Our adventures in Eastern Australia continued up the coast a few hundred miles at Fraser Island, part of Great Sandy National Park in Queensland. Fraser Island (known as K’Gari (Paradise) to the native Butchulla people) is the world’s largest sand island, which means that there is no rock to be found. Despite this strange occurrence, the island is a wonder of diverse environments including rain forests, eucalyptus woodlands, and peat swamps. To access the island you are required to take a ferry, and we soon discovered that 99.9% of visitors to Fraser Island rent giant four-wheel drive vehicles (or join a tour), so they can zip all over the island and rocket around the sand dunes while stopping here and there to appreciate tidbits of the scenery. Since we had a wimpy two-wheel drive rental car, and because we tend to go against the grain when it comes to travel, we proudly boarded the ferry as the sole passengers who were sans vehicle.
Our ten-kilometer hike from the ferry terminal to Lake McKenzie was relatively flat and uneventful, although walking on sand is inherently difficult. Every once in a while we heard the revving of a vehicle engine beyond the tree line, but we didn’t see a single soul on our hike. We arrived at Lake McKenzie (Boorangoora) while a tour group was lounging about, so we hiked on to the campsite and set up our tent in the hopes that the crowds would soon scamper on to their next destination. Fraser Island is home to Australia’s largest and purest dingo population, and over the years there have been several aggressive encounters between people who are picnicking irresponsibly and dingoes who are hungry scavengers. Because of this the government has gone a little overboard and posts signs all over the island about how to avoid dingoes, to keep food locked up, be vigilant, etc etc. Our campground was even enclosed by an 8’ tall chain link fence to keep dingoes out. I was apprehensive about all the dingo warnings, but we neither saw, nor heard, any howling dingo packs while we were there, much to Andrew’s disappointment.
After the crowd thinned out we headed back down to the lake. Lake McKenzie is a perched lake that sits on the top of an old sand dune, and is comprised of 100% raindrops. It is one of cleanest lakes in the world, and it was one of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. The sand in the lake is almost pure silica, and the water is a gorgeous blue with an aquamarine band around the shallow lakeshore. The water is warm and inviting, and we spent plenty of time relaxing in the slightly acidic water which, combined with the soft silica sand, made for some great exfoliation (we even used it to clean stains off our teeth)!
The next day we hiked out a different trail that was previously closed due to fire damage. It turned out that they hadn’t gone in to clear the trail yet, so we spent hours climbing over and under fallen trees and branches in the scorching sun. I was a little grumpy by the end, but we came out of the woods onto a gorgeous beach, and a quick dip in the tropical Pacific Ocean restored my Zen. After lazing around a resort pool (cocktails in hand!), we boarded our ferry back to the mainland and set our sights further up the coast on a little town called Yepoon. We found a nice caravan park near the road, and though we arrived late a very gregarious man answered the door and gave us a nice spot in the park. We relaxed here and enjoyed hot showers, a laundry room, and tremendous wildlife including rainbow lorikeets, Kookaburras, and giant flying foxes (fruit bats)! I was obsessed with the flying foxes, and spent much of my time watching them fly around, bobbing upside down as they clung to flimsy branches while bickering over choice morsels from the abundant trees.
The next morning we watched the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, a real novelty for us American west coasters, before heading further up the coast to pick up cousin Cathy, who caught a flight up from Brisbane to spend the weekend camping with us. The three of us explored the tourist hot spot of Airlie Beach (pronounced Air-lee), which turned out to be full of young, drunk backpackers. A “backpacker” in Australia isn’t really someone who backpacks or hikes, but is a person who goes around the country staying in youth hostels. I am still a young, adventurous person, but being surrounded by drunken teens and early 20-somethings made me glad I was experiencing the wonder of Australia at my more “mature” age.
Our original plan was to book a ferry ride out to Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, which is considered to be the most beautiful beach in the world. This was to be the pinnacle of our Eastern Australia tour; a quiet weekend spent loafing on the pure white sand, floating in the clear, bathtub-warm water, reading in a hammock, well…you get the idea. Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature had a different set of plans. The weather along the north coast of Queensland had been blustery for weeks, with cyclones spinning along the coast and bouncing back off to sea, dumping inches of rain in their wakes. We hit the tail end of one such storm, and the boat company refused to take us all the way out to Whitehaven Beach (a 1.5 hour ride) because the water was really choppy and they didn’t want us to be stranded if the weather grew worse. The only option we had was to get a 10 minute ferry ride to the closest and smallest island in the chain, known as South Molle (pronounced mole) island.
South Molle Island was underwhelming, mostly because it did not fit into our preconceived notion of this trip. The beach was full of coral and shells, which was neat to look at but not so great for lying upon. The water was cold and choppy, and though we rented special lycra bodysuits to protect against jellyfish stings, the weather was never nice enough to actually go swimming. We spent the majority of our weekend hunkered down under a tarp reading or playing cards, soaking wet from the rain and high humidity. We managed to take a short hike into the island interior on one afternoon, but much of our time was spent debating whether to call the boat company for a bail out. After one wet and squally night on the island we finally made up our minds to raise the white flag, but the boat company informed us that the water was too choppy for them to come early and we’d just have to wait until the next day. While it wasn’t the ideal summer getaway, we are proud to say we survived near-cyclonic weather on little South Molle Island, and not just anyone can say that!
When we finally returned to dry land, we found a nice beach during an early sunbreak. I took a dip while Cathy read her book on the beach and Andrew snoozed in a hammock. It was only an hour or two’s worth of the vacation we’d wanted, but we felt rejuvenated and though Cathy boarded her plane in dirty clothes and windswept hair, her spirits were high. We said goodbye, knowing we’d see her soon again back down in Brisbane.
After that little misadventure, I was more than ready for the next stop on our journey. We headed into the rainforest to stay at the “Platypus Bushcamp,” which our Lonely Planet guidebook made sound like paradise on Earth. We were expecting hot tubs under the rainforest canopies, beds on platforms in the trees where you can look down and watch the platypuses swim by, and fire pits where campers gather together to share meals. Apparently we should have paid more attention to the season, because in order to get to the camp we had to ford two mini rivers that were flowing over the roadway. This should have been an indication of things to come, but we were determined to get there so we drove on with high expectations. When we arrived, it was apparent we had made a mistake. There were no tents, cars, or people anywhere in sight. We walked through a crazy maze of handmade wooden structures towards the sound of a television, and stumbled upon a zany old man drinking a beer and watching a movie with his dog at his feet. He was just as surprised to see us, and informed us that there was no hot water or beds to be had, as it was the rainy season and there are no tourists this time of year. He offered to let us camp out anyway, but as mosquitos the size of golf balls swarmed, the thought of another wet night in a tent without hot showers was too much and we drove back towards civilization. This was the only time on the east coast we decided to splurge on a hotel room, but after hot showers and mediocre Thai food, we settled into bed to watch movies on the TV and knew we’d made the right choice. Sometimes you have no recourse but to take a vacation from your vacation!
(Stay tuned for the final installment of the Best Vacation Ever!)