Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 18, 2017
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Shipwrecked

After a weekend on Australia's Fraser Island you won't want the search party to find you

For a Canadian doctor with wanderlust, the long journey to Fraser Island can seem like a voyage to the ends of the Earth. It's hard not to feel marooned upon arriving at this uninhabited island off the coast of Australia. There are no cell phone towers here. No Internet hook-ups. Roads don't exist and man-made paths are barely wide enough for our four-wheel-drive tour bus -- the only mode of transport able to navigate the terrain.

For the next two days, my tour group and I will be castaways, shipwrecked on the world's largest sand island. Sound bad? It could be, if this place wasn't known as paradise.

According to myth, the spirit K'gari helped the god Beiral create the Earth. K'gari loved Earth so much, she asked Beiral to let her live there forever. He promptly transformed her into an island as beautiful as her spirit self, complete with animals for company and lakes to act as her eyes. With these, she could gaze up at the heavens, her former home, forever.

Our first glimpse of paradise comes after a 45-minute sail from Hervey Bay, 300 kilometres north of Brisbane. The ferry delivers us right up to the island's edge. Within moments, our tour group is buckled into a converted army personnel carrier that soon chugs ahead, gripping the white sands of Moon Point.

To get to our lodging in Happy Valley, we will pass through the Yidney Rain Forest: a thick, tangled mesh of leaves, trunks and moss-covered vines. Kauri pines, strangler figs, palm, gum, eucalyptus, mangrove, wallum and tea trees fight for very inch of sunshine. This wall of greenery is prime cover for the 325 species of birds on Fraser Island, including Australia's stork and jabiru. From the ground, you might spot several species of wallaby, flying foxes and the purest population of dingoes (wild dogs) in the world.

With that kind of tree cover, it's no surprise that the logging industry set up shop on Fraser Island as early as 1860. Many of the 1000-year-old satinay and brush box trees were transformed into ship masts, concrete formwork for the Suez Canal and used in the reconstruction of the London docks after World War II. Intense lobbying from environmental groups forced logging companies to shut down their operations in 1991, and tourism quickly took over as Fraser's number one industry. It now garners more dollars and employs more people than logging ever did.

Don't Lose The Tourists
Today, nature rules the island and tour operators ensure no trace of visitors is left behind. Our guide pulls over in the middle of the rain forest so we can stretch our legs or take pictures. It wouldn't be paradise without a few less charming inhabitants.

"Keep to the road and mind the snakes," Scott says. "We're only allowed to lose two tourists per trip. I don't want to lose one in the first hour."

Punch line delivered, Scott hands canisters to the smokers in the group. "Cigarette butts take an eternity to break down, so please keep your butts in the can."

We gather in a circle around a lofty strangler fig and Scott explains that, more than a century ago, this fig tree planted its seeds in a 50-metre-tall gum tree. Over time the fig's roots have made their way down and around the host tree: the gum tree is destined to be fig food.

Overwhelmed by the scenery, I get back on the bus. Scott, who is as knowledgeable as he is amicable, fills us in on the legends of K'gari and how just about every plant on the island was utilized by the Aborigines. Tea trees provided a salve, grass trees were used to make spears and gum-tree resin held the stone spear tips in place.

With over 200 freshwater lakes and an abundance of natural resources, Fraser Island is one of the most accommodating islands on which to be shipwrecked. The entire island works as a giant sponge, soaking up rainwater and staving off evaporation. You can walk anywhere on the island, dig half a metre into the sand, and when you return from gathering firewood you'll find that water will have risen to the surface of the hole, ready to drink. Add to that an abundance of fresh fruit, fish and some savoury snake meat, and you've got rations for months.

 

Liquid Sunshine
Scott has jinxed us. All this talk of rain and fresh water conjures the clouds and a fine drizzle that will last, off and on, for the next two days of our wilderness safari. "We really needed this rain," he says, looking up through the windshield. "It hasn't rained here in months." Someone groans. Fraser Island in Queensland, Australia's sunshine state -- we were expecting sunshine. "Ah, it's just a wee bit of liquid sunshine." Scott's optimism is lost on us.

After a quick lunch at our Happy Valley base, we drive to Eli Creek, the longest freshwater source on the east coast. It's a great place for a refreshing swim since four million gallons of water flow from its mouth and into the ocean every hour. The water is clear as tap water and only waist-deep.

A swimmer from our group spots a two-metre carpet python coiled on a rock, soaking up the last rays of sunshine. Eli Creek has probably never emptied of human bathers so quickly. Farther down, the creek winds like a snake through the reeds and grasses as it flows back to 75-Mile Beach -- which does indeed live up to its name. When the tide's out, the beach acts as a main thoroughfare for all the vehicles on the island. Planes even use it as a landing strip. And I thought driving on the left-hand side of the road was a challenge.

Fraser's lakes and creeks are the only spots where humans can safely take a dip. Man-eating sharks and nasty riptides make swimming in the ocean a bad idea. So Lake Wabby it is. Raindrops pick up the tempo on the brim of my hat as our group pushes the pace along a kilometre-long hike through the tea-tree forest and over a steep, rippled sand dune. Despite the rain, everyone's in good spirits.

Unlike most of the Fraser lakes, Lake Wabby supports plenty of fish. The lake was formed by the damming action of a sandblow, which blocks the waters of a natural spring. It's estimated that, within 100 years, as it makes its windblown way across the island, the encroaching sand dune will eventually swallow up Lake Wabby.

Most of our party head for cover under an isolated circle of tea trees. But I say, when shipwrecked, take off your clothes and make a splash. The water is a deep green, but it's also ice-blue cold. I lose my breath and can't convey my exhilaration to curious companions.

The mark of a man
Enduring the cold, my mind travels to the Aboriginal boys who were once taken to Lake Wabby for their first rite of passage. Each boy, aged between 12 and 14, was ritually scarred with the sharp edge of a shell. Any boy who cried out was banished from the tribe. Boys who managed not to flinch were rewarded with higher social status, a wife and the right to hunt with the men. After enduring the gauntlet, the boys were told to swim across Lake Wabby where the medicinal properties of the surrounding tea trees leech out into the waters.

We arrive at our accommodations exhausted and wet. After a lather of biodegradable soap and a change of clothes, I head to the main dining area. The rain has cleared, so I take the time to enjoy a local brew under the stars. It turns out that Scott is pretty handy with a barbecue, too. But then again, isn't every Aussie male? The steak, sausage, potato, salad and garlic bread is better than anything I've ever tasted at The Keg.

Next morning, after a blissfully deep sleep and a breakfast of eggs and meat, it's time to head out in the rain. Again. First stop, the Maheno on 75-Mile Beach. More than 50 vessels have sunk or run aground along the shores of Fraser Island, but the most storied is the Maheno. The former trans-Tasman luxury liner and World War I hospital ship was grounded during a winter cyclone in 1935. The liner was being towed to Japan for scrap when the storm lashed it ashore.

During World War II, the Maheno served its country once more when Australian bombers used the ship as a target during mock raids. Apparently, the Aussies needed the practice: she was only hit twice. Today, the rusting hulk is slowly deteriorating in the harsh salt environment. Many predict the Maheno will crumble and wash back into the sea for good within the next decade. Until then, the mass of red rust makes a dazzling contrast against the white sands of Fraser Island.

Painted Rocks, Mocking Clouds
Five kilometres to the north lie the pinnacles, or painted rocks. According to Scott, when the sun hits the pinnacles just so, the towering layers of coloured sand and sediment sparkle in deep hues of red, orange, purple and pink. As mocking grey clouds move in off the ocean, I have to take his word for it.

Farther north still is Indian Head, a massive outcropping of sand and rock jutting over the South Pacific. I wander up a pile of lava rock and sand, looking out to sea, buffetted by rain and wind.

Captain James Cook spotted "Indians" atop this point when he sailed past in 1770. Of course, what he saw were Aborigines, who had no clue that their 5500 years of undisturbed tranquility were suddenly numbered. After Cook sailed back to England, ambitious Europeans sailed to Fraser Isle in droves, hungry for lumber money. Many Aborigines were relocated and anyone who put up a fight was dealt with in a less-than-humane fashion: water holes were poisoned and flour was laced with strychnine. The attitude toward Aborigines may be less virulent in the 21st century, but ignorance and intolerance about their traditions and culture remain.

After a long look at the Pacific and all her beauty from 70 metres up, we head to Lake Allom for one final swim. On our way, we stop at the newest addition to the island, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for young Aborigines. Among their peers and back to their roots, the hope is that they can get back on the right track. With the help of elders, the youth reconnect with their past by learning traditional crafts. They sell their didgeridoos, paintings, sculptures and pottery to visitors who get a glimpse of their culture.

During our visit, one fellow demonstrates how to play the didgeridoo. The low, rumbling drone resonates up from the hollow instrument as if a giant dragonfly is buried under the soil, trying to escape. It is at once eerie and beautiful.

"You have to learn to breathe through your nose and cycle your breathing,"he says, breathlessly. "One of the elders told me to practice with a straw and a glass of water. Once I could keep bubbles going for a while, I knew I was ready."

Naked in The Bush
Lake Allom is almost three times larger than Lake Wabby but just as cold. Due to the less than ideal weather, our group has the lake pretty much to ourselves, which is good news since I have to change into my swimming trunks along an open forest path.

The water is about as clear as Mississippi mud, but apparently it's fresh enough to drink. From the murk emerge a dozen, tiny striped heads. These are the famous Lake Allom turtles. Each one comes in close to see if I've brought any bread. I skedaddle out of the water and back into the rain. Turtles, even at a mere 26 centimetres in diameter, scare the trunks off me.

After a swim and a picnic lunch we make our way back to Moon Point and, eventually, the mainland. The rain is pounding now, as if to spur on a hasty departure. The way back is bumpy. We're a tad late and Scott tries to make up time. The four-wheel-drive bus speeds through open sandy potholes filled with several inches of rain. Fallen trees litter the path, adding to the bounce and sway. Branches and leaves brush against the windows, twigs squeal and snap.

With the ferry in sight, I begin to feel that we're truly a shipwrecked crew rushing to reach the first vessel we've seen in years.

Thanks to Scott, we make our ferry and cast off from this jewel in the South Pacific. And someday, when I'm assured of not a single stray cloud, I'll cast myself adrift in the brine of the South Pacific and get shipwrecked here all over again.

 

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