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Getaway meets Ben Southall, Island Caretaker

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's a sunny winter's day on Hamilton Island, Queensland, and Ben Southall and I are strolling along the boardwalk at the marina, with super-yachts and powerboats on either side of us.

Glamorous Getaway presenter Natalie Gruzlewski is waiting next to a row of jetskis, ready for Ben to jump on one and give her an adrenaline-fuelled tour of the nearby beaches.

Katie, the PR executive for Hamilton Island, comes up to relay a message: the owner of a nearby catamaran would love Ben to come out for a sail next time he's free. Passing holidaymakers recognise Ben by his "Island Caretaker" T-shirt and come up to ask for a photo and an autograph.

Are you getting the picture yet? When Tourism Queensland advertised the position of Caretaker of the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef in January 2009, they weren't exaggerating too much when they called it "The Best Job in the World".

As everyone who hasn't been under a rock for the past six months will already know, 34-year-old Pommie Ben beat more than 34,000 entrants for the coveted role. He's an affable, sociable bloke with an engaging grin, boundless energy and something to say on just about any subject. And ninemsn Travel editor Gemma Pitcher caught up with him to find out if the job is living up to its much publicised title.

Have you been to Australia before?

Only for the final. That's what I thought was going to be the culmination of the whole thing: a two-week holiday in Australia.

Did you really not think you were in with a chance of winning?

I honestly, really, really didn't! There were people there with business plans and all sorts of things, and I just thought, "well, I'm just going to go over and just be myself", and that's all I can do. If it happens, awesome, if not, then, you know, thanks for the holiday. I genuinely thought that.

Why do you think you got it?

I had quite a good history of just lots of different things. Lots of challenges I've set myself before — like quite personal, physical challenges. I'm quite an out-there, gregarious person. The committee said the job was to have a Queenslander's lifestyle, which is very outdoorsy and physical, and that's the kind of person I am. I don't like sitting behind a desk that much — if I do it's because I'm planning something outdoors. I couldn't do a nine-to-five-style job. I'm into mountain climbing, diving, swimming, surfing, marathon running. Lots of camping in the UK and in Africa.

What did you get up to in Africa?

I organised a charity expedition called Africa Treks. It was an excuse to travel with a charity project behind it. I climbed the five highest mountains in Africa, and ran five marathons. It raised £25,000 in the end, and took up the whole of last year.

How did you end up applying for the Best Job?

I got back to the UK after my Africa trip at the beginning of January and, just afterwards, someone gave me this newspaper article about the competition and said, "Ben, you've got all the qualifications, you should go for this." And I didn't really think much about it actually, but then my girlfriend Bree, who'd come back to England with me, said, "Look, we need to do this if you we're going to do it." So we spent the afternoon doing the video, sent it off, then just kind of forgot about it.

I was in Canada visiting Bree over there, and three or four weeks later, as I was walking around, I got an e-mail on my phone saying, "Is this the e-mail you've been waiting for? You're in the top 50." At that stage I thought, hang on, you do stand a bit of a chance. There were 34,684 people, so to get to the final 50 was, I think, the hardest bit.

Was it how you'd expected it to be, when you came over for the final?

I didn't expect that it would become such a massive media frenzy. I don't think anyone did, to be honest. To get off the plane, and see all those film crews, you just suddenly thought, "My God, this is massive!" And you just sank or you swam, basically.

Did you think at any stage, "I can't do this, this is madness"?

No, not really, because the thing about me is that I love meeting people, and experiencing new things. And at the end of the day, that's all this job is about. That's what I did every day in Africa. You never know what's 'round the next corner, and I'm happy with that.

Do you think the job's changed since it was first conceived?

I think Tourism Queensland knew roughly what I was going to do, but they wanted to mould it to whoever the person was, and fit the role to them. And I don't think any of us realised how big it was all going to get, with all the media attention and everything.

So what is the job description now?

It's an ambassador for Queensland. Get out there and do it all, enjoy it, soak it all up, but then help to sell it to the world via the blog and via the international media.

What's a typical day on the job like?

Get up, get on a plane or a ferry or a boat, get cruised to a new location, or get to a new island, get welcomed, check in very quickly, then go snorkelling, go and see what the reef's like, look around it, do some new things like kayaking, or the wire walks over the jungle or the forest or whatever.

Sit down in the evening with the local tourism representatives, or the hotel owner, or the chef, eat a lovely dinner, then get back to the hotel room about 10 in the evening, fire up the computer and the phone, and start work. I update the blog, then some nights I get on the phone to do some interviews later on at night with international media, because of the time difference. There's still so much to do in terms of selling this around the world.

Is it going to bother you, not having much time off? Can you see yourself being burnt out and knackered after six months?

Not really, I don't think so, because it fits in quite well with the kind of person I am. I've never really been someone to sit around and do nothing. I usually only get about five or six hours sleep a night, anyway, because I always get up and do my swimming in the morning, and in the evenings I tend to work on my next project.

So it's how I live my life anyway. I don't think I could ever get bored with the experiences. Possibly, I could get frustrated with not having enough time to do the blogging as well as I'd like to. But, that's about me managing my time slightly better, and not allowing myself to be force-fed too much. I don't like falling asleep in front of my computer — I like falling asleep when the job's done.

So in terms of the job, how do you think you're doing?

I can only go on feedback from my boss. That's how you've got to see it, the boss is the one you've got to keep happy. At the moment I do ask Tourism Queensland for regular feedback, I do check that I'm doing everything alright, because I will adjust, and I will suit to fit what my boss wants, really. At the moment they've said they're happy with the blog, and with the photos. We're trying to get more video onto the blog, because people like the interaction, to make it visual and entertaining, so people absorb it better. I had some Internet problems with that in the beginning, but they're all sorted now.

When you walk around at the moment, you're basically getting mobbed by people everywhere you go. Do you think that in future, having had this job will turn you into a celebrity, with paparazzi following you around?

Yeah, it's a bit strange. You see the tour buses going past my house, and the tour guides saying, "That's the house that the guy with the Best Job In The World got!" But it's not about anything that I've personally achieved. If I am famous, it's because of the promotion of a marketing campaign. It's about the job, and it could have been anyone in these shoes.

If people come up to me, it's not about Ben Southall, it's about the Best Job in the World, as the island caretaker. And everyone associates that job with Hamilton Island, because they did such a good job marketing it. I want to try and use it as a springboard to do my expeditions, to do things that'll benefit me and other people.

Tell us about Bree, your girlfriend. Isn't it really her who got the Best Job in the World? While you're off running around, she can put her feet up on the deck and laze around in the spa.

Too right! She's a stunt girl. She had just started training to do that in Canada when I got this job, and she's going to go down to Movie World on the Gold Coast to continue her training down there in a few weeks. She quite enjoys sitting on the deck, and tanning and doing her fun things. The first three weeks were quite action-packed, so she's liking having the chance to relax and sit on her backside, finally.

Is she okay with all the attention you've been getting?

When it all happened, she was known as the girl with the boyfriend who got the Best Job in the World. So she got a bit of media attention in Canada when it all happened, but it was only when we got here that she realised quite what the impact was of the whole thing. She quite likes the attention, because she's very outgoing. She quite likes being the centre of attention normally, and I try to make her the centre of attention, so she gets a bit jealous sometimes of all the attention I'm getting! But she's enjoying herself, I think.

Have the two of you had the chance to make any friends yet?

The people I've met are a good bunch. I've met some fun characters, and the marketing team are great, but this is only our fifth night on the island since we started here. Then in the evenings, I've got work to do so it's hard to get out and meet people. We'd love to be able to switch off, go to the staff bar, go down to the marina and watch the bands, but unfortunately that hasn't really happened yet. It's more about having to get the job done, and that's what I'm trying to focus on. There isn't, sadly, too much time for socialising.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the other applicants?

Yeah, lots of them! Six of them have been filming an advert for Tourism Queensland, so we've been talking on the phone and by e-mail. George, the guy from Ireland, is a great lad, a really good laugh. He's got a yellow Range Rover, back in Ireland, and I've got a Land Rover, and he wants to drive 'round Australia. So it may well be that after this job is over, we might end up doing that together. And a few of the other finalists keep in touch on Twitter and on e-mail.

Have you thought about what you'll do when your contract is up?

With all the attention the job campaign got, the world is definitely my oyster, but I still want to stay true to what I always wanted to do. Which is to travel and see new places and do new things — that bit's for myself — but still, to do it for charity, and to give something back. That's what my Africa trip was all about, and that's what I want to go back to when this job is all over. The next fundraising trip I want to do is a drive around Australia, I don't know any of the details yet, but there'll be some endurance events in there, some big running and swimming marathons in there, to raise the money. I just need to find some time to sort out the planning.

And finally, are you yet sick of hearing the words, "The Best Job in the World"?

Ha! Nope, not yet! It still seems very weird though, to think that they're talking about me.

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