The Whitsunday Islands & Fraser Island – Australia
Our time on Australia’s legendary east coast had begun and with Cairns in the rear view mirror we made the short journey down to Townsville to begin ten days of island hopping. Only the journey wasn’t as short as it looked on the map, it took six hours with a 6.30am departure and at the time little did we realise how much ground we had to cover in just over two weeks, around 3,000km to Sydney. I only mention our first stop in Townsville for the beautiful little island we would be staying at just off the coast, Magnetic Island, a backpackers paradise apparently. And it was a paradise full of tropical trees, lined with perfect beaches and surrounded by turquoise waters. Unfortunately it’s also where we encountered our first Aussie ‘bogans’, one of which got so wasted that when he returned to the dorm early one morning he decided it was much easier to get into bed with me on the bottom bunk than to climb to his own bunk up top. There is only one way to successfully stay in a hostel dorm and that is to be the pissed-up person and to my credit that is usually me. However on the odd occasion when I am sober and staying in a hostel dorm, it tends to be bloody horrible! This was by far my worse experience and for the life of me I don’t know why I didn’t just jump into his empty bunk but the sun was already rising and so I grabbed my book and a towel and headed to the beach. Such is life’s opportunities in Australia.
A few days later we rocked up at Airlie Beach, a further five hours down the road and a highly anticipated stop on our itinerary. Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a group of seventy-four islands within the Great Barrier Reef. Google it, they look incredible with most being free of humans, full of trees, long stretches of white sand and only accessible by boat. The reason you should Google it is because I have very few photos of the scene because it was covered in torrential rain clouds for around 90% of our three day boat trip. This wasn’t going to be like our last boat trip to the reef, oh no, that was a little pricier, a little more sophisticated, hanging out with the grown-ups. This was the complete opposite, cheap and unadulterated we boarded the catamaran in our swimming gear complete with snorkel, flippers and big boxes of beer, and met our eighteen year old tour guide. Yeah, a pocket-sized eighteen year old hippy chic who could have been easily mistaken for any of the international backpackers onboard. The captain looked slightly older and more sensible and I guess he had hearing difficulties as I’m not sure how he could cope with boat loads of ‘us’ every few days. One chappy was from Alaska. Think all American college football douche with a sprinkling of Alaskaness. To be fair he was a funny guy and he did a splendid job of holding every girl’s attention for the entirety of the trip which was a good effort considering 80% of the passengers were female.
It was mid-afternoon when we set sail and we headed straight to the island where we would be staying for the night. There are tours where you can stay on the boat for the duration but these were deemed a little less lively and besides when we landed at our destination we made full use of the hot tub and swimming pool. Needless to say it was a jolly night, one defined by hearing Daftpunk’s ‘Around the world/Harder better faster stronger’ from their ‘Alive’ album for the first time, a tune that still gets me going to this day. As they say, ‘no rest for the wicked’, and we were up at 6.30am the next day and on the boat sailing by 8am. By 8.30am we had cracked open the first beers. It had rained all night and it was throwing it down again, thus we had nothing else to do but sit inside the cabin and drink, especially since the snorkelling had been cancelled as well. And so we made our way to the Whitsunday’s premier attraction, Whitehaven Beach, the poster child of the Great Barrier Reef where we could get the perfect photo of the classic view that you have probably already seen on Google. It continued to rain. No bother, it was warm and I was already in my boardies, a sensation I was completely unused to coming from the cold wet days of the U.K. Sufficiently soaked to the skin we trekked through the forest and up a hill to get to a lookout point that would provide the money shot knowing full well we weren’t going to get but nonetheless it was an eventful walk and although the view was miserable, there were still glimmers of beauty. As with such events one has to be in the right place at the right time. Back on the boat we were advised to keep the beers on ice for remarkably as the afternoon pushed on, the clouds lifted and we managed to get into the water for a bit of delightful snorkelling. As I’m sure you can appreciate, snorkelling anywhere along the Great Barrier Reef is incredible and we were happy for the chance to be in the water once again. Our second night of the tour was a carbon copy of the first, beer, dancing and hot tubs and groggy heads the following day were rewarded with bright, sunny skies and some great snorkelling. Before we knew it the Whitsunday Islands were behind us, we were back at Airlie Beach, having yet another ‘last supper’ with another new bunch of friends that we would never see again, and once again immediately back on the road onboard a night bus down to Hervey Bay.
We rocked up around 9.30am after a surprisingly blissful ten hours sleep aboard the bus. A little like surviving hostels, the best way to attack night buses appear to be alcohol and sleep deprivation. Hervey Bay was the gateway to our next island extravaganza, Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world apparently. Around 120km long and much slimmer it is covered in bush and trees hiding large freshwater lakes, surrounded by beautiful ocean and beaches, and even boasts numerous packs of dingoes and it’s very own Instagram friendly shipwreck. The best thing of all was at the time there were companies that would group backpackers together supplying them with a 4×4, camping gear, cooking gear and a self drive itinerary with the golden rule being don’t drive in the ocean (salt is bad for cars). Oh, and we had to get to certain places on time if we were not to be caught out by the high tides. And so a little after 6am the following day we loaded the car up with provisions (read beer and goon), caught the ferry and landed on Fraser Island where all roads were simply made of sand, we could go as fast as we dare on the long stretches of beach and have a go at getting stuck off-roading further inland. We had met our group of ten the afternoon before during a briefing and I remember it not looking too good even though half the group I already knew was amazing because they included Phil, Laura and I plus two Norwegian friends we had adopted on the Whitsundays cruise. You may not be surprised to hear that the group turned out to be yet again a bloody good bunch. We successfully navigated our way to the first stop of the day and quickly discovered the beauty of the island’s fresh water lakes. They are like no other lakes that you have seen before. Completely clear you can see right down to the pure sandy bottom thus no need to worry about stones on the delicate tootsies, the water was just the right temperature and it was largely peaceful. But there was little time to relax on this occasion as we had to speed along the beach to get to our campsite before the tide closed off the road. It was probably a little early to be setting up camp and settling down for the evening but what the hell, we lit the BBQ, cracked open the drinks cabinet and made friends with another group of like-minded folks, all before sunset.
Of all the places in the world to wake up to a sunrise with a headache, Fraser Island has to be one of the best. Somehow I had failed to make it into my tent and instead took the decision to sleep in the back of the truck. Miraculously we all managed to get ourselves together packing up camp and driving to the incredibly impressive Lake Wabby. Part sand dune, part lake, part forest this has to be one of the best places in the word to shake off a headache that was acquired the night before. Essentially the island is one big dune but Lake Wabby sits at the bottom of a sandy hill aka dune, one so steep you can roll down it at speed until you hit the refreshing water at the bottom. Once in the lake you can sit back and marvel at the Australian bush that surrounds three quarters of the lake. We made the most of our time here but the clock was against us and by 10.30am we were all piled in the car listening to absolutely nothing when the driver turned the key to start it. After a few minutes of pondering what to do we finally made the wise decision to jumpstart the truck after which we continued on with the sights. These included the hauntingly beautiful Maheno shipwreck, Eli creek, and Indian Head. Unfortunately the tide meant we had to be at our campsite for 4.30pm but after learning from the night before we took a more measured approach and used our time more constructively to play a game of soccer on the beach. Even more remarkably we managed to get the barbie on and dinner served before sundown. To celebrate the end of such a constructive day it was only right to get on the drinking games and make a point of finishing all remaining alcohol before returning to the mainland the following day. A soft sandy campsite tucked away in the bush with the sound of the ocean just the other side and a clear sky overhead, Frazer island was definitely an island paradise. We wrapped up proceedings around 2.30am but shortly after a few of us were woken by a commotion outside the tent. Upon investigation we discovered a dingo attempting to drag an esky (cool box) away. We had stupidly forgotten to stash the esky in the car and now we were witness to the famous Frazer island dingoes doing their thing. A simple raid wasn’t enough as it appeared the reward would be greater if the entire esky and it’s contents could be dragged away as opposed to just a few of the contents inside. These animals are not particularly aggressive but not shy either and like any wild animal a little sense is required. I have no idea if we demonstrated such sense but we retrieved the esky and grabbed a few hours sleep.
We left Fraser Island cold, wet, hungover and shattered yet extremely happy. Back to back tours on the Whitsunday’s and Fraser could not be classified as healthy but hey we were under pressure from the clock, we were young and who knows when we would return and thus after returning to the hostel in Hervey Bay we showered, ate heartedly and headed back out for another late night with great friends! What happened to photos from Fraser Island we will never know!