Finding your bearings on a nostalgic island under the watchful gaze of the local rock wallabies.

By Romy Ash.

Alma Bay on Queensland’s Magnetic Island

Alma Bay, Magnetic Island
Alma Bay, Magnetic Island

I rent a house on Magnetic Island, above the sandy cuticle of Alma Bay, among the boulders of the headland. Beside the house is a dilapidated resort: Alma Den. My path down to the beach means I have to squeeze between the rusting wire of the tennis court and a boulder. There’s the dust bowl of an empty powder-blue pool. A seatless bar beside it. A “No Trespassers” sign. Through the broken windows I can see the shadowy insides of the hotel, strewn with empty tinnies and offcuts of hose, the detritus of teenage debauchery.

I imagine Alma Den in its heyday, holidaymakers sipping pina colada out of giant glasses, the half sun of a slice of pineapple skewered with a paper umbrella. Now, all that’s left of that holiday daze are the palm trees that stand sentinel. Their dead leaves are still attached. They blow in the wind, sweeping a perfect circle in the dust.

Locals call Magnetic Island “Maggie”, as if the island’s a relative. On Maggie, there’s asbestos. Unlike the rest of Queensland – I’ve watched the beach shacks of my home town replaced with glass towers, rising skyward for a view, with curved tin-roof waves, they’ve built supermarkets and sprawling car parks over the swampy sand – on the island things seem to be going backwards. I like it. It’s like stepping back in time, without Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

It’s much cheaper to fly to Bali, to Thailand, to Vietnam. The tourists on the island are either elderly, desiccated Queenslanders or bronze-limbed foreigners. You see the backpackers walking roads, looking dazed by heat stroke. The tar shining like a black snake in the sun. Townsville and the island are in a rain shadow. They’re dry and the island is not a typical tropical paradise. The flora is reminiscent of western Queensland desert, and there are pine trees with their arrow-shaped heads spiking the blue sky. Any palm has been planted.

Each day, on the ebb tide, I pick through what the sea has left on Alma Bay. Cowry shells, sand dollars, coconuts, seed pods, dead coral, the carapace of a crab, a toothbrush looking fossilised by sun and salt, beer cans, water bottles, a confetti of plastics.

There’s a snorkel trail out from Geoffrey Bay and on a low tide, stingrays cruise the shallows. Venturing backwards into the warm water, flippers slapping, and swimming out into the blue, I dive down to dead coral, as silt shifts with the tide, rising in plumes and resettling. There are the purple lips of a giant sea clam and as my shadow falls over it, it snaps its shell shut. Snorkelling off the island’s beaches is less like stepping back in time, and more like looking into the future. The reef is barely alive.

I’ve been told there are seahorses at the southern end of Alma Bay; apparently they look like sweeping tendrils of fine weed. But when I swim out, tentacles wrap around my calf, leaving a burning crisscross pattern, like a ballerina’s ribboned laces. I hold my breath, waiting for the “feeling of impending doom” that is the first sign of being stung by an Irukandji, the tiny venomous jellyfish.

The jelly is the size of a fingernail, one-centimetre squared, with four tiny tentacles. It can cause indescribable pain and sometimes death. These symptoms were first described by Hugo Flecker, but in 1961 it was Jack Barnes who – in order to prove these symptoms were the result of jellyfish sting – captured and allowed an Irukandji to sting him. To verify the trial his nine-year-old son and a lifeguard also volunteered to be stung. Unique among jellyfish, the Irukandji hunts, firing stingers to inject their venom.

I am not struck dead by impending doom, so I walk out of the water and douse my legs in blue vinegar. The vinegar is stationed at each beach. The bottles smell to me of fish and chips, and it’s only later that I think they must be dyed blue so they’re not stolen. A lifeguard tells me that the sting is from a snot jellyfish, and that lately they’ve been blowing in.

Locals swim in Alma Bay all year round, despite the box jellyfish – the other deadly jelly – and the Irukandji. They swear by the orientation of the beach. Though swimmers are stung, and the nippers who dive joyfully through the soft waves and swim out and around the buoy every afternoon wear head-to-toe stinger suits. It’s the last two weeks before stinger season begins. At Horseshoe Bay, on the other side of the island, I swim between the stinger nets just to be safe, until I realise it’s only the net’s buoys bobbing on the surface, and that the nets themselves haven’t yet been put out. Sea turtles swim between the buoys. It’s breeding season, and I watch their wizened heads breaching the surface, as they take a breath. I wonder how sure the lifeguards can be of the stinger season. Thoughts on global warming bob around my head like flotsam.

An old man on a mobility scooter feeds rock wallabies at Geoffrey Bay. He is there each afternoon with a bag of sweet potatoes. These rock wallabies drag their engorged bellies over the gravel to meet him. Backbackers squeal with delight as the wallabies reach their stumpy arms up to grab the vegetables. These wallabies seem a different species from the ones by my rental, who bound from rock to rock, with their bandido black eye patches, defying gravity.

There’s the dilapidated resort on one side of the rental and, on the other, an elderly lady lives alone. She has a white plastic chair set up at the opening to a cave. There’s an eeriness that comes not so much from the incongruity of the chair among the boulders but, instead, from the wallabies. Wherever I look there’s a wallaby watching. Among the boulders I feel more intruder than visitor, and in the heat of the day, the wallabies, too hot to scatter, simply stare. In each pool of shade is a mob of wallabies, waiting for dusk. The woman, like the wallabies, only emerges at dawn and dusk. I catch glimpses of her long white hair and faded floral shirts between the trees.

At night the bush stone-curlews cry mournfully, loudly. This wailing sounds human. In the day, when they see me they freeze, one graceful foot in the air. They have large yellow eyes and feathers patterned like the mosaic of leaf litter. I watch them balancing, wondering how long they can stand like that before they fall.

As I leave the island the woman at the ferry terminal says, “Tell your friends,” as I trundle down the gangplank, “keep me in a job.” With a smile that’s mostly gritted teeth, she waves goodbye. From the ferry, Townsville comes into focus. There’s a haze of smoke hovering over it, and a line of tankers dotted out to sea.

They’re carrying coal, copper, zinc, cattle, motor vehicles and they have names like cruise ships, Crystalgate, Sea Amity, Pro Emerald, Ganado Express, Kyowa Hibiscus. Between them, the sea sparkles.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "Magnetic induction".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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