This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
It's 5AM in Tropical Islands Resort. The pool is 31 degrees, the rainforest is looking luscious and Vanessa – the only other person swimming in this vast body of water – is the opposite of sober. I watch her closely as her head disappears underwater. From above, I can see her open her mouth widely and scream – the water swallowing her rage. She pops back up and coughs. "Why are you angry?" I ask. "The water is warm, we're surrounded by palm trees, a beach and cocktails. Life seems pretty good under this dome." She glares at me for a few moments, then responds: "Nobody can be truly happy here."
Tropical Islands in Krausnick, a town in northeast Germany, is the largest indoor water park in the world, located inside the largest free-standing hall ever built, which also contains the world's largest indoor rainforest. It's a beautiful, fake paradise – boasting the highest waterslide in Germany, mini-golf, hot-air balloon trips, real-life flamingos and even a fake Hindu temple, for some reason. Covering all this is a dome so high, the Statue of Liberty could stand underneath it, and the Eiffel Tower lie down inside of it.
In 2003, a Malaysian investor bought the former airplane hangar and converted it into the theme park it is today. The place is so big, the majority of the site's annual 1 million visitors devote days to experiencing all the attractions on offer, with most sleeping in tents on the edge of the site. I don't have days, just 24 sleepless hours to discover everything I can about this artificial paradise, and the thousands of people that fill it every day.
After an hour-long drive from Berlin, I arrive at the park around 12PM, greeted by heavy rain. By the time I walk from my car to the entrance, I'm completely soaking wet. However, as soon as I step inside the Island's gigantic dome, which will accommodate over 6,000 people today, a sudden heatwave fixes my discomfort. It's 26 degrees here, day and night.
Inside, I am immediately struck by the size and scale of the rainforest. When the hall first opened in 2004, the twelve full-time gardeners struggled to keep the 600 tropical plants alive without any sunlight. Because of that, they replaced a part of the roof with UV-penetrable material.
Looking down for a moment, I spot the indoor beach – which has been titled the South Seas – nestled next to the mock amazon. The whole thing is incredibly surreal, yet every visitor just plays along like it's the most natural thing in the world. I guess that's why many of them are here – to escape reality.
It takes less than 30 minutes for me to meet my first flamingos, who appear alongside the wooden path that leads to the Mangrove swamp. A young boy with a swimming noodle spots the birds, too, and begins to chase after them, as his mother searches for her camera.
Later in the afternoon, families with cool boxes and rubber rings pace between the deckchairs on the "beach". Deep down, they know their task is hopeless – there aren't any free sun loungers in sight. A man complains to the pool supervisor: "We travelled four hours to get here from Bremen and now we can't find a single lounger?" he shouts. The lifeguard isn't really in the mood to deal with this. "If you'd prefer to leave, you can get a refund at the entrance."
Personally, when I think of the South Seas, I imagine myself alone in a hammock on a pearly-white beach drinking a Mai Tai, with no people, phones and, ideally, no trousers either.
But then again, why waste all that time and money flying half-way around the world when you can enjoy similar pleasures in an airplane hanger in Krausnick?
It's early evening, and a woman at the "Bora Bora" bar waves at me. I come to learn that she's a 59-year-old retired lorry driver.
- "Why did you decide to holiday here?" I ask.
- "We're here on a ladies' weekend," she replies. "My daughter and her friend are also here with me. We just wanted some time to relax."
For two nights they'll sleep in the tent village, each tent including ready made-up beds at a cost of €75 (£70) a night.
The women had planned to drink champagne by the lagoon, but the crowds in the pool were too much, she says. "Apart from that, the staff here are so unfriendly." I ask why they decided to stay in Germany rather than go abroad. "I have to care for my father, so I can't really take much of a holiday," she explains. "We tell everyone that we're doing an around-the-world trip: Bora Bora, Thailand, Bali – it's all here." I tell her about my plan to stay awake for 24 hours. "Let me give you my tent number," she says. "Then you'll stay awake."
At 11PM, nighttime officially descends on Tropical Islands. The projection screen behind the "South Seas" suddenly glows orange and yellow to reflect the setting sun. After about 20 minutes, the wall turns violet, then green, then dark-blue, then black. A father orders his last round of beer, while the bartender starts cleaning the bar, and the whirlpool in the spa area stops bubbling.
Things really begin to quieten down around 1AM. In the smokers' lounge, a young man sits alone. He tells me that he's 17, from Denmark and here as part of a group of children who suffer from various aggressive disorders. "Are you looking after the kids?" I ask. "I'm one of them," he confesses.
The youth group he's with organises excursions for the children. This past winter, they went skiing. I wonder whether he finds these trips relaxing. "Not really," he says. "We've only left the park once this whole week – I feel trapped. Apart from that, our supervisors search us constantly for drugs and alcohol." To while away the hours, they spend their days playing cards, swimming and smoking. "I wish there were more girls here too," he laughs. "Do you want to go home?" I ask. "Nah, anywhere is better than home," he replies.
I return to the beach at 4AM to find the cleaners at work. Looking around, I realise the reason it's impossible to get a lounger in the day is because people leave their towels on them to reserve overnight.
By 5AM, there are only three people swimming – an old man, a young woman and myself. The man swims past me without a word. The young woman splashes me with water. "Hey!" I shout, and splash her back. "So, who are you?" she asks. She circles me like a shark. I try to swim away, but she follows me. It's hard to avoid the deep stench of booze. Suddenly, she dives down into the water and screams.
A few minutes later, I find out that her name is Vanessa, that she is 27 years old and lives in a small village in Lower Saxony in northwest Germany. She tells me that she always wanted to travel the world, but her plans changed when she got pregnant at 24 and now she can't afford the holiday she always dreamed of. But a few days spent here help her cope, she says. "It calms me down."
Vanessa flips onto her back, and just stares up at the dome. In the dark you can barely notice the roof. In order to come here, she's left her child with the father. Apparently, she called to check up on them a few hours ago and the guy's mother answered. "He was out with his friends, partying, instead of looking after our child," she says. "He's had problems with drugs for years – he'll take anything he can get his hands on." Tomorrow, she's heading home she says – earlier than she had planned. I want to ask her more questions, but she suddenly plunges her head back under the water and swims away.
The morning light floods the hall at 7AM, and I have the beach to myself. It's only now I really appreciate how soft the sand is, and how green the palm trees are. At 8AM, the first group of kids arrive and immediately dive into the pool. One guy jogs up and down the beach. I bury my feet further in the sand that fills this incredibly fake beach, and consider that reality may be overrated.