Summer is here and on Fraser Island, it’s leisure as usual… Words by Georgia Rickard. Photography by George Fetting.
In the 4WD hire store on Fraser Island sits a small placard. ‘If you’re a first time sand driver,’ it reads, ‘expect to get stuck at least once.’
It’s good advice. ‘Conditions on Fraser can get very dry’, the sign continues. ‘You need to be prepared for this as you are four-wheel-driving on the world’s largest sand island.’
It is sometimes said that there is more sand on Fraser Island than in the Sahara. That’s actually incorrect, but the sentiment is close enough: there’s certainly more than enough here to ensnare you and your 4WD in a mire of soft, despicably fine, white mush. Enough to ensnare the 4WD that tries to pull you out, too. … And the 4WD that tries to pull them out.
‘Simply saying you don’t want to get stuck does not change the driving conditions on Fraser Island’, the sign points out. ‘If you’re prepared for an adventure, you will enjoy yourself.’
Despite the fact that there are three bogged cars in front of me, and we must wait until a fourth comes along to help pull us all out of the mess, the sign is right: I am enjoying myself. No surprises as to why this experience has been voted ‘best guided tour’ in 2013’s Australian Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards. Bumping and skidding around Fraser could be its own category of adventure sport. Two minutes later we are reversing gently up the sandy path before our driver and guide for the day, Kristy, puts the car in gear.
“To make it through this section here, we’re going to need to drive it like we stole it,” she says. “Everybody hang on.”
She floors it, and we skitter and slide over the talcum-powder-fine surface up the hill. The sand here is white, soft and really quite beautiful, but by the end of this trip I will understand why the locals (lovingly) refer to it as a nuisance.
Still, that is not something to be concerned with for the moment. The sun is shining, the forest is standing tall and proud, and there is fun to be had on this island paradise. With more than 90 kilometres of walking tracks to be found, 1500 kilometres of road tracks (booby traps?) to explore and around 100 freshwater lakes to be swum in, Fraser is something of a natural theme park, attracting a mix of solitude-seeking nature lovers and adventure-loving four-wheel-drivers to play amidst her treasures.
This morning we are on our way to Lake McKenzie, arguably Fraser’s most photographed of them all. A perched lake built on top of organic leaf matter, McKenzie is a phenomenon rarely found elsewhere on earth, but one of 40 found on this island. Such lakes are just one example of how Fraser often seems to operate on a different wavelength to the rest of the world.
Despite being entirely sand – not the most nutrient-rich of soils – the island is home to an ecosystem of incredibly diverse proportions. Majestic dunes, turquoise lakes, crystal clear water and dazzlingly white sand: the local indigenous population named this island ‘K’gari’, meaning ‘paradise’, some 40,000 years before UNESCO defined it “a place of exceptional natural beauty”. (Indeed there are still several sacred middens and burial sites to be found here, although in the interests of preservation, their locations are kept secret from public.)
Lake McKenzie aside, there are several memorable places to see: the crystal clear waters of Eli Creek (which flow from underground freshwater through a natural aquifer that fines sand out to sea – bring an inflatable tyre), the stunning sand dunes at Lake Wabby, the Bungle-Bungle-like stripes of The Pinnacles coloured sands, the solitude of Lake Birrabeen.
Of course, even paradise has its challenges. Though Fraser’s iconic dingo population – thought to be the purest strain of the species on the east coast, and possibly in all of Australia– co-exists with the island’s two-legged visitors on a generally peaceful basis, the occasional clash still comes to pass. Tour guide Hayden Webber, who has been working on Fraser since 2007, reckons this is generally the fault of the latter.
“A lot of visitors are not really that well educated on how to interact or not interact with them,” he says. Despite plenty of information available on the topic (which advises against going anywhere near them), “I don’t think it gets read that well”, he says. Plus, he adds, there’s an element of human nature. “People think – ‘it’s just me, it’s just this once, it’s ok if I feed it…’ they want to get close, they’re curious.”
I ask him about a story I heard from another visitor, about a tourist who was caught lying on the ground with his arm around a dingo, trying to take a selfie. “You hear about those things all the time,” he says with resignation. “People trying to get too close to them, surrounding the animal… That sort of behaviour leads to dingoes becoming habituated with humans. All of a sudden you’ve got wild animals that are not afraid of humans when they should be.”
I spot my first one later that day on 75 Mile Beach, standing on its hind legs and poking around the back of an open 4WD. The casualness with which he shambles around, just metres from the car’s oblivious owners, says it all.
Still, through a combination of dingo fencing, fines for feeding and education, Queensland’s Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sports and Racing has a long-term intention of promoting a truly wild dingo population, which eventually stops associating humans with food. “It’s a slow process,” says Webber.
So too is the process of getting from one side of the island to the other. Despite a distance of just 18 kilometres, crossing from our base camp (the wonderfully laidback Kingfisher Bay Resort on the west side of the island) to Eurong Beach Resort (a village on the east) takes us an hour and 45 minutes – that’s a $90 cab fare, for those not interested in testing the limits of their 4WD skills (yes, the island does have a taxi or two). We bump and shuffle so emphatically over potholes that the pedometer I happen to be wearing thinks I’m running and, by the end of the day, will have reported that I’ve churned out a half marathon.
After Lake McKenzie, we stop for a blissful pastry at Eurong’s bakery – the island’s only producer of such carbohydrate goodness – then tackle the epic beach drive up 75 Mile Beach; a wide, golden strip of sand that doubles as a gazetted highway, slash runway (joy flights are a daily service), slash fishing spot. Normal road rules apply here, along with a few extras: time your trips carefully with the tide; don’t drive through seawater; watch out for migrating birds that have landed to rest. Though driving requires extra concentration, the sights along the way provide great entertainment: massive sand blowouts over the dune vegetation, the many fishermen, the abandoned hull of luxury cruise ship SS Maheno; the occasional frolicking whale.
It is a common phenomenon for island staff members to arrive with intentions to work for a season but end up staying for years. Park ranger positions are even more coveted, Webber says longingly, and nigh on impossible to nab. Then there are the 194 people who love Fraser so much that, despite no electricity, supermarket, bank, post office, doctor, hospital, newsagent, or school, they’ve permanently relocated to the island. (Houses are required to be equipped with solar panels and generators and pump water from an underground source, and shopping is done on the mainland at Hervey Bay, via the one-hour local barge ride.)
But the best gig of all is reserved for those holidaying here. By the end of my first day here, I’ve spotted four dingoes, half a dozen whales and two copulating turtles (a picture of which, if you follow Australian Traveller on Facebook or Instagram, you might have seen). Before the end of the night, I will have tucked into gourmet pizza back at the resort, decided which treatment I’d like off the massage menu, and slipped into bed to a soundtrack of whispering leaves. Before the end of the trip
I’ll be working out how to return here.
Fraser Island was once a popular site for logging; a practice that occurred from 1863 to its eventual cessation in 1991. But its subsequent listing as a UNESCO world heritage icon in 1992 has seen it largely untouched since then, and thank God for that. There are many parts ofAustraliawhere you can escape from billboards, concrete, ringing phones and dress codes, but none other offers quite the combination you’ll find on this natural wonder.
It would be hard to imagine a more ambrosial holiday spot.
• Fraser Island is just off the coast from Australia’s whale watching capital, Hervey Bay. Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to Hervey Bay via Brisbane airport (or if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive from Brisbane).
• Access to Fraseris via a barge from River Heads (15 minutes south of Hervey Bay). You can choose either the Kingfisher Bay ferry, which drops you at Kingfisher Bay Resort (western side of the island; 50 minute trip), or the Fraser Venture, which drops you at Wanggoolba Creek (on the western side of the island, with a 30 minute trip across the Great Sandy Strait and approx. 45-minute drive (4WD only) to the eastern side of the island where 75 Mile Beach and Eurong Beach Resort are located). Tickets start at $50 per adult return, $160 per 4WD return.
• Ferries also leave from Rainbow Beach’s Inskip Point (approximately two hours’ south of Hervey Bay) to Hook Point (southern end of the island; 10 minute trip). Tickets from $5 per person return, $110 for vehicle return.
• Depending on flight times, you may need to stay overnight in Hervey Bay – we stayed at Peppers Pier Resort, which was spacious, modern and very comfortable. Rooms from $188 (peak season, minimum two-night stay). 07 4194 9700.
• You can hire 4WDs on the island with AussieTrax at Kingfisher Bay Resort. Prior experience is ideal but not necessary. You will receive a half-hour briefing before you can use the car. You’ll also be required to purchase a national park driving permit, valid for one month ($44). From $275 per day; 07 4124 4433.
• Accommodation rarely strays from the bright and the basic (nor would you want it to) in the townships clustered around the island’s edges.
• Kingfisher Bay Resort, on the island’s sheltered west coast, is the most sophisticated, with a 4WD hire store, decent coffee and a beaut swimming pool set amongst gum trees and natural waterholes. Rooms from $248 (peak season); 1800 072 555.
• Eurong Beach Resort, a low-key beach village on the island’s east coast, serves as a jumping off point for 75 Mile Beach. It also offers general services including a newsagent and the aforementioned bakery, as well as a great pub. Rooms from $165 (peak season); 07 4120 1600.
• Happy Valley, Dili Village, Orchid Beach and Cathedral Beach are smaller townships found at various points along 75 Mile Beach, which have holiday homes and camping accommodation.
• Even if you’re staying at Kingfisher Bay Resort or Eurong Beach Resort (both of which have well-established restaurants), a good stock of groceries including snacks, bought beforehand at one of Hervey Bay’s grocery stores, won’t go astray. All rooms are self-catered and shops are few and far between, plus island prices are… well, island prices. If you’re camping at one of the many campsites, bring all the usual suspects.
• Food at Kingfisher Bay Resort and Eurong Beach Resort isn’t quite Michelin-starred, but both options cater to sophisticated tastebuds with some surprisingly upmarket offerings. Our pick is Kingfisher Bay Resort’s Sand Bar Bistro, which does generous lashings of good, hearty food in a casual, family-friendly atmosphere, or Eurong Beach Resort’s main restaurant – skip the buffet and order à la carte to see what chef can do.
• No question about it, Eurong Beach Resort’s Beach Bar is hands down the most fantastic spot on the island for a drink. Forget any ideas about a fancy wine – order yourself a beer and wander outside to the pool table area, set under a typical Queenslander pub roof, for a chat with whoever else is around. Alternatively, pre-order a bucket of prawns and some beers at Kingfisher Bay Resort’s Jetty Hut, then sit on the pier and enjoy the setting sun.
By the way…
• That pedometer we mentioned? It’s called a FitBit Zip and it’s been doing the rounds of our office. Wear it and it’ll send you emails reporting on your daily habits, in a strangely motivating way. See fitbit.com for more.