IT’S ONE OF THE BEST PLACES IN THE WORLD TO 4WD, THE ONLY WAY TO GET AROUND IF YOU WANT TO CHECK OUT THE HERITAGE-LISTED ISLAND’S ATTRACTIONS.
The silver Toyota Prado is strangely comfortable. Well, as comfy as you can be in the back seat of a 4WD as it traverses the narrow interior roads of Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. The constantly shifting surface makes for a bouncy ride but it’s not a patch on the Toyota Hilux ute I’d been driving earlier as part of Girls Got Grit, a two-day excursion run by the Australian Offroad Academy.
The women-only adventure experience in Queensland was designed to take the fear out of four-wheel driving, which might sound sexist if it weren’t for the fact that men can’t help themselves from taking over, the organisers had explained. In two days we learned how to negotiate unstable terrain, traverse steep inclines and what to do if we became bogged in the soft sand. We also enjoyed a lot of wine and cheese platters.
Today though, I’m happy to be a passenger — in a smooth automatic equipped with “crawl control”, rather than a grunty manual. Our guide is Fraser Island ranger Kirsty Thomson, who first came here as a kid, and never forgot it, returning after several years of travel.
The 4WD training includes what to do if you get bogged down in soft sand.
“It’s got everything,” she says as she manoeuvres the sand tracks in low gear. “Beaches, rainforest, wildlife.”
Having stayed a few nights at Kingfisher Bay Resort, I can report it also has great food, the pepperberries in my lamb backstrap picked straight from the hotel’s surrounding wetlands, and the local Hervey Bay scallops much bigger and juicier than ours.
It’s also one of the best places in the world to 4WD, the only way to get around if you want to check out the heritage-listed island’s attractions.
Fraser has the logging industry to thank for its one-way sand tracks flanked by cycads, satinay and eucalyptus trees, kauri pine and brushboxes. Travelling at no more than the 30km/h speed limit on lower pressure tyres feels fast enough on these topsy-turvy roads. Every now and then we pull over for the bus or a fellow four-wheel driver to pass. With their loose suspension, the buses are speed demons by comparison.
Having already visited beautiful Lake McKenzie, today we’re focusing on the eastern side of the island. As we drive to 75 Mile Beach, which doubles as a highway, Kirsty tells us more about its history. The Aboriginal name for Fraser Island is K’gari (paradise).
It seems particularly apt at Eli Creek, where throngs of bikini-wearing backpackers are jumping in the water and floating towards the ocean beneath a pretty canopy of trees.
We’d spotted two small planes on the highway a day earlier from the comfort of our vehicle, not imagining there was a surprise in store, and we’d be winging our way over the island in one of Air Fraser’s GA8 Airvans to get a better sense of how big Fraser Island really is.
The tiny twin engines take off directly from the beach. In seconds we’re high above the island peering at an impressive panorama, the Maheno shipwreck wedged on the sand, and beyond that, the untouched forest, giant sand shifts and inky lakes. It’s an exhilarating, if slightly unnerving, way to get better perspective on the 120km-long island.
Then we’re back in the Prado, heading to Indian Head, Kirsty’s favourite spot.
“It’s one of those places that you feel you could sit forever,” she says, as we make our way up the rocky incline to the view. From this peninsula we have a clear view of the ocean; it’s not long before we spot a tiger shark. Further along we paddle in the beautiful Champagne Pools, naturally formed swimming holes protected from the surf.
Pilot and minke whales are easily spotted early in the season, Kirsty explains, and three years ago the island’s infamous dingoes had a field day after a baby whale beached and died on the sand. Now all that’s left is its skeleton. On the drive back, she pulls up close to a dingo trotting nonchalantly beside the car.
After whizzing along the beach highway close to the 80km/h speed limit, it’s a jarring sensation to return to the island’s labyrinthine interior tracks. Without even glancing at a map, Kirsty weaves her way to the lookout of Lake Wabby, at the foot of a dramatic sand drift. People are having a ball sliding down the dunes into the glassy water below.
Pile Valley is arguably the most stunning part of the rainforest. Many of the island’s trees are so competitive for light that the tallest and skinniest keel over. Here however, the satinays are grander and further apart, heavenly sunlight filtering through to the soft white sand below. It’s been a day of natural contrasts, none of which we would’ve seen without our trusty 4WD.
■The writer travelled to Fraser Island with assistance from Tourism and Events Queensland and stayed at Kingfisher Bay Resort. Girls Got Grit: australianoffroadacademy.com.au, kingfisherbay.com