3 Day Fraser Island Tour

"Don't stop, keep going!" my Ozzie tour mates shouted from the blue Land Cruiser's middle passenger seats as I drove over sand, through water and across rocks on the beach "highway" that hugs the shore on rugged, magnificent Fraser Island off Australia's Queensland coast

"Don't stop in the water, drive through, go FAST!" they yelled as I hit the gas, successfully avoiding getting the vehicle bogged down in salt water (very bad) or soft sand (less bad, but still a nuisance).

And so it was that I managed to steer clear of too many complications when the lead car of our three-car caravan came to a sudden stop during our three-day, drive-yourself, 4WD beach camping tour of Fraser.

There we were on Day 2, bearing down on the sandy road, one 4WD after another trying to beat the tide back to camp after a day of exploring some of the island's iconic sites, including Eli Creek, Indian Head, the champagne pools and the Maheno shipwreck.

It was gorgeous, wild and windy, and I felt free and alive as I steered the truck carrying half a dozen others, including a German medical student, a Spanish architect and the two Australians, back to camp as the sun sank lower in the sky and music blared from an iPod hooked up to the truck's speakers. Then the car ahead, driven by our tour director, Paul, slowed suddenly, and instinct took over. I slowed down too, not wanting to slam into him, of course, but also because I thought he might be stopping to tell us something.

That's when the shouting started. Because, as I should have realised, an Australian would never stop between soft sand and salt water unless he had no choice.

"You idiot," I told myself, heeding my passengers' warnings, "he's stuck!" So I hit the gas, swerving toward shore to avoid the soft sand and then back again to avoid a wave. Pulling ahead, I drove until we were clear to park safely on harder sand and alight to help.

And that's the thing about Australia. You think you know about it. You pack torches and star charts, hats and sunscreen, swimsuits and insect repellent. But you have to look beyond that. You'd be wise, in fact, to keep in mind the words of the great Australian novelist Peter Carey, who says of his homeland in My Life as a Fake, "Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways."


Our first day of tour started mundanely, as most do. We had the requisite hostel pick-ups, shy introductions, trips to the nearby 7-11 for coffees before viewing a driving-and-dingo safety video, and loading of three 4WD vehicles with passengers and luggage for the trip from Noosa to Rainbow Beach to Hervey Bay, where we caught the ferry to Fraser.

Arriving at our campsite, we unloaded & made lunch wraps from tortillas, veggies, cheese, meats & tuna. Our tents had already been set up - a nice touch - and although some wondered aloud if  they'd be kept up by others'  noise in one area where the two-man tents were close together, I didn't share that particular concern. We'd already heard about keeping our tents clear of food and personal items to avoid attracting dingoes, and there were sticks we could carry - just in case. Being a city kid who feels safer with people nearby, and has a healthy fear of wild dogs thanks to a scary encounter years back in Turkey, those side-by-side tents looked fine to me. Help, I figured, should I need some in the night, would be just a shout away.

With logistics behind us, we set off for Lake Wabby, a dark lake at the base of a steep, sandy slope that we arrived at after half an hour's climb along a series of sandy trails and steps. Just above the lake, the ground opened into a huge space that looked like a desert. A striped stick was stuck in the sand, apparently to measure the shifting landscape, and I could see why. When the wind was strong,  it transformed the surface into a corrugated pattern of wavy rows even as we crossed. The  landscape is austere here, and it would be easy to imagine Lawrence of Arabia on the horizon. But this was Australia, and we soon traversed the slope to the bottom, where we hung towels on tree branches and stripped down to swimmers. I briefly considered the coldness of the water but then waded in, passing a few big, dark fish in the shallow part of the lake to join others in our group who'd already swum out to the middle. When I told one woman I'd made myself go in, despite the chill, she responded, simply, "Of course, it's your only chance." Which was exactly the point. You can't come as far as a place like Lake Wabby and not wring every possible experience out of it. Next up were boomerangs, which we took turns hurtling into the air on the sandy expanse above the lake. As a group, we couldn't compare to the aboriginal hunters who used boomerangs to scare birds from trees and then kill them as they flew out, although two in our group had some success. It was humbling to consider Fraser's thousands of years of human history, and I felt lucky to be there in my own limited way. Back at camp, after a barbecue and games, I was tired but ready for what the next day would bring.


Paul sounded a didgeridoo to wake us, but my tent mate and I never heard it, sleeping until he finally came by and bellowed, "Time to get up!" We crawled out, literally, to discern that it was nearly 7:30 a.m., late by camp standards, and everyone else was already digging into a breakfast of tea and instant coffee, eggs and toast on the grill, and cold cereals. I blamed the fresh air for wiping us out. New drivers were picked, and we headed to Eli Creek, where Paul insisted that we fall into the water backwards. Thinking that you don't travel to avoid experiences, I fell straight back into the cold creek, even though I was certain that I looked ridiculous. After walking back through the creek and relaxing in the sun, we went to Indian Head, where we heard tragic stories of the slaughter of native peoples and exploitation of the land by timber interests -- but also a beautiful tale of the island's mythical origins. Then it was back in the 4WDs for a drive to the champagne pools, where salt water accumulates in shallow pools beyond a rocky wall on the beach,  so people can get refreshed without going into the open water. That was something I'd noticed from the start, that despite Fraser's beauty, no one swims offshore. They fish, casting off the beach, but don't swim. I suppose I should have realized why, but I asked Paul anyway. "It's full of sharks," he said. "And it's too rough." I looked out at the surf, which was oddly tempting, as if it were trying to lure me with its magical blue color and hypnotic, crashing sounds.  "So I shouldn't go in?" I asked, probably sounding insane or, at the very least, dense. "Right," he said. "Don't go in." That was categorical enough to shake me out of my spell, and I waded in the pools and sunned myself on rocks instead - a fair exhange. We ended our day at the shipwreck of the Maheno, which was beached on Fraser in 1935 when its towline broke after it left service. I walked the beach looking at the rusted skeleton, thinking of what it must have been like in Anzac Cove in 1915, when the ship functioned as a hospital during the World War I Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Turks. More than 8,000 Australians died in the campaign, their losses known to every Australian who commemorates Anzac Day every April 25. It was another part of history to connect with, as I placed myself in time against all that had gone before, and put my own concerns and considerations into perspective. I felt calm, and breathed in the sea air. Back at camp, we made it an earlier night. The next day's adventures would start with a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call.


I actually got up on time, but it was hard slog around camp as I tried to clean up and prepare for our last day. We had to hustle to make it to Lake McKenzie, a picturesque spot where deep blue water is edged by a band of clear aquamarine near shore, and the sand is white and soft. I took my time getting into the lake; it was still early, and I felt bone tired. When I finally went in, the cool water woke me up. I started swimming and felt my energy grow as I thought about the beautiful princess spirit K'Gari, who, legend says, was so overcome by the beauty of the world she helped to create that she wanted to stay here forever. So the great god Beiral's messenger, Yendingie, turned K'Gari into the island.  I swam laps in that crystal water, the sky stretching over, my friends relaxing on the bright white sand nearby, and felt like I could go forever. Later, when two of us were briefly separated from our group and literally lost in Australia before having a last lunch and saying our goodbyes, I thought about how a tour like this forces you to be brave, and open to experiences. You think about a princess who thought the place so beautiful that she wanted to become part of it, and that's what you try to do, too. You sink in however you can. Because this is your chance. You get up very early because the sun is up at 5:30 and the birds are riotous. You wait for tides and race against them, you walk a long way, slip and slide on hilly trails, cover your head with a towel in a fast and furious downpour because your jacket is still stuffed into a duffle back at camp. You jump into lakes that are too cold, and sleep out when you're a little scared. You can't prepare for the unexpected but you can welcome it, and brace yourself for whatever comes. You look, swerve and breathe. And on your last morning, you run up the path from camp to the beach to see the sun break open across Australia's vast sky. Because you are here. And nothing, really, prepares you for that.