Embarking on the Great Beach Drive from Noosa to Hervey Bay, our four-wheel-drive novice, Steve Madgwick, has made it as far as Rainbow Beach without getting bogged (see part I) . How will he fare as he reaches the sand-driving promised land of Fraser Island? Read on to find out.
Beware the idiot traps
Rainbow Beach’s slow-motion surf-town vibe leaves me a little complacent, until a local reminds me of the two impending ‘4WD idiot traps’ I’m about to attempt, en route to Fraser Island. First, Inskip Point (just before ferry on the Rainbow Beach side) and then the sometimes-treacherous Hook Point (at high tide) on Fraser’s southern tip.
Inskip Point is nothing but a sandy peninsula; no road, no jetty, nothing. I aim for wheel ruts and just keep spitting sand until inches from the water’s edge. I stop at the place where I guess the ferry (which I can see out in the strait) will hit shore in a few minutes.
I wait alone, in two minds, until another vehicle pulls up behind me, confirming that this is the spot. Cue a small victory dance for not getting bogged in the first idiot trap. I board the Manta Ray barge, Fraser-bound (10 minutes). As points of no returns go, this one is a doozy. I triple check the car is in ‘park’ and pull the hand brake so tight my bicep quivers.
Yes, this is the ferry that became a viral sensation in December 2016, when a backpacker’s 4WD simply rolled off its rear deck. There’s no fear of that now, because the front and rear ramps are well and truly raised these days.
The ferry master methodically shakes his head, in that ‘old salt’ way, when I ask him about navigating Hook Point this early (9:45am). Unfortunately (or, actually rather fortunately) the tide is still too high to attempt, especially for me, is the impression I get.
He directs me to take the inland track (“the roughest road in Australia”, apparently) for eleven kilometres, where I’ll find a track onto nirvana: 75 Mile Beach. A second victory dance ensues. The barge butts up firmly against the skinny beach. Hello, Fraser. Nice to meet you.
East coast style
Locals say that 75 Mile Beach, which spans Fraser Island’s east coast, isn’t actually 75 miles long. That historical anomaly aside, it has just about everything else going for it. Today’s plan is to head north to Champagne Pools, 80 per cent of the way up the island (three hours’ drive, with stops, from the ferry) and then race the tide back down so I can cross the island late in the day. First stop: Eurong Bakery for a sanger, some sugar and a caffeine hit (all adequately catered for, at not-quite bargain-basement prices, as you might expect).
Just before Eurong, I encounter my first Fraser dingo, who I nickname Brian. I stop the ‘Cruiser about 15 metres away. Curious Brian tentatively ambles up, sits a metre from the driver’s door and just stares (don’t approach, especially on foot, or feed dingoes).
He looks melancholic, like he’s reflecting on life for a while, but perhaps that’s just me projecting on poor Brian. He tilts his head, as if to say, “how ‘bout some food dude?”, but I resist his temptation for him and go on my merry, sandy way. A ranger tells me later that Brian was actually a Briany (females are tagged in the right ear).
The Fraser highlight reel
Champagne Pools (just the other side of Indian Head) is as far as you need go if you only have a day or two on Fraser, particularly given the embarrassment of east coast curiosities to ogle on the way up and down 75 Mile Beach. There are so many, in fact, that you’ll rarely stay at the marked 80 kilometre per hour speed limit for long (lower in pedestrian areas).
The windswept rocky point and the sheltered tidal pools feel about as isolated as you can get on Fraser. Although, when I reach the pools, I have to refrain from shooing six-packed backpackers out of my shot.
The rustically rusty SS Maheno (a victim of a 1935 cyclone) hypnotically haunts like a ghost ship from whichever direction you approach. The wreck’s dark, decaying flanks, semi-permanently sunken into the sand, are the most indelible mark left by (modern) man.
For me, though, Eli Creek is Fraser Island’s east coast star, despite its popularity meaning that you’ll probably have to share with more humans than the brochures portray. The knee-deep powder-blue fresh water meanders around the banksia-and-pandanus shaded banks and flows across the beach, straight out into the ocean. Wander up Eli’s boardwalk (with a li-lo or improvised floaty device in hand), plop in, and float majestically down to the beach. Repeat process.
I wade in, knowing that it’s the best spot for a dip on this side of the island; way better than taking your chances with sharks, stingers and rips of the wild ocean (on the east side). Southward bound again, by the time I reach Eurong, I feel like I’ve got this beach driving thing sussed. Unfortunately, things are about to get serious.
It takes me exactly two turns of the steering wheel to realise that the gorgeously windy tracks across the island’s guts require a little more concentration, effort and, well, skill.
Sub-tropical rainforest crowds the tracks like an ANZAC Day parade crowd. I struggle to go near the 30 kilometre per hour speed limit, but that’s a good thing because the blind corners are like steel traps loaded with oncoming 4WDs desperate to keep up momentum in the sand.
On a (one-way) narrow sandy hummock, I Mexican stand-off with one of Fraser’s big 4WD buses, headlight to headlight. Kingfisher Bay Resort’s senior ranger, Ann Bauer, who’s just jumped aboard to guide me through the interior’s highlights, convinces me that size unequivocally matters here: i.e, the smaller vehicle (me) has to reverse to the closest pull-over bay (a slightly wider bit of sand).
I ace the reverse, but stomp on the power too hard (and take it off too late) to get back on track. I bury the ‘Cruiser up to its bulging belly. I assume I’m about to receive a post-factum four-wheel-drive tutorial from ranger Ann, but, strangely, she is ecstatic that I’m bogged, impressed even.
“It happens all the time,” she says. “You haven’t been to Fraser unless you get stuck. Embrace it. Enjoy it.” She snatches the shovel off me and digs like a madwoman.
I take over and dig like a madman as another 4WD approaches, while she retrieves the sand mats and snatch strap. The person I block offers to drag us out of my blunder. No sweat; no trouble at all. Welcome to the real Fraser.
Time is short, before the morning ferry to (distinctly less sandy) Hervey Bay tomorrow morning, and there are plenty gems to uncover in the interior. We take a dip in perhaps Australia’s bluest lake, Lake McKenzie. Apparently the minerals (which help with the hue) are especially restorative. They feel like they are. It’s stunning.
En route, we visit former logging area Central Station, which nature happily reclaims a little more each hour. King Ferns, one of the oldest known plants in existence, proliferate. We know that “because the dinosaurs ate them in Jurassic Park,” jokes Ann.
Powerful Kauri trees stand straight and tall as a ship’s mast (which they were logged for) yet they are hollow to the knock. At valley bottom, Wanggoolba Creek’s freshwater is so clear that it looks like a walking track until you get close. This silent creek was a hub for secret women’s business for K’Gari’s (Fraser’s) traditional owners, the Butchulla people. It radiates sacred.
The bush tucker and sunset crescendo
I feel so close to this sand-land now; I’ve driven on it, walked through it, swam in its waterways and shovelled it from beneath my vehicle. It lives in my hair, my shoes and every crevice of the ‘Cruiser too. Which, weirdly, makes me appreciate the prelude to tonight’s final dinner at, Kingfisher Bay Resort, all the more.
The Bush Tucker Plate and K’gari Tasting Platter (from Seabelle Restaurant, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays) are not just a token attempt at bush herbs for the tourist. This is a rounded meat and veg tasting plate of Aussie bush food, from finger limes and lemon aspen to gloriously gamy crocodile and emu jerky (dried for 48 hours). I don’t love everything on the plates, the bush raisins are as tart as a tack, for example, but as an experience it caps off this beach bush-bash brilliantly.
At Kingfisher’s Sunset Bar that evening, down by the ferry jetty, a rare east coast phenomenon (a spectacular fiery sunset over the water) has me reflecting on the whole Great Beach Drive. It’s one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in Australia, nigh the world. At the end of one of Australia’s most challenging yet beautiful road trips.
Which, given the fact I survived, anyone can do.
The Great Beach Drive… Just a few things you should know
- From Noosa to Hervey Bay you will have to take three ferries: Tewantin (Noosa), no need to book, pay on board; the Manta Ray Fraser Island Barge, from Rainbow Beach, pay on board; and Fraser to Hervey Bay, book ahead for this one.
- There are a few places to fill up in Fraser, including Eurong and outside Kingfisher Bay Resort, but fuel on the island is very expensive so come over with a full tank if possible.
- They may seem placid and cute, but don’t approach, feed or interact with Fraser’s dingoes, for their sake and yours.
- To beat the Fraser ‘traffic’ (sharing a spot with more than a couple of 4WDs at once), it’s best to get up early (tide permitting), especially if you’re looking for ‘that shot’, sans crowd.
- Don’t underestimate Fraser’s slim waistline. What looks like 20 minutes’ drive across the rainforest track on the map can be a whole lot more.
With thanks to…