Night and day on Fraser Island.
The journey on the barge from Inskip to the southern promontory of Fraser Island is placid. The tide is running out, pulling ribbons of silvery water in a straight line along a sandbar. A lone fisherman is casting for whiting off a finger of sand to the south; the bulwark of Fraser looms to the north.
Already there are four boats moored in the lee of the island just east of the Sandy Cape Lighthouse. Only one will make it through the week unscathed. The crew has installed themselves in the shade of a huddled mess of gum trees and casuarinas. The camp spreads out from a pyramid of beer slabs, a spiral of swags and fuel jerries for the boats.
Between them and I lies about four hours of easy low tide run up the east coast of the island. Between this night and one a week away there are powerful fish, messy nights, lazy dawns and sheer destruction.
Fraser is a dark mistress: all of the delights of the sea wreathed in dark shadows beneath the surface. Wildness is its own cost. Something as small as a change in the wind can have catastrophic consequences. The sea here is as brutal and unforgiving as it is beautiful and unselfish.
But not yet. Now, I’m driving north around Hook Point, getting the wheels a little salty taking the low line around the scraggly trees that hug the high tide mark. The inland track is usually rough here, and misses the sprawling dunes that mark the southern end of the island, laced with sea birds by the hundred. They arc and weave around the 4WD as I drive through.
The beach is largely formless, featureless, for much of the drive north, a steady hum of sand under the wheels, the spray from the ocean coating the windscreen constantly with a pallid, blurry layer of salt.
I’ll be missing the towering old growth trees that barely remain after a century of logging on the island this trip. I’ll be missing the famous Lake McKenzie, a crystal clear iridium blue body of water hanging in a fold of pure white silica sand. I made the mistake of snorkeling it once, where I discovered the world’s largest collection of used bandaids settling on top of an older collection of dead leaves as the water deepens, darkens.
Eurong is worth a stop. I grab a couple of bags of ice to take north. This is one of the ‘towns’ on the island. Protected by dingo-proof grates, it has fuel and other necessities for survival here, but is largely bloated by bussed in travellers. I’m looking for a little more wildness this trip.
Past the coloured sands, past the rocks at Poyungan and Yidney. I’ve timed my run fairly well to hit the rocks at Ngkala, beyond Indian Head, at low tide.
Coming up to Eli Creek I can see the gleam of several dozen vehicles shining over the sand, and the roar, and then the shadow of a plane landing just over Ghost on the beach.
The water running over silica sand is bracingly cold, flowing strong and carrying guys with white bellies on black innertubes down to the beach, beers in hand. Children play in the shallows and time seems to stop here.
Just up the beach is the Maheno. There is a bus crowd milling the wreck, so I move on. Every year there is less of the old light ship remaining. Every year I wonder how much will be standing the next time I drive past.
If Eli is the fountain of youth, the Maheno is a symbol for aging.
It’s a long run up to Indian Head, home of Champagne Pools and also the de facto end of the road for most of the tourists. From here north, it is fishermen country. Orchid Beach slides in a wide arc up to Sandy Cape, a thousand gutters along the way filled with tailor, dhufish, salmon and just about every other species on a good day.
Dawn breaks outside the swag and it is early. Pink light fills the sky, but I can still see the lights on the boats swinging in the tiny swell. The waves practically lick the beach, but further out they are slamming into the bar, belying this shallow peace.
I’ve made mistakes already. The few beers last night are going to haunt me on the boat. We load up our gear, don our lifejackets for the bar crossing and, this time, make it without any issues. Not long after, I’m vomiting over the side of the boat. Most people are. The swell is serious out here.
We catch some solid mahi mahi, or dolphinfish, and a couple of blue marlin that are released. A decent threadfin is cut up on the boat for lunch – sushi doesn’t get any fresher than this!
We hunt for more marlin and tuna, but land a few more mahi mahi before heading home, a little sunburned, a little lighter from all the fluids we’ve all lost out here, and tie the boats up a hundred metres from the beach.
It’s tall fish tales and red wine until the moon rises through the trees. We collapse into our swags and vow to do it all again in the morning.
It’s a couple of days later. The days have passed in sweet anonymity. I no longer really know what day of the week it is, or what time it is beyond dawn, noon, dusk.
I dream of fish. They swim through the blackness of my head as they swim beneath the boat. The mahi mahi flash their turquoise backs through the glimmer of the waves and I can’t remember what I’ve seen, what I’ve dreamed.
Last night, though, my dreams were cut off abruptly by talking. The kind of panicked talking you don’t want to hear when you are in the middle of nowhere, and the moon is high in the sky.
Before I pull up the flap of my swag I’ve already gathered that one of the boats has pulled its mooring. Then I hear the sea.
What was a gentle lapping when we fell into bed is now a rolling crash on the beach, driven by a northeast wind that is pushing the swell over the bar and into our shallow haven.
The waves and the current have formed a new bar, just about where the boats sit in the water, and waves are breaking around, and into the boats. One lies sickly in the water, too low. Another has pulled its anchor and is wallowing in the shorebreak upside down.
We do our best to right the upended boat in the dark, our efforts lit by car headlights.
A demon web of snatch straps and carefully timed pulls gets the flipped boat back in the water. The t-top is smashed. Thousands of dollars of fishing gear is lost or destroyed.
Sore, tired and feeling a little elated that the boat is still afloat, we look out at the sad light of the other boat, sitting too low. There are too many sharks, it is too dark, the swell is too high now, to do anything.
Dawn will come, though, and with it the full weight of the situation.
“Hey, your boat!” a man yells out at first light.
I hear Craig answer, dejectedly, “Yeah, we know…we were waiting for dawn.”
“It’s about to hit the beach!”
I swear ten zippers all moved at once in that instant, making a strange sound that I didn’t think about until later.
A third boat had somehow pulled its anchor, twisting around and breaking two anchor lines. One of the boats was still wallowing on the bar, but the third one was lurching toward the beach.
We all ran down the beach and managed to catch the hull just as it hit dry sand. We guided it back into deeper water before it beached itself and began the long, arduous task of floating the other boat again.
The fishing was epic. And yet, Fraser lit up in more ways than one, teaching some important lessons, taking as much as it gave.
Most important, though, was the mood on the way home.
“I love Fraser Island!”
“I can’t wait to get back here next year!”
“How bloody good is this place!?”