Drifting on the Gold Coast

It was a slower afternoon than expected hitching back home through northern NSW, and just as the sun was going down I was dropped at the turnoff for Elanora on the southern end of the Gold Coast. A few minutes further up the road I could have got on the train back to Brisbane, but that’s not always how hitching goes. So after half an hour standing in vain with my thumb out under a streetlight on the M1, I gave up and decided to go for a walk.

It’s a decent walk from Elanora to Varsity Lakes train station (google maps says 10km, though the route I walked in the end was more like 15). I could have tried the bus, sure. But once I was off the motorway and away from the roar of the traffic, I found the prospect quite appealing. I don’t spend much time at the Gold Coast, and a long walk would be a nice chance to experience what it has to offer. I’ve also been recently re-inspired by the Situationists – a French art/political group from the 60’s. The Situationists were into what they called “psychogeography”, and one of their ideas was the “dérive” (or “drift” in English), where to break up the monotony of life under capitalism, you walk through an unfamiliar urban landscape with no plan and no direction other than the contours of the city. Given I had a destination in mind and a rough idea of how to get there, my walk wouldn’t quite be a true dérive, but the concept was still running through my head as I set off for the Gold Coast highway.

The word “psychogeography” is not one in common usage, but I quite like it. Any place is marked by physical landmarks – be they rivers or shopping malls – but also that same place exists on another plane in our minds. We can have different maps going concurrently – the physical terrain and the connotations we put on a place, from history, from culture, from our own experience. And so as I embark on the walk, wandering through apartment blocks and occasional shops, I start to recall a few other walks I’ve done on the Gold Coast.

The first walk I remember was a similar route to the one I am walking this time. It was 2011 and I had just begun the most truly momentous journey of my life – deciding to live with no income and no stable housing. I was roaming around the country with each new place offering surprises and new opportunities and adventure. I had hitched up from Melbourne to the Gold Coast for a friend’s wedding – my first long hitch-hiking trip. The wedding had been in Tweed Heads, the friend’s house I was staying at in Palm Beach. After saying goodbye to friends at Coolangatta airport, I started walking up the Gold Coast highway – knowing that eventually that road would take me back to my friend’s house.

I hadn’t read much Situationist theory at the time (I knew them mostly as the inspiration for Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols artwork) but I was an instinctive and devout believer in the dérive. I didn’t know how far it was to walk (checking now, it is also about 10km); and I wouldn’t have cared if I had never made it – I was throwing myself open to the hands of fate. In the end nothing too exciting happened that night – I remember dumpstering some food and running into gangs of bored teenagers roaming the streets – but I was in such joy as I walked that night with no commitments to return to, no plan for the future and no idea what was around the corner. It is a happy memory.

I keep walking north, past the point where that walk had ended over 5 years ago. I recalled another stroll up the Gold Coast. It was the day after the previous memory actually. Besides the friend I was staying with, I knew two other people on the Gold Coast. They were Bronte and Todd – a young couple, still teenagers. I had met them in Wollongong a few months earlier, at a show by American folk-punk band Defiance, Ohio (incidentally the supports that night were Wollongong street-punk stalwarts Topnovil and a still newly formed group called the Smith Street Band). Defiance, Ohio are the kind of band that inspire devotion, and while I had caught the train down the coast from Sydney’s southern suburbs, this young and enthusiastic couple I was dancing next to had travelled from the Gold Coast to Wollongong to catch the only all ages show of the tour.

Fast forward a few months and I was on the Gold Coast. I had contacted Bronte and Todd and we arranged to meet at Burleigh Beach, so I walked up from Palm Beach in the afternoon. Again, the world seemed magically open – everywhere there were amazing people, friends in the making if you reached out and talked to that stranger standing next to you. I got to the beach early and sat down watching the waves roll in. I got talking to a woman at the beach. Years later I can’t remember her name, or exactly what we talked about; but I do remember connecting with her and getting past small talk and on to my favourite topic – how do we live lives of meaning and adventure in this sterile world of production and consumption?

After a while Bronte and Toddburleigh_heads_beach arrived, and we walked up the beach at Burleigh, talking about probably the same thing, interspersed with a bit of comparing music and a bit of asking what it’s like growing up on the Gold Coast. I took them on their first dumpster-diving trip.

The next morning I would leave the Coast for another new city and more new people and adventures. I saw myself as a kind of travelling evangelist, roaming around and giving out whatever I had to offer – be it a moment of connection, inspiration, time or skills – to anyone whose paths I crossed. I don’t know how often it worked out; but as chance would have it, in the time between my dérive on the Coast and actually sitting down to write this, I ran into Bronte for the first time in at least a year. We talked about various things (including, actually, that same topic of finding meaning in life), but one of them was recalling that night in Burleigh all those years ago.

From Burleigh I head inland towards Varsity Lakes. A guy I had stopped to ask for directions told me to follow Christine Avenue. I feel like there is possibly a more direct way (there is), but follow his directions anyway. It’s a long walk. The shops are gone now with the coastline, I’m in suburbia. I wander on, and remember another walk from my past.

It was still 2011, but near the end of what had been an amazing year. I was heading down the coast to Forster to meet up with some old friends. It had been a crazy couple of months – living in the thrown together and sometimes dysfunctional community that was the Occupy Brisbane encampment, busy with all kinds of things and recently heartbroken having been dumped over the phone from New Zealand. I was keen for a relaxing weekend.

At this stage still inexperienced at journeying south from Brisbane, I was still trying to find the best place to hitch from. So after getting off the train at Robina and walking to the motorway, I discovered that there was nowhere for cars to pull over. Unperturbed, I started walking down the shoulder of the road until I came to roadworks and could walk no further. I climbed off the motorway, thinking I would keep walking south and get back on the highway further down. So I went on, with the sound of the M1 traffic getting further away. Having caught the early train from Brisbane, it had been a long morning and I was up for a break. At this point I came across a blood donor centre. “Perfect”, I thought. I was due to give blood, and not only would it give me a break and something to eat, it would mean that regardless of whatever else happened that morning I would have done something useful. After taking a sample of my blood, the nurse told me I was iron-deficient and couldn’t give blood for six months.

I’m sure it was a combination of this news and other factors, but I was devastated. You know how they say every time you give blood you save three lives? I had just killed three people! I trudged off again for the highway but got lost along the way and walked aimlessly through Gold Coast’s labyrinth of endless indistinguishable suburbia. It was nightmarish. I was close to having a breakdown. When I eventually found my way back to the motorway, there was still nowhere for cars to pull over. I saw in the distance another train station – Varsity Lakes. In my hopeless mental state, it may as well have been a desert oasis. It was by this point early afternoon and I had made it precisely nowhere. Getting on the train, I thought about going to the truckstop at Beenleigh and trying for a ride there. Wisely though, I gave up and slunk back to Brisbane defeated.

In my many years and many kilometres of hitching, that day still sticks out as the worst hitching experience I’ve ever had (that includes being stuck for a whole day at Gin Gin). It’s funny though, because tonight, even as I start to realise that I am again lost in the Gold Coast suburbs, the memory only makes me smile and laugh. Predictability and hitch-hiking are not meant to go together. If you want reliability, get a 9-5 with four weeks annual leave. Get on a plane and turn on the tv screen. In travel options, like in life; I prefer random with a chance of glorious serendipity to mundane with the assurance you’ll get to your destination on time. The bad times (and here I can include not just hitching mishaps, but also breakups and failed attempts at changing the world) are just a chance to celebrate that rather than settling for the way things are we believed more is possible.

I’m still walking. By this point, it’s been a couple of hours. You could say the dérive had been a success – the cityscape has taken me on a journey I wouldn’t have otherwise embarked on. But the fact that the journey is entirely in my head only serves to highlight the lack of actual interactions I’ve had. The fact is, that in several hours walking – in mid-evening with much of it on a main street – I have crossed paths with less than a dozen people. And I don’t mean people I’ve communicated with. This is the total number of people I’ve seen on the street. As I begin to realise I’m lost, I have no option other than to keep walking – there is not a single person to ask directions from. Eventually I startle a young woman who is sitting in her parked car by knocking on the window. After she hurriedly points the way to the station, I turn around and hear her doors click locked.

Much of our urban spaces is set out like the Gold Coast – seemingly designed to preclude interaction with others. Why would you walk anywhere? The shops are all in a big mall with a massive carpark. There’s no public spaces to just hang out, and who would you meet there anyway? All the people I might want to be friends with are already given to me by facebook based on their algorithm. The chance journey promised by the Situationists and their theory of psychogeography is nowhere to be found here – no people, no street art, no posters, no variety in architecture. There is plenty of nice greenery to admire, but even that is curated and manicured to an aesthetic ideal. I learn nothing about the ecosystem of the Gold Coast and how it is different from other places.

Here, and in so many of our cities, new experiences are mediated to us through the lens of consumerism – the scope of possible interactions is narrowed to a sliver – new products to buy, new places to shop, new tv shows to watch. I think of another classic Situationist idea: “Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into mere representation.”

Overwhelmingly, it is new experiences that are the pivots on which we change our lives. Books, films, rational arguments or inspiring visions rarely have the same effect on us that an experience of a new state of being does. It’s the multi-sensory stimulation of being there  in the flesh. It’s the feeling that your physical presence was part of creating the situation rather than just observing it. It’s the shift in that part of your brain that stores potential realities.

A world where new interactions are restricted is a world that supports and strengthens the status quo. To change our lives and change our society we regularly need new experiences that will jolt us out of routine and into action and imagination. The Situationists believed this – that’s why they sent people on random jaunts through unfamiliar settings. That’s why they altered familiar images to force us to interact with them in new ways (“détournement”). That’s why they covered Paris in graffiti in May 1968 and appropriated university funds to bombard students with thousands of flyers – creating “situations”.

For any of us that believes more and better things than our current reality are possible, the responsibility is on us to challenge ourselves with new experiences, and to step out and offer new experiences  to others – to bravely act in a way that breaks through the monotony of our daily existence and offers a glimpse into new possibilities – the chance of another world.

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