AN AUSSIE TRAVEL EXCURSION FOR WOMEN AIMS TO TAKE THE FEAR OUT OF 4WDING, FINDS REBECCA BARRY HILL
UNTIL disaster struck, Eunice the Ute hadn’t had any trouble negotiating steep hills, broken ground and patches of soft terrain. Then suddenly, the Toyota Hilux’s wheels dug in on the crest of the hill, the engine revved and sand spat dramatically out the back.
Thankfully, we weren’t stranded in the middle of Queensland’s Fraser Island — the world’s largest sand island, with no bitumen roads — but on a 4WD practice course not far from our base, the stunning Kingfisher Bay Resort.
Our instructor Dave Darmody was happy we got bogged; here was a chance to learn some recovery skills.
This was day one of Girls Got Grit, a two-day women-only excursion operated by the eco-accredited Australian Offroad Academy. The adventure experience was conceived as a way of getting more women into the holiday drivers’ seat, and to take the fear factor out of 4WDing, a pursuit that until now, I’d associated with blokes in Swanndris. As I discovered, driving around like a Fraser Is local is not only easy but fun, especially with a group of fellow novices.
The women experienced driving on sand and gravel, in mud, over rocks, in bush and through forest.Pictures / Reichlyn Aguilar
After lowering the tyre pressure so our wheels gain surface area, and moving into low-range gear to increase the torque, we rehearse a series of scenarios we might find ourselves in while negotiating the island’s single-lane sand tracks and wild beach highway.
In order for the snatch strap to pull Eunice out, it needs to gain kinetic energy — slowly, like a coil. It’s also imperative we stand well clear in case anything goes wrong and the strap disconnects, unless we wanted to risk losing our heads.
After learning to use the snatch strap and maxi tracks safely and cheering each other over the topsy-turvy “wombat holes”, it’s time to go exploring. Armed with walkie-talkies and lollies, we set off in convoy in our newly nicknamed vehicles, Eunice joining the Toyota “Crusty Cruiser”, the Nissan “Pootrol” and the Toyota “Silver Surfer”, the most technically advanced of the bunch. (Without the latter’s new-fangled traction control, my driving companion Mel and I reckon grunty old Eunice is the most authentic.) Sitting mostly between second and third gears we bump along the sand no faster than the speed limit of 30km/h, the others keeping witty (and rude) contact over the radio.
Driving these former logging roads is a unique experience, akin to bouncing on a constantly shifting trampoline. We’re lucky we had a little rain in the night as it’s helped to compact the sand. But it’s no wonder the organisers warned us each to wear a decent bra. Learning to drive these roads is imperative if you want to reach the heritage-listed island’s most impressive sites. First stop, the beautiful freshwater Lake Mackenzie, breaking up the rain-forest like an emerald asteroid.
The 4WDs were three Toyotas — an FJ Cruiser, a Hilux Surf and a Hilux ute — and a Nissan Patrol.Pictures / Reichlyn Aguilar
After a refreshing dip, we stretch our legs on the boardwalk track in the interior, taking in the unusual white sand creeks beneath a canopy of skinny satinay trees. Having become quite attached to Eunice, we’re almost reluctant to give her up. But the next day we swap for Dave’s Toyota FJCruiser (aka Frida Jane), celebrating our move when Eunice becomes bogged soon afterward. It doesn’t take long for the Cruiser to prove her superiority in the handling and comfort stakes, although there’s arguably less skill involved in driving her, the “crawl control” function keeping things slow and steady as we traverse the trickiest terrain.
That doesn’t mean we’re completely off the hook. You don’t get a more dynamic road than the coast, warns Dave, and today we’re heading for 75 Mile Beach on the eastern side of the island. This rugged, windswept attraction makes for a better highway than a swimming hole — we’re told the surf is teeming with sharks. Meanwhile, the wind can shift the sand, creating rivets. Forward planning is required to avoid becoming stranded at high tide; even then, little creeks threaten to upend sturdy vehicles travelling beyond the 80km/h speed limit.
Drivers often get sore arms from “micro-steering” the sandy grooves, so Dave suggests we relax, allowing a gentle sway beneath the wheels. After passing several other convoys, we finally spot the wreck of the Maheno, a cruise liner turned World War I hospital ship, its rusting hulk suiting the eerie atmosphere. We also catch sight of two dingoes, jogging along the bushline.
When the Crusty Cruiser gets bogged on the way back, a group of male backpackers appears and offers to help.
“Thanks,” says one of the girls, as we whip out the maxi tracks and manouevre the vehicle out of trouble. “But we know what we’re doing.”