Sand and deliver
Queensland’s Fraser Island has a pristine and powerful beauty
It is a great day for flying, just a smattering of cloud and a light breeze. We take off from Redcliffe airport, 28km from the centre of Brisbane, heading north in a twin-engine, eight-seat plane, tracking along the Sunshine Coast. From the air, Caloundra, Maroochydore and Mooloolaba seem to float, thanks to the meeting of inland waterways and the ocean. The Glass House Mountains look even more incongruous from the sky and then Noosa, the glamorous jewel of the Queensland Sunshine Coast, comes into view.
Tracking the Great Beach Drive — a sandy “highway” from Noosa North Shore to Rainbow Beach — we see Fraser Island. Over the next three days we will explore the world’s largest sand island with Adventure Australia Treks and Tours, specialists in small-group, four-wheeldrive tours to some of the nation’s most inaccessible spots. On Fraser Island, the company has exclusive touring access to Sandy Cape, its northernmost section.
Pilot Gerry warns that the landing on Orchid Beach, the island’s longest strip of grass, might be a bit rough. It’s not. A step off the landing strip and our feet sink into sand. We are greeted by AATT owner Martin and his offsider, Paul. Two sparkling-clean and equipped-for-anything 4WD vehicles whisk us to a nearby beach-house. We will have a night here, then Eurong Beach Resort and on to Kingfisher Bay Resort. We deposit our luggage and get the show on the road. I am a newbie to the off-road experience; there’s a chance I’m the only one on the island. Like moths to a candle, 4WD enthusiasts flock to Fraser.
The sand is a little sludgy as we head north. People out fishing and pelicans line up along a “gutter” that fortuitously (for the fisherfolk) traps tailor. It is nearing high tide when we reach Ngkala Rocks. A narrow pass with sand up to half a metre deep in places makes navigating through the rocks lots of fun for accomplished 4WD-ers and their passengers, but offers high-level embarrassment for those who don’t know what they are doing.
First lesson for four-wheel driving: dropping tyre air pressure down from 40 to 16psi increases grip on the sandy surface. A driver pulling a trailer ahead of us has missed this tip and is bogged in the sand. The AATT guys attach a snatch strap from one of our vehicles to the marooned vehicle and “pop” it out. It is not like towing; I am told the science has something to do with inertia.
It’s our turn to cut through the pass. Martin “throws” the vehicle into low second gear and we groan and sashay through the rocky opening. It’s like riding rapids on land. On the other side the tyres are re-inflated by an onboard compressor and we start to see why each of the LandCruisers has a fitted-out price tag of $147,000. At lunchtime, integrated awnings are extended, offering shade. The makings of salad wraps are fetched from the refrigerator and spread out on picnic tables.
Paul takes the opportunity to give us a few historic facts. In 1770, Captain Cook spotted Aboriginal people on the island from the deck of Endeavour and dubbed the spot Indian Head. In 1837 the indigenous population, predominantly the Butchulla people, was about 3000 and best estimates were they’d been here for 5000 years. The island is named after Eliza Fraser, who survived the 1836 sinking of The Stirling Castle, captained by her husband, James.
The tide is too high to venture on to Sandy Cape so we make for Champagne Pools for a dip. Rocks protect the pools from the ocean and the water seems to bubble with each new wave. Champagne corks are actually popping as a wedding is taking place in this pretty place. The bride reveals that the groom proposed to her at a secluded spot on the island a year ago.
It’s back to the beach-house for a barbecue and an early night; we want to make tracks at sun-up. Next day we have the beach to ourselves, except for a few pied oystercatchers, as we thunder along doing the 80km/h speed limit to Sandy Cape, where we will see the rookery for loggerhead and green turtles. From November to December, turtles lay about 10,000 eggs and the area becomes a no-go zone. The walk to the lighthouse is a pleasant half-hour uphill stroll that rewards us with terrific views.
Back to Ngkala Rocks, there is a line-up of 4WDs trying to get through. In the queue is a guy with a trailer. Based on my full 24 hours of 4WD experience I advise him that it is unlikely he will get through. He assures me, “Don’t worry love, I’ll just fang it.” Minutes later it is his turn; he manages to block the pass for more than an hour. Another 4WD lesson: don’t give advice, nobody listens.
On the way to Eurong Beach Resort we check out the wreck of The Maheno, washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935, and nature’s Waterworld ride, Eli Creek. Touring backpackers and family groups effortlessly float down the winding creek. There’s lots of laughter. On a flat, firm stretch of sand, I have my chance behind the wheel and drive like an old granny. There are no challenging situations that demand I employ the next 4WD lesson: sometimes you need to drive it like you stole it.
Day three starts serenely with an early walk to Lake Wabby, which is pristine, picturesque and just ours. It’s a great place for reflection and I mentally mark this as the highlight of the trip. That is until later that day when we visit Wanggoolba Creek, in the centre of the island. No wonder the indigenous women chose this place to give birth. It is an earthly paradise; in filtered light, fresh water runs along a white sandy creek bed, under the protection of huge satinay trees.
Close to Kingfisher Bay Resort and just metres off the only stretch of sealed road on the island, we meet a young family in a vehicle that is 4WD in name only. They are so bogged. Our ever-helpful drivers swing into action, putting shoulders to the bumper and attempting to push them out manually. The driver meanwhile seems to have gone AWOL and here comes the last 4WD lesson: if someone is pushing your vehicle out of a sand bog, don’t stand there filming.
Helen McKenzie was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland. • queensland.com • aatt.com.au • eurong.com.au • kingfisherbay.com
Champagne Pools on Fraser Island, top; Kingfisher Bay Resort, above; a 4WD on the beach, top right