We were based in Hervey Bay, Qld experiencing our first northern winter as grey nomads. There were two bucket list items that had to be ticked before we headed south again to freeze our extremities off.
It is another perfectly clear day. We are picked up by the bus at 9:00am and board the Freedom 111 at the marina. Keith, Bill and Stacey are cheerful, professional and welcoming, telling us that we have the run of the boat whilst we are on board. The bay is, as it has been since we arrived here, perfectly flat. These are great conditions for boating. The vessel is a 58 foot catamaran and it is very spacious even for the thirty of us on board. Once we are abeam of Fraser Island, hot scones, jam and cream appear along with profiteroles. Woody declares that this is a good thing as all the fatties who have commandeered the best seats waddle down to the galley like overfed ducks.
First we see a turtle then the whales are spotted, we are in Platypus Bay which is a wide arc on the western shore of Fraser Island. The brilliant white strip of beach sparkles as far as we can see. The whales are easily spotted as soon as a blow is heard or sighted. The dorsal fin then appears and if one is lucky either a fin will flap or, hope against hope, the tail flukes will appear. Sometimes an enormous head will rise to get a better look at us. You begin to feel that they are coming to see us as much as we are to see them and we learn that when their calves are born the whales teach them how to interact with the boats. Whenever a whale is spotted, by law the boat must remain at least 100 metres away, while we wait to see how the whale will respond Keith gives an amazing commentary of whale facts. In all we probably see thirty whales for the day and at one time we are completely surrounded by them. Some would just pass by, others would come for a look and the playful ones would swim under the boat making it rock. Somewhere in the middle of all of this excitement and running from side to side, back and forth, we pause for a smorgasbord lunch. Wine and beer are available for purchase from the bar. After a whale of a time we turn for home enjoying an afternoon tea of fruit, cheese, biscuits and more profiteroles as we slump on the deck totally worn out and enjoy an ice cold beer. What a perfect day. As we tie up at the marina Keith declares that it is time for us to “get off my bloody boat!” and we all give him a rousing round of applause and shake his hand as we depart.
Again it is fine and clear and perfect for sightseeing. We have booked a Toyota Land Cruiser tour as we feel that this would provide a more intimate experience than going by bus. We are picked up by ‘Troy’ at 7:30am and suddenly our alarm bells ring, the car is in disgusting condition, split seat covers with the foam hanging out, dirty windows (there go any photo opportunities) and the towbar completely rusted beyond use. If that isn’t bad enough the steering wheel is in tatters with hunks of material hanging from it. Troy, who is about as well dressed as a homeless person, appears in worse shape than the car. We arrive at the office which has been a house at some stage and now seems to be some sort of storage place for old gas bottles with a desk in the corner. As we walk in I automatically start to wipe my feet then realize that inside is dirtier than out. There are three Land Cruisers and we tourists kill time standing about gawking at the state of disrepair, especially the towbars that are completely eaten by salt. Someone dashes out for ice and after a long wait we get ready to depart. A passenger steps on the running board and it crumbles under his weight and hangs by the bolts on one end. We catch the 9:00am barge Kingfisher Bay from River Heads, apparently we have missed the 8:00am barge, which is no surprise. The barge is like a car yard for 4 wheel drives as each is reversed onto the deck. Each driver lets some air out of his tyres for the sand driving to come. The trip across the Great Sandy Strait is lovely in the clear sunny morning. We disembark at Kingfisher Bay Resort which is nestled in the forest and almost invisible from a distance. There are tarred roads through the resort and then wham the road becomes sand, although most of the vegetation is sandy heath land, the track is not a sandy track as we know it on the mainland but deep powdery sand that goes all the way to China and crisscrossed with thick tree roots that are searching for some purchase. Our cars plough through it rocking and rolling, swaying and gliding, climbing then falling with a thump over tree roots. Our bums are mid air as often as they are on the seat and after only five minutes I’m wishing that this hell would end. The novelty has well and truly worn off. After much bouncing we arrive at Lake McKenzie, the white sand bottom making the water very clear. The water is cold but we have a paddle anyway. There are a lot of tourists, the young ones swimming. If it wasn’t for the noise of all the people the solitude would be wonderful as there is no other sound. We brush off as much sand as possible and traipse back up to the picnic ground for a morning tea of lamingtons (cut in half, better not eat too much), buns and some sliced apple. A goanna wanders in for a photo shoot and doesn’t seem to mind iphones and Nikons poked in his face. The longer he is in the sun the brighter his yellow stripes are, a bit of a chameleon is this little guy. With sandy feet we clamber back into the car and plough off through the thick white sand, even walking in this stuff is difficult. There are seven in our car; ‘Fritz’ our Austrian driver and guide (too bad for Woody who left his hearing aids behind for safety sake), Lindsay and Julie retired truckies from Berri in SA and Juan and Dora a microbiologist and a Spanish teacher from Spain. All day Fritz calls Juan, Jose and tells us that we are going to enjoy ourselves. Fritz seems like a nice guy who tries just that little bit too hard and his tired old jokes are bordering on the insensitive.
We cross the island and arrive at the little township of Eurong where there is a reasonable sort of resort and from what we can see as we fly past, a few basic shops. Here we drive onto the beach, 75 Mile Beach, which stretches off into the sea spray haze. As Fritz stops on the sand he warns us to watch out for traffic and planes, but because his knowledgeable commentary has become something of a monotonous drone, like airplane safety routines we all completely disregard it. We clamber out onto the wide hard sand and run for the surf, all at once we realize that we are running blindly across a major highway and there are hoons tearing down the beach at a minimum 80kph! The beach speed limit is 80kph so of course that is considered to be the starting point. Four wheel drives are adorned with surf fishing rods and tall flags and seem to be driven by the intellectually challenged. The long beach could be beautiful if not for this madness. We soon discover that the beach is also a makeshift airstrip and yes there are planes taking off and landing beside us as we drive! Heaven knows what the salt does to the landing gear. We clamber back in and lay some more sand on the floor and head north along the beach at breakneck speed, although it is much smoother now, except of course when we bounce across creek outfalls or over rocks. Fritz tells us that they aren’t really rocks because they’re formed from sand, yeah, right Fritz, they’re still hard.
Part way along the beach we reach the wreck of the SS Maheno and it is impressive. It was a luxury steamer that founded during a cyclone in 1935 whilst being towed to the Japanese breakers yard. Its rusted remains are covered in shell fish and barnacles that squirt when you squeeze them. There are about fifty people viewing the wreck, four wheel drives whizzing past and a plane parked alongside. It is a sight to behold. Once more we clamber into the car dropping more sand on the floor, but apparently that’s not our problem, nor that of our tour operators, so we soldier on. We climb over the saddle of Indian Head and continue on up the beach to the Champagne Pools. These are three large rock pools with of course, sandy bottoms. A few of the group go swimming and we have lunch in the sand filled car park. It feels like having lunch in a child’s sand pit only larger and deeper. The
advertised ‘sumptuous lunch’ is rolls, cold meat and salad along with a ration of one beer or wine per person. The beer is slugged down quickly as, along with this morning’s cup of tea, is the only other drink we have for the whole day even though it is 25 degrees. Nick, the aboriginal cultural guide shows me the skill involved in playing a didgeridoo.
We deposit more sand on the floor of the car and fly back down the beach for a quick romp on the beach at the base of Indian Head, we choose to get to know Nick a little better. I really think the island would be in much better care if it was handed back to Nick’s people to look after rather than the current situation. Once more covered in sand we board the car and race to Eli Creek where clear the fresh water is almost invisible against the sandy bottom. It is a pretty creek and I wish we had more time to explore it. After a quick paddle we kick the sand in and scramble for our back seat in the roller coaster and bounce off, the empty thermoses rattling in the back behind us. The tide is coming in fast and of course we are an hour behind schedule and have been running late all day, so the convoy of Toyotas is splashing through the incoming waves with little beach left for our safety.
We breathe a sigh of relief as we reach Eurong and the island cross track as dusk descends. We pass a skinny lone dingo on the track the only one we’ve seen all day. Time is running out for us to catch the barge back to the mainland, if we miss it we will have to drive to the southern end of the island and catch the other barge to Inskip point then drive about 100kms back to base. Oh Lordy we could be doing this until midnight! We race hell for leather through the sand tracks twisting and turning around trees and around blind bends in the fading light. Other than one woman who won’t stop talking with nerves the rest of the passengers are all deathly silent contemplating whether they are going to be wrapped around a tree or the radiator of an oncoming car.
Finally the bridge of the barge comes into view above the trees and we are the last car to board. In fact we are well out into the strait before we manage to alight from the vehicle.
What a shocker of a trip. I feel so embarrassed for our Spanish visitors. I know which tour I’ll be recommending to my friends.