Perhaps the biggest road block, so to speak, to a Fraser Island driving holiday is fear of the unknown. Do I need to know how to four-wheel-drive? What kind of car will I need? How difficult is it? And, of course, what happens if I get bogged?
One woman is as qualified as anyone to answer these questions. Ann Bauer is senior ranger at Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser’s west coast. But she’s so much more than that; Ann has been an army driver, a tour guide and master of a plethora of outdoorsy pursuits besides.
Twenty years on and off Fraser Island has given her a wealth of sand- driving expertise. Here are her essential tips and tricks for conquering the world’s largest sand island. Go forth…
1. Drop your tyre pressure
The first thing you should do before driving on sand is deflate your tyres (to between 18 and 20 psi). This spreads a tyre’s footprint, which gives it more track and ‘purchase’. Remember to reinflate to the recommended road pressure before returning to the tarmac. (Handy hint: get your hands on a tyre pressure gauge.)
2. Bring recovery gear
You will probably get bogged on Fraser Island at some stage. Embrace this fact; it’s part of the fun of four-wheel-driving. And while generally help is never too far away on Fraser, bring a snatch strap, a shovel and wheel-tracks to help get out of trouble yourself. (Note: only attach your snatch strap to undercar tow points and never to your tow bar/ball because it can turn into a lethal weapon if the strap snaps.)
3. Be a sheep
Don’t hesitate to follow and watch a vehicle in front so you can see exactly what’s coming up. You’ll definitely be less likely to be caught out by a dramatic drop-off into the sand and/or water.
4. Beware the tides
Don’t drive on the beach (especially around headlands) at high tide. Plan your trip to drive as close to low tide as possible; as a general rule, stay away from exposed areas two hours before and two hours after a high tide. If the tide is still up and there is no way around, stop and wait for it to recede. Don’t drive through the ocean swell; it’s dangerous and not great for your car’s long-term health (electrics, brakes, exposed metal etc.).
5. All-wheel-drives (AWDs) aren’t four-wheel-drives (4WDs)
Don’t take an AWD to Fraser Island, especially in dry conditions when the hungry sands are more inclined to swallow your car. It is possible to traverse the island if the tracks are firm (after plenty of rain, for example) in an AWD if you stay on the main tracks, but a 4WD is preferable every time.
6. Take your time
The speed limit on 75 Mile Beach is marked at 80 kilometres per hour, but that doesn’t mean you have to drive at that speed. Drop back and enjoy the drive. Also note: police patrol the 40 kilometre per hour zones, so take it easy – if you value your licence!
7. Tap into some local knowledge
Island conditions change seasonally, daily and hourly. Never hesitate to chat to locals for updated conditions and advice. And remember, if you’re not sure about tackling a certain route, there’s generally a second choice on Fraser. Tide-affected areas like Hook Point (on the southerly tip of the island) can be avoided by taking the inland road, for example.
8. Rain is your friend
Don’t despair if Fraser’s getting buckets of rain in the lead-up to your adventure. Wet sand tracks mean firm sand tracks while dry conditions mean hungry, soft sand.
9. Don’t keep a low profile
They may look smart in the inner-city, but don’t bring a vehicle with low profile tyres (a shorter height between the car’s rim and the ground) to the island. When you go to deflate your tyres, you’ve got very little leeway.
10. Consistency is the key
When you see soft sand, keep your vehicle speed and engine revs constant. It’s when you panic and overreact to situations that things tend to go wrong (getting bogged or rolling the vehicle). If the sand looks perilously deep, it’s time to engage low-range (gear). You’ll be glad you brought a ‘proper’ 4WD now!
11. So, I’m about to get bogged…
The second you think you’re going to get stuck in sand (the bouncing, dah-dah-dah sound of your wheels is a dead giveaway), lift off the accelerator immediately. Then reverse, taking it easy, along the same tracks if possible. Then move forward along the same tracks that the vehicle has already flattened out, but with a little more oomph this time (but still consistently). Employ the soft sand waggle (below) as needed.
12. The soft sand waggle
When (or before) your car starts to struggle through sand, move your steering wheel vigorously from side to side so that your front wheels ‘find new ground’. If you keep driving dead straight when the going gets tough, your wheels are more likely to dig in.
13. Down by the water
When beach driving, always drive down near the water’s edge because that’s where the ground is firmest. You definitely don’t want to drive the vehicle in the actual water. But if you do find yourself in the swell, keep the wheels straight and don’t stop until you’re out of the situation.
14. Slow-train coming
Be careful in the deep sand, but don’t go too slow through it, especially when Fraser gets busy, come school holidays. If you go too slow, the cars following you will lose momentum too. So if you get bogged, so will they, and so on until it snowballs into a mass bogging. Keeping a ‘sensible’ distance between cars should solve this, but in practice, well…
15. Water crossings
There aren’t too many water crossings you’ll have to ford on Fraser, but the trick is simply to take care; see where other drivers have crossed; don’t start a new crossing point; walk through to test if it is safe to do so; follow another car through if possible and watch it like a hawk.