Monday, November 2, 2009

The most beautiful place in Australia?

There are many beautiful places in Australia, and in the past ten months or so we’ve seen a lot of them. The Great Ocean Road, the rainforest of the Wet Tropics, the Whitsunday Islands, Great Keppel Island, the Blue Mountains, the Misty Mountains, Port Arthur, the Great Barrier Reef – they are all stunning and memorable. But I think the most beautiful place we’ve seen so far may well be Lake Mackenzie on Fraser Island. And we very nearly didn’t go there.

Fraser Island is located just off the coast about 40 kms north of here. At more than 100 kms long by 30 kms wide, it is the largest sand island in the world. It’s listed as one of the must-sees on this part of the coast, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. So why not go?

Well, it’s partly because we thought we may have already seen much of what Fraser has to offer. Descriptions of the island emphasize the long, pristine beaches, the lush rainforest, and the crystalline freshwater lakes.  Sounds lovely, but also very familiar: we’re living just a few minutes walk from a long, pristine beach; the hinterland around here is full of stunning rainforest walks; crystalline lakes are a bit harder to find in Australia, but as people who live an hour's drive from Georgian Bay, we have had just a bit of experience in that regard. At this point in our journey, with just two months to go, we’re having to make some serious choices about what to see and where to go. Skipping a trip to Fraser seemed like an easy choice.

And yet, it kept nagging at us. The place is listed as a world heritage site, after all. And there are some elements of Fraser that we haven’t experienced, such as driving on the beach (the beaches there are designated as highways) and seeing dingos in the wild. In the end – with a very strong nudge from the staff at Sharon’s school – we decided to go.

Going to Fraser isn't as simple as just scooting up the road. Fraser Island is an enormous sand dune, after all, and conventional vehicles simply aren’t allowed on the barges that go to the island. You can hire your own 4x4, or you can take a guided tour aboard special buses. We’re not usually fans of guided tours, but the horror stories of novice drivers getting their jeeps bogged in deep sand convinced us that we should let someone else do the driving.

We weren’t very far into the trip before I decided we’d made the right decision. Travelling from Noosa, we drove up the beach on the mainland for about 30 kms, then took an inland track to reach Rainbow Beach, where we would catch the barge to the island. As the bus heaved and pitched through the soft sand of the inland track, and squeezed past oncoming cars on a path that seemed barely wide enough for one, I was glad I was able to just sit back and enjoy it.

Once we reached the barge landing site, I was even more pleased. The barges that run to the island may look like typical ferries, but they don’t bother with niceties like docks: because the whole region is sand, they just pull up right on the beach rather like a D-Day landing craft. Getting the bus to the barge meant running an obstacle course, the driver gunning his engine while navigating between a handful of utes and trucks that were bogged axle deep in the soft sand. His running travel commentary suddenly stopped, replaced with a tense hissing sound as his headset picked up his heavy, concentrated breathing.

A five minute barge ride and we were on Fraser, where we skirted through another cluster of bogged vehicles before roaring down the beach. Looking out the bus window at a couple busily shovelling sand out from under their wheels, it wasn’t hard to picture myself in the same boat.

Turning inland to another incredibly tortuous track, the driver explained that the island is unusually difficult to drive on these days. Rain acts like a grader, packing the sand down and smoothing it out. Fraser hasn’t had a decent rain in months, so driving the sand roads is like driving through sugar. Sugar with metre deep holes that set the bus swaying in a sometimes quite alarming fashion. At one point we even saw another off-road tour bus getting bogged, something that would no doubt help shorten the career of its driver.

Thousands of people come to Fraser each year to camp on the beaches or stay in one of the resorts. Doing a daytrip meant we had to settle for just a couple of quick highlights: we would walk a rainforest track beside a creek, and we would swim at Lake Mackenzie.

The rainforest track was lovely. Water slowly percolates through the island's sand, taking about a century to go from the high lakes to the creeks. Because of that, drought has little effect on the island's water table. Even though it hasn't rained in weeks, the forest was lush and green. The creek water, being so completely filtered by the sand, is absolutely clear -- in photos you really can't tell that there's water in the creek at all.

That same water, when sitting in a lake many metres deep, turns out to be the most stunning rich blue. Lake Mackenzie is that blue, an unbelievable, breathtaking sight. Even though the lakeshore was crowded with a hundred or so visitors, it still managed to feel like a pristine hideaway, a place so perfect that it could not possibly be real.

Swimming in that lake was an absolute joy. It reminded me very much of swimming at Bruce National Park in Ontario, except that the water was about 23 degrees.

We could have stayed there all day, all week if we were allowed. There's no camping allowed at Lake Mackenzie, which no doubt helps preserve the water quality. But both Sharon and I said that, one day, we will come back to Fraser Island. And next time we'll drive our own 4x4, soft sand or not, just so we can camp on the beach and return to Lake Mackenzie to swim there every day.

Oh, and the famous Fraser Island dingos? Didn't see a one on the island. But we did see one trotting through the ditch on the outskirts of Rainbow Beach. Looked rather like a stray dog to me, which I suppose is really what they are.

(As for photos, Sharon's got a bunch on her Facebook page. I'll have to see if I can figure out a way to link to them for people who aren't on Facebook. Stay tuned.) 

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