“We’re making a raft out of goon bags to sail to Dunk Island,” the lads I’ve just met at Scotty’s Beach House in Mission Beach tell me. I wonder how long that will take.“About an hour,” they smile. “That’s if it doesn’t sink. Although we’ll make life-jackets out of the goon bags too,” they add. I was actually asking how long it will take to stockpile the bags of goon to make the raft. (Goon, for the uninitiated is cheap, boxed wine. It tastes of piss and fruit juice, and is a staple on any backpackers diet.) “Oh how long will it take to collect the goon bags?” the lad realises. “Yeah, about an hour around here,” the other lad quips.

There’s something a little askew about Mission Beach locals. They have immense pride in their little town on the Cassowary Coast in far north Queensland. But they also have this slightly mad wiring in their bodies. Perhaps it’s from too much sun and living the simple life. Or perhaps it’s from enduring one of the worst cyclones in history in 2011.

Cyclone Yasi, a category 5, ripped through the town in February last year causing extensive damage to roads, wildlife, property and morale. The storm caused an estimated 3.6 billion dollars in damage, and 18 months on, the town still wears the devastation on its sleeve.

However, Mission Beach people are resilient and strong, slowly rebuilding and banding together as a community to support one another. Understandably, the cyclone is never far from their minds, just about everyone you meet in the town has a story and a photo on their phone to show me. And if you look deep enough – a sad glimmer in their eyes.

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Don’t abandon ship

The next day I was to experience wild Mother Nature for myself on the Tully River, 45 minutes inland from Mission Beach. The team at Raging Thunder get me kitted up and I’m about to step into a raft with a bunch of strangers (luckily this raft is made from stronger material than goon film). And when I say step in, I make it sound elementary.

An Irish girl in front of me alights the raft, but misjudges her footing and falls head first into the river and is sucked under the raft. She comes up gasping for air and screaming for help. A rope is thrown to her and she’s pulled back to shore. She’s hysterical and has lost a sandal. She is eventually helped into the raft by our guide who assures her we’ll find the sandal, (which looks like a Croc with straps) floating along the river at some point. She’s more worried that she’s lost her dignity before we’ve even begun.

I nervously step into the raft with seven others and meet our guide Callum, a tanned young guy with a pony-tail and an adventurous grin on his face. We find out later he’s a professional kayaker and all-round nice guy. Well, that is until he takes us down the first drop, named ‘Alarm Clock’ (seriously, no one likes an alarm clock) and steers the raft toward a boulder, crashes and falls overboard into the rapids. The term “fall” is debatable according to the other guides who witness the spectacle. “He abandoned ship,” they call out. Abandoning ship is the worst thing a guide can do, I find out. Those guilty must buy two jugs of beer for the other guides. “It’s a universal rule,” says the dismayed Callum, who has managed to quickly swim back to the raft. 

We reach a lull in the river and jump into the cool water and float along. It’s a chilly 16C and the cloud-covered mountains are blocking the nurturing sun, but with adrenalin pumping through our veins and a comforting life jacket, it’s a peaceful and enjoyable few moments. Of course, this is the calm before the storm.

Back in the raft and paddling hard, we veer towards vertical drops like the ‘Corkscrew’, which literally twists our raft and folds it in half. It’s terrifying, like being stuck in a hideaway wall bed in a bachelor apartment. Miraculously we all stay on the raft, the rope burns on our hands an attest to our strength. I feel very proud of myself until I realise I have knocked the young Asian girl behind me in the head with my paddle.

Following a riverside BBQ lunch we cruise down to ‘Disappearing Falls’, do some rock jumping, traverse down ‘Jabba The Hut’ and almost lose our shit in the ‘Mine Field’.

After five hours of terror we make it to the end with aching arms, absolutely drenched, shaking but beaming with delight. The Irish girl never does find her Croc.

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Jet ski bunny

“You’re a wild woman,” says Andy, my new jet skiing buddy I meet the following day. He doesn’t realise that I’m holding onto the jet ski for dear life, and this is, in turn, making the vehicle go a hell of a lot faster. Whose idea was it to put the accelerator on the handle bars? 

It was meant to be a cruisy 90 minute tour around Dunk Island, but I was turning it into a wild adventure on the high seas. At one point Andy stops me and retrieves a rope from the boot so he doesn’t go flying into the air. 

There’s something liberating about jet skiing, it’s like being on a motorbike on the wide, open highway. 

Riding on the ocean, the waves become natural speed bumps where I’m able to get great air (and soaking wet). 

But exhilaration soon turns to sorrow as we reach the other side of the island and see the dilapidated Dunk Island Resort.
The beachfront apartments have been peeled apart by the cyclone, many of them missing walls, and the resort’s iconic pool is drained and filled with branches and palm tree leaves. 

The local water taxi, which used to take around 60 people a day to the island, now takes only a few people per week and has been forced to offer tours around the islands to make ends meet. We pause for a few moments to take it all in, and it’s then we see a turtle swim past, it seems to be going rather slow – even for a turtle – then we notice the turtle is missing an arm.  

“Probably bitten by a reef shark,” says Andy as the turtle continues to push on. Further proof that Mission Beach residents are resilient.

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Sinking into a skydive

Later that night I’m in a bar with an old QC, an ex-base jumper and a young hostel bus driver. No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke. We’re drinking beers, discussing politics and getting stuck into some delicious steak. One of the bar’s regulars walks in, “Give me a drink, I just back from Brisbane where I won a rape case,” he booms. Noticing the look of shock on my face, the regulars are quick to assure me this man is in fact a lawyer. ‘”Just a regular night in Mission Beach”, they tell me. These eccentric locals would make delicious characters on a TV series. We turn the conversation to skydiving, the next adventure Mission has in store for me.

“I remember when they used to offer free skydives for girls who’d go topless,” one of the regulars tells me. “But they had to give it up because it was too popular,” he laughs. Although it isn’t my first skydive, fear is beginning to set in. 
I am sitting with Des, the professional skydiver who, tomorrow will coax me out of the plane at 14,000ft. He looks like a tank but has the demeanour of a cuddly teddy bear.

“You’re going to love it, it’s even better the second time.” He has done over 18,000 skydives, I wonder if he can even remember the second jump. 

Come to think of it, I believe the second time around is actually harder. Fear of the unknown is quite comforting.

That night at Absolute Backpackers – which just happens to be the friendliest and most relaxing hostel I’ve ever stayed in – I sleep nervously. Go figure. 

The next morning we’re flying over Tully’s banana fields and just as I think to myself, this is quite high, Des turns to me: “1,000ft, only 13,000ft to go.” I gulp, becoming very quiet and fumble about with my protective plastic glasses. I can’t get them on, I panic. 

“Plenty of time, just relax,” says Des, grinning with excitement.  

This is his office and this skydive is as routine to him as making a cup of coffee. I hope he’s a good coffee maker, I think as he pushes me towards the open hatch. Within seconds I am dropping through the sky, falling at 220km/hr towards Mission Beach. I scream, while trying to breathe, and while secretly trying to make sure I’m smiling for the camera that’s in my face.

And then, after 60 seconds (which feels like micro-seconds) the parachute goes up and I’m floating above the reef. The sun is on my face, I have the taste of clouds in my mouth and we slowly reach the ground, just metres from the water with the sand beneath our feet. The second time is so much better, I yell.

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Birds of paradise

There’s a madness to Mission Beach but it’s wrapped up in a protective blanket, like a bear hug from Des the skydiver. After a long weekend of adrenalin pumping fun, the only thing I was missing was an encounter with a cassowary – the flightless bird threatened with extinction. 

As I am being driven out of Mission Beach towards Cairns Airport, we spot one on the side of the road. Slamming on the brakes to get a close look, I realise just how threatening they appear. Their big black feathers, red droopy necks and small beady eyes – they give me the creeps. ‘Keep driving,’ I say. 

Although the infamous sign that used to greet tourists on the Bruce Highway is gone, (it read: “Get high, get wet, get laid at Mission Beach”) the feeling is still there. For a sleepy town, it sure wears you out. On the plane I rest my head on my blow-up pillow out and have the best sleep I’ve had all weekend, imaging myself lying on a goon raft, sailing out to my new-found paradise.

Alex travelled as a guest of Tourism Queensland

Jump with Skydive Mission Beach from $349. Full day whitewater rafting with Raging Thunder costs from $215. 90min jet ski tour with Calypso Dive costs $224. Beds at Absolute Backpackers from $23 a night. Beds at Scotty’s Beach House cost from $24 a night.

Photos: Getty, Thinkstock