Magnetic Island is just 20 minutes away from Townsville on the ferry, and it's a holiday spot par excellence. It's a smallish island, roughly triangular with each side about 10km long, and about 75 per cent of it is National Park. The easiest aspect of it, though – as far as recuperating flu victims are concerned – is that it's set up perfectly for tourists, and the packages to get you over to the island and staying in one of the many hostels are very cheap, readily available, and hassle-free. So, for A$59 I got a return ticket to the island and five nights in Centaur House, a quiet and friendly place halfway up the east coast in a village called Arcadia. It was spot on.
Most people spend their time on Magnetic Island hanging around on the beach, and this is exactly what I did for the first couple of days; I would normally have kicked straight into the walking tracks, but until I'd got my temperature down and stopped coughing and spluttering, I wasn't going to do anything strenuous. Casting my mind back as the surf broke, the sun burned and the sand blew into my sandwiches, I tried to remember the last time I'd put a whole day aside to sit on the beach; it's not something I normally get much of a kick out of, as I tend to be the sort of person who needs to be occupied. I don't think I've dedicated a whole day to the beach since Broome back in , and it was only the light-headed, ears-blocked feeling of fading flu that made the whole dreamy experience enjoyable. I don't need a tan – after this long in the sun, a tan is automatic, even if you keep out of the sun like I tend to – but relaxing in the sun is a great way to get better.
A great way not to get better is to drink beer, but a strange thing happened on my first night on the island. The local pub was having a toad racing night (as you do), and a group of us from the hostel went along to participate, after putting together a kitty to bet on the toads (I ended up putting in the princely sum of A$1). The ringmaster, for want of a better name, had a personality that was larger than life, not to mention a belly that in most civilisations would be classed as gross, but which in Australia would be classed as an investment; watching him introduce the toads was fun in itself. The Centaur House syndicate bet on the yellow toad in the second race – yellow being the colour of the ribbon round the toad's neck – which we had to secure by bidding the highest amount for that toad, and we sat down and waited for the race to start.
Toad racing is simple. All the toads are placed in a plastic container in the centre of a circle, and then the container is removed; the first toad to go outside the circle is the winner. The yellow toad made a dash for it, easily leading the pack, and then he froze. He stopped, and just sat there and croaked, while the blue toad shot past him and claimed the prize. Undeterred, we bid the rest of the kitty, some A$27, on the purple toad in the third race, in which the winner would get A$130.
As the purple toad cruised over the line, miles ahead of the competition, our corner erupted. A$130 buys a lot of beer, crisps and pool, and as I ploughed through the very welcome jugs of VB with all the other lucky winners, I figured that, yet again, my beginner's luck with placing bets was getting me drunk, a little like it did back in Perth all those months ago, and a little like it did in Christchurch at the casino. One dollar for a whole night down the pub... life began well on Magnetic Island, I can tell you.
It continued well, too. Magnetic Island lives up to its name in that people come to stay and never want to leave, but the reasons are less hedonistic than in places like Cairns; if you pick the right hostel, as I managed to in Centaur House, the pace of life becomes procrastinatingly attractive, with the most difficult decision of the day being whether to have toast or cereal for breakfast. Walking round the island with the other hostellers was relaxing, stopping at different bays every day and soaking up rays in the likes of Arthur Bay, Florence Bay, Radical Bay, Horseshoe Bay and Alma Bay. There were highlights, like the Forts – where we spotted 13 koalas, one of them with a baby – and the sounds of chuckling kookaburras and screaming curlews serenading us to sleep, all of which made Magnetic Island one of the most relaxed spots I have yet found.
It was so relaxing that on my last night, as we all sat around in the hostel's spacious and TV-free outdoor lounge – a setting whose bright green couches would normally be classed as a flagrant flouting of the laws of aesthetics but which seemed so right at Centaur House – the assembly demanded that they be allowed to read some of the travelogue that I'd been hammering out for the last few days. Not since Melbourne has anyone giggled their way through my jottings, but as I fired up my Pocket Book and handed it round, I actually found people laughing at my prose. It was a pleasant sensation...
I eventually left Magnetic Island after five days, visiting Townsville on the way to buy some food, and that night I leapt on the southbound bus, heading on the overnight blinder to Hervey Bay. In fact, leaving the island was quite sad, a real empty-house-after-the-party-the-night-before feeling, as everyone seemed to leave at the same time. It's rare that I get too involved in any one place, because it's the people that make the place and the people often disappear, but sometimes it's worth letting one place become home for a few days, and Centaur House fitted the bill. There was talk of a reunion when we all get back to Europe, but like so many things that are talked about when on the road, I'll believe it when I see it. It would be nice, though; perhaps I'll need such therapy when I return.
All I know is that I elected to spend the afternoon waiting for the bus in the ferry terminal, as the thought of returning to the mainland reality of Townsville made me feel rather depressed. Magnetic Island nine out of ten, Townsville nil points.