Airlie Beach, Australia

Leaving Cairns on the train reminded me of my summer travels riding the rails of Europe – minus the annoying strike in Spain that forced travellers to queue for hours in the summer heat just to make a reservation. The train in Australia lumbers along at a much more leisurely pace, but it was a nice way to spend a day. And, I got to see much of the countryside (include some backside, owing to the fact that the train passes by a nudist colony).

On the train, I read the second half of The Economist and one of the local papers. Satisfied that I had caught up on current events, I headed to the dining car to chat with Kat, the woman who was working there. Since there were so few passengers on the train, we ended up chatting for nearly four hours about all sorts of things, including her recent hiking trip around Europe and the mysteries of airline luggage handling (and how her bag ended up in Iran or something instead of Madrid). All in all, a nice day.

Airlie Beach lives up to its name: it’s a real beach town that really reminded me of Key West, Florida. Everywhere, there were people in swim suits parading along the road, many guys didn’t seem to own shoes or shirts and tanned bodies were everywhere. Strutting among them, I made my way to the Beaches hostel. This place was a serious party hostel with a giant bar right outside my bedroom window. When I checked into my room, I was happy to meet a couple of hilarious American guys from New York. We chatted briefly, but one was about to pass out, the other was really loaded and the third was off to pick up – which he did and then proceeded to have sex with a pretty woman from California about 1 meter from my bed. Hostel dorms: all the benefits of Amsterdam’s live sex shows without the 30 Euro admission fee.

After a sleep penetrated punctuated by a squeaking bed frame and suppressed moaning, I rolled out of bed and headed down to the pier to catch a boat out the Whitsundays. I would loved to have gone on a multi-day sailing adventure, but there were other parts of the east coast I wanted to see, so I opted for a single-day trip with Ocean Rafting. They have great boats, take you to all the best spots overlooking Whitehaven beach, swing past some amazing snorkeling locations and provide what seemed to be a pretty splendid buffet lunch (I brought my own nosh because the buffet was sort of, ummm, meaty).

After the boat trip, I headed back to the hostel where I ran into a couple from Melbourne. He’s a sales guy for a domain names company and she’s a environmental consultant. We talked a bit about Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, which I read earlier and which they were reading then. After a couple of drinks, we strolled down the road until we reached another bar, where we met another couple: an Italian woman and her French-Canadian man toy. The two of them met on a potato farm where they worked as part of their working-holiday visa.

All the people I met in Airlie were really great. However, the highlight of my trip was a serendipitous meeting that took place as I was thinking about Ewan McGregor’s epic adventure chronicled in Long Way Down. I would like to do something similar with my brother, and there, in Airlie Beach, was the kind of motorcycle I’d use for the trip: a BMW F650 Dakar. As I was inspecting the bike, its young owner came over and said, “What’s up?” I explained my interest in the bike and he proceeded to regale me for nearly an hour with his story of riding the bike nearly 70,000km all over Australia during the last two years. His name was Toby and he left Germany after high school to come to Australia on a work-holiday visa. After nearly six-months of work, he’d saved enough to buy the bike and set out to explore this vast country. Interspersing travel with work allow him to accumulate all the accoutrements necessary for hard-core travel: metal pannier boxes, a tank bag, GPS, etc. He’s going to be leaving Australia shortly, so his sister flew down to accompany him on the last few weeks of his adventure. I loved hearing his story.

Because of the people I met in Airlie, I was kind of sad to leave, but I wanted to see Byron Bay, so I hopped on a Jet Airline flight out of Prosperpine’s little tropical airport and headed south.