Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fraser Island

March 23rd, 2006:

Today's offshore island was the World Heritage "Fraser Island". This 125KM long island is the largest sand island in the world and is off the east coast of the Australia.

The island started off as a sand bar millions of years ago, next to the Australia coast, and over the years more and more sand was deposited to create a relatively big land mass. Due to the proximity to the coast, plant seeds were able to land on the island and initially it was plants which were able to grow in sand which took hold. Over thousands of years the plant matter from these plants created a thin top soil and other varieties of plants started to grow and today the sand island is covered with a number of different types of forests.
The island isn't flat and consists of hills and hollows. In some of the hollows a compacted impermeable layer of dead plant matter called humus built up. Rain water, trapped by the compacted humus, created crystal clear freshwater lakes and the sand island has managed to sustain quite a few of these lakes.
The island is also inhabited by different creatures, most notably the Fraser Island Dingo. Australian mainland dingoes have interbred with domestic dogs creating a mixed breed. However, there were no domestic dogs on Fraser and so the Fraser Island Dingo is now considered to be the purest breed of the species and is actually a descendant of the Chinese wolf (as you can see I managed to pay attention to the tour guide for much of his speech(!)

The island itself is notable in other areas also. It has, for example, no tarmacadam/bitumen roads. There is gravel-over-sand in some places but these are rare: every other road is a sand track. So, for example, the main road on the island is a beach(!) which runs most of the length of the island ("75-mile beach" as it is known). Needless to say, when the road is a beach, conditions can change dramatically in the space of an hour. Also, as if the bumpy surface, deep potholes, streams, waves and tides were not enough of a distraction, the beach also serves as the landing strip for light aircraft(!) Due to the challenging driving surface, ordinary cars, trucks and buses are not allowed: only four wheel drive vehicles are allowed on the island.

Lastly, you can swim in the sea surrounding the island, but due to the lack of lifeguards and the strong rip currents, it is generally advised that you avoid the man-eating shark infested sea around Fraser.

The tour I went with was with Australian Day Tours which operates in Brisbane. The tour takes you to the island, brings you around and drops you back to your accommodation at the end of the day. There were twenty-eight of us on the tour and I was expecting a fleet of Land Rovers to bring us all around (as ordinary buses cannot handle the lack of roads) but to my surprise they unveiled a four-wheel-drive bus(!), which I had never come across before.
Our guide on the island was nicknamed "Crocodile Dundee" by the guys working for the tour operator and I initially thought that it was just a name to impress the tourists... and then I met him: he had the same weather beaten appearance as the character in the movie and throughout the day he was full of talk of living off the Bush and experience he'd gained from his aboriginal buddies. He was quite the character.

I had buddied up today with three other solo travelers, two Scottish girls and an English girl and we all had a very enjoyable day.

I did have one major surprise though: it actually rained today(!) and it was the first rain I'd seen since leaving Ireland nearly a month ago. It wasn't any drizzle either: it was from the hurricane up the coast and so it was a real belter with the sea around the island getting whipped up to a frenzy, the main highway looking like it was near closure and most of the tourists in the group getting saturated. Being from Ireland though, where we know a thing or two about rain, I had always carried an umbrella in my mini-backpack and that pessimism/realism finally came in useful. The girls I'd teamed up with were very grateful that I was their knight in shining armor ;) The rain did also give that authentic feel one of the rain-forests that we had a (quick!) walk through.

Other stops on the tour were to Lake McKenzie, which is a freshwater lake and to the "silent stream" which apparently flows silently instead of trickling/gurgling. For us, the stream was silent but that was due to the steady roar from the rain shower/cloud-burst.

I did feel, at the end of it, that the trip was very rushed. We didn't have much time at any of the stops and even with the tight schedule we barely ventured a third of the way into the island. Tour operators also offer two or three day trips with accommodation on the island and these may be the better option if you have the time.

Overall, the stormy weather and rushed schedule detracted from the experience but what we did see of the island and the fun with my fellow travelers made it an enjoyable day.

Last tip: don't visit the island with a hangover: seatbelts were provided on the bus and due to the constant bouncing around the sandy tracks they were most definitely required!