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A Mad Day Out!
When you're travelling in Australia and New Zealand, you quickly discover that there are endless ‘fun’ options for putting your life at risk - bungee jumping, white water rafting, black water rafting, to name but a few.
A day trip to Moreton Island, an idyllic sand island off the east coast of Australia, didn’t appear life challenging. Just exotic!
I checked out the brochure which I picked up from the Tourist Information Bureau in Brisbane CPD (City Centre) and it all looked perfect. I and my fellow travellers would be driven in small off-road 4WD vehicles from downtown Brisbane to a ferry port and our idyllic day would be underway.
The phrase ‘4WD’ (4-wheel drive) should have been a warning – but it wasn’t. I didn't read the small print. Truth be told, I barely read the LARGE print!
The hour long early morning cruise on a roll on-roll off MiCat ferry from the Port of Brisbane was delightful. It was a gloriously hot early January morning, blue skies overhead and calm seas. As we slowly approached Moreton Island, it looked like Eden – the island rising green and verdant from the ocean. Sandy beaches, blue waters - Paradise!
Paradise – but with no harbour!
As we were about to disembark the ferry, our driver and guide for the day - Wes, a laid-back tanned young Surfer Dude with a mop of curly hair - chose that moment to inform us that we would be landing directly onto the beach and unfortunately as it was high tide, there was precious little beach!
Pitching and rolling on the incoming tide, the vehicle ramp descended. To the right, we glimpsed a little stretch of golden sand. Everyone else, it seemed, was sensibly headed that way, in the direction of the rather exclusive looking Tangalooma Island Bay Resort.
WE turned left!
“The main road is just a couple of hundred metres up here!” announced Wes. “We’ll try dodging the waves. Hang on!”
A couple of hundred metres? It felt like miles!
So, our brave little convoy – two small trucks laden with holidaymakers of varying nationalities, precariously proceeded down (or was it up?) the ‘beach’, weaving in and out of the waves, dodging the breakers, slamming into overhanging branches, waves splashing through the open windows of the vehicle. Sitting in the front seat, I briefly opened by eyes and unclenched my white knuckled fists from the dashboard and glanced across at Wes. His head was thrown back, he was laughing. He had done this before!
Suddenly, as promised, the ‘main road’ appeared and we careered out of the waves onto .....a glorified sand track. We were now at risk of being bumped to death but at least we weren’t in danger of being washed away!
Moreton Island motoring is not for the faint hearted. Fortunately we had brave Wes who, undaunted, tackled everything with a grin, crashing along tracks, lurching through mounds of sand and occasionally eschewing the roads altogether in favour of very long beaches!
The Blue Lagoon
First stop on this mad, and glorious, day – The Desert.
According to the surprisingly knowledgeable Wes, this little desert shifts constantly and if we wanted to risk it we could try sandboarding – throwing ourselves off the top of a thirty foot sand dune on a ‘sandboard' – a tea tray sized piece of wood! I have to admit right now that on hearing the words ‘throwing yourself off’, ‘thirty foot sand dune’ and ‘sandboard’, I decided to forgo that experience. Bad back, old bones.... I could give loads of excuses but I won’t. It’s not that I’m scared of these kinds of experiences. I’ve fallen over on many a winter ski slope in my time.
It was when Wes said ‘just watch out for the footprints in the sand, you don’t want to hit one of those, mate!’ that I began to worry ever so slightly. Even a little ridge in the dune can apparently cause the ‘sandboarder’ to take a tumble, and surfers have been known to crash and even break limbs just by hitting a tiny little ripple in the seemingly soft sand.
The second reason I didn’t attempt the sandboarding? When asked if he, or the other driver would be there, Wes cocked his head to one side as if to say ‘are you mad?’, and declined.
So, I did my Lawrence of Arabia impression, by walking to the top of the aforementioned dune and observing from a relatively safe distance, along with a couple of other slightly older travellers, thus avoiding what others reported after the boarding experience – sand in every orifice!
Although it wasn’t yet mid morning, the sun was already ferocious as I stood on that sand dune. Officially, or so we were told, Moreton boasts one of the largest sand dunes in the world, Mt Tempest. We were a long way from there but stood atop the dune down which my companions were ‘surfing’ on their little wooden tea trays, it suddenly felt like being on the edge of the Sahara. As I walked back alone towards the truck, I fancied I was days from civilisation. If a camel train had passed by on its way to the nearest oasis, I would have not been surprised. Until, that is, the silence and stillness of the dunes were broken by sandboarding screams of delight, and fear, wafted in on a very warm breeze from the largest sand dune.
Next stop, about another scary half hour’s drive under the searing Australian sun, the beautiful freshwater Blue Lagoon.
We plunged in, relishing the refreshingly cool water on our skin, drinking in the beautiful environment. I bobbed and dived around in the crystal clear water, floating on my back watching the few clouds above passing slowly by, everything sparkling in the sunshine. My sandboarding companions, meanwhile, finally managed, I presume, to rid themselves of the persistent bits of the sand dune which were still lingering in parts of their bodies where few, if anyone, has gone before.
We lunched under canvas – a tented camp where Wes and his fellow driver had prepared sandwiches, salad and cool drinks and we all sat chatting under cover of the early afternoon sun. It was a bit like being on Safari in Africa, minus the wild animals!
Close to Brisbane
Moreton Island is about a 75-minute boat trip across Moreton Bay from Brisbane on the coast of south-east Queensland in Australia. Together with the larger Fraser Island, Moreton Island forms the largest sand structure in the world. It is a fascinating place of contrasts, from long stretches of unspoilt beaches to lakes, streams and swamps, from the rich vegetation of the interior to rocky headlands, heathland, mangrove and salt marshes.
Moreton is home to the Tangalooma Resort, but there’s also camping available and it’s a pleasuredome if you love outdoor pursuits – not just the 4WD tours but that sandboarding and sand tobogganing, fishing, whale and dolphin watching, dolphin feeding, quad biking, nature watching and so much more.
By this point in the day temperatures were in the high 30s (Celsius) and still rising. Our next scheduled stop was the Cape Moreton Lifehouse, Queensland’s oldest lighthouse from where we would, apparently, have spotted dolphins, whales and other exotic sea creatures. Once, that is, we had climbed to the top of it.
As we rested in the shade of the camp, quietly supping our almost cold sodas, we put it to the vote. A slow climb into heat exhaustion and dehydration at the lifehouse, or an hour spent on an idyllic expansive white sandy beach? Need I say more?
Decision made, it was back to the trucks and the sand roads. Nowhere is close, it seems, on Moreton Island. By now though, we were used to the thrill of the ride, we knew just how much to cling on to the person next to us, or the seat beneath us or in front of us, as we crashed along the thoroughfares. The roads on Moreton appear random, but are not. They are actually roads and there even appeared to be a ‘one way’ system in place, although we didn’t have the opportunity to test that because, apart from the other truck in our convoy, we never did meet any other traffic.
The trail, of course, requires expert driving. Wes told us a few tales of visitors unused to the rigourous conditions. Only 4WD vehicles are allowed but driving them up sand dunes and down sand mounds is a real skill. Living just across the bay in the area around Brisbane, Wes had been visiting Moreton since he was child and knew the place like the back of his sunkissed hand – every twist and turn, every tree and every pothole, most of which were unavoidable!
Guidebooks and websites tell us that ‘Moreton Island, one of nature’s undisturbed wonders, is a 17,000 hectare naturally formed sand island situated in the Moreton Bay Marine Park 35km from Brisbane, Australia’. 38km long and 10km at its widest point, about 95% of Moreton is National Park so it’s almost entirely unspoilt and uninhabited.
Parts of the interior of the island can only be carefully negotiated, which gives guides like Wes ample time to explain all about the environment. From time to time, Wes stopped our truck for just a few moments and we listened to the sub tropical bush - insects, the crackling of the undergrowth and the hardly audible sounds of birds and small animals, unseen yet obviously lurking somewhere out there in the thick vegetation.
‘Breathe in guys, we're going over the top!’
Wes had a way with words.
Our little truck hauled itself to the summit of a particularly steep incline. Deep in sand, wheels spinning, I had visions of us having to get out and push - not something any of us really wanted to do with temperatures now hitting the mid 40s! In old language, I worked out later, that’s well in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. None of us wanted to linger long on that enormous mound of sand and fortunately the island authorities had seen fit to lay down some basic road surfacing – what looked like a layer of old rubber tyres – to help progress. It helped, but only just!
So we left the ‘roads’ for another type of sand. With over 40km of beaches which also serve as thoroughfares, this was probably the most exhilarating part of the day. Unpopulated, the sand just stretches out for miles ahead – you can drive for 15 minutes and more without seeing another vehicle or another soul. Windows down, with Wes once again whooping with delight, our convoy made its way to the idyllic bay we had been promised at lunchtime.
By this time, regardless of what felt like breakneck speeds on long stretches of beach, I was completely chilled out. The magic of Moreton had me entirely captivated. The waves crashed softly onto the beach, a slight breeze cool and refreshing coming in off the ocean, which sparkled azure blue against the bright white sand. This was obviously a popular spot and there were other visitors around, some picnicking but others like ourselves, part of a tour. Yet the place felt isolated still. We chatted with new friends, and walked and splashed about a bit, and dipped in the waves and swam and walked some more.
Surfer Dude Wes, our guide, had disappeared. I’d wondered why there was a surfboard strapped to the top of the truck. No sooner did we arrive at the beach than Wes grabbed his board and headed for a distant headland to ‘catch some waves’.
“Just time for a little surf!” he shouted. Some of us did think about following him. But we didn’t. The headland looked just so far off. Instead, we enjoyed the sunshine and I, for one, pretended for a while that I was in Paradise.
Wes’ return, even more tousled-headed than before, signalled our departure. It was back into the trucks, risking life and limb once more on the race back to the ferry - where fortunately the tide was low and there was plenty of beach! We arrived well on time for boarding, via the stretch of sand we had used that morning when it was nothing but waves.
Low tide also revealed another intriguing sight - a number of wrecks lying in the shallows just off the main beach. Fifteen vessels have been deliberately sunk to form a breakwall for small boats and a wreck dive and snorkel site where apparently there's fantastic diving and an amazing amount of marine life and tropical fish with names like 'wobbegongs', 'trevally', 'yellowtail' and 'kingfish'.
At low tide these wrecks stand, like guardians to this island where, despite more than 40 years of tourism, much remains unaltered from its natural state.
I’d survived what had unintentionally become an adventure and although I hadn’t seen any whales or dolphins, I'd had a whale of a time!
Would I return to Moreton Island? You bet I would! And I’d be racing to be in Wes’ Gang!
Next time, too, I may stay a couple of days!
A very short version of this article by Cathy Le Feuvre first appeared in the Jersey Now magazine in July 2009.
All photographs are by Cathy Le Feuvre