Gold Coast family trip: Theme parks and natural attractions
The pain is immediate and intense. It feels as if I've been prodded below the left shoulder with a red hot poker. A moment ago, my two daughters and I were luxuriating in the pulsating spa, drinking apple juice and sparkling water from plastic cups and admiring the firmament above the Gold Coast. Now lightning bolts are screeching across my back and I'm finding it hard to hide my agony and disorientation from my eight- and six-year-olds.
What to do? I'm a single dad, it's nearing bedtime in a place where we know nobody and I've just been stung or bitten by something unidentified.
"Girls, we need to get out of the spa right now, sorry," I stutter, trying not to overdramatise the situation. As we climb out, something dark and flattened whirls around the spa. It looks like a spider. The spasms in my back rampage unabated and I'm getting lightheaded. I'm worried that I might pass out. I clench my teeth and head for the hotel reception, led by towel-enveloped children. Reception is closed. But there's a telephone beside it for out of hours enquiries. I pick up the phone. Nobody answers.
Should I ring an ambulance? I don't want to scare the girls and, anyway, what would happen to them if I got carted off to hospital? I can't risk driving in this state. My littlest is getting cold, her teeth chattering and face blanching. Then my mobile rings. It's the girls' mother, my ex-partner, phoning to say goodnight.
* Ask an Expert: Getting around the Gold Coast
* Gold Coast: More than a touch of Paradise
* Halcyon House: From Byron Bay to the Gold Coast
"Don't say a thing," I mutter to Mila, my oldest, handing her my mobile, "just tell her what a great holiday we're having."
As Mila relates what a lovely day we've had at Dreamworld, I bundle the kids into the stairwell and usher them up three flights of stairs towards our room. By the time we reach it, I'm breathlessly ready to share my plight with my ex and ask for her advice.
"It won't be anything serious," she assures me, "put some ice on it and rest up." For a moment I calm down. Then I pull up my T-shirt and look in the mirror. An angry looking red blotch is spreading from the bite site.
"I'm going to die," says the Englishman in my head who's convinced all Australian creatures are out to murder me. Obviously this doesn't happen. Instead I get the children into bed then self-medicate with grape-flavoured elixir. Finally, after an hour of torment, I fall into bed and a deep sleep.
When I come to, we are in the the Gold Coast hinterland, and I'm opening the door of our cosy two-bedroom apartment at Binna Burra Mountain Lodge, to some Brisbane-based friends. Somehow, I've managed to get us all packed, breakfasted and out of our Currumbin beach hotel and driven an hour inland to the Lamington National Park, during a morning I can barely remember. My back is now extremely itchy and a small scarlet volcano has formed beneath my shoulder.
"Looks like a white-tailed spider bite," says my oldest mate, Hugh, who is something of a bushman, "painful but not life-threatening."
That afternoon, I try to forget my pulsing back on a guided bush walk along a five-kilometre circuit and the sight of several 2000-year-old Antarctic beech trees in this pocket of temperate rainforest does the trick. As the weekend wears on so the pain in my back wears off, the views over the Coomera Valley from our sky-lodge soothing my frayed nerves and a program of activities providing a welcome distraction.
On the Sunday morning, the girls and I even manage to rekindle the spirit of adventure we'd begun on the coast, by taking a ride on Binna Burra's flying fox. Above the Bellbird Clearing, a 20-minute walk from the lodge, this 165-metre-long zipline provides as many thrills as we've experienced at the Gold Coast theme parks, in a much more comely environment. After being helmeted, harnessed onto it and being granted dispensation to fly as a threesome, we launch ourselves off the elevated platform and down the slope, Dad emitting a coy whoop.
Then half-way down I lean back a smidge too far. We are suddenly upside down, travelling at speed, and sharing a moment's panic as our eyes bulge at the ground, 20 metres below. Finally, near the end of the run, I right our tangle of arms and legs, and we hover above our landing point, throwing out a rope for those below to steady us. Then we shimmy down, SAS-style, to terra firma.
If I've been pushed to my limits (by a spider) on this five-day Gold Coast Dadventure, it's fair to say that I've also discovered how far my offspring can go. On our first morning, a combination of cold and rough seas around Cook Island, off Fingal Head on the southern Gold Coast, curtail my youngest daughter's "Snorkel with Turtles Adventure". But Freya does last 20 minutes in conditions that test the adults in our group and both girls get to swim above several green turtles, babbling excitedly through their snorkels at the sight of them.
The following day, after an early start, we join Alicia from "Kayak the Gold Coast" to stroll through Burleigh Heads National Park and paddle down the translucent Tallebudgera Creek. It's a journey filled with comedy, as one pair of Japanese tourists turns repeatedly around in circles and butt the creek bank while trying to control their kayak and with striking quiet as we navigate this natural corridor within the Gold Coast's rampant development.
We end at the excellent David Fleay Wildlife Park, meeting a host of native animals, from bilbies to estuarine crocodiles, in wetland, rainforest and woodland settings.
While our trip has already been full of natural highlights, my children now have the Gold Coast theme parks in their sights, starting with Movieworld that afternoon.
Yet, while I spend hours eyeing several monster rollercoasters, my sensible children refuse to let me scare the living daylights out of them, opting instead for tame rides like the Looneytunes carousel and the Yosemite Sam railroad. It takes all my powers of bribery (and ice creams) to inveigle them into bumper cars and after two jolting rides it's me sticking out my bottom lip and begging for "one more go".
I make do with watching the schmaltzy parade of Warner Brothers characters like Batman, Scooby-Doo and Wonderwoman on Movie World's Main Street, before my daughters drag me away. It's the same story the following day at Dreamworld. From the moment we arrive, it's clear that adrenalin-inducing rides like The Tower of Terror, Wipeout and Buzzsaw won't get a look-in. But when our visit begins with a walk with four tiger cubs – conventional looking sisters Akira and Akasha and their adopted white siblings Kiko and Kali, recently arrived from Japan – I'm compelled to mute my complaints.
So our day at Dreamworld passes, with mild thrills on attractions like "Escape from Madagascar" - "the wildest rollercoaster around for pint-sized fun" - and the splashy "Rocky Hollow Log Ride", in Goldrush Country.
The drive back to our accommodation is actually far more scary, a 38-kilometre journey south turning into a 2½-hour crawl through gridlocked traffic on the Gold Coast Highway. It might be a Friday night, but such infrastructure problems do not augur well for the city's hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
It's this that immediately precedes my brush with that Gold Coast creature of the night in the hotel spa.
But then brushes with arachnids have to be taken on the chin when you're leading your kids on a Dadventure. Even if, in the haze that ensues next morning, I forget my wallet at the hotel and a few days later, I'm forced by ongoing muscle spasms to check in with my GP.
"It's a red back," he tells me as I pull up my shirt to display my still angry bite.
"I know," I reply, "but do you know what could have bitten me?"
"Yes," he says, kindly not adding "you idiot", "it's a classic redback spider bite."
"You're lucky you didn't get it on another part of your anatomy," he adds, smirking, "like that poor chap in the Sydney toilet block."
MORE INFORMATION VisitGoldCoast.com
Currumbin Sands has two- and three-bedroom apartments, outdoor pools and spas (mind the spiders) behind Palm Beach. 955 Gold Coast Highway. Currumbinsands.com.au
Binna Burra Lodge, 1069 Binna Burra Road, Beechmont, has special three- and four-night winter packages (including one free night, morning and afternoon tea and guided walks) on its 1one-, two- and three-bedroom skylodges. Two-bed skylodge is A$990 (NZ$1057) for three nights, saving A$445. Until August 31.
The "Snorkel with Turtles" experience leaves from Fingal Head in northern NSW and costs A$99 per person. Watersportsguru.com
Kayak the Gold Coast's "Wildlife Park and Kayak Adventure" is priced at A$99 adults, A$69 kids. kayakthegoldcoast.com.au
Movie World, Pacific Highway, Oxenford. Open seven days, 9.30am-5pm. Admission: A$89. Movieworld.com.au
Dreamworld, Dreamworld Parkway, Coomera, open seven days, 10am-5pm. Day entry from A$85, Tiger Cub walk experience A$450 (up to four people). Dreamworld.com.au
The writer and his children were guests of Gold Coast tourism