“Emu valley? Why it’s just up the road,” says the man in a classic, slow drawl.
“Just keep going and you can’t miss it,” he continues, arm pointing towards the horizon, a wry smile on his face.
“Excellent. Just up the road? It can’t be far then”, we thank the smiling local.
Little did we anticipate, however, that ‘just up the road’ would actually translate into another 150km, or to put in real terms, another 2 hours’ drive.
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For only in a country as big as Australia, can something that far away be described as ‘just up the road’.
Coming from an island as small as Jersey in the Channel Islands, just up the road would normally equate to a 5 minute drive, or perhaps even a short stroll because, let’s be honest, much longer and you’re in the sea!
Not so on this big, red rock, where our total distance of 950km that fated day, barely even scratched the surface of its giant easterly coast.
The man was right of course, Emu Valley was just up the road, his words were true.
However, the clue was all in the wry smile, the arm outstretched towards the horizon and that slow, quiet Aussie drawl.
You see in Australia, as I have discovered, it’s not so much a case of what you say, but how you say it.
Fresh into the country, however, you don’t initially pick up on these subtler cultural traits and the drier, understated quirks of humour that lie quietly in the shade, away from the blistering obvious heat of more raucous Australian laughter.
Having been here for some months, however, I am now pleased to be getting a good grip on the Aussie form of sarcasm.
As such, something absolutely nightmarish, beyond all belief, is often referred to as being ‘pretty ordinary’.
Or when a comment is so fully loaded with harsh critique, it is customary to follow it with the casual phrase ‘I’m just saying,’ when clearly you are doing anything but.
When I first got to Australia however, this was all new to me.
So it was that, when hitchhiking with yet another friendly local and I mentioned in passenger seat conversation that I was going to Fraser Island, his non-plussed response that it was really, “Just a big sandbar,” left me feeling a little deflated.
In fact, it left me wondering if I should really take the time to stop and adventure on Fraser Island at all.
I mean, there is enough sand down the east coast of Australia to satisfy even the keenest beach bum like myself.
But given the fact I was travelling past Fraser anyway, I did think I should put in a bit of effort to see this World Heritage Attraction… and what a relief I did.
Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island, which at 123km (77miles) long and 22km (14 miles) wide, is a fair-sized island in its own right regardless of the sand!
First explored by Europeans in 1802, the isle is named after shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser, but was originally known as K’gari, meaning Paradise, by the indigenous Butchulla people.
Fraser lies off the coast of Queensland in north-eastern Australia and was formed by oceanic and great wind currents that brought vast quantities of sand up the coast from as far south as Antarctica.
This huge sandy mound is now home to a diverse array of natural wildlife and vegetation and is managed and preserved by the Queensland authorities as an Australian National Park.
Despite its protected status, however, there is no getting away from the fact that Fraser is a massive Australian tourist destination, with organised adventure tours abound.
However, as something of a seasoned traveller, this girl doesn’t take the easy and expensive option of organised tours, I’m afraid. Instead a wanted a Fraser Island Camping adventure.
So it was straight to my trusty traveller resource in Australia – Gumtree – to find other backpackers who might be able to split the costs of hiring a 4wd with me.
Or better still, have their own vehicle complete with a vacant passenger seat. (A 4wd is essential on Fraser you see because the whole place is made of sand. No sealed roads here, in fact no roads at all as I was soon to discover.)
And as luck, or fate, would have it that is what I find. Yes 2 Germans and a New Zealander with their own jeep looking for a 4th person to split the costs of a camping adventure departing in 2 days time! Too perfect! Operation Fraser Island Camping: so far, so good!
Waiting for the boys at the edge of the small jetty, laden with food, camping gear, all my worldly possessions, I realise, for the first time, that this might not be a great idea.
The boys are 2 hours late, there is no phone signal and I’m starting to hope this isn’t all just an elaborate joke being played by 3 people I’ve never met. Essentially I’m up the creek without a paddle, or to put it more literally, on a giant sandbar without a suitable set of wheels.
Not much I can do though now, I think to myself. I just have to hope desperately and, well, wait.
But sure enough, the guys soon turn up – Sebastian and Axel from Germany, along with Jay from New Zealand – and within minutes we’re all joking and laughing as if we’ve known each other for ages.
Turns out the boys had been stuck in a bad traffic jam on the beach.
Forget the daily commute sort of jam; their hold-up was on the beach due to one 4wd after another becoming bogged in the Island’s soft sand.
So this was my first introduction to a Fraser Island Camping adventure and the chaos that is getting around this sandbar!
Picture the scene of thick undergrowth all around, apart from a soft sand highway that winds narrowly between the trees in front of you.
It’s a lumpy, bumpy track, really only wide enough for 1 vehicle, which bends sharply around blind corners at every opportunity, as the sand shifts constantly beneath your tyres.
Add into the mix the speed you have to travel at in order to avoid getting stuck (essentially you have to glide over the sand) and you have yourself the sort of driving experience that I cannot believe is allowed in any country with even the vaguest health and safety regulations, yet alone somewhere like Australia.
But, amazingly, it is allowed!
So there I was, in the back of the Mitsubishi Pajero, clinging on for dear life.
This was as I, along with all the food, bags, tents, cooking equipment, clothes and sleeping gear that was piled high to the roof, bounced around as we hurtled around corners at speeds that had the vehicle on only 2 wheels at some points.
Travelling on sand takes a while, however, and even though the relevant distance wasn’t that far, it was late afternoon before we reached the 75 mile eastern beach and started looking for a suitable place for our Fraser Island Camping.
We soon found one nestled among the dunes and managed to get ourselves settled in before dark. Already this was adding up to more than ‘just a sandbar!’
Fraser is not just an island (or a sandbar for that matter), it’s nothing short of a huge natural adventure park for adults.
Little did I know, but I was about to encounter 2 of the most awesome days of my entire travelling career!
Scattered around Fraser Island are hidden freshwater lakes of stunning colours, towering sand dunes begging to be body surfed, sparkling lazy-river creeks and ocean-filled natural jacuzzis.
It all adds up to make the place a non-stop Kodak moment.
Fraser Island Camping is also a different experience.
Not only are the stars phenomenal, with zero-light pollution around, but the dingo noises and their visible footprints round our tents in the morning were also fairly special.
Our first morning started with a dip in the gorgeous emerald green of Lake Birrabeen, closely followed by a second swim in Lake McKenzie, which although only a few km away, looked totally different in its red and gold colouring.
We then indulged in some exercise as we ventured out on an island bush walk to reach a towering pinnacle sand dune, before running, tumbling and finally diving down into the crystal waters of Lake Wabby that sits directly at its base.
Back on the beach, we stop to look at a huge shipwreck, photographically strewn and rusting on the shoreline.
Not long to look however as we’re soon hurtling along back to the water for a natural lazy-river experience down Eli Creek – an estuary outlet flowing down to the sea at a pace that allows you to perfectly float along with it, passing wonderful subtropical rainforest on the way.
It’s great so long as you remember to keep your bottom off the stony riverbed and get out before you reach the sea!
For that is the only drawback with a Fraser Island camping adventure: no swimming directly in the ocean.
This is serious shark territory.
But usually where there are sharks, there is also a serious amount of other exciting marine life, as we were soon to discover at Indian’s Head.
Indian’s Head is the cliff that sits directly at the top of 75 mile Beach, the sand stretch that spans Fraser’s eastern edge.
Clambering up to the headland gives you a stunning 360 degree view all the way back down those eastern shores as well as round the bend to Fraser’s northerly tip.
The vista is simply breathtaking.
As you peer over the edge of the cliff to the drop below (no railings here on this wonderfully health and safety free isle) the sparkle of the sea, the dirt red ground, the pure white sand and that brilliant cobalt blue sky all combine in a visual spectrum that makes Australia the breathtaking country it is.
Absorbing this all in a mild state of euphoria, Axel suddenly spots the dark triangle of a manta ray clearly visible in the ocean below us.
And as we cower round him to get a better look, a sea turtle, then 2, then 3, pop to the surface and rear their heads for a breath of clean oxygen.
In a scene like something out of a film, these are closely followed by a pod of dolphins, which choose this opportune moment to swim round the corner and enjoy some social play right in front of us.
Reeling from this incredible display, I turn to the boys and in a voice of pure disbelief and delight say, “Imagine the people who get to see whales from here too”.
Then turning back around, no word of a lie, a moment later we see a splash out in the ocean, well behind the breaking waves.
Seconds later, what looks like a giant, solid wing emerges from the water and lands with a gigantic splash right near the first.
Now we are all looking on, attentively, as an unmistakably strong jet of water shoots straight up into the air.
As I squeal and the boys cheer, we realise without doubt that a pod of humpback whales is swimming right past us.
The turtles continue to raise their heads for air, the manta rays keeping floating by and the dolphins still play, but the 4 of us just stare and stare transfixed by the giant oceanic warriors gracing this Paradise with their presence.
What a budget adventure on Fraser Island!
Well the description of Fraser Island as just a big sandbar, didn’t quite ring true in my experience.
In fact my Fraser Island camping adventure was one of the best I’ve had in the whole of Australia.
If it’s not what you say, so much as how you say it over here, then I just can’t help but think that friendly local must have had a wry smile on his face that day.
Surely he must have. Mustn’t he?