Fraser Island- I drove across the world’s largest sand island!

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Three days on Fraser Island- I’m not sure whether I’ll remember this more for the scenery, the activities, or the company I kept? I made some memories if nothing else.

I pre-booked a “tag-along-tour” package with Palace Hostels, leaving from Hervey Bay. I didn’t know what to expect, really. A tag along tour is basically a three day camping expedition across the island with a mixed group travelling in a convoy of four 4WD vehicles, led by a team leader. Everyone (with a driving license) can take turns at driving the cars through sand and water, stopping regularly to sight-see, take a walk, with lots of swimming opportunities.

I booked into the hostel the day before the trip was due to leave, whereby a group meeting was called outlining the do’s and don’ts, including making us watch a video about how to drive on sand, and how to be “dingo safe”. Fraser Island has the purest population of wild dingoes in Australia due to its geographic isolation. They have in the past attacked people and children, and will savaged food not securely stored away. Dingoes-themed jokes remained a common thing throughout the trip.

We were also asked to go food shopping for all our supplies whilst on the island. Me, being my independent self, chose to do it all by myself, whereas others combined their food budget as a group. At this stage, I had barely just meet the people in my group, so I figured it would give me the freedom to buy whatever food I wanted. I’m not a heavy drinker so I chose predominantly food for meals and snacks. I think everyone else spend 80% of their budget on alcohol (mostly goon), and forgot about eating enough.

The next morning we woke early and loaded the four Toyota Landcruisers with our food packed in cool boxes, and a single bag of luggage each. People were randomly assigned to vehicles depending on space available. I somehow ended up in a car full of German-speaking Swiss people, however no one seemed too eager to volunteer to drive first, so by default I took the first turn. This old beast was as clunky as they come- not surprising given it was probably well over twenty years old.

"Pimp my ride"

“Pimp my ride”

I must admit, it felt awkward being the only fluent English speaker in the car, nevertheless, with minimal chit-chat I made the journey to the ferry port. One by one, we backed the convoy of vehicles onto the boat, so they were facing the right way on debarking the other side. After switching into 4 wheel drive mode, we emerged from the ramp directly onto the beach before heading for the centre of the island.

In reality, the car can be driven as normal, although the steering does feel a bit skittish at times. We drove deeper and deeper into the centre on the island, twisting and turning up and down some quite challenging tracks. I had to keep my wits about me, but it was easy enough as long as a constant speed was maintained. I daren’t change gear going uphill for fear of losing momentum.

Lake Birrabeen was the first swimming hole to stop at. A freshwater lake surrounded by forest. It was a nice chance to cool off, and a chance to meet some other people on my trip. Afterwards, we travelled a short distance to a picnic area for lunch, then took a guided walk in the rainforest. Our guide pointed out several fern plants that have been recorded as being between 1500 and 2000 years old, and still growing! We later travelled back out to the beach on the opposite side of the island, and drove along the beach. It was fun to pick up a bit of speed and see how the vehicles reacts.

Lake Birrabeen

Lake Birrabeen

Every now and again, a freshwater stream would cast a ditch across the beach, sending water from the forest into the waves. Wet sand is dangerous to drive on, so we must slow to a walking pace to cross these. You would often get a good shaking about, but that’s all part of the fun. Eli Creek is a natural stream running all the way to the ocean. We walked around a circular trail, returning along the course of the stream. You can opt to wade at waist height, or go for the horizontal crawl/doggy paddle strategy. A nice place to cool off, and relieve yourself of the abundant sweatiness.

The rainforest interior. Those old ferns are in there somewhere.

The rainforest interior. Those old ferns are in there somewhere.

That night, we reached our designated camping area. A permanently pitched group of tents, including an open air kitchen tent with a trailer cooker. It actually worked out quite well, and I ended up sharing with a German couple, some of the saner samples of this rowdy bunch. Evening times, like it or not, ended up being “goon time”. Goon, for the uneducated, is cheap (very cheap) cask wine. The same crap that people used to buy from French cash and carry’s on booze cruises in a cardboard box with a tap on the bottom. The foil bag inside can often be re-inflated and used as a pillow in a drunken stooper, which is apparently how goon gone its name from one of the aboriginal languages for pillow.

People seem too go a bit crazy on this stuff. As much as I try to avoid it, I would get roped into some random game and end up losing terribly, or making a fool out of myself in some way.

The next day, we set off again to the far end of the island. In the distance, we could see some large shapes sitting on the sand ahead of us. As we drew closer, three light aircraft, 8 seater planes were parked on the sand ready for take-off. Our lead driver stopped the convoy and we parked up. Three guys in full pilot’s uniform approached the group, and I knew what was coming- it had to be a sales pitch? And, it was. I hate it when you think you’re buying something all inclusive, then they try to sell add-ons to squeeze more dollar out of your pocket. The truth is though, as they rightly quoted, for $55 per head it’s going to be one of the cheapest flying experiences anywhere- over a location that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

So I said yes. As we got seated aboard, one girl sitting in front of me stupidly asked “are you a good driver”? “No, I’m bloody terrible” the pilot replied. Too late now of course, as the engines roared into life and thrust us down the beach and into a steep ascent. We did a ten minutes loop over the sea and vast swathes of sand dune desert in the island’s interior. It was amazing and worth it.

An aerial view in style!

An aerial view in style!

About part way down the beach, we stopped at the Maheno. This shipwreck sits beached and part sunk into the sand, its bare boned hull, rust encrusted and worn away by the sea over many decades. This New Zealand owned passenger ship was washed ashore on Fraser Island during a cyclone 1935. The sea has claimed most of the metal lining now, leaving just a skeleton remaining. We were not allowed to go inside of the ship’s body as there are many sharp pieces of framework sticking out the sand. I still managed to get many good photos nevertheless.

We headed on to champagne pools. So called because waves from the ocean crash over into these huge rock pools, creating a swirl of bubbles and a natural Jacuzzi effect. These rock pools are reached by a staircase leading down from the clifftops. It’s sometimes possible to start to spot whales and dolphins from the cliff viewpoint on a good day. Unfortunately, our group didn’t see a thing!

The Maheno- a grave on the beach.

The Maheno- a grave on the beach.

On another note, we still haven’t seen any dingoes either. After a party that evening, a group of people went out and shone torches around, hoping to spot the red eye glow of these prowling wild dogs in the light beam. Instead, after hearing some rustling in the bushes, everyone shone their torches directly in my eyes whilst I vomited up against a tree! All good fun?

The two nights I spent sleeping in the tent was hardly a good night’s sleep. I was basically sleeping directly on the ground apart from a sleeping bag and a rubber mat, so barely got any sleep at all. It wasn’t just the lack of comfort keeping me awake. After all the talk of being “dingo safe”, I still had some biscuits left in my rucksack, which happened to be kept real near the tent entrance. Like any dog, dingoes have an excellent sense of smell and will break into tents to savaged food. Every rustle in the dark, you assume it’s a dingo about to burst through the zipped front. I had my leg ready to kick whatever was coming through the door!

Lake Wabby proved to be the best swimming hole in my opinion. Our group had to do a gruelling hike through a forest trial, mostly uphill for a good 1.5km’s. And, its a lot harder walking through sand too. The view from the top of the sand dunes was brilliant though. It honesty looks like somewhere in the African Sahara. You can run down these sand mountains to the lake at the bottom. Its good to just wallow in the water, but a slight shock when you realise you’re being nibbled at by dozens of small fish, sucking away at the dry skin on my back!

Lake Wabby- a dip with the fish. See approaching dunes in cover image.

Lake Wabby- a dip with the fish. See approaching dunes in cover image above.

After two days of driving, swimming, and camping, there isn’t much I own that doesn’t have sand on it. We boarded the ferry back to the mainland on the third day, and drove the distance back to the hostel. On the way back, the convoy pulled over to an area just beside some horse paddocks. There was a large mob of grey kangaroos grazing happily in the field. There was some big males squaring up to each other, having a box, whilst several females could be seen with joeys in their pouches. I had seen wild kangaroos around the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, but never this close before. Overall, probably one of my favourite experiences of the trip.

We also stopped at the guide’s home- to pick up his dog! Apparently his Smithfield Australian Cattle Dog keeps trying to escape from the house when the family are out for a few hours. So, he jump in the back of our car. On reaching the hostel, everyone helped unpack the cars, and I volunteered to help drive one of the vehicles back to the holding yard, which I think was appreciated.

In conclusion, Fraser Island is a magnificent place and has to be seen. A lot of the terrain and scenery simply doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. I was a great experience. I have to confess though that I never really felt comfortable with the other people on this trip. We never “gelled”, and that sometimes made the experience quite lonely and awkward at times. If you choose to do a “tag along tour” that’s the only thing I’d bear in mind. You may get stuck with people you don’t like for a number of days. Alternatively, it could be the best experience of your life. Sometimes its just luck of the draw.

If you’re feeling super confident in your abilities, consider a self hire/self guided 4wd Fraser trip. Alternatively, if you only want to do a day trip to the island and don’t want to get involved in any of the planning or responsibility, maybe try a fully guided 4wd bus day tour.

 

Beaten up wreck; the last resting place of the Maheno.

Beaten up wreck; the last resting place of the Maheno.

Another view over sea and sand I took during the 10 minutes flight.

Another view over sea and sand I took during the 10 minutes flight.

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