NESTLED IN THE south-east corner of Queensland, not quite Brisbane and not quite a frenzied metropolis unto itself, lies the Gold Coast. Some might say that the essence of its reputation was born from its unshakeable name – beckoning to the easily swayed with the promise of a life of glitz and glamour, fun and frivolity.
Across the country the Gold Coast is known, somewhat affectionately, as party central; a place where visitors come to let their hair down, stroll carelessly along infinite beaches and bask in year-round sunshine. Of course, if relaxation isn't your thing, there are theme parks, nightclubs and shopping centres; there is something for everyone with a need to escape the dreary day-to-day monotony of their lives. People come in hordes seeking endless parties and an endless summer and leave believing the Gold Coast never has and never will understand the meaning of culture and nor does it need to; it knows its place.
Although the beauty of the Gold Coast has always drawn lovers of the easy life, it didn't start out as a city in which one could easily rid themselves of inhibitions only to retrieve them again when real life came calling to return home. As a small town in the '40s and '50s it became popular as a refuge from the searing city heat of Brisbane and an introduction to the ocean for inlanders who craved a sultry sea breeze and barefoot holidays. Back then Coolangatta was famous for its caravan park and the Gold Coast's first taste of culture was born in the form of Currumbin Lifesavers.
By the late 1960s, Surfers Paradise had evolved into a booming tourist destination and the first of many highrise buildings, accommodating the growing droves of holiday goers, appeared on the horizon. The ever-popular meter maids, feeding money into expired parking meters in ironically golden bikinis, cemented the Glitter Strip status.
I moved to the Coast (as we locals endearingly refer to it) four years ago from the stifling, inner city madness that is Sydney. I craved simplicity, lazy days and the ease of life that had eluded me up until that point, and so I went.
From the get-go, it was easy to see why people held limiting beliefs of the place. The golden heat bore down on the many picture-perfect young people, who skipped from A to B and laughed with abandon at the ease of their lives.
The beaches were indeed stunning, there were abundant blue skies and the only thing to be done on the weekend was seek out something more fun than whatever we did last time. Physical beauty, both human and natural, was everywhere and it latched onto my psyche telling me that this was what the Gold Coast had to offer. I craved it and it delivered.
After a few months I got a bar job at a local surf club, as was customary, and moved closer to the beach, I took a liking to long walks on the sand and playing pool at the local bowls club. Working at the surf club was a dream. I reveled in the ever-present ocean breeze and the long-winded tales of bent-backed old men, looking deep into my eyes to explain the way things used to be before us 'youngens ruined everything'.
As time passed, I came to realise that I had discovered the one thing on the Gold Coast you can only find if you search for it: a community of people, united in a common passion that had morphed into a culture unto itself.
Surf Lifesavers, or "clubbies" as they are otherwise known, were a group of people I couldn't quite understand at first. They seemed to exist in a bubble that we outsiders could never penetrate and they went about their duties with such passion that it seemed as though they had taken an oath to nurture their sport, the ocean and one another.
They spoke of their love of Surf Lifesaving as though it consumed their every waking moment. They mortgaged their houses to refinance their club and they gave everything they had to keeping their dreams, and each other, alive.
DURING THE 2010 Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships, the beach on which my surf club was located was awash with the colours of competing clubs from across the country, the park was filled with skis and bums adorned with budgie smugglers seemed to have taken over the world. The ocean was angry; whitewash swirled down the beach and rubber boats bravely slashed through the waves, pushing their drivers high into the sky and smashing them back into the sea.
Early in the afternoon, chaos erupted; a competitor was missing in the ocean. Line upon line of clubbies entered the water in organised groups, feeling the floor of the ocean with their feet and ducking under the pounding waves, most searching for someone they had never even met. There was never a question of them putting their lives on the line in the treacherous ocean, it was implied in their united presence on the beach that they would not be leaving until he was found.
Although the outcome that day was tragic, any misconceptions I had held about the Gold Coast were erased in a passing moment that served as a sobering reality check. While often ridiculed, the culture of Surf Lifesavers is unapologetic and proud in their united community and if you're searching, you'll see the Gold Coast is brimming with groups such as these. People basking in a newfound appreciation of their cultural ventures, albeit largely underground, but nevertheless uniquely their own.
Initially I came to immerse myself in the shallow opportunities I imagined the Gold Coast had to offer only to find a realm of possibilities that have shaped my newfound passion for culture, the arts and the people who share a deep love for their city and the communities within it.
On any given weekend on the Gold Coast you'll find art lovers crowded into boutique galleries sipping on craft beer while passionate advocates of the arts lecture on the importance of our city's cultural community. Gung ho hipsters run underground music venues welcoming people from all walks of life, without reservation and Havaiana-wearing entrepreneurs host glamorous markets filled with swarming fashionistas on Sunday mornings, sans hangover.
Miami Marketta, a warehouse-style arts collective, describes itself as 'a combination of food, art, music, design, laughter and happiness in Miami', hosting foodies in the form of families and groups of friends sampling local food and smiling ear to ear in unabashed delight. The creators, Rabbit + Cocoon, also offer writing workshops, painting classes for children and nights specifically dedicated to discussing the thriving cultural community that they largely initiated.
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate recently revealed the striking design for a brand new cultural precinct, somewhat laughably resembling a roll of Lifesavers; the building will incorporate a theatre, arts museum, an amphitheatre, external bungee jumping platform and waterslides. The creation of the precinct will provide a showy defence mechanism against our cultural critics while also managing to give the impression that we won't be taking ourselves too seriously just yet.
As we know though, the glitter certainly does not mean gold. For an entire month of every year, I listen to Schoolies screeching at one another on the street below my office and I am reminded of the reasons people believe that the Gold Coast is simply a city of parties and passing trends.
Crime rates have skyrocketed in the past few months and the media has been deservedly unrelenting in its criticism of the city. Most recently, biker gangs have seen us gain an unwanted spotlight and the harsh reality of drugs and death haunt even the most passionate of Coasties, seeing them shake their heads in shame.
But it doesn't take much to look a little deeper and we cannot deny that this is a city of contradiction.
This is the Gold Coast we know –a haphazard jumble of communities in the midst of carving out a culture uniquely its own while dodging the bullets that any newcomer must. It is a place that allows people to test the water no matter their story and one that continues to carve out a name for itself as a place of substance.
It is a city that has grown from the likes of a boisterous teenager, testing the waters and screaming out to be seen, into an adult that is proud of the steps it has taken to get where it is today, a city of distinctive culture and contrast, still ironing out the creases.