Why it's make or break time for many in pandemic-scarred Port Douglas
Bryan Hedges first sailed into Port Douglas in the 1980s, on his old catamaran.
He was a builder at the time, living in Sydney, but deep within himself he knew this was where he wanted to live one day.
"I ended up going south and it took me 28 years to get back up here," he said.
A bit older and bit greyer, with his loyal kelpie-cross Jess, four years ago he sailed back into far north Queensland and anchored permanently on Packers Creek.
"People smile at you to say g'day at the beach, down the road," he said.
It's an idyllic place. It's warm and it's peaceful. A bit too peaceful at the moment.
At the Port Douglas marina, boats spend more time moored than out on the reef.
"Usually this time of day, everyone's getting off the boats and this marina's packed, upstairs, downstairs, with people getting a beer after being on the reef all day. That's not the case now," Brewery manager Chris Barber says, glancing out to the water.
Chris has just let go of dozens of workers and is back on glass-cleaning duties himself.
"Last month we had about 40 staff members, we're down to about 10 now," he says.
He takes a phone call with his boss. Revenue is in free fall and he looks tired.
"We spent months and months recruiting, and now we don't need them anymore," he says.
Just out of town, tour operator Andrea Cameron is making a regular trip to her storage yard.
It's where she parks her tour buses, including a brand new 22-seater. She turns over the engine and pulls out onto a circular track just outside the sheds.
"I'm just popping by most days to make sure the battery doesn't go flat," Andrea says.
Before Queensland again closed its border to New South Wales and Victoria, tourist businesses like Andrea's were briefly overwhelmed by a lockdown-weary domestic market, escaping to paradise.
But the bounce-back was short-lived.
"To be honest, it's worse than the original COVID lockdown," she says.
"This time our region is not locked down, therefore we don't qualify for any government assistance such as JobKeeper.
Andrea can't just hire any old person off the street: it takes a long time to train a tour operator, and they are the face of her business.
She's started cooking dinner for her drivers once a week to preserve goodwill.
While the rainforests in the region are a big draw card, the nearby Great Barrier Reef is in its own category.
Steve Edmondson runs a small fleet of sailing boats out to the reef. His crews are complemented by marine biologists to educate people as well as show them the world heritage site.
It's supposed to be peak tourist season, and normally the business would be flat out.
"With our morale, we've managed to keep [staff] wherever possible, subsidising and supporting wages because people need to pay their rent, they need to live and survive."
His boats have never looked cleaner, and it's starting to get hard to find jobs for people to do.
"There are 240,000 jobs in the tourism industry in Queensland, $35 billion of value to our Queensland economy," Steve says.
The Queensland government is offering a range of grants and other fee rebates, but he says what is really needed is a targeted wage subsidy to help save jobs.
"Remember these are skilled people, you've got wonderful, capable, skippers, marine biologists."
For now, a backpacker workforce that was recently so desperately needed is having to drive away.
He and Brazilian Arturo Vega have just finished loading their belongings into their car and are about to hit the road.
Even if they wanted to stay, living here is becoming unaffordable. Rental vacancy rates are close to zero, a unit costs about $400 a week and a basic house is over $600.
And as work continues to dry up, Spanish visitor Miram Llamas won't be far behind Diego and Arturo.
"I was supposed to have 70 hours one week, next week, I had five," she says.
"Since then we are on holiday."
For those trapped in city lockdowns, a new life in Port Douglas now seems even more appealing.
Real estate agent Phil Holloway says he has been selling properties to people from Victoria and New South Wales site unseen, via video calls.
"It just hasn't happened before," he says.
"Having been here about 30 years, we've always been busy in the market and there's always something happening, but up until about three weeks ago we had three months of absolute madness," he says.
While selling properties is good for business in one sense, it is creating other problems.
Many of the new owners won't reside in the town permanently, and a lot of places being sold are being turned into holiday accommodation, tightening an already tight rental market.
"It's taken properties that were used for accommodation out of our market, and added extra strain to the employee side," mayor Michael Kerr says.
He says the council is trying to approve new housing projects quickly, but it's limited in what it can do to help.
"Our planning scheme, it clearly states that you can't have short-term accommodation in these residential areas, and yet we're bound by a lot of the state laws, and our hands are tied to try and stop that," Michael says.
In the nearby town of Mossman there was already a problem with poverty before the pandemic.
Community Services manager Erica Mast says when everything shut down, she was suddenly dealing with a new cohort of people needing help.
The past two years have forced a re-think about how to make the community a better place in the long term.
"One positive thing about this terrible situation is that since this homelessness situation in Port Douglas has grown, it's shone a light on the entire Douglas Shire and the existing conditions that the Douglas Shire residents have been facing."
But regardless of the day everyone has had, on Wednesday nights it's choir practice, and The Clink Theatre is like a refuge.
Bryan the retired builder and his dog Jess make the trip into town in an old yellow troopy.
Tour operator Andrew Cameron is also part of the group, a cross-section of people from all backgrounds and ages in the area.
The Clink used to be the Mossman Courthouse. Locals saved it from demolition and relocated it and created a 120-seat theatre.
Jenn Kerr is the choir leader. Outside she's the primary carer of two children. She’s doing her best, but the future is uncertain.
But tonight she's helping to recharge community spirit.
"Everybody's equal, and they all come in here and they just let go of all of the dramas throughout life and everything that's going on and just have a bit of fun, It's like therapy."
No-one knows how the pandemic will change Port Douglas. Some will go bankrupt, some will leave, some will move here and themselves be part of the evolution.
Life will go on, it's just a bit harder than usual right now.