A bungee-jumping, ostrich-riding British charity worker was named the winner today of what's been dubbed the "Best Job in the World" - a six-month contract to serve as caretaker of a tropical Australian island.
Ben Southall, 34, of Petersfield, beat out nearly 35,000 applicants from around the world for the dream assignment to swim, explore and relax on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef while writing a blog to promote the area.
He was selected for the 150,000 Australian dollar (£74,000) post by officials from the tourism department of Queensland state.
Southall and 15 other finalists spent the past four days on the island enduring an extended interview process, which required applicants to snorkel through crystalline waters, gorge themselves at a beach side barbecue and relax at a spa. The finalists also had to demonstrate their blogging abilities, take swimming tests and sit through in-person interviews.
"It was quite traumatic today because we've just grown to love all of them, so to actually have to choose one was just dreadful," Tourism Queensland CEO Anthony Hayes said with an exhausted sigh after the announcement. "I think we picked the right one, though. He's the most fabulous guy and his people skills are just outstanding."
The job is part of a AU$1.7 million tourism campaign to publicize the charms of northeastern Queensland, and officials say it has already generated more than AU$110 million worth of publicity for the region. It quickly became a viral marketing hit, spreading across the globe via YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook.
"I hope I can sell the reef as much as everybody is expecting," a stunned-looking Southall said after he was crowned the winner and embraced by his competitors at a ceremony on Hamilton Island. "My swimming hopefully is up to standard."
Southall once worked as a tour guide in Africa, but most recently has worked as a charity fundraiser. In his application video, he expressed a love for adventure, and featured photographs of himself riding an ostrich, running a marathon, scuba diving and kissing a giraffe.
He starts "work" on 1 July and will live for free in an airy, three-bedroom oceanfront villa with a private pool and sweeping views of the surrounding islands. He plans to bring his Canadian girlfriend with him to the island for the duration of the job.
Although unquestionably a publicity smash success, the contest also attracted a fair bit of scandal since it was unveiled in January.
First, the job's Web site crashed due to a deluge of visitors, angering many hopefuls who couldn't access the site to lodge their video applications. Later, the tourism department was forced to admit it had created a popular video "application" showing a woman apparently getting a tattoo expressing her love of the Great Barrier Reef.
Then one finalist was ousted after it was revealed she had connections to the adult entertainment industry. And a prankster identifying himself as terror mastermind Osama bin Laden posted a video of himself on YouTube reciting reasons why he was the best pick for the job.
There was one final blip: Southall was revealed as the winner on the job's website 30 minutes before the official announcement. It was removed within seconds.
Hayes said officials are investigating what happened, but said none of the contestants knew of the error before the announcement.
Tourism officials are already cooking up a new publicity campaign for next year, but Hayes said it's being kept secret for now.
"I can't imagine ever being able to top it," he said of this year's campaign. "But you've got to try."