4wd adventure on Fraser Island
by Nigel A Pilkington
Getting up at 5.45am on any winter morning can be a struggle, but when you’re on holiday it’s even harder. That is unless you’re planning to take a 4WD adventure tour of the world’s largest sand dune – Fraser Island.
Poking around the internet before my trip, I found that Fraser Island was called K’gari by its Aboriginal inhabitants, meaning “paradise”, and has shown evidence of Aboriginal occupation of at least 5,000 years. It’s a giant sand island famous for its dingoes, wildlife, native birds, rainforests, creeks, lakes, fishing, and scenery. Located at the top of the Sunshine Coast, approx 90 minutes drive north of Brisbane International Airport, the island is World Heritage listed and ranks alongside other precious areas of Australia, including Uluru Kata Tjata (Ayers Rock) and the Great Barrier Reef.
So it’s out of a warm bed and out into the brisk Sunshine Coast morning to wait for my 4WD adventure to begin. Our tour was with Sunshine Coast based Fraser Island Discovery. Their driver/guide for the day, Rick, has spent the last six odd years travelling in and around Fraser Island, so the usual guide banter was sprinkled with great tit bits and weird and wonderful facts about the ecology, history and social make-up of the region.
My travel companions were a retired couple from Canberra and three young UK adventurers on their OE downunder. Biting my tongue to stop the obvious “A Kiwi, a Pom and an Aussie in a bar” joke, I settled in for the run north from Noosa through 4WD sections of the Great Sandy National Park to the small seaside town of Rainbow Beach, the southern gateway to Fraser Island. Here, after a warm dose of caffeine, pink champagne and yummy bits and pieces to quieten the rumbling tummies, we boarded one of the vehicle ferries for the short 10-minute ride across the strait to the southern end of the island.
The Strait teems with wildlife and we had the good fortune to be accompanied by a pod of playful dolphin that put on a display of aerobatics and kamikaze dives and swerves around the bow.
Our real 4WD experience started as soon as we hit the beach with a run up Seventy Five Mile Beach that forms the “weather” side of the island. With the tide still a little high, and drift wood scattered along the shore from a recent storm, we had to weave our way along while playing “King Canute” with the waves. S
eventy Five Mile Beach is in fact a designated highway where 4WD vehicles share the beach with Air Fraser flights taking off and landing as part of their tourist flight program. It is, of course, a great spot to try and sight whales as they migrate north from the Southern Ocean to the warm waters off Hervey Bay to the north of the island. Our whale watching skills weren’t up to scratch, and not helped by the biggish surf running along the coast, not to mention our constant looking inland aiming to be the first to spot one of the more famous “local inhabitants’” of the island – the dingo. A native of the island, the dingo is one of the only species that has not been too worried by the encroachment of man and in fact has thrived, if one takes any notice of warning signs everywhere advising visitors to keep their distance and certainly not to try and feed them. While the poor old dingo has been given a bad rap over the years, you have to admire the resilience of the dog that literally accompanied the first Asian explorers from Indonesia to Northern Australia some 10,000 plus years ago. They are a beautiful animal when seen in the wild and, by the looks of the ones roaming around Fraser they seem to love the environment.
Turning inland off the beach at Eurong, we wound our way through true 4WD territory along deep sandy tracks and amazing rainforest towards Central Station. It was hard to believe we are driving on a “sand dune”. Rick reckons that Fraser Island is the only place in the world where tall rainforests are found growing on sand dunes at elevations of over 200m.
Central Station is in the heart of the rainforest and is so named because it was the central Forestry Department station from 1920 to 1959 and is now one of the most popular scenic areas on the island. There’s a small museum detailing the timber industry that didn’t completely stop until Fraser Island attained its World Heritage Listing in December 1992. Surrounding the station are giant Kauri trees, not dissimilar to our own Kauri. Their straight trunks with branches limited only to their tops made them highly prized for masts for ships during the days of sail. ??Forests like this remain one of the island’s most controversial features. Though the island was heavily logged, large areas of satinays and brush box still remain. Pile Valley, between Central Station and Lake McKenzie, where much of the logging took place, now has some of the tallest trees. Greenies might be loathed to admit it, but the selective logging previously practised on Fraser seems actually to have improved the forests on the island!
It’s just past Central Station that we get out and enjoy the fresh air and take a 30 minute walk along the banks of the Wanggoolba Creek. Here magnificent trees, huge kauri, rough barked satinay, brush box, hundreds of airy Piccabeen palms and many more push upwards towards the sun. They are so dense in places that light does not penetrate their canopy. The water in the creek is so clear that the only way to see it is when it tumbles over branches and ledges.
Birds fill the trees and we come across that other Aussie icon, the Kookaburra. Rick tells us they are really just overgrown kingfishers – noisy, nosey – and, we all add, just like an Aussie – always having something to say!
Onto Lake McKenzie – to our own private area to enjoy a gourmet lunch and a chance to swim in the crystal clear waters. The lake covers more than 150 hectares and is over 8m in depth. Perched high in a sand dune at 100m above sea level, it’s surrounded by sandy beaches so white they hurt the eyes. Rick chirps up and tells us the water temperature is “tolerable” for swimming at this time of year, yet the screeches and squawks of northern Europeans on other tours tell us otherwise!
The lake is one of a number that dot the island, with each having its own unique environment, including a black water perched lake. ??Mid-afternoon sees us bump along the sandy tracks back to Seventy Five Mile Beach for a run back to the ferry and a drive south along the coast to Rainbow Beach and Double Island with it’s old lighthouse, magnificent views and the chance to catch sight of pods of whales lurking off the coast.
Rainbow Beach gets its name from the multi-coloured cliffs that form the backdrop. They display layers of golds, reds, browns and yellows, and gleam in the afternoon sun, making them look more like an Andy Warhol painting than your normal cliff face. The beach is a hive of 4WD activity with many of the locals out for a Saturday drive or fish along the coast.
As dusk starts to fall we find ourselves on Forty Mile Beach (don’t you just love they way Aussies name things!) moving south towards Noosa. Once again I am amazed by the dozens of campers and fishers along the way – all enjoying the mild weather and getting their fill of big nature…you kind of have to agree with them when they call it the “lucky country”. It’s a very tired but happy camper who bids farewell to his travelling companions and vows to return and spend more time exploring and playing in the world’s biggest sand dune.
You can access Fraser Island via Rainbow Beach (4wD only). Your best option is to stay in Noosa and access the island via one of the tour operators. A permit is required if you wish to hire and take your own 4wD.
WHERE TO STAY:
In Noosa or, for those looking to spend longer on Fraser Island, there are a number of resorts and lodges, including world famous King Fisher Bay resort.
WHAT TO DO & SEE:
Whale / Dolphin watching