planning the skyscraper makes a very good beach shade and wind tunnel. In spite of being a confirmed enthusiast (there are few sights more thrilling than the bristle of distant needles rising from the horizon) one must concede that are few logical reasons to build them. Skyscrapers are highly inefficient buildings; they consume a shocking amount of resources and become exponentially more expensive the higher they grow. Other than the possibility of a view, there seemed no good reason, therefore, to build the Q1, a ninety-storey residential tower in southern Surfers and the largest of its kind in the world. It was to be almost double the height of the surrounding buildings; in drawings it looked absurd, like a child in a yearbook photograph who had gone through puberty at the age of ten. When I would later question the creator of the Q1 on his motives for building such a structure, he would tell me that the building was an exercise in the efficient use of scarce land, before noting in the same breath that the actual tower took up less than a quarter of the site. In other words: with some imagination one might have built exactly the same number of units using buildings of a much lesser height, all with equal access to ocean views.

The delusion that tower blocks were invented to combat urban overcrowding, however, is fundamental to the skyscraper myth. The skyscraper was a never a device for the clever utilization of space: at the time of their invention in the late nineteenth century, there were still farms on Manhattan. The Q1, likewise, was clearly not an exercise in exploiting scarce land resources; it was a physical demonstration of the Gold Coast’s ambitions as the City of the Future, an assertion of civic pride in a town with little sense of civics.

Another disadvantage of apartment blocks is their tendency to suck life off the streets, leaving the abandoned and bewildered pedestrian to flounder, disoriented, through barren chasms of concrete wondering whether he is on the road that will bring him to Broadbeach. At night you can walk a kilometre among the towers that stretch silently north and south from Surfers Paradise and see no one but lost tribes of Chinese tourists wandering dazed and hot, grabbing at your clothes imploringly and pointing to their hotel keys as they mutter plaintively “Per-ease… Sunc-tory Cove?” And all you can do is look at them apologetically and wave them in direction of the endless highway in the hope that the pantomime taxi you’re steering will wend them back to safety.

From Surfers Paradise the beachside suburbs spread south along the highway in an unbroken chain of development: tower blocks, strip malls and a scattering of squat 1960s motels with names like The Montego and The Mayfair. These southern suburbs – Broadbeach, Mermaid and Miami (in that order) – face beaches with different names, but they’re all on the same bit of sand. To the north, across the mouth of the river, the suburbs spread from the town centre of Southport until they reach a national park. The coast-hugging “strip” structure of the Gold Coast is one of the city’s especial peculiarities. The highway runs down the middle of the suburbs, sometimes only a block west of the beach, creating an arbitrary line between rich and poor, dividing the beachfront houses from the western developments (although anything on an inland canal is likely to be pricey) in a ribbon of exclusivity that is sometimes no more than fifty metres wide and often several hundred thousand dollars more expensive. It seemed a lot to pay for the privilege of being on the right side of a twenty-metre strip of tarmac.

At Burleigh Heads the beach reaches it first geographical obstruction, and it is here that the character of the city undergoes a change. This is where smaller, older communities have been swallowed up by the Gold Coast and a few houses from the 1920s and 30s still survive, studded amongst the towers and the endless marina developments. Here too is a distinct air of poverty, especially in places like Palm Beach and Tugun (the former featuring a sign at its boundary: “Welcome to Palm Beach, a warm place for warm people”), suburbs with some of the highest unemployment rates in Australia, full of dowdy weatherboard houses, their curtains drawn like suburban drug labs.

It is a ride of well over an hour on a city bus before the Gold Coast reaches its official but somewhat unceremonious conclusion at a roundabout in Coolangatta. It is an arbitrary geographic delineation, however, for the Gold Coast is not a city of limits; it is a city of the imagination, of aspirations, of ambitions, and these, as a glance at the new developments stretching further and further into the southern horizon will confirm, know no bounds.

After giving up and following the Chinese tourists to the highway, I arrived, exhausted, in Broadbeach, an unremarkable “family oriented” version of Surfers Paradise. After a brief rest I crossed to the other side of the highway to begin the journey back to my hotel. Unfortunately, the streets of the Gold Coast were not, to paraphrase Nancy Sinatra, made for walkin’. Like almost all the Hyper Republics, or anywhere where the Hard Rock Café is still a hip nightspot, the Gold Coast is not foot-friendly. This was a most unfortunate state of affairs because I have never owned or a car, and even if I did, would be unable to drive it. Spying a bus stop in the distance I decided to cease my trudging. Walking past a dark and lonely strip of nature reserve, I arrived at the stop. The highway traffic was heavy and the sidewalk devoid of life. The screeching of bats was deafening as they swooped down from the trees to cut across my path. The air smelt of rotten figs.

After some wait among the shrieking bats the bus arrived and I left this small patch of primeval veldt to return to my shrinking room and the great big guitar that shot up over the roofs like an excited exclamation mark to proclaim my arrival.

© Brendan Shanahan 2000-2006