Postcards are a big fat lie.
Pulled from our daily mailbox, postcards promise a turquoise dream of tropical beaches and heart-stirring, Photoshopped skies. We tack them to our fridge, then leave them up there for months, reminding ourselves at random moments that there is a faraway place that is much more beautiful than here and now.
Fraser Island was supposed to be postcard-esque. I could hardly wait to walk on the wind-whipped sand dunes, wade on the brilliant white beaches and tramp through the towering rain forests. At least that’s what I though after reading National Geographic’s feature last September all about Queensland’s great isle of sand. Peter Essick’s photos were so gentle and compelling, I found myself wanting to go there–to be right inside that breathy article written by Roff Smith, a man whose guidebook is the only one I looked at before coming to Australia and someone who inspired me years ago with his epic bicycle journey around the entire Australian continent.
And so, thanks to Peter and Roff, I traveled to Fraser Island, which used to be called Great Sandy Island and sometimes still called K’gari, which means “Paradise” in the local Butchulla language. That’s the problem in Australia–every place has a lot of different names, each person naming a place based on first impressions, hence place names like “Lake Disappointment” and “Broken Hill.”
“Big gray rainy,” would be my non-postcard Aussie name for Fraser Island. Riding the ferry from the mainland, I couldn’t even see the island for the dense rainy fog. The sky was gray and the sea was brown–the muddy runoff from the flooded rivers of Queensland. I was disappointed–this was not the way Fraser Island looked in National Geographic.
Signs along the mainland shore warned of deadly crocodiles, and the island’s endless beaches were off limits for swimming–if the powerful rip tides don’t deter you, then just ask about the plus-size sharks (e.g. tigers, bronze whalers, and great whites).
So Fraser Island didn’t look or feel like the pictures, big deal. As a traveler, I can cope. As a warm-blooded mammal, it was tough. The epic rains turned into a cyclone (like a fat-free hurricane) and drenched everything. The rain fell with such force, I found myself shouting across the table on Christmas Eve. I forgot what it felt like to be dry and walked into the air-conditioned hotel lobby, soaked and shivering. I sought out the hot tub as a last resort but it was permanently occupied by a dozen beer-drinking grownups and about 15 kids all wearing floaties. Also, the water was only vaguely tepid. Like the cold tub, my Christmas cheer was quickly evaporating.
Somehow, Santa made it to Fraser Island–when I woke up, my stocking was full and the rain had softened to a dull gray pitter-patter. I set off Christmas morning, determined to explore this unique World Heritage site: Great Sandy National Park–the world’s largest sand bar and most of it covered in rain forest! There were dingoes out there, too–Australia’s (kind of) native wild dog. How splendid–I beamed, then wished Merry Christmas to all and climbed on the tour bus wearing new dry clothes and carrying a bag full of cameras, each with a full battery.
Then it started to rain again. The windows fogged up. Our bus slid and sludged its way through the mud and behind me, a French family began quarreling with intensity. The tour guide’s microphone was too loud so that every stressed vowel hurt my ears. His voice was monotone, his banter pedantic and tiresome. I sat patiently through long stretches of dark forest, recognizing the French curse words tossed back and forth behind me. It was awful.
There were a few bright spots–we stopped at lovely Lake McKenzie for a swim. The water was cool, fresh, and clean. We stopped again and got to hike through the woods, craning our necks at the ancient satinay trees, with their giant trunks rooted firmly in the sand. I liked hearing the legendary story of Eliza Fraser–the sole survivor of a shipwreck who was held captive by the local tribe but eventually escaped.
But I still felt cheated. I wanted my National Geographic moment on Fraser Island and it wasn’t happening. When a lone, emaciated dingo finally showed himself on the beach, the tour bus started driving circles around him, making all of us carsick. Nearby, a pile of decomposing sea turtle enticed the dingo closer, but he was too scared of getting hit by the feeding frenzy of tour buses that were now circling him.
And so there I was, my face smashed against a fogged-up windowpane with 40 Euro-tourists shoving me while snapping their cameras at some poor mangy dingo who just wanted a Christmas nibble from a dead turtle on the beach. Honestly, I was beginning to feel a bit like a shipwreck victim myself.
And then, like a small Christmas miracle, the bus stopped and a smiling, white-haired man hopped on the bus. He was wearing a pilot’s uniform and delivered a hearty Aussie spiel about his unbeatable offer–15 minutes of sightseeing in his Cessna. “Unbeatable views!” he exclaimed, and wiped his hand across the sky, before adding “and I accept all major credit cards except Diner’s Club.”
It cost me 70 bucks, but at that point, I would have paid ten times that just to get away. I jumped off, bid farewell to the suckers on the bus and buckled myself into the tiny plane.
Money can’t buy everything, but it gets you off the tour bus.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“The Cessna that saved Christmas” is an unlikely children’s book or a promising December box office hit, but it’s exactly what happened to me. One minute I was hating life on a tour bus, the next, I was soaring over beautiful Fraser Island, which looked much less gray from the sky.
We flew low–sometimes only just right above the trees it seemed–and the perspective was marvelous. I could see the true length of the island–the 123 kilometres of sand bar that stretched all the way to the horizon. The rain forest was thick, green, lush, dense and round–it felt like I was flying over the canopy of the Amazon. I saw the crystal clear freshwater lakes that dot the island’s interior and the Sahara-like “sand blows” that form when wind pushes the beach inland.
Suddenly, I recognized the scene below me–it was the Fraser Island from National Geographic: mammoth, virgin, alive. We soared up and down its length and I confessed to myself that yes, Fraser Island is beautiful and worth the trip. It was my own darn fault for getting on a stupid tour bus in the first place. Much better to hike, to fly, or simply to sit in one spot and enjoy the nature on site.
That night, back at the hotel, I found myself in the gift shop, looking for postcards to send home. They didn’t have any showing dingoes eating dead turtles on a rainy beach, so I opted for the pretty ones with bright blue skies and beach scenes that look like paradise.