One of the main things we wanted to do in Australia was visit Fraser Island. It's considered to be the largest sand island in the world and we got several recommendations for it before our trip. We debated whether we should do it or not because it was a lot over our budget, but eventually decided it was one of those unique activites we had to do.
We went back and forth about whether to join an organized "tag-along" tour or rent our own 4x4 and do it ourselves. We tend to stay away from tours because we like to do our own thing, at our own pace. With Fraser, though, we decided to go with a tour for a couple reasons: once you add in the barge fees, permits, lodging, etc, it was basically the same price either way; and we were a bit worried about driving on the sand and getting stranded. With a tour, they help you get out and you're not stuck there by yourself trying to figure it out, or paying a lot for a tow truck to drive out. We also weren't really sure where to go on the island, and thought with a tour we wouldn't have to figure out how everything worked. We researched a few different tours, and ended up going with one through the hostel Nomads Noosa. It was a three day, two night tour for $399, with one night on either side at their hostel in Noosa included.
We flew into the Gold Coast airport and rented a car to drive up to Noosa as we wanted to be able to stop along the way. Unfortunately, due to a lot of problems with our bank cards, we ended up not getting to stop very much at all, and were almost late returning the car. We had some problems with our bank cards in Cambodia and Malaysia, but figured it would be fine in Australia as our bank, Tangerine, is now part of the Scotiabank Global ATM Alliance with Westpac in Australia and New Zealand. When we tried the first Westpac ATM we found and it didn't work, we got a bit worried. We went into the bank and they couldn't see anything wrong, so we drove around trying to find WiFi to use Skype to call Tangerine. After multiple phone calls (in multiple locations, trying to find WiFi good enough to make the call), and trying multiple different ATMs, we finally tracked down the problem: apparently (despite calling in August to let them know we'd be traveling) our cards were not on some "secure list" of people traveling, so that's why it had been blocked. Since we'd been using the cards in Thailand and Vietnam without a problem we were a bit surprised, but who knows in the murky world of ATM alliances.
The morning of the trip we got up pretty early and left the hostel around 7:30. There were eighteen of us in total, and we were driven on a bus to Rainbow Beach (about a two hour drive) where we would pick up our 4WD vehicles. On the way we stopped at a gas station which has the biggest cactus in Australia! Quite exciting. ;p
At Rainbow Beach we divided up into three cars - two cars for the drivers (you had to be 21 in order to be able to drive) and one car that Karl(o-os), our guide, would drive with the non-drivers. I decided not to drive as I wasn't too confident about driving on sand and thought I'd have more fun just being a passenger, but Alan wanted to drive. I ended up getting in the same car as him anyway, even though I wasn't driving, which was good! Our car (car #3) had five people in it - us and three German girls. Alan lucked out since the other car had 6 drivers and they ended up with less driving time.
We started off by catching the ferry across to Fraser Island, stopping for a quick lunch on the beach a bit inland, and then driving up the beach.
It's best to drive at or near low tide (and sometimes necessary) so that you're driving on the wet, hard sand, and you have to be careful not to drive in the actual salt water. The way a tag-along tour works is that you're in different cars, but you drive close together and follow the tracks of the car in front of you. We were car #3, so we followed directly behind car #2, who followed directly behind Karl in the lead vehicle.
We had walky-talkies and Karl would let us know if we needed to catch up or slow down. He made sure everyone drove safely, and quickly stopped people who couldn't follow the car ahead or dropped behind too much. You can drive pretty fast on the beach; we were going 80-90 km/hr for the most part, and it's only more recently that the speed limit was lowered. There were a few times we needed to slow down to cross a stream, or when the speed limit dropped (it is an actual highway, with cops patroling, so you do need to go the speed limit).
We drove all the way up the entire east coast of the island (about 100km of pretty straight coastline) and ended up at the Champagne Pools, which was really pretty. It's a short walk in from where you park, and the waves crash over the rocks into the pools, creating little bubbles (sort of like champagne - hence the name). You're swimming in salt water, but not the ocean, and there's no worry about sharks as there is elsewhere on the island.
After the Champagne Pools we drove a couple minutes back towards where we started and went for a hike up Indian Head. It's a short hike and you get a really awesome view back down over the Champagne Pools as well as the other direction back down the beach. If you get close enough to the cliffs, you could see turtles and sharks in the water below - really cool!
We went to the hostel at the resort we stayed at after that; Nomads has a whole section of the resort to themselves, with a block of 4-bed dorms, a kitchen cooking area, use of the tables at the bar, and the day use pool right outside.
The next morning we got up early, had breakfast (toast, and our first cereal in over two months!), and then hit the road (or the sand, I guess!). We drove inland this time, which was a LOT different. It was super soft sand and very bumpy; we bouncecd in our seats quite a bit! At one point, our three car group got stuck behind a really slow car, while driving up a sandy hill. While Karl made it (because he's pro), car #2 got stuck! They radio'd Karl, who parked and came running back down the hill. They had to get out and push the car while Karl got it going again. Of course, because we were stopped behind car #2, we were then stuck too and had to do the same thing! It was quite the adventure. This made us glad that we were part of a tour and not having to get it unstuck ourselves - it definitely would not have been quite as easy.
Our first stop on the second day was at Lake McKenzie, which was probably my favourite stop of the trip. It's a really beautiful lake on the island that's filled entirely with rain water - no streams or rivers going in or out of it. It had a beautiful beach and we spent a couple hours there swimming and laying in the sun. It's a perched lake - meaning it sits on top of the sand - one of only around 100 in the world, almost half of which are on Fraser Island!
After Lake McKenzie we drove to Central Station nearby and had another delicious picnic lunch. There's a nearby short walk through the jungle/forest along Wanggoolba Creek and some artifacts and machinery from the logging that used to take place here. It was quite interesting, but the rest of the group except for one person was not interested at all and we rushed through it all a bit fast.
We then went back to the beach, and went up to see a shipwreck. The SS Maheno was a very fast passenger liner that held the record for the Tasman crossing at one point and sailed for 30-odd years. The NZ government bought it for use in WWI as a hospital ship and later the Japanese bought it for scrap. The rudder and propeller were taken out and it was being towed up to Japan when a tropical cyclone hit and the tether line was snapped. With no propulsion or steering there was nothing that could be done and the ship washed up on the island. For several years they tried to get the ship off the island but no one could, and eventually it was just left there. In WWII it was used for target practice by bombers and only about 1/3 of the ship remains today.
We then went to Eli Creek, which everyone floats down either on floaties or on their stomaches/backs. Unfortunately we didn't have anything to float on - it would have been a lot more fun if we did! The water was super cold, but you got used to it really quickly. We spent a couple hours there and had a lot of fun.
There are wild dingoes on Fraser, and we saw one or two on the beach while driving around. The resort we were at was surrounded by dingo fence so we didn't have to worry, but we were told not to go on the beach without a couple other people after dark. We heard some stories from the guides of times camping on the island and people being attacked by dingoes. Near the end of our time at Eli Creek a dingo approached, wandering through the parked vehicles looking for food. He tried to climb up a few vehicles to look around, and all the small children nearby were quickly rounded up out of the way. A ranger soon showed up and started shoeing the dingo away.
The third day we only had the morning on Fraser as we had to head back to Noosa in the afternoon. We also had some people from the 2-day tour join us, as their guide had to head back. Two of them ended up in our car driving and two in car #2. We went to Lake Wabby, which involves a 45-minute hike to get to. A lot of people from our group were complaining about it, but it was nice to do something besides driving! Split the trip up a bit. The lake is slowly being eaten by a sand dune; it used to be 4-5 times as big. As you walk out of the forest towards it, all you see is sand...you can't even see the lake until you're right by it; it kind of comes out of nowhere.
The lake itself wasn't too spectacular. There are apparently a lot of fish that will nibble on you (like the fish spas in Asia), which kind of freaked me out a bit so I didn't end up going in. It was nice to just lay in the sun. After this we headed back and caught the barge back to Rainbow Beach and a bus back to Noosa.
Overall, the tour was really quite fun. It included all meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), as well as snacks, water, and tea/coffee in the mornings. We were definitely well fed; there was always lots of food to go around, and leftovers as well. Karl, our guide, was great: good at managing the group while still being really friendly and easy-going. Most people were good at driving, even in the soft sand (which seemed to be the hardest part). There were some sketchy times where I was a bit scared, but overall it was good. We found it to be a bit too party-focused in the evenings, but for the target demographic I think they had it spot on. We'd have preferred to have more time at the cultural activities and a little less time laying in the sun, but it was pretty awesome nonetheless.
Check out our highlights video here.