It was hard to believe, but almost two years had passed since I first landed in Brisbane on a Working Holiday Visa, intending to spend just “a few months” in Australia. It was time to ditch the “Working” part of the visa and have one last adventure before my time in the country was up, and this time I had my sights set on travelling up Queensland’s coast, starting in Brisbane, and ending up in the tropical rainforest in the north.
For my first stop, I hopped on the Greyhound bus to make the five-hour journey to Rainbow Beach, from where I could depart for Fraser Island. The world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island appears on every East Coast traveller’s itinerary; many backpackers whom I’d met during my time in Australia raved about it as being the highlight of their whole trip, so I decided to go and see it for myself.
With the whole island being made of sand, there is little to none by way of paved roads on Fraser; to get around you need to drive along the beach, meaning that you need a vehicle with a four-wheel drive. Your options are to rent a suitable vehicle and make the trip independently, to join a “tag-along” tour offered by the local hostels (whereby a guide leads the way in the front car, and guests are grouped into cars to follow, with someone having to volunteer to drive), or to join a tour group. Given my nervousness about regular driving, I certainly wasn’t going to be taking myself around the island, and I also wasn’t keen on putting my life in the hands of a random backpacker, so the tour bus was the obvious choice for me. There are many different day and multi-day options available (please do consider these if you’re not an extremely confident driver – accidents do happen on a fairly regular basis due to visitors over-estimating their ability to navigate the sand). Several of my friends recommended Cool Dingo Tours, a company offering two and three day trips aimed at the 18-35 budget traveller crowd, so I booked myself onto the two day/one night version, and was picked up bright and early from Rainbow Beach one morning.
From Inskip Point it’s a twenty-minute trip across the water on a simple barge-style vehicle ferry to reach Fraser Island. The first stop of the day was Lake Mckenzie, famous for its clear waters. One of forty “perched lakes” on the island (which in turn total half of the full number of such lakes found on our planet), it sits above the water table, meaning that it is comprised solely of pure rainwater. I had been somewhat sceptical of the idea of swimming in the morning; it was the end of winter, and when we set out from Rainbow Beach, there was still a crispness in the early morning air which required leggings and a hoodie to be worn, but by the time we’d stopped for a coffee break at a local hotel and reached Lake McKenzie, the sun was out and it was warm enough to strip down to bathers. The same cannot be said for the crystal waters of the lake; it was as a beautiful swimming spot, but absolutely freezing! Given the nature of the lake, with nowhere for water to run in or out, it is very much at risk of pollutants, and so great care is taken to ensure that it remains pristine, with visitors asked to not even wear sunscreen whilst in the water. I was pleased to see that, despite the large number of tourists there, the lake appeared to be in fabulous shape, so people are obviously paying attention. After a bracing dip, there was time to lie out on the chalk-white sand and bask in the morning rays.
After a wholesome picnic buffet lunch provided by Roy, our tour guide – wraps, plenty of fresh veggies, and some cheese and ham for the omnivores – up in a pleasant eating area (away from Lake McKenzie so as not to pollute the fresh water) where we watched big fat lizards chilling out in the shade, we were off to our next stop, Central Station.
With the lack of roads on Fraser Island, the journey from spot to spot is unpredictable, and it takes a lot longer to cover ground than the same distance would on the mainland. Out on the sand, it’s possible to reach a decent speed – although care must of course be taken to avoid other vehicles, the people set up with their fishing rods at the ocean’s edge, and the incoming waves – but inland, mud, tree branches, snakes, and the sudden appearance of another vehicle in a space where only one can fit sometimes slowed the journey down. It was neverendingly bumpy, regardless of which surface we were driving on; I was expecting this, but hadn’t quite realised that we would be constantly bouncing around in our seats (seatbelts are of course a must, and don’t try to take a sip of water from your bottle or snack on anything whilst on the move!). I was immensely glad that I had chosen to entrust the driving to Roy, an experienced guide!
The name “Central Station” brings to mind connotations of trains, crowds and noise, but as you can imagine, this isn’t the case on Fraser Island. In years gone by, this was the location of the main camp for the loggers who used to work here, but nowadays, the industry gone and the area protected by its World Heritage status, it’s a stunning, peaceful spot in the middle of the rainforest. We took in the views and the birdsong as we walked along Wanggoolba Creek in the cool, damp air, before reaching Pile Valley, with its gigantic satinay trees. It was incredible to see a thriving rainforest growing out of the sand; it certainly wasn’t what came to mind for me when I thought about the idea of a sand island.
Our final stop for this afternoon was Basin Lake, another of Fraser Island’s “perched lakes”, for a walk around the perimeter to try to spot some of the turtles which live there; sadly we had no sightings this time, but it was still a lovely location to soak up.
After a sunset viewing of Kingfisher Bay, it was time to head to our home for the night; the lodges at Kingfisher Bay Resort where we were staying in basic but comfortable four-bed dorms, with dinner included (not many vegan options for this one – be prepared for rice and plain steamed veggies for your evening meal for two days!).
Here’s where the tour surprised me; based on my friends’ recommendations and the fact that it was aimed at the 18-35 age group, I was expecting everyone to head to the bar at happy hour, but no one seemed very keen. I’m no party animal these days, but I do like to have a drink and a chat when I’m on tour, as had always happened on the previous tours I’d taken in Australia. Perhaps it was the time of year (shoulder season), or just the particular set of people in the group, but it was only when I stood up and announced that I was going to the bar that a few people came to join for one (literally, one). It wasn’t a huge deal for me, but may be something for others to be aware of – if you want to party, you may have to wait for the resort staff to finish their shifts and join you!
At least we all had clear heads for the early start the next morning; after breakfast, we climbed back onto our big bus to hit Seventy-Five Mile Beach. As the name suggests, this is a very long stretch of sand along the coast, which also doubles as one of the island’s main highways, and a landing strip for the light aircraft which take off from this part of the island (care and attention are therefore very much required when driving on this particular freeeway!). It was a slightly chaotic, but fun and scenic drive up the beach, and we also spotted a few dingoes pattering about on the sand. Fraser Island is famous for its packs of wild dingoes; they look very cute, but they are dangerous, with numerous attacks every year on tourists who have ignored the advice that you see posted all over the island, to keep your distance and to not be on the beach alone. The outcome of these attacks is sadly often a euthanised animal, so please do stay away and observe them from the safety of your vehicle only.
Along the way we were given the chance to go up in one of the aforementioned light aircraft with Air Fraser, who were offering scenic flights over the island at the price of $80, which was much lower than anything I’d ever seen quoted for similar activities elsewhere. I’ve always fancied a trip in one of these planes so I took up the offer, and was soon strapped into a Cessna with those big earphones on my head. We didn’t spot any migrating whales whilst we were soaring over the ocean, but we still enjoyed some fantastic views over the island, spotting the places we’d visited yesterday, and it was a brilliant experience being up in the air.
Feet back on the ground, we headed further up the beach for a photo opportunity at the coloured sand cliffs known as The Pinnacles, before hitting Indian Head, climbing up to the top of the rocks for a brilliant viewpoint over the ocean. Similarly to its less well-known cousin further south, North Stradbroke Island, Fraser Island provides some great opportunities to spot whales during the June to October migration season, and we saw several spouts in the distance, as well as plenty of dolphins playing closer to the coast.
Our next stop was the Champagne Pools: big rock pools, so-called because they appear to bubble as the waves crash in from the ocean. The tide was fairly low so we didn’t witness the full effect, but it was great to strip down and finally have a dip in the ocean water in the pools; it’s not safe to swim in the open water off Fraser Island due to sharks, irukandji jellyfish, and various other critters who call it their home.
Seventy Five Mile Beach is the location of many of Fraser Island’s attractions, so there was still even more to see as we headed back down the sand. Next up was a spot that features prominently in photographs of the island; the Maheno Shipwreck. The SS Maheno has a vibrant history; originally built as a cruise ship running between Australia and New Zealand in the early twentieth century, she became a hospital ship during the First World War, at one point transporting casualties from the disastrous military campaign at Gallipoli. Returning to commercial service after the war ended, she was caught in a cyclone in 1935 and ran aground on Fraser Island. The soft sand made it impossible to refloat the ship, and so her fittings were stripped out, and the rusting wreck remains to this day as an impressive piece of lasting history, now half-buried in the shifting sands.
Further down the beach was our final stop; Eli Creek, a fast-flowing freshwater stream, which is a popular spot to grab a pool inflatable and go for a float down the lazy river to the sand! Roy supplied said inflatables, and this was a lovely (if a little crowded!) way to finish up our trip.
After another Kingfisher Bay sunset and dinner, it was time to depart Fraser Island. Cool Dingo Tours offer the flexible option to start and finish from either Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay, whichever suits your schedule; given I was headed north, it made sense for me to take the ferry over to Hervey Bay, where I stayed for a couple of nights and finally had the chance to go out on a whale-watching boat for the wonderful experience of seeing (and hearing) these beautiful creatures up close.
On reflection, I wish I had chose the three day/two night tour to Fraser Island, as there was still so much more to see. The next evening, in Hervey Bay, I actually bumped into a few people from my group who taken that option, and their photos of Lake Wabby, and of stand-up paddle-boarding on Lake Birrabeen looked fantastic. I wouldn’t say, as so many backpackers do, that Fraser Island was the absolute highlight of my time in Australia (I’d save that accolade for Uluru and exploring the Northern Territory), but it was certainly a brilliant trip, and one that I would suggest is unmissable for anyone travelling the East Coast of Australia.