My timing to Fraser Island was ideal. A day or two later and it would have been cyclone-level rain for the majority of the trip. A day past that and I would have been stuck on the island which, in my opinion, would have been pretty awesome. As it is rainy season in this lovely state of ours, rain is what is has done. And rain. And cyclone. And rain. Luckily, Rainbow is on relatively high ground so we are currently not sitting under several meters of water, a fate which has sadly befallen many surrounding communities. While town itself is fine, the roads leading to anywhere of note are unquestionably less so. On the worst of days, any practical (ahem, bus-travelled) path from Brisbane to Cairns was impassable. This is 1700 kilometers of the most popular tourist track in Australia that the tourists can no longer track. What started out as the bus companies estimating two or three days’ delay turned into over a week for some sectors – including from here to Airlie Beach (the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands). This happens to be nearly everyone’s next stop after Rainbow Beach. Did I mention I work in the travel industry?
This whole debacle has several possible outcomes for backpackers, none of them ideal. All of them involve delays, frantic rescheduling, and added expenses. The worst of them involve missing the rest of their trip, not getting a refund, and not having travel insurance to cover the costs. Out $500 for a sailing trip I didn’t go on? No, thank-you.
Situations like this truly do bring out the best or the worst in people. I’ve heard numerous examples of this from travel agents, receptionists at hostels, and bartenders. Some members of the community, as well as some of the stranded backpackers have gone above and beyond, often beginning with the simplest of questions: “What can I do to help?” The community center in Rainbow Beach opened to house the overflow from hostels. Locals volunteered to cook for people staying there. Businesses donated food and bottled water.
There is also the other side. I won’t get too far into the community politics and drama that emerged, but there was definitely some tension between businesses, council, locals, and travellers about what was happening and what should be happening to make sure everyone was taken care of.
What I’ve noticed the most, as everyone is flooding in to the shop to fix their trips, is the extreme variance in peoples’ attitudes in a situation like this. I spoke with two girls who were on Fraser Island during some heavy weather, right before everything shut down. They couldn’t have had a worse time. It was raining. They got wet, their hair was wet, their sleeping bags were wet. Everything was wet, and they wished they hadn’t gone at all. Approximately an hour later, I chatted with two other girls from the exact same trip. They had had a grand time! Yeah, it rained a bit, but their car was full of great people and they had a blast. It is what you make it, they told me.
I could continue on about the many, many stories, people, complaints, and dramas, but my coworker and I have done plenty of ranting to each other over the last week. Now that the internet is back I shall spare you all the gory details. (Did I mention that the internet went down for a few days? Cell phones as well. The culmination was land line phones going out for a couple of days up and down the coast – time to close up shop!)
Here is what I’ve taken away from this:
Those who plan their trip down to the minute will have more problems.
If you can’t book your own flight, you need to reevaluate your ability to travel.
You need to not just be prepared for things to wrong while travelling, you should expect things to go wrong. Shockingly few people even get to the first level (preparation). Perhaps because this is Australia, and people have chosen to travel here because it is a developed country, that speaks English, where things are meant to run on a relatively efficient and consistent basis. You are still travelling. If a bus being delayed for a few days completely ruins your trip, you may want to steer clear of Asia, South America, Africa, a good chunk of Europe …
Have travel insurance.