“I’m a lover, not a fighter!” These are my last words as I head off into the bush, chasing the commander. I have no idea what to do next, so I just run with the heavy gun under my arm. My $7 Kmart shoes provide no grip in the muddy field. “Quick get behind that tree, you’re not covered,” the commander yells. For a grown man he’s taking this game of laser skirmish very, very seriously.

We’re in the Gold Coast hinterland, spending the day at Thunderbird Park, about an hour’s drive from bustling Surfers Paradise. I can’t find my buddy because he is hidden in the trenches wearing camouflage gear. He has the determination of a Major General – I am putting down to his inherent American patriotism. Then he emerges, sprinting towards enemy territory, hunching because he has the physique of a giraffe. The next thing I hear is bone smacking on concrete, my buddy has fallen over in the middle of the enemy base. I run to the nurse’s station, but find it’s merely for recharging weapons, and not actually for injuries. So like a good Lieutenant, I sacrifice myself and go out into the open to save my buddy who is winced over in pain. I’m attacked immediately. Dropping my weapon to the ground I revert back to friend mode and capture the moment on camera.

It wasn’t your typical Gold Coast escape. Our mission was to discover “the green behind the gold”. Apparently there is more to the glitzy coast than wild rides and an even wilder nightlife. Well, of course there’s that too.  

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Zip service

The high ropes course at Thunderbird is your thinking man’s theme park. Instead of being strapped in and taken for a ride, you’re strapped in and forced to assess situations, use balance, confidence and agile footwork, while reserving fears of falling head first into the dense Queensland rainforest.

Situated in the heart of Mount Tambourine, part of a mountain range that towers over the Gold Coast, it is the largest high ropes course in the country. And it has the efficiency of a German army. The concept began in Europe when an ex-military man decided to use his commando training to create a challenging ropes course. It works through a series of levels and, in the nine-acre park, there are no short-cuts. Even when we try to skip the easy parts, we meet a dead end and must go back. So we swing from rope to rope, crawl through tunnels on our backs and tip-toe over poles while hanging precariously from a wire. Turns out it is actually pretty fun. Once we make it to the zip-lines and flying foxes, I feel confident in my abilities. Should I ever have to abseil down a building to save my life, I’ll be first in line. There are purely fun parts too, like swinging from what they call the ‘Tarzan rope’ and landing in a rope web.

I am singing “George of the Jungle” and thinking I have the finesse of Spiderman as I scale these ladder ropes. Now that I’ve seen the video footage, I realise I am more like George Costanza with the finesse of a turtle on its back.

The further we go into the park, the harder it becomes. The mind gets a workout as I overcome the challenges. But in the fresh mountain air I feel rejuvenated, I’m worlds away from the teasing temptress that is Surfers Paradise.

On our way back we stop to meet some horse riders who have returned from a rainforest day-trip. I find a rusty horseshoe that I want to keep for good luck, but considering you can’t even get a banana across the border these days, I leave it behind. It’s a shame because I’m going to need luck – after all it’s Saturday night on the Gold Coast. Wildlife soon takes on a very different meaning.

Shots all round

The sun hasn’t even descended over Cavill Avenue in Surfers Paradise and yet we are throwing back shots at the bar. This does not bode well for the rest of the night, but when you’re at a ten pin bowling bar with a bunch of excited 18-year-olds, what else can you do but drink?

Plan B Tours have been taking party animals on pub crawls through Surfers for ten years. Their staff love it, perhaps a little too much I think as they round us up like cattle. Tour leader Lisa shows the signs of a life lived to the fullest.

“We love doing the pub crawls,” she exclaims sipping on a bottled Jim Beam and Coke. “And we encourage everyone to get involved in the party games. I want to see you on your knees,” she orders.

Next thing I know I am travelling a piece of bubble gum underneath the jeans of guy I have just met. Once the piece has made its way around his crotch and down his other leg, I must chew on it until it’s ready to be blown into a bubble. My buddy has conveniently turned into an action photographer as I’m on my knees in front of an 18-year-old boy. I am thinking of two things: workplace blackmail. And, have I pulled a muscle in my jaw? This really sets the tone for the rest of the pub crawl.

Looking back the next day is like looking through a blurry kaleidoscope. I see girls in lingerie that I swear are just bartenders, neon-lit nightclubs, people dancing on podiums, Jäger bombs, and at some point there was pizza.

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Dracula’s delight

It’s not just the Gold Coast bars that have haunting hangover abilities. The area is also famous for Dracula’s, a place that celebrates B-Grade horror. The entertainment is part cabaret, part rock show, part carnal circus. 

If you’re expecting dinner and a show, think again. From the moment you line up outside you are treated to a sensory overload experience. The sassy ‘Draculettes’ tease and taunt you with their evil eyes and startle you when you least expect it. 

Inside, we meet one of our waiters for the night, Mosley, a skinny guy wearing leather and more make-up on than most girls in the audience. 

“I’m like Jesus because I have a beard and magical powers,” he says as he parks himself on my seat, just inches from my face. They’re vampires with sex appeal and a sharp sense of humour. It’s like Twilight on crack. 

I order the ‘Silence of the Lamb Shank’s and sip on a cocktail served in a cauldron. I go to take a photo but I am accosted by a Draculette who tells me in her wicked voice, “there’s no pornography in here darling. Only on stage.”

She’s not wrong. The stage show is a raunchy, indulgent, and full of pop culture and drug references. It makes The Rocky Horror Show feel like Mary Poppins

Between acts we get talking to one of the Draculettes. She stays in character the whole time, even when we ask her how long she has worked here. Without stepping out of character she answers, “I’ve been here for centuries. I survive on the blood of virgins.” We laugh at her commitment. Licking her lips she adds, “This isn’t easy on the Gold Coast. I am forced to prey on tourists.”

Can’t bear it

The following morning, feeling worse for wear we arrive at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Immediately I am surrounded by hundreds of rainbow lorikeets. Picking up a dish of bird feed, a watery honey-like substance, the lorikeets swarm me, clawing my clothes, even my parking themselves on my head and shoulders. I may look like a homeless bird lady but feel like Justin Bieber at an airport arrival gate. As it’s rained overnight, there are more birds than usual, desperate to get a feed as the rain has washed away the flower nectar they would normally rely on. 

Birds aren’t the only star attraction at Currumbin. People have been crossing the New South Wales border for years so they can cuddle a koala. My buddy takes the opportunity to tell the park ranger about the time in a Melbourne strip joint when he was told, “you can’t cuddle the koalas here, it’s state law.” The ranger isn’t quite sure what to make of this and nervously hands him the koala.  

‘Occy’ as he’s named, clings to me, climbing me like a tree until his handler intervenes. Eventually he rests his little body in my hands and looks diligently at the camera. Occy’s warm bottom and soft fur against my skin momentarily releases all of the weekend’s stresses. 

It has been an action-packed and exciting time – I’ve been shot at, tied up, boozed up and ridiculed. It feels like a fitting ending that I am finally getting a cuddle.

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