One woman on the ultimate blokes' island? Brigid Delaney braves a Queensland island that's been taken over by beer.
You'd think I was going to a warzone when I told friends where I was being sent.
"Oh no!" they wailed. "That sounds dangerous!"
"You should DEFINITELY NOT go alone."
"That sounds like an awful place. It's my idea of hell," said another pal, drinking a sedimenty ale from a Marrickville microbrewery, while perched on a milkcrate, in a laneway, by a family of bins.
Fairfax was sending me to XXXX Island - aka -Man Cave Island, Beer Island, Bloke's Paradise - in Queensland.
The combination of blokes and unlimited beer had people spooked.
The assumptions were that it would be a dark place – even anarchic. Think Lord of the Flies with mid-strength beer. That as a woman I would either be treated with hostility by other guests or be unsafe. That I would come ashore on the XXXX schooner and the men of the island on seeing me would either leave in en masse huff to the Xbox Hut, or riot in fury that their man cave had been invaded by chick. I might even be attacked!
I convinced my friend Mel F to come with me. She was wary, and like me, had a lot of assumptions.
"Are there locks on the doors?" she asked, adding that she was expecting "marauding hordes of drunken men."
As the schooner sped towards the island I wondered: were we going to the most dangerous place in Australia?
And if not the most dangerous, the most bogan?
XXXX Island is 15 kilometres off the Capricorn Coast at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Formerly known as Pumpkin Island, it's been recently leased by beverage company Lion who have naming rights and exclusive use for the next three years.
The marketing exercise, reminiscent of Tourism Queensland's own "Best Job in the World" campaign, saw XXXX look at 87 islands along the state's coast before settling on Pumpkin Island.
Currently the only way to get there is through winning competitions run by the beer brand, which it plans to hold regularly over the life of the three-year island lease.
They have built everything needed for a bloke's weekend away: there is an Xbox room, a tool shed, pool table, darts, a one-hole golf course, a tinnie, rods and tackle, a bar showing non-stop Fox Sports and huts with uber-blokey names such as The Locker Room and The House of Rock.
Arriving by boat on one of those Queensland brochure-bright sunny days, the water was blue and green, while the island ahead of us had a broad front beach, and some palms and Norfolk pines. Through the foliage we glimpsed beach huts and hammocks. The bar took pride of place in the middle of the island, overlooking the water.
But something seemed off.
There were women — everywhere! They were in bikinis lying on the beach reading 50 Shades of Grey, they were sitting on the balcony of their beach huts smoking ciggies and drinking cans of XXXX, they were sitting in the bar racking up for a game of pool, coming out to meet the boat, to drag us in and help us off.
Was this the right island? Had we landed on Sauv Blanc Island instead? Or perhaps West Coast Cooler Island — where chicks get to bring their BFFs and lie around having mani-pedis and as the sun goes down, getting feral on goon?
"Welcome to XXXX Island," said Mel L, the blond woman wearing the bright yellow of XXXX Gold. She seemed to be some sort of tribal chieftain. "Would you like a beer?"
This was my first beer and I was ready for it. The sun was beating down, the bar opening out to the sea immediately put me in holiday mode, it had been a long, stressful trip here (having to be paged three times by the airline because I wandered off to find contact lens solution). Would I like a XXXX? XXXX yeah!
Mel L (not to be confused with my guest Mel F) was the island's manager and in the six weeks the island had been opened this was the most women it has seen.
It had been a lazy assumption on my behalf that the island was men-only. Those who win the prize (usually found in slab of beer) can bring three mates. The prize-winners so far have interpreted "mates" to include wives, girlfriends, sisters, female friends, their mum, and in one case — their step-mum.
Jamie from Cobram had won the trip in a lucky slab of beer. He brought his wife and his parents. His father, aged in his 70s, was the oldest islander. Most of the people on the island were in their 30s.
Chris from Tasmania came and joined us at the bar. He won a competition though work where he had to design something useful for the island. His invention was a sunken music pit.
He brought his wife, his best friend and his best friend's wife. "Want to come over to our campsite tonight? We'll cook you girls a barbie?"
So much for being excluded.
After our beer Mel L, along with the island's kelpie Spinner, took us on a tour of the 15 acre island. Easily explored on foot, in a cute touch it is the shape of an X.
For an island devoted to beer it was almost incongruously environmentally conscious. There are solar panels and rainwater tanks, and recycling — particularly of cans — is taken seriously.
We talked about the perceptions of the island. People Mel knew had warned her off taking the job. "They told me the island would be really bogan."
That hasn't turned out to be the case. Guests are so chuffed to win a weekend on the island that they behave respectfully. The combination of lots of fun activities and mid-strength beer means that people tend to retire to bed early (and quite possibly gassy), with only a mild buzz as opposed to the full blown alcoholic catastrophe that one might find on say — Sauv Blanc Island. One of the guests on the island, Ken from WA, told me he drank 60 cans of XXXX on the island — and all it produced was a rather annoying, endless urge to pee.
So there's been no Mad Monday style destruction on the island and it's definitely not like Schoolies. Just as well, as the facilities — although not five-star — are very comfortable, and a lot of thought has gone into making them fit with the island's laid-back, very Australian vibe.
My favourite feature was the "loo with a view" — a toilet perched on the hill with an amazing view of the ocean.
The island was crowd sourcing some of its more interesting features — and some of those who had provided great ideas were on the island this weekend. Kier from Sydney had invented an inflatable X. "You can sunbathe on the arm of the X and in the middle you can put an esky," she said.
Justin from Perth designed a communications bunker. The idea was inspired by poker games where "there's always someone going to make calls when you are with your friends."
The bunker, fitted with Skype, is "like a prison visit. Ten minutes to talk to your missus".
Justin's three "mates" were his work colleagues — a lovely group of brewers from WA.
That afternoon in our accommodation — a house — facing the beach Mel F and I sat in sun loungers, reading back issues of the New Yorker and drinking XXXX Gold.
Wine was our usual poison but this weekend we were embracing beer with gusto. Empty cans were piling up — like a tower — in the kitchen. Around the island were special can crushers to minimise the bin space. You could take the cans to the tool shed and crush them with a hammer — which actually felt very satisfying.
"We're smashing the XXXX," I punned. "We need more."
There are various ways to access beer while on the island.
It is stocked in your fridge, in the bar or there is a pulley system where cold beer is delivered to you via a flying fox-style box.
That night we meet the other inhabitants of XXXX Island. There is a group from every state, with 24 guests in total.
Mel F and I team up with the Tasmanians where we get our arses whipped in trivia. We have a few games of Connect 4 and drink a lot of XXXX until, bloated, I can no longer drink anymore, and hitch a lift with the barman on the quad-bike back to the house.
The next day we go fishing out in the tinnie, have many swims, take the kayaks out, play beach cricket and drink a lot of XXXX.
It's Derby Day and some islanders watch it from the Xbox room.
"When we wanted beers we sent down a nice note to the barman and he sent up four beers in the flying fox," said Alexandra from South Australia, who had taken a group of women to the island who had been friends for 20 years.
I spent as much time as possible in the water. I could not steer my kayak properly and start drifting out towards Brisbane. Some of the men of the island left their camps to stand at the shore, ready to swim out if I get in trouble.
Why did I think this would be a dangerous place? What does it say about how I think about groups of men? I feel ashamed of preconceptions. And also lack of upper-body strength needed to steer kayak.
Back on shore I grab another beer before wading back into the sea where I field in an all-in game of beach cricket. The cricket game continues until there is no light. Then, like dudes from a Jack Johnson film clip, we build a giant fire on the beach.
Later there is a barbeque cooked in a refitted beer keg, and more games of Connect 4 and the music that takes me back to my country town and boozy nights at the pub: Cold Chisel, Powderfinger, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Silverchair.
Mel F and I drink more beer and play games of quoits on the sand, as the fire tended by the men and women of XXXX Island flares and glows like a small sun.
If this is Bogan Land oh Lord – let me move here!
The genders and the generation playing together - out on the shore and in the bar, singing badly, beating each other at pool, asking - perhaps futilely - if anyone wants to play the tedious board game Test Match.
It's Utopia. A bar where you don't have to pay. Friendly people from all over the country. Where creative ideas are welcome, an egalitarian place, where everyone gets a turn at batting, where all around you is that inviting brochure ocean. A sort of Australia: The Best Bits.
Sunday comes around without a hangover and no one seems to want to leave. But we are shuttled to Rockhampton airport – all of us carrying our XXXX Gold bags, waring our garish, hard-to-miss XXXX hats, XXXXX towels slung over our shoulders, XXXX stubby holders worn as bracelets. All of us with our mates and sunburnt shoulders and crunchy steps from the sand still on our feet. We have become ambassadors of a way of life, diplomats for the island – a version of Australia that exists in spite of our assumptions.
The writer travelled as a guest of XXXX.