Fraser Island: Four-Wheel Driving, Harley, and Learning to Swim

Did anyone watch that pseudo-reality show aired on T4 about ten years ago, ‘Shipwrecked’? Well, being on a Dingo’s tour of Fraser Island was like a much funnier, less dramatic, and more adventurous version of that. This post is either going to ramble into a novel-length entry, jumping from the hilarious people I met, the breathtaking beauty of the island, and pointless facts or I’ll fail entirely at documenting what was one of my favourite three days in Australia, and just leave you with photographic evidence.

I never planned to do Fraser Island when I started my journey up the east coast, but I can safely say it was the best decision I made, and best amount of money I spent (apart from the $30 on cuddling that koala).

Becky from Byron managed to end up on the same tour as me, so armed with goon, hired sleeping bags and bikinis, we got comfortable in the lead car. The tour is organised into four-wheel drives of eight people each, with drivers swapping between the group, so everyone who wants to drive, can. We were put in the lead car, meaning a professional driver-slash-tour guide would be in with us. Though slightly disappointed at first, we realised that a. we wouldn’t have to battle out who is the least drunk and therefore has to drive in the morning, and b. our driver would be least likely to hit a dingo/roll in the sea/crash the car.

Before we left the hostel, we were made to watch a dubious video about the dangers of Fraser Island (a government created document – and you could tell), and from this, the only piece of information anyone on the entire tour took away was that if you see a dingo, you cover your nipples. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work, and actually you kick sand in their faces, and/or talk to them. Dingoes on Fraser were a growing issue: people were feeding them and letting them get friendly (basically assuming they’re dogs), which in turn was making them too confident around humans. Attacks increased, and dingoes were killed as a result. Now, if rangers on the island see dingoes interacting with humans, they’re hunted down and shot – so staying away from them had as much to do with our safety as it did theirs.

Our first stop was meant to be Lake McKenzie, but after one car driving with its handbrake on, flooding the clutch and running out of fuel, Geoff (our driver/tour guide/general rounder-upper) rerouted and we went to Lake Wabby instead. Armed with the directions of “follow the path, pass a desert and roll down a sand dune”, we set off for a 2k hike through rainforest, brief stint by an actual desert (not just the strip of sand we’d been expecting), bu refrained on rolling down the giant sand dune. Lake Wabby was stunning, and we spent an hour swimming (or not, in my case), and avoiding the giant catfish.

Once we left Wabby, we ventured over to our campsite. Every camp on Fraser has a 9pm curfew, but the hostels we were with had secured space on Aboriginal land, who gave us permission to have electricity and noise until midnight. The site, K’Gari, had two rules: no whistling at night, and no spitting into fire. Aborigines believe this invites the spirits of their ancestors to join the living, and no one wants that, really. With floodlights, a sheltered cooking and eating area, covered sections filled with tents and its own night-club (i.e. a wooden shack with an iPod jack and flashing lights), it seemed like luxury compared to what I thought we were getting. The toilets were great festival prep, as was washing in lakes rather than showers.

As Australia’s now in winter, the light left us at about 5pm, so naturally the goon came out. That night there was whistling (once), some hilarious drinking games and a night-time venture to the beach, armed with giant sticks (basically a tree in one case) to fend off dingos. The stars on Fraser were insane: you can see everything from the Milky Way to a couple of planets (maybe). I saw a couple of shooting stars as well.

Before we started drinking, Geoff had assured us of “an easy morning” – to take our time, have a lie-in. So we tried, but this is very hard to do, when at 7.15am someone has opened up a car and began to play Christian rock through the sound-system. I can’t remember the last time I swore so much before 8am, and as everyone was feeling rather slow, breakfast took about two hours. Geoff was going a bit spare at this point, but therein lies the lesson: don’t give us the chance to have an easy morning, and expect lightening fast responses at the same time.

He’d also promised us the best place for hangovers – and there, he did not let us down. We arrived at a lazy river, with the instructions to 1. get past the minute-mark, 2. lie on our backs, and 3. look at the sky. It turned out that you could float all the way down this creek to the start of the estuary, and I can truly say I’ve never had a hangover vanish as quickly, or been that relaxed. After confessing that I can’t actually swim (bar an impressive doggy-paddle), various friends started attempting to teach me how to vaguely stay afloat without looking quite as special.

After Geoff dragged us away from the creek, we visited a shipwreck on the beach, and headed back to camp for lunch. As we were in the lead car, we weren’t allowed to drive, due to it being a lot bigger, and some other technical reasons that I didn’t really listen to. To give us the same chance as everyone else, we could hop in with other groups, so I left Becky, and joined a car full of friends. It’s possibly not a great idea to get in a car and have to sit perched on the edge in order to reach the peddles, and even less confidence-filling to ask where the brakes are.

Nevertheless, I found the brakes, figured out how to drive on sand (ish, anyway. Terrifying. “Let go of the steering wheel and rev the shit out of it” sounded like how-to-kill-a-car-full-of-people advice, not driving advice – but it worked), and got us to the next destination in one piece. As we parked up, Geoff gestured to the top of a cliff face, announcing that we were going up there. Clearly he mistook us all for human-mountain-goat hybrids, as the only way up was going via the rocky side. I must have spent enough time with Sophie to have had her weirdly sure-footed mountain-climbing skills rub off on me, and luckily I got up – and down – with little trouble. Considering I’m usually the one tripping over particles of dust, I was pretty proud.

We were at Indian Heads – the second most easterly point of Australia, and the best place to look out over the island. The views were great, sitting on the cliff edge was scary, but the highlight was Harley.

So, some background information. Harley has been living on Fraser Island for three months. Three months without any contact with the outside world, bar the tour guides and tourists, only having been kicked off Fraser once to be tested (I won’t spell out what he was being tested for). Harley comes from a place in western Canada that’s home to some of the hippiest-hippies in the world, and he speaks like the creepy “take my strong hand” guy in one of the ‘Scary Movie’ films. Harley is without doubt one of a kind – something we put down to smoking too much weed (although he only does this after dinner). We heard many, many stories about Harley (all of which I won’t repeat on here), but yeah, if you go to Fraser, make sure you meet him (but don’t get too close).

The second night followed much the same pattern as the first: although Becky and I took the scripted menu into our own hands that night, and deviated from potato-salad and steak, to chips and steak (fried in everyone’s favourite cooking wine. Delish).

On our third day, we finally saw Lake McKenzie (and were infinitely grateful to Geoff for taking us on the jungle hike when we weren’t hungover). Nothing can prepare you for McKenzie, not the pictures, not the blogs, not what people say. There are more shades of blue than I thought possible: the lightest, almost white edge of the lake on the white shore, to the inky blackness of the lake’s centre. It’s some of the purest water in the world, and the sand is well known for its antiseptic qualities (and ability to whiten your teeth).

Becky took it upon herself to teach me a halfway decent swimming stroke, and by the end of my mini-lesson (soon to be repeated by Shelley at Airlie Beach), I almost looked graceful in the water. Almost. McKenzie was the perfect place to end a perfect three days with some hilarious, brilliant people.

 

 

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Whistlestop Tours: Brisbane and Noosa

After Tuesday’s ten hours of riding, building fences and avoiding snakes, Wednesday was a dedicated beach day. The Byron beach is stunning; miles of cool, white sand, with turquoise blue waters, and the faint silhouette of blue mountain ranges in the distance. I was meant to be moving onto Surfers Paradise today, but leaving Byron didn’t feel like an option, and most of what I’d heard about Surfers wasn’t complimentary.

Instead, I spent the day reading on the beach. My Kindle has been an absolute life saver out here: at home, I’m not the biggest fan of e-books and e-readers, I much prefer to have a paper copy in my hands. However, buying books out here would mean either throwing them afterwards, or leaving them at hostels – neither of which was very appealing (I don’t throw/give books away, ever). At the speed I read, it would also mean I’d have very little money for anything else. Books are insanely expensive out here: you pay about a minimum of $20. So, I’m forced to use everyone’s least favourite corporation, Amazon. I’m pretty sure taking this time off and going travelling was subconsciously a way for me to catch up on the three-billion books I have on my to-read list.

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Anyway, back to Byron. That night we headed out to Cheeky Monkey’s, Byron’s version of Arena (Exeter), Spin Bar (Wokingham), and Q-Bar (Reading). Awful music, some questionable attendees and pricey drinks mean there’s only one way to go there, and that’s very, very drunk. Instead of having a normal dance floor, you dance on metal picnic benches, which I’m not sure I could have navigated sober, but turned out to be incredibly easy after half a box of goon (Australia’s boxed wine. The most disgusting tasting drink in the universe, but the only thing I can afford).

So, I wake up in the morning feeling really quite awful, and proceed to do a number of things that are never, ever a good idea after a night of drinking:

1. Get my nose pierced
This was something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and after being recommended a certain place in Byron by a few people, figured I may as well get it done. Didn’t figure that getting it done while having very thin blood due to drinking would be an awful idea. The guy who did it was great, and spoke to me in the same voice I use to calm the horses down. Haha.

2. Go for a walk
Usually, exercise in general (namely riding and electric fencing) is the one thing I can rely on to get rid of a hangover. However, it’s always done at a leisurely pace, with many food, drink and nap breaks, and rarely in 28-degree heat. Byron Bay has a beautiful lighthouse that sits at the most eastern point of mainland Australia. I’d been meaning to go up to it, so when a group of people from the hostel said they were going, I joined in. It was a stunning walk, with incredible views of crystal clear waters and playing dolphins, but when you have a new hole in your nose, haven’t eaten in almost two days and a hangover that’s slowly creeping up on you, doing anything in temperatures over 25-degrees is a bad idea. Not only was it swelteringly hot, but there was a climb of about 1,000 steep steps to get up there.

3. Decide to re-pack and re-organise your bag
At home, I rarely throw any clothes away. I’m sure that somewhere, buried deep within my cupboards, are clothes I didn’t wear when I was seven, let alone now. Out here, however, it’s a very different story. I adopted Sophie’s ‘one in one out’ policy, so for everything new I buy, something gets chucked out. It turns out that when I’m hungover and tired, I’m unnecessarily ruthless. I now have barely any clothes left, and to make matters worse, got half-way through repacking, got bored, and fell asleep in a nice nest of approximately two pairs of shorts and four t-shirts.

A five-ish hour bus journey awaited me at 6.50am on Friday morning, to take me up to Brisbane for the next day and night. I’ve been travelling on a hop-on, hop-off bus pass with Greyhound, that lets me get on anywhere between Sydney and Cairns, as long as I go in one direction, and it’s turned out to be brilliant. It’s cheap (especially if you have an IH/YHA card), and stops off at the best places on the east coast. However, Greyhound seem to have a very odd theory: for their long, boring night-bus journeys, they supply you with an old coach, fitted with itchy fabric seats that don’t recline. For short, day-time journeys, however, you ride on plush leather seats that go almost horizontal, you’re given charging spots, and on some buses, you’ll even have the option to pay for WiFi. Not sure how they decided to do it that way round, but there you go.

Due to spending more time in Byron, I’d decided to skip Surfers Paradise, and as we drove past, I was glad I made that decision. Surfers is almost identical to Spain, with its large skyscrapers and apartment blocks on the beach, and while I can see the pull for schoolies week, I’ve never been more relieved to have gone with my gut instinct. The journey from Byron to Brisbane was along the Pacific Highway, meaning we stuck to the coast for most of it The landscape was like something on a postcard, and five hours flew past.

I’d already decided to leave Surfers out in favour of extra time in Byron – and was so glad I went with my gut instinct on this. As we drove past the looming skyscrapers and white sandy beach, all I could think of was Spain – you could have been driving down any coastal road in the country. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain, but it’s two hours from home; it’s easy enough to get to, whereas there’s nowhere in the world quite like Byron.

There was one thing and one thing only that I wanted to do in Brisbane, and that was get to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and cuddle a koala. It was ANZAC Day when I arrived, so navigating buses was harder than usual (in fact, finding the thing was the trickiest: bus stops in Brisbane are underground). Lone Pine is the oldest and one of the biggest koala sanctuaries in the country, and had deals on for backpackers: entry was $28 and a photo with a koala was $16. Brisbane is also home to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, but ticket prices started at $58, and in all honesty, I find the entire thing a bit macabre.

Koalas are cute, there’s no denying that, but nothing can prepare you for how they wrap their furry arms around your neck, sit their squat, heavy bottom in your hands, and smell of a jungle of eucalyptus trees. Had I been swooning less, the koala and I would have made a run for it. On top of cuddling a koala, you can feed kangaroos, wallabies and emus in an open field, watch bird shows, and feed rosellas.

After a night out in Brisbane (with the world’s tastiest pizza and the world’s worst clubs), it was time to move onto Noosa for a day. My parents took me to the coastal town just after I was born, so 23 years later, I arrived for the second time, but slightly taller and slightly more tanned. I have to say, I wasn’t bowled over by the place. The hostel was a let down and while the beach was nice enough, it was no Byron. Most people do the Everglades from Noosa, but on my tight schedule, I only had time for a day on the beach (tough life, tell me about it).

On being the palest person in Australia

Thanks in part to my attempt at decoding what several phrases mean over here*, when I was told that I’d have to get up at six – in the dark – to get on a ferry, I laughed it off. Dark couldn’t possibly mean dark, in the way that cold doesn’t ever mean cold. However, six am rolled around in the unpleasant and unbelievably quick way that it does, and to my surprise, it was in fact dark. Dark and cold, to be precise, and not the way I’d envisioned my mornings while travelling to be.

Lining up behind two other cars and a horse float, we boarded the ferry to Queenscliffe; the other side of the bay. After a dolphin-less and shark-less journey, we arrived at the harbour, and started our way along the Great Ocean Road.

First stop was Torquay. The only similarity between this Torquay and the one located in England was the presence of seagulls (much smaller here), and sand. Even then, this sand is a golden yellow, not washed out and faded like its British namesake. The water shimmered in its varying shades of blue, the small turquoise waves lapping at the shore. An all girls’ school was having a body-boarding lesson when we arrived, and the screams and shrieks were overly reminiscent of secondary school, and the noise that arose whenever an unsuspecting boy/dog/ice cream van found its way onto the grounds.

Torquay is home to Bells Beach, the location of one surfing’s biggest international competitions. With formidable rocks, 3m waves on a still day, and its jagged coastline, it’s no wonder that the Easter-time event is the largest in the country.

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Next on our tightly-scheduled, whistle-stop tour of the Great Ocean Road was Lorne. We piled back into the car, and arrived officially onto the road itself, marked by an unobtrusive sign, and a statue dedicated to the men who built it. When thousands of men arrived in Australia after the First World War, there were no jobs and no money, so the government issued the road to be built – and with no heavy machinery to do the work, slogging their way across the mountainous land in the summer heat must’ve been too much at times.

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The landscape surrounding the road is stunning: when I come back (and I’m over 25 and exempt from the ridiculous deposits required by hire car rentals), I’ll certainly be spending the majority of my time making my way along it. Australians don’t mince their words, and naming this stretch of road is certainly an example of that.

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Lorne is supposedly the Australian equivalent of Newquay: school-leavers flock to the beautiful beach for underage drinking, illegal substances and a flock of music and art events across the summer. However, while Newquay has a lovable yet seedy and run-down feel, with the atmosphere of a fight just about to break out, Lorne is lively yet safe, a tranquility spilling over into the event preparations and groups of young people.

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Next up was exploring part of the bush on horse-back. There are several things in life that I’ve always thought to be true, but since being in Australia, have become solid, hard facts. These are: 1. my slightly wild curls turn into massively wild, hairbrush-proof dreadlocks within 500m of sea air; 2. doggy-paddle is not a sufficient swimming stroke; 3. I only tan when I’m riding a horse.

I’m now sporting some rather wonderful tan lines on my back and shoulders (which, as a painfully pale person, I treasure as evidence of my skin changing colour), and as usual am sporting a very fetch farmer tan (i.e. brown arms/face/neck, and white legs). While planning to come to Australia, I was more excited about the thought of not having to endure a farmer tan for another summer, but it seems my skin and tanning abilities had other thoughts on the matter.

This is now my seventh week away from home, and near the top of my things-that-I-miss-most-and-make-me-homesick-at-the-drop-of-a-hat list is horses. Obviously. I miss their smell and the safety they bring, their solid necks and their long ears, as well as a billion other things I could never attempt to put into words, because it’s too grand and it’s too intrinsic to be able to describe consciously.

Luckily though I managed to find a short-term fix. Ever since I could read, I’ve had a knack for finding horses wherever I am (something my parents have rarely appreciated), and true to form, I found a trekking centre ten minutes from my grandparents’ house. Perfect. I signed up for the advanced, three-hour ride (a mistake when you haven’t ridden for almost two months) through the bush, with promises of a few canters.

These ‘few canters’ turned out to be the best understatement of the year: as soon as we were up on grass verges running parallel to dusty roads, we remained in nothing slower than a canter. As we flew across sandy tracks lined by silver Eucalyptus trees, giant butterflies erupted from the bushes around us, and green, blue and red parrots soared in the leafy passages above our heads.

Crouched over my horse’s neck, grit lining my eyes, mouth and covering my skin (hello instant tan), I was in heaven. This was the best way to see the bush, to get into the parts that cars can’t access, that people wouldn’t want to walk across. You feel every connection with the ground, but at the same time you’re weightless; you feel safer than ever, while knowing that the slightest loss of balance will send you crashing to the floor; you feel hidden away from everything: it’s just you, your horse and the chattering birds above you.

The three hours passed quickly, and when we returned I may have made the tiny mistake of asking what jobs here were like. Turns out you only need to be able to stay on a horse, you can live onsite, and they have Welsh ponies (won’t make the passport joke again, don’t worry mum). Despite being unable to sit down properly, and walking like John Wayne, it was the best way of seeing Australia so far, and I’m hoping that those three-hours will be enough to get me through until I come home.

* No, don’t worry, I haven’t accidentally landed in Austria and spent the two weeks or so wondering why people aren’t speaking English, and why there aren’t any kangaroos hopping around. We may all technically speak the same language, but there’s lots over here that means something very different than at home.

“It’s really muddy”: there’s a puddle on the ground and the floor’s a bit wet. Considering that “it’s a bit wet” at home means we’re knee deep in water, and the horses are swimming in mud, I’d much prefer to be using this definition.

“That beach is terrible”: there’s a bit of seaweed draped over white sand, deposited there by crystal clear, sapphire blue water.

“It’s bloody freezing!”: the temperature’s dropped below 20-degrees, and/or there’s a slight breeze. I’m still trying to explain that 23-degrees at home is a good summer’s day, not something that warrants jeans and jumpers.

“I’ll get you some thongs” is a perfectly acceptable offer to be made by your grandparents.

“It’s pouring down!”: around 5mm of water fell in about ten minutes, quickly replaced by blue skies and sunshine.