It all began way back when last June over a giggly couple of bottles of rosé in Soho. My wonderful friend Joe – who was visiting from his new-found hometown of Melbourne – handed me a large, cream-coloured envelope.
My little name was emblazoned across it in a painterly green flourish that must have taken at least a few attempts to perfect. He waited expectantly whilst I gently unsealed the flap and slipped the satin ribbon off its contents. And as I held the card before me in the mood-lit bar, the gold lettering twinkled mischievously in the dark.
Together with their families,
Invite you to celebrate with them on their wedding day…
Sunday 3rd March 2019, 3.45pm
No gifts necessary – just bring your dancing shoes.
There it was. My dear friend would finally be getting hitched to the man of his dreams (same-sex marriage was only made legal in Australia on December 7 2017). And here he was, personally asking me to be part of the biggest day of his life.
I love that boy like a son. Believe me I do. But as I sat on that bar stool admiring the beautifully crafted invitation and exceptionally high-quality card, there was only one question on my mind: how strong was his Skype connection? ‘Cos there was no way I’d be going to Australia. Not even for him.
This godforsaken corner of the earth was literally number one – number ONE, people – on my holiday blacklist. And here are just a few of the reasons why:
1. The spiders – from the redback (black widow) to the huntsman. Okay, well maybe not the huntsman, which is technically harmless. But have you seen one of those things?! Please tell me how you could spot a spider the size of a frying pan and not die instantly. In fact, these dashboard-dwelling, sun-visor-lurking nightmares (who needs webs when you can just carjack someone’s ride?) are known to be behind a number of Australian roadway incidents – from multi-car pile-ups to sub-aquatic detours. Plus, those suckers are super-fast and they can jump! Imagine a spider the size of a frying pan taking a running jump at your face?!? No thank you please – I’m out.
2. The sharks. There are more than 400 species in the whole entire world. And guess where 170 of them live – from the largest (the whale shark), to the second smallest (the pygmy), to the stuff of legend (the Great White). And whilst Jaws may have been a Hollywood caricature and everyone still insists such encounters are rare, they are out there – and they’re peckish. According to Taronga Conservation Society, there were 27 shark attacks in Australia in 2018 (with one fatality). So if you ever wind up looking like lunch, try punching it in the snout and clawing at its eyes or gills (playing dead won’t save you now), and then swim like Aquaman. You’re welcome.
3. The jellyfish. It was the 90s. The TV show was 999. And the reconstruction involved a hapless Australian lifeguard who’d managed to drink a box jellyfish (yes, you read that correctly) which, inexplicably, was being housed in a jug of water in the staff fridge (don’t ask). To put this in perspective, the Australian box jellyfish is the most venomous creature in the world. You can die within two to five minutes of just brushing against one of these ghostly entanglements – and this poor fool had poured one halfway down his throat! Somehow, he survived (they’ve only just discovered an antidote) – but not without banging another nail into Australia’s coffin.
4. The stingrays. Remember what happened to Steve Irwin? The creature in question – normally meek and mild – stabbed him hundreds of times within a matter of seconds whilst filming a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest in the Great Barrier Reef. The venomous, serrated tail barb “went through his chest like a hot knife through butter” according to a cameraman, puncturing his heart and lung. And just in case you’d filed that under ‘unfortunate fluke’, an unsuspecting swimmer got shanked by one of these things in November 2018 in Tasmania, also succumbing to his injuries. So whilst you may have fond memories of the petting pool at the aquarium, you might want to think twice about stroking one in open water.
5. The crocodiles. As if I’d forget to mention these original bad boys. Widely regarded as the most dangerous animals in Australia, saltwater crocodiles – or ‘salties’, as the Aussies so cutely call them – are found lurking right across the northern Outback. They’re huge (the largest reptiles on earth, with males reaching up to 20ft in length), plentiful (around 150,000 are believed to be roaming around out there, with a generous lifespan of up to 70 years) and hungry (these unfussy eaters will happily munch on any old fish, birds and mammals – including an average of one or two people a year). Knock yourself out, Dundee – you can keep ‘em.
6. The people. The racist ones, to be precise. Guys, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it – I’ve heard some really troubling things about this place when it comes to race relations and it’s no secret that this nation ain’t too keen on brown folks. I’ve read The Slap. Everyone I know whose lived there for any significant amount of time – both black and white – has assured me that casual racism is rife and virtually normalised. And let’s not even get into what happened (and is still happening, by the way) to the Aborigines. Seeing the chilly reception afforded to the country’s first peoples, you can’t blame me for assuming I might not be welcomed with open arms.
Needless to say, I was more than ready to decline the offer. But over the six months that followed, something weird happened: it was like that twinkling invitation was willing me – daring me, even – to say yes.
Every time I looked at that envelope, so full of promise, I found myself challenging that wretched voice in my head that always tells me ‘I can’t’, or to ‘play it safe’. I found myself yearning for adventure. I found myself wondering whether something that pushed me way out of my comfort zone might actually be just what the doctor ordered. I found myself not wanting to miss out on the big finale of the love story of the century (or the shindig that would surely follow it).
And not long after Christmas, I found myself on the blower booking up a storm: Melbourne, Hamilton Island, and Bali to boot – credit card details rolling off my tongue like Daddy Warbucks was picking up the tab. Something just came over me; it was almost like having an out-of-body experience. I hung up and sat there in stunned silence, wondering if I’d just made a massive mistake. The confirmation email landed with a jolly ‘ping’.
There was no turning back now. This was happening.