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Walkabout with care on Queensland's Fraser Island

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Photography Louise Christie

Crickey! Queensland's Fraser Island is one big sand pile. In fact, the 123-kilometre-long strand ranks as the biggest sand island in the world. For those familiar with B.C. sand islands, such as Savary near Powell River - surely one of Canada's, if not the world's, smallest examples - no visit to Australia's east coast would be complete without a journey to Fraser. Quick access by ferry from the mainland makes for a relaxed day trip.

For those with enough time, the Fraser Island Great Walk leads the length of the platypus-shaped island with rudimentary campgrounds strung along the way. Much of the easy-to-moderate route traverses hard-packed beaches. Budget a week to enjoy it.

Australians are big on long-distance walks, hardly surprising for a nation steeped in the Aboriginal tradition of walkabouts. As many as 30,000 backpackers a year journey to Fraser to experience the natural wonders of the island's ecosystem; therefore, reservations for walker's camps are a must. Water is in short supply and trekkers must be fully self-sufficient.

One galling aspect of Fraser Island is that although surrounded by warm Pacific Ocean waters at the southern extremity of the Great Barrier Reef, swimming in the sea is emphatically discouraged. Tiger sharks and stingrays lurk in the swells which pummel the shoreline. Although the two are closely related, rays are the food of choice for sharks. To stay out of reach, the dark-hued mantas float as far forward in the swells as possible. Profiles of their white-sided predator kin can be glimpsed offshore in the walls of breaking surf. Kite-shaped rays are easily spotted from elevated perches, such as the seat of a tour bus. That's where Pique met guide Murray "Mozza" Wessling. A resident of Fraser Island for 35 years, the former fisheries officer became a tour guide five years ago "because I wanted to make people happy rather than hassle them."

Wessling had a lifetime of harrowing experiences to relate, from surviving an adder bite to shark and jellyfish encounters. At one stop, he dipped his hand in the surf and drew out a tiny bluebottle, or Portugese Man o' War. "These blokes are often confused with jellys," he drawled. "Bluebottles are actually a colony of four kinds of highly-modified marine invertebrates joined together as one. Despite their minute size, their stings cause painful welts that last for days. Be careful where you step. Even when dead, they'll still burn you."

Mozza admitted he'd been stung so often that his skin was immune to the venom. To demonstrate, he held a "bluey" long enough for it to inflame his palm, then deadpanned, "Despite what you may have heard, urinating on a sting actually makes it worse, not better."

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