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Off-roading on Fraser Island

Fraser Island, Australia

It was a 5:00 wake-up for our trip to Fraser Island. On the plus side, it meant that we’d probably avoid the weird old landlady. We were renting a 4 wheel drive truck for our 2-day journey onto the island, and we had to attend a mandatory instruction and safety briefing before we were allowed out of the paddock. Never one to enjoy reading instruction manuals before being allowed to play with new things, I was up for more of a ‘trial and error’ approach to our adventure. But apparently cars are a bit more complicated. I learned that there were 2 gearsticks in our new wagon. One was normal, with numbers for all the different gears; but there was another one that you weren’t allowed to touch while you were in motion, and had 3 angles you could push it in, called ‘High 4 wd’, ‘Low 4wd’ and ‘2 wd’. I found this confusing. It would have been a hell of a lot easier if they were just called A B & C. Luckily though, there was an easy system to help remember what to do with it all. You just had to leave weird gearstick alone unless you got stuck. And if you got stuck, you just had to ask dad what to do. Sorted.

The ‘safety’ aspect of the session involved the company doing just about everything they could to scare my mum out of any vague notion she might have had about driving on the island. What I took from it was this:
a) don’t get stuck in the sand, it’s really hard to get out.
b) the softest (and therefore most difficult to drive through) sand is along the top of the beach. If you want to get through it you have to drive as quick as you can.
c) don’t drive too fast on the beach - you might cross a massive drop in the sand (a washout) and flip the car and kill everyone.
d) don’t crash, there’s no ambulance on the island.
I can pretty easily spot when my mum is nervous about something. As we left the rental place I could see that she had her nervous face on.

Fraser Island is around 120 kms long and 10kms wide, and famously, composed entirely of sand. As such, it is the largest sand dune in the world. Somehow though, an impressive variety of vegetation has found a way to thrive on the island, and with it an impressive variety of fauna. Fraser Island is particularly well known as the home of large numbers of dingoes (an Aussie type of wild dog). Off the coast of the island you can, on a good day, see dolphins, tiger sharks and humpback whales. Finally, there are a handful of amazingly beautiful freshwater creeks and lakes, ideal for a cool swim on a hot day, and it was these I was particularly looking forward to seeing.

To get over to the island, you have to catch a ferry from the mainland. Apparently the captain of our little ship was a ‘hands on’ kind of guy, as he backed the cars in through a megaphone from his bridge overlooking the car deck. Half an hour later, we had landed on Fraser and were on our merry way. Dad was in charge of driving us for the first bit - we’d decided to head to our accommodation on the island to drop our luggage off before investigating properly. This hour-long journey proved to be a bit of an eye-opener. The sand was really soft in some places, in others there were giant bumps and dips in the track, and throughout the track was ridiculously narrow. We had to stop in front of a soft patch of sand to let some cars pass in the other direction, and when we attempted to get going again we didn’t have enough speed to get through. This led to the first occasion of the four of us on our hands and knees digging out the wheels on the trip. It took a couple of attempts to free us, and we were pretty grateful when our apartment came into view a few minutes later.

Having got refreshed we decided to head up the beach to visit a couple of sites to the north of the island. And it was my turn to drive. We had to get through the soft sand first though before the easy drive along the beach. More than aware of the problems caused by getting stuck, I got a bit of speed up before we hit the sand and fought the steering wheel as the truck attempted to follow several different sets of tracks at once. Then I saw someone trying to do the same up the same bit of track coming towards me. Neither of us wanted to stop, which meant we both ended up having to do so. He managed to reverse, I failed to move. Sure enough, in my first 5 minutes behind the wheel, I’d managed to get us stuck. We all jumped out again and began digging away around the wheels and underneath the engine, and were soon joined by an surprisingly helpful group of French teenagers. With the help of a shovel and a bit of a push we made it on the firmer sand pretty quickly. Just as soon as we became free however, another car had become stuck. Me, dad and Ang did a turn at the Good Samaritan while mum couldn’t be arsed and ‘watched over the car’. It took at least another 10 minutes to free this chap, during which time me and dad had our faces sandblasted a couple of times by free-spinning tyres while attempting to give a push from behind. Now wearing a good deal of the island, we continued on our journey. Mum had perfected her stabilisation technique in the back seat of hanging on to the ceiling grip with both hands, while wedging an inflatable cushion underneath her. What worried me in the driver’s seat wasn’t so much her wide-eyed panic as the hysterical laughter that accompanied it.

After a few minutes we came to the wreck of the Maheno - a ship that was being towed on its’ way to be scraped when a violent storm hit and wrecked it on Fraser’s shores. Slowly being consumed by the sand, the rusting wreck’s hull, bottom third and stern are now no longer visible. Soon after the Maheno we came upon Eli Creek, and while mum and dad had a walk along the path beside the creek, Ang and I went in for a paddle, before we began the journey back to the apartment.

The next day we decided to have a look at the lakes on the island, taking in the deepest (Boomanjin) and the 2 most picturesque, Birrabeen and Mackenzie. All were freezing cold. Boomanjin seemed a bit dirtier, maybe because of algae, but whatever the reason, we saved our swimming and photos for Birrabeen and Mackenzie and it was well worth it. As you wander down from the car park you emerge through the bush onto startlingly white powdery sand, which slowly dips into the crystal clear waters of the lake. The sand is so fine it actually squeaks a little bit as you walk on it near the water’s edge. The water is so clear that it appears white for the first few metres, before deepening in colour as the waters themselves deepen, giving the lakes a distinctive turquoise halo when seen from a distance. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for too long, as we’d been booked on the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. One final bumpy journey back to the dock and overly-complicated loading procedure later, and we were on our way.

After dropping our truck back at the rental depot, we made our way back to our apartment in Hervey Bay - this was the weird old lady’s place again (we’d already booked it before our first night’s stay). It turned out that she really wasn’t joking when she’d said ‘you’re lucky you’ve still got your room’, when we’d arrived the first night. We arrived at roughly the same time in the evening - my mum went up to the weird old lady’s place to get the keys and made it about halfway up the stairs before a rather confused looking old lady came down to greet her. Apparently all she did when my mum tried to talk to her was just shake her head, say ‘oh dear oh dear oh dear’, and mumble incoherently. It was only when they’d walked back to the car that she began to elaborate. ‘I’ve done something naughty’, she admitted. By this, she meant she’d let our room, which we’d already paid for, out to someone else. Cue frantic searching through the Lonely Planet and desperate calls on the mobile to find anywhere with space. We eventually found somewhere not too far up the road that could put us up for the night, and in a lot more pleasant surroundings too.

The next morning we drove back to Brisbane via the Glass House mountains, and even had time for a frantic 20 minute stop at a Koala sanctuary (so that Angela and mum could see them - though there wasn’t enough time for any hugging) before dashing off to the airport to catch our flight up to Cairns.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 18, 2007 from Fraser Island, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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Yes I was really scared and the couldn't be arsed was really - I'm too shocked to do anything but sit tight!!!

permalink written by  Sue Johnson on September 10, 2007

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