In Building Paradise, David Macfarlane brings to the page his twelve-year love affair with a little slice of heaven he carved out for himself and the world on Long Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
Let me first say something about the presentation. Published by Wakefield Press, Building Paradise has an elegance to it; from the cover shot of a kangaroo knee-deep in the pristine blue shallows to the lovely monochrome photographs pertinent to each chapter (photography is by Tero Sade, Ian Stone and Macfarlane). But – and isn’t there so often a but? – I found the end-of-line hyphens a little off-putting (especially when a couple of particularly awkward ones hit you in the face on the page one prologue). A minor quibble.
In the early part of the book, the author gives us a quick history of Airlie Beach and a bit of a run-down on its social demographic. As someone who visited there in 1980 (loved it) and revisited in the early nineties (hugely disappointed), I can attest to the changes that catering to the back-packing set had on the area. But Macfarlane soon leaves Airlie to be what it is and the rest of the book is centred around his nirvana on Long Island.
A range of characters step onto the shores of Paradise Bay, from wealthy American tourists looking for something more luxurious than the eco-lodge had to offer in its infancy, to bored television “personalities” and aging hippies as well as the ubiquitous back-packers. There’s an Irishman concerned about snakes who emerges from his room “looking like a post-modern Ned Kelly[…]decked out in a full bodysuit of thick plastic, knee-length rubber boots, full-face helmet with visor, and gloves thick enough to handle spiky sea urchins” (41). The lodge’s first skipper is “a huge man-of-the-sea with a gruff manner and hands the size of large mud crabs” (44). There are wildlife characters too like the orange-eyed green tree frogs who determinedly ride the surf of the toilet flush, and the goanna ‘Fat Bastard’. The finest character of all is Myrtle the pet kangaroo who overseas the building works while “lazing on her soft foam mattress grooming her delicate forearms” (53) and who is fiercely jealous of all the females who turn up to work on the island.
Macfarlane encounters more than his fair share of hurdles along the path to success, the most frustrating and confounding being a businessman with appalling morals and a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services bureaucrat with the personality of a Nazi. According to Macfarlane, the former uses rumour, lies and dirty-tricks to jeopardise the success of the lodge, while the latter wields his power in the form of petty rules bent to serve his own vindictive ends. I don’t know if the author has altered names to protect his nemeses. If not, I hope their friends enjoy reading about them. It’s certainly an interesting way to settle some old scores.
The writing style is generally entertaining but there is the occasional hiccup. “A colourful [real estate] flyer jumps out at me like a neglected child” (7) is a strange analogy which just didn’t work for me but the author redeems himself with “A cluster of half a dozen old cabins, a small house, and a large junk-filled shed hide like timid refugees in the northern corner of the site” (11).
Mcfarlane doesn’t mind having a laugh at his own expense. I had a chuckle over the large grey stingray he pointed out to his guests that was gliding beside the boat:-
It was following us. I’ve never seen a ray do that before. After half a minute and dozens of photos, one of the guests disdainfully announced: ‘Dave, I think that’s the anchor.’
I’d forgotten to pull it in before leaving the beach. (101)
The author touches on some serious subjects: – ecology and sustainability, solar power, population growth, the unreality of Reality TV. I was interested to read his take on the aftermath of the nine-eleven attacks and, particularly his analogy of a huge luxury glasshouse that someone dares to shatter. His preferred reaction may seem simplistic but no more so than the Western world’s actual reaction, and a hell of a lot less devastating.
This is a book for anyone who has a dream to pursue. It’s a tale for people who care about the environment, a story for animal lovers. Actually, it is difficult to categorise. A quest to build an environmentally sustainable eco-lodge on the Great Barrier Reef is not something I’d normally go out of my way to read but Building Paradise is an interesting story well-told.
As always, thanks to ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross posted.
Mcfarlane, David. Building Paradise, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 2012.