Saturday, April 14, 2012

Easter on Fraser Island

Due to a lack of vacation days during our (ahem, Martin's) first year of work, we really have to utilize any and all long weekends for travel. Lucky for us, Australians actually care about time off at Easter (more so than Americans, but less than Norwegians), which has resulted in an extra long weekend with Good Friday and Easter Monday being public holidays. We seized this opportunity to travel to Fraser Island, just off the coast about 5 hours north of Brisbane.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world (remember the second?), and when they say it's made of sand, they mean it. There are no roads throughout the island, just bumpy, bumpy sand paths. The island contains "rainforests, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests, wallum and peat swamps, sand dunes and coastal heaths" - all sprouting out of the sand.

I had this vacation planned booked before we even got on Australian soil. In fact I had the whole thing planned before our visas were even granted! I am an eager beaver. Eager to see this country with the time and money we have available.

To get to Fraser Island you first need to make your way to the mainland that's closest to the island, then take a ferry over. The town closest to the island is called Hervey Bay, but make no mistake, it is pronounced Harvey Bay. I made a fool of myself plenty before learning that fact, so I'm warning you in advance. You can fly from Brisbane to this area but at $200 per person air travel was a bit rich for my blood. So what's the next best option?
Greyhound, baby! Nothing but the fanciest for us.

Two things of note: One, that big grill on the front of the bus. Martin told me it was to deflect kangaroos that get hit on the road. I don't know if this is true or not but kangaroos do get hit by cars frequently. That makes me sad, especially since I have yet to see a 'roo. Second thing: Check out the final destination of this bus. Cairns, 1,058 miles (1,750 km) from Brisbane! That's over 30 hours of Greyhound bus sitting! Hoooooly crap.

There's lots of stops along the way so most (or all) people don't travel that far or take the whole journey in one fell swoop. Still, that is a long way. Our 5 hour, 15 minute journey was surprisingly pleasant and arrived right on time. So far I am down with the 'hound.

There are several departures from Brisbane per day, and we decided to take the earliest one so we could have the whole afternoon to see Harvey Bay (we wouldn't get to the island until the next day).

Big mistake. Biiiiiig mistake.

It was Good Friday, which despite being a "public holiday" shouldn't mean much in a town that exists solely to cater to tourists. Not for Hervey Bay, though. Oh no, it was completely shut down and deserted. Well, it wasn't entirely a ghost town as there were other tourists like ourselves walking around wondering "Why am I wasting my time with this town?"

We sat down for lunch at a restaurant that is, most of the time, sea side. At 2 p.m., though, it's more like a you-can-kinda-see-the-ocean-from-here restaurant. The tide was way, WAY out.

It's not like you can be mad about this because then you'd have to be mad at the moon. And then you'd just be a crazy person. This allowed you to walk way, way far out (half a football field I'd reckon) and see some coral-like plant life that normally would be buried under many feet of water:
There's only so much ocean looking one can take before it's time to move on. So we headed out farther into town in search of alcoholic refreshment. Our "sea side" restaurant didn't have a liquor license. If they did, we would've stayed all afternoon to see if the tide ever came back in.

So we find a pub, have a seat and order some beers. We are told, soup nazi-style, "No beer for you!" Why? Because it is Good Friday. Because JESUS, that's why.

Actually, you can get beer, you just need to order a meal to go with it. Not an appetizer, not a side dish (this was explicit), but a meal. Why? I already told you, BECAUSE JESUS!

WTF, we have stepped into the Twilight Zone with a fa├žade of the dullest town ever. So we order nachos to go along with our beers, roughly 10 minutes after we just ate lunch. Nachos are considered a meal, you see, so sayeth the Lord.

We eat our nachos (not bad, by the way, and I know bad nachos after years of living in Norway) and drink our beer. We leave after one round because I don't know if we'd have to order another meal to get a second round of drinks, or what Jesus's policy is on that. Kidding aside, it is the state or the city council's policy, and I deem it a shitty one. Hervey Bay will forever be considered Dullsville in my mind because Good Friday was too precious to cater to tourists, the one and only reason it exists.

Maybe it's a lovely place to be when things are actually, uhh, open, but from my vast experience with boredom in Hervey Bay I cannot recommend this destination. Unsurprisingly (and not uncharacteristically, I must add), we spend the afternoon napping, but this time for lack of anything better to do. Our 7:20 a.m. departure out of town couldn't come fast enough.

Bright and early Saturday morning we are picked up by bus at our hostel (hey, Australia is expensive and I'm unemployed, no judging) and pick up others on our way to the ferry that will take us to Fraser Island. Freedom from this town is imminent! I haven't felt this way since high school.

On the ferry over we are warned, warned and warned again about the HuGe RiSk that dingoes present to humans.
From what I could tell there was a 99.9% chance that dingoes were going to EAT MY BODY AND SOUL, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Note the first one says negative dingo encounters are expected especially over Easter weekend. Yep, we're screwed! Though I'd much rather get mauled by a dingo than stay in Hervey Bay!

As soon as we get to the island we hit the ground running with the tour I booked. This being a sand island the only vehicles allowed on to it are 4x4's. You have 2 options for seeing the island: Take a tour in somebody else's 4x4 or bring your own, get stuck frequently in the sand paths and have to dig yourself out. We chose the former. Gladly.

Look at this tour "bus" (more like a tank), including me for scale:

That thing is a beast! It tore through deep, uneven sand like a hot knife through butter (though very bumpily). We were delayed by a half hour that day because some rinky dink Mercedes "4x4" kept getting stuck on one of the paths, disrupting all traffic behind it. The jerks in that Merc had 50 annoyed people stuck behind them, shooting daggers with their eyes and laughing that they sent a fluffy little bunny to do an ox's job. See why we chose a tour instead of going it alone? This is what the "roads" looked like:

This shot actually looks quite smooth and bump-free. Trust me, it wasn't.

Our first stop that day was Basin Lake:
It's a freshwater lake (one of many), that you aren't allowed to swim in. You used to be able to but so much sunscreen washed off into the lake that it was killing off the wildlife. Oops. And who would want to kill off this little guy?

We spent a good chunk of that day hiking through the forest, seeing nifty sights like this:
After a picnic lunch and more jungle walkin' we arrived at our leisurely afternoon destination, Lake McKenzie:
Another fresh water lake, and this time you can swim in it! The water was crystal clear (at least in the shallow parts) and we spent several hours lounging on our beach towels, swimming and eating cookies provided by our tour.

If you found this blog post by Googling "Cool Dingo tours" I must advise you: The cookies alone are worth choosing this tour over others. Christ on a bike, they were good! Totally worth getting diabetes for.

The next day was another early one, especially for Martin who was feeling a bit rough after a long night at the local Dingo Bar with his newly made BFF. There's no rest for the wicked, though, we had a lot of ground to cover today!

It was pouring rain when we got up which, surprisingly enough, flattened the roads down and made our drive much, MUCH smoother. It only ever seemed to rain while we were inside the bus and not outside exploring so we really got the best of both worlds.

Our first stop was a lookout point to the sand blows, an area of forest that is being overtaken by sand blown inland from the beach.
This huge chunk of forest was just being buried by sand, more and more each year. The picture doesn't seem like it but it was actually pretty cool and sand dune-y. Also cool, near the lookout point:
Eek! We saw quite a few gigantic spiders chilling in their gigantic webs. We were always a safe distance from them, though, thankfully, as they were freaking huge and scary.

We then headed to 75 Mile Beach, which is the beach that runs along the eastern coast of the island (along the Pacific Ocean) but is a highway. A real, functional highway of just beach:

There's tons of different sites along the beach highway so we spent the rest of the day driving down it, stopping at the cool things to see, my favorite being Eli Creek:
Eli Creek is a freshwater creek that varies in depth and has crystal clear water that you can swim in. It reminds me of a natural "lazy river" floating pool that you find at water parks. The ocean is right next door but it is not recommended to swim in since there are jellyfish, sharks (srsly) and very huge waves and dangerously strong currents. So people who value their lives and limbs swim here instead.

Then we went to the Maheno ship wreck.
"The most photographed piece of rust in the world." About three-fourths of the wreck is buried under the sand. She used to be a luxury ship, but she ain't any more! I never understood why ships are referred to as "she"...

Throughout the day Martin had been drooling over the little single-engine airplanes that were flying overhead. Word on the street is that they take off and land right on the beach highway, among the traffic. As soon as the pilot came on to our bus to offer a 15-minute tourist flight for $70 a head I knew I couldn't fight it. We had to go, according to Martin.

$70 is hard enough to swallow, but $140? Not going to happen. She who does not work does not go on wildly expensive tourist flights, either. So I convinced him to go without me. It worked out really well because the plane could only fit 7 passengers and 6 of our other bus mates wanted to go. Perfect! I didn't want to take up the seat of someone who really wanted to go (I was very meh about the experience, regardless of price). And even more perfect: Since Martin was going up solo he got to sit right next to the pilot!
There is nothing in this world that Martin loves more than aeroplanes and flying. He said "That pilot has the best job in the world" approximately 200 times. It wasn't until much later that he found this article, detailing how one of these little planes flipped over upon landing. There easily could've been deaths! Scary. Oh, and the planes totally do take off and land right on the beach highway!
Here are some aerial shots he took:

We were reunited just up the road at the Pinnacles Coloured Sands, which I can only assume are rock, otherwise the wind coming off the ocean would blow them away.
Then we hiked up this little mountain, Indian Head, where you can supposedly sometimes see sharks out in the water.
No sharks were spotted off the top that day. Disappointment, disappointment.

And finally the Champagne Pools which, false advertising alert, are not made of champagne but sea water that is trapped behind the rock wall once the tide goes down.
The rocks protect you from the treturous sea that lies behind, and the jellyfish and sharks don't make it over, so you can swim here.
Speaking of jellyfish, we saw a few dead/dried up ones along the beach.
But sadly this is the closest we came to deadly wildlife. This means we saw no dingoes. I was all but promised to be attacked by one, damn it, I want my money back! I'm not surprised, though, since we were always in a big group or in our huge, loud truck. People who camp on their own are probably the lucky ducks who get to be mauled by them.

This concludes our jam packed 2-day tour of Fraser Island. That evening it was time for us to return to my worst nightmare: Hervey Bay. We had one more night there before our return bus back to Brisbane the next day, on Easter Monday.

It wasn't as bad as Good Friday, but it wasn't good, either. Now before the Hervey Bay tourist board comes banging down my door I will defend them by saying this: It is a huge starting point for whale watching tours and it is months until whale season begins.

Still, I bet few people in this world have been so happy to see a Greyhound bus pull up to take them far, far away!

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