Dances with dingoes on a remote isle

It was only the third day of our vacation. Our four-wheel-drive had broken down, and we were stuck in a rain forest on the world's largest sand island - which also happens to be populated by Australia's most genetically pure dingoes.

Welcome to Fraser Island, said the young Aussie who stopped to help. Now comes the real adventure part of your holiday, he could have added. Hope you brought the bug spray.

He disappeared to get a park ranger - Fraser Island is one of Australia's World Heritage parks - and we settled in to wait.

The ranger soon arrived and radioed for a tow truck. Her instructions when she left were simple: "If you're still here by 4 o'clock, I'd start hoofing it out to the beach, and try and hitch a ride home."

The suggestion wasn't exactly enticing. We were an hour's drive from the beach on a rolling soft-sand track. We were also a two-hour drive up 75-Mile Beach, Fraser Island's main drag, from where we were staying.

Then there was that thing about dingoes. The prevailing scientific theory is that this type of wild dog came across a land bridge from Asia millions of years ago to terrorize the unsuspecting marsupials who had the place largely to themselves. This is supposed to make them ecologically fascinating, historical travelers stranded by a sudden change in the tides that at some point left them the main mammalian predator in what became Australia.

Thanks to another fluke of geography, the dingoes on Fraser Island, unlike their mainland counterparts, never interbred with domestic dogs. A nice thought if you're into genetics, but hardly comforting if you might have to set out on a two-hour hike through their territory.

Like other wildlife on Fraser Island, the dingoes are strictly protected, and interaction with them is discouraged. But avoiding dingoes has become harder and harder. With the northern half of the island forming the Great Sandy National Park, and a luxury resort on its southeastern shores, Fraser Island is increasingly a draw for visitors from around the world, even though the only way to get around is by four-wheel drive.

It's easy to see why it's popular. There are about 200 freshwater lakes on the island, magnificent rain forests, and "sand blows," massive dunes that move in from the beach at a glacierlike pace, swallowing up the forest, and leaving a "moonscape" behind. Then there are spectacular ocean beaches, which are home to some of the world's best surf fishing.

Despite the beauty of its beaches, Fraser Island is not a beach-holiday kind of place. The surf is dangerous, and visitors are warned against going in beyond their knees. And, well, it's also shark infested, thanks to the prodigious number of fish that lie just a good cast away. Traveling in Australia, you get used to reading things like that. The potential for danger is definitely there. But there is also an element of hopeful illusion in the braggadocio about Australia's dangers.

For all the talk about sharks, snakes, crocodiles, dingoes, and spiders, attacks of any kind are rare, although not unheard of. Despite my fears about the dingoes, we never saw any when we were broken down. When we eventually did come across some, they were distinctly unmenacing. The first were shyly lurking around a gas stop on the northern end of the island. Then there was the one who sniffed our towels curiously while we went for an early-morning swim in Lake McKenzie, the most popular lake on the island. It can get crowded in the afternoon, but has crystal-clear water and white-sand beaches that looked airbrushed from where I floated.

That was the real pleasure of Fraser Island - getting up early and driving up the beach to a turnoff and, an hour or two down a single-lane track, finding ourselves at a pristine lake. Then going for a swim and breakfasting afterward in the company of the island's birds, waiting for the occasional goanna (giant lizard) to appear.

At low tide, the beach is busy with four-wheel drives (some parts of 75-Mile Beach are passable only for a few hours either side of low tide). But "rush hour" is only a sporadic affair, and although we were there in high season, we often found ourselves driving alone along the beach.

Even at some of the island's favorite tourist haunts, the "crowds" were usually limited to a half-dozen people. You could spend all the time you wanted at the wreck of the Maheno, a former luxury liner slowly being swallowed up by white sand and torn apart by saltwater, or frolicking in Eli Creek, which cuts across the beach.

The views are also stunning enough to distract you from any people around. At Indian Head, on the way to the island's northern tip, we watched as a family of rays swam out to sea.

In the end, our breakdown in the rain forest lasted only a few hours. As we were being towed back to Eurong, I'd encountered that happiest of holiday states and forgotten what day it was. The mechanic's aide shrugged when I asked him. "I don't know," he answered. "The day after yesterday. The day before tomorrow."

Somehow, I figured he was telling me, on the world's largest sand island, it never really matters what day it is.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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