Never has it been such a relief to have a shower as it was the day we got back from Fraser Island.
We’ve just spent three days on a group tour to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. I don’t think any of us registered the real implications of this.
It was pretty darn sandy.
Nonetheless, we arrived back safely to Hervey Bay, dirty and exhausted, with sand in every orifice, but having had probably the best three days of the trip so far. Visions of a big night out to celebrate our last night together as a group soon faded to dreams of collapsing in front of a film and having an early night. It was wonderful.
Though we knew nobody before the trip, afterwards it felt like we were a large, slightly dysfunctional family. A lot of us are going to be travelling in the same direction for a while, including the Canadians that we met on our Whitsundays tour – who it now feels like we’ve known for months. I think the next couple of weeks are going to feel a bit like a poorly organised family holiday – always with one family member booking into the wrong hotel or getting the dates a bit wrong, but with everyone eventually reuniting again.
Our initial arrival into Hervey Bay was tainted by how sad we were to have left Agnes Water so soon. Though our time there was short, we found the sleepy little town instantly appealing. And the hostel had free tea and coffee, so I could happily have stayed at least another couple of days.
Phea and I took our first surf lesson in Agnes and both managed to stand up, which surprised me so much that I promptly fell over when I stepped off the board. The waves were pretty flat that day, which for the proper surfers was a bummer, but for me made me feel like I could actually get the hang of this surfing lark. I’m sure my confidence will soon plummet when faced with some normal-sized waves, but for now I’m keen to go again. In our group we met some more people from Bradford (shock), one of whom had an uncannily close connection to Phea: his best friend used to live in her house. It really is a very small world.
We had time that evening for a quick walk down to a beach-side viewpoint, which I thought was to watch the sunset, but as it turned out was on the wrong side of town for that to be possible. It was a very pretty place though: the rugged coastline reminded me of Norfolk or Cornwall, and I had one of those bizarre moments when it just didn’t feel like I was on the other side of the world. We took some photos and then headed back to the hostel to do battle with dinner, in the making of which an unfortunate dragonfly met its death on the gas burner (through no fault of ours).
Soon we crashed out and before we knew it it was time to move on. Fraser Island awaited.
We arrived to our hostel some time that afternoon, along with a whole bunch of other people also doing the same tour. It all felt a bit like we were on a school trip, with planned activities and enforced group meetings. At 4pm we had the first of these, with a short explanation of how things were going to work for the next few days (i.e. a bloke reading some information off the same leaflet that we had already been given). We were split into three groups for food shopping and sent on our way (and sneakily managed to get a lift to Woolies, result!).
Inevitably, the food shopping was the most stressful part of the whole experience. Blows were nearly exchanged at the discussion of which spreads we should buy in case we ran out of cheese.
However, we managed to complete the shopping trip without serious injury, and it only came to about $10-15 each. It was very sensible to make snack purchases separately, I think.
Afterwards we had to go back to the hostel and prepare all the veg and some sandwiches for the next day, which we actually did with maximum efficiency. Praise to Phea for suddenly jumping into mum mode and ordering everyone around (politely) to get stuff done.
After meal prep was finished we had still more to do: packing for three days into a teeny tiny bag. You might think that I would be the one to struggle least with this task, but actually Phea managed it in about 40 seconds and I just stood there for half an hour looking from my big bag to my little bag in anguish.
No matter how much I travel, I will always be terrible at packing.
Painful though it was, I did eventually manage it. Almost immediately after that we all slept, in preparation for our 6am checkout the next day. The room soon filled with the rumbling snores of Scott, one of our room mates.
Far too soon, we awoke and stumbled out of bed to sort ourselves out before our trip. Bags had to be stowed in lockers, sleeping bags hired, breakfast eaten. At about 7 we reconvened in the common room for another meeting, this time with some fun and exciting safety videos to watch. The videos clearly hadn’t been updated since about 1996, and I’m not sure how they found people to appear in them but it certainly wasn’t based on their acting merit. They were full of helpful advice such as ‘drive carefully when on sand’ (repeated several times), and ‘don’t pet dingoes’ (as though we were all planning on giving a potentially dangerous wild animal a cuddle).
Next came driving sign up. I’d planned on driving for about two minutes, just to say I’d done it, and then sitting back and enjoying the ride for the rest of the time. However, as the leader went round the group, it soon became obvious that I might have to drive a bit more than that. There were only about ten of us over 21 in the whole group, which is one of the criteria for driving a 4wd on Fraser — so I sort of had the decision made for me.
We also soon discovered that Canadians all drive automatics – so they couldn’t drive either.
Luckily we’d formed a group with two other English girls, both happy to drive, so after the first day I very much handed over the reigns to them.
After the safety videos, instructions were fairly minimal. I somehow ended up driving first, and it was pretty much a case of ‘get in the car and off you go’. Tom, the guy in charge of our trip, wasn’t the best at giving instructions, nor providing information. We really had no idea how far it was to the ferry, nor what we were doing once we arrived to the island. Tom also had a tendency to interpret any questions he was asked in a way that meant you were almost guaranteed not to get the answer you were looking for. But despite his flaws, we all loved him anyway.
The ferry wasn’t too far away, as it turned out, and though there was a slight mishap involving the handbrake being left on until an acrid burning smell alerted us to the fact, we made it safely aboard.
Driving the jeep was a little bit reminiscent of driving a large boat. I’ve only ever driven tiny hatchback cars before, so it was a bit unnerving being so high up and with so much car all around me. My proudest moment when I successfully managed to reverse the barge down the ramp to the ferry without driving off into the sea.
Once we got to Fraser, though, I was very quick to hand over driving to Tess. After that I pretty much didn’t drive any more. Driving in sand is difficult. Ella and Tess were much better at it than me.
We arrived to camp that afternoon after visiting an incredible lake hidden among the sand dunes. Though it was a forty minute walk from where we parked, it was so worth it.
Tom declined to make the walk with us. He stayed to ‘look after the cars’ (yeah, sure Tom).
We all swam and splashed around for a while, before getting unnerved by the fish that kept nibbling away at us and getting out. I didn’t realise at this point that those fish are the same ones you get in spa places, which eat all the dead skin off your feet and make them squeaky clean. I definitely could have done with staying in a bit longer.
After we’d had our fill of swimming and sunbathing (and had our first taste of the icky feeling of sand and sun cream being everywhere, all the time), we headed back to the 4x4s and headed to our new home.
Thankfully Phea had been tipped off by a girl in Agnes Water about what the camp would look like. When we were sold the tour it sounded like we’d be staying in cabins, with basic but serviceable facilities. What we actually had was tents, with a roll mat on the floor, with a portaloo but no shower. Imagine if Phea hadn’t known in advance that there was going to be no shower. I think she would have left the same day.
In the end the lack of facilities mattered little. We swam in fresh water every day and we just had the best time so we didn’t really mind being gross all that much. Sand got everywhere and stayed everywhere, so I soon stopped caring.
Phea still had a small heart attack every time sand got on her towel, though. Man, she really hates sand.
Aaaanyway. The evening was filled with dinner preparations and, as is inevitable when you bring a large group of young people together, inebriation. We also had some vague idea that if we were drunk it might be easier to fall asleep on the cold hard ground (it wasn’t). But watching the stars while slightly intoxicated was pretty incredible. There’s no light pollution on Fraser, so you can see a whole universe of stars you’ve never seen before.
The next day was filled with driving and sightseeing. The beach on Fraser Island is called 75-mile beach, just to give you an idea of the scale of the place. It very much puts 4-mile beach in Port Douglas to shame. It’s a bit of a bizarre place, Fraser Island. Driving on a beach is one thing, but having a sort of highway on one is a whole other kettle of fish. There are rules and rights of way on this beach. There’s even a runway.
We had more and more fun the longer we spent in the car. Before long Phea’s cheesy playlist was cracked out and we were almost having a better time in the car than visiting the island’s many sights.
For the most part the driving was easy, but along the way there were a couple of hairy moments. There was never much instruction on how best to drive in soft sand (hard sand, or through water). None of us had ever done any of these things before. So we pretty much all just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. I felt fairly close to death on our first encounter with water, where our best advice for Ella was pretty much ‘just try’, so off we went at top speed, through the water and up the 45 degree slope. But apart from that it was smooth sailing. After all, as the trusty safety video told us, ‘slow is safe’.
That second day we spotted turtles and stingrays, sunbathed alongside a giant rockpool, floated down a natural lazy river and visited a shipwreck. The lazy river had maybe been hyped up too much: it was a bit too shallow to actually float down and we kept scraping our arses along the bottom. Like a sort of budget Centre Parcs where they hadn’t filled the water up quite high enough. Although fair enough, because this one was made by nature.
The best moment of the day was when we were driving back to camp and out of the window, out of nowhere, we saw a huge whale fully leap into the air. It was probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen: the stuff of David Attenborough documentaries, not real life. We were speechless. (Phea was beside herself.)
That evening saw more of the same (drinking and eating), and then all of a sudden it was our last day. We had to pack up camp and sort ourselves out for the day, all before 8am, so it was a bit of a scramble to get going. Typically, as the weather seems to follow us, it was raining, which made everything that little bit more difficult. We basically cut all our sightseeing that day short because it was cold and wet, and skipped ahead to the final stop where at least we could be dry, if not warm.
We still stopped off at the famous Lake Mackenzie, though. It wasn’t quite as clear blue and sparkling as it usually is, but actually the temperature in the water was higher than that of the air outside, so quite a few of us went in anyway, despite the potential risk of pneumonia after we got out. The temperature difference caused a layer of steam to rise off the surface of the water, shrouding the lake in a haze. It was actually kind of beautiful there despite the terrible weather.
Still, once we got a bit cold we had almost instantaneous regret at our decision to get in the water. In one unified movement, we all started to run out of the lake, grabbed our clothes and sprinted off towards the jeeps. Even once we were changed back into clothes, we still couldn’t get rid of the chill. I was cold until after we’d got all the way back to the hostel and I’d showered, despite the fact that I had put on every item of clothing I’d brought with me.
It was a bit of a delirious afternoon, all told. Usually tour groups spend all morning sunbathing and relaxing at Lake Mackenzie, rather than a quick ten minute dip and a sprint to the changing rooms. We weren’t due to get the ferry until half past one, so we had ages to just sit around and try to warm up in the resort. It was like we were being taunted by all the facilities there: showers and toilets (plural!) and a restaurant; tarmacked road and wooden flooring. We had a tent on the ground in the sand. Luckily we were all too tired to care.
Eventually the hour came for us to leave, so we all piled back into the vehicles and crawled our way onto the ferry, and homewards. The drive back passed in a blur: our excitement at the thought of a shower and a real bed was palpable. Perhaps even more exciting was the thought of the fish and chips that we’d already planned to get on the night of our return. It lived up to expectations, too.
After we were clean and warm again, the whole family curled up to watch a film together (the hostel had a full-on cinema room, it was amazing), and the Fraser trip was brought to a close.
It was my favourite three days of my time in Australia so far. Exhausting and a little bit gross though it was, it was the best group of people we’ve been with so far, and even now days later our group still haven’t parted. I don’t know what we’ll do when we have to go back to just being our little trio again!
But that’s a story for another blog post. Next time: getting lost in Noosa National Park and a stressful departure for Brisbane!