Byron Bay dissolved behind us in a dreary blanket of rain as we chugged along the Pacific Highway towards the warm haze of sunshine emanating from the city of Gold Coast. We crossed the state border, missing the sign that heralded our arrival into Queensland and agreed it was time to find a campsite to rest. We tracked our location on the trusty Wiki camps app, both of us immensely thankful we had such a useful and accessible tool to rely on in desperate times (providing we were in good signal range); this app will become your lifeline if you are as ill-prepared as Matty and I and you are scouting in the dead of the night for an easy, last-minute stopover, preferably one with hot showers, a fully-equipped camp kitchen, plenty of pluggable power and no peculiar neighbours peering in through your car window first thing in the morning… the only luxuries a campground can really offer.
Google maps led us to a highly recommended, Wiki Camps-approved site situated in Austinville, 26 kilometres west of Surfer’s Paradise. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived; the sun was low in the sky having not yet surrendered to the night but still light enough to cast an ominous glow over the campground. The entire site was empty, save for one rogue traveller kindling a fire at the furthest point of a field. There were red-painted cabins on one side of the park, but no sign of movement brought them to life. Everything was strangely still and strikingly subdued compared to the other campsites we had visited that burst with the raucous enthusiasm of young children and holiday-makers. I peered out at an oversized, darkened lodge that towered over the park upon the peak of a large hill. The long, parched field beneath was shielded by a battalion of thick trees; I squinted through the shady woodland, refusing to let my imagination wander to thoughts of the Blair Witch Project. Nothing could supress our disconcertion and the mounting sense of foreboding as we trailed along the grass, parking a mere few feet from of the exit.
Darkness descended. We had agreed two things upon our arrival. 1) To wait for the camp manager to approach us and demand his $30 camping fee rather than foolishly knock on the door of his lodge, beckon a suspicious invitation and never see the light of day again. Perhaps that was the game of this campground: trick, tap and trap. 2) To wait for the lonesome traveller at the far end of the field to approach us to avoid the possibility of being thrown onto his hungry, flame-licking fire. Stomachs growling and minds abuzz with the invented scenarios of our impending doom, the two of us whipped out our personal kitchen facilities and began to cook dinner. As our skinless and boneless salmon fillets sizzled away on the gas stove (oh yes, we cook fish even in the backend of sinister campsites; we are not just any campers, we are flashpackers – no tins of beans for us!) we heard a rustling in the grass and the sound of heavy footfall. A plump man with a bristly, silver moustache emerged out of the darkness. He graced us with a warm smile and a friendly welcome, keen to show us around the following morning. He pointed blindly in the dark towards the toilets and camp kitchen and then advised we collect some firewood and light a fire.
Anxiety quickly ebbing away, we laughed at our false preconceptions of the camp wondering how we could have misjudged the place so wrongly. Matty’s campfire skills blessed us with a roaring fire later that evening, sparking the attention and admiration of the young traveller from across the field. He introduced himself as Sam, a Canadian backpacker who had just finishing touring the East Coast; he was a practised storyteller with ample tales on the end of his tongue awaiting a fresh set of listeners. It rolled into a surprisingly pleasant evening; we could now sleep soundly knowing a troll wouldn’t trudge down from the brow of the hill and tuck into us for breakfast. Unless of course Sam was actually a raging cannibal.
Just as we made ourselves comfortable with our foaming cans of Great Northern (best beer ever) and fizzing bottles of alcho-pops (I’m poor – don’t judge me!) the beefy camp manager trundled over to us, his moustache ruffling in the wind as though it had a life of its own.
“Would anyone care for a cupcake?” he asked, thrusting a sticky tin of cakes beneath our noses. “Red velvet,” he winked.
I peered inside at the rich, tantalising delights, salivating at the mere thought of biting into one. Then irrationality swept over us again. Was this another trick? Lure us in with delectable red velvet, a sweet but deadly decoy, before robbing us blind and rinsing us of everything we owned? (This wouldn’t have amounted to much, and we were both satisfied that to steal Jenny would take a great deal of forward planning with little success… and if a car thief did accomplish such a burdensome task, we would bid them good luck and show our gratitude when we discover them on the side of a nearby road, bonnet up and broken down.)
The bustling camp manager was very persistent with his sweet-treat offer. “They were made by my granddaughter this evening”.
Matt and I glanced incredulously at the silent lodge looming behind his back, doubtful that a place so sombre had ever heard laughter, let alone seen merry little grandchildren baking cakes for the unexpected custom of backpackers. Sane Sam, who clearly possessed less of a delusional mind, took a cupcake without question. It would only be rude to refuse so we accepted. As the old manager turned on his heel and hobbled away, we crumbled the killer cakes surreptitiously into the grass. It was a good thing we did too, as we arose the next morning to find Sam had curiously disappeared… and the sweet aroma of freshly baked Red Velvets wafted down from the high lodge like a deathly fume, teasing and torturing the victims below. (Joking – Sam actually fled the campsite before either of us had even stirred, probably nursing a crippling stomach ache). Just so you all know, Matthew and I aren’t a pair of paranoid stoners; the park had a very strange, unsettling air about it, and at times we did feel very intimated and vulnerable, convincing ourselves with the same premonition that we would not survive the night.
But it wasn’t just the cupcakes or the campsite that concerned us that night as further dramatic events unfolded. It was nearing midnight and I arose with sharp pains in my side. Oh god, here we go, I mused. What is bothering me this time? I heaved myself and my full bladder out of the Land Rover, cursing myself for cracking into that last Smirnoff Ice and I ambled to the toilets with the aid of a dim torch on my phone and the vague directions signalled by the camp manager earlier that evening. I stumbled into the public toilets clutching my side, ignoring the utter state of the facilities and the family of rodents that had taken residency in one of the shower cubicles. I staggered into a toilet cubicle to relieve my aching bladder which now felt like it had grown to the size of a watermelon, but as I did so, I almost keeled over in agony. Great. A water infection. Serves me right for judging the cupcakes, I thought. I’ve been cursed by a caravan park. The night spiralled into a haze of relentless toilet trips, an ordeal that saw me stagger to the cubicles about eight times within an hour before hopelessly admitting defeat and slumping against the toilet door. I flushed away any thought of sleep (literally) and the subsequent few hours were… well hellish. Exhausted and sore, I returned to the car to find Matthew sound asleep, deep in some blissful dream, curled up in his contentment without the vaguest idea where I had been for half the night – typical man, completely oblivious! Envying his functioning bladder and pain-free sleep, I woke him up to explain where I had just crashed for the last few hours: beside a rotting toilet on a soaking wet floor.
Disorientated and still only semi-conscious, Matt reached for Doctor Google and perused a number of articles online, before confirming my diagnosis and suggesting we find some cranberry juice in the middle of the night. With all hope of sleep lost, we kickstarted the engine and sped out of the campsite at 3am, clearly both delusional as though it was a matter of life or death. Amused by the sudden urgency and the utter ridiculousness of our plan, we drove to the nearest 24/7 convenience store to badger a shop assistant about cranberry juice. But no luck. We followed Google Maps to every listed service station, pharmacy, and 24/7 store, but not one small carton graced their shelves. I was adamant we should return to the campsite and sleep, but Matthew was on a mission. ‘I will get you that bloody cranberry juice even if it takes all night.’ I didn’t have the strength to remind him that it wasn’t a miracle potion that could zap the problem straight away.
Three tortured hours passed. It was nearing five in the morning but the sun was still low awaiting its cue to rise on stage and burn through the velvety night sky. The midnight journey had seen Matthew, Jenny and I traipse all over, only to come face to face with either a closed-down chemist or a bemused shop assistant who could sell us no cranberry juice but instead offer an entire shelf stocked with every exotic alternative you can imagine like guava. What the hell?!?! Losing our minds and patience, we were about to turn back when we realised we were in the heart of Surfer’s Paradise. The town was buzzing with party-goers and drunken backpackers spilling out from clubs and bars. Trying to imagine my life if I was normal, I stood at the window of a 24/7 pharmacy impatiently ringing the bell for their after-hours care. A woman finally appeared at the window, throwing me a speculative look as though I was about to ask her for a dose of cocaine. She slowly slid open the glass shutter and asked what I was after. Judging by the girls we had seen in the streets of Surfer’s, I imagine there was an enormous stash of morning after pills ready and waiting by the window. Meanwhile, Matty scoured the shelves at a neighbouring convenience store for juice, and much to his sheer relief and the restoration of his sanity, he bought two litres of the stuff and forced me to guzzle it all before we left.
Deflated but feeling victorious that we had finally purchased some God-damn cranberry juice, we drove the half hour journey back to the campsite. We checked out later that morning, and intended to spend the day in Surfer’s Paradise before moving onto Brisbane. The infection was obviously a curse of the campsite; it gradually worsened leaving me bed-bound in a hotel with a high fever in Brisbane. This beckoned the attention of a doctor and a nasty course of antibiotics before I was right as rain… to excuse the water pun.
The strange night was forever imprinted on our memories of Gold Coast. Neither of us have touched cranberry juice since, and I hope never to see the Ocean Spray logo again.