Again, the bus trip south was interminable, the excitement broken only by a visit to Gin Gin, where a two-tyre wheel shot off a truck as it pulled into the roadhouse, shooting past the picnic table I was occupying and miraculously bouncing through the neighbouring caravan park without hitting anything. As I helped the relieved trucker roll his unexpected deposit back to his semi-trailer, I realised that even expensive monsters like that have problems, and for once I was glad not to have the financial and mechanical stress associated with cars. Sure, they're well worth the money in terms of travel quality, but a lightweight backpack needs precious little maintenance, believe me.
Hervey Bay, my destination after the journey from Magnetic Island, is famous for two things: the humpback whales that hang around in the bay during the migration season, and Fraser Island. I was more interested in the latter, having realised that whatever the reputation of the island as a backpackers' haven for doing doughnuts on the beach in their 4WDs while necking slabs of XXXX, it's a big place, and getting lost by foot is a real possibility. (I'd been told by more than one backpacker that Fraser Island was 'well wicked' and the only way to see it was to rent a four-wheel-drive in which to burn along the sandy beaches – some 20,000 vehicles visit the island every year.) Whatever, I decided to spend a day in Hervey Bay doing some research.
Fraser Island has a lot of very under-publicised walking tracks, and I spent Wednesday 27th August hunting round to find out about them, eventually discovering the maps and leaflets I needed in the City Council offices. For such a gateway to a popular National Park, Hervey Bay is seriously lacking in not having an office for the QNP&WS (Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, the unpronounceable acronym that equates to New Zealand's DOC and Western Australia's CALM); all the tour operators are geared up for 4WD tours, and foot passengers are pretty well ignored, because they don't make anyone a fast buck. On the other hand, this attitude means the tracks and hiker's campsites are wonderfully empty, so I wasn't complaining.
Getting to the Island
Fraser Island is a long – a very long – island that is about 120km from north to south, and only about 15-20km wide, on average. The west coast, facing the mainland, is a sandfly-infested mangrove swamp, but the east coast, swept by north-flowing currents and trade winds, is one big, beautiful beach; they call it Seventy-Five Mile Beach, rather imaginatively. Having studied the maps and trails, I decided to attempt a long walk, taking in the central area of the island, as well as a fair stretch of beach. If you imagine the trail being a lower-case 'd', then I started on the left-hand edge of the d's circle, headed south and round to the beach, then north up the beach (the d's stalk) for some distance, eventually turning round and walking back down the beach, to cut back into the centre via the top of the d's circle, and back to square one. This meant I could tailor the walk to be as long or short as I liked by altering the distance walked up the beach (i.e. the height of the d's stalk). It turned out to be a brilliant route.
I set off from Hervey Bay with a dangerously heavy pack – intending to stay for eight days, I had a whole heap of food stashed away, some 25 meals in total, plus spare emergency rations – and hitched down to the ferry from River Heads. This is another example of the lack of attention paid to non-driving and non-touring visitors to Fraser Island; the ferry leaves from River Heads, some 17km south of Hervey Bay, but there are no buses there, so if you have no car you either have to hitch, take a taxi, or pay three times the price to leave from Hervey Bay itself. I hitched, and within ten minutes I was on my way to the ferry, a little poodle sitting in my lap, licking my legs with worrying intensity and dedication, while I entertained the driver with idle banter about the outback.
Day 1: Central Station
The first day on the island, I took it easy. The secret of a long tramp is not to rush it; as you get further into the expedition, the pack gets lighter, you get fitter, you get used to sleeping on the ground and it generally gets easier to walk all day. However, the first days are always tough, and this was no exception. From the ferry, the only track leading into the island is the road, and with Fraser Island being entirely made out of sand (with only three small outcrops of bedrock on the whole island), the road walking is very hard, somewhat akin to traipsing through dune systems. The 8km walk to Central Station – a grand-sounding name for nothing more than a ranger station, toilet block and campground – took me a good couple of hours, and I just collapsed into my tent on arrival. I have to admit I was a little worried; if all the walking was going to be this tough, this was going to be a very long visit.
The area I walked through, though, was indicative of interesting times to come. Starting from the mangrove mudflats, the road winds its way through eucalyptus, banksia and cypress pine forests, without a doubt my favourite tramping environment after spinifex outback. There's banksia with its odd, brushy seed cones (hence its nickname 'the loo brush tree') and strange, serrated leaves; the gum trees with their distinctive and refreshing smell, striking white trunks and, at this time of year, peeling bark; the pine needles strewn across the ground, creating a fertile mulch from which wattles and bushes of all sorts of shapes and sizes grow... and all this in an environment that looks parched, nutrient-free and downright oppressive. It's a great example of nature reclaiming the land in a far more effective way than man ever does.
By the time I arrived at Central Station, the gum forests had given way to closed-canopy sub-tropical rainforest, something that I hadn't explored a great deal before visiting Fraser Island. I saw plenty of tropical rainforest in northern Queensland and the islands of the South Pacific, and mounds of temperate rainforest in New Zealand, but sub-tropical is different again, being a real mixture of tropical and temperate; the canopy isn't as closed and outrageously full as in the tropics, where vines hang from just about everywhere, but sub-tropical has the huge fern palms and lush greenery that isn't so common in temperate zones. The area around Central Station is beautiful, with the wonderfully cool and clear Wanggoolba Creek flowing over its sandy bed, past rare ferns (found only in this one spot in the world) and through a canopy where the sun only manages to penetrate as shards, picking out trees and vines with the accuracy of a stage spotlight. After setting up camp, I wandered off on a 4km track to Pile Valley, noting with some relief that the walking tracks in the forest are hard and easy to walk on; it's hard to imagine that everything's sand, because the forest has laid down such a thick layer of what we would call soil (albeit sandy soil) that it feels no different to walk on than normal earth.
Pile Valley is home to a strand of satinay trees, kings of the forest with their perfectly straight, 70m (210 ft) trunks soaring up above the canopy. Back in the bad old days when Fraser Island was a logging site, satinay trees were cut down for use in marine building, because they have such a high sap content that they're resistant to rotting from sea water, a bit like teak. Fraser's satinay was used to line the Suez Canal in the 1920s, and luckily there are quite a few trees left for tourists like me to stare at.
That night was bloody freezing, my first taste of the somewhat unpredictable nature of Fraser's weather. Clear skies mean cold weather, and I had to wear everything I owned to stop my teeth from chattering. Luckily the family next to me in the campground had built up a fire, so I warmed myself by that, chatting away to the kids and parents and gladly accepting a couple of beers to while away the night. The first night in the bush is always fairly strenuous – roll mats aren't mattresses, and inflatable pillows are, literally, a pain in the neck – but the next day I was up with the worms, and ready to take off south through the bush.
Day 2: Lake Benaroon
Day 2 was when I saw my first dingo. Every silver lining has its cloud and every politician his perversion, and it seems that every Queensland island has its problem child. On Hinchinbrook it's the rats, and on Fraser it's the dingo. Dingoes are wild dogs, and the ones on Fraser Island are thought to be the purest breed left, due to isolation from interbreeding with other dogs.
Your average dingo is sleek, naturally thin, and has all the usual mannerisms of canine kind, including the sad, sideways tilt of the head that makes hearts melt and grown adults speak in goo-goo language. Yes, the dingo has a genetic ability to charm the food out of a tourist's hands, and this has caused huge problems on Fraser Island, because the dingoes have cottoned on. Whenever humans feed wild animals the whole eco-structure gets upset; more food breeds more dingoes, and when the number of humans on the island drops in the off-season, there are too many dingoes for natural food sources, so dingoes die off and, worse, they start to get aggressive if humans don't hand over the food when they sit up and beg. Fraser Island is now home to over 200 dingo delinquents, whose daily routine involves ripping into tents if they can smell food, and terrorising little children who don't know how to react to wildlife (in fact, a dingo had been shot the week before I arrived for biting a child, a child who had apparently been baiting the poor thing for three hours).
The guidelines, then, are strict but sensible. Don't feed or interact with the dingoes. Don't leave any food or rubbish inside your tent; lock it in your car. Leave your tent flaps open, so the dingo can enter your tent, sniff around and bugger off when it finds no food (as the ranger told me, the worst it can do then is leave a deposit on your sleeping bag, a prospect that, to me, sounded just as bad as having all your food stolen). So, every time I camped, I hoisted my backpack up a tree, well out of the range of the dingoes, who can't jump.
And was I glad I took the precaution. On my second day on the island, I was about to set off from Central Station when I saw a dingo trotting off into the forest, a plastic bag of goodies in its mouth. Following the culprit's tracks backwards, I saw a large tent, its flaps pinned open as suggested. The only problem was that the owners hadn't read the small print, and they'd left everything inside the tent, to which the dingo was slowly helping itself. As I watched, it came back, trotted straight into the tent, and after a bit of investigation, obviously decided that a litre carton of milk constituted food, so, jaws clamped round the prize, it started walking off to the forest, leaving a trail of milk behind it. I fully assumed that by the time the owners got back from their day's walk, all they would find would be an empty tent with a puddle of milk in one corner. It served them right, unfortunately.
Into the Bush
I decided to take the walking as it came, and headed south from Central Station and through the centre of the island to the first of the many freshwater lakes that dominate the geography of Fraser Island. The walk took me through more gum forest, with patches of rainforest, and I discovered a tree that was new to me, the scribbly gum. Like most gum trees the trunk is pure white, but the scribbly gum gets its names from the zigzag shapes all over its trunk, formed by burrowing insects. On first inspection it looks like some artistic vandal has come along with a sharp knife and scribbled on the trunks, in much the same pattern as you make when trying to get a stubborn biro to work, but after a while you notice the variety in the work, and it's quite hypnotic. Combined with hiker's high – a condition that combines the exhaustion of hiking with the meditative hypnotic effect of regular plod-plod-plod, and which sends you off into a whole new plane of thought as you trudge through the bush – it proved quite a pleasant experience.
I arrived at Lake Benaroon after a fairly quick and stress-free 7km walk, passing pretty Lake Birrabeen on the way, and decided to stay the night in the hiker's campsite next to the lake. I collected a sizable pile of wood for a fire, relaxed on the beach – by definition, every shoreline in Fraser is a beach, with beautiful white sandy foreshores and dune systems to die for – and lit the fire at about 4pm, ready to reduce the flames to glowing coals in time to cook my tea. It was lining up to be the perfect night.
My companions in the campsite, a Swiss couple, turned up just before dark, and we nattered away as darkness fell and I munched my way through my billy of rice. And that's when the rain started. I'd spent so much time collecting wood and creating the perfect campfire that I was buggered if I was going to retreat to my tent – which wasn't any drier than standing in the rain anyway, as I'd found out in Hinchinbrook – so I fished out my umbrella and sat by the fire, staying perfectly dry and quite warm, thank you very much.
It was at that time, in the perfect darkness, that a couple stumbled into the campsite. They couldn't quite believe it; after a long struggle through the rainforest they had arrived at the southern end of the lake, only to find it was pissing it down (you tend not to notice things like that when the forest canopy is protecting you) and that they still had to find the campsite. And then they found it; and lo and behold, there's someone sitting there, tending a good-looking fire and sheltering under an umbrella. In all their days of tramping, Jenni and George from Melbourne had seen nothing quite like it, and we got on like a house on fire, as they thought I was a real bush character with my billy, fire and unconventional means of staying dry.
The umbrella didn't just prove useful round the fire. By the time I got into my tent, the rain had just settled in for a long stay, and before long the same old story of sleeping in a puddle and getting dripped on all night raised its ugly head. On Hinchinbrook I had simply ducked into my sleeping bag and put up with it, but I had umbrella on the brain, and I realised there was a solution to my problem: put the umbrella up inside the tent. It worked a treat, with the umbrella protecting my head, and my waterproof jacket draped over my legs. It was almost comfortable.
Day 3: Perched Lakes
Day 3 awoke by turning over, splashing into the puddle pooled on either side of my roll mat, and realising that the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Like every challenging bush experience, there's the sunny spell after the storm, and I swear I was high on life as I draped my belongings out on the tea trees strung along the shores of Benaroon. You get wet, but you dry out, and the secret of the plastic bag saved most of my belongings from a fate worse than drowning; the Swiss couple, however, hadn't been so lucky, as a dingo had come along at four in the morning and ripped a hole in their tent, looking for food, and I counted myself lucky that he hadn't decided to rip a hole in mine. Not that it would have made any difference to the general effectiveness of the bloody thing anyway...
The sun, coupled with the clear breezes you get after a stormy night, made the day ripe for walking. The first two days had served to warm up the muscles a bit, and on day 3 I took off with a spring in my step, still heading south. As trees crashed to the ground around me, losing branches that the storm had broken off the night before, I walked through more forest to Lake Boomanjin, the world's largest perched lake.
According to the blurb, a perched lake is formed when a saucer-shaped 'hard pad' of bonded mud, sand, rock and peat forms in a depression between sand dunes, and water collects there; at 200 hectares, Boomanjin is the biggest in the world. There's no doubt that it's a wonderful sight, which is why this was the site for the filming of the 1970s flick Eliza Fraser. A quick history lesson might be in order; in 1836 the brig Stirling Castle, commanded by Captain James Fraser, went down 300km north of Fraser Island, and the survivors made their way to Fraser Island. Among them was Eliza Fraser, the captain's wife, who managed to stay alive on the island until help came (unlike her husband, who died). In an entrepreneurial spirit not so common then but ubiquitous now, she wrote a book about her experiences, which became a best seller and ensured that the name Fraser Island stuck. Anyway, the film of the book was made at Lake Boomanjin, so now you know.
The lake area was eerie. Odd tannin-stained water trickled into the lake across the sand-flats, and the wind whistled spookily across the plains. As the sun scorched the sand and made the air shimmer gently in the distance, it reminded me of the opening and closing scenes of High Plains Drifter, when Clint appears riding on horseback, ready to play his game of revenge on the town that stood idly by while he was murdered in the main street. The only things missing were tumbleweed and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
After a brief lunch stop, I changed direction and followed the track out towards the beach, walking through more scribbly gum forests towards the east. Every hill I crested I'd get a tantalising glimpse of the sea in the distance, but water being water, it's impossible to tell how far away it is unless you have a reference point like surf or a ship... but I was in no hurry. The wind was playing tricks, too; forest walking is anything but quiet, and when the wind gets up in the canopy, it sounds like the sea, a motorway and a freshwater stream all piled into one. But when you finally hear the sea, it's unmistakable, and bursting out onto Seventy-Five Mile Beach down at Dilli Village (a fancy name for one of the commercial campgrounds) was an experience, believe me.
Seventy-Five Mile Beach
Going from closed canopy to a beach that stretches as far as the eye can see is a shock. The beach is very flat – when the tide goes out, it goes out a long way – and the sea is violent, to say the least (you don't swim off the east coast of Fraser Island, because if the rip tide doesn't get you, the sharks will). My walk had changed from beautiful bush to breathtaking beach, and it's this sort of contrast that makes Fraser Island such a great place for walking.
That night I camped 3km south of the village of Eurong, out on the eastern beach. My feet were in serious pain – 21.5km in a day with a still very heavy pack is hard yakka in anyone's book – but worst of all I had an area of raw skin in my left heel. Blisters I can handle, but when the sand gets down your socks and rubs the skin raw, you're in trouble. The problem is that the combination of hiker's high and a higher exertion rate kills the feeling of pain while you're exercising; we've all experienced the pain of stopping during a long walk and having the feeling seep back into your feet, and when I finally stopped to camp, I felt my feet for the first time that day. God, they hurt.
Camping on the beach, though, was something special. You can camp almost anywhere in the dunes along Seventy-Five Mile Beach, and pitching the tent between the small front dune and the larger secondary one meant I was protected from both sea breezes (easterlies) and land winds (westerlies), but there was enough breeze getting through to prevent dewfall. The sound of the surf and the total lack of people (if you ignore the 4WDs ploughing up and down the beach, which tend to stop at nightfall anyway) made for perfect bush camping.
Day 4: Beer on the Beach
Walking on the beach was easier than I had anticipated. Luckily, when the tide's out, there's plenty of firm sand near the surf where you can walk at a regular, easy pace, something that isn't possible in dune walking (dune walking being a complete nightmare, in anyone's book). I'd made good time on the beach on the previous day, but as day 4 broke, my feet were still in a bad way.
Despite this, I resolved to head north some 27.5km to Eli Creek, the point I'd decided would be the furthest north I'd reach on the beach. Walking was pure agony, and after 14.5km I was still plodding along, thoroughly enjoying the scenery and the environment, but concerned that I was going to do some permanent damage to my feet by pushing on too far. Every stop made them hurt more, but not stopping did more damage, so what to do? That's when I heard a voice from a bunch of Utes parked on the beach shouting, 'Hey mate! Fancy a beer?' God moves in mysterious ways, and that day he came down to earth as a group of fishermen.
Fraser Island is chocka with fishermen, all going for the big catch by surf casting off the beach. I was pleased to note that their idea of surf casting was much the same as mine had been back in Whatipu, except my introduction had been via vodka and coke, and theirs was via XXXX. That stubby was probably the most enjoyable drink I've ever quaffed, and as they forced another can1 on me, the conversation flowed between me and the ten-or-so full-on Aussie blokes who were heading north for ten days' fishing like there was no tomorrow, which was quite a possibility given the way the two beers went straight to my head. Not surprisingly, when they offered me a lift to Eli Creek, I jumped at the bait like a suicidal whiting, and twenty minutes later my walking was over for the day. As I left the fishermen behind, them chugging into another round of stubbies, they called after me, 'When you write an article about us, tell 'em we love Poms, but don't tell 'em about Fraser Island. We want it all to ourselves, eh!' As another convoy of 4WDs ploughed past us, I couldn't help feeling that for Fraser Island it was already too late.
Eli Creek, the biggest freshwater creek on the east coast of Fraser, is just amazing. Every hour of every day it pours over four million litres of water into the sea, and the water's been so filtered by sand that it's about as pure as any mineral water you'll find in a bottle. Jumping into the creek and coasting down it to the beach is a pretty damn fine way to round off a day of beach slogging, and camping just down from the creek proved another delightful experience.
Day 5: Waves, Wrecks and Dunes
I designated day 5 as a rest day, both because I had planned for an extra day to spend somewhere good, and because my feet were quite, quite buggered. Despite it being a rest day, I wandered north up the beach for some 6.5km, but this time without a pack, and without shoes; it was then that I realised the best way to walk on the beach is with what the Aussies call 'beach shoes': bare feet.
As I walked along the beach, burden-free, I really began to appreciate the beach for what it was. The sights were strange to behold: fishermen down at the low tidemark, dragging a rotting fish head round and round on the sand, enticing worms to the surface which they then grabbed round the back of the neck and dropped in a bucket for bait; couples digging holes in the sand for pipis, little triangular shellfish who dig into the sand, leaving a tell-tale and fatal little mound on the surface that enables fishermen to dig them up for bait; and, of course, there was the sea itself.
It has character, the sea. Since time immemorial authors have waxed lyrical about the sea (myself included), but they always talk about the ocean, the realm of Poseidon, the storms and the swells. But what I discovered on the beach on day 5 was the spectator sport that is Wave Watching, and it's right up there with synchronised swimming for raw emotion and power. After wandering the beach for days, I discovered six types of wave, each with its own crowd-pleasing characteristics and judge-tickling merits. The idea of Wave Watching is to try to guess the type of wave, with extra points if they go a long way up the beach.
First up is the Normal Wave, the one that everyone is familiar with. Its approach to the beach is good, its speed constant, and it breaks harmlessly and gracefully on the waterline to a polite ripple of applause from the crowd. Not one of life's achievers, the Normal Wave is the mainstay of the Wave Watching scene.
Next up is the Leaping Wave. As a Normal Wave breaks on the beach, the Leaping Wave rolls in from behind, leaping over the stranded Normal Wave and making it all the way to the waterline and, sometimes, beyond, filling up any new 4WD tracks and breaking all previous records. The crowd loves it, the TV companies thrill to the escalating viewing figures, and if you're not careful you'll get soaked.
Type three is the Big Bastard Wave, one of the all time favourites, but a rare sight. Breaking with foam flecking and sand booming, the Big Bastard doesn't necessarily make it a long way up the beach – in fact, he quite often performs quite poorly in this respect – but he's impressive, and the crowd is on its feet.
More common is the Stationary Wave. He's coming up the beach, preparing to break that waterline, and he meets another wave sliding back down the beach, taking the track out from underneath him. The result? He just sits there, not going forwards, not going backwards. It's a disappointment, but it's all in the timing, and some waves have it, and some don't. Actually, the Stationary Wave is my favourite, because you can walk along it and get a free foot spa without the groin-soaking experience of a Leaping Wave.
The Backwards Wave is a real let down; like the Stationary Wave, he meets another wave coming backwards, but this time the sliding wave is a big one, and the new wave ends up being swept out to sea, actually breaking backwards. Still, every sport has its losers otherwise you couldn't have winners.
The final category, the Head-on Wave, is one of life's bittersweet stories. After weeks, months, maybe even years of being built up by offshore winds, this wave is full of confidence and energy as he bounds up to the beach. Will he be a Big Bastard? Or maybe he'll be lucky enough to be a Leaping Wave? But fate deals him a cruel hand; instead of finding a nice, smooth beach to break on, he meets head-on the freshwater Canute that is Eli Creek, and he's got no chance. Four million litres an hour smash him back, and after all the preparation all the Head-on Wave can do is foam at the mouth. Eli wins every time, but the crowd loves a trier, and that's what counts.
About 3.5km north of Eli Creek lies the wreck of the Maheno. The Maheno was a luxury passenger ship that was sold off to the Japanese for scrap in 1935, but as it was being towed north towards its new home, a cyclone blew it onto the beach on Fraser Island where it still rests and rusts today. It's a weird sight that you can see for a good hour's walk to the north and south, and at low tide you can get right up to the wreck and, if you ignore the warning signs, walk round inside it.
The fishermen who had plied me with beer had their own wonderful take on events. They reckoned that the Japs beached the wreck intentionally so that they could then send people over to try to salvage it, and at the same time make maps of the area in preparation for an invasion in the war they knew was going to happen. This wonderful conspiracy theory was apparently backed up by the fact that 'the Japs had better maps of the east coast of Fraser Island than the Aussies during the war', a titbit that would be interesting to confirm or disprove. Still, one of the boys made a good point. 'It's not fuckin' hard to make a fuckin' map of this fuckin' beach,' he said so eloquently. 'It's just a big fuckin' straight line with a couple of fuckin' curves at each end.'
'Bloody oath,' I muttered in agreement, as I raised my wide-mouthed can to the sky. Sometimes you can't beat the Aussie bloke for perception and articulation, so why try?
A couple of kilometres north of the Maheno are the Pinnacles, the northernmost point that I reached on the island. As a destination, if a tramp such as this can be said to have a destination, the Pinnacles were a marvel. Fraser Island is world famous not only for its fairly unique environment – rainforest thriving on nothing but sand – but also for its actual sand, which has built up over such a long time that it gives geologists the same feelings that Pirelli calendars give car mechanics. For these reasons Fraser Island is a World Heritage area2 and the layered coloured sands of the Pinnacles are a vivid reminder of its deserved standing among natural phenomena. Imagine a combination of Purnululu and Nambung, and you're not far off the rainbow-coloured spires of the Pinnacles; stick in a blue sky peppered with surreal cloud formations, and it's a postcard photographer's delight, and a worthy and fitting destination for my rest day's walk.
The Pinnacles have a lovely Dreaming story associated with them, too. The Butchulla people, the Aboriginal inhabitants of Fraser Island, who call Fraser Island k'gari (pronounced 'gurri'), tell of a girl who left her man to go off with the rainbow man. Now the disgruntled jilted lover was a bit of a hero when it came to using the boomerang and spear, and he decided to hunt down his ex and kill her, for shaming him. He eventually found her on k'gari and threw his boomerang at her. The rainbow man, however, threw himself in front of her in an act of selfless love, and the boomerang hit him and shattered him into a million pieces that fell onto the dunes of k'gari. And that's why the sands of Fraser Island are coloured, whatever the geologists say.
Day 6: Back Down the Beach
After spending the remainder of my rest day watching tourists at Eli Creek and planes landing and taking off on the beach (it's not lonely on the beach at Fraser, I can tell you), I turned in early in preparation for a long old walk back down the beach. Day 6 started with a 7.30am dip in Eli Creek – a refreshing experience with no tourists around and morning birdsong erupting round me – and before long I'd struck camp and started wandering south, this time wearing only my beach shoes. My feet had benefited hugely from a day without hiking boots, and the walking was tiring but easy enough, and to my surprise I got to Rainbow Gorge, the halfway point, by mid-morning.
Rainbow Gorge, which I'd bypassed by getting a lift with the fishermen, also contained examples of coloured sand, but after the Pinnacles it visibly paled. However the 2.5km walking track round the area passed through the Kirral sandblow, and yet again Fraser Island surprised me with its natural beauty. Not since the moonscape of Tongariro had I seen such desolate landscape, with miles of sand blown into Sahara-esque dunes and mountains. Kirral lived up to its name – the wind howled down the valley, filling my eyes, ears and various other crevices with sand – but it added a real atmosphere to the place as it whistled through the cypress pines. Not since Wave Rock has the wind felt so aboriginal and primeval...
That night, after a fairly uneventful but thoroughly enjoyable wander down the beach for 25km, I camped just south of where the track ducked back into the middle of the island. The stars on the beach that night were quite stunning, with not a cloud in the sky.
Day 7: Inland Lakes and Diana
Day 7, the last full day, arrived after I'd slept the sleep of the dead. Heading inland towards the west, I arrived at Lake Wabby at 8am, a time well before the arrival of any tourists. Lake Wabby is an interesting place; it's the deepest lake on the island, and it's slowly being encroached by a massive sandblow that's moving about three metres a year into the lake. It's a serene place, with its green water and surrounding forest, and after a refreshing stop, I struck into the forest, heading to Lake McKenzie, which I reached without further ado after some 14km.
Lake McKenzie is idyllic, with crystal clear blue water, white sandy banks and a lovely camping ground nearby, and having set up camp and secured my pack out of reach of the dingoes, I made my way down for a swim and some people-watching at the lake's edge. McKenzie is one of the most popular tourist spots on the island, and watching the ill-informed day trippers get towels and thongs stolen by the prowling dingoes was fun in itself, especially as the rangers had made every effort to warn people not to leave anything around by putting up big signs plastered on all the pathways. Then there was the Irish couple; the man dived straight into the icy water, but the girl got up to her waist and refused to budge any further, despite about half an hour of good natured cajoling by her boyfriend. I even heard the Aussies sitting next to me taking bets on whether she'd go in (she didn't) and whether she'd put her head under (she didn't). Humans are a wonderful species, but I wouldn't want to own one.
That night I had one other camper in the hiker's area with me, dreadlocked Vince from Malvern, who turned out to be a wonderful person. As he unfurled the story of his travels, I had déjà vu after déjà vu as he described exactly the same experiences as had befallen me. Nice job (computer graphic designer), nice life, got bored, spent a few months saving, sold everything and bought a one-way ticket to Sydney, bought a cheap car and set off round Australia to explore, would have a year in Oz and six months in Godzone and then who knows... sound familiar? We lit a fire and boiled up the billy – my first attempt saw a charred log collapse, tipping the billy of water all in the fire, creating clouds of ash and a desperately sullen fire, not a recommended course of action – and yarned the night away.
And as you do, we got onto the subject of our respective jobs and how we liked or disliked them. I told him how I preferred magazine work to newspaper work because there's more time to do a good job and, besides, on a no-news day, newspapers will publish any old crap just to fill the columns. 'Well,' said Vince, 'they've got plenty to write about now, eh!'
'Whaddya mean?' I said.
'Shit, you won't have heard,' he said. 'Princess Di's dead.'
'Yeah, nice one Vince!' I replied.
'No, I'm serious,' he said. 'Car crash in Paris. Happened a few days ago...'
Amazing. It had happened on Saturday and I only found out on Wednesday night. After the news saturation it got in Australia, I must have been the only person in the whole country who didn't know. As they say, 'unless you've been on another planet, you'll know that...' Another version is 'unless you've been bush, you'll know that...' It quite blew my mind to be reminded so vividly just how cut off I'd been for a week.
Day 8: Back to Hervey Bay
The next day, day 8 and the last day of my trip to k'gari, I donated my crappy cooker and crusty billy to Vince, who needed it more than me and promised to give them a good home; and after a dip in Lake McKenzie, I wound my way through the bush to Basin Lake, and from there out to the ferry terminal. There I sweet-talked a Sydney couple into giving me a lift from the ferry to Hervey Bay, which they gladly did, and as I nursed my feet after their 110km of walking, I showered, washed my clothes and sunk back into the luxuries of the western world.
Fraser Island was one of the most beautiful walking experiences I've ever had, and I'm glad I didn't let the 4WD tourist façade put me off. It's almost always possible to get off the beaten track and see a lot more of a place than the tourists will see, and although it's fun to take three days hooning round the island in a grunting Land Cruiser, it's much more satisfying to do it properly and by foot. Shades of Uluru here, I think...
1 Only in Australia could this happen. Castlemaine, brewers of XXXX, the main beer in Queensland, have just come up with the next marketing coup in beer consumerism. Aware that Australians plough through cans of beer like a steroid-fuelled bull in a Wedgwood store, they've come up with the ultimate drink-delivery system, the wide-mouthed can. Research obviously showed that conventional can technology didn't enable beer to be poured down the throat as quickly as desired, so XXXX cans now come with a double-sized hole in the top, so a can can be downed in half the time it used to take. Sceptical, I tried my first wide-mouthed can on Seventy-Five Mile Beach, and it worked; surely the fact that the beer disappeared quicker than ever before had nothing to do with the fact that I'd walked 14.5km down a burning beach. Another great Aussie invention.
2 World Heritage areas, like the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids, are protected for future generations to enjoy by the United Nations World Heritage Committee; they are deemed to be places that, if altered, would be an irreplaceable loss to the planet. Australia is particularly rich in World Heritage sites; there's the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, Uluru, Tasmania's western wilderness, the wet tropics of northern Queensland, Shark Bay, Fraser Island, Lord Howe Island and the Willandra Lakes.