When you “do the East Coast” there are two places that everyone talks about. The first is Fraser Island and the other is Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Of course, I’ve been to both, but it’s so difficult to pick which one was my favourite. I think maybe by a hair, Fraser wins it. And I’ll let you know why. In quite a few words, be warned… this is a lengthy one. You also get a rare picture of me!
So, we arrived in Rainbow Beach a little late. We were due to be at a safety briefing at 4:00pm, the bus was due to arrive at 3:50pm but we had the most nervous driver who had a very particular way of putting all the bags in the luggage compartment under the coach. This meant that even though he made up the time between stops driving rather quickly, he took an extra long time at the stops so we were constantly running late; we finally got there at 4:20pm. As Aussies love to say though, no dramas! There was a fair number of people on that bus who were due on the same tour, so we all checked in (in record time) and then congregated out in the picnic area to have our briefing. We weren’t even the last people to arrive. There were a few people who had spent the afternoon at the beach who had just lost track of the time. Easily done and made us all feel better for being late too!
We were put into our car groups from the off and had a load of paperwork to get through. Waivers in case we died, absolving the company from any insurance claims? Sure, let me sign that one right there! No kidding, my signature was at the top of that list just ‘cos of where I was sitting at the table. Our group was a great mix. We had a couple of German friends, Janina and Herman who were towards the 30-mark, then there was me, Helen and another Brit called Claire all in our mid-20s and then three lovely student-types from the University of Leeds who managed to get a year out studying in Australia. How awesome is that? There was only one non-driver and there were at least five lots of decent music kicking about for the awesome sound system. After we introduced ourselves and got through all that paperwork, we had to sit through the most laborious State of Queensland “How to drive in sand” informational videos. I mean, the information given was a lot of common sense, but there was some important stuff in there too. We were slightly distracted by the terrible acting skills of the poor people made to be in this video!
Though we were all driving automatic 4WD cars, no one was keen to drive first, but Janina had been driving a campervan up the coast so was happy to take the first leg of the journey. To be fair, she didn’t drive again, having got it out of her system whereas everyone else – myself especially – hadn’t driven for a while and though a bit nervous, we were all quite excited to get behind the wheel. Most people had also seen the video that went viral last year, where some poor sod hadn’t put the handbrake on, and the car just rolled back into the sea off the barge. Luckily there was no one in it, but it transpired that the guilty backpacker who did it was part of a rival tour company, and we ended up meeting the tour guide who was leading the group when we got into a slightly sticky situation ourselves, but more on that later.
So, we were the last car in the line; we had the tour guide with 13 non-drivers in the lead vehicle with a trailer hanging off the back, then Car 2, Car 3 and then us. Theoretically, we had 3 lots of tyre tracks to drive through, and it would all be a piece of cake. Janina got us to the campsite where we dropped off the trailer with our food and drink for the three days. Herman took the second leg through a “road” that was only one car width across with the odd bay every so often to give way to oncoming traffic. Luckily, we did no need to give way to any oncoming traffic! The drive that Herman did had trees up on both sides, and just as we got into the darkest part, “Welcome to the Jungle” comes on shuffle on the stereo. Herman yells “Welcome to the Jungle? Fuck YEAH!” and the rest is history. Actually, the whole three days was spent singing along to whatever was on the music box. I must say we did a fantastic rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.
The only man in our car got us to Lake McKenzie and we were treated to a picture-perfect view of the beautiful crystal clear lake that is on all the postcards on Fraser Island! The sand was bright white, the sky was a deep blue with candy floss white clouds, the water was the clearest blue, even after it dropped off after about 10metres and the perfect temperature, and it was a lovely hour that we spent there, just floating about in the water. Getting hungry.
We were then told there’s a 15-minute drive to lunch, and I figured I would give it a go. Well, I kind of asked “So, anyone fancy driving?”, got no response and then someone said “Well volunteered, Deena,” and that’s how that happened. 15-minute drive? What’s the worst that could happen? Well. Danny, our guide, radios through that there’s a fairly steep hill made of soft sand. He says “Keep it straight and accelerate”. That’s the trick. Hold the steering wheel nice and tight and put your put down. You get the car up with sheer force of will. He all told us to chase him up the hill, which seems a little dangerous, if I’m telling the truth, but it means that you’re maintaining the right speed. Car 2 got stuck. We could see it from the back of the line that the car was slowing down and then it just stopped. Danny radios back “Car 2? What’s going on?” no response. Again, and again, he radios back and we hear nothing. Turns out, the radio in Car 2 was bust. Anyway, we all get told to reverse back down the hill to give Car 2 a nice big run up, pedal to the metal, if you will. We’re all shouting encouragement in our respective cars, but it’s not happening. Three times, Car 2 got stuck. The last time they got stuck, they couldn’t reverse out of it, so they started digging. Bad move. Danny yells down the radio that they should stop digging, and then jumps out his car, bombs it down the hill on the blazing hot sand and jumps up on to the ledge on the driver’s side, he wiggles and shifts the steering wheel, the car is now at the bottom of the hill, drivers switch over and eventually they make it up the hill. Car 3 and us in Car 4 have been watching this and I’m not going to lie, I was feeling a little nervous. Car 3 makes a go of it, gets slightly stuck they physically bounce their way out of it and carry on up. Then it’s our turn. My turn. Oh god.
I can see all the cars at the top of the hill and I will them to keep moving a little bit. I make it all the way up the hill, screams of encouragement ringing in my ears, all the way up, no problems, no dramas, but then I’m on the crest of the hill. I start shouting myself “Keep moving, go go GO, NO, No, no, I’m going to stop, oh dear. Standstill. Brilliant, I’m never gonna get out of this now!”. In hindsight, I should have just radioed ahead to tell them to give me some more space, but alas, hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. The cars all start moving, all thinking that we’re through the worst of it, but I just can’t get out of the sand. It’s churning up on my side at the front of the car, God knows what’s happening at the back, all I can see are six faces in the rear-view mirror! I reverse backwards a little, put my foot down, we get Danny on the radio telling me to put the little gear stick into low gear. It’s so tough and unused, I have to get Herman to drag it back for me from the seat behind me. I shift back into drive, and try again, only to have sand churn up on the passengers’ side. There’s a tailback behind us and I’m feeling really silly, but the guy from the car behind is already halfway up the hill. He gets out of his car, directs me back and back until we’re practically bumper to bumper, then he sticks his head in the window and grabs the radio. “Danny?” he says “is that you?” affirmative. “You’ve got the patience of a saint, I’ve been listening in on your channel. What’s she doing in low range? You need to get back up to high and just floor it.” I tell him I can’t shift that gear stick, he reaches across me, but it’s never gonna work. I was all for getting out and letting him drive it up, but instead he hands the radio back to Helen and says to me, “Right, forget the gears, put it in drive, hold the steering wheel straight and just bomb it up. You’ll be fine.”. So I did. And I was. We radioed back to him to say thanks, then we didn’t see them for the rest of the time we were on the island. We had a long stretch of road where no one was following us, I can only imagine how many more people got stuck after we did. I said to the car as a whole: “I don’t know about you, but I’m not hungry anymore,”. It was met with laughter.
Around an hour after we were expecting it, we finally got lunch, everyone sharing stories and quick one-liners that were going on when the radios weren’t running. Turns out, the dude who helped me out was the tour guide who lost a car because one of his backpackers forgot to put the handbrake on. There was a bit of light banter going on between Danny and this other guide on the radio channel, then he turned his dial back to their channel and that was that. Danny said he thought it might have been a little too early to make jokes about losing an entire car, so he took the teasing on the chin.
In the afternoon, we had a short stop at Eli Creek as it was on the way back to camp. Whilst the ambient temperature was in the early 30s, this water was ice cold. And drinkable. We were promised a longer stop at the creek the following day, but to be honest, all we wanted was a bit of a dip to cool off and then we were happy to get going again, as we wanted to set up our stuff, cook dinner and whatnot before it got too dark. We had the music blasting as we drove across the easy wet sand of the beach, looking out the windows for dolphins and stingrays through the splash of the waves. Then three things happened in quite quick succession.
Someone said “This is happiness, right here.”
The opening notes of “The dog days are over” start to play on the stereo (Happiness… hit her, like a train on a traaa-aaaahh-aaaaaaaaaack!)
We spot a sign for Happy Valley.
What an awesome day? It wasn’t quite over just yet.
We quickly cooked up a dinner and ate together with our new friends. Much goon was drunk and many card games were played. The sky was lit up with the stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible and so after dinner, we all took a walk on up to the beach to enjoy the sky. It was magical.
The following morning, after my first ever night in a tent, we set off for the Champagne Pools. This was special because the rock formation was such that you could swim in sea water without the worry of stingers like jellyfish, rays and of course the bigger nasties like sharks. When the water came rushing in to the pools it was full of bubbles, hence the name “Champagne Pools”. Plus, Thierry got a bit tipsy. There must be something in the water that affects minions and has nothing to do with my photography skills whatsoever…!
We spent an hour or so there, then headed off to Eli Creek again, with the promise of rubber tubes so you could float down the lazy river. We headed back to camp for lunch as it was on the right end of the island. In the afternoon, we visited one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.
Maheno Shipwreck is truly incredible to look at, mostly because of the size of it, but also because it has endured so much any yet is still very much intact. The story of the shipwreck can be found all over the internet. If you want to have a read.
On the way back to camp, we stopped off at The Pinnacles, which are some cool rocks with multiple layers of different colours.
Later in the afternoon, we were sent on a walk over sand dunes to watch the sun set over the forests. Have you ever walked up a hill made of sand? It was a serious workout, let me tell you. Beautiful, but hard work. The boys got bored sitting at the top of the dune, and being fair, there were so many clouds in the sky that you couldn’t even see the sun, let alone see where it was going to set. One benefit of this was that the girls sat up at the top and shared stories about our travels and we worked out exactly where people had seen people before. Those two girls from Australia Zoo and the Noosa Everglades? They’re sisters, but you’d never guess it! Ella and Flo became a part of our trip through the Whitsundays and Cairns as well as some others too.
When we decided that we’d spent enough time swatting honey flies away, we made the journey back to camp. It was much easier to walk down the dune than up it! We were treated to a BBQ cooked by the guys because apparently, the idea that only men should cook with fire is a thing all around the world, and we made it back just as the sausages were going on the heat. Perfect timing. Much goon was drunk and many card games were played. Dancing happened and I may or may not have impressed some people with the fact that I know all the words to Chumba Wumba’s “I get knocked down”. The sky was lit up with the stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible and so after dinner, we all took another walk on up to the beach to enjoy the sky. It was still magical.
The last morning, we drove on to Lake Wabby, which is another freshwater lake, but there were fish in the water! Little ones that like to nibble all the dead skin off of you, and bigger catfish that (thankfully) kept their distance. We had a fair few of the girls who had got sunburnt earlier on their travels, and they were at that really itchy and irritable peeling stage. The fish helped us out here. Seriously, they bit it all away, revealing the nice new skin! Fascinating to watch too! After we were done getting bitten, we headed back to the cars, had our last lunch together on the beach and took some great pictures with our car groups. We also spotted a rare plumed whistling duck.
And we finally saw a dingo! We’d been warned about these wild dogs, but we hadn’t heard so much as a bark, let alone a howl, so everyone got a bit snap-happy with the skinny looking dingo. It was a nice ending to our Fraser Island adventure, having been warned about the wild dogs for the best part of the trip, as after that we just needed to do the last few kilometres on up the barge and head back to civilisation at Rainbow Beach.
Happily, everyone was staying at the same hostel, it’s just the way that the tour works which was lovely. Even better than that? Most people were heading off to Airlie Beach on the Greyhound the following day, some of whom were going to be staying in the same hostels so we could coordinate more meet-ups along the way. It’s like travelling with a little family!