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Into the wild
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Australia's Fraser Island, which has the only rain forest that grows on sand, writes Kate Wickers, is one of the best places for a family adventure
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By KATE WICKERS
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Special to The Globe and Mail
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Saturday, June 8, 2019 – Print Edition, Page P10


'Too easy." "No worries."

"Not a problem."

I hear these affable Aussie idioms a dozen times while checking in at the tiny ferry terminal at River Heads. We are bound for UNESCO-listed Fraser Island, 15 kilometres off Queensland's southeast coast. It is the world's largest sand island - 123 kilometres by 22 kilometres of rain forest (the only place on Earth where a rain forest grows on sand) circled by beach, crisscrossed with unsealed roads that require a four-wheel drive to explore. The local Butchulla people call the island K'Gari, meaning paradise, but it is not without its dangers - sharks aplenty swim in these waters and dingoes prowl the land. The untameable nature of it all adds up to one of the best wilderness adventures that Australia has to offer.

This suits my family - my husband, Neil, and sons Josh, 17, Ben, 16, and Freddie, 12 - just fine. But it's easy to forget any risks as we disembark, walking up the jetty toward a powdersoft beach fringed with bushland and the shadow of a green sea turtle gliding in the water beneath us. However, the "what to do if you meet a dingo" leaflet is soon distributed (make eye contact, cross your arms on your chest, back away but never turn away and make lots of noise). I am doubtful we'll see one but my sons enjoy the frisson of danger it creates.

We are staying at Kingfisher Bay Resort, in a spacious threebedroom wooden villa built on stilts that blends considerately into the forest, kept cool by bottle-brush trees, cooloola pines and pandanus palms. I book in for a ranger's bush-tucker talk, teasing the boys that we'll be doing a bush-tucker trial à la the reality show I'm a Celebrity, which soon has imaginations running riot and all declaring that there is "no way" they'll be eating a witchetty grub. My psychologic trick works when bitesize amounts of crocodile (predictably chewy) and kangaroo (melt in the mouth) are presented and gobbled up without a murmur. We learn about indigenous plants used for both culinary and medicinal purposes, while Freddie deals with the guilt of eating a marsupial.

Just before sunset we head for the beach, where, like castaways, the boys make goal posts from driftwood and play soccer, while Neil and I settle on beanbags and enjoy a cold, local Bargara beer from the low-key Sunset Bar. All is delightfully chilled out, so when a large dingo appears it takes us all by surprise. We freeze, remembering to stay calm, eyes firmly fixed on this handsome male, with almond eyes and a sleek coat that glows burnt orange in the sunset. I also note the strong jaw as it trots confidently up to within a few metres of the boys, before running off down the beach. Dingo drill over, my heartbeat slows and I knock back my beer. "That was awesome," is the general consensus.

The highlight to a stay on Fraser Island is a day or two spent traversing the bumpy, sandy tracks in a four-wheeler.

Neil is given a 45-minute briefing, a map and a casual wish of "Good luck, mate," before we set off in our Toyota Hilux. We get the impression that the staff at tour operator Aussie Trax are used to scrambling out on rescue missions. You can join an organized tour, but it is thrilling to fly solo. Our bottoms bump happily off our seats and we make noises usually associated with rollercoaster rides as Neil navigates the ups and downs of these slippery slopes, etched with scenery that inspires Ben to play the Jurassic World theme tune on his phone.

We head first to the lookout over crystalline Lake Wabby, with an immense sandblow on one side and a thicket of gum trees on the other. From here it's just a short bounce to the "highway" - a stunning 120-km beach, slashed with fresh-water streams that trickle into the ocean. We park at Eli Creek, a natural lazy river that pumps 120 million litres of fresh water into the sea daily. We've come prepared with rubber rings (sold in the resort's shop), because after you've walked upstream along the boardwalk it's fun to hop into the creek to float back to the beach.

The immense rusting skeleton of the 5,300-tonne Maheno shipwreck is visible long before we reach it. "Can we climb on it?" Freddie asks hopefully, but in truth what is left is not a safe frame. Built in 1905, in its heyday it enjoyed an illustrious career (setting a record ferry crossing time from Sydney to Auckland, then later carrying 16,000 wounded soldiers from France to England in the First World War).

It was being towed to Japan for scrap when a cyclone hit and it washed up on Fraser in 1935. Only two of its rusting decks are visible but below the sand there are a further five.

Just beyond the pinnacles, (immense sand spires of coloured sand), we arrive at Indian Head, which we scramble up for spectacular beach and ocean views. Ben soon spots a fountain of water gushing on the horizon, which we quickly identify as coming from a humpback whale.

It travels close to the shore, breaching and slapping the water with a mighty fin. Three enormous manta rays glide companionably by at the foot of the rocks and a pod of dolphins play just beyond. We whoop at the luck of it.

Lake McKenzie, our last stop of the day, is ethereal - the water an icy menthol blue due to its white silica sand bed - and it is impossible to resist a dip. We stay until sunset when the pink clouds reflect in the water to create a perfect mirror image, and for once my sons are rendered mute.

Back at Kingfisher Bay, Josh grabs a paddleboard at high tide, with the non-reassuring argument that he is "much more likely to be killed by a dingo than eaten by a shark." I sign the disclaimer. Freddie heads off to try the Junior Eco-Ranger program and comes back smelling of bonfire and with tales of the snakes he has seen. Neil, Ben and I take a guided canoe trip into Dundonga Creek, with its eight species of mangrove, home to brahminy and whistling kites, with their distinctive high-pitched cry of "seeeeeo."

We all reconvene at Seabelle Restaurant, which takes inspiration from the local bush tucker and opt to eat al fresco on the deck, enjoying the natural soundtrack of frogs and cicadas.

Tea-smoked kangaroo loin, crocodile "calamari" and local barramundi wrapped in paperbark turn out to be good choices, and lemon myrtle (taken from the leaves of a native tree and used to flavour the butter) is a hit with my sons. "Bear Grylls would love this," Freddie says with a sigh.

Before departing we have one final epic encounter. Between August and October the waters around Fraser Island become a chill-out zone for humpback whales, who pause here during their migration from the Antarctic to the South Pacific for calving. Pacific Whale Foundation, a research-led non-profit organization, operates twice-daily boat trips and is worthy of your dollars. We're only out on the water for 30 minutes when "Whale at 11 o'clock!" is hollered. Two large female humpbacks head our way and everyone reaches for their cameras hoping for "the tail shot."

"Wow, that was amazing," we gush at the end of our trip.

"No worries," the captain says, and after three days cast away on Fraser Island I realize that this is absolutely true.

Associated Graphic

Fraser Island's Lake McKenzie's icy menthol-blue look is caused by its white silica sand bed, top. A Fraser Island jetty can be seen from the sea, above.

PHOTOS BY KATE WICKERS/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Walking the beach at the jetty, top left. The view of Fraser Island jetty from the sea, top right. The cliffs and sea at Indian Head, centre left. A dingo on the beach, centre right. Visiting Maheno Shipwreck, bottom right.

KATE WICKERS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


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