A Nightmare on Fraser Island - Part 1

Suitably buoyed by the experience of Australia Zoo, a couple of days later we decided to undertake another adventure, this time of a more daring nature – a three day camping trip to Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand based island, just off the east coast of Queensland, about 4 hours north of Brisbane.

The events that unfolded on this trip are of such a disturbing nature that I would advise those of a nervous disposition to go visit another corner of cyberspace. The online version of Woman’s Weekly, for example, because this will be a no holds barred account of my experiences on this camping trip. A camping trip which I will endearingly forever refer to as Fraser Island – The Camping Trip From Hell.

Read on if you dare…

First of all – a bit of background on the island itself, courtesy of some research on the internet.

As already mentioned, Fraser Island is a large sand island (at 122 km (76 miles) long, the largest in the world) situated off the southern coast of the Australian state of Queensland, some 300 km (200 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane. A popular destination for travelers, Fraser Island was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1992.

It has long beaches, rainforest, still lakes with near perfect reflections, coloured sands, ruined ships washed ashore, dingoes and - up until very recently - wild horses.

Roads on the island are no more than very rough sandy tracks, so in order to get about the island you require a 4WD. The east coast beach doubles as the island’s main road and airstrip. Yes – aeroplanes actually land and take off from the beach as you drive along. It sounds like mayhem but it actually works.

The island is mostly national park and only has a couple of tiny settlements, boasting a local community of around 1000 inhabitants but more about the locals in a bit, as I’m getting way too far ahead of myself.

It all seemed too good to be true and a perfect destination for a camping trip for a few days in the build up to Christmas, the plan being to leave on the Tuesday and return on the Friday, 3 days before Christmas Day itself.

First off, the three of us needed a game plan to get to, and subsequently around, the island and my friend’s mother was prepared to generously provide us with the use of her car for the trip. However, seeing as the car was not 4WD we would have to travel further north to get the passenger ferry across from Hervey Bay, landing us on the island in Kingfisher Resort on the west coast.

As well as meaning we would have to drive further north to get a 45-minute passenger ferry onto the island, we would have to go on organised trips around the island at huge expense to see some of the many sights that the island had to offer.

If we had the use of a 4WD vehicle, we could get on a 10-minute vehicular barge to the south of the island and drive about the island at our leisure.

Under some duress, it has to be said; my friend’s father very kindly lent us his baby, a lovely wee Honda CRV for the trip. The only condition her father set was that I, being the eldest and therefore obviously the most sensible, should be the designated driver.

Ok then – because of insurance requirements and that I was the only one over 25 years of age, I got the job of driver by default.

All systems were go – we now had our transport organised and it was with a lot of excitement we set off on our Great Expedition.

First stage of the trip was a two and a half hour drive to Rainbow Beach. This sleepy backwater is the southern access point to Fraser Island. From Rainbow beach, a beach that got its name because of the dozens of different coloured types of sand present there, it is possible to drive your 4WD north along the beach for 13km to a place called Inskip Point where the vehicular ferry makes the 10-minute crossing to Fraser Island regularly from 7am to 4.30pm.

Permits are required to take vehicles onto Fraser Island and to camp and these were to be obtained from Rainbow Beach General Store. Vehicle permits are $30. Camping permits are $4.50 per person per night. Not much at all for a 3-day stay in paradise.

At least it seemed that at the time.

Having purchased our supplies of booze, cigarettes, non-perishable foods and permits, we were all set to make the short trip to Fraser. However, it was whilst buying these supplies that I noticed “The Wall of Shame” in one of the shops. A mosaic of photographs of vehicles that had been stranded in deep sand or caught in high tides and been smashed against some of the rocks on the island’s coast line.

For the first time, I was genuinely concerned at the prospect of 4WD on the island.

At this point, it should be stated for the record that I used to regularly drive a 4WD Jeep in England and would frequently use it to drive onto Southport Beach to walk my dog. I also drove on many beaches back home in Northern Ireland, so had naturally assumed that it would not be a problem.

In fact, the last and only time I got a car stuck in sand was on a beach back home when I was about two and sitting on my father’s lap, I steered the car into soft sand and we needed the assistance of a few locals to rescue us.

Before driving in sand, you are advised to drop the air pressure in your tyres, to make the whole driving experience easier and to avoid the possibility of becoming stuck in the sand. Suitably diligent in this, letting the air out just before getting on the sand, we then joined on the beach at the closest place to Inskip Point, about 300 metres from the waiting barge.

To say that I was somewhat surprised at the view that greeted us as we turned the corner onto the beach, would be an understatement of huge proportions. I stopped the car as we surveyed the scene. The very, VERY soft sand had been dug up into huge ruts, some of which were more than a foot deep. This was very different to anything that I had experienced before, having only driven on the hard sand of the beaches back home.

Well folks, I am sure you can see where I am going with this one.

Having somewhat rashly decided to follow the tracks of a previous car, we gingerly made our progress through the soft sand. However, less than 100 metres of driving in these ruts, I noticed that the ruts got even deeper than I had first seen.

Realising we were going to struggle in this depth, I tried to steer us out of the ruts into less deeper terrain – and promptly got us stuck.

I tried to reverse back, I tried to drive forward but try as I might, the CRV was resolutely going nowhere. Up ahead, the barge was waiting with the guy on the barge frantically waving us towards him. It was no use. Less than 100 metres of driving in the sand and we were already stuck.

One of our party went ahead to the barge to explain our situation to the barge guy as the other two of us looked at the sorry state I had gotten us into - the soft sand in between the ruts being two high for us to negotiate any further.

Our friend returned with Barge Guy, who had obviously seen it all happen many times before.

“Lucky you didn’t get any further, you guys would have been stuck there for the next week” was his helpful introductory advice to us.

“First things first, that’s an all wheel drive you have there, not a FOUR WHEEL DRIVE. These things aren’t built for this kind of driving.”

This, of course, was news to me.

I had simply assumed that because the car had no 4WD gear stick that the advances in modern cars simply meant that the car would automatically switch over to 4WD when required.

How wrong I was.

“You’ve got to drive it fast in the soft sand, too slow and you’ll just get stuck,” came the next pearl of wisdom from our sage.

“Do NOT turn the steering wheel – keep the car going straight at all times. When you get stuck, reverse and go forward and back again. Rock your car out of the sand.”

Following his advice, I tried to do as he suggested, however my earnest attempts to get the car unstuck paradoxically only merely achieved getting the car even further stuck.

Just as things were looking hopeless, a young couple arrived on the scene in a huge behemoth, King of the Road, a true 4WD vehicle. Having arrived at Inskip Point to do a spot of relaxing sea fishing, they were soon running about our stranded vehicle as a 2-person tow team and it was not long before, with all the efficiency and effectiveness of professionals, they had towed me all the way across the beach and practically onto the waiting barge.

Grateful thanks offered, and not to mention a friendly bit of “That’s not a 4WD, it’s an all wheel drive car” bit of advice, which I was already beginning to tire of, we then got onto the waiting barge. To say the whole experience had shaken my two passengers and me would be another understatement of epic proportions. Remember – this was the car belonging to my friend’s father after all.

As we made the short crossing in the barge, the eminent sage that was our barge guy gave us some more advice, including letting more air out of the tyres, which I frantically did as we bounced along in the barge.

“Stay on the hard sand close to the water and you should be fine!” was the last nugget of advice from our friendly barge guy.

Getting off the barge, carefully driving as directed, along the hard sand close to the water, we made our way up along the east coast of the island. We knew that we had to drive for around 30 minutes up the island before reaching some form of civilisation, the first of which was a place called Dilli Village and it was there that we decided we would head inland to find a place to camp for the night and to see more of the island.

Towards the end of the drive, our confidence had returned, or at least mine had, with the beaches on the island proving to be made of stronger stuff than at Inskip Point and right on schedule, we arrived at the exit road to Dilli Village.

It was apparent that the exit roads from the beach were of much softer sand than that which we had been enjoying previously on Fraser Island, however our memories were still plagued by the previous attempt.

Bracing ourselves, we (and yes I’m using the royal sense of the word here) drove off the beach and up the exit road for Dilli Village, offering silent prayers to the God of All Wheel Drive as we did…


Jenny Okanagan said…
Just a question: Rainbow beach is so named because of the many-coloured what?
Anonymous said…
Just a question: Rainbow Beach is so named because of the many-coloured what? You've left us in suspense!