Monday, October 09, 2006

The Great Sand Island

The project.
The biggest sandbar on earth is an island called K’gari (before 2021: Fraser island). The best way to see its beauties is to walk on a Great Walk. (See map from Dili Village to Happy Valley), which I wanted in May 2005. In Brisbane, I went to the Parks and Wild Life office to ask the rangers about the usual track information. They gently said it was forbidden (actually highly discouraged) to walk alone on the giant sandbar. The island's dingoes, these wild dogs that are a crossbreed between a wolf and a Labrador, are full-blood and are extremely dangerous. They occasionally attack humans and there was a fatality in April 2001. I tried to explain I was trained and that I was going to be careful. In vain, after a 20 minutes talk with the local rangers and a phone call to the head ranger on the island, I quit the idea of this Great Walk to go for a less dangerous activity: 5 days on a live-aboard on the outer Great Barrier Reef with the main attraction being diving amongst 40 mid-sized sharks.

In 2006, I decided to come back to Australia with my adventurous spirit far from the too safe advices of the rangers. This time I want to walk across the entire length of the island from South to North. This is an adventurous project as I will go unsupported (alone, no external help and no food drops) while passing through the most beautiful gems of the island. This should be quite easy. The main dangers are the dingoes, snakes and not to find water in the remote Northern part of the North of Orchid beach. This area is the most difficult part as it's only visited on the coast by 4WD driving to the lighthouse.

K’gari, the world's biggest sand island.
K’gari Island is 123 km long and 40 km at its maximum width. Fauna and flora are diverse and settled on the sand island. Dense and very impenetrable vegetation is present almost everywhere on the sand surface. The main attractions of K’gari are its perched fresh water lakes and coloured sands often seen near sandblows. An unending beach on the East coast is as highway for 4WDs. Even if the width of the beach is 3 (low tide) to 40m, accidents happen.

The preparation.
The fatal attack by two dingoes happened on an 8 year old boy. After reading a dozen documents on the dingo's behaviour, etc... The brief conclusions are:
  • There are 300 dingoes on a 1500 km2 island - The probability that an adult gets attacked by several wild dogs is very low (you must be very lucky!)
  • I am aware of the danger and I can defend myself with my 2 walking sticks and I keep a tent peg as dagger in my pocket.
  • I follow all the advices: don't feed, don't get close, stand in front not show my back, don't provoke and defend aggressively if attacked.

The HEMA map 1:130.000 is plenty enough to walk on the island because the Great Walk track is marked and following the beach is easy. It can be a bit tricky to find the fastest walking track on the sandy bottom made by the 4WD.

Brief adventure log - Download here excel-file
I leave the hostel and hitch hike towards Inskip point. One hour later I am on the barge that drops all vehicles and I on the top South of K’gari island. Carrying 20 kg, I start walking North on a closed 4WD track towards Dili Village. I am astonished by the easiness of the walk on compact sand covered with decomposing vegetation. As usual, walking alone lets me see many animals like goannas over 80cm long. At Dili Village I follow the Great Walk and reach Lake Boomanjin as planned just before sunset. The next morning, I watch the sun rising in the mirror of the lake. A color scene I enjoy with my camera.

Without entering too much into details, the next walking days on the Great Walk are the same: easy walking trying to cover an average of 30km per day. Each night I talk to bushwalkers. We exchange experiences and they tell me they want to know if I will make it. One night, I reach the valley of the giants in the complete darkness. I interrupt a group of guided walkers who are just finishing their dessert. They propose me their Indian curry. I explain that my adventure is unsupported and decline the offer. I join their table and eat my food while they keep trying to offer me a dessert. I don’t refuse their smiles and kind encouragements.

Once the Great Walk is finished, I only have to follow the sand highway going north. I pass 4WDs, buses and even planes. Some drivers are quiet curious and slow down to my side to propose me a lift further. I kindly refuse any lift! I make a small wave with my finger to each vehicle passing me. Every Australian sent this back to me. This is a sign Australians answer with pleasure. This way of greeting is often used in the country where people are isolated.

During several meetings with aboriginal Queenslanders, I was told not to bathe in the sacred lakes of K'gari’s northern tip. A kind of curse but at the Dundubara aboriginal camping, I ask the owner about these warnings. She tells me actually only aboriginal people cannot bathe in these lakes and compliment me to be a different white man as I travel by foot. I promise her I won't swim in order to stay as close as possible to aboriginal traditions and beliefs. I am suddenly invited by a young boy on a private aboriginal path leading me back to the beach.

Indian head is the only rock formation on the island. It's where one can have a nice lookout over the junction between 2 colours of the ocean. The view from the top is incredible. There I take my longest break in order to spot whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and rays. I am staring at the ocean when suddenly a completely unexpected event happens: a manta ray goes into a wave to take a jump out of the water. The entire body flew over the water for less than a second but it was just amazing. I understood why in the past they were called the devils of the seas by the first witnesses of this wonder.

At Orchid beach, I leave my contact details to Don, the manager of the little deli shop. I tell him I wish to finish my walk inland following the track I spotted on satellite images. He tells me there was a road before used by the army but it was closed for over 20 or 30 years. It must be overgrown by now and thus it would be very difficult to find something. I understood his concern and decided to plan 2 days instead of 1 to walk the remaining 30 km. I start searching for the forgotten road around Ocean Lake. An Aussie tourist tells me he’s coming here for decades and never heard about a road leading inland to the lighthouse. I go with my compass… and discover that the start of the track is just behind the toilets lake. These are blocking its access.

I follow the abandoned track and make a slow progression. As expected, it’s slow going through swampy vegetation as the track is swept by plants and trees. I got often lost and the only way to find water (a lake) is to climb the trees on the top of the hills. I discover that most of the lakes are completely dry, which forces me to drink slowly. The good side is that walking on dry and hard crust is easy.

Several places are real jungle where I have to pass through bush and thick vegetation woven by vines. Without machete, I end up either walking 50cm above the ground, either doing Thai boxing using my legs to untangles them from vines and small trees. My skin rapidly peels off and I bleed everywhere under my pants. After 3 days of dense jungle and pain, I haven’t much food and water left. The rage allows me to forget the pain and continue at a steady pace because I know I’m close to the beach on the Northern tip of the island.

I finally reach the beach, which makes me feel free and lightweight. From there it's an easy walk on the hard sand to the lighthouse and the Sandy Cape. The reward after such efforts is to finally accept a lift in a 4WD. I am pleased by the feeling of being the first to photograph these places almost unexplored. Three days have passed; Don was worried about me and offers me a fresh beer. In the distance we hear some tourists talking about a lonely guy they saw walking a few days ago along the island's beach.

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