Like the Whitsunday Islands, a trip to Fraser Island is one of those things that many backpackers wouldn’t consider a trip along the East coast to be complete without. These trips vary from one day whistle-stop bus tours, to a three-day self drive camping expedition, as was the trip I went with. More than just three days and two nights however, it actually began the day before.
As was shown by the unfortunate death of Jade Fox on a self drive expedition mere days before my own, Fraser Island can be a dangerous place. For all the jokes about everything in Australia being able to kill you, nothing here is as dangerous as the underestimation you bring with you. After being introduced to the small groups we would be sharing a 4×4 with, we therefore had the all important safety briefings which covered two main topics: driving, and the wildlife.
Although the largest sand island in the world, Fraser is still part of Australia, only ten minutes by barge at its closest point, and so still contains many dangerous and venomous wild animals, including the four most toxic snakes in the world. Warning us about these, and how to avoid them, was Harps, who claimed both Maori and Aboriginal heritage, and whose family owned the land on which we would be camping. Although there is little that can be done if bitten by one if the four most toxic snakes in the world in such a remote location (but staying calm rather than panicking will help double your life expectancy to twenty minutes) he did point out the error on the driving DVD which advised us to remain safe from dingoes by covering our nipples and walking back slowly. If I remember rightly he described this as, and I believe it was a technical term, “bullshit”, and told us to be aggressive and throw sand in their eyes instead. As much as I wanted to see a dingo on this tour, I was glad this was information I wouldn’t need to use.
The following morning we awoke nice and early for a pancake breakfast before heading over to the hostel next door and our vehicles for the next three days. The loading of our chariots and another briefing from Harps later, and we were on our way to the ferry. Due to the dangers of the island, particularly those stemming from underestimating driving conditions, all self drive expeditions must now have a lead driver and tour guide, with our convoy of four 4x4s being headed up by Brendan.
Brendan is just the kind of guy you would want to lead a trip such as this. Old enough have the experience and handle the responsibility, but yet still young enough to be on the same wavelength as those he is leading round the island, and more importantly have a drink with them without looking like he’s having a mid-life crisis. Like all good tour guides he also has great taste in bad jokes, and his telling of stories from previous trips kept us just as entertained as warned of the potential dangers around every corner; the kind of stories that you know are behind every warning sign that should be common sense but people often need explaining anyway. He also has the mightiest beard I’ve seen travelling out here, possibly ever, which also gives him the added quality of looking like how you think a proper Australian Bushman should be. Not that Fraser Island can really be considered bushland, but it is certainly one of the wildest areas along Australia’s east coast. And that’s just the tourists.
Tours and hostels are often graded by backpackers on a scale of chilled out to party, and thanks to the Butchulla Aboriginals who allow the tour to camp on their land, we had no 10pm noise curfew like those who camp on National Park land. This resulted in drinking games that chanted the phrase “let’s get fucked up”, followed by a select few doing just that. In fact other than the common courtesy of helping inebriates to their feet and taking them back to their own tents and not your own, the only rules we were specifically told to follow were not to whistle, and not to spit in the fires. Not something you usually have to abide by on campsites, but the Aboriginals associate whistling with evil spirits and bad luck, and spitting is seen as a sign of disrespect to something which has kept them warm, fed, and alive for thousands of years.
This was more than a fair compromise for what the Butchulla people allowed on their site, and as someone who can’t remember the number of the National Parks I’ve hiked through since being here, yet can count sips of goon on just one hand, I have to admit that I did have doubts as to whether I was on the right tour or not. I’ve definitely been more attracted to the chilled out end of the backpacker scale, but my worries were unfounded and it soon became apparent there was enough room for all. Perhaps the crux of this was when we started the campfire. There were a few of us who tried to get it going and once it was up and roaring, just at as the goon drinkers couldn’t be pulled away from their fixation, neither could we from ours.
Not that the trip was all about drinking, as Fraser has plenty of scenic attractions which we explored during our three days on the island, the first of which was lake Mckenzie. A freshwater lake with a shore of silicon sand, we were more than happy to just wade and sit in the still water, and exfoliate our skin with the most natural treatment you can get. Although the majority of driving on Fraser was along its 120km eastern beach, the forest ‘road’ to and from the lake was somewhat more extreme, and the main reason I didn’t mind my driving licence being less than a year old and not allowing me to sit in the driver’s seat. I’m sure there was also more than one of my group sat in the passenger seats of car one who was glad that for the whole of the first day at least, that responsibility fell to Brendan.
The second day we switched cars with another group to spread out the driving, and found ourselves in a car that had been christened ‘Bruce’, and anyone who has been following this blog will know how happy that made me. First stop his morning was Eli creek, also known to the locals as Hangover creek, due to its ability to cure one. Whatever you call it though, Eli creek is a natural freshwater spring which flows into the sea, and is just about deep enough to either gently float down, or perform the most glorious impression of a salmon that anyone could ever witness.
Before we had chance to become too relaxed and beach ourselves in the shallow pool by the sea, we headed off to see something which had instead been beached since 1935, the wreck of the S.S. Maheno. Built in Scotland it was an Edwardian cruise liner which had later been sold to a Japanese company for scrap metal, but become shipwrecked thanks to a cyclone only four days after leaving Sydney.
From this maritime low we moved on to the dizzying heights of Indian head. Not one for the squeamish as it is a sheer drop cliff but with stunning views over the sea below. The area just behind the cliff face also has an equally impressive view of a whole host of tourists stood about a single pace past all of the ‘do not pass here’ signs.
Last and somewhat least on the day’s itinerary was Champagne Pools; natural rock pools large enough to bathe in, although during our short visit the champagne (bubbly sea water) was hardly flowing, in contrast to the wind which had picked up and brought along some clouds with it. This may not have met our expectations, but the day was rounded off by something that far exceeded them.
The clouds had gone by the time we had made our Generation Game style DIY self catering dinners, and we headed down to the beach for something which had escaped my attention for my whole life, a moonrise. Whilst these are obviously something that happen all the time it is not something that people pay close attention to, and this one was nothing short of spectacular. It shimmered with a red glow as it slowly made its way over the horizon, which being on Fraser’s east coast, couldn’t have been more setting if it tried.
From the most relaxing sight to the most eventful night however, as what followed could also be used as one of Brendan’s warning stories. I tell it you now only in the hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, and also because of my sincerest held belief that you can only laugh at others if you first laugh at yourself.
Although I never saw any dingoes on the island, there is more than just the wildlife travellers come to see. Rats for example, which being smaller were able to get past the dingo proof fence surrounding the camp site. Due to my own levels of underestimation/forgetfulness, I had also left some muesli bars in my bag, inside the tent, and despite someone else in my own group making the same mistake, was awoken by the sound of scurrying through the leaves next to my tent. It was at this point I took the situation as seriously as I should have done in the first place, scared it off as much as I could without waking those around me, and proceeded to move all my yummy items to the trailer far away from my tent.
So far, so my fault and I accept that, but take no credit for the fact that upon returning to my tent the already dodgy zip decided to break. Considering there was not only a rat that was interested in the contents (or what it thought was still the contents) of my tent, and that the very first thing we had to do upon arrival was check for spiders who also like the insides of tents, at 3 o’clock in the morning I decided to spend the rest of the night with Bruce. Three fidgety hours of on and off sleep later and I figured (hoped) rats and spiders probably weren’t interested in tents during daylight hours, and made my way back for one or two hours of proper sleep before the next day properly began. I managed one, until I was rudely awoken by the fact that daylight hours were more preferable to the Australian flies who decided to join me.
And so the day had begun and it was to be our last on the island, but the moon pulled one more trick and the higher than usual tides meant that we had to wait longer than planned on the beach to cross the high creek waters. After an early lunch spent waiting/relaxing, we made our way to Lake Wabby, which like McKenzie was inland and required a rough journey to get to, albeit this time on foot. The effort was worth it however, as the forest path soon opened out to a large sandblow, and the lake nestled nicely below the dunes. As if this wasn’t enough we also had another free beauty treatment courtesy of the nibbling fish who live there (Fraser seriously needs to break into the therapeutic market), and who were loving the now healing burn I gave myself two weeks ago. Walk back notwithstanding, I couldn’t think of a more relaxing way to end our time on Fraser island.
Although I can’t speak for the rest of the group, I personally boarded the barge back to the mainland with a car full of new friends, great memories I’ll treasure, and a rat sized bite mark in my journal.