Reef

 

David Whitley recalls what was supposed to be his first day at a new job in Australia

 

It’s all OK. It must be something to do with flight paths, or the curvature of the earth or something. Everything’s going to be just fine. The little twelve-seater plane, powered by two particularly energetic hamsters, has chugged its way into the sky, and has just broken from the land to head out over the sea. Having looked at the map, it’s possibly not the route I’d have chosen to get from Bundaberg to Brisbane, but he’s the pilot; he knows these things much better than I. Besides, he has a very official-looking hat, and no-one would give one of them to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Would they?

 

There is something inherently delightful about Australia’s smaller domestic airports, of which Bundaberg’s most certainly is one. Everything is so lackadaisical that you half expect the air traffic controller to be simultaneously running the local post office and the check-in staff to regard a four-year-old’s drawing of Mummy and Daddy as perfectly acceptable photo ID. It’s this attitude that would go some way to explaining the somewhat scant security measures. There are only four flights all day, each heading to Brisbane, and when the first is called, everybody gets up, and walks straight onto the tarmac, cheerfully waved through by the chap at the door who can’t be bothered with niceties such as boarding passes. Never fear, though, as the pilot is doing a roll call outside the plane. That’ll foil those sneaky terrorist types.

 

This small connecting flight is a fairly laid-back start to what should be one of the biggest days of my life. At noon, I am supposed to be in Sydney to start a new job, which was offered to me out of the blue just three days ago. With just two weeks left on a year-long visa, the job is also my passport to staying in Australia for good. It’s all very exciting, and slightly nerve-wracking. Especially when the Great Barrier Reef comes into view.

 

Forty minutes after take off, the plane touches down. It appears to be a delightful little island, fringed by sandy beaches and world class snorkelling. It’s got everything you’d need for a relaxing break away from it all, but there’s one thing it most certainly isn’t. And that’s Brisbane.

 

As those looking forward to a couple of days on a nice resort island disembark, it all finally hits. This is what happens when you’re too engrossed in a book to pay proper attention to airport announcements. The pilot turns round to see one passenger remaining, ghostly pallid and rocking back and forth in deep trauma.

 

“I-I-I th-think I’ve got on the wrong plane.”

It’s the pilot’s turn to go sheet white. “Wh-what? Oh my God. This has never happened before.”

 

Nobody quite knows what to do. Dealing with a stowaway/ kidnap victim is a completely new one for the resort staff, although they seem more concerned with whether I should technically be allowed to use the pool.

 

It takes a solemn pace around the rim of Lady Elliot Island (a whopping 20 minutes), before I can bring myself to make that phone call. Invited into what passes as the island’s headquarters, I’m surrounded by people desperately trying not to guffaw behind their hands as I ponderously dial for the Sydney office. “Erm, hi. You know how I was supposed to start work today? Well… you’re not going to believe this, but…”