Hervey Bay is like Moreton Bay on steroids. Everything is that much more. More open. More windy. More sand. More surf. More creatures. And, as we were to about to find out, more attitude, and that was not just limited to the wildlife.
We arrived in a drenching downpour. As Di, Mark and I watched the tent sites at the Urangan Caravan Park flood, two kayaks moved outside the perimeter hedge like they were stalking the place. Talk about timing. With all five kayaks together, it time to look for the driest option. Mark and I had just called into the Colonial Village YHA hostel where there were only a few places at the inn. For not much more outlay, it was a no brainer. Very clean and comfortable this YHA is now a fixture for future planning. We got chatting with some other ‘senior’ hostel visitors who had just comeback from a 4WD tour of Fraser. They were amazed by the volume of vehicular traffic on the eastern beaches compared to 30 years ago.
Another change for this trip was the decision to launch from the beach immediately to the south of Urangan Harbour. In years gone by we have found kayaks are not always welcome at the edge of the Urangan boat ramp, particularly when it gets busy. The idea of handling laden boats over concrete ramps also holds limited appeal. This beach was a good compromise to our usual launch from the Hervey Bay foreshore. It was clean, not too busy, sheltered by the pier wall, useful from midtide and only a short walk from the Urangan Boat Harbour car park.
Day One had us down at the water quite early and we were soon joined by the sixth paddler, a local, Dirk. With the kayaks were packed, Jack made a move to see if it would float. With the amount of gear he had stuffed in, including all that bottled water he really did seem to think that there could be a problem. Yet the boat floated and looked no different. The rest of the kayaks were nudged into the rising tide and we pushed off about 40 minutes before it turned.
It was a glorious sparkling blue morning with a light breeze at our back. First up was morning tea on the northern end of Big Woody Island. Heading towards Fraser, Mark saw a stick in the water and thought nothing more. Graham thought the same then suddenly pulled his paddle out exclaiming ‘shit sea snake’. Turned out the stick had reared up at him as he slipped by. The water was luminous turquoise. The shoreline fringed with brilliant white sand while a fluffy cloud bank traced the island all the way to the north. We pulled in to take a look at Coongul Creek. It, as for all other creeks, had changed remarkably. The only camping is now on the sand spit on the western side of the creek amongst the casuarinas. We could not take too long as the ebb tide and a gently sloping beach would soon gift us with six heavy boats to haul back into shallow water. A slight breeze pushed us on to Woralie which was marked by something on the foreshore. This marque proved to be a distraction to the creek entrance. Woralie Creek now edges south along the foreshore for around 2Km or so before turning seawards.
Landing close to the bottom of the tide, we left the kayaks near the waterline while we checked out where to camp. By now the marque was an entire series of large multi-room tents, toilets, some 4WD, plastic kayaks pulled up next to the creek and a multitude of pipes and leads hooked up to petrol generators. Quite some set up. We were left to either camp by their toilets, up on the hill or in the 4WD parking area. Dirk wisely decided to get far away from their toilets as possible but remain down low in the shelter of a pandanus. Next we heard a vehicle speeding down the broad flat beach. It was towing a guy standing on a wakeboard. Only thing between him and the vehicle was a towline and, very soon, six laden kayaks. So much for the serenity.
As evening fell we had yet to meet our space occupying neighbours. We heard their engines before we saw their lights. One 4WD after another came roaring down the track. One positively lurched out and bounced onto the beach. After dark we saw some flashing lights come down the track then someone yell out ‘where is the person who has been run over ?’ The young couple who had arrived after us and set up in front on the foreshore had no idea. Didn’t sound too good. Indeed a person had been run over. Next up the rescue chopper. It took a long time to get going and gave a departing sandblast as it flew along the beach before gaining altitude. The next set of lights were the police. The young couple wryly noted that a lot of beer cans had been cleaned out of the vehicles before the cops turned up. Certainly made for an interesting night.
On Day Two we paddled north on the outgoing tide to check out Awinya for nights three and four. We called into Bowraddy. This is now one of the prettiest sites. It lends itself well to a small group. With only one vehicle pitched on the beach it looked especially attractive. Awinya on the other hand has degraded to the extent that it is a cause celebre for restricting visitor numbers to Fraser Island. While not all changes are necessarily caused by people, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance. Since we were last here the creek has broken out early. Gone is the waterway that used to travel south at the base of the sand cliffs. The casurinas that were the soul of the campsite are dying. The creek itself has a lot more sludge. And, like all other campsites, evidence of ablutions is anywhere you care to look hard enough.
We returned to camp to find our space occupying neighbours had decided they had exclusive use zones. When making my way down to the creek to collect a bucket of water I was told on no in certain terms not to walk anywhere near their tents. It got the attention it deserved. However it had an unfortunate effect on the mouth which became progressively more offensive. Turns out the young bull was protecting his patch as he had had gear stolen in the past. When we were told that, I could not stop laughing – we had enough difficulty fitting our own gear in the goddam kayaks let alone contemplating going on a gear raid in a 4×4 campsite.
Dinner followed by a birthday celebration for Graham. By now the NE was really starting to pick up. The candles would not stay alight long enough for a breath let alone a song. The NE blew all night. Hard. Tents, camping tags and flags flapped. Anything that was loose flapped. Flapped like mad. Little sleep. Smart choice Dirk.
The next day it was still blowing. No moving to Bowraddy. No moving anywhere. We were taken aback by the ongoing volume of 4WD traffic. In years gone by you would be lucky to see one, maybe two vehicles on the western beaches in a week. When we went for a walk along the inland track, it really should be no surprise at the volume of car parts both buried in the sand track and in the bushes alongside. Mark reckons we could have assembled a vehicle from the spoils. While walking to the lakes we were passed by vehicles traveling in both directions. Indeed, you had to be careful when photographing donkey orchids that you did not get your butt side swiped by a fender. The walk to the lakes was a bit of a haul with no water found, just a boggy sponge. We found out later from a Ranger that the water table was down 30% at the time so the lack of a lake was to be expected. There were a few flowers out and the vegetation was as glorious as ever.
We remained in the grip of the NE for the next three days. The waves carved a 3 foot drop cliff into the beach at the top of the tide. Even this did not deter the 4WD. They slewed their way over packing the sand as they went. We paddled Woralie Creek in both directions. Jack took up a possie in his hammock with a book while we walked back to Bowraddy. After two frustrated attempts at tent housekeeping he came to the conclusion that the best way to keep the sand out of the tent was to use sand as a filter by piling it up the side of his tent. After lunch we walked to the south.
Having been holed up at Woralie with a plethora of 4WD campers for 4 days, it was time to go. The NE was still here, so we had to deal with it. Surf and all. I would have procrastinated forever, were we not running out of beach. The incoming tide was rapidly advancing on the 3 foot drop the kayaks were backed into. Mark went first. He see-sawed over some messy swell. The pitch of the kayak was very steep. Di went next. She looked like a cork bobbing in the wash but she just kept paddling. Then Jack. He copped a decent first break before an equally generous wave swept in at 45 degrees to the shoreline and rolled him. After scooping up hat, sponge, Jack, and kayak, some of our tent city neighbours who had been watching came down to help. They held the kayaks straight and shoved each off into the rapidly advancing tide with a strong southerly current. While sorting Jack, Graham skirted up and was pushed out. He was floating in some shallow water and reaching around to pull his rudder down in the face of an incoming wave. Forget the rudder. Paddle man paddle. Jack was up for another round and bashed his way through a series of waves. With all the others bobbing beyond the break it was my turn. And my chicken feathers were in full plumage. My hat and glasses were in the day hatch. I had my old paddle in hand. From lessons learned I had my sail very securely stowed under multiple deck bungy. While there was a decent amount of water in the cockpit, there was no time to stuff around and I found myself shoved off the beach as soon as the deck was on. It took a while to clear the dump zone which granted me a couple of face washes on the way out. Last off the beach was Dirk who said that the surf was towards the larger end of his preference.
There was plenty of energy on the wind driven swell. We headed towards Congul where Mark was looking for the creek mouth as an area of deeper water and likely fewer waves. Like Woralie and Bowraddy the entrance is very difficult to spot from offshore. The wind was increasing. My kayak was starting to wallow with the amount of water in the cockpit. Surf landings give me the heebies at the best of times. I was not a happy camper. Only Mark and I had radios that were accessible and working at the time which compounded the situation as to what we were all doing.
Dirk made an executive decision to land on the beach at Congul. One down. Graham and I paddled to deeper water so he could hold my boat while I pumped out. Mark had come back, saw a flat spot and took the opportunity to head in. Two down. Jack went in next and came in sideways under full control. Three down. Di also did well until a miscommunication between her and Mark had her in the drink. I came in and was rumbled. Dirk expected that I would ‘pop up’ again, but no, I was doing an inverted turtle impression all the way to the beach. Graham came in last with full control. He may not have looked very happy but he was nose first and sunnyside up. Much laughter and relief. And just in time to pip two boaties for the premier campsites.
Give we had an hour of tide left, we decided to continue to paddle up Congul Creek. It has been many years since we had done this and the few Km we explored back then were enchanting. This is a gem and worth going the full 5Km to where it dissipates into reeds. There is even a place with discrete access to the beach. In the early evening we walked along the Congul spit. There were fewer midges down by the water. It really is a beautiful place and thankfully at this point in time, spared the procession of 4WD.
The following morning the wind had abated leaving a small surf which Jack laughed at, saying that he wanted something bigger and more exciting. We pulled into Moon Bank for a stretch. Throughout this trip we had only sighted whales once in the distance. Although it was late in the season (mid October) it was surprising. All of the whale watching boats were heading beyond view in search of their income. Three of the paddlers called into Round Island and gave it a good rap. By the time we had all nosed into shore the tide was starting to slow and bought to a close a memorable trip.
We have since been told by a Ranger that Fraser Island had over 500 000 visitors last year alone. We surprised by the volume of vehicular traffic on the western beaches. The indiscriminate disposal of human waste and litter was appalling. People riding wakeboards did not limit themselves to the beach, they also rode the creeks with their fragile sand banks. Setting up camp with pit toilets within 10m of the creek was a disgusting disregard for the environment. People can no longer expect to treat Fraser as a cheap camping holiday. It is time to start taking care. If it takes regulation to make this happen, then so be it.