My next stop after two days' recuperating in Cardwell was Townsville. Townsville's main claim to fame on the travelling circuit is its ferry port, which serves nearby Magnetic Island, and most visitors head straight through with little more than a stop to stock up on sun tan lotion and books for the beach. Having just walked across another island, I thought I'd stay in town for a while before heading for the ferry.
This turned out to be a bad move, not because there's anything terribly wrong with Townsville, but because it's not a particularly great place to be when you're still feeling under the weather. Townsville, as its rather exciting name manages to convey, has a rather industrial air to it, and even though I spent a whole day hunting down its attractions, I spectacularly failed to warm to the place. My subdued feelings are probably best summed up by the strange beast that greets visitors in the centre of town; most cities have some kind of central point, denoted by a flashy skyscraper, a large square or even a huge shopping mall, but Townsville has a blue cylindrical apartment block that looks like it's been rescued from a failed experiment in urban disaster during the concrete 1960s, and to cap it all there's a strange funnel sitting atop the monstrosity that's shaped like a huge lipstick. It's pointless, ugly and summed up how I felt as I stomped around Townsville, under a dark cloud of my own making.
The people in the hostel didn't help matters much. Some places attract itinerant weirdoes, and Townsville seems one of the most magnetic1; the hostel I stayed in was uncanny in its resemblance to a human zoo, packed as it was with dole bludgers, vacant stares and people who looked like they might fly off the hook at any moment, ripping the wall fittings out with them. I got talking to the only three sane people I could find in the hostel – two Poms and a Dutchman – who said they'd stayed in three other hostels in Townsville, and they were all the same. Before arriving I'd heard that Townsville's hostels were a bit dubious, but proof is always more effective than print, so after one night, I figured I'd take my chances on Magnetic Island instead.
But before jumping on the ferry out to the island, I went shopping for a pair of swimming shorts, and that's when I realised that perhaps the problem wasn't with Townsville, but with the event that it was hosting that weekend. Banners proclaimed that I'd just wandered into the 1997 Vietnam Veterans reunion, and the central mall was full of war stalls, sitting in the shadow of the lipstick monument. Veterans of all ages sat around chatting, exchanging pleasantries and not-so-pleasant anecdotes; some were old war heroes, some were hippies, some were coherent, and some were not, but collectively they managed to bring back memories of that terrible conflict, which rather dampened the atmosphere. Clearly it's important to have reunions like this, so please don't think I'm complaining, but as I walked into the sports shop to shell out for a nice new set of swimming shorts, the mall's canned music system kicked in with the familiar refrain of 'If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair', and I thought that perhaps I was better off leaving Townsville to its quiet contemplation of the ruined hippy dream, and headed off to pack.
1 Though it's important to note that some visitors love Townsville, and never leave. For example, the slightly cheesy tourist brochure for the town contains the usual political waffle from the mayor, the usual content-free sales talk from the tourist bureau, and the usual exhortations that whatever anyone else says about the rest of Queensland, Townsville does it better. But most telling were the words of wisdom from a local DJ who had come to Townsville for a temporary assignment, and had stayed because he had fallen in love with the place. 'Home is not where you were born,' he wrote beneath a bizarre photograph of him in a dinner jacket emblazoned with 'Townsville, Queensland' and pictures of tropical paradise, none of which bore any resemblance to the town centre I'd been exploring. 'Home is not where you were born, home is where you want to die,' he said. I couldn't help thinking that, perhaps, this wasn't quite what he'd meant to say...