Poll Star's Wonderings

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Let's off road

Well I guess you can't be up for it the whole time. Last night was pretty lame and rather dull and was in an out of town place, where the shuttle bus meant staying 4 and a bit hours. I struggle to get the party spirit when I'm not inspired, and I was not inspired.

In turn, this frayed my confidence for the remainder of the East coast jaunt; I've met plenty of interesting 18-22 year olds on my travels, and been on the piss with many of them. There is the world of difference between travelling and partying when the mood or place takes you and flying somewhere on a mission to party and do little else. If you're on a gap year and the East coast is your only Australian destination, it seems to me that you probably fall into the latter camp. And you'll probably bore the arse off me.

When I saw the passengers for our new larger bus, my spirits weren't exactly raised. With my help, the average age may have touched 20. Having said that, all misgivings were soon set aside; there were a couple of dullards sat behind me listing their party exploits, but the Johns were back and there were a good number of sound folk. I think it was the first time I hung out almost exclusively with blokes, at least till later in the evening. Anyway a few conversations later, the spring was back in my step.

I guess it was a very Australian day; it was certainly a very competitive day. Our long drive and evening were punctuated by chances to beat people.

After a few hours, we made a stop at a lawn bowls club; there were 2 rinks with very welcome awnings. It seemed to be ladies day on rink 1, where a platoon of ladies of a certain age played, resplendent in their whites. We played nextdoor, barefoot in t-shirts and baseball caps. The 3 of us held an inter-John tournament that I didn't win.

To me there is something fundamentally unAustralian about bowls, but it seems to thrive. There are bowls clubs everywhere. Our driver, who used to work at a bowls club, told me towns often get a bowls club before getting a school. Hell, we even watched an Australian bowls movie on the bus. I was rubbish.



We spent the evening at the Kroombit cattle ranch, which I was delighted catered for veggo's. After dinner, the games began. We learned to crack a whip, as any aspiring Indiana Jones must. I started off well, but was ultimately a bit crap.



Then onto the mechanical bull. I was about average for the group, which was essentially pathetic.



John prepares his exit from the mechanical bull.

After we'd all risked our chances of becoming fathers (it can leave you with a groin strain, or bleeding), a local went on, sat on the wrong end, with both hands in the air, got bored after a few bucks and turned round and went to the other end. Bloody showoff, if you ask me.

We then had some non-drinking party games. We burst some balloons amusingly, passed a little red bull round a circle and played a strange musical chairs variant (to country music).

Then we had a game I'd not seen before-pick up the carton of XXXX. You start off with an empty carton of XXXX, taking it in turns you try to pick up the box-using only your mouth. Only your feet can touch the ground before the lift (no knees, heads, hands touching down). Fail and you're out; succeed and you rip a piece off the box before the next person tries. I was bloody brilliant at this, surprisingly. After about 3 rounds, teeth were no longer any use and all that was left was a flat piece of card about 5cm square, which 6 or 7 of us had lifted with our tongues (this needed regular replacement of soggy bits of cardboard). To decide the winner, we were each given a flat bit of card; the first one to lift it and then hold it above their head would be the winner.

I dead heated with one of the girls from the farm, so we went head to head. I got my piece up first, but having got gravel on my tongue in the original final, I was low on tongue stickability. My piece fell to the floor and I knew the XXXX cup was gone. Why I have no photos of it is a bit of a mystery; it's a definite event for International King of Sports. Another very late night ensued.

I had been meaning to ride since going on a camel safari with Mik in 2001 and jumped at the chance, despite it meaning yet another early start. I think it may have been 20 years since I'd been on a horse and my mother had memorably described me as 'looking like a sack of potatoes'. I thoroughly enjoyed herding goats from my seat in Pipsie's saddle. This is another thing I should learn to do properly.



Although we reached no great speeds, I reckon I was pretty good-I was at the forefront of the herding and most of the others said their horse basically did as it pleased. I even had to give Pipsie some TLC as she had uneven hips, which led to a limp if she started off on the wrong foot-that's just what I was told.

We then had a goat rodeo (basically catch the goat), before heading off to Hervey Bay with lunch en route. I'm going to Hervey Bay to do a self-drive 4x4 tour of Fraser Island (maximum 11 people, which sounds cosy).

Hervey Bay and I got off to a bad start, it has no pavements and I don't like that. Especially when I look at a map with no scale, decide I fancy the walk to my hostel and it takes 50 very sweaty minutes to get there. And then the woman in the internet café is unreasonable. I've basically got tomorrow to look round Hervey Bay-I may stay in bed, doesn't look like there's much here.

Still Dutch Ivo in my dorm seems very nice, as does the Spanish guy whose name I've already forgotten-he walked in while I was writing this. They'll both be in the landcruiser with me. As you need to be 21 to drive, I may be doing quite a bit.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world; it has more sand than the Sahara desert; it has the finest sand on earth, so put your camera in an airtight bag; the sand is blown from Sydney, well over 1,000kms away; it is 75 miles long; it is Australia's 3rd largest Island; the speed limit on the beach is somewhere between 70 and 100 km per hour; it is yet another Australian UNESCO World heritage site (I read today that the opera house is to apply). It's also been the scene of some pretty horrific car accidents-at speed when you hit holes, bumps or turn sharply, it's easy to roll. When most passengers are in the back, sat on benches, that hurts. Sand is the most taxing surface on which to drive a 4x4; most of Fraser's visitors are 4x4 novices on a self-drive. There are a number of the ingredients in a recipe for trouble.

I gleaned all this from Fraser Escape's two introductory talks, the second of which was fire and brimstone in tone. Pops was meant to talk to us about driving the car and getting round the island safely. He was a cliché ridden bore, addicted to hyperbole-no one knew more about Fraser Island than he did, he talked of body bags, you kids, quadraplegics, finishing your holiday in hospital, coming off the island on a tow truck/emergency helicopter, paraplegics, dickheads and dead Australians, who, being Australian, should have known better. Clearly his favourite expression was 'world of pain'; if we didn't listen to him, Fraser had countless dramatic ways of sending us there. The most useful information he imparted came in response to questions-what to do if we got stuck, how do we spot the 2 creeks of death (one of which Pops described as 'the bitch of Fraser') and how the eskies worked.

He was accompanied by his 12 year old side kick of a grandson, who'd clearly learnt his delivery from Pops-'this is your return ticket for the barge; without it, you will NOT get off the Island'. (Unless in a helicopter, tow truck or body bag). He was dubbed The Kid, and loomed over everything we did on Fraser; on numerous occasions before we left, he popped up out of thin air and it seemed as if he was always about. There were those whose dark suspicions extended to him being a shapeshifter and, amongst other things, assuming the body of the bird we saw on Lake McKenzie that Ivo described as a 'fucking weird duck'.

Don't get me wrong, Fraser is dangerous and people do behave like dickheads, but there are ways to speak to people that ensure they absorb your message rather than marvel/laugh at your ludicrous, melodramatic delivery. Still, Pops provided a lot of laughs, long after we waved him goodbye.

Despite being a group of ten, all the driving was down to Curro (Spanish guy) and me. The five American girls weren't licensed to drive a manual, while Ivo and the Danish girls, Mia and Ditte, were under 21. I had a feeling of African deja vu: we travelled in a LandCruiser; Didi in Africa was Danish and her name was actually Ditte; Danish Mia wanted to get into psychology, focussing in schizophrenics, just as Slovenian Mia did.



We rolled off the barge and started out on one of the tracks across the island-only the east beach is designated as 'highway'. En route we had one stop. When Belinda Carlisle sang 'Ooh, Heaven is a place on earth', it's pretty obvious she was inspired by Lake Mckenzie



You can drink the water as you swim in it (no sunscreen allowed, so I did get a bit burnt). We filled up our 45 litre water container, which lasted us the trip, although it weighed a bit as I took it up to the car.

We continued the drive across the island on narrow and often bumpy tracks. Ivo jumped in the passenger seat after Lake Mckenzie and promptly proclaimed that 'this is some real off roading'. I was taking it fairly steady, as we were travelling through what can only be described as forest; I have no idea how so many trees, often big trees, grow in sand without falling over.



From the beach, we headed North, passing the Maheno shipwreck on our way to the night's aboriginal camp.

Jo was very affable as he welcomed us and showed us the camp's layout, only later did I discover what a top bloke he was. We needed a fire to cook the potatoes, so I went to find Jo and ask for some wood. I guess I was expecting to be presented with a neat bundle of firewood. Instead, Jo said 'No worries bro, see if I can get me truck started and we'll go for a burn up. Once I managed to get my door shut, Jo coaxed the rickety old truck to life and we hurtled off into the woods. We stopped twice and loaded the back of his truck with a mixture of kindling, logs and chunks of tree 12 foot tall. I'm not sure if any of this was legal.

Later he took a bunch of to the beach for a moonwalk. With only the majestic stars for illumination, 6 of us moonwalked on the sand. Our feet momentarily a mass of fluorescence. It was a neat trick. I rode up front on the way back and discovered that as the truck's headlights didn't work, I needed to lean out the window and light the way with Jo's headtorch. Not easy when you've a tin cup of wine in the other hand. Jo's a legend.



A number of us did the early rise to watch the sun do likewise on the beach. Cloud and rain denied us any great photos, but it was a lovely walk on the deserted beach.



Later we took a swim in Eli creek (number 1 death creek), where it seems the latest fashion was the refugee look.



From there we had another substantial hike to the champagne pools, which are basically a pair of natural saltwater swimming pools.



Then it was onto the night's camp. Camp rules stated that you had to be quiet between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., which was another odd piece of Australian over-regulation. Still no one bothered us and we had a bit of a party. It seems even the most beautiful of ladies gurn after a few tooheys



One for the Scatman there. Incidentally, he's off the train after three days and in Perth. It sounds like he could make a fortune renting himself out as a magnet for shit weather-the Nullaboor had half it's annual rainful while John hoped for a good sunset.

Next morning, the walk to Lake Wabby was reasonably taxing and demonstrated that Fraser is indeed a sandy place.



The lake itself was another curious mixture of sand, trees and fresh water.



One quick last stop at Lake Mckenzie and we set off to catch the barge. We hoped.

It turned out that the barge guys has misread the tides, which meant they couldn't land, which meant we were stranded for a couple of hours. This was less than an ideal, as this was my tightest connection of all-plan was back to the hostel at 3.30/4.00, catch bus at 5. Apart from Ivo, everyone had flights or buses that night. Cue a burst of frantic phone calls, which resulted in us tearing across the island to catch an alternative barge. 'Tree John' said Ivo casually as we tore through through the forest on a brief collision course. Despite some true bandit driving from yours truly, we missed ther 4 O'clock, which after more frantic calls and running around proved to be the last vehicle barge of the night. Julie had been running the show to try and get us right, so there was no argument with the executive decision to abandon the car and get on the last passenger ferry for the night.

Despite the foretellings of doom from Pops we all got off the Island in one piece. There was a lot of death all the same: the March flies (big, biting bastards that I hadn't seen since Western Australia) were out in force. As were some shockers with green eyes. These were very different from the flies of the outback (want nothing more than to get into your eye/nose/ear/mouth), this lot were after your arms and especially legs. Tho they'd bite you through the t-shirt if they could. Like an Australian cricketer I was focussed, ruthless and devastating. I killed a lot of them, and I wasn't the only one. It was one of those times when you look forward to sunset as much for the fact that it is flies' bedtime as the views. It was a top drawer trip: the group was brilliant. It was fun, we shared a lot of laughs, the food was good, we all liked the same mix of seeing the island and having a few beers and everyone chipped in-it's worth bearing in mind that we were essentially taken to a supermwarket to do 3 days food shopping, given a big bastard truck, a map and itinerary and left to get on with it. That leaves a lot of scope for moaning and argument.

Were time on my side, I'd have idled the extra day in Hervey Bay and pushed everything back a day or two. Since I've only 1 night in Byron Bay (where Mia and Ditte managed to spend 2 and a half of their 7 weeks) and just 10 more nights in Australia, time is not on my side. So I skipped my pre-booked, pre-paid bus and I'm now sitting on what appears to be the retirement special to Brisbane, where I will complete the set of state capitals. After a free night in the Hervey Bay hostel, my impatience has only cost me 30 bucks, which I can live with.

I hear Freddie's been on the piss; I hope the press haven't stuck the knife in, but I doubt it.

On a sad note, my thongs (flip flops, action sandals) have finally fallen apart as they've been threatening since my arrival in Oz. I couldn't tell you how far I walked in them, but my zebra feet are a testament to their sterling service. Looks like an expensive day in Brisbane as my watch battery has also gone and I have got to buy a shirt or two.

Thong update-the Nike ones I got for 15 quid before going to Athens cost $150 to replace. Oops, should have looked after them a bit better, Here's hoping the $40 bargain basement pair I found are some good.

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