The ocean air is salty and the Queensland humidity is sweet, and the combination must taste like freedom to the tens of thousands of teenagers here, buzzing the streets on scooters and whooping at one another from balconies.
The Gold Coast itself - a thin strip of concrete and light at the edge of the water, with a jagged horizon of hinterland reining it in - has been overtaken for the past fortnight (as it is every year) by delirious and drunken teenagers. Every day for 16 days, by as early as three in the afternoon, the young bathers leave the beach and instantly seem restless, roving around in wait for the turquoise water to turn black and the throbbing nightspots to call.
They are armed with preparatory slabs of XXXX bottles and UDL cans, and they wander down Cavill Mall past Orchid Avenue, the centre of this party. They are bare-chested or bikinied as their Havaianas slap the pavement. The girls are in high-waisted shorts and tank tops, boys in skinny jeans and singlets. They all appear impossibly young. Most try to ignore the spruikers touting passes to "VIP" club crawls, offering express entry and free drinks. The snippets of conversation that can be overheard reveal their itinerary: "Pre game?" "Sounds like a plan." "Back to yours?" "Let's do it."
By the time night falls, the pre-party has begun on the first floor of the Aegean, where four girls from St Clare's High School in Taree, NSW, are spending a week in a roomy apartment for about $800 each. Extra guests are not allowed, so they'll go elsewhere to play beer pong and king of beers and whatever other drinking games teenagers concoct. They are not bad kids. "Schoolies gets such a bad reputation, but they only show 1 per cent of what really happens," says Emily Bryan, 18, of Foster, who is planning to hit the clubs later, and whose mother paid for her trip. "She came here for schoolies, too. But she won't tell me anything."
Downstairs in the throng is Tiarne Comello, 18, of Ferntree Gully. She is here with three friends from Heathmont College. Their routine? Beach, pool, shopping, food, drinks, pubs, clubs, sleep. "I like the chance to be independent, and it's great not to have to worry about school," said Comello. "You meet nice people everywhere, and you only meet a handful who are a bit ratty and gross."
The latter come into view quickly, in the form of a hollering lot of lads chanting "2-5-7-0!" - the postcode of their home, Camden, NSW. Nearby, a girl from Bayswater in outer eastern Melbourne is rasping at anyone who will listen: "This is awesome. I've almost lost my voice!" Ask a girl from Mooroolbark what is her favourite part of schoolies week? "The strippers! I love the strippers. Just say strippers!"
The atmosphere is raucous and playful, but far from chaotic. This is week two, after all, when up to 15,000 students from Victoria and NSW (who are predominantly 18) arrive in town. The southern visitors can get into clubs and pubs, and require little supervision. It is an important distinction. In week one, the 28,000 schoolies here are overwhelmingly from Queensland, and are only 17. They need diversions - including beach parties and chill-out zones - to avoid becoming the image of misrule so often beamed back to us.
Schoolies is not what it was a decade ago. Crime is down by one-third this year, with 133 arrests over the first 11 nights - compared with 186 arrests in the same period in 2012. The figure is less than half what it was five years ago. The event is neither promoted nor encouraged by the city, but a plan is in place to deal with the phenomenon. They call it "The Response", and it includes 150 extra police officers and paramedic triage tents.
Even those who profit from the niche market help out. Most schoolies wear a lanyard from the companies that book travel packages - pink for schoolies.com and blue for 1800schoolies - the photo IDs stop older people from infiltrating. Matt Lloyd, chief executive and owner of schoolies.com, said the majority of infringement notices issued against a portion of his 25,000 clients were for public drunkenness, or noise, "or pissing in the street". If the rite of passage had a nasty nadir, it came and went about 2003. "Schoolies was out of control then, but more kids were coming every year," Lloyd said. "The images circulating were horrendous, and they were true."
Since then the city has worked to treat schoolies as just another week of tourism. And the Gold Coast is nothing if not equipped to deal with an influx of tourists. The pilgrimage to schoolies began in the 1970s, took off in the 1980s, and by the 1990s was riotous. The terms "toolies" and "droolies" were coined to describe older gatecrashers, and "foolies" for the underage interlopers.
The kids flow in, but they merely replace regular tourists and residents, and their economic benefit - estimated at about $24 million - is also a mixed blessing. "Half of our traders would say schoolies is of little benefit," says Mike Winlaw, of the Surfers Paradise Alliance. "Kebab stands and T-shirt shops do well, but fine dining and high-end retail do very poorly."
At 4am the clubs are still open. Closing time is 5am, but their trade is waning. The revellers file out, staggering arm in arm, and hit pizza shops, McDonald's and Pie Face.
Now fed but fading fast, the teens gravitate in one direction: the beach, where dozens of them sit in the sand in groups or couples, watching a golden sunrise. There is a monotony to the rhythm of the waves - swell, peak, crash, recede. The cycle mirrors the slogan on so many "Schoolies 2013" T-shirts - party, crash, sleep, repeat. At dawn, as the kids head to bed, the mall is scrubbed once more, ready for a new day.