Chapter 19: "The Closing of the Year"

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Thursday, January 1, 2004

Happy New Year!

I'm nursing my minor hangover and waiting for my friend Tom (Gates) to show up at Beaches Backpackers, so it seems like a good time to continue my story.

The Fraser Island Company picked me up from Palace at 7:30 on December 27th in a 24-passenger 4WD tour bus. The buses have to be 4WD because Fraser Island is essentially an overgrown sandbar - it's the largest all-sand island in the world, and the only roads are treacherous sand tracks (and beaches). Remarkably, the place is covered in all kinds of forest, boasts dozens of gorgeous freshwater lakes, and is home to countless species of animals. The island is an outdoors-lover's paradise, and a trip there is on almost every east coast backpacker's itinerary. Most people book themselves into self-drive 3-day/2-night camping trips where they're shipped off to the island with 7 strangers, a crummy 4WD, and a big list of rules; because of my bus schedule I could only stay there 1 night so I had to go with a guided tour. At least it meant I didn't have to camp.

After a one-hour ferry crossing we were quickly bouncing along on one of the tracks wile Craig, our guide, told us about all of the trees & ferns surrounding us. His monotone delivery reminded me of 8th grade science class, so I tuned him out and made friends with the awesome 19 year old Swedish girl named Sofia who was sitting next to me. She was tickled that I had studied some Swedish, and she was lots of fun, so we palled around for the next 36 hours talking about everything from music to travel to politics to boys.

Our first stop was the Happy Valley Retreat (run by the Fraser Island Company) where we had lunch, and where we'd sleep in dorms that night. After lunch we paused at Eli Creek for a swim before continuing up to Indian Heads near the top of the island. Indian Heads is the big volcanic rock formation that was the birthplace of the entire island, and it's the only place on Fraser where you can find natural rock. From the top we were able to look down into the bay and see dozens of manta rays and small sharks swimming around. Fraser is well-known for its dangers; aside from the possibility of getting your 4WD stuck in the sand, you also have to watch out for the tiger sharks (they breed there), 6 species of venemous snakes, funnel-web spiders, and dingoes. The dingoes get the most publicity because one of them killed a 9 year old boy a few years ago. Everywhere you look there are signs screaming "Don't Feed the Dingoes!" Australians have a simple solution to animal problems: guns. Too many kangaroos? Shoot 'em! Brown Snakes on the ranch? Get the shotgun! When the kid on Fraser was mauled to death, the answer was to gun down thousands of Fraser dingoes, so that now there are only a few hundred left.

Driving along the beach to the sights reminded me of my Cape Reinga trip in New Zealand, except that the beach on Fraser might as well be a paved street for all the 4WD vehicles plowing along! Actually, the beach is designated as a state highway, so road rules apply but are rarely followed. On the way back down to the retreat we passed by the wreck of the early-1900's luxury liner "Moheno," the top parts of which stuck out of the sand eerily like a rusty Titanic.

Dinner was a barbeque (Craig cooked me some fish), and afterwards I hung out with Sofia and 4 "blokey" guys from Brisbane who were on vacation. They were super-interested in the U.S - especially Americans' opinions of Australia. Naturally they were dismayed to hear that most people I know think that Australia is full of A) screaming drag queens ("Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"), B) ABBA-obsessed social misfits ("Muriel's Wedding"), or C) annoying animal wranglers ("The Crocodile Hunter"/"Crocodile Dundee"). OK, most people I know don't think that, but it was amusing making the Brizzy-boys think they do. Just when the last of us were turning in for the night, we had the rare fortune to see a wild dingo! A small one came out of the forest, sniffed the garbage can, turned around, and ran. It was just a wild dog, but I felt pretty lucky considering no one else on the bus got to see one.

On Sunday our first excursion was to tiny Lake Wabby, which is hidden in the middle of some seriously huge sand dunes, which in turn are hidden in some dense forest. I had a swim and tried to pretend it was only 8 feet deep instead of 50+. If you stand still long enough in Lake Wabby, these odd tiny little fish come up and eat the dead skin off your feet. It tickles, so clearly I couldn't stand still for long. After the swim Craig dropped us off at a trail and we walked for 1/2 hour through some beautiful rainforest to meet him for lunch (Mexican wraps!). Only then did he tell us that it's estimated that there is one (deadly) funnel-web spider for every square meter of forest on Fraser. Yikes! Maybe he was lying - it's hard to tell when the Aussies are jerking you around, and it doesn't help that I'm gullible.

Lake Birrabeen took up the early afternoon, and it was a large royal blue lake fringed by startlingly white almost-pure silica sand. The water was warm and the sand was soft, so it was a pleasant way to finish off Fraser. The ferry ride back passed quickly, and before I knew it I'd said my "goodbye"s and checked back into the Palace Backpackers in Hervey Bay. That night I walked back to the theater and finally got to see "Return of the King," which was just as good as I'd expected. I'm looking forward to the extended version on DVD, though, as some parts towards the end seemed too rushed and obvious.

Hmmm... since I'm writing about movies, this seems like a good breaking point for a few year-end lists! So I don't forget (and since I've had lots of bus time to think about it), here are a few of my faves from 2003 in no particular order:

28 Days Later
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Wrong Turn

Dandy Warhols - Welcome to the Monkeyhouse
Idlewild - The Remote Part
Radiohead - Hail to the Thief
Robbie Williams - Escapology
Matthew Good - Avalanche

Delays - Nearer Than Heaven
Postal Service - The District Sleeps Tonight
Placebo - This Picture
Dandy Warhols - We Used to be Friends
Turin Brakes - Pain Killer

OK, now that I'm finished with my wanky self-indulgence... oh, wait - doesn't that describe this whole online journal thing? Nevermind.

Monday morning I lounged by the Palace pool and met Claire from England who was also waiting on the Oz Exp bus. It showed up at noon, so we boarded and met our driver, Simon ("The Freak" - 'though I can't figure out why). We paused in Bundaberg to pick up some famous Bundaberg Rum, and got to Kelly's Beach Resort in Bargara by 3. It was a fun day, and I made some new friends: Martin (England), cute Ricardo (an interesting mix - he's from Brazil, but is German/Italian), 2 Swiss girls, and 2 Dutch girls. I was also psyched that the bus driver for the southbound bus that was stopping in Bargara for the night was Schuey - my first Oz Exp driver! We sat his porch chatting with Simon for a while.

At 7pm that night 7 of us piled into the Kelly's Resort van and got dropped off at the Mon Repos sea turtle rookery in the hopes that we'd get to watch some turtles come up to the beach to lay their eggs. The staffers at the rookery bring people down in groups of 70 to watch each turtle, and they have a complex network of turtle-spotters up and down the several kilometers of beach who radio the center when a turtle emerges. We were some of the last people in line, so we ended up in turtle group number 5, which meant that 4 other turtles had to come up before our group would get to go down to the beach. We got as comfy as we could on the floor of the concrete visitor's center ampitheater and subjected ourselves to endlessly repeating slideshows and video programs about turtles... for 5 hours!

Finally our turtle made her way to the beach, so we all walked 1 km down to watch her, but by the time we got there she'd changed her mind and gone back to the sea. So we sat for another hour on the beach before we got the call that another loggerhead had waddled up and started digging her hole. I have to say that the wait was worth it. I can't explain why, but it made me tear up watching her work. Maybe it's because I know that most of her babies will never grow up. Maybe it's because I've always loved turtles, and I'd never imagined I'd get to witness anything like this. At any rate, it's a powerful thing to watch, and we were lucky enough to see 2 more turtles come up and lay their eggs before we finally headed back at 3am.

4 hours later I was awake and on the bus, and we were heading for the outback! Along the way we made several mildly interesting stops in the towns of Agnes Water, Town of 1770, and Rockhampton, and somewhere in the middle Simon put on the "Priscilla..." movie, which I've seen too many times but still enjoyed. In the late afternoon we pulled up to the Naomi Hills Cattle Station in Dingo. The station covers 45,000 acres, which I'm told is the size of Belgium. I met up with my friend Jack (from the first Oz Exp leg) who had been there for the past few nights, and I hung out with him and Ricardo for most of the night. The family that runs the station clearly loves to throw a good party, because the two 20-something brothers and their DJ dad had the whole bus drinking and goofing off in no time.

After a few beverages the games started. Tug-of-war was first: English versus "The Rest of the World." I'm glad our side won, because the losing team had to get up on the balcony and moon the winners. The next activity was line-dancing, and if you know me you'll be shocked that I didn't resist when the [hot] brother who was running the show insisted that everyone join in. I even caught on and was kicking away by the second song, although for future reference Tevas are not ideal footwear for dusty line-dancing. I wisely opted out of the "Boat Race" drinking game, which basically involved getting soaked in beer, and went to watch the stars with Ricardo and Jack for a while instead.

Yesterday morning (New Year's Eve!) we went on a tour of the cattle station. Derrick (the hot brother who led the dance) took us around in the back of a cattle truck, and we got a feel for how huge the place is. We saw kangaroos, learned about raising and processing cattle (it takes all of 40 seconds for each young bull to be de-horned, branded, ear-tagged, and castrated), watched a rifle & shotgun demonstration, and practiced cracking whips. When my whip wasn't wrapping itself around my neck I managed to get in a few good snaps.

We took off again at 11:30 and had a 3 hour long drive down the flat & straight Fitzroy Development Road. Sounds exciting, no? Simon showed us the Brad Pitt movie "Sleepers," which was an odd choice. I just fell asleep. After a stop in Nebo for lunch and a quick tour through Mackay to drop off 2 girls, we arrived in Airlie Beach just before 6pm. Airlie is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, which are a major vacation/sailing/diving destination. I checked in to a great air-conditioned room at Beaches and then kicked around town for a while. There's only one main street, about 5 blocks long, and it's packed with touristy shops, restaurants, backpacker accommodations, travel agencies, and bars & clubs.

At 10pm I met up with Ricardo for dinner at a place called Blitz, and then we sat on the crowded lawn near the beach to watch the fireworks at midnight. It was the first year they'd had fireworks in Airlie Beach, and they were actually pretty good. We snuck into the Beaches New Year's Party and hung out with friends from the bus for a while before heading back to the now-deserted beach at 2-something and (much to our mutual surprise) hooking up. Too bad he had to hop back on the bus this morning! Anyway, it's definitely not a New Year's Eve that I'm going to forget anytime soon!

OK, hangover's gone - time to go find Tom. Hope your 2004 is excellent so far!

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