“Go, go, GO!” yelled our tour guide. “Get back in the car, now, now, NOW!”
He clapped his hands with military vigour as we dived back into the 4-wheel-drive, nine of us crammed up like squished and confused sardines! Scrambling to find the right seat belt, I raised an unimpressed eyebrow at Harry.
We should have known we were in for an interesting ride when the tour guide had demanded cash up front, which we had not been told when we made a booking for paradise island.
“Yeah. It’s for National Parks, mate. Nothing to do with me,” said our Aussie Rambo guide.
“What about a receipt?” Harry quizzed, handing the barefoot tour guide a thick wad of cash.
“Receipt? Mate, we haven’t got time for that. We’ve gotta go.”
Trapped in a quiet car park in Noosa, the deal was done.
Heading north for the next two hours, we tried to get comfortable, relax into conversation with the other ‘guests’ and tried hard to feel excited – come on, we were going to Fraser Island, the oldest sand dunes in the world (700,000 years old) and the only place on our planet where a rainforest thrives on sandy soil. Just off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
The Butchulla people, as the original custodians of this island, called her, gari (pronounced Gurri, meaning paradise). But from the sombre mood in the car we were getting the strong impression that our driver was taking us to a secret military base, and not to the treasured Unesco World Heritage Site, protecting well over eight hundred species of plants and three hundred and fifty species of birds on one island.
Nothing but Royal Treatment
One would think that eight people sitting on top of each other might break the uncomfortable feeling of closeness by striking up cordial conversation – but no one spoke. We were in a state of shock. Our tour guide had decided only HE should talk. No interruptions, mate, and no talking to each other.
“You’re my guests, right?” he gushed. “So I reckon I should tell you all about the island.”
His dreary monologue went on for the entire two and a half hours. His thoughts squirted out like verbal diarrhoea, and any comments offered to break the monotony of his belligerent tone were squashed under his alpha-male response.
“Look, mate. We can’t both talk? he snarled. “Youse have paid good money for this trip, right? So I reckon youse all deserve royal treatment. I wanna give you your money’s worth, can’t ask for more than that, hey?”
The silent glances exchanged between us in the back seats conveyed a different opinion.
Cooped up in the 4-wheel-drive troop carrier, Harry and I held hands tightly. We sent silent signals offering strengthening camaraderie to each other: be brave, we can do this, the drive will be over soon, smile…we can survive his Bullsh..!
By now, we were zooming along a seventy-five mile beach on the east coast of Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia. Other 4-wheel-drives, cars and tour buses all hummed along as if on a sand highway. The beach is also used as a landing strip for planes, so drivers are advised to give way to oncoming aircraft at all times! Over four HUNDRED THOUSAND tourists visit this island every year, and the explosion of petrol-heads flying down the beach, seemed sacrilege to me – how had paradise come down to this? We were on a race against the tide, the sandy ‘highway’ ever changing with the ebb and flow of the ocean current, the drivers plotting a defiant course against Mother Nature to reach their destinations.
“Man, it’s a great place to go surfing,” said Rambo, briefly sidetracked by the vast expanse of ocean. “See those waves? Pearla surf out there, for sure.”
“Who cares? Just drive,” Mickey, one of the lucky Hungarian guests, dared to say under his breath to his sister in the back, well out of earshot of the Sand-Marshal. They were as eager as we were to arrive at our accommodation on the island and get out of this damn midget box on wheels. They had joined the tour in Brisbane (200 kilometres south) and had been putting up with FOUR hours of Rambo’s painful crap!
Get out and find Wobby Lake
One of the many reasons why Harry and I booked a three day tour of Fraser Island was because it is so unique: with pure silica fresh water lakes, a thriving rainforest, impressive coloured rocks and moving sand-dunes, the largest in the world, with the promised bonus of a guided tour.
Normally, we prefer to do all our own sight-seeing, hire our own car and enjoy like the freedom to roam where and when we please. But what lured us away from our usual style of travel had been the tempting tour blurb: ‘You’ll be driven by an experienced driver who will show you all the best sights on the island.”
“Wow. Imagine that!” Harry was sold. The prospect of no driving was novel for him and I was so pleased to think that, as a visually-impaired traveller, all the hard work of finding the ‘right’ places would depend on our tour guide. Sounded like the perfect plan…
So when Rambo suddenly swerved the troop carrier to the left and pulled on the brake, announcing in the middle of nowhere,
“OK. Here we are. Wobby Lake. Four kilometres down that track. I’ll wait here in the car.” …we hadn’t bargained on having to trek the long path in the blistering heat of the day on our own.
Eight of us tumbled out of the car, stretching our legs and gathering up backpacks.
“Why aren’t you coming?” asked Mickey, tackling the Commando who sat smiling behind dark sunglasses.
“You’ll be right, mate. It’s only an hour’s walk. Just stay left of the track and you won’t get lost. I’ve gotta do some paperwork and check that your accommodation is ready. Be back here in two hours.”
Legend of the Island
“According to Aboriginal legend, when humans were created and needed a place to live, the mighty god Beiral sent his messenger Yendingie with the goddess K’gari down from heaven to create the land and mountains, rivers and sea.
“K’gari fell in love with the earth’s beauty and did not want to leave it. So Yendingie changed her into a heavenly island – the Butchulla tribe knew as Gari.”
You are Here…Somewhere
“It’s a 4.8 kilometre return walk,” Harry said, studying the directions. “We’ll be walking through eucalyptus and mangrove forests, wallum and peat swamps. Hmm. Still interested?”
As I applied sunscreen to my arms, the skin tingling under the burning rays of a midday sun, I pondered. Was it worth trekking through deep and burning sand dunes to try and paddle in one of the fresh water lakes unique to the island that only appeared as a mirage on this map? Or should we stay and enjoy a refreshing swim in the clear blue ocean a few metres away?
I knew from past experience, that this walk through deep soft sand would be a tough one. The white cane would be impossible to use and, not having depth perception, we would also be going at a snail’s pace. Every step would need Harry’s guidance, physically and verbally so the odds were, by the time we made our way to the freshwater lake, it would be time to turn around and trek back to rejoin the group.
“Let’s give it a go,” I said anyway, trying to conceal my dread. I didn’t want my lack of eyesight to stop us from enjoying a major natural attraction on such a unique island.
Being both Taureans and lovers of discovery, we stubbornly set off on the narrow sandy path to find the heart of the island, as cheerful as Hansel and Gretel, hand in sweaty hand, ignoring the sun beating down on us.
The Turn Around
Half an hour later it was obvious: we were not going to make the full distance. The path had become so difficult, dropping away into scratchy scrubland, and I was tripping over goatsfoot vine and beach spinifex. My feet sank into pockets of deep soft sand, making me collapse like a fallen eucalypt in dry bushland. We came across countless wooden steps buried in the sand, all of varying heights and with no warning signs. We just had to abandon the trek.
It took another half hour in the burning sun to retrace our steps back to the beach and much cajoling from both of us to keep each other’s spirits high. On hearing the wide expanse of the beautiful ocean pounding her waves onto the shore before us, we ran into the sea screaming with joy!
Here, on the fine sands of Fraser Island, we could finally enjoy forty-five minutes in peace and pleasure, splashing in the shallows of her clear blue waters.
Don’t miss the REAL ‘highlights’ with our delightful tour guide continued in Part Two…
Copyright © Maribel Steel
Photography Copyright © Harry Williamson