Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I Wonder If I'll Ever Go Back There Again?

The island is made entirely of sand.

You can only get there by means of one of the barges that run from the eastern Australia coast – unless you want to charter a small biplane that will touch down directly onto the beach during low tide. Hervey Bay, the closest mainland town, is largely devoted to guided tours, 4WD rentals, camping equipment purchase, and other things that have to do with getting to and sleeping on the island.

We joined a tour through our hostel, one that didn’t have a guide. The tour price included the car, the maps, the camping equipment, and all the information, but it let us determine our own schedule, which was what we preferred. We ended up in a group with two 30-something Aussie girls (friends traveling together), a trio of Japanese teens who played on their cell phones and slept most of the trip, and a young English couple who worked as accountants in Sydney but had traveled up the coast as part of a month-long break. We sat down the night before our trip and made up a grocery list, and then toasted the beginning of our 4 days together with several pitchers of 4X, drunk out of plastic cups on the picnic tables at the front patio of the hostel.

Next day we arose at the crack of dawn to get the logistics worked out, grocery shopping complete, 4WD rented, and everything packed. Two people could sit in the front cab of the 4WD, and the other seven would have to squeeze in the back with all the gear and food, perched on utilitarian steel benches that ran the length of the car. It was a tight and uncomfortable ride, but it was what it was, and by some stroke of luck we ended up with an extremely adaptable, happy, and well-mannered group, and we all got along swimmingly regardless of our less-than-luxurious surroundings.

We rolled up onto the ferry barge and a few minutes later we rolled off again onto the sandy shore of Fraser Island. No roads or paths on the island were paved or even graveled, so only 4WD vehicles were allowed – this made for extremely bumpy, slippery, and slow progress. Because the seats in the 4WD were steel, and you leaned back onto the metal body of the car, we all entered the island with tender, soft behinds, and would exit days later with black and blue bodies, all our delicate parts pounded, shaken, and shimmied into submission.

To do this trip justice, I would have to look again through my Australia scrapbook and my pictures, which I (presciently, might I say) labeled thoroughly the moment I got home, and which would really help me recall more of the details of my Fraser days. Alas, I do not have access to that at the moment, so I have to give it to you in bits and pieces. The basic structure of the day went like this: Step 1 – after a pre-dawn breakfast, get together and examine the map to see what was within “range,” remembering during our planning that our top speed was about 20mph so it took forever to get anywhere, and taking note of the tides (which limited our ability to drive on the beach highway, the fastest way to travel the island’s length). Step 2 – decide what was most important to see, pick stopping points, and choose the camping site for the night. Step 3 – get in the car and drive, baby! Stop where we pleased, take turns at the wheel, and resist the urge to cradle the wildly bobbing heads of the sleeping Japanese teens who, despite our bumpy drives, could not seem to stay awake. Step 4 – at the end of the day, set up primitive camp during dusk, make dinner over the fire, drink lots of beer, and get rowdy and happy before becoming drunkenly dumbfounded by the sight of the sky absolutely full of stars, then stumble to tents and sleep. Step 5 – repeat.

We saw Lake McKenzie, which was a startling sheet of blue-green water in the middle of a sandy forest . . . the Knifeblade Sand Blow, an enormous dune (remarkable on an island full of huge dunes, which tells you how impressive it was) . . . Lake Wabby, a tiny but incredibly deep lake fast disappearing under encroaching sands . . . the Maheno Shipwreck, a rotting carcass of a ship that had run aground on the island many years before, and stood in the open air during low tide . . . the Champagne Pools, rock formations that had formed natural spa-sized impressions that people would climb into, enjoying the water warmed by the sun . . . the Colored Sands, which towered above us in delicate, intricately patterned cliffs and peaks . . . Eli Creek, a freshwater creek that ran down to the ocean with a strong enough current that we all could get in and float down . . . and dozens of other amazing sights. Looking back on this with my naturalist eyes, I do see that this was a high impact trip, and I’m curious to research how well the resources are managed. I remember that there were some off limits areas, which one would hope are rotated so each part of the island gets a break from humans for a bit. I also know we had to get permits, and the amounts of visitors were limited. I hope the Australian Department of Natural Resources is doing their part to ensure the sustainability of this delicate island. Now that I’m an old fogey I’d probably check on that before I visited it again, but back in those days I was somewhat careless, somewhat selfish (as 21 year olds tend to be), and I just did what everybody else did. And what’s done is done, and I’m glad I’ve got it in my memories, and I hope I didn’t ruin anything.

We only got seriously stuck in the sand once, and I remember wandering through some scrubby oaks on the beach, picking up and throwing back shells, kicking sand around, and waiting idly while the guys tried to dig out the vehicle. I remember watching people sliding down a humongous dune, leaving their tracks and trails behind them. I remember lying on the beach, my head pillowed on a pile of sand, the rest of the crowd several meters behind me enjoying the campfire. They were close, but I felt pleasantly alone, and I stared at a sky so full of stars that my mind could barely behold them, and I knew that I was in a strange and far off country, and my home was miles away, and it was thrilling.

When we rolled back off the barge at the end of our trip, we washed out and returned all our gear, and scrubbed ourselves for hours in the hostel showers, and exchanged our contact information and promised to keep in touch, which none of us did. The Aussie girls went back home to Brisbane. The English stayed on in Hervey Bay for a while, and the Japanese . . . didn’t speak English, so I’m not sure where they went. My traveling companion and I rolled on up the coast, heading for Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands, but vowing we would one day return to Fraser Island and experience it all again. And now, a little older, a little less footloose, I see my life rolling out in front of me and I don't know if another trip to Fraser is in the cards - there are so many other places to see in this world, and life is long and not long enough. But . . . you never know, do you?


MSO Rin said...

If you DO go again, pleeeeeeeeeze take me with.

I know that feeling of not being able to comprehend seeing all the stars, and I miss it.

Wicked M said...

It sounds gorgeous and secluded and exciting. I am so jealous. Australia is at the top of my list of places I desperately want to visit!

super jane said...

i admire and envy your sense of adventure. i can't say that i would be strong enough, confident enough to take the type of escapade you did. i applaud you!