We’ve just returned from Fraser Island, where we’ve been camping and driving around. Fraser Island is a bit special – it’s the world’s largest sand island, and you can only drive it with a four-wheel-drive vehicle (4WD). So we weren’t going to be able to get anywhere in our campervan, so it meant that we hired a 4WD from Aussie Adventures. It was a beaten up old Land Rover, but if you want a vehicle to drive across difficult terrain, it’s got to be the right choice hasn’t it?
In the office (well, shed) of the hire company, they provided an uplifting experience – in fact, enough to make us wonder whether we should really go! The office was plastered with photographs of 4WD’s that had got bogged down in the sand, or stuck on rocks, and then inundated by the tides – plenty of shots of Land Rovers with waves pouring through the windows, one of a 4WD completely submerged, with a boat anchored to it, and one of a Land Cruiser on it’s roof, which had been overturned while driving. So a cheery view as I sat down to sign the 29-point disclaimer sheet on the rental agreement! And then the owners started to talk about what could go wrong – but don’t worry, they said, there’s a mechanic on the island who’ll come and pull you off the rocks/out of the soft sand (“Mind you”, they said, “he can be very difficult to deal with, but if he’s been off the sauce early in the day you’ll be all right!”). Then they told us not to swim off the beach because of the sharks (“Oh yea, you’ll see loads!”) and then came the dire warnings about the danger of dingoes (wild dogs) that roam the island. Last year they killed a small boy on the island, who’d been playing away from his parents, so there’s a very real threat from them.
So there we are, signing a rental agreement for the world’s oldest, rustiest Land Rover, and I can feel my stomach starting to sink…
Driving out to Fraser Island was easy – 10 miles to the ferry point, and a quick skip across the beach to the ferry itself. The sand was fine, and very soft, so it was a real fight to keep the car in a straight line. And somehow I’ve signed up for three days of this?!? As you can see, the weather wasn’t exactly on top form either – we’d dodged a big rainstorm on the way to the ferry, and as it set off another huge dump of rain dropped directly on top of us. We were all quite quiet in the car, knowing that we’ve got a tent to sleep in, a stove to cook on, and that’s it!
When the ferry dropped us at Hook Point, on the bottom of the island, the tide was still going out. The main beach, which is 70 miles long, is a highway at low tide, and impassable at high tide, and at the mid-tide you can drive towards the top of it – on the soft sand. We set off, pausing for half an hour to let the tide fall far enough to let us pass a couple of driftwood trees, and then started heading north. As we drove the tide went further and further out, letting us move further down the beach, onto flatter and more solid sand. Eventually we were whizzing up the beach at 50mph (the speed limit), slowing down for the bumps and creeks flowing into the ocean.
Half way up we remembered what we’d forgotten – plates and cups! Our camping gear was a combination of things from the hire place, and our own bedding and crockery from the camper van. And we’d forgotten the crockery half. With red faces, we drove up to the small store at Eurong, one of only three villages on the island, and bought ourselves some new plates etc. The assistant at the till told us “It’s people like you that pay my bonus”, which was a nice thought – for her. Anyway, we drove on further up the beach. On day one our plan is to get from the bottom right to the last campsite at the top, 60 miles away.
A little further up the beach we found out that although the beach is classified as a road, and normal road rules apply (drive on the left, 50mph speed limits and you must wear seat belts), there were some things that were odd about it (apart from the fact that it was a beach…). A light aircraft was flying down the beach towards us, and losing altitude all the time. When he switched on his landing lights, we realised that unless we pulled over he was going to land on our roof! Faces of grinning tourists, with camcorders glued to their eyes, flashed past us.
We carried on driving a little more cautiously, but soon got the hang of the occasional dash to the side of the beach to let a plane land (in all, we saw half a dozen landings and take-offs). Finally, we reached Indian Head, the Champagne Pools, famous for the waves breaking over the rocks into bubbly rock pools, where we stretched our legs on the beach.
At 5.30 we arrived at our campsite, at Waddy Point, on the dunes behind the beach. We had half an hour of daylight to setup camp, including putting up our hired 4-man dome tent for the first time. Fortunately the weather had cleared up, and blue skies had replaced the grey clouds. After camp setup, we settled down the make dinner – after we’d borrowed some matches from the obliging Australian family next door! We’re first-class-remember-everything, campers aren’t we?
Just before night fall, the National Parks Ranger came around, to check our camping permits, and give us a little ‘first night pep talk’. He told us about the dangers of dingoes, and how we should make sure that the children are always with us, and don’t let them wander off on their own. He told us about the camp fire ban (not a problem, we hadn’t got enough matches to light one!) and a few other handy hints. And then, just as he was wandering off, he spotted our head torch. “Ahh”, says the Ranger, “that’ll be very useful. You should always carry a torch at night, so that you can see where you’re going”. Long pause. “Especially as we’ve been seeing Brown snakes around the campsite. You don’t want to stand on one of those, as they’re the second most deadly snake in the world”. And then he left, as darkness fell suddenly all around us.