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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

Two Old Dogs

AUSTRALIA | Saturday, 14 April 2007 | Views [1839] | Comments [1]

A group of Australian guys were, along with the rest of Queensland, taking their Easter break seriously, and had arrived with several utes loaded high with equipment. Before long they had erected a tent city that would put the Red Cross to shame, and were working their way through several eskies full of beer. I just happened to be looking in the right direction, when it happened. They had decided to pitch their chairs in the creek itself, apparently a perfectly normal thing to do in Australia. As often happens with cheap camping chairs, a leg buckled which sent the occupant tumbling into the water. To my amusement, the man in free-fall knocked the next chap and the domino effect took over. This was a noteworthy bit of comedy and I looked to my Danish companions to share the moment, only to find looks of pure bewilderment on their faces. “What is this men doing?” they asked. “Well, they are having a beer, and one….” Why was I needing to explain this at all? “But it’s funny, don’t you see, he, he fell in the creek”! They continued buttering their sandwiches, and I looked to Matt for enlightenment. He was sprawled across the front seats, fast asleep. A potential camping nightmare was underway.

Matt and I decided to finish our Ambassador tour of duty with a classic East Coast adventure. We wanted minimum effort and maximum party potential. Additionally, both budget and time frame was limited. Hervey Bay is a mere six hour drive away, gateway to fantastic Fraser Island, and that sounded just fine to us. In a classic travel style that is the habit of older travellers like us two, we rolled into Hervey Bay having made no reservations and completely ignorant to the fact that it is Easter. Every trip was full, and just about any vehicle with four wheels had been rented out. Could we get the Ambassador van across to Fraser Island? Would Travellers Auto Barn mind terribly?

At last we have been able to make use of the excellent Nokia N series mobile, supplied by the sponsors. It is the first time we have really been in an area with any signal on this trip, and I personally have been itching to play with the thing. I have always been one of those people who owns the least-cool phone available, a habit that was born out of necessity, as I am forever losing them, dropping them in rivers or in one case, even driving over one in my truck. They were the sort of phone that when in town, if somebody actually called, I'd have to duck into an alleyway to answer, avoiding the embarrassment of anyone seeing me using such an ancient tool. On the other hand, the Nokia N series I lay prominently on the table in an expensive cafe, occasionally flipping it open, just to let nearby people appreciate the cool display. It has so many features I liken it more to a small computer than phone, and we did make use of the inbuilt video camera during those movie making moments when the usual camera was not close.

A depressing process ensued, visiting or calling every operator listed in the Lonely Planet guide, and being turned away. How could we be so foolish to just arrive without any planning? What a waste of time and fuel! However, our last stop, Fraser Roving, cool guy Kiwi Mark had a potential “no show”, so he put us on standby for a trip beginning the following day. He kindly let us set up camp in the car park, sparking much interest from passing travellers – the Ambassador van does tend to stand out somewhat. Two hours later, we had been booked on and were attending a lengthy lecture about the forthcoming trip.

There was close to forty folk in the room, and they were to be divided up into four vehicles for tomorrow's trip. This is the crucial part of any jaunt to Fraser Island, so be careful where you sit. Obviously, there is plenty of opportunity to ensure you are in the same truck as your travel buddies – but the rest is really down to luck. Matt and I were put into a friendly looking group of mixed age and sex – things were going to be okay. Each group has to provide one credit card for the bond, and a minimum of two drivers over the age of twenty three. This is where being a) experienced in four-wheel-driving and b) older than twenty three is a real disadvantage. As people shuffled around, Matt and I became the dispensable pawns in the game, rent-a-driver if you like. Young couples stuck close, and single guys maneuvered themselves into groups that showed girl-hunting potential. We, on the other hand, were moved from one to another, eventually settling in a gang of six Danish blokes and one girl, Matt and I the only eligible drivers. To demonstrate the injustice, I talked to a Swiss guy who would be sharing his truck with seven beautiful girls.

Whats it all about?

Sitting approximately half way up Australia's East coast, Fraser Island has, over the course of thousands of years, developed as a result of longshore drift. It is regarded as the world's largest sand island, roughly 120km by 15km and reaching elevations well over two hundred metres. A unique flora has evolved to cover the island in dense forest, and despite the fine sand underfoot the interior is lush and dotted with over two hundred freshwater lakes. The latter are fed by pure spring water that takes many years to filter through the sand.

It takes its European name from James and Eliza Fraser, both shipwrecked on the island in 1836. Later, the Butchulla indigenous people, who called the island K'gari (Paradise), where displaced as the settlers discovered the valuable timber in the forest. For over a hundred years the mineral sand was mined and the forests logged, only coming to an end in 1991 as the emphasis shifted from exploitation to protection.

Early the following morning thirty odd backpackers were assembled in the car park, looking nothing much like explorers, but more like they had just reached the end of a very long weekend. As if being stuck in a vehicle with six other guys wasn't humiliating enough – our Toyota Landcruiser was also painted cerise pink. We were guided through the finer points of off-road driving (I opted not to mention that I have spent half my life driving off-road, and listen diligently), and reminded one more time that we have a thousand dollar bond on the vehicle for misbehaving. I can understand that – lending expensive vehicles to young backpackers to take on the beach, most of whom have never driven out of a city, well, there must be less risky ways to make some coin. Despite the pinkness of our truck, called 'two dogs' but renamed 'two old dogs', it was otherwise clean and beautifully equipped. I wondered just how long that could last.

The half hour crossing from River Heads, included in the cost, is an opportunity to size up folk travelling with other operators. There are roughly twenty vehicles on the landing craft, mostly stuffed with backpackers just like us, and they are all on the standard three day/two night trip. The boat skipper behaves as if he would rather be having toe-nails removed without anesthetic, as he roams the deck barking and cursing the inferior reversing skills of the travellers. Anyone would think this was the D-day landings.

On the island, you are more or less free to roam wherever you like, apart from several areas that are off limits. These include environmentally sensitive parts or places that are dangerous for vehicles. Fraser Roving issues a well planned out itinerary, taking into account the tides, as driving along the main beach is difficult if not impossible at high. There is nothing to stop you making your own plans, but it is important to work within both park and tour company rules: the former especially are rigorous in enforcement, rightly enough, and hefty fines await those who step outside the envelope. For the Two Old Dogs, we had done plenty of navigating and adventure lately, and were happy to follow the itinerary to the minute, as indeed were our Danish friends. Besides, Matt and I had met a group of somewhat livelier folk in another of the pink trucks; we had every intention of camping somewhere near them tonight.

How do you want your steak”? A reasonably normal question at any Barbie. “With or without sand”? Not so normal. It is only the first night, and I already have sand in places where it really should not be. All four of the pink trucks had ended up at the same camp, along with several from other companies. With ferocious European style organisation, tents were erected, while Matt and I set up the BBQ and blew the froth off a few beers. We marvelled at the quaint Danish game, throwing the shoe, but decided it involved far too little drinking for us. The night developed, new friendships were made, many of which might be forgotten by morning. I have experienced a few such trips before, and out of any group there will always be a few of each; the revelers, the happy to sit and take it all in types and those who prefer to hit the hay early. Whatever you want your trip to be, you will always find a like-minded person to share it with. That is one of the beautiful things about backpacking. Personally, I was happy to sit up late around the gas cooker (fires are now banned on Fraser), any opportunity to delay me sleeping in a tent with Matt was to be grasped. As if I didn't already know from previous experience, I am exceptionally bad at drinking games.

Late in the night, our camp was visited by Dingos. Their isolation from the Australian mainland has led to the Fraser Island animals being regarded as the most pure bred Dingos in the world. Like any intelligent wild animal, they have learned that humans equals food, and problems do exist when the two come together. The park authorities go to great lengths to resolve this – all garbage areas are securely fenced, as are some family campsites. Rangers make regular early morning checks on known backpacker camps, if any food related waste or equipment is left out, a hefty on the spot fine is issued. Any threat of having to part with money is taken seriously by travellers, and it seems most follow this rule. Two English girls had a bit of a fright when a young Dingo somehow got himself stuck between their fly sheet and inner tent, and apparently the ensuing fracas was quite a sight. This happened directly outside my tent and I didn't hear a thing.

Over the following two days, our group, which had now become one convoy, took in most of the highlights on the island. My favourite among them is Indian Heads. I would like to share with you now a bit of a scoop. Any tour guide will tell you that the headland is so named because from a distance it looks like, er, an Indian head. Tosh. It looks about as similar as I do to Pamela Anderson. It was named by Captain Cook in May 1770 as he sailed by. He had spotted a group of Aboriginal people sitting on its summit, and all native people were known in those days as “Indians”. The “heads” of course is an often used term for a rocky outcrop or entrance to a natural harbour. You heard it hear first.

Once you have gotten over any issues you may have with why it is named as such, a climb to the summit of this rocky outcrop is a must. It juts out into the Pacific, meeting with the continental shelf, and just so happens to be a popular breeding ground for Tiger Sharks. An early morning visit will almost guarantee a spectacular sight as you sit on the edge of the 150m cliff, looking below at tens of sharks and huge Manta Rays. As they glide effortlessly in the aqua water, their beauty is unquestionable, and personally I could sit there all day long. However, there is plenty else to take in such as the Maheno Wreck, an old steamer from the 1930's, or Lake McKenzie, a clear water lake with beaches of silica sand so fine, it is possible to polish gold jewelery in it.

An interesting addition to this trip was to witness the Aussies themselves on holiday. Being Easter, it seems every Queenslander with a ute has come here. Most groups consist of several vehicles, loaded sky-high with gear. Large tents cover social areas, under which a barbie large enough to feed an army is held. Men set up their surf-casting rods and sit with an esky full of beer between them. And of course, some sit in the creeks and get wet. But I guess I am the only one who found that funny.

Fraser Island is a popular trip among backpackers heading up or down the coast for good reason. The self-drive trips offer great value, and the World Heritage listed island itself is a natural wonder full of wild ocean views, along with interesting flora and fauna. Few attractions can offer all this, along with an opportunity to meet people and forge new friendships. The above mentioned trip is the classic backpacker package. Expect lashings of sand in and on everything (it is so fine that it travels on the wind and can be hard to see – take care of your camera). Each truck is loaded to the max, and so room for luggage is limited. If roughing it is not your style, there are other options such as day tours in 4WD buses or private vehicle hire. Scenic flights can be organised in Hervey Bay or on the island – the main east coast beach highway is also an air-strip, take note future drivers! There is even a small village growing now at Central Station, where a range of civilized accommodations await the more discerning traveller. Do a web search for follow links below for more information.

We would like to extend our thanks to Fraser Roving, based in Hervey Bay. The efforts of Kiwi Mark to get us onto a trip saved us a long fruitless drive. The hostel is well laid out with its own popular bar, and the vehicles were exceptionally well maintained. However, really guys, is the pink such a good idea?

I know we go on a bit, but there is another short blog to come, hard on the heels of this one. After that, I promise we will go away.

RELATED LINKS

Information about the island

Fraser Island trips

More Fraser Island trips

Even more Fraser Island trips

(you get the idea here; search on Fraser Island, feel the love. Above were randomly selected).

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Tags: adventures, ambassador van

Comments

1

Great blog Timo and Matt, very funny! I was on Frazer a while ago and am already planning another trip soon. What a great island! No more blogs to come?

cheers, Rob

  Rob May 13, 2007 10:57 AM

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