Fraser Island - Perils and Perfection

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
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Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fraser Island is another of Australia's treasures honoured on the World Heritage List. It is the largest sand island in existence and the only place on the planet where rainforest grows on sand – a colourful utopia of sand dunes, fresh water lakes, lazy creeks, tropical lushness and unique wildlife. Indeed, the aboriginal name for Fraser Island – K’Gari – simply means Paradise.

There are no roads on Fraser Island and the only way to get around is by playing the terrain at its own game in a 4 wheel drive (4WD). We had decided to explore Fraser through a 2 night, 3 day tag along 4WD tour, departing from Rainbow Beach.

Before setting off, we spent a night at Dingo’s Backpackers, following a 14 hour overnight coach journey from Airlie Beach. It was our first day of prohibitive rain in Oz and also coincidentally my 24th birthday. Unfortunately the effects of a sleeping tablet I had popped for the night bus cast a drowsy shadow over the already grey day.

We limped through a briefing from the adventure company boss (a blunt bloke called Al with a fondness for the word 'dickhead’) and were introduced to the two randoms who we’d be sharing our 4WD with, a couple of mild mannered Danes named Lars and Nick. After watching a cheesy, light-hearted info video about Fraser, Al warned us about the many real perils of the island. Fraser is home to some of the purest dingo’s in the world. These dingo’s have become too familiar with humans feeding them and are now liable to attack, maul and kill if people cannot supply food to give them (the island was the scene of the infamous ‘a dingo ate my baby’ incident). Additionally, there have been many instances of 4WD fatalities. Reckless young backpackers racing down the beach, some with scant experience of driving, have crashed into trees and each other, overturned cars, driven them into the sea and got lodged in treacherous sand dunes – causing injury and death to themselves and their passengers.

Lastly, Al warned us of Fraser’s most ferocious hazard, it’s sea. Twelve months prior, on a trip identical to ours, a young man had decided he fancied a midnight dip in the ocean. As the stars watched like spilt sugar he crept out of camp alone and dove into the cool, still, black carpet of sea. In less than two minutes he became caught in an invisible underwater rip. In less than five minutes he had been swept out 3km to sea. The next morning on a sunrise stroll, members of his group discovered his body beached up on the sand. Al had to phone the man’s parents to break the news and warned us that he ‘never wanted to have to do that shit again.’ Fraser’s dangers were not to be scoffed at.

That evening my pals lifted spirits by throwing me a surprise birthday party. While Sophie, determined to instill in us all the caution that comes with fear, accompanied the festivities with a running commentary on the news reports she had come across through googling ‘fatalities on Fraser Island.’

The rain had intensified by morning. We half-heartedly loaded up the cars with food and camping utensils as Al cheerily informed us that a severe weather warning had just been issued for the area.

He then gave those who would be driving a brief lesson on how to handle a 4WD on sand. He talked about how best to tackle driving through water and stressed solemnly that we were not to treat the cars like boats or ride the clutch. Our safety was paramount; we mustn’t behave like dickheads and must respect the fact that we have seven other lives in our hands when driving. After this painstaking briefing, a German girl with a fondness for pushing in raised her hand and asked "What is a clutch?" All of Al’s warnings were justified in those three words and we stood back and watched as she was treated to his sharp tongue.

None of us felt much like driving in the misty, wet conditions so we generously entrusted the duty with the Danes. We landed on the Island and Nick began our drive up the 75 mile beach.

Within 10 minutes, our tour guide Jimmy – a middle-aged, permanently stoned hippy with salty blonde curls – had pulled us over to look at the rotting corpse of a large sea turtle. Jimmy had grown up on the island and his passion for the place was infectious. This detour was the introduction to our education on respecting the island and its inhabitants. Jimmy told us how this particular turtle had eaten a plastic bag left on the island by a tourist. Jimmy, ignorant of this fact, had found him struggling along the beach two weeks previously and placed him back in the ocean. As he watched him bob out to sea he realized the turtle was floating. The plastic bag inside him had filled with air and prevented him from diving underwater to catch food. Unable to eat, the turtle had starved. It was a sobering story.

We jumped back in the cars and stopped a few minutes later to look at the corpse of a whale washed up about 400m inland. All that remained of this huge creature was its cage-like skeleton, melting slowly into the sand. It was becoming clear that we’d struck gold with Jimmy. He knew the island like the back of his hand.

We stopped next inland at Piles Valley and enjoyed a guided rainforest walk. Jimmy pointed out to us all the tress and plants unique to Fraser Island. He also showed us the ‘Secret Women’s Creek.’ A sterile and warm freshwater brook where aboriginal women used to come to give birth for these very perks.

We unloaded the trailers to make lunch at an outdoor picnic area in the promisingly named ‘Happy Valley.’ However, our first attempt at cooking a meal as a group was an uncoordinated and an unhappy one. Unlike other groups who had formed an orderly sandwich production line, ours descended into a smash and grab free-for all. Eventually we managed to slap a bit of meat between a couple of slabs of bread, which fell to pieces as soon as we started to eat it.  While we were trying to arrange a more coordinated effort for our second sandwich, Sophie noticed that the group next to us (led by Clutch) was tucking into our loaf of bread. Outrage ensued, accusations of thievery were bandied about and evil looks shared as they continued chomping on our crusty white. Our bread was not returned. The damage had been done. Battle lines drawn. Clutch and her cronies were no friends of ours.

The weather brightened up generously for our next stop at Lake McKenzie – Fraser’s most famous freshwater lake. It is approximately 80 hectares in area and we spent a couple of happy hours lazing on the white silica sand beach and splashing about in its crystal, fairytale blue waters.

On the way back to camp the weather worsened and I got my first turn at driving the 4WD. With such bad conditions and the fact I hadn’t driven properly in over two years the journey was stressful yet very enjoyable. The cars are all fitted with Ipod connections so you can choose your own soundtrack to your trip. We blasted out Dr Dre as I drove and all chanted along excitedly, much to Lars and Nick’s silent bewilderment. 

The feeling that you get from driving off-road in a car full of your mates on a tropical island is second to none (It is easy to see how people get carried away and speed). When driving up the beach the tide comes in rapidly and takes you by surprise. As I was following the tracks of the convoy a wave enveloped them and I drove straight through it. The water landed on the car with a dull thud and for a few seconds the car moved on in terrified silence, the windscreen completely obscured by a wall of water. Everyone let out a gasp of relief when vision was restored and the incident hammered home the importance of complete concentration when driving. It was a relief to arrive at camp.  

Our circumstances were quite unusual for 4WD tours to Fraser. Ordinarily you set up camp with your group of 32 on your own little isolated patch of island. Because of the weather warning it wasn’t safe to do this. So our group, along with 3 other groups of 32, made an emergency stop at a campsite off the 75 mile beach.

We were the last group to arrive and so the last to get a pick of fertile ground to set up camp. We also had to fight tooth and nail to get a cooking spot and had yet another altercation with Clutch and Co. After fashioning together a tasteless meal, which the Danes politely ate without a grumble, we sat down to relax with a bag of goon. With so many people at the campsite the atmosphere was like a big, happy, grubby party. Jimmy made an appearance, looking worse for wear and invited us to come and sit in the temporary bar area with the other tour guides and the campsite owner Larry. We sat with them for a bit as they grumbled about the prime minister and we probed Larry about the worst things he’d seen in all his years working on Fraser. ‘Seen it all…’ he whispered ‘rapings, beatings, maulings, the lot.’ Once again, the opposing sides of Fraser reared their heads.

We spent the rest of the night playing goon games, Loz copped of with a ruffian from Coventry and we made our way to bed groggy and content. I decided there and then that I’d be claiming the evening as my official birthday night.

The severe weather made its grand entrance in the middle of the night. Puddles collected inside the tent by our feet, mocking our hangovers. The rain continued to drum down as we glumly unloaded the trailer to make a wet breakfast. As we sought shelter in the car Francesca wailed ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever spent money on!’ Sophie and Loz discussed strategies of escaping the island and heading back to the hostel immediately. The mood was sufficiently somber.

Jimmy turned up in a multi-coloured tie-dye t-shirt, determined to salvage the day. He took us on an hours drive through the middle of the rainforest to the other side of the island where the wind and rain were tamer. We stayed here for around forty minutes, enjoying the respite in weather.

The rain ceased further as we headed next to Lake Allom, another Freshwater lake surrounded by woodland. Here Jimmy told us to approach in absolute silence so as not to scare off any of the lakes residents. We crept to its edge and waited. Sure enough, around twenty baby turtles milled about in the area, popping their heads up to the surface frequently for air and swimming right up the steps where we crouched. We all gathered in silence for twenty minutes, marveling at the turtles while the rain tickled the lake’s surface.

Me and Rachel took a dip in the warm rust coloured water before we moved on to Jimmy’s next exhibit Knifeblade Sandblow. Here we stood in front of peaks of sand that stretched for miles, while Jimmy entertained us with stories about Fraser’s checkered past. We discovered that he had been banned from Fraser Island for seven years for conducting illegal tours in his own 4WD. These tours lasted four nights and ventured all of Fraser’s hard to reach and often restricted wonders. He claimed he didn’t even have to advertise; word of mouth ensured that as the Greyhound buses came to a stop at the terminal, orderly lines of people would come marching down the street towards him. At $200 per person, per day, he was raking it in and loving life. Yet this remuneration was to prove his demise. The above-board, uninspiring competition grassed him up and the ban broke his heart.

After story-time we headed for Fraser’s most famous manmade wonder, The Maheno Shipwreck. Originally built as a luxury passenger liner, The Maheno was being towed to Japan for scrap metal in 1935 when it got caught in a cyclone and eventually pitched up on the sands of the seventy-five mile beach. It has sat here ever since, stuck fast in the sand and weathered by the elements. It seemed to me that on an Island as abundantly rich in natural bounty as Fraser, it was too much of a perfect coincidence that it homed a forbidding, historical shipwreck as-well. I imagined some suits from the tourist board sneakily depositing it there under the cloak of darkness, then fashioning up some epic tale about its arrival. I do love a good conspiracy tale.

In this instance, the weather actually enhanced our experience of the island. As we approached the ship the mist and rain-clouds hung heavy like smog. The silhouette of the ship gradually emerged through the grey (much in the way of a magic eye picture) - powerful and solid as if lifted straight from the set of a disaster film.

When Jimmy was young, he claimed it was common practice for people to come and lift timber, chairs and any other surviving goodies from The Maheno’s innards. These days it is illegal to come within 5 metres of her (a law that was being completely disregarded by the small swarm of tourists waiting to greet us). We were left to potter around for half an hour, watch the waves lick her sides, put our eyes through her windows and try to imagine her as she once was. She seemed so content and immovable in her current position, sunk nearly three and a half storeys in the sand, it was hard to imagine her ever at home on the brutal, open seas.

A twenty minute drive took us next to Eli Creek. A fast-moving brook with a flow of 80 million litres per day – a natural version of a Lazy River Ride. We walked down the creek, enjoying the strong current against our legs and the variation of depth. After this we made a quick stop at nearby The Pinnacles – a collection of multi-coloured mini mountains – before heading back to camp.

Up to this point everyone had been vey pleased with the allocation of Lars and Nick to the two empty seats in our 4WD. They had been agreeable and pleasantly submissive for the entire trip. We had cooked for them, waved happily into their home video recordings and everyone was keen for a group photograph at the end of the trip. Sophie had even taken to referring to them fondly as ‘Our Strapping Young Danes.’ That night they both got a little carried away on the goon and Jimmy’s weed and turned into grotesque perverts. Lars grunted at us all while suggestively caressing a bag of goon while Nick silently followed us back to the tent and stood outside staring at us all as we got into bed. He was treated to a repeated command of ’Goodnight Nick!’ from Caz and the tent was angrily zipped up in his face.  

The atmosphere the next day was icy. Everyone had decided to ignore the Danes and we shared the driving out amongst ourselves. Our last stop was at Lake Wabby, which we reached through a 40 minute trek through the rainforest. When we reached it we were blown away. We had to cross a huge sand-dune to reach the lake. This felt like we were walking across an actual desert and proved to be a fairly surreal experience. We spied Lars and Nick down by the lake so kept our distance and sat at the top of the sand hill. Here surrounded by rainforest, lake and lumpy sand terrain we reflected on what an amazing trip we’d had.

On the way back to the ferry we were all cajoled into posing for an unenthusiastic group photo. Yet we didn’t resent the Danes – if anything, they were to be thanked for providing one of the many hilarious incidents and encounters on Fraser Island. Which, despite the fickle weather was without a doubt the best experience we had enjoyed so far down the coast.
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