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Gold Coast already sparking ahead of Games

Press Association logoPress Association 8/03/2017 Karen Bowerman

It's November, and in the searing heat of Australia's Gold Coast, I'm attending the unveiling of the 2018 Commonwealth Games baton.

Taking place in a hotel auditorium in Broadbeach, a small district just south of Surfers Paradise, up on stage, local kids in fluorescent hot pants perform high kicks and back flips, as a giant, bright blue koala - the mascot of the Games - dances among them.

This month, the baton begins its journey from Buckingham Palace through the nations and territories of the Commonwealth. It'll carry a message from the Queen, inscribed on paper made from Australian spinifex grass.

After 288 days and 230,000km, it'll be back on the Gold Coast for the start of the 2018 Games.

The baton is a sleek, narrow loop, made from the region's native macadamia wood found on its mountains, and reclaimed plastic gathered from its shores.

There's a strip of reflective stainless steel, said to evoke the coast's iconic skyscrapers, and flashing LED lights, to symbolise the energy (certainly evident in all those high kicks) of the people who call the region home.

The Gold Coast is made up of 57km of honey-coloured, surf-soaked beaches and stretches from Main Beach in the north to the laidback sands of Coolangatta in the south.

The undisputed "capital" is Surfers Paradise, where shops sell sexy bikinis and branded board shorts, suntanned locals merge with sunburnt tourists, and bars offer countless cocktails and dancing 'til dawn.

I stay directly south, in the quieter, chic suburb of Broadbeach, where the sand is so clean, I can't help wondering if the baton's architects had found it a struggle sourcing enough plastic for their eco-friendly design.

Each morning, I sit on my balcony and watch the Pacific Ocean pound the shore. But while the coast is known for surfing, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the water, too.

Ten kilometres north of Broadbeach (just off Marine Parade, Labrador) is The Broadwater, an area of ocean protected by islands, where Steve from Australian Kayak Adventures runs paddling tours.

We set off from a slip of beach next to a small lagoon. Within minutes, a bottlenose dolphin arches out of the sea in front of us.

As the sun glints off distant skyscrapers, we haul our kayaks onto South Stradbroke Island, the other side of the water, and pad through dunes covered with creeping spinifex grass to the beach on the far side.

South Stradbroke, or Straddie, as it's called by locals, is a favourite haunt of surfers. It's also home to the swamp wallaby, which has black face markings that resemble a mask. The animal has lived in isolation here for so long that it's developed a unique ginger-coloured belly and white-tipped tail.

We find some tracks: two-pronged prints and a sandy swish made by a tail, but fail to spot any.

Back at the lagoon, pelicans are swooping in from the sea as if they'd received some avian text alert. As it nears one o'clock, around 60 of them gather on the shore.

They've come for their weekend pop-up restaurant, provided by staff at the local fish market. The birds put on quite a show, snapping up titbits with their enormously long bills.

The Gold Coast, however, isn't just coastline. Beyond the shore is what locals call "the green behind the gold" - the region's hinterland, defined by the Scenic Rim, an area surrounded by volcanic mountains.

From just outside Canungra, a rural township 25km inland from Surfers Paradise, I take in the forests and farmland from the sky.

It's just after dawn, and Ben from Hot Air Balloon Gold Coast, is gradually turning our balloon eastwards, so we can see sunrise.

He points out Tamborine Mountain, a 500m-high plateau formed by eruptions 22 million years ago. The rich soil is ideal for growing avocado, kiwi and macadamia nuts.

We float gracefully over the countryside and land so smoothly, I'm not even aware we've hit the ground.

A barefoot local farmer in his seventies, bumps across the field on his quad bike to greet us.

"Thought you were going to crash into the hedge!" he shouts, as two yelping sheepdogs run round him.

"He says that every time," Ben says, as I help him fold the mighty balloon away.

I stay at O'Reilly's, a guest house in the heart of Lamington National Park. Owned by the family since the 1920s, it was built before the rainforest was declared a national treasure.

My rustic room, overlooking the mountains, has black and white pictures of the O'Reilly boys on horseback. Scatter cushions depict the Bowerbird which Sir David Attenborough came to film here.

I venture on bushwalks, wobble along the Treetop Boardwalk (a rope and plank suspension bridge) and climb a 30m fig tree-cum-observation deck for views of the canopy.

One of the guides, Luke, invites me to look for glow worms. I join him and a Chinese tour group and stumble into the night.

The glow worms we're looking for are actually the larvae of the fungus gnat. They give off light to trap insects in sticky threads which they trail from rocks beside the creek.

My companions and I have no common language, but when we reach the riverbank, we share a sense of awe. It's as if we've stumbled across a huge display of twinkling, fairy lights.

It reminds me of the Gold Coast's flashing baton. Although the tiny grubs can't match its colours, they are easily the region's spectacular, and completely natural, alternative.

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