As a pastime, four-wheel driving used to strike me as pointless, if I ever thought of it at all. It seemed just a means to more interesting ends, such as hunting, fishing or tramping, rather than a pursuit in itself – isn’t all driving four-wheeled?
My lack of interest, coupled with the fact that I am a) intimidated by the outdoors and b) a woman, meant I fell squarely in the target demographic for the Girls Got Grit package offered by the Australian Offroad Academy on Fraser Island – a two-day driver training course.
Guardian Australia’s deputy audience editor, Elle Hunt, with the keys to the ‘Silver Surfer’. Photograph: Elle Hunt for the Guardian
Billed as “a practical weekend of 4x4 skills and good times”, the idea is to make four-wheel driving accessible and fun for people like me – round-shouldered, tweet-happy desk jockeys whose idea of a good time is seven standard drinks and/or the new season of Orange Is the New Black.
In two days, I’d be taught tyre pressure, traction control, track assessment and vehicle recovery – with cheese platters, bottles of bubbly and resort accommodation thrown in. It’s an outdoorsy, practical alternative to the standard hens’ party or girls’ weekend itinerary, organisers suggest; all I needed was my driver’s licence.
You had me at “cheese platter”, if not “traction control”. But the real drawcard was a weekend on Fraser, a heritage-listed area 200km from Brisbane in the Great Sandy national park. The world’s largest sand island, it has no bitumen roads, meaning it is not suitable for conventional cars; even four-wheel drives with low ground clearance might struggle on some of its more roughly hewn tracks.
Fraser is perhaps best known for its dingo population, the purest in Australia because of its removal from the carnal temptation of mainland mutts. Their presence is signposted from the moment you step on to the dock at Kingfisher Bay – in the distinct impression of paw prints in the sand and on actual signs that warn you to walk, not run; to keep your food in the car; and to otherwise keep your distance.
Tourists get their vehicle bogged in the sand on the world heritage-listed Fraser Island. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP
Given the fact there are rarely any dingoes in sight, it seems like overkill – but their resemblance to dogs gives people a false sense of security around them and that can have tragic results for both dingoes and people. This year a dingo was put down after it lunged at an 11-year-old girl and behaved aggressively towards other tourists.
Dave Darmody, director of the Australian Offroad Academy and our instructor and guide for the weekend, tells our group a spate of “dingo selfies” taken on Fraser are a reminder that tourists must be made aware they’re wild animals.
He also promises to take the “fear factor” out of four-wheel driving for greenhorns like me, while teaching us to respect the world heritage-listed area. The training program he runs in conjunction with Kingfisher Bay Resort, where we spend our first night, is Fraser’s only practical, eco-accredited course.
A dingo at the freshwater Lake McKenzie. Photograph: Christian Valenzuela/PR image
I think of this intersection of nature and technology hours later as I clamber into my vehicle – a new Toyota FJ Cruiser, promptly nicknamed the “Silver Surfer” by the drivers of the five other cars in our convoy. As we leave the resort behind us and venture into the bush, I’m removed from the rest of the world by the absence of real roads and mobile phone reception.
But it’s a hell of a lot of fun (especially while blasting Taylor Swift on the stereo and eating jelly snakes). It takes only a few turns around the purpose-built training track before I’m bouncing along full of confidence, testing out the tricks I’d had neither the recklessness nor the roads to indulge in in my Toyota Starlet when I was learning to drive. Dave politely asks me to slow down after I take a short jump too fast, earning me a jokey reputation as a young hoon that sticks for the rest of the weekend. Who’s a desk jockey now, I think to myself, a bit pleased.
Fraser is the world’s largest sand island and one of the rare places where rainforest grows on sand. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP
But as much as I might fancy myself a bit of a girl racer, once we set out on the inland tracks that cover the island there’s next to no skill required – not in driving the Silver Surfer, at least. It’s as smooth a ride as its nickname implies, bouncy like a bumper car, handling the peaks and troughs of the track like a particularly robust bubble.
It’s as though it drives itself. In fact there’s a button called “crawl control” that engages that exact function, maintaing a steady, low speed when you need to concentrate on navigating challenging terrain. My old Starlet, which had no power steering, demanded much more muscle, even on municipal roads.
The other women, who are driving Toyota Hiluxes, remark on the difference in handling, the unspoken implication being that driving their “Crusty Cruisers” is more fun, more authentic. When one car gets bogged, necessitating a rescue mission by Dave, and when a passenger throws up – not from the drive per se, though riding roughshod at 20km/h can’t help with nausea – I believe them on at least the second count.
The delays are an opportunity to observe the landscape. In the 10-hour days we’ve spent speeding along the island, we’ve seen the winding, eucalyptus-lined sand tracks through the forest open up to the freshwater Lake McKenzie. It’s one of the cleanest in the world, boasting an aquamarine blue of an intensity surprising on a cloudy day.
Vehicles speed down Fraser’s ‘freeway’ – Seventy-Five Mile beach. Photograph: James Shrimpton/AAP
After a break for a long black and a microwave pain au chocolat from a no-frills bakery on the “surf side” of the island – it’s only about 24km wide – we start out along Seventy-Five Mile beach, an expanse of golden sand that serves as the island’s highway. Speeding along in a line of six, we scan the horizon for dingoes after Dave tells us this is our best chance to spot them before we catch the ferry back to the mainland in a few hours’ time.
Then, as we approach the wreck of the SS Maheno, beached in a cyclone in 1935, there they are – two of them, burnt orange, rangy and trotting through the rocks and rushes that border the beach. Maintaining a respectful distance, we keep pace alongside them for a while. They seem unconcerned by the mob of vehicles with passengers hanging out the windows, their camera phones on full zoom.
Guardian Australia travelled to Fraser Island care of Kingfisher Bay Resort, Tourism and Events Queensland and the Australian Offroad Academy
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by ELLE HUNT from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.