Our tour to Fraser Island starts bright and early in the morning. We cram enough items to get us through the couple of days into small bags, and leave our rucksacks and valuables in storage at the hostel. We’re the first pickup of the morning at 7am. Our host for the tour is Neil – a self-styled aussie chauvinist who fancies himself an expert driver and guide. The first question he asks is “Where’s your beer?”, closely followed by detailed information on crates of beer that can be obtained on the island later. This guy is going to be driving us? The next pickups, two blonde Norwegian girls, get off to a bad start as they’re not only late, but come with huge rucksacks for which there isn’t space. A disgruntled Neil eventually decides the surplus bags can be left at the office, but he seems determined to make them suffer for the faux pas whenever he can. To start with he decides to keep them up front in the cab beside him where he can keep an eye on them. As the tour party grows with each pickup, a trend begins where no names are exchanged, people are identified purely by nationality. We pick up the German couple and Mr and Mrs Holland in Hervey Bay before starting the hour and a half journey to Rainbow Beach where the remainder will join us.
For a 4×4 bus that’s going to take us the length and breadth of Fraser Island, our tour bus doesn’t sound like its in the best of shape on normal roads. The engine complains and the suspension isn’t up to much at all. At Rainbow Beach we gain even more weight with a Norwegian couple, two Canadian women and our Israeli and Dutch solo passengers. After a stop off at the main office we’re finally on our way down to catch a ferry and start our tour of the island. Numerous vehicles are trying to negotiate the soft sandy track down to Inskip Point where the ferries wait. As we come up behind a jeep that’s bogged down in the sand, our intrepid driver swings the bus up onto the bank to pass on the left side rather than wait for the jeep to be moved. It’s safe to say that every single passenger in the vehicle is currently thinking “this really doesn’t look like a good maneuver to be making”. Sure enough, as we draw alongside the other vehicle, the back wheels slip in the sand and the rear of the two vehicles come together with a crunch. Not to cast any aspersions on the skills of our driver, but we’ve managed to crash before we even leave the mainland! “Fair dinkum”, says Neil, “I knew that would happen”. His passengers refrain from asking him “Then why on earth did you do it?”.
Ten minutes later, the jeep has been towed backwards out of the sand. The unlucky owner now has a nice big scrape to remember us by. Neil jumps back into the driving seat and roars off onto the next waiting ferry, closely followed by his victim. As we cross the water to the island, insurance details are being exchanged and our first tourist photos are of the damage done to the vehicles. Not one to be upset about dinting the newest vehicle in the company fleet, Neil is in chipper form as we start our journey around Fraser Island. To begin with, we take a brief jaunt up the start of the 70 mile beach. Our first stop is for some tea and biscuits on the beach by a creek, the water stained brown with tanins from the tea trees further inland. While the effect is very pretty, I’m not going to volunteer to try drinking any of the water. Instead, we sip some real tea and enjoy the view of the sandy beach stretching out before us.
If we thought the sandy beach was bumpy going, there’s much more in store for us after that. The bus unhappily chugs up onto an inland track and we find ourselves getting shaken around like a rag doll in the grip of an enthusiastic dog trying to tear it to shreds. We bump and jolt along the road getting great use out of our seatbelts while Neil starts a running commentary that his passengers are far too distracted to pay attention to. An eternity later, the bus lurches to a halt for lunch at the Central Camp, only clipping a tree on the way this time. After scanning the vehicle for new scrapes, we construct sandwiches out of the picnic food that is somehow still in one piece at the back of the bus. At this point, between the rocky roads and the thought of having to deal with any vehicular mishaps themselves, all the passengers are heartily glad that they’re not doing a self-drive tour.
To give us some hope of digesting lunch before being rattled around like peas in a box again, Neil sends us off for a trek to Pile Valley where he will pick us up. We follow the ‘invisible creek’ with its perfectly clear and still water, listening for sounds in the surrounding growth that might indicate some wildlife nearby. Our best sighting is a gouna climbing one of the trees, so well-camouflaged that it’s extremely difficult for the camera to get a distinct shot. With a less volatile view of the forest around us, we’re able to examine some of the trees that our guide had been telling us about in greater detail. Some of them are colossal, trunks stretching up almost out of view before the first of their branches even start. The group begins to disintegrate into smaller parties and it takes some time before the final stragglers make their way up the last steep tracks to reach the bus.
The next leg of the journey takes us across the island up to Lake McKenzie. To say it’s a tough ride is a colossal understatement. This time of the year the sand is especially soft and causes a lot of difficulty for the vehicles trying to traverse up and down steep hills. Many of the tracks are two-way, but with only enough space for a single vehicle to pass. Groans can be heard every time we encounter an oncoming vehicle, playing chicken until someone gives up and reluctantly reverses their way back along the track to find somewhere with space to pass by. Confident in his skills, even if the rest of us have some lingering doubts, Neil keeps up a rapid pace along these tracks. Any time the bus actually slows down considerably, we know we’re in for an exceptionally bone-jarring couple of minutes wondering if the bus will manage to stay upright. Somehow, despite the teeth-rattling stunts, Neil keeps up his running commentary on the trees and native wildlife.
There’s quite a crowd already at Lake McKenzie which is a popular attraction on the island. It’s a large freshwater lake created by the surrounding sand dunes dipping below the surface of the islands water table. According to our guide, the silica sand grains are perfectly circular and good for anything that involves exfoliating or polishing. He begins a long list of what it’s good for, appending each new piece with “but wait, there’s more!”. Following the suggestions from our wise guide, some people immediately started scrubbing themselves from head to foot in sand before moving onto anything metallic they have. It’s a nice spot to take a refreshing dip in water dense enough to easily float on your back. As you move further towards the centre of the lake the water changes from being crystal clear, to murky, to pitch dark.
The Israeli girl barely makes it in up to her waist, being scared of water and fish. She informs the group that this is the best she’s seen so far of Australia. The group responds with various versions of “well, duh” when she elaborates that she’s only spent time in Sydney and Brisbane so far. “What about the Sydney Botanical Gardens?”, the Dutch girl asks, then turns away to roll her eyes on hearing that the gardens were skipped. The Dutch girl apparently got off a 24 hour bus from Cairns about 20 minutes before our bus picked her up. She takes off along the shore with her snorkelling mask in search of underwater life only to emerge later disappointed that she saw… nothing. Wondering what she expected to find in a puddle of clear water, we decide that maybe she’s still not quite awake yet.
Soon enough it’s time to dry off and get back to the bus, getting stabbed by bits of brittle bark on the way. We’re heading back down the island again to Dilli Village where we’ll be spending the night. With his alleged years of experience commanding four wheel drive vehicles, Neil elects to return back down the one way track we came up instead of following the normal track back. His claim that there shouldn’t be more than one bus coming up this way so late in the day is quickly disproven as we encounter a couple of buses in a row. These guys don’t exactly seem impressed to find us bouncing our way into view. I hazard a guess that they’d be even less impressed if they knew Neil’s driving record so far this day. By now, every time we so much as see another vehicle all the passengers start looking out the window and whichever hapless person is in the rear right seat (usually one of the guys since the morning incident) will start to look increasingly nervous until the danger is past. Somehow the vehicles backtrack and we make our way back across to the beach.
We make the promised stop-off at Eurong Beach Resort for supplies of beer and other alcohol. Each entry point to the resort is barricaded with a pit covered with a cattle grid, above this pieces of wire are strung across. This elaborate defence is against the wild dingos that roam the island. These creatures are similar enough to scrawny dogs that tourists have a strong urge to feed the poor ‘starving’ creatures, only encouraging them to harass humans. If tourists provide an easy source of food, eventually the primal nature of the dingo comes to the fore and causes them to attack. To avoid an excess of these animals being put down, the resort is plastered with posters warning tourists against bad practises. We stop briefly on the way out to catch a glimpse of a dingo disappearing off into the distance along the external fence. Suitably loaded up with beer and the chips that everyone seems to have a craving for, we continue back along the beach and arrive at Dilli Village for the night.
Unlike Eurong Resort, this really is more of a camp. Fenced in to protect against the dingos, there’s a mix of cabins and campers on the grounds. Each pair gets allocated a cabin key along with stern warnings about how thin the cabin walls are. We then have a bit of time to make up our beds before the music blasting nearby lets us know that Neil is getting the barbie going. With the ease of practise, he soon has a pile of steaks and burgers on the go. He’s completely insistent that two girls are to prepare the salad. Oblivious to his word play about tossing salads, the Norwegian girls he’s targeting look blankly at him and he has to settle for two other women. Still determined to pay them back for their tardiness and surplus baggage earlier, he makes sure that they’re on dishwashing duty after dinner. As he keeps insisting that everyone else sit back and have a beer, we can see them steadily getting more irritated that they’ve been left to do this duty alone.
After the big feed, it’s only takes a couple of hours before people start drifting off to bed. Breakfast will be at 6.30am in the morning and some of us were up that early today aswell. At this point the group has become reasonably well acquainted and a little fractured as English is the only universal language available. When the four Norwegians or the Dutch and Germans congregate in one spot, the rest can be seen quietly moving to another area where they will be able to keep the conversation understandable by all. We spend some time talking to the Canadians who have spent time at the Whitsundays where we’ll be heading soon. Eventually everyone has called it a night, apart from Neil who can be seen still on the porch, staring out into the night thinking about whatever it is that real Aussies think about.