Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

11. Fraser Island

The arguments between Karen and me rarely last long. Two, maybe three weeks at the most. Certainly not more than a month. Or two. Anyway, the shopping argument soon faded into the background as we spent the afternoon looking around the area. The "town" of Hervey Bay is actually a long coastal strip of holiday towns that have grown and coalesced, stretching about ten kilometres from Point Vernon in the north to Urangan in the south. After lunch at the caravan park, Karen and I walked a short distance to the Urangan pier and then about a kilometre out to its end.

A powerful tide was running, and so were huge schools of small fish of some kind. Half a dozen fishermen at the end of the pier were pulling in four or five of these fish at a time. We watched a family group catch twenty or thirty in no time, and then feed most of them to a pelican who hovered expectantly nearby. On the water flocks of cormorants were doing some fishing of their own. Unfortunately, one took a fancy to an attractively presented piece of bait on the end of a line, and spent the next five minutes being dragged back against the tide to the end of the pier. It was then lifted fifteen feet through the air and into the waiting arms of an embarrassed and irritated fisherman, who skilfully extracted the hook from the exhausted bird's beak and dropped the poor creature back into the sea.

We walked to the local botanical gardens where major reconstruction was occurring, but despite this we still managed to spot a new bird - a little bronze cuckoo - plus some other first sightings for the trip. On the way back to the caravan park we bought some cheap spumante, and using a newly purchased spatula and some spray-on olive oil, I cooked a delightful meal of chicken schnitzel, onions and stir fried vegetables. We ate the meal in the campers kitchen, talking to Bill and Lois from a neighbouring caravan.

Just before the caravan park shop closed for the evening, we bought a can of "Rid" insect repellent. Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, and where there is sand there are usually sand-flies. Karen and I had heard some horror stories about mozzies as well, so we were going to the island well prepared.

Sort of. Two major omissions from our equipment were our hiking packs. We had originally considered taking them along with us, but had left them behind because of their bulk, weight and lack of additional functionality. Hiking packs are used when staying out overnight, and Karen and I figured that we would not be doing too many overnight hikes during our travels. Most of our time would be spent close to the bikes, or on day-trips. We had brought some day-packs with us - big enough for a short walk - that also doubled as a pannier when strapped onto the top of a bike rack. They would just have to do the job, even though the hike would be one of the longest we had ever done.

Day pack on back, pannier under arm, tent slung over shoulder

We awoke early, packed the gear we would be taking with us as best we could, and stowed the bikes away in the caravan park shed. In her day-pack, Karen carried the food for our dinners, the Trangia, some spare clothes, a water-bottle, a camera and a rain jacket. Her mat, sleeping bag and inner sheet were tied onto the outside of the day-pack with octopus straps. A pair of binoculars around her neck completed the picture. My day-pack held breakfasts and lunches, a large Coca-Cola bottle full of water, a litre of metho and a rain jacket. In one hand I carried the tent, with the tent pegs and poles strapped to the outside, and in my other hand I carried a front pannier containing sleeping bag, mat, sheet and spare clothes. We looked like a textbook example of how not to pack for an extended hike.

An unwieldy double-decker bus picked us up at 8:30am, with the driver quick to explain that another bus, a four wheel drive vehicle, would take us over the sand roads of the island. As we made our way south over very familiar terrain to the ferry at River Heads, Karen was quick to remind me again about all the extra distance we had covered two days before. The Fraser Venture car ferry carried us across the Great Sandy Strait for half an hour before depositing us at a jetty near the mouth of Woolgoolbuer Creek. We boarded the bus along with forty other day trippers, and the next thirty minutes was a nightmare!

Firstly, Karen's pack would not fit in the overhead storage area of the bus, so I placed it in the aisle. It immediately began to slide away, so I hooked a foot around it to keep it in position. I then discovered that my seat was broken, with the backrest unsupported and laying back on the guy behind me, who was probably more unimpressed than I was. There was not one spare seat on the bus, so I was forced to sit upright in my seat, with one leg dangling out in the aisle. As the bus jolted along the rough sand roads, my pack came flying out of the rack and almost killed another passenger, so it joined Karen's on the floor. My pannier bag looked like doing the same thing, so it joined the others in the aisle. I was definitely not comfortable.

I complained to Bronco, our driver, at the first opportunity and he took a look at the seat. A metal bracket had broken and needed welding, but the driver assured me that this could be done during our lunch break. Great - that was when Karen and I were scheduled to get off!

Luckily, some people from the bus took a scenic flight at Eurong, and although they would rejoin us later on I was able to use one of their seats for the thirty three kilometre drive up the beach to the Pinnacles. This was extremely fortunate because the tide was high, forcing the bus away from the flats and up towards the rolling dunes. While not as smooth as a roller coaster, this bus trip had just as many ups and downs. One bump actually lifted me out of my seat by about a foot!

The bus stopped only once on its way up the beach - to let off and pick passengers doing the scenic flight. The plane actually used the beach as its runway for take-offs and landings, which is pretty bizarre because the beach is also gazetted as a public road!

Karen at the Pinnacles on Fraser Island

Once we arrived at the Pinnacles - some very pretty outcroppings of coloured sands and clays - the tour proper started. Karen and I were about to experience one of the main reasons why touring Australia by bus had never been one of our options. Five minutes at Pinnacles, take photo, back onto bus, three kilometres to Maheno wreck, five more minutes, more photos, back onto bus, three more kilometres to Eli Creek, ten minutes, take photos, back onto bus etc. When the last joy-flighters returned, and I realised that I would have to return to the busted seat, seeing the island from the air suddenly seemed like a really good idea. Karen and I were soon airborne.

Karen, the pilot and the plane

It cost us thirty dollars each for the twenty minute flight. Later, some creative accounting would eventually see the money for all tours and flights allocated from our savings, and not be considered a part of our living expenses. The flight was excellent, giving us a good overview of the island, and putting its features into perspective. We saw a lot of lakes - Allam, Freshwater, Coomboo, Boomerang and Hidden - which we would not have seen otherwise as they were well north of the lakes we would soon be visiting on foot. The sandblows - large, mobile dunes that swallow up anything in their path - also looked fairly impressive, as did the vast tracts of tall timber that make the island a logger's paradise. Only the top third of Fraser Island is national park - the rest is actually state forest.

Despite a falling tide, the beach landing was an exciting affair. The pilot zoomed in low over the beach on a reconnaissance run, muttering under his breath and shaking his head. Not great body language with two nervous passengers on board, but he said it would be okay. And it was. But I'm glad I wore my brown underpants!

With everyone back on the bus, I was now relegated to the busted seat, but the flatter beach made sitting upright a lot more bearable. In fact, it was actually enjoyable, thanks to a talk by an aboriginal guy named Steve, who introduced us to the intricacies of finding and preparing bush tucker. Every now and then he would stop the bus, poke about in the dunes, and come back with something to talk about, and then eat. He spoke for about an hour, and held the whole bus fascinated, not just because of the content of his talk, but also because he sounded just like Ernie Dingo.

Lunch at Eurong was reduced to fifty minutes because we were running a bit late, but Karen and I did not care because we were leaving the day trip at this point. We took our time over the hot chicken and salad, and savoured the complimentary champagne. As we were the last people to leave the restaurant, we were actually able to savour a few extra glasses of that complimentary champagne from bottles that had been left behind still part-full. It would have been a shame to waste it.

Karen and I were suddenly on our own. We walked down to the beach and started trudging northward before noticing a sign indicating the NPWS information centre. After watching a short video on whales, we started up the beach again, and an hour later set up camp in a lovely grassed clearing ringed by flowering bottle-brushes in the dunes just behind the beach. Hundreds of honeyeaters played amongst the blossoms, seemingly oblivious to our presence. A lone dingo wandered around our campsite, providing an amusing diversion, but when it was joined by its mate soon after, the amusing diversion suddenly became more serious. One dingo is just a dog, two dingoes are a pack, and packs have quite a different mentality to that of a solitary animal. Karen and I armed ourselves with a big stick each, and when either dingo approached too closely, we took a swing at it to discourage further approaches.

The beach campsite on Fraser Island

As the twilight deepened, we patiently awaited the appearance of familiar stars in the night sky. The clean air, the remoteness from civilisation and the cloudless skies made for a spectacular evening of star-gazing. They also made for a cold night. Before retiring we placed our dingo sticks right outside the entrance to the tent, just in case.

We rose at dawn for the last half a kilometre to the start of the track inland. One of the dingoes had disappeared, but the other still lurked around the campsite. All the tourist information we had read about dingoes told us that if we did not feed him, he would go away. Although we had given our dingo none of Karen's cooking - I do not believe in being cruel to poor, defenceless creatures - he still insisted on following us around. He particularly liked Karen, following her to her morning squat behind the bottle-brushes, and enjoying a delightful meal of toilet paper soon after. The dingo trotted at our heels as we hiked up the beach, sometimes as close as a metre. He had a disconcerting habit of opening his mouth as wide as he could to reveal a perfect set of canine teeth. Perhaps he was yawning, but Karen was convinced he was merely loosening his jaws in preparation for a final, fatal attack. We passed a couple of campers only a few hundred metres up the beach who laughed at our "pet" dingo. A staggered convoy of four wheel drives constantly passed us on the beach, probably dismissing us as a couple of tourists taking their dog for a walk.

Our "pet" dingo

When we turned inland, the dingo seemed reluctant to follow, perhaps reaching the limits of his territory. We soon arrived at Lake Wabby, a small body of fresh water doomed to extinction in the relatively near future as the Hammerstone sand-blow inexorably fills it with sand. While we appreciated the scenery, a pommy couple we had passed earlier caught us up, and we spoke to them at length. They had delivered a six berth Brits-Australia van from Sydney to Brisbane at a cost of only ten dollars a day plus petrol, just like the group we had spoken to just south of Grafton. Although Karen and I still intended to cycle all the way around Australia, we filed this information away for possible future use.

Apart from a meeting a couple of demented mountain bikers intent on cycling Fraser Island, the rest of the day was spent uneventfully, walking along sandy trails through tall forests as we made our way west. We leap-frogged the poms on a couple of occasions - they passed us at lunchtime and we caught them near Lake Mackenzie. The camping area at the lake provided beautiful cold showers, but Karen and I opted for a swim instead. The water was as cold as the showers. Pommy Dave soon joined us for a chat, and Karen invited him for an after dinner coffee by our open fire later in the evening.

Three scouts, accompanied by a much used porno magazine, were set up near our camp-site. They were affiliated with nine others who had chosen to camp in the four wheel drive camping area, thankfully. After a boisterous evening of loud talking and much movement around the area, the scouts soon settled down to an exhausted slumber. One of the benefits of age is the ability to pace ones self, and after Dave and Elaine arrived for coffee and conversation late in the evening, it was probably us that was keeping the scouts awake until we called it a night at half past ten. Our newfound friends had attitudes very similar to Karen and myself. We discovered that they are in the process of renovating a two hundred year old farmhouse in France, with the intention of eventually living there. Addresses were exchanged. Karen and I plan to tour Europe one day, so a contact in both England and France was a most desirable acquisition.

Karen's feet, unused to walking, were finding the soft sand difficult, and she suffered during our first day of hiking. She borrowed a couple of band-aids from the scouts, who unlike us were admirably prepared, and she scored some "plasters" from the Poms as well, just to be on the safe side.

A ninety minute walk brought us to Basin Lake where we spoke to a ranger who was monitoring the impact of rubbish in the area. We snacked on chocolate-coated peanuts for morning tea, then left for a half hour stroll to our next camp-site at Central Station. Our pommy friends soon joined us for a cuppa, before leaving their gear in our safe keeping while they ventured out on the Pile Valley walk. We lunched while they were away. After their return, Karen and I went on a couple of walks ourselves, beginning with Woolgoolbuer Creek.

On a previous trip to Queensland we had taken a day trip to Fraser Island from Noosa, travelling up to Eurong then turning inland to visit Central Station. We had good memories of the crystal clear waters of Woolgoolbuer Creek and the fragile environment of the famous and ancient angiopteris palm tree on its bank, a species whose individuals live for thousands of years and who do not reach sexual maturity until they are hundreds of years old. Imagine our dismay to find the creek now choked with a sludge of thick, sickly green algae. Both Karen and I were wondering how it could have happened, and why we had not heard any reports about the rapid deterioration of this pristine eco-system, when we simultaneously realised that we had both been victims of Woolgoolbuer Creek's celebrated optical illusion! The water is so clear that it fools watchers into thinking they are looking at the surface when they are actually seeing the rippled, sandy bottom of the creek. The rainforest canopy provides a dark and shadowy atmosphere with its light tinged green by the surrounding foliage, giving the impression that the surface of the creek is a green, rippled mess. The brain equates this with algae, and hey presto - the creek looks polluted. We continued our tour along the boardwalk somewhat sheepishly.

Later in the afternoon Karen and I completed the Pile Valley walk too, and repeated the creek walk after dark, spotting catfish among the "algae" and taking a flash photograph of the palm. When we returned to our campsite, a pitched battle was taking place between two teams of scouts, with pine-cones the principal weapon of choice. We dodged errant projectiles as we prepared and ate our dinner, and afterwards enjoyed the luxury of hot showers, at twenty cents for three minutes. Each of us splurged forty cents on our showers.

We retired to our tent earlier than most of the other campers in the area, perhaps because our internal clocks were becoming attuned to the rhythms of the sun. The warm, golden glow of campfires illuminated three sides of our tent. Shortly after our heads hit the pillows I noticed a shadow form on the wall of the tent beside me - the shadow of a dingo. It remained motionless for a few moments, then put its head down to the ground and resumed its patrol of the campground. The shadow moved to the front of the tent, stopped again and then moved to Karen's side, before sliding away into the darkness. It was a magic moment.

Our fourth day on Fraser Island dawned mild and sunny, like the first three days. We spoke to the leader of the scouts in the campsite next door and discovered that they were heading for the same destination as we were. That was something to really look forward to.

We headed south past Lakes Jennings and Lake Birrabeen before circling around Lake Barga and returning to the shores of Birrabeen for our usual morning treats. A large bird perched in a bare and inaccessible lake-side tree grabbed our attention for an inordinate amount of time as we tried to work out what it was. Our single pair of binoculars was constantly swapped from Karen to me and back again, but to no avail. It was probably a white faced heron, the most common heron in all of Australia, but we were fooled by its breeding plumage, its distance from us, and the lack of any features around it to use for scale. These days we can recognise most birds at a glance, but on Fraser Island we were still only novices, with very limited experience and only a modest number of species seen.

While we were puzzling over the bird, a couple of younger scouts passed by and asked us for directions. After our break, and about half a kilometre further on, Karen and I were glassing about twenty rainbow bee-eaters - a recent addition to our tally - when we encountered the scouts again. They were walking back towards us along the track, looking hot, flustered and very lost. They asked if they could join us. Karen later told me that one of the scouts looked like he had been crying. Their names were Peter and Stewart - rather easy to remember because Peter Stewart is the name of Karen's brother.

With the two scouts in tow, we retraced their steps along the edge of the lake and soon found the spot where they had lost the track as it veered away from the water. A short time later we arrived at a road where we stopped for a break and a drink. A minute later the scout leader came by in his four wheel drive. Two very happy little scouts clambered aboard! The leader offered to truck some of our gear to the next campsite, but I decided for both Karen and myself that we would tough it out. After all, how would it look to the two young men whose lives we had just saved if Jack Africa and Jungle Jill showed any signs of weakness?

A couple of hours later we walked into camp via the north side of Lake Boomanjin, over sandflats decorated with fascinating patterns formed by red weed. We spoke to the scout leader again while we set up camp. He was expecting the rest of the scouts to arrive shortly. They eventually walked in together - two hours later.

The lake was the colour of black tea, stained by the melaleuca scrub which dominated the local flora. We thought the dark water would have soaked up the warmth of the sun, but how wrong we were - the water of the lake was frigid. I braved the conditions but Karen took a bit of convincing. After a great deal of encouragement, argument, reassurance and debate, Karen entered the water for one of the quickest rinses in history.

A big camp-fire warmed the both of us afterwards, helped by a hot dinner of rice and lentils. We watched a dingo doing the rounds of the fires every hour or so, and listened to the equally regular and incredibly loud wailings of the scout leader's young daughter, obviously spoiled rotten, who screamed her lungs out whenever she did not get what she wanted. Which seemed to be often.

The following morning the scout leader offered to transport our packs again as we were all headed for Eurong. Again we declined, but we did agree to hitch a ride with him if he saw us on the beach, just to make sure we connected with our tour at 1pm. After our usual muesli breakfast we headed south, away from the lake and soon came to the large Wongi sandblow. A short but difficult climb up the face of its steep leading edge brought us to the top of this huge tract of sand, stretching down towards the coast, the dead remnants of long buried trees occasionally poking through its surface.

The scouts caught up with us at the bottom of the blow as we headed off towards Dilli Village. Our muesli breakfast, reacting with last night's dinner of lentils and rice, provided a potentially explosive mixture in our gut and pushed us ever faster towards our goal. Not wanting to risk a toilet stop because of the throng of scouts somewhere behind us on the track, both Karen and I were gritting our teeth and holding on by on the barest margin when we arrived at Dilli. We were greeted by a sign informing us that the village was private property with no facilities for the public, and that the nearest toilet was two hours away by the side of Lake Boomanjin. We had just come from there! Bugger going back! Karen soon persuaded a local to unlock a stand-alone toilet for both of us to use. Much to our relief.

We shared our chocolate-coated peanuts with the scout leader during our morning tea break, confirming a possible lift up the beach. At 10:30am we walked out onto the beach for the final ten kilometres to Eurong. During the morning we had been protected by the surrounding trees, but out in the open the wind was howling. Luckily, it was right behind us. Karen and I had walked about four kilometres when the scout leader drove by, transporting the packs of some of his charges up the beach. He said he would pick us up on his return journey, and a kilometre later he ferried us to Eurong South.

Somehow, Karen and I promptly got lost and separated in the dunes behind the beach, but we eventually managed to reach our pick-up point in Eurong in plenty of time. We had a hamburger for lunch and waited in the restaurant for the tour to show. When they arrived, Karen tried to score a couple of extra lunches for us, but when this failed she had to content herself with scabbing a glass of champagne each and some coffee.

As soon as we set foot on the bus, the lovely weather we had enjoyed all during our time on Fraser Island disappeared and it began to rain! After a token visit to Lake Jennings where everyone piled out of the bus and stood around wondering what they should do, and a drive-by of Lake Birrabeen when the now heavier rain precluded any extra vehicular activity, we returned by barge and bus to the caravan park at Urangan.

After retrieving our bikes and setting up our tent, we began repacking our gear. One of the first items we found was the bottle of Rid insect repellent. It had done its job magnificently! We had not seen a single mozzie or sandfly during our entire time on Fraser Island!

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