I began this blog with a quote from Shakespeare: “To unpathed waters, undreamed shores”. It could have been written about the magical, peaceful and still-slightly-wild Fraser Island.
Fraser, the world’s largest sand island, is one of the most popular stops along the east coast. In many ways it’s a real tropical paradise – if ‘paradise’ means not swimming in the sea, no phone reception and biting flies the size of your big toe.
I took my tour ($550 if booking direct; I got a discount as a Greyhound customer) through the Palace Hostel in Hervey Bay, but stayed in Flashpackers ($27/night) and with a family friend (on reflection, I should have stayed in Palace as the majority of my Fraser group was there). This was really too much time in Hervey Bay – it’s a small town and there’s not a lot to do. If you do decide to stay for an extended period, make sure it’s after Fraser, when you’ll have a group of new friends!
My group of 31 people was mostly from Germany, several of whom were travelling together. This meant that it took longer for all of us – especially the non-German speakers – to open up and get to know each other than normal, but by the end of the trip we were all exchanging Facebook names and sharing photos. Meeting new friends is one of the best bits about travelling; even after your friends back home are sick of you reminiscing about the awesome time you had, you’ll still have people to share those memories with.
The Palace tour is a camping trip, based out of a permanent campsite with a covered kitchen/dining area, BBQ and even – luxury – a trailer with USB chargers and a gas hob for tea. We were right on the beach, which meant that we could watch the moon and sun rise over the Pacific; both incredible sights. We had to be careful when leaving the electric fences of the campsite, though: Fraser is home to many wild dingoes, which have been known to attack lone people. Because of this, we had to carry sticks every time we left at night. Be dingo safe!
The tour is known as a tag-along; the group drives a convoy of 4x4s, following a leader car. Only nine people wanted or were able (you must be 21 or over) to drive out of our whole group, so I got a lot of time behind the wheel.
If you’re not comfortable with driving a manual, right-hand drive car, Fraser Island is a very bad place to start! Tarmac is an alien concept and the tracks can rutted, steep and full of soft sand. It is very easy to get bogged down – but, on the other hand, you can have great fun if you know what you’re doing. That’s a big ‘if’ – the week after we left, someone rolled their car and had to pay $4,000 to their tour company.
Tag-along cars have a reputation for getting stuck: if you just want to see Fraser, one of the four-wheel drive bus tours might be a better option. However, if you consider this to be all part of the experience, get thee to a Land Cruiser!
We had several cars dig themselves into the sand during the trip, but only one major delay: while crossing the mouth of Eli Creek at high tide on the second day. The creeks on the beach can be really dangerous to traverse, as the sand washes out from under the wheels quickly and water can flood the engine. And yet was this potentially-fatal environment the one that caused a 40-minute delay? Of course not; that problem was located between the steering wheel and driver’s seat.
All four cars made it across, but once we reached the other side one of them simply stopped moving. A driver had accidentally switched the petrol source from the main tank to the reserve (sump) tank, which had been drained, and the car needed priming again. We had to abandon it and call in a replacement while it was repaired. Luckily we were on 75 Mile Beach, and could get up to 70kph on the firm, flat sand to make up time.
75 Mile Beach is Fraser’s main highway; driving it is the fastest route between some of the island’s most beautiful spots. On our first day we visited Lake Wabby, near our campsite, while on the second we went north to the wreck of the Maheno, the Champagne Pools, Indian Head and Eli Creek.
Wabby is a 14m-deep freshwater lake, which requires a 40-minute trek across the sand dunes to reach. It’s worth every step, though; the water is emerald green and full of garra rufa fish, which eat dead skin. We spent an enjoyable and relaxing couple of hours here, being tickled by the fish as we threw a ball around. In 40 or 50 years, the dune that borders Wabby will bury the lake, as the wind blows sand into the island’s interior. Get there while you can!
North of Lake Wabby – after passing the 80-year old Maheno shipwreck (which is good to see but not worth more than a few minutes out of your day) – you will find Indian Head and the Champagne Pools. The beaches at this end of the island are much more beautiful than the south, as tides and wind carry seaweed and excess sand away from the area, leaving the water very clear. No swimming in the ocean, though: sharks and jellyfish are common near the coast.
If you absolutely must immerse yourself in salt water, the Champagne Pools – a natural fish trap used by the native indigenous people – are still, warm and deep enough to dive into. If you’re feeling fit, you can also climb the rocks of Indian Head to spot marine life in the ocean: we saw a pair of turtles, but sharks, rays, whales and more have all been seen here.
Further south is Eli Creek – thankfully at a lower level when we returned. This is a natural lazy river, with more than 4 million litres of fresh water flowing into the ocean every hour. The water is so clean that you can drink it straight from the water course, and many of us took the opportunity; it’s certainly not something that I’d want to try back home!
The centre of the island has its own share of beauty spots, which we visited on the first and third days. These include an old logging camp (Central Station) and a stream so pure and quiet that it is known as Invisible Creek. Perhaps Fraser’s most famous spot, though, is Lake McKenzie.
Unlike many of the island’s other fresh water sources, McKenzie is not supplied by the massive well of water (up to five times as large as Sydney harbour!) underneath Fraser: instead, it is pure rainwater. The water is very blue and the sand very white. and so fine that it can be used to wash your hair. No-one is allowed to use soaps or shampoo in Fraser’s lakes or rivers, so scrubbing ourselves down with sand was the closest any of us had come to a shower in three days! We had a great time dumping sand on each others’ heads, dunking friends and playing ball games. We were all very sorry to leave; if there was anything I’d change about the tour, it would be to have more time at Lake McKenzie, where any remaining barriers between the group were broken down.
From McKenzie, we caught the ferry back to the mainland (20 minutes) at River Head and waved goodbye to each other back at the hostel – but only for a few hours, as we all meet up again that night for dinner, which later became drinking on the beach as the tide went out and the moon rose. As well as being as romantic as anything, it was a perfect end to a perfect three days on what really was a tropical paradise – lack of WiFi notwithstanding.
Fraser wasn’t the end of the good times – in fact, it was just the beginning. My next stop was Airlie Beach for a cruise in the Whitsundays national park, in the heart of the Barrier Reef.