After 4 nights at the Arts Factory, (I could happily have stayed longer but the hippies were getting too much for Lisa) we leave Byron behind us and drive on to Australia’s answer to Miami, Surfers Paradise. Disappointingly, there is not a surfer in sight, but there are loads of Irish bars, tacky attractions and overpriced shops to keep us busy. We try out the ‘Infinity’ experience, (literally advertised as the closest thing to tripping balls without being high) where we are made to put on white gloves and shoe covers before heading into a labyrinth of dark rooms filled with a sensory overload of strange lights, mirrors, bouncy balls and hidden doors. We are followed around by a strange girl who then photobombs our picture in the creepiest way possible. Thanks weirdo.
We move on from Surfers before we spend all our money and head straight up the coast to Brisbane where we spend the rest of the day sunbathing at South Bank. (Pretty much the only thing to do in Brisbane…) The city has made up for the fact that it lacks a beach by building one from scratch and plonking it next to the river. The ‘beach’ attracts hordes of backpackers, families and students from the nearby university who come for a quick swim or to revise on the grassy banks. Not a bad way to spend a lunch break. As my original starting point in Aus, I’ve always had a soft spot for Brisbane, despite it’s unfortunate (yet apparently not entirely undeserving) nickname of ‘Boring Brissy.’
As we head further north on the Bruce Highway (yes, really), I spot a big brown sign pointing down a side road which reads ‘The Big Pineapple’. We miss the exit, but I persuade Lisa to turn around and drive 5k back up the highway to see it. Australia has an odd obsession with large roadside objects, so much so that there are around 150 ‘big things’ dotted around the country. One of the most visited is Coff’s Harbour’s ‘Big Banana, which you can actually walk inside of, and which boasts its own café and banana themed shop, think banana shaped water pistols and cuddly bananas hanging everywhere. These ‘BTOA’ have gained a kind of cult status and I’m determined to see as many as possible. In any case, stopping off at random, oversized objects is an excuse to take a break from the seemingly endless highway.
Unfortunately the poor pineapple has clearly not been as well cared for as the Big Banana. It looks a bit worse for wear and the surrounding café and zoo have long since closed down and sit shabby and abandoned at the roadside. The place seems eerie and a bit dodgy, the kind of place where tourists end up getting mugged or their car broken into while they take photographs of another giant piece of fruit..
So we don’t linger at the creepy pineapple and drive straight on to Noosa, a beautiful place where everyone seems to be a millionaire. The serene river winds its way through the townships, creating little islands where said millionaires have moored their yachts next to their mansions, and empty sand banks that look like mini desert islands that you can kayak out to. (Or swim out to if you’re brave, or stupid, enough to tackle the fast current and the possibility of a disorientated shark that’s accidentally swum in from the ocean.)
We pitch our tents at the Noosa River Caravan Park which must be one of the most scenic campsites on the East Coast. The campsite is literally on the river and we prop up our cheap camping chairs on the palm tree dotted beach and watch an amazing sunset accompanied by pelicans, cockatoos and a bunch of upbeat, middle-aged Aussie guys on a fishing trip. (One of them, who looks like Jack Black with dreads, takes a shine to Lisa and keeps calling her ‘Miriam’). The campsite is mostly full of families or older people, no wild parties here. But it’s the perfect place to chill for a few days.
The next point on our itinerary is teeny, tiny Rainbow Beach. We check into the Dingos hostel which is full of excited backpackers waiting for, or just returned from, their Fraser Island trips. At 4pm we are herded to the bar and the obligatory briefing which is very long and basically consists of an old Aboriginal guy (who, I’m later told, is not Aborigine at all and actually comes from New Zealand) telling us all the ways we are probably going to die. Seriously, if it’s not rolling our 4x4s or falling off cliffs or drowning it’s being eaten by the island’s wildlife, either snakes, spiders or dingos. Probably dingos. They look cute and cuddly but they are vicious wild animals and will rip your throat out given half a chance. (Over 3 days we only see a couple of dingos on the island and they barely acknowledged our presence, let alone trying to savagely kill us.)
We are put in a group with four very young, very blond Germans and an unfairly attractive French couple and are shown to our 4x4s which we load up with food, firewood and a lot of alcohol. I can already tell this is going to be more fun than the last trip I did here, when I was stuck sitting in a bus with a load of Japanese tourists wielding selfie-sticks. I soon realise however, that these huge vehicles are not easy to drive. On the wet, uneven sand the steering is hard to control and we veer all over the place, plus we keep getting the back wheels bogged in the soft sand. (I am the only one who manages to actually crash…though it was only into a small post…no casualties…except the post.) Despite the driving difficulties, it’s an exhilarating experience, and the island is just as beautiful the second time round. Nothing but sand, sea and rainforest for miles all around.
At ‘K’gari’, an old Aboriginal campsite where we’ll be sleeping, we are reminded to thoroughly check our tents for snakes and spiders before crawling in… There are a lot of rules at the camp. Whistling is forbidden as this is thought to invoke evil spirits. Spitting into the fire is also a strict no-no, as fire is sacred to Aborgines and to spit in fire shows great disrespect. Everything at camp is done in the open air, we cook our own meals in a hut that serves as a kitchen and drink goon from metal cups around a crackling campfire. When night falls, a group of us head to the beach. Away from camp it is pitch black and the Milky Way stretches out over us, millions of tiny stars sprinkled across the endless darkness.
Over 2 and a half days we drive all over the island visiting the main attractions. Lake Wabby is first on the itinerary, where little fish swim up to the edge and nibble your toes, free pedicure! Next is Indian Head, an impressive headland and lookout point, and also the site where original inhabitants were forced off the edge to their deaths… We stop off at the crumbling Maheno Shipwreck to take some obligatory selfies before chilling out at the Champagne Pools, the only spot on the island where you can swim in the sea without being dragged out by the rips or eaten by a shark. The waves crash over the rocks making the pools bubble and froth like a jacuzzi, or champagne, hence the name.
Day 2 we head to Eli Creek, my favourite spot on the island. Fresh water flows down the creek from an unseen source, said to be the purest water in the world. We fill up our water bottles and drink straight from the stream. (I try not to think about the fact that Aboriginal women used to come and give birth here…) The natural, gentle current means you can lie back and float effortlessly downstream all the way to the beach, a lazy river in a lush, jungle setting. Paradise.
Our last spot is stunning Lake Mackenzie. The deep blue middle fades to a clear, bright turquoise at the edges. The sand here is silica, the finest, whitest sand in the word. We scrub it all over our skin, a natural exfoliant, and leave feeling soft and squeaky clean, like we’ve spent the day in a spa.
After a wild last night at K’gari, that ended in everyone dancing on the kitchen tables, we drive our hungover selves all the way back up the beach to where the ferry will pick us up and take us back to the mainland. I have another go at driving and somehow manage to get us to the pick-up point without crashing again, or getting bogged in the sand, or tipping over and crushing everyone to death… phew.
Fraser was just as impressive and beautiful the second time around and it’s definitely an unmissable highlight of any east coast itinerary. There’s nothing quite like hurtling round an almost uninhabited desert island, full of dangerous, wild animals, in a death machine with wheels driven by a big group of overexcited, probably drunk, young backpackers.
Because of course, as Nietzsche said, ‘the secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.’